Queer Hippo: musings on human sexuality

[This is a ‘Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis’ post: the ideas have been in my head for several years, and I’ve been wondering what, if anything, to do with them. Then I thought of the title, and just had to publish somewhere. There’s a book here – I’d be interested to know if readers of the blog think I should write it.] The debate on human sexuality as it is being conducted in every Western denomination of which I am aware is being conducted badly. An assumption is shared by both sides of the argument, an assumption which would be denied, on the one hand, by contemporary queer theory, and on the other by the ethical reflections of the greatest bishop of Hippo, St Augustine. This post is about the things that queer theory and Christian ethics in the tradition of St Augustine meet and agree on – they do not agree about everything, but they do about a surprising amount. At the level of denominational politics (there are exceptions, I know, but their voices are not being heard in the denominations as far as I can see), the debate on human sexuality in Western denominations is being conducted on the grounds of ‘what is normal’: is heterosexual monogamy the only pattern of sexual expression that is ‘normal’? (In which case the ministry and the blessing of the church should be restricted to traditional western marriage.) Or, is it ‘normal’ also to be gay or lesbian? (In which case people committed to faithful and exclusive gay/lesbian relationships should be accepted as ministers of the church, and such relationships should be blessed.) From the perspective of contemporary queer theory, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality. From the perspective of St Augustine’s sexual ethic, there is only one possible response to debates of this sort: profound sadness at their failure to address reality. Let’s start with queer theory; here we need to look at Judith Butler’s developments of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Foucault demonstrated (with extensive boring empirical/historical evidence of the sort a postmodern icon is not really supposed to collect, but then Foucault, like Derrida, was always considerably more intelligent than those who defined the category of ‘contemporary postmodern icon’…) that modern Western constructions of sexuality are, well, modern and Western. Prior to Freud and Wilde, no-one considered themselves to be heterosexual or gay or lesbian, or behaved as if they did. Same-sex attraction and action was routine, of course, but there was no sense that a man attracted to men should therefore be less attracted to women. Equally, other mores were at work in other times and other places. Famously, in ancient Greece, ‘normal’ sexual attraction for a man (who was a member of the culturally dominant class) involved being attracted both to a wife and to one or several young male apprentices; in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently, polygamy was normal; almost endless other constructions of sexuality can be found in history and across the world today. On this basis, Foucault proposed that sexual identity is socially constructed. Our culture offers us certain permissible (‘normal’) ways of regulating our sexual desires, and there is a powerful, for most overwhelming, cultural pressure on us to conform to one or another of the permissible options; the permissible options, however – the accounts of what is normal – vary from culture to culture. Judith Butler, in Gender Trouble, analysed how this social construction happens in our Western culture, and proposed that we established as ‘normal’ a link between (biologically determined) sex, (culturally constructed) gender, and sexual desire. Successful inhabiting of the culture involves (amongst many other things, of course) constructing a gender identity which conforms to culturally-determined accounts of what is proper to your biological sex (becoming ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’), and regulating your sexual desires in accord with that identity: manly men desire feminine women, and vice-versa. Butler proposes a strategy of resistance: the conscious and public adoption of non-standard gender identities, to expose and disempower the cultural hegemony that controls us. (Of course, Butler wrote over two decades ago. In many of the subcultures that make up Western culture gay and lesbian identities are now accepted as ‘normal’, and to conform to those identities is an equally successful way of inhabiting the culture. This is not to deny, and certainly not to excuse, the homophobia that still exists in many places, but it is to recognise that in the culturally-dominant discourses in the West, homophobia is now – rightly, of course – unacceptable. It wasn’t when I was a child.) I...

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‘Save me from the nothing I’ve become…’

Evanescence are, without doubt, a great band. And ‘Bring me to life’ might be the best thing they have yet released. The song expresses a profound sense of personal worthlessness, and a plea – there is no indication of who is being pleaded with – that someone beyond the singer would create meaning and so worth for her existence. The track begins with an expression (rendered with acoustic piano, in contrast to the heavy electric beats of the majority of the track) of loss of self and need for redemption: ‘…without a soul, my spirit sleeping somewhere cold, until you find it there…’ The chorus expresses directly the plea for salvation: ‘[w]ake me up, wake me up inside … before I come undone, save me from the nothing I’ve become.’ The song spent a month on top of the UK charts in 2003, and has been endlessly referenced by Christian speakers, including me. I recently heard that a bishop of the Church of England had been quoting it, which means I probably won’t anymore (unless the bishop in question is Graham Cray, episcopal citation suggests that an illustration has become hackneyed) Most speakers (not me, but including the good bishop) have used the song to illustrate the nihilistic tendencies of contemporary young people, the longing for meaning that, in the hands of a sensitive artist, becomes so overwhelming that a cry for salvation (‘save me from the nothing I’ve become’) is the inevitable response. Fill in your own gospel application; you won’t be far wrong… The video for the song perhaps invites such an interpretation: Amy Lee’s endless falling being a powerful visual metaphor (as is the precariousness of her grasp on the wall of the building before she falls): [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ca4s_RrlssY]   And, if you watch the performance of the song on the band’s Live in Europe DVD, you cannot fail to be struck by the intensity with which the audience sing along to these lyrics of existential despair:   [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3MKTm-49uI&ob=av2e]   That said, the common, and episcopally-sanctioned, deployment of this track as evidence for the fundamental loss of meaning amongst the millennial generation is a mistake; it spent four weeks at the top of the chart because it is a seriously brilliant hard rock anthem, not because it named something fundamental in the national psyche. More than that, the following suggestion that in the church we have the answer, easily available, to the angst expressed in the song is profoundly misleading: cultural forces are so powerful they invade the church just as much, perhaps, as they do the surrounding culture. Proof of this? Every member of the band, when they formed, professed to be a born-again Christian. Before they hit the big time, they played the Christian festivals in the States, spoke powerfully of the work of Christ in their own lives. It’s kids who are saved and sanctified who cry out to an unknown rescuer, ‘save me from the nothing I’ve become.’ If we don’t get that, we can do nothing of use for this...

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