Sex advice columnist and MTV-show host Dan Savage has come up against heavy criticism of late for his remarks about homosexuality and other eight-letter-words in Scripture. Thrilling as it would be to jump right into that tête-a-tête, the conversation has been had, with no words minced and little love lost. Rather than reiterate what has already been said and discussed, we offer for your consideration an episode of ‘This American Life’. Originally aired in 2009, it features Savage discussing growing up in the Roman Catholic church, mourning the loss of his mother, and his (then) ongoing struggle between his hope to meet her again in heaven and the finality of her death.
Savage is open in his disdain for the religion of his youth, and while he does pull a few punches, the knock-outs are still there – he can’t reconcile the images of the benevolent father with the righteous judge, nor the church’s dogmatic cling to tradition with the rational pull of contemporary values and social mores. The tension is embodied in his description of his mother, who despite her piety and devotion to the church, not only refused to cast him out upon learning of his sexual orientation, but supported him in public and among their family. Close to the time she was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease, Savage began sporadically attending church – not mass, but simply visiting the church at different times during the week. In a voice frequently halted by strong emotion, he speaks of ‘fantasizing’ about going to confession and the prayers offered up by his mother’s priest during her last rites; prayers that ‘filled the terrible silence and solemnized an awful moment’. He recalls his mother’s final words – “I’ll always be with you – remember me in your thoughts” – and breaks down in tears as he recounts making his way into St. James’ Church in downtown Seattle after her death.
“The inability to reconcile death has not been good for me – I visit St. James like an addict drops by a crack-house for a fix. To deaden myself to the pain – to lose myself in the momentary fantasy that she lives.”
While I don’t condone Savage’s coarse articulation of his opinions on certain cultural and cultic practices in Scripture, and lament the poor understanding of redemptive history that informs those opinions, the broadcast was a helpful reminder that there is reason behind his rhetoric, and pain beneath his anger. “Being brought up in a faith built around a guy jumping out of his tomb? That makes it difficult to reconcile oneself to the permanence of death,” he said.
It was this hideous inversion of the gospel that left me all but undone. To hear the locus of the gospel – the message of Christ’s victory over sin and death; that blessed historical fact that brings comfort to the afflicted and hope to the bereaved – so tragically perverted was devastating. What ought to have been his chief solace and consolation was spoken of as an almost-insuperable impediment; the hopeful acceptance of being parted from her for a time was lost in tearful frustration at his inability to accept her irremediable non-existence. Truly did Paul write of Christ crucified as a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).
There may be tender wounds that are long in healing underneath the aggressive bravado and vulgar language of hostile antagonists, and the root of bitterness is often found in natural grief. Beneath the sin and rebellion is a human being created in the image of God, and our Lord’s name is greatly magnified when we who have been forgiven much show patience and humility, being mindful that while we were yet sinners, Christ showed his love for us.