Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gender Bender

I read an interesting article today on NPR's website about the possibility of ours being a post-gender or gender-neutral society. "Does gender matter?" the author asks. "In a country with the ideal of treating everyone fairly and equitably, do we really need to know if someone is a boy or a girl? These questions are driving decisions and actions around the country."

There is, of course, much to be said here but one thing that really struck me about the article is its presentism. Discussions of gender must be steeped in a recognition of the complexity of gender, complexity that both neutrality and reductive sexism miss. Part of respecting this complexity requires an awareness that these questions are not new. They aren't even just questions from the 1960s. What little work I've done on burlesque comes immediately to mind when trying to historicize the content of this article. Check out this picture ( of one of the pioneers of burlesque, Lydia Thompson:

Clearly gender-bending is not new. To say this, however, is not to dismiss the question. I for one find it immensely comforting that we're not venturing into completely new territory. The work, of course, is to approach the current moment with enough appreciation and knowledge of the past to give these questions the level of sophistication and nuance they deserve.

For the theologian, the work is informed by both cultural history and the Tradition, particularly the historical claim of the Paschal Mystery. It is unhelpful to simply catalogue the ways in which the examples given in the above article and beyond in our society miss the mark in terms of Christian anthropology. Time might be better spent asking why the question persists and how it complicates our theology. Or better yet, where we have succeeded and failed to be true to the Gospel on the question of gender. Uncritically reasserting rigid gender roles in the name of Truth belies the mystery of what it means to be human and fails to account for the complexity of the issue of gender that even the Church has recognized in the saints.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nuclear Summer

I've spent more time than I'd like to admit this summer watching post-apocalyptic movies and TV series. I watched BBC's Survivors and am currently in the middle of Jericho. I'm going to guess that most people haven't watched these shows, let alone both of them and let alone recently. This genre has proved to be quite thought-provoking for me in many ways. Recently, it's led me to think about violence.

One of the major differences between these two shows (besides that Survivors is good and Jericho is pretty mediocre overall) is that one is American-made and the other British. This difference has given each show a particular position when it comes to guns. As far as I can remember, Survivors has only a few guns in the entire two seasons. One shotgun gets moved around from character to character, each time the gun itself being questioned as a solution to the characters' predicament in a post-pandemic world. In Jericho, however, guns are pervasive. Nearly each episode has a firefight as the citizens of Kansas try to protect their town after nuclear bombs destroy most of America.

Even though Jericho is not a great show, I think it's a helpful reminder about the problem with the perspective on violence that pervades American culture. The arguments I hear against pacifism or nonviolent resistance seem to rely heavily on fears of what the world would be without the 'protection' of weapons. The challenge for a community whose God died on a cross at the hands of state violence, however, is not to fear what the world will become but to imagine how the world might be otherwise. Relying on the fear engendered by nuclear deterrence seems to run counter to this call for hopeful imagination. Moreover, the more faith we put into weapons, no matter who wields them, the further we mire ourselves in the hopelessness we are called to reject for the hope we find in Christ.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


During Holy Week, people freaked out over Lady Gaga releasing her song, "Judas." (I don't know if she wrote it but I will just assume ownership of the song on her part for brevity's sake.) I suggest listening and not watching the YouTube video for the purposes of this post.

I would like to offer that this is yet one more example of a failure of imagination on the part of Christians. I believe there are two interesting things going on in "Judas," things that are even theologically compelling. The first is simple and the second a bit more complicated.

1. "Judas" is a traditional reflection on sin in an untraditional form. In the song, Gaga sings in the chorus, "I'm just a holy fool, oh baby it's so cruel/ but I'm still in love with Judas, baby." Scandalizing, right? Well, yes. Anyone who has read the Passion narrative in a Catholic Church on Palm Sunday or Good Friday is no stranger to this scandal. The narrative puts the words "Crucify him!" into the mouths of the congregation. So the very community that has gathered as a testament to the Resurrection has to remind itself of its own betrayal of the Incarnate God. It's a deliciously uncomfortable and endlessly important moment.

The point is this: "Judas" is an unconventional reminder of the many ways in which we are "still in love with Judas, baby," if Judas represents the selfishness and short-sightedness that turns us away from God. More from Gaga: "I wanna love you/ But something's pulling me away from you/ Jesus is my virtue/ And Judas is the demon I cling to." It's possible that my reading is too literal. I'm not a literary scholar. I do think, however, that Gaga's "love" for Judas has a referent in the tradition, namely that moment in the Passion narrative where we must vocally betray the Lord we profess to love.

2. Following this (simplistic) reiteration of our battle with sin, Gaga says something interesting and helpful about women. In the song, she identifies herself with the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her hair in the Gospel (see Luke 7:37-38). This woman has been conflated with Mary Magdalene, and the text describes her as a "sinner," which has been assumed to be some sexual sin. Later in the song, the bridge says, "In the most biblical sense/ I am beyond repentance/ Fame hooker, prostitute, wench/ Vomits her mind."

I don't know exactly what she's up to here but in light of my primary reading, I appreciate that she draws out this language. Crafting our relationship with both sin and Jesus in the terms of erotic love is scandalizing, but again, not without referent in the tradition (e.g. Teresa of Avila). Furthermore, I think the bridge is especially helpful for highlighting the way in which women especially can come to define their identities in terms of sexual sin, either on their part or on the part of those who perpetrate it upon their bodies. Gaga herself, of course, is dismissed or hailed largely in terms of her relationship to sex.

Maybe I'm looking for something that isn't there but--and how's this for scandal?--I'll take Gaga over the majority of avowedly Christian music any day. The beauty of grace is that it is found in the most surprising of places, and often in places that Christians would rather not look.