Up From Harlem is one of my favourite comics found on this site. I'm not a big comic fan, but given that the subject matter is 1970s Christianity, they are a good read. A few things are immediately apparent. Firstly, the way in which slang, our everyday use of language, which shapes, to some degree, our definition of what is cool, moves very quickly from hip to hokey--the language in these comics is a hark back to an entirely different world and hipness, and it is helpful to comprehend that. That language thirty or forty years old would seem so dated is a reminder of the challenge, with english particularly, to move with the times and to realize that once weighty words may have lost their impact in the new vernacular.
The second thing, and it is pretty evident in this comic, is the relationship, built early on in what became contemporary Christianity, between the sensual and the spiritual--religion becomes a substitute for other 'highs'--God is a better high than drugs etc. In this comic, the act of worship is likened to a sexual encounter. It's easy to connect the dots and note how the ecstatic nature of contemporary worship has its roots in the transitions out of counter-culture and how sensualized the whole thing is--what is being crafted, consciously or otherwise, is a religion built on emotional experiences, with ecstatic and sexualized dynamics, that few people seem to honestly acknowledge or address. This is nothing new of course, nuns and mystics have written on about this for centuries-but within the confines of late 20th century Christianity this was not given much attention--and of course, it was attended by a very intense rejection of human sexuality, in all but the most heavily prescribed circumstances (i.e. heterosexual marriage) and outside of that the encounter with the divine, with God, was the environment in which one would practice sublimation, or repression of desire.
I went a number of years ago to hear M.Scott Peck give a one-day seminar on sensuality and spirituality. it was extremely enlightening at the time, as those issues were seldom addressed in the religious environs I inhabited. They should have been, because without addressing desire openly and honestly, and without providing means to 'own it' the substitute experiences don't deliver over the long haul in my experience and leave many people with a vulnerability, and a disappointment with God and more often, with themselves, over their failure to completely transport their desire for intimacy or altered consciousness into their god-experiences.
Finally, these comics highlight the dependence of much of the early contemporary Jesus movement upon apocalyptic and dispensationalist theological perspectives. i realize that comics alone don't tell the whole story, that not everyone was embracing 'end-of-the-world' theologies, but it was central to the movement in many environments and had a key role in shaping much of contemporary Christian culture. These comic books, with their content limitations set by the genre, painted with broad strokes, as comics often do, and they portrayed a particular brand of Christianity and that had influence way beyond anyones expectation or realization I think.
A number of years ago I went to a one-day seminar hosted by M. Scott Peck entitled, Spirituality and Sexuality. It was part of a profound shift in my thinking that was occurring at the time around issues of human sexuality. Well, to be honest, it wasn't so much a shift in thinking as an attempt at reconciling my own thoughts and ideas about faith and views on sex and sexuality that were not necessarily open for discussion at the time. It was prompted largely by the fact that the community I had been involved in planting had spent a number of weeks(which turned into months) exploring human sexuality and Christianity in particular. Out of that we wrote our own manifesto for sexuality as a community--it was viewed as quite progressive by some, profane by others, and a starting place for most of us. This was when I swam in more evangelical circles and a lot of people who came to our gatherings were refugees of some sort from that arena. In his lectures Peck linked sexuality and spirituality closely together and explored some of the writings of the Christian mystics to support his view. The lectures were held at a church called Agape--a church of Religious Science that has experienced a lot fo success in West LA and, through it's founder Michael Beckwith, gained some prominence as part of a new movement of spirituality that emerged out of what was more traditional New Age spirituality (yes, like most other belief systems, New Age spirituality has undergone many transformations of late).
This issue came up again around this time last year when I was teaching in Italy. One of our day trips was to Sienna--the home of one of Italy's patron saints, Catherine. Catherine's life was marked by many issues that I fond quite troubling--food deprivation, extreme asceticism and a somewhat sexualized overtone in her relation with God. Talking of these things created some tense moments on the trip to say the least and contributed to my latest spiritual 'review' I wont call it crisis because the connotation is too negative!
All of that to say that I came across some artwork linked to simialr themes of sex and spirituality. James Roper created a series of images entitled Rapture series. Here is the blurb,
"The pursuit of release or transcendence occur most purely within the seemingly opposing natures of religion and 'sin'. This is dealt with explicitly in my Rapture series, the inspiration for which originated from my interest in Bernini's sculpture 'The Ecstasy of St.Teresa' and how Bernini visualised 'religious ecstasy' in an abstract form and inadvertently drew comparisons to psycho-sexual release:
"He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it." (Life of St.Teresa of Jesus – St.Teresa)
This is explicitly symbolised in the Rapture series by the use of porn stars as the vehicle for the expression of this 'spiritual' emotion, the shedding of carnal bodies giving way to an abstract purity beneath. The idea of release from the material to the spiritual is apparent in many religions as if there were a divine soul trapped in our earthly bodies, this is analogous to contemporary imagery found in comic books specifically the way in which Clark Kent, a normal man, sheds his clothes to become a Superman."
So apparently the Pope has had a change of heart, or policy or something. Having stated quite forcefully, as most of the Catholic Church leader have, that sexual protection and or contraception is not cool, he has now come out (well, he should) and reversed his controversial position about the use of condoms and now says that under certain conditions condoms are a "first step in assuming moral responsbility in the intention of reducing the risk of infection." No biggie, you might even be saying as I am, "duh!" but for a sitting Pope it is a fairly huge change in view. You can read more about it here.
So Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop (emphasis on 'openly') in the Episcopal church is retiring early, essentially because of the stress and strain of the past few years. I guess when you are a church-person and you have to wear a bullet-proof vest for protection you are in territory that you might not be prepared for!! What a tragedy that situations like this come to define what many people think is religion's main focus--some kind of hatred and threat expressed as some sort of faithfulness to their god. People will always have differing views about all kinds of things and will usually argue a theological position to back it up, but that is not really the point-for me, it is the tragedy that one's theological position could result in threats of vilence and such bitter hatred. I also think it is usually bad theology and definitely mis-placed grammar--what does God hate? Fags? or is Figs? That's it, God hates figs--nasty fruit that both the old and new testament curse--that's some hardcore hatin' from the heavens!!!
We are in the midst of a vampire frenzy here in the U.S. It's not just Twilight and True Blood, it's also The Vampire Diaries, Being Human, and a couple of others, the names of which I forget right now. We seem to have come a long way from the 90s show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose title tells of the view towards the vamps, to a new era of exploration of the bloodsuckers, and I have been wondering about the current fascination. It was John Polidori's novel, The Vampyre, published in 1819 that established the modern vampire character but it was Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, published almost at the dawn of the 20th century in 1897 that really set the standard for modern day vampire fascination. Stoker said that he wrote the tale to voice the anxieties of his age and to address fears about late Victorian patriarchy. It seems to me that we may have turned to the vampire again to address some issues that are perhaps reflect some of the anxieties of our time. It certainly seems that these various vampire shows are on a continuum of sorts, one that appears to include the chastity promoting element of Twilight at one end, to the erotic and sexually celebratory tone of True Blood at the other, with the other shows dotted somewhere in between. I find the Twilight movies way too chaste and saccharine for my taste--drained of blood if you will(I know!). It's too much high school melodrama, and I have had enough of that in real life to really want to go there again right now. But True Blood, well that's something else.
It seems to me that all these shows address anxieties, be it the pressures of high school sexuality and peer issues or the larger issues of bigotry and bias. With True Blood, what began as a tv show addressing bigotry and bias towards gays, has morphed into something much bigger than that, an exploration of otherness and difference of all kinds and perhaps a demonstration of shifting sexual attitudes developing in a post HIV world. By post-HIV I don't mean to imply that HIV/AIDS is no longer a threat, for it certainly is, but a world lived in the light of HIV for the past decades and one in which perhaps some of the initial fears about contracting the disease, and the horror about blood associated with it, have somehow been managed, ignored or subsumed, or maybe a show like True Blood for instance, is an example of changing views towards blood, disease and sexuality, a declaration of sorts . It's nihilistic and hedonistic to say the least, a sense of abandon churns through the show--the moment is what seems to count, and the moment is complicated and difficult to negotiate--much like the world we find ourselves in.
It is quite difficult to find images that capture moments of sensuality in the Bible. I get it of course, the link between sensuality and spirituality can be dangerous territory, and I recognize that it is easy to over-sensualize, over-sexualize even, moments that are stripped of any intention like that(i.e. we read into the text), but that said, I cannot help but think that there is a rich vein of sensuality in this week's gospel story(John 12:1-11)--Mary massaging expensive perfumes into the feet of Jesus while others complain about the extravagance and waste. The dismissal of Mary's actions, ostensibly in the name of greater good, and relief of the poor, is a reminder that actions are always performed in the shadow of judgment and critique, by differing opinions, and often by less than pure motive.
I came across this lovely poem and thought I would post it, as I think it captures much of the complexity of the scene,
Fragrance filled the room,
curling into every corner,
seeping into every
holding us for a moment
So I am halfway through a mid-week called on Money/Sex/Power. This week we began a two-part discussion about sex and sexuality. As I did with the topic of Money, I began with a very, very brief, history of sex--we tend to think, as George Michael once reminded us that "sex is natural," which, of course, is true, but sex is also the product of histories and systems of power and influence that have shaped how we approach sex and sexuality. We journeyed back to the Babylonians and made our way forward, stopping a key spots along the way--contrasting views from late antiquity with medieval views and then shifted to the 18th and 19th century when ideas about sex and sexuality as we now understand it started to emerge. The move beyond anatomical reasoning to a more nuanced understanding of sex as more than anatomy is something that emerged quite late in the history of sex