Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Passion of the Sullivan

I haven't looked in at Homo Superior much lately. He's changed the layout several times, it seems, in interesting but still sometimes confusing ways. On the other hand I've neglected several places I used to visit almost daily, like a chat room where I used to be a contentious regular; I looked in there and found to my pleasure that it's still busy when most chat rooms have dried up. Now that I think of it, though, Homo Superior has been relatively quiet, and today I learned why, from his personal blog, now retitled Rick Has Cancer, which he'll be fighting for some time. I'm rooting for him.

But the main reason I'm writing about him today is that at HSB he posted a response to Andrew Sullivan fussing over a satirical Easter skit by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, mocking the Roman Catholic Church. Sullivan called it "bigotry," while loudly protesting his dedication to free speech and "the right to blasphemy", and then fumed:
You want to grow some balls? Hold a Hunky Mohammed Contest on Ramadan. And, by the way, thanks for doing your bit to empower every religious right prejudice about gays.
Oh, dear. As though the Sisters and all us trashy radical homos don't have balls already! We were born with them, which is more than can be said about our homosexuality. But Sullivan has very traditional views of gender, as of so many things except his homosexuality. Again: Roman Catholicism is a lifestyle choice, so those who adhere to it had better develop thicker skins, just as we queers, leftists, and atheists have to do. I find the digs many atheists make at religion childish, uninformed, and tiresome, but the defenses made by people like Sullivan are no better. And Sullivan has a long record of ignorant, childish attacks on people he doesn't like; as a First Amendment absolutist dedicated to the right of blasphemy, I defend his right to make them, but I don't have to respect his views.

Homo Superior mounts his own critique of Sullivan and Christianity. He recalls attending Easter Services with his mother at her Pentecostal church, "a night of theater depicting the Passion of Christ."

I thought it would be an easy way to assuage my mother’s worries over my backslidden state without having to hear the anti-gay rhetoric so common to churches of this type.

Instead, I was treated to an over-the-top presentation of the Torture of Christ, not his Passion: Tableaux after tableaux of suffering and death. Rather than being edified, I was embarrassed. I felt like my nose was being rubbed in the private, fucked up, quasi-sexual, sado-maschochistic fantasies of a cult; and they were using it to try to indoctrinate me.

The bloodless Resurrection, not surprisingly, got less than 30 seconds.

Oh, dear. The word "passion" in English, in the context of Christianity, means "suffering", specifically referring to Jesus' suffering on the cross. It only came to refer to sexual love in the 1500s, and to strong feeling of any kind a century later. So HS is drawing a false distinction. As he must know, "tableaux after tableaux of suffering and death" have been a standby of Christian imagery and story for centuries, as in the "passion plays" of the medieval church. I think it would be sensible to ask why people are so fascinated by dwelling on the details of Jesus' suffering, but why not? Depictions of tormented human bodies are common and popular in drama and other media for millennia, from the Greek tragedies onward. The problem of suffering is an ancient one: why is the world so ordered that people suffer and die? It's at the core of Buddhism too. Projecting human pain onto a god is one way of trying to come to terms with it, even if it's not one that I find useful. Stressing Jesus' suffering is, if nothing else, a dramatic device to make his resurrection all the more a relief, to make sure the audience knows that their god did really bleed for them. I don't think it's surprising or sinister that ordinary folk like the idea of a god who suffered as they suffer, bled, and died; his triumph over death is a promise that they will triumph over it too. I don't believe that promise, but I think most people want to believe it or something like it.

HS is making the same mistake so many of my fellow atheists make: he talks about religion as though it were some alien force or structure imposed by a conspiratorial organization on The People. As I've said before, religion is something that people make up (including the conspirators, if you want to see religious leaders and teachers that way), and themes that occur and recur in religion do so because they matter to people. The passion plays wouldn't have endured if people didn't find them affecting. People aren't passive receptacles for the Church to fill with its doctrines: they reject or dodge what they don't like. (A favorite example of mine is the prohibition of fornication -- that is, sexual intercourse between unmarried people, as opposed to adultery where at least one partner is married. The Catholic Church has been trying for centuries to get the laity to agree that fornication is a no-no, with limited success at best.) I believe that the atheists who like to see religion as purely a form of control from above are those who want to be controllers from above themselves.

HS continues with another popular infidel's cliche, a nonbeliever's counterpart of Sullivan's dig about a "Hunky Mohammed contest":
Further, it’s my understanding from my brief studies in Bible school that, had Christ been born and died in modern times, a shot to the head from a Kalashnikov would have done the trick just as well as days on the cross. It just wouldn’t have been as much fun for Christians to reenact later.
Really? You have to learn that in Bible school? So what? If Jesus had died by some other means, his followers would have rationalized that just as they did the cross. (When the 17th century messianic pretender Sabbatai Sevi converted to Islam rather than suffer execution, those of his followers who didn't fall away imitated his example, converting to Islam but practicing Judaism in secret. They found Biblical passages which they interpreted as prophecies of Sabbatai's apostasy, just as Christians did for Jesus' death and resurrection.)
It’s no accident that the two principal icons of the Catholic Church, and of much of the rest of Christianity, are on the one hand, a nearly naked man in agony and ecstasy eternally dying on a cross, and on the other, a virgin mother in a burka.
"No accident" indeed, since Jesus was probably crucified (it's not the sort of thing that Christians would have made up, it was too shameful, like, say, dying of AIDS would be now), not killed by firing squad or a bow and arrow. Icons of divine mothers are cross-culturally popular, and it's widely believed that the cult of Mary descends from the cult of Isis/Ishtar. But what does this "no accident" mean? HS obviously think it has some sinister significance, but doesn't say what, except that he thinks it should be "the empty tomb plated in gold and hanging around the necks of believers", instead of a cross. I'm surprised that Calvary Tabernacle dwelt on the Passion so much on Sunday instead of Good Friday, when such things usually are done. Easter, judging by what I hear from Christians I know, means sunrise services in commemoration of the gospels' discovery of the empty tomb at dawn.

Well, there's no reason non-theists should be any better informed about Christianity than Christians are. But we can't claim to be more rational, or wiser, or more realistic about the world than the religious if we aren't better informed. Homo Superior complains about the passion play he witnessed:
Rather than being edified, I was embarrassed. I felt like my nose was being rubbed in the private, fucked up, quasi-sexual, sado-maschochistic fantasies of a cult; and they were using it to try to indoctrinate me.
Why would anyone be "indoctrinated" by this spectacle? Wouldn't an outsider -- a genuine outsider, I mean, not a lapsed Christian -- simply be repelled by it? (This complaint reminds me of antihomosexual Christians who raise the alarm about how homosexuals are trying to recruit ("indoctrinate") outsiders with our disgusting sexual practices and our leather daddies, which I would think an odd way to entice potential converts. For all that Pentecostals are eager to make recruits, I'd take that performance as something for the already converted. (Much like the "Hunky Jesus" contest: it wasn't supposed to win bigots over, or to counter bigots' stereotypes about gays -- it was an event for the already "converted.")

For that matter, what's wrong with "sado-masochistic fantasies"? Again, they play a role in religion because they play a role in many people's lives; they play a highly visible role in gay male sexual iconography, however little they interest me. When antigay Christians fulminate about the disgusting aspects of gay life, we tend to suspect that covertly they find those aspects attractive, even exciting; I have similar suspicions about Homo Superior's (and other nonbelievers') fixation on the Passion drama -- and about Andrew Sullivan's outrage at the Hunky Jesus contest.