A couple of weeks back I got in this email from reader Anna Thorton:
Hi, John. I am a graduate student at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, home of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (http://www.clgs.org/).
This semester in my CLGS class I am working on a project about queer religious spaces online. Would you be willing to answer some questions about your experience of creating and maintaining a queer-friendly religious space online? I’d be enormously grateful if you could find the time to contribute to my project in this way.
M.A. student in theology, Pacific School of Religion
In my reply to Anna I suggested answering her questions here on my blog, “insofar as I thought perhaps the answers/comments people leave might be helpfully incorporated into your project.”
“Great idea!” she enthused.
Whoo-hoo! Except then, lamely enough, life happened, and I basically forgot about her paper—until, that is, just now, when she wrote to gently remind me that her paper was due in six days.
Six days! So here we go:
John, you’ve embraced the internet and its new modes of content creation and distribution: not only your blog and the commenting community that coalesces there, but Facebook groups, books and e-books that include reader input, your Xtranormal videos, and now your latest project of writing a book online, to which you refer as “a collaborative effort between me and my readers.” As a leader of a religious community online, how do you envision your role and responsibilities?
Wow. That does sound like a lot of stuff, when you pile it all together like that.
I so rock.
No, but I honestly have no place in my head for the idea that I’m the leader of an online religious community—though I can’t say I’m insensitive to the total coolositiness of the how that sounds.
Wait. Can I get tax-exempt status for being the leader of an online religious community? Because if I can, then order me a big red ring, a substantial floor-length cape, and let the groveling and the hand-kissing begin.
I’m so sorry you’re going to flunk your class because of me. Let me try to do better:
I am not the leader of an online religious community. I’m a writer. I do a lot of my work on my blog. That’s it. The only thing I’m aware of, role and responsibilities-wise, is to be as honest as possible to the voice and aesthetic sensibilities within me which I have learned to give form via writing. I have an internal creative imperative that I take really quite extremely seriously. And it’s true that I do feel pretty intensely obliged to service that imperative. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with anyone else; that’s mainly a matter between I and I. Mon.
Do you see yourself as actively seeking new ways of creating and experiencing religious community online, and perhaps blazing a trail for others to follow? Or are you simply trying to meet a need as you see it arising?
No. I mean … no, I don’t ever endeavor to find new ways to create or experience an online religious community. That whole concept is just completely foreign to me. All I do is wake up in the morning, get a cup of coffee, fire up my computer, and then just basically sit there until … well, until I know what I need or want to write. I think about God a lot. And I always have. I’m pretty much never thinking about anything else. So … that’s a big field to walk around in. Lots of flowers to pick, lots of dirt to run through your hands. It never takes long before I know what I have to, or want to, write.
How do you envision your role and responsibilities as a champion of LGBT Christians who is himself not identified as LGBT?
Again, I’m never thinking about that sort of “role” at all. When it comes to the relationship between LGBTQ people and Christianity, what I’m always thinking is that I’ll be dinked if I’m going to let the God I know, the God I believe in, the God in which I trust be used as an instrument of torture against my friends—against people I actually love, people who throughout my whole life have nurtured, protected, and inspired me. I can’t help it if people who live in fear of their own sexuality, or people who are so lazy they won’t read for themselves, or people who are so cognitively challenged they simply prefer having someone think their most important thoughts for them, have come to “believe” that God finds homosexual love a moral abomination. But that conviction is so mind-bogglingly stupid, and so murderously toxic, that the only way for me not to write about it would be … well, for it not to be happening. But it is. So I do. But I don’t feel like I’m being anyone’s champion. I feel like I’m just saying stuff that any sane person would.
How has your theology been shaped and altered by your experiences online?
Not at all, I’m afraid. Pretty much the entirety of my Christian theology was born within me at the moment of my conversion. It hasn’t changed since then. And it won’t. Unless, you know, Allah suddenly appears in the sky, and bellows, “You! Idiot Christians! Line up on the left! And please do not start praying to your ridiculous idea of a God! I simply cannot tolerate one more moment of that simpering sound!” But even then I’d just be like, “No way! So it is Allah! Man, does God knows how to do [bleep], or what?!” And I won’t be sweating. If God is smart enough to be God, he/she/it is smart enough to know how much respect I’ve always had for other religions.
How has your theology regarding queerness specifically been shaped and altered by your experiences online?
Not a whit. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with homosexual love before I became a Christian, and I sure didn’t think so afterward. How weird would that be, to have God suddenly show up full-force in your mind, heart, and soul—and the result is that you start loving less, and condemning and hating more. I think that would be a sure sign that wasn’t, in fact, God that moved into your heart—but rather … I dunno: Syphilis. Typhoid. Some sort of bovine hormone from your milk.
What is the best aspect of your experience of creating and maintaining a religious space online? Can you give a specific example of an instance when someone has benefited from an online space you maintain?
I mean, it happens all day long. Obviously, by far the best part of what I do on this blog is to in some measure participate in the healing of others. I mean, it’s not like I don’t know that happens, since I get emails and messages every day from all kinds of people telling me that, for them, it has: that something they read somewhere on my blog—in a post, or amongst the comments—resonated with them in a way that brought them succor, understanding, perspective, peace, hope. I’ve given my life to writing, and even I can’t believe what the written word can still do. It’s still the most powerful means of communicating we have, outside of screaming at someone while you’re beating them with a shovel. It’s astonishing. You’d think by now movies would have moved into the #1 spot. Video games. iPhones. Something. But no. It’s still about words on the
(Here’s an email I just this moment got in: “John I just want to thank you for your words. After years of not going to church not doing all I could do to bridge the gap between the God of Love and the God of hate, I am going to go back to church. I have found one that is open to the LGBT community and I actually walk inside and it did not fall down. I had not been inside a church in over 20 years. But if I am not an out and proud Christian that people can point to and say I like him the hate isn’t going to go away. Just thanks for the words that inspire and let me know I am not alone in the world. Because even though you know you are not the only gay Christian if you do not see positive writings and all you hear is the hate mongers you tend to disappear.” So, yeah, I mean … obviously this sort of thing is really touching.)
What is the worst aspect of your experience of creating and maintaining a religious space online? Can you give a specific example of an instance when someone has used your online space(s) in a destructive or harmful manner?
I mean, everyone with a blog read by more than six people has to deal with trolls and drunks and half-wits in a public library somewhere who’ve confused a blog comment box with a means of typing directly onto the brain of Nostradamus. And of course I attract what I think it’s safe to say are my fair share of Christian fundie trolls. They are the worst, by far. Nobody is more toxic than a fundie who thinks he’s there to defend an offended God. Those people make cockroaches look like assistance dogs.
What are some of your hopes for the future role of the internet in religion?
It is my sincere hope that the Internet never spontaneously springs into consciousness and then forces all the denizens of earth to worship it. But if that does happen, how many of us, who after all have always been perfectly aware of the Apple logo, will really be able to say they’re all that surprised?