I didn’t mean to talk about this. I didn’t mean to be this kind of writer. Every time I start one of these essays I think, this will be the last one; I’ve said enough about this. Every time, I wait and I think that maybe the impulse will pass, maybe I don’t need to do it this time. It feels too soon; it feels crass, to open myself up like this again, again. But it isn’t enough; not yet, maybe not ever.
I have three “Breaking Up With Jesus” playlists; I made the first one over two years ago, the spring I was living in London, while I was writing my first and (only, I thought then) essay about my increasingly difficult relationship with Christianity. It was just a couple of tracks at first, and I would play them on a loop during the twenty-minute walk to the tube. I added songs as they occurred to me, and they’re still on the playlist in that order, a kind of map of my state of mind over the course of those months. My second one was much more deliberately constructed. I though a lot about the overall arc, the order of the songs, the note I wanted to end on. The final product begins with Adele’s “Hello” and ends with the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” The second song is Neko Case’s rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger,” a juxtaposition of which I’m particularly proud.
The third playlist is still new, still in flux. I thought I was more or less done when it occurred to me that I needed a Taylor Swift song in between the last two tracks, something with a little more of an edge to balance out the earnestness. I spent a couple of days trying to decide between “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “Blank Space” (I already used “Bad Blood” on my second playlist). The former seemed like the obvious choice, but the latter felt more subtle and therefore more cutting, so it’s what I picked. It feels transgressive and yet deeply right and satisfying to express this particular type of pain and betrayal through the work of young female pop stars, who represent everything that is wrong with American culture according to the Christianity I grew up with. It’s yet another of many small rebellions, performed only for myself, a way of planting a flag in the soil of the culture I was supposed to reject. Maybe I have become everything my church warned me about, but there is life on the other side.
It started on Wednesday. I was taking a twitter break when I saw an interview with Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor best known (by me, at least) as author of the Bible paraphrase The Message, in which he expressed vaguely affirming views about same-sex relationships, and, most significantly, said that he would officiate a same-sex wedding if someone asked him to. I tweeted some thoughts about how I wanted to see this as a good thing, but have a hard time feeling hopeful about a permanent shift within conservative Christianity because the backlash to any positive movement on LGBTQ acceptance is always so severe. I talked about the emotional labor that queer people have to perform in order to stay in churches where debates about sexuality are still ongoing. And then I went back to work, surprised by how OK I was.
Later that afternoon, I was scrolling through twitter on a BART train when I saw some discussion about the Peterson news, and that’s when my tentative OK-ness broke down. There’s something that happens in my body when I see Christians debating sexuality: I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s familiar enough by now that I recognized it right away. I took some deep breaths, in through my nose, out through my mouth. I let myself think words like trigger and trauma. Some days I don’t say those words even to myself; I still feel, often, like I’m appropriating something that isn’t mine, like I don’t have the right to describe myself in those terms. But if one manifestation of trauma is that your body holds onto things that your mind might not consciously remember, then yes, I have that. On Wednesday, on that train, I asked myself, If someone who wasn’t you told you that they were feeling like this, that they’d been through what you’ve been through, and they used the word trauma, would you believe them? It’s still easier to exercise compassion towards myself by imagining that I’m someone else, just as it’s easier to write these words because someone else might need them.
The negative responses to Peterson’s interview were predictable. Whatever the incident which sparks the latest iteration of this particular debate, the players are usually the same: The Gospel Coalition, Denny Burke, First Things. Perhaps most significantly, LifeWay Christian Stores threatened to stop selling Peterson’s books, pending confirmation of his new position. My twitter feed was full of progressive Christians defending Peterson, but for me, at least, that rarely makes it better. I understand and appreciate what LGBTQ-affirming Christians are trying to do in these discussions, but it just reminds me that my humanity is still not a settled thing within many Christian institutions. By the end of the day, a few of the progressives on my feed were talking about how these debates dehumanize queer people, asking what they could do to make it better. Don’t have this discussion anywhere near me, I thought, aware that my anger was unreasonable, aware that even the most well meaning straight people can never, ever understand what this feels like. In my calmer moments, I know that these debates do change minds, over time. I know that a lot of people are doing a lot of work to make things better for the queer people who are still in the church. I know this. I know this. I sometimes wonder, though, what would happen if progressive Christians just refused to engage, refused to discuss, refused to acknowledge the validity of the debate at all. It probably wouldn’t work, as a strategy, but I wonder if it would hurt fewer people.
On Thursday afternoon, I had just finished tweeting some more thoughts about the cost of the debate, about how I worry that conservative Christian communities are becoming more isolated and thus limiting possible outlets for queer kids within them, when the news broke that Peterson had retracted his original statement and affirmed that he holds “a biblical view of marriage.” I couldn’t decide whether I felt more like laughing or crying. I had to take a walk, “Losing My Religion” blaring over my headphones, as if I could ever move far enough away from this feeling.
By Saturday, the discussion had come full circle: some of the people on my feed who’d been talking on Wednesday about the harm done to queer people were now saying that it was unfair to malign Peterson as a coward when we didn’t know what was in his heart or why he’d changed his mind. I watched people argue about this and make up, talk about empathy and compassion and Christian charity. I thought, not for the first time or the last, about the things that keep me from identifying as a Christian anymore, which for many Christians are the same things that keep them invested in that identity. “Love your enemies” might make sense in a world where that imperative hasn’t been used as a weapon against marginalized people, again and again and again. If, in one version of Christianity at least, I have a moral obligation to exercise compassion towards the Eugene Petersons of the world, then I can’t choose that identity. I can’t exercise compassion towards Eugene Peterson because I am still spending every drop of my mental and emotional energy trying to learn how to exercise compassion towards myself.
That wasn’t even the thing that got me, though. Also on Saturday, scrolling through the last remnants of a discussion that I thought was already over, I came across a couple of progressive Christians nerding out over one of Paul’s letters, talking about breaking down barriers and building a table open to all. This is the type of progressive Christian language that often leaves me tired and cynical, but in my more generous moments I can see what they’re trying to do, can believe that there are people out there dismantling ideological walls and making their churches safer places for queer people. And in the immediate aftermath of the week I’d just had, that made me saddest of all, because all I could think was, not for me.
I’m still not sure if “Blank Space” is the right song for that spot on my playlist. I’ll have to listen to it a few more times to be sure. In some ways, it feels like an odd fit. The more I listen to the lyrics, though, the more I can see the parallels, though perhaps that’s only because I’m looking for them. So it’s gonna be forever/ Or it’s gonna go down in flames/ You can tell me when it’s over/ If the high was worth the pain…
Christians, at least the ones I grew up around, talk a lot about grace: the love that’s undeserved, unearned and unearnable, existing apart from any kind of exchange. In the world, though, where power matters, there are always exchanges, always something to trade. I hope that whatever tradeoff Eugene Peterson feels that he’s made, for whatever reason, is worth it to him.