On religion in the news, the Republican debate, and reading ‘Fun Home’ at Duke

I will write about religion in the news. There are two good reasons to do this:

  1. The way some religious people make news misrepresents what it looks like to do something with one’s religion. In America, this often takes the form of conservative Christians weaponizing this-or-that aspect of their faith to gain political leverage, at the expense of some marginalized group. It is worth responding to this approach on religious grounds, not just with claims of the separation of Church and State or the irrationality of religion in general. This can be achieved by responding from the Christian Left, or by responding as an interested and knowledgeable non-Christian. Either way, I don’t like letting hateful speech pass as religious.
  2. The way some nonreligious people react to religion in the news misunderstands the rightful place of religion in politics. Again, in America I think of this response coming from the liberal intellectual class, of which I am a member. This reaction takes for granted that religion in the public sphere looks like #1, and it’s default stance is to reject the religious narrative out of hand, backed by a reference to the nonestablishment of religion in this country, or the separation of Church and State, etc. I will continue to argue that the relationship between our secular state and our popular religiosity cannot be categorically dismissed by an appeal to separation of Church and State. As long as there are Americans whose primary language of value includes religion, Christian or otherwise, religious language and assertions will be a part of political discourse. Engaging them as such, rather than ruling them out a priori, opens up a new space in the dialogue.

Sometimes #1 is more applicable, and sometimes #2 is more applicable.

When I became aware of the fact that a Christian Left, in fact, exists — that is to say, there is another way to respond to religion in the public sphere, not just by fussing about the place of religion in American politics, but perhaps with a “your reading of that Biblical passage is not the only one” — did I recognize the power of #1. Of course, plenty of people have been doing this for centuries (from abolitionists to Civil Rights leaders to the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina over the past few years — notably many of these impressive and memorable religiously-based actions comes from African-American or Black communities). I will add my voice to that chorus to the extent that I am able.

I think #2 was framed rather nicely in the news not so long ago: when the question arose at the Republican debate a few weeks back, if any of the candidates had received a word form God on what they should address first in office.

Now I admit there was a time that my response to this would have involved a lot of dismissive blanket statements about how this was, “an obnoxious example of the fact that theistic superstition infects the nation and is taken for granted by many, including, apparently, the entire Republican party as well as Fox News,” and that, “in a reasonable world, such a question would not be asked of serious candidates.”

I don’t feel that way anymore. If I were a Christian, this would be an interesting and serious question — a lot of sincere, religious people who also happen to be American citizens believe that a personal relationship with God is central to one’s capacity to navigate the world — and I would be disappointed to hear the often incoherent, answering-their-own-question responses of the various candidates. Ted Cruz talks about his dad? Why? Marco Rubio makes a laundry list of blessings, John Kasich asserts that miracles are a thing, and Scott Walker — what are you doing? Reciting the catechism to us? What the hell?

But they have plenty good reason not to actually answer it. This question means: “Do you have some relationship with the ultimate in your day-to-day life? Does it hold you accountable? Does something more than contingency guide your actions? Or have you been bought already? Have you ceded your capacity to freely act for the good? Or do you just make it all up based on what certain people think? Are you a person, or a machine?” These are important and challenging questions, which I think every person should consider whether they’re running for president or not. They are also succinctly evoked in the question, “have you received a word from God?”

My bottom line here: the mention of a religious symbol or value is not a mortal sin in American politics. Sometimes you have to know the tree by its fruit and not whether you don’t like that its a tree. (See what I did there?)

I didn’t have a chance to write about the Republican debate when the topic was hot a few weeks ago, and I sat there thinking, “Man, I missed a good chance to talk about religion in the news!”

I did not have to wait long for another thing to come along. This time, it belongs to #1.

So, Brian Grasso, an incoming Duke first-year has publicly — on a Duke Facebook page and then in that Washington Post article above — refused to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for Duke’s first-year summer reading program. He makes a religious argument to justify his refusal.

The response in the media seems overwhelmingly (in my completely non-scientific scanning of Google Search results) to focus on the fact that Fun Home has “gay themes” or is an “LGBT graphic novel”. This is not argument that Mr. Grasso puts forward, and though the coincidence is striking, I find it fruitful enough to stick to the text.

Mr. Grasso states that he morally objects to depiction of sexual acts. Viewing any depiction of a sexual act will “conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex,” no matter who it is that is depicted in the sexual act. He categorically separates image and written word — the same story presented only as text would not have presented him with a problem. He would extend this to “pop culture and Renaissance art”. Because he finds the material morally objectionable and not “offensive or discomforting”, he thinks his professors should warn him if coursework will include any “titillating” content, so he can avoid it. He demonstrates how his public statement has lead to several private affirmations and fruitful cross-cultural conversations, and he goes on to reassert the value of “genuine” cultural diversity, as opposed to losing one’s identity “in the name of secularism, open-mindedness, or liberalism,” as one of his private correspondents puts it. He then wraps everything up by describing his interaction with “a new friend, who considers herself bisexual and a Buddhist.” They leave their open encounter with “a deeper understanding and compassion for each other.” And so our author present us with the ideal of a collegiate encounter.

Before I work through this a little more closely, let me say that this young man knows how to write simply and succinctly, especially given his age. He anticipates objections, prepares evidence, presents positive consequences, and does so in a straightforward, sincere tone. I doubt that I could write with such clarity at his age, or even now (see above, below, etc.). I have no doubt of his commitment to the Bible, and its clear from his “passion” for economic development in sub-Saharan Africa that he has a strong vision for how to proceed with his career and life, and to act with compassion.

That being said, clarity and conviction are not all that college is about — and neither is claiming your own “deeper understanding” of a peer whom you insist on seeing through your own tinted lens — if you can even recognize the tint. Mr. Grasso is clever to anticipate objections, but his own clarity gives away a few hints that form a basis for our response to him on religious grounds. Here are some quotes that raised my eyebrows:

  • His first line: As a Christian, I knew that my beliefs and identity would be challenged at a progressive university like Duke. For his authenticity, he reveals his savvy right at the beginning. Surely he knows that there are progressive Christians — indeed, that Christianity is one of the most effective launch pads into progressive politics. But he tells us that a progressive institution will only challenge his beliefs and identity, and he doesn’t mean the good kind of challenge. Scene: set.
  • The biblical evidence he marshals in opposition to pornography: …Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” He offers a curiously narrow interpretation of this well-known text. Jesus is telling us here that the Law of Moses is not being abolished with his ministry, but being fulfilled. He references the commandment to not commit adultery, and makes it substantially stricter, stating that any gaze that is rooted in lust disobeys the commandment — it is considered adultery. His advice? The grasping eye should be cast out, just as in the next line he recommends the grasping hand be cut off. No one, not even literalists, take that instruction literally, so what can it mean? How can anyone be expected to fulfill this impossible standard? It seems to me that the answer is: they’re not. They can try but will inevitably fail. For Christians this is where Jesus comes in to do what humans can’t (remember, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak?). I could go on, but suffice to say that Mr. Grasso will likely defy this commandment anytime he walks across campus, let alone if he reads Fun Home. His argument is weaker than his Biblical citation would suggest.
  • The distinction between words and images: If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. Is it not possible for text to “titillate,” or be pornographic? Experience suggests otherwise, but he is young. It seems like he uses this to shore up a claim he makes earlier in his argument: My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. Pushing this further, could a textual description of a lesbian sex scene categorically not excite? Once again, a curiously narrow reading of Matthew 5 — Jesus uses the eye and the hand as human parts that grasp. Can the mind not grasp as well?
  • Morality versus comfort: And I believe professors should warn me about such material, not because I might consider them offensive or discomforting, but because I consider it immoral. Oh boy. It might be more a philosophical question to parse exactly what the difference is between ‘recognizing immorality’ and ‘experiencing offensive discomfort’. It’s clear from above that he could use a little space around how he understands his relationship to media, and its affect on him. I assume he’s trying to sidestep every think-piece that’s come out this year lamenting a (sparsely-evidenced) trend of overly-sensitive undergrads. Now would be a fine time to recognize that in this piece we find a white Christian American male claiming his right to not engage certain offensive material, but distancing himself from the trigger warnings that marginalized communities use to avoid revisiting trauma by surprise and in an unsafe space. He fits all that into his distinction here.
  • The true source of dialogue and growth: Without genuine diversity, intellectual dialogue and growth are stifled. I’m all for ‘genuine’ diversity, though he defines it only negatively as NOT giving away one’s “identity in college in the name of secularism, open-mindedness, or liberalism.” (Again, attributed to someone who wrote to him.) If I were to define it positively, I’d probably start by being willing to meet people as they are, and allowing them define who they are, with as little interference of my own prior views as possible. That’s what makes this next line so frustrating…
  • …because here it turns out we’re just dealing with a very clever and savvy but still quite conservative, judgy-wudgy Christian: Over the past couple of days, I have received many encouraging messages from a new friend, who considers herself bisexual and a Buddhist. The cheat word here is “considers”. I wonder if it refers to his new friend’s bisexuality, Buddhism, or both. As with his before-the-fact assessment of Fun Home and whatever insight might be gained from a sexual act depicted, I suspect that when he talks about having a deeper understanding and compassion of his new friend, he means he has a deeper understanding and compassion for what he sees as her misguided self-descriptions. That is — he understands her better than she does herself, she who considers herself such things. Does he consider himself Christian, or is he a Christian?

To be sure, he knows his Bible, so no doubt he knows Jesus’ mission instructions at Matthew 10:16: “See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Mr. Grasso has taken this teaching to heart. It’s worth noting that the assignment of Fun Home was not for a class and did not come yoked to a graded assignment. It’s intention is to give the incoming Duke first-years a common experience to build upon for orientation. Mr. Grasso is destined to be an organizer, so publicly did he utilize this opportunity to create his own common experience to build on, with a community that was (thanks to his efforts) ready to meet him when he arrives on campus. We shall hear from him again.

Which is all the more reason to be ready to respond to religion with religion, and to “always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks your reason for the hope that you cherish,” even (especially) if you are a Christian-trained Zen Buddhist.

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