I finally watched Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a recent hour-long film that’s gotten a lot of attention in our circles of late. It tells the stories of three Catholics who, at least at one time, understood themselves to be homosexual but now, in light of their return to the Church… well, you’ll just have to watch it and see how unpredictable and multi-layered their narratives are. As Eve Tushnet has pointed out, these are by no means simple “ex-gay” stories, but nor, I think, are they exactly the sort of stories we often highlight on this blog. I thought I had heard most everything in our little gay Christian world, but this movie surprised me.
One of the things that especially stood out was the way each of the three subjects managed to narrate complexity at each stage of their journey. It’s one thing to tell a “before and after” story, in which confusion is succeeded by order, or vice versa. But this movie includes genuine mystery and complexity in every chapter; a too-tidy, answer-dispensing resolution never arrives.
For instance, Rilene, a woman who lived with her partner for 25 years before embracing chastity, spoke movingly of the loneliness and uncertainty and unsettledness she felt while living with a devoted and caring partner. Her story, even prior to her fateful confession and her pursuit of chastity, wasn’t: “I came out and found love and happiness.” Nor was her chastity: “I’ve embraced Church teaching and erased all memory of my partner’s love and fidelity.”
And then there’s Dan, another of the movie’s subjects, who described a similar sort of loneliness but from the perspective of someone who, unlike Rilene, never had a long-term partner. Dan’s is the loneliness of celibacy. He also spoke very movingly about the danger of thinking of yourself, as an obedient Christian, as someone who’s removed from the longing to love and be loved by another person. He said he doesn’t ever want to think of himself as someone who’s “gotten over” those kinds of hungers and desires.
After finishing the movie, I found myself wishing we had more stories like this.
Last week I was talking with a friend about Lauren Winner’s memoir from a couple of years ago, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. It’s a book that was occasioned by Winner’s divorce several years earlier—a divorce that both prompted and indicated the depth of her frustration in faith. In brief:
The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches… since [my] baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone…. Once upon a time, I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle.
Reading the book was a strange experience for me. At certain points near the beginning, I was tempted to write it off as a lightly Christianized version of the stereotypically American journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, one particular incarnation of which Winner herself lampoons as Masticate, Meditate, Masturbate. But at other points it was simply beautiful: not just gorgeously written (Winner is a wonderful prose stylist) but also a sensitive portrayal of what it might look like to pray an extended version of Donne’s supplication in my favorite of his sonnets: “Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, / And do run still, though still I do deplore?”
There’s an interview with Winner that’s appended to the book, and in one of her answers, she says this:
[T]heologically, I am still very much sorting through things pertaining to my divorce. Among other things, divorcing has shaken up the assumptions I bring to reading scripture. In leaving my marriage, I was doing something that simply was not permissible, not in the way I have always interpreted scripture, and that is something I remain troubled by, confused by — it is not something about which I feel cavalier. I don’t know, as neatly as I once knew, what my hermeneutic of scripture is, What does it mean to be someone who affirms scripture’s authority, someone who wants to live inside the scriptural story, but who has made a major life choice that contradicts something about which Jesus in the Gospels is pretty clear? I don’t have a straightforward, stable answer to that. I expect I will be trying to work it out for a long time.
That sense of uncertainty—of being in medias res—pervades the book. We don’t get much of a sense at all for her ex-husband’s character, and the details she does offer are (a) few and (b) almost entirely respectful. But she also doesn’t exactly blame herself. She highlights her own unhappiness, prayerlessness, and insecurities as leading to the divorce, which she calls a “spectacular, grave, costly failure.”
The reason I bring all this up here is that it struck me, reading Winner, how few memoirs I’ve read—and here I think in particular of the personal narratives of my fellow gay Christians—are able to articulate a sense of landing in a definite place and at the same time able to recognize that place as a very fraught, confusing, uneasy one. I wish more gay Christians were able to explore that kind of complexity, but I tend not to find a lot of ambiguity and tension in gay “conversion” stories—whether the conversion tends in more “progressive” or more “traditionalist” directions. Maybe that’s inevitable when a minority has to carve out a niche in an inhospitable culture. Maybe admitting uncertainty can’t really be done when you’re expecting the majority culture to exploit your honesty and vulnerability for its own ends, heedless of your own personal pain. But just ponder with me for a moment how refreshing it would be to read gay Christians writing with Winner’s kind of openness.
What if more “affirming” gay Christians started saying things like this: “Coming out has meant that I’ve remained troubled by my relation to the historic Christian tradition’s sexual ethics. It’s been confusing to have a partner now but also feel the weight of the Christian teaching that I want to figure out some way of staying accountable to.” And what if more “traditionalist,” celibate gay Christians started saying things like this: “I haven’t been ‘healed’ of all that I wish to be healed of. I remain frustrated, to a large extent, by loneliness, by uncertainty about whether my parish community and family members will really be there for me. I don’t know if Christian friendship will be enough to sustain me in my hunger for intimacy. I don’t have stable answers yet, but I’m on the road—I’m a wayfarer.” Of course most of us try to eliminate dissonance, for obvious reasons. “A double-minded man [is] unstable in all his ways,” Scripture tells us (James 1:8). Still, some amount of dissonance has to be there—for all of us—since we’re all fallen, and we who are in Christ are, in this life, always in status viatoris. Now if we could just find ways to talk about it…
The person who comes to mind as an exemplar of this kind of posture is W. H. Auden, who’s a sort of personal saint and hero of mine. He once wrote in a letter to a friend: “Though I believe it sinful to be queer, it has at least saved me from becoming a pillar of the Establishment.” Although I wish Auden could have found his way to a faithful, fruitful practice of celibacy, I appreciate his honesty about the in-between-ness of his faith and failure. His owning up to that tension, rather than editing it out, allows a lot of the rest of us to more easily identify with him and perhaps find our way to a more faithful response for ourselves.
All this is, I hope, somehow coherent! Mainly I want to say, watch Desire of the Everlasting Hills and let’s try to find a way together to practice the kind of honesty and humility that the film’s three subjects portray so beautifully. Narrating tension and complexity is costly and difficult, but this film gives us a glimpse of how we might make an attempt.