Recently, Sir Elton John referred to Jesus as “a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man.” The publishing of such a statement is bound to stir up some trouble in certain parts of the Christian community, and it has. But what does such a thought and the various reactions to it tell us about the nature of religion – Christianity in particular – and how we approach it? Here are some of my thoughts. I hope you’ll share yours.
Most simply, I think the potential for conflict around a statement such as this is the result of a primary problem that accompanies using a created thing (in this case a man) as a/the symbol for the divine reality. The problem is really two-fold. First, a created thing has concrete attributes that are observable, verifiable (at least theoretically), and otherwise non-divine. Second, the existence of these literal, factual, non-divine attributes can have the tendency to make us forget that the thing is, after all, only a symbol which is supposed to point beyond itself to the divine reality. Given the literal, historical existence of the man, Jesus of Nazareth, there is a propensity for us to focus on the concrete aspects about him that we think we know. However, when we are wrapped up in the literal, verifiable (such as sexuality) aspects of this man, we may well have lost our focus on the divine reality to which he points, turning him from an effective symbol of the divine reality into an idol. Those who react too negatively to speculation on Jesus’ sexuality, interpreting such speculation as primarily literal and intended as a statement of fact, might consider taking a step back to ensure that they have not moved into an idolatry that is clothed in monotheistic garb.
Of course, Sir Elton did not mean his statement as a literal statement of an historical fact. Rather, it was a spiritual reflection on the symbol that is the center of his faith. If there is any question about this, one must only see the video in which Sir Elton responds to a question about his statement. Still though, the question remains whether or not imaging Jesus (and by extension possible God) as a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man” is a valid expression of faith. I think it is, and I think so for a few reasons.
First, for me the determining factor of the validity of an expression of faith is the fruit that it bears in both the individual (or group) making the expression and the community in which they live. If a faithful reflection and expression of spirituality is life giving it seems to me to be valid. The Book of Common Prayer reflects this with its Prayer After Worship which beseeches God to graft the outward expressions of faith – the scriptures, prayers, liturgies, and all the elements of worship – “…inwardly in our hearts that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living…” One way in which an outward expression of faith can be life giving is by drawing a person deeper into her spiritual life. I see this as a distinct possibility for Sir Elton and others in the LGBT community. If someone images the central symbol of a faith community in a different way and that imaging draws the person closer to the faith community, this can only be a good thing. The beauty of the necessity of symbolism in our expressions of faith is that we can express them together while experiencing them differently. In this case, Jesus is not either gay or straight; rather Jesus is both gay and straight.
Second, self-identification with our symbols for the divine is normal, healthy and, I think, deeply Christian. One of Sir Elton’s critics suggested that he is simply making God in his own image. While this certainly has an element of truth to it, it is in part a result of the early Christian community’s selection of a man – a particular created thing – as their symbol of the divine. Couple that with the early Fathers’ concern with theosis, and one might think that this sense of making God in our own human image is precisely the Christian thing to do. Indeed, I believe this is one of the geniuses of Christianity; it connects us with the divine in a very immanent way, helping us to see the divine in humanity, in each other. With this in mind, Sir Elton’s imaging of Jesus as a gay man strikes me as not only life giving and productive of the fruit of good living, but also a deeply Christian way of approaching the divine reality.
Third, there is very little about Sir Elton’s statement that is unique. Imaging Jesus as a person relevant to our own time and situation is common place. In art, the renditions of Jesus range so far and wide, that imaging Jesus as gay is hardly out of the mold. People have imaged Jesus as a figure like Oscar Romero and other martyr figures throughout history. Indeed, it seems that whenever people suffer we say we see Jesus in them and them in Jesus. Love, forgiveness, and compassion through suffering and persecution seem to be the most widely perceived traits of Jesus. It is hard to see how that is not a near perfect parallel to the Christian LGBT community. Because Sir Elton’s reflection on Jesus fits so neatly into the Christian way of imaging Jesus as many different things in many different circumstances, it is hard to take his critics seriously from a spiritual, religious perspective. Rather than Christianity, I see in much of their criticism the worldly, societal issues of homophobia and heterosexism being expressed. We see this clearly in the response posted by the somewhat oddly named Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights which suggests that Sir Elton called Jesus a “sexual deviant” – something that is fully dependent on societal norms to determine – and further suggests that “someone needs to straighten John out.”
Fourth, Sir Elton’s statement recognizes the necessary universality of the figure of Jesus if he is to in anyway be an effective symbol of the divine reality. Rather than condemning him, Christians should consider echoing Sir Elton, but with their own spiritual reflection on the symbol of Jesus. People should be shouting that Jesus is a gay man, and an abused wife, and an urban youth, and a Haitian, and an overworked CEO, and…, and…, and… If Jesus is not these things – or if there is anything he cannot be – he cannot point beyond himself and thus is not an effective symbol of the divine reality.
For at least these reasons I find Sir Elton’s image of Jesus as a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man” to be completely appropriate and a very positive thing for religious people everywhere. We all need to remember that our symbols are symbols; they point beyond themselves to the divine reality, they are not the divine reality themselves. Everyone should step back periodically and examine the role their symbols play in their lives. Have we ceased treating them as symbols and made them into idols? Are they producing the fruit of good living? Are they life giving to us and those around us? If we let it, Sir Elton John’s personal reflection on the person of Jesus can shake us into thinking and serve as an impetus to reflection leading to our own deeper growth into the divine reality. This is the very purpose of the Hebrew prophets; they called the people back toward the divine reality with startling and jarring images. It is amazing to see the ways in which this tradition continues today.