Okay, I thought I could write a coherent series of posts relating the concerns of contemporary gay Christians to Peter Brown’s terrific study of “sexual renunciation in early Christianity,” but coherence proves elusive as always, so you’ll just get my notes.
Christian sexual renunciates–vowed virgins, the first monastics, even married people who gave up sex with their spouse–intruded into the pagan world like strange, stripped dancing skeletons, part memento mori and part jester. Let me begin by painting a picture for you of that pagan world. Wait no, I totally don’t have to, Pixar already did!
I saw Coco with the gay & lesbian ministry at my church. Many things about Coco are good and if you loved it I assume you loved those good things: the effervescent art design, the kooky spookiness, the shameless appeal to real emotion, the willingness to draw from lots of aspects of Mexican culture. The alebrijes, basically, plus the last ten minutes where the whole theater is crying. Those things are all great. But holy particolored cats, the afterlife in Coco is horrifying.
In Coco when you die you go to a place much like this life only moreso, and you can stay there as long as living people remember you fondly. If you’re remembered well by the living you get tons of food and fun–and groupies, okay, why–and if you’re remembered bitterly or not at all you are poor and tattered and you’ll eventually fade into total nothingness. Everything about the Coco afterlife is disturbing: It has customs enforcement and airport-style body scanning, it has security guards and La Migra. It has not sainthood but celebrity, and not servanthood but slums. And unless your children teach their children to teach their children to cherish your memory, you will disappear forever just like something out of Dostoyevsky, “These God forgets.” Instead of the Christian overturning of worldly hierarchies, those hierarchies are replicated. Instead of the Christian insistence that every human life is precious in God’s sight, no matter how helpless, obscure, despised, or deplorable, here your worth is defined by your posthumous reputation. A line of family tombs along a Roman road; a world where family is everything, the sole source of meaning and the bulwark against eternal death.
To join the hermits in the forest-clad mountains of the Black Sea, or to vanish among the caves in the tufa-rock gulleys that lay at a temptingly short distance from Cappadocia, was worse than shocking; it caused the cold shadow of death to fall across the future of whole families. For young males, the potential fathers of noble families, to meditate sexual renunciation was to meditate social extinction. …
In the late 350s and early 360s, Basil [the Great] and his brothers seemed to have gone out of their way to confirm the worst fears of their compatriots. Naucratius, the second brother, left Caesarea (modern Kayseri) immediately after a brilliant first speech, in 352. By 357, he was dead, drowned in the river Iris, as it swept in a murderous whirlpool beneath the family’s hunting-lodge at Annesi. He had been mending the nets with which he caught the fish he needed to feed a group of sick old men. Along with one servant, he had lived the life of a hermit, working with his own hands for the food with which he had fed himself and others.
In a weird way the Coco afterlife touches on a lot of the themes I hope to explore in this series: the tight connection between celibacy and poverty (and celibacy as a response to and rejection of economic inequality); celibacy as disruptor or supporter of married household life; celibacy and trust in God, in the teeth of the evidence. My goal is to finish the series by Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday, because the coincidence is so painfully perfect that it’s practically camp.