More Hospitable Air

This is the keynote address given by Tommy Givens during the 2014 Level Ground Film Festival Opening Night Gala Performance of Gray on Thursday, February 20, 2014.


I want to thank the organizers of the Level Ground Film Festival for the honor of this invitation to speak to you tonight and for their courageous efforts to bring some fresh air to what has been a suffocating conversation about sexuality and gender. It's been a conversation characterized by false starts, one that scarcely begins, it seems, when some pronouncement attempts to dictate its terms or outcome, and stifles it. I trust that the hopes of all of us for this film festival are high, and at the outset of it tonight, I'd like to put a few words to those hopes that I trust will help the festival to achieve its purpose. Its purpose, as I understand it, is to breathe fresh air into the conversation about sexuality and gender through faith and art, in this case particularly through film, that the conversation might not be stifled, that words and the bodies that speak them would not be suffocated, that people would find the air to speak in their own voices and to hear others with patience, and that we might learn to share life more generously with each other and to love and cherish one another as the conversation continues. This is part of a larger Christian hope that the treacherous valleys and impassable mountains that divide us from God and one another would be made level ground, as the prophet Isaiah foretold, so that we can know God's presence among us as peace and joy.

Now as soon as I say, "God," I expect that some of you flinch, and you should. It is precisely people calling upon God in conversations about sexuality and gender that usually takes up all the air in the room. In fact, the way that God has been called upon, through the many institutions that sustain us as social beings, has produced an air which is toxic for gay people, for transgender people, for intersex people, and others. Some of you have felt that toxicity directly in your own bodies and minds, and many of us are oblivious to it because we are at home in the norm that produces that toxicity for others, and we cannot feel the harm that it does to ourselves, much less to others. What is the voice of God in that toxic air but some kind of final word that imposes closure on a norm and forces others to conform or suffer the pain of nonconformity? Well this is why Level Ground is such an audacious project. It dares to hope that God does not impose that kind of closure, that instead God closes off fear, and deafness, and blindness to one another, and opens us to hear and see and love one another.

Some of you, perhaps evangelical Christians like me, will hear that kind of talk as a bunch of wishy washy B.S. that doesn't take the Bible seriously and so cannot serve God's purpose in the world with any endurance. The problem with people like us is that we have tended to think that five or six Bible verses supposedly about same-sex relationships deal decisively with the matter, or that the Bible delivers us some kind of easy and stable norm about what it means to be male and what it means to be female and leaves no room for any humanity in between or not accounted for by those categories as we imagine and enforce them. But in fact five or six Bible verses are not adequate to deal decisively with the complex matter of gay relationships, especially if we take those verses seriously in all of their contextual and canonical color. They are indeed relevant, but they are not enough by themselves, especially when ripped from the Bible's fabric as is so often done. And we must live drab and colorless lives of denial in our many gendered relationships to imagine that the Bible gives us any easy answers on the subject of gender. Part of the reason the words of the Bible have lived so long and produced many lives of such beautiful color is that its words do not settle for such easy answers. The words of the Bible, as such beautiful lives attest, do not convey pat answers to our often stupid questions. They are instead the words by which Christians and Jews must struggle to ask wisely about life and to learn with patience, to become people who love God and love one another.

Perhaps the biggest problem with people like us who are so quick to judge with words of the Bible is that we ignore the role that our history and imagination play in what we can hear the words of the Bible to say. We too easily forget that when the God of those words came to us in the flesh, God did so as a crucified criminal, and only as that kind of person did he rise from the dead. It seems that as God draws the nearest to us God does not simply confirm who we are, the way we already talk and think and live. God draws nearest to us as surprise and as scandal.

This is why art is so important. Art does not settle for the current order of words and bodies, at least good art does not. Good art draws our gaze, our ears, our minds, our whole bodies into a place and moment of relations that are irresistibly unfamiliar. It opens us to hear what we have not altogether heard, to see what we have not altogether seen, to love what we have not learned to love completely. This is something of what the humiliated, loving Jesus does to our imagination of the Creator of the universe. That humiliation reveals God by tearing off God’s clothes and disturbing us with his broken nudity. It breaks us, and opens us, as the heavens themselves are broken open. The Bible calls this apocalypse. Art has a role to play in the apocalypse of God and the revelation of life.

Now I don't want to be heard as instrumentalizing art. The best thing that good art does is inspire more good art. Even bad art can help with that. Art is not primarily a means but a kind of end in itself. Yet, art is part of the rest of our life, and good art enriches that life, grows it, often in ways that cannot be easily measured or reduced to words.

The hope of Level Ground, I think, is that art enrich and grow the life of faith in relation to sexuality and gender. That means that it will so affect us and the language by which we live that the words of the Bible will acquire color and nuance that they have not yet had for us. It will so affect us that the words and sensations and patterns and habits of mind and body by which we relate to others, especially people we perceive as sexually different from us, will be changed, upset even. Changed and upset so that others might come more fully into our hearing and understanding as we grow. Changed and upset so that we might become more visible to others and see others more fully ourselves. The art of film can help us with this. I hope it will do that for you in the days ahead, as you are drawn into stories and lives and images and sounds that are irresistibly unfamiliar, films that help you to see that you and others are not exactly as you say or think or feel, but otherwise, but more. Good art is powerful.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s right hand man, penetrating intellect, and gifted architect tells us that he was first shaken out of his seemingly stable and coherent frame of reference as a Nazi into imagining that something was wrong with the vision of the Third Reich that he was enacting when he gazed at the artful construction of the Escorial palace not far from Madrid, Spain in 1941. By the light of the monastic clarity and melancholic conciseness of El Escorial, as he describes it, he began to perceive Hitler’s architectural ideas as “pomp and disproportionate ostentation,” Hitler’s program music as “boastful.” He writes, “In the hours of solitary contemplation,” after he had seen the Escorial, “it began to dawn on me for the first time that my recent architectural ideals were on the wrong track.” I hope the art of film can stimulate dawnings like that in us in the days ahead.

Perhaps some of you would just assume leave the Bible and faith out of this, out of the conversation about sexuality and gender. I can certainly understand why that might be the case, and maybe that is best for some for now. In response to the suffocating presence of certain talk about God and the Bible and “the created order” and people speaking for God, many of us want to just say, "Live and let live." But you can't live that way long because you soon realize that our living bumps into each other and hurts one another, and so to live well we have to work at living together, at sharing life. In the current climate, it is tempting to cave to slogans like “Live and let live,” “Let everyone pursue the sex they desire as long as they do no harm.” But we are so unreliable and oblivious in our perceptions of the harm we do. We must be done with this naïve romance of an innocent sexuality, whether we’re gay or straight or bisexual or whatever. All of us need to learn sexual discipline. Hell, I’ve been in a monogamous heterosexual relationship of marriage for 18 years now with four children and my sexuality is open to serious question, quite obviously corrupt in various ways—just ask my wife. It’s certainly not innocent, nor is it any sort of ideal just because it’s heterosexual and monogamous, even though I think monogamy is a very good idea.

So because we cannot just live and let live if we are to take some responsibility for the power of sex, the conversation about sexuality and gender cannot give up on the question, What is good sex? What is healthy sex? What sort of sex is part of people living well together, sharing life together, not just between people who are sexually intimate but the whole fabric of community of which their relationship is a part? This is in fact the concern of faith, and of the Bible by which faith lives. The question of faith is, how do we love the God who has made our world and meets us in it, and how do we love one another? And between one another is especially where God meets us.

For those of you who are understandably tired of any claim of faith on sexuality and gender, I hope you'll seek the patience to ask why faith matters, why we have to ask together what sort of sex is beautiful and good and what sort of sex tears us apart from each other and makes us destroy each other. And I hope our lineup of superb films will help you find that patience and to join in the conversation that lives with those questions and insists that they be addressed openly and together, that they be addressed by people empowered to speak for themselves instead of always being spoken by others.

As we do that, let us despise generalizations about life and one another. They keep us from hearing and seeing one another. Dare to imagine that the categories according to which you imagine others, whether it be "gay" or "evangelical" or "Bible thumper" or "trans- sexual" or even LGBT, simply do not account for all of any person and may mislead you about them in a thousand ways. We cannot begin from scratch in imagining others or ourselves, of course, but we can be opened to the ways that others and ourselves are more than we have imagined and maybe even not at all what we have imagined. And doing more than we could ask or imagine is precisely what God is up to, the Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians.

If you're going to despise people, and there are indeed despicable people in the world, then despise them for something that is actually particular and personal to them, and have the courage to engage them particularly and personally about it rather than from the safe distance of a general category. To quote a favorite writer of mine,

“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred....Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness — as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”

So as you watch these eye-opening films in the days ahead, learn to refuse the categorical refusal to kindness. Learn to allow your imagination to feed on something more personal, more intimate, more naked. I don't need to remind you, I hope, that the stakes are high. The numbers of gay young people taking their lives for the toxic air they have had to breathe continues to climb, and this is just the tip of the iceberg for what that toxicity means for so many people in their relationships with family and friends, their work, their lovers, their churches, their homes and places, their governments, their bodies which are their selves. Can we breathe some more hospitable air, for God's sake? For our neighbors’ sake? For Christ's sake? The air of hospitality, the air that seeks to judge what is good and beautiful only as it seeks to love those who frighten us, that air of God Christians have learned to call Spirit of God, and so let us breathe that air and let us fill the world with it. Dear God, may the films and other parts of this inspiring festival help to fill us with your Spirit that Jesus breathed on us, and help us, we pray, to breathe the Spirit of your life to those around us, that we might live together and so truly live. Amen.