Friday, 15 April 2011

Holy Week: An opportunity for Christians to fetishise torture?

A well-known British writer once said that he could never be a Christian because of the way we venerate the Cross. He regarded it as fetishising torture, which seemed just a bit sick to him. It is a wry chattering-classes remark, but doesn't come close to understanding the real meaning of the Cross.

What we remember week by week as we celebrate the Eucharist, and focus on particularly in Holy Week, is an act of self-giving so powerful that it inspires us to persist in countering the self-serving behaviour that is so deeply rooted in human nature.

The Cross is a reminder of what society is capable of when confronted with a force of goodness that it finds threatening to power, vested interests or the status quo. Christ crucified draws our attention away from ourselves and onto innocence made to suffer at the hands of humans. The Cross incriminates us in the daily injustices that the world continues to mete out to those who do not deserve them.

Even if the crucifixion was nothing more than a myth or a parable it would still give pause for thought about our actions and conduct. Imagine a story in which perfect goodness walks the earth. How would we respond? The answer of course is not to embrace it but to become so uncomfortable, so convicted by our own comparative shortcomings and weaknesses, that such goodness would have to be got rid off. For this reason I believe the Cross has something to say to people of all faiths and none.

Christians of course view the cross as more than myth. It embodies the extraordinary idea that a merciful God would place himself at the mercy of flawed and selfish humanity. This is an act of humility so potent that to be reminded of it whenever we break bread, and especially now in the events of Easter, cannot help but challenge us to reorientate our lives away from the gravitational pull of our own selfishness.

As we enter the season when the Cross is most contemplated I will see not only a generous God hanging there but also the suffering of all humanity, confident that the arms of Christ are reaching out to embrace us in another way of being.

Monday, 11 April 2011

gay audiences love a coming-out movie. Christians of all people should understand why.

Last week the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival finished its run at the BFI on the South Bank, albeit a much curtailed affair this year due to funding cuts. Nonetheless, as it has done for the last 25 years, the festival drew on the output of film-makers from around the world in a diverse programme of queer movies.

For all the variety on offer - drama, documentary, shorts, comedy - there are recurring themes found in each year's pick of films. The impact of the AIDS epidemic is one. Or the effect on particular cultures or characters as they encounter homosexuality would be another - last year's Eyes Wide Open powerfully explores a same-sex relationship in Jerusalem's Orthodox Jewish community, and has gone on to wider cinema and TV release.

Films which explore the struggle of the protaganist in coming out are a perennial favourite with gay audiences. Last Monday's matinee, the very sweet comedy Sasha, played to a packed house. What is it about coming out stories that draw gay audiences in again and again?

For many, of course, there will be resonances with their own struggle in coming to terms with who they are (which is not to presume that coming out is hard for everyone). While we are accustomed to think of coming out as the revelation of one's sexuality to friends and family, the first step is coming to terms with, and understanding, oneself. The process of doing so is perhaps a common bond with which gay audiences identify.

It wouldn't hurt those who decry homosexuality as a 'lifestyle choice' to enter more fully into the narrative of those for whom coming out was far from what they initially hoped or imagined for themselves.

A coming out story presents a narrative arc that lends itself well to film-making, and should have an appeal far beyond gay audiences. To become more fully human, to overcome limiting social conditioning of family, friends or self, to realise one's full potential -- these are universal themes in movies of many genres. It is, for example, the subject of Billy Elliott.

Christians from those traditions that more readily embrace spirituality (who perhaps see conversion not as a moment in time but a lifelong process) will also understand the language of becoming more fully human, more whole. Coming to terms with who we really are, learning what it means to be free of the hold that our broken humanity has over us, setting aside lowest common denominator social norms to move on and grow in the love of God, is another kind of coming out.

These days it is hard to know which is more socially awkward - coming out as Christian or coming out as gay.

In both cases there is a learning to 'come home to oneself', an expression Timothy Radcliffe explores in Why Go To Church? He writes:
Repentance is, inseparably, an awakening to God, oneself and each other. Most sin is pretending to be someone else, admirable, or powerful or sexy, who will have value in other's eyes and one's own.

It is in stripping away such pretences and embracing humility - a grounded understanding about who and what we really are - that we can begin the journey towards wholeness that is sometimes also called holiness.

For some gay people the challenge is not to throw off one set of limiting self-beliefs only to become bound by a collective obsession with body image, hedonism or sexual liberation so easily found in the queer sub-culture.

And for Christians the journey towards wholeness must hold us in that place of humility that is far removed from the smug, self-satisfied judgementalism that too often leaks out of the Church and corrodes society.