“That’s a fine looking high horse. What you got in the stable? We’ve got a lot of starving faithful. That looks tasty, that looks plenty. This is hungry work. Take me to church, I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies. I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife. Offer me that deathless death, good God let me give you my life.”
One of my WiT colleagues, Maria McDowell, recently wrote a series of posts regarding the recent confirmation of a man who is avowedly pro-White (or, as they put it, “pro-identity”) into the Orthodox Church. I can’t help but chuckle a little about the language of “pro-identity,” however, considering that I often associate the term ‘identity’ with difference—with racial and ethnic diversity and with LGBTQ equality, whereas the Traditionalist Youth Network is very much about ethnic “purity,” not to mention that they “firmly consider homosexual activity a sin and vigorously oppose its promotion in the public square as an accepted and moral lifestyle.”
I was struck by Maria’s blog post, and what she was responding to, this weekend when I happened to see this, the music video for “Take Me to Church,” the debut single released by the Irish singer-songwriter Hozier.
This video struck me as a powerful illustration of precisely what Maria was responding to, highlighting the kind of violence that “protecting a culture” can very realistically and seriously result in. I especially appreciated Maria’s critique of the dangers of this notion of “protecting a culture,” and wanted to reflect a little bit on the relationship between purity, religion, and sex, amongst some other things, in light of the Hozier song and video…
Part I: On Sex & God
“My church offers no absolution. She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom.’ The only heaven I’ll be sent to, is when I’m alone with you. I was born sick, but I love it. Command me to be well. Amen. Amen. Amen.”
In an interview with Mother Jones, Hozier speaks to Gabrielle Canon about “Take Me to Church,” explaining that “it was always about sexuality. There is no greater celebration of life, and nothing more human than a sexual act.” The connections Hozier goes on to make between sex and religion reminded me of Rowan Williams’ now seemingly classic essay “The Body’s Grace.” Whereas Hozier and Williams ostensibly have vastly different endpoints and emphases, they both highlight the relationship between sex and spirituality. Moreover, they both seem to highlight the messiness and riskiness of sexuality and sex, especially as it relates to spirituality and selfhood.
For instance, Williams, in elucidating the teleology of his account of sex—that sex enables us to “be caught up… into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves us as God loves God,” that sex helps us see and experience “the body’s grace”—Williams also suggests that sex performs this aim precisely in its failure or non-gratiuity. Sex, for Williams, is a grace, something that we cannot get right, but an experience that is also a risk. “How do we manage this risk, the entry into a collaborative way of making sense of our whole material selves?” Williams muses. “It is this, of course, that makes the project of ‘getting it right’ doomed… Nothing will stop sex being tragic and comic.” Moreover, Williams highlights how same-sex love is particularly relevant in this regard. He explains:
Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is—in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process, such as the peopling of the world. We are brought against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff, but, just as worryingly, of non-functional joy—of joy, to put it less starkly, whose material ‘production’ is an embodied person aware of grace.
Elsewhere, in an interview with the Irish Times, Hozier speaks about some of the themes in his song—particularly about the relationship between sex and selfhood. As the interview reads:
At the time these new songs were coming together Hozier was rereading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He’s thoughtful and softly spoken about the other influences that coloured the songs. “There is a reccurring theme in a lot of the songs of a liberation of the self… There was also the end of the first relationship I had ever had… Where do you end up after that? As an individual: the individual that you were beforehand, the individual you were when you were in love, and how profoundly different those things are. Then what do you do afterwards?
“I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was a death, a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way, and you experience for the briefest moment – if you see yourself for a moment through their eyes – everything you believed about yourself gone. In a death-and-rebirth sense.”
I love how Hozier narrates the experience of sex via religious imagery, describing the experience as basically ekstatic, a theme that is, interestingly, addressed a bit by some Orthodox thinkers in describing the relationship between ourselves and God. Vladimir Lossky, for instance, writes that, “Deification through the knowledge of the divine energies is not possible in our present state of being other than in ecstasy, by the abandonment of all created things and even of oneself.”[i]
Thus, it is striking (and, well, not-striking at all) to me how folks and organizations like the Traditionalist Youth Movement emphasize the protection and purity of the self and of culture, that sex is seen as a means of that purity and protection—through reproduction of ethnic/”tribal” purity as well as traditional gender roles. Put another way, the linking of “difference” (which is language they seem to attempt to employ) to purity and protection, of the dominant culture, no less, seems to betray said difference, not defend it. Which brings me to my next point…
Part II: Sex, God, and “Wayward Reproductions”
“No masters of kings when the ritual begins; there is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin. In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene. Only then I am human. Only then I am clean. Amen. Amen. Amen.”
In her brilliant book, Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Translatlantic Modern Thought, Alys Weinbaum argues that:
The interconnected ideologies of racism, nationalism, and imperialism rest on the notion that race can be reproduced, and on attendant beliefs in the reproducibility of racial formations (including nations) and of social systems hierarchically organized according to notions of inherent racial superiority, inferiority, and degeneration(4).
In the monograph, Weinbaum persuasively demonstrates how this “persistent, if inchoate, ideological constellation”—which she refers to as the “race/reproduction bind” –organizes the modern episteme (5).
The “Take Me to Church” video, (especially?) when paired with the ideologies of organizations like the Traditional Youth Movement, seem to point to the pervasiveness and perniciousness of the race/reproduction bind that Weinbaum describes.[i] Racial, ethnic, and national purity and superiority are tightly linked in modernity to sexual and gendered purity/orderliness. “Aberrant” sexuality threatens that purity (and vice versa).[ii]
In the final chapters of her text, Weinbaum turns to Du Bois (particularly to “Dusk to Dawn”) and to Eduardo Kac’s contemporary art exhibition Gene(sis), examining how these works undermine the race/reproduction bind, exposing it as a fantasy and fiction, and thus presenting a celebration of the wayward. In her analysis of Gene(sis), Weinbaum writes:
…The piece can be read as implicitly engaging an idea of reproduction as translation that has been consistently radicalized—the idea of reproduction upon which eugenic movements have been based… the very same idea of reproduction as perfected translation that has bound race to reproduction by calculating racial belonging as reproducible, and genealogical ‘purity’ as achievable. The difficulty with any notion of perfected translation will be immediately apparent to anyone who has attempted to translate from one language into another, or who knows even a little about the numerous factors that impinge upon genes and alter their expression in a complex system of interlocking contingencies involving biochemical pathways, cellular structures, physiological relationships, and environmental fluctuations. Such perfection is quite simply impossible. All translation involves transfiguration; each repetition is with a difference, however slight (244-245, emphasis mine).
A celebration of the wayward, an eschewal of purity, means a transformation—and expansion—of belonging. As Donna Haraway notes (the latter part of which Weinbaum cites as an epigraph):
I am sick to death of bonding through kinship and ‘the family,’ and I long for models of solidarity and human unity and difference rooted in friendship, work, partially shared purposes, intractable collective pain, inescapable mortality, and persistent hope…Ties through blood—including blood recast in the coin of genes and information—have been bloody enough already. I believe that there will be no racial or sexual peace, no livable nature, until we learn to produce humanity through something more or less than kinship.[iv]
What this means in regards to the type of arguments that Heimbach and the Traditionalist Youth Network, amongst many, many other similar discourses, is pretty clear to me. What this means for folks like Heimbach, I have no idea. I read just yesterday that he was, in fact, excommunicated from the Orthodox church recently. On the one hand, this makes sense to me. On the other hand, though, I also find Maria’s writings on this theme quite… convicting.
Wendy Farley makes a similar point about, for lack of better words, the inclusiveness of belonging, in Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation. Her words are worth citing at length, and, I am going to let the quote stand as a sort of non-conclusion conclusion of sorts to this post. Farley writes:
Our social divisions are nothing…. Love is a country without boundary or condition, in which the destitute and despised are raised up for special affection. But love also accepts centurions, Rome’s tax-collecting lackeys, rich people like Jarius, the wife of Herod’s steward, Gentile dogs. In this empire neither victims nor perpetrators find the door slammed in their faces. Jesus’ immorality repairs the damage done by domination, by religious intolerance, by madness and destitituion. This counter-empire ‘challenges contemporary morality to its depths.’ If we accept its healing we are asked to accept that everyone else in the entire world is a citizen in this kingdom. Terrorists? Sex traffickers? Practice loving your enemies. Pray for them. Fast for them. Anyone can love the ones who love them…. The yoke is easy and the burden light, but it is also more excruciating than the most exacting morality…. It is no wonder that Jesus’ friends and family think he is crazy (Mark 3:21-22). He lives as if in a world governed by love—a world infinitely more generous and more exacting than the one with which we are familiar (204).
[i] Aristotle Papanikolaou, Being With God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion, 1st ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 51.
[ii] However, to be clear and fair, I think the video’s failure to delve more deeply or explicitly into the relationship between sexuality and nationality may, in some ways, make it succeptible to Weinbaum’s critique. For instance, in her chapter contesting the second-wave feminist reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman—as exposing her feminism while obscuring and ignoring her xenophobia and racism—Weinbaum notes how “In Herland, as in much of the scholarship on it, female superiority has a high cost-the subsumption of race within gender, the feminization of civilization in the name of white womanhood, and the neglect of female sexuality and desire” (87). In explicating Gilamn’s account of sexual liberty and how it is built on racial subjection, Weinbaum points out how “the resistive culture that Gilman attempts to model by ‘queering’ Herland reinscribes the idea of (white) racial purity” (105).
[iii] Tangentially, but, I think, quite related in terms of concepts and themes, later this summer an un für sich is hosting what will assuredly be an awesome book event on Gil Anidjar’s newest book Blood: A Critique of Christianity. I’m looking forward to reading along, as I am intrigued to see how Anidjar examines the role of religion—and, well of Christianity quite explicitly—in ‘reproducing’ nationalism and ethnic purity (I am also particularly intrigued to see how he, if he does at all, pick up on Weinbaum’s analysis of the race/reproduction bind as he talks about blood and/as kinship).
[iv] Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997) 265. Interestingly, Anidjar also cites this piece, as well as Weibaum, in his essay on blood in Political Concepts. http://www.politicalconcepts.org/issue1/blood/#fnref-8-20