Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blasphemy charge aids queer Jesus project

Equal Means Equal Jesus by Bill Burch, 2009.
Photo, 8” x 10.” www.harepepol.com 

Below left: BFF Jesus by Bill Burch, 2009. Photo, 8” x 10.”

Accusations of blasphemy from an art school professor gave a big boost recently to an alternative Jesus photo project by Bill Burch, an art student at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado.

A conservative Christian professor harassed some of Burch’s models and threatened to “shut down” his project, which includes GLBT and female Jesus photos. The effort to stop the project had the opposite effect, inspiring many more students to volunteer as models!

“It seems the more biblical he gets, the more the student body reacts, like an equal and opposite reaction,” Burch reports. “Participation by his students has really increased, too.”

Now Burch is well on his way to completing his ambitious project of 64 alternative Jesus images. The flood of new models included the gay men pictured above in “Equal Means Equal Jesus” (above). Other queer images among the new photos are a female couple in “BFF Jesus” (left) and a man dressed as a woman in “Lady Liberty Jesus” (below).

The Alternative Jesus project is a concrete embodiment of Jesus’ own teaching that everybody is one with Christ. “If one believes in Jesus and accepts Jesus into their heart they become Christian, or Christ-like. They become Jesus, and Jesus them,” Burch explains.

The stated purpose of the project is to challenge traditional representations of the crucifixion by replacing the traditional Christ figure with other versions of the sacrificial lamb, archetypes usually repressed by conservative American Christianity. “If Jesus was a black lesbian would She be welcomed in Montgomery Alabama, or hung from a tree like strange fruit? It is this paradigm I question,” Burch says.

He plans to arrange the 64 unconventional Jesus images into a montage that looks like a traditional Jesus portrait from a distance. As the viewer approaches, the familiar face will disappear, revealing a multitude of different Christ figures. Each hangs on the cross, but they embody a variety of ages, races, body sizes, gender identities and sexual orientations.

Burch successfully defended his “Alternative Jesus” photos to a college committee including the conservative professor at a graduate review in December. ”Because of the depth of writing in my artist statement, my conservative professor’s arguments were totally defused,” Burch says. “The only question he asked was about the symbolism of two models on the cross. Previously, he had told me to ask my models what they would be willing to die for. I told him the two models said they would die for love, as simple as that. Amazing!”

The 2008 U.S. election inspired Burch to start the alternative Jesus project. He welcomed the “evolutionary leap” of America’s first black president, and decided use his art to counteract the “giant step backwards” of California’s Proposition 8. Conservative Christian groups were instrumental in passing Prop 8 to ban same-sex marriage.

“Many Christians are prejudiced against anything different, what they consider deviant. Jesus said, ‘What you do to the least of these you do to me,’” Burch says.

His own spiritual journey includes a Christian conversion followed by a religious phase, when he was so zealous that he was known as “Fireball Bill.” Eventually he became disillusioned by the hypocrisy of many Christians, and left the church.

Burch sees his Alternative Jesus project as “a post-modern iconoclastic reformation. It is a breaking and re-making of traditional religious iconographic representations.”

Sounds like what Jesus himself did!

For more Bill Burch photos, see my previous post “Transvestite Jesus appears in photo project.”

Lady Liberty Jesus, by Bill Burch, 2009.
Photo, 8” x 10.” www.harepepol.com

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Church removes barriers -- amen!

Rev. Kittredge Cherry and Rev. Neil Thomas in MCC-LA’s construction zone, January 2010

New construction is making my local church bigger and much more accessible.

I started the new year with a visit to Rev. Neil Thomas, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles.

He led my partner Audrey and me on a tour of MCC-LA’s construction zone. We stepped carefully around power cords as buzzsaws whirred and hammers pounded around us.

The remodeled sanctuary will be about twice as big. I was especially pleased to see that many ramps and elevators are being built. There will even be a special elevator to lift people a few steps to the altar!

I had to use a wheelchair in the past, so I know that steps and other physical obstacles can exclude and demoralize people, no matter how many times the church declares that everyone is welcome.

MCC-LA’s website says, “We invite all to join us without concern for sexual orientation, gender identification, or any of the barriers so often found in other churches.” They’re clearing away even more barriers with their new wheelchair-accessible construction. Hallelujah!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

2009’s top 7 GLBT spiritual arts stories named

Noah’s Gay Wedding Cruise” by Paul Richmond, 2009
Oil on canvas, 24” x 30”

Noah’s Gay Wedding Cruise, a humorous painting that supports marriage equality, is the top LGBT spiritual arts story for 2009, JesusInLove.org announced today.

The painting above got the most visits and enthusiastic comments at the Jesus in Love Blog on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender spirituality and the arts.

The top seven GLBT spiritual arts stories of the year were named today by lesbian Christian author Kittredge Cherry. She founded JesusInLove.org to promote artistic and religious freedom with a blog, e-newsletter and related websites.

“2009 was an exciting year for queer spirituality and the arts,” Cherry says. “LGBT people and our allies found inspiration, laughter, eroticism and God through a wide range of new artistic creations. In a sense, we were all sailing on Noah’s gay wedding cruise toward a future of love and equality.”

Here’s a round-up of the year’s best with links to the original posts at the Jesus in Love Blog:

1. “Noah’s Gay Wedding Cruise pictured” was the most popular story of 2009. Happy gay and lesbian animal couples mingle with today’s GLBT celebrities in the painting by Ohio artist Paul Richmond. His gay version of Noah’s ark even has drowning sinners -- opponents of gay rights such as Ann Coulter, Fred Phelps, and Larry Craig with his toilet!

2. “An Erotic Encounter with the Divine” was the most influential and top gay story of the year. “Soon after I began silently inviting the Divine Presence to be with us during lovemaking, I noticed that both Scott and I became more aware of each others bodies,” gay Iowan Eric Hays-Strom wrote in a powerful post. It was reprinted in the Dignity USA newsletter and other blogs, as well as generating lots of other positive feedback. It continues to get huge traffic at the Jesus in Love Blog.

3. “300 protest transsexual Jesus play” was the year’s biggest controversy and the top transgender story of the year. More than 300 conservative Christian protesters picketed the Scottish opening of “Jesus, Queen of Heaven,” a play by Jo Clifford about a transwoman Jesus. Clifford’s goal was to create greater understanding of transgendered people like herself

4. Ruth and Naomi were the favorite GLBT saints and the year’s top lesbian story. Ruth expressed love for Naomi in the Bible with famous vows that are often used in weddings: “Whither thou goest, I will go…” Visitors enjoyed the post about Ruth and Naomi so much that it ran twice in 2009, launching a major series on GLBT saints. “Whither Thou Goest” by Atlanta artist Trudie Barreras illustrated both posts.

5. “Gay artist says Jesus never married” got the most comments of the year at the Jesus in Love Blog. A new poster by California artist Dirk Vanden states, “FYI: Jesus never married, nor commanded nor advocated nor performed ‘marriage,’” The poster sparked a passionate blog debate about Jesus’ position on marriage.

6. “Transvestite Jesus appears in photo project” was the most thought-provoking story of the year. A transvestite Jesus and a female Jesus appear in a new series of alternative Christ photos by Colorado artist Bill Burch. The project inspired a South African blogger to write a major essay and stirred controversy at the artist’s school .

7. “Gay Mohammad art censored” got the most hate mail -- for two years in a row! Gay Mohammad images by Iranian-born artist Sooreh Hera were censored from a Dutch art exhibit. The artist defended her work as an expose of Islamic hypocrisy on homosexuality. It was posted back in February 2008, but STILL gets more hateful, obscene comments than anything else by far. Most of the comments are left at the Gay Spirituality Blog, where it is cross-posted. There were 44 comments (22 made in 2009) as of Jan. 7, 2010.

Founded in 2005, JesusInLove.org presents a positive vision of GLBT spirituality and tracks censorship of queer religious art. “We specialize in new gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender art that is too queer for religious institutions and too religious for GLBT organizations,” Cherry says. She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer.

JesusInLove.org has reached thousands of people all over the world, won many honors -- and gotten a lot of hate mail from religious conservatives

“The ongoing religious bigotry proves that Jesus in Love is needed now as much as ever,” Cherry says. “Christian rhetoric is being misused to justify hate and discrimination against GLBT people, but Jesus taught love for all.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

St. Aelred: Gay saint of friendship

St. Aelred of Rievaulx
By Brother Robert Lentz, OFM. © 1992
Courtesy of www.trinitystores.com (800.699.4482)
Collection of the Living Circle, Chicago, IL

Saint Aelred (1109-1167) is considered one of the most lovable saints, the patron saint of friendship and also, some say, gay. His feast day is Jan. 12.

Aelred was the abbott of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in England. His treatise “On Spiritual Friendship” is still one of the best theological statements on the connection between human and spiritual love. “God is friendship… He who abides in friendship abides in God, and God in him,” he wrote, paraphrasing 1 John 4:16.

Aelred’s own deep friendships with men are described in “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality” by Yale history professor John Boswell. “There can be little question that Aelred was gay and that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life,” Boswell wrote.

Boswell’s account inspired the members of the LGBT Episcopal group Integrity to name Aelred as their patron saint. Visit IntegrityUSA.org for the full story on how they won recognition for their gay saint.

Aelred certainly advocated chastity, but his passions are clear in his writing. He describes friendship with eloquence in this often-quoted passage:

“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone you can unite with you in an intimate affection and the embrace of a holy love, someone in whom your spirit can rest, to whom you can pour out your soul, to whose pleasant exchanges, as to soothing songs, you can fly in sorrow... with whose spiritual kisses, as with remedial salves, you may draw out all the weariness of your restless anxieties. A man who can shed tears with you in your worries, be happy with you when things go well, search out with you the answers to your problems, whom with the ties of charity you can lead into the depths of your heart; . . . where the sweetness of the Spirit flows between you, where you so join yourself and cleave to him that soul mingles with soul and two become one.”

The icon of Saint Aelred was painted by Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his innovative icons. It includes a banner with Aelred’s words, “Friend cleaving to friend in the spirit of Christ.”
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Nursing Madonna honors body, spirit and women

Nursing Madonna: Our Lady of Travels to Life with Reality
Photo by Trudie Barreras

An unusual nursing Madonna statue emphasizes the body-to-body connection between Mary and the baby Jesus.

Some people were shocked by the bare breasts of the Madonna when Atlanta writer Trudie Barreras put the statue in a meditation chapel at her church. The pastor regretfully asked her to take it home. For the full story about the statue, see our previous post “Nursing Madonna shocks and inspires.”

It’s important to honor the breastfeeding Madonna because Christianity has often denied women’s experiences and the human body itself. We return to wholeness and balance by valuing the natural act of nursing as holy and good.

The nursing Madonna figurine illustrates the flight into Egypt. According to the gospel of Matthew, the Holy Family traveled from Bethlehem to Egypt after an angel warned them that King Herod would try to kill the infant Jesus.

In her monologue “Miriam’s Journey,” Barreras does a wonderful job of describing the physical sensations and spiritual musings of Mary as she nursed on donkey back. Here is an excerpt:

We soon became aware
Our little Yeshua needed safety greater than was offered
By our small-town obscurity.

So my brave Joseph took us forth on a retracing of the journey
Followed by our ancestor Joseph as he was led in slavery to Egypt.

That was when reality came crashing in!
I’d thought the way was hard
When first we went to Bethlehem!
Yet now I held the babe within my arms
For every dusty, weary, jolting league.
Mile after mile, day after day,
Nothing to be seen but rocks and thorn-trees
And endless burning desert sands.
The patient donkey plodded on
While Joseph walked the path ahead,
Probing crevices for serpents, scanning horizons for raiders.

I was afraid, yet somehow I saw with doubled vision
As I gazed into that infant face,
For God was here, and we had Abba’s promise
That if we did our part, and followed faithfully,
And did not turn aside from this hard path,
The angels would be there to guide us.
And oh, the blessing of those warm lips upon my breast,
Drawing nourishment and love from my deepest being!
I knew then what I have clung to ever since –
Somehow that vast Omniscient Spirit of the Cosmos,
All Powerful, Eternal, All Supreme,
Has chosen us, weak mortals that we are
To bear Love’s fragile gifts to one another!
We matter! What a miracle, we matter!
What an awesome challenge,
Knowing that if we don’t bear our burdens in obedience
Incredible blessings for humanity are lost.
It was these thoughts that kept me going
Long after weary arms would have let go!

At last that first hard journey ended, but of course
Really our pilgrimage had just begun.

For another excerpt from “Miriam’s Journey,” see our previous post “Eros & Christ: Mary’s Ecstasy in Drama.”

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Epiphany: 3 kings or 3 queens?

“Epiphany” by Janet McKenzie, copyright 2003.
Collection of Barbara Marian, Harvard, IL

Reimagining the three kings as queer or female gives fresh meaning to Epiphany, a holiday celebrating the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. It is observed on Jan. 6.

The word “epiphany” also refers to a sudden, intuitive perception. By looking at the Bible and church history from a LGBT viewpoint, people can experience new insights -- their own personal “epiphanies” of understanding. New interpretations of the wise ones known as the Magi include:
  • Queer Magi. LGBT church leaders suggest that the Magi were eunuchs -- people who today would be called gay, queer or transgender.
  • Female Magi appear in a controversial painting by Janet McKenzie. Epiphany is also known as Women’s Christmas.
  • Queer gifts are presented to the Christ child in an icon by William Hart McNichols.

For a new version of this article, click this link to Qspirit.net:
Queer Epiphany: Three kings or three queens?

Queer Magi
Although they are often called the “three kings,” the Magi stand in contrast to worldly King Herod who sought world domination by massacring the “holy innocents” who might grow up to take his throne. The wise Magi who followed the star to find the newborn Jesus were wizards who provide a higher wisdom and astrologists with expertise in cosmic balance.

The Magi played the shamanic role often filled by eunuchs, an ancient term for LGBT people, says Nancy Wilson in her book Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures.” She writes:

“They were Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, magicians, ancient shamans from the courts of ancient Persia. They were the equivalent of Merlin of Britain. They were sorcerers, high-ranking officials, but not kings—definitely not kings. But quite possibly, they were queens. We’ve always pictured them with elaborate, exotic, unusual clothing—quite festive, highly decorated and accessorized! …Also, the wise eunuchs, shamans, holy men were the only ones who had the forethought to go shopping before they visited the baby Jesus!

They also have shamanistic dreams. They deceive evil King Herod and actually play the precise role that many other prominent eunuchs play in the Bible: they rescue the prophet, this time the Messiah of God, and foil the evil royal plot against God’s anointed.”

The concept of the queer Magi is amplified by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, author of Omnigender. “My guess is that they were people who today would be termed transwomen,” she writes in the brochure “Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities.”

Eunuchs and cross-dressers were surprisingly common in the Mediterranean world of the Bible and later. By happy coincidence, a cross-dressing saint happens to have a feast day on Jan. 5, the day before Epiphany. Apollinaria of Egypt, put on men’s clothing and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos in order to live as a monk.

Three stylish Magi wear fabulous outfits on a 1972 German Christmas stamp (Wikimedia Commons)

Female Magi
Female Magi have been envisioned by artists in a gender-bending move that sometimes causes controversy. Epiphany itself is celebrated as “Women’s Christmas” (Nollaig na mBan) in Ireland, where men assume the household duties for the day so women can celebrate together at the end of the holiday season.

A multi-racial trio of female Magi visits the baby Jesus and his mother in “Epiphany” by Vermont artist Janet McKenzie. Instead of the traditional three kings or three wise men, the artist re-interprets the Magi as wise women from around the world.

Jan Richardson, an artist and Methodist minister in Florida, also portrays the Magi as women of different races in “Wise Women Also Came,” an image that appears on the cover of her book “Sacred Journeys: A Woman's Book of Daily Prayer.”

The unconventional portrayal of the Magi makes good theological sense. Barbara Marian, who commissioned the McKenzie painting, explains: “The story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew allowed the Jewish followers of Jesus to imagine the unthinkable -- God’s grace extending to the outsiders, the gentiles. Who are the outsiders in our world? Can we imagine the favor of God extending beyond the human boundaries of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, religious devotion, and gender?”

Marian commissioned “Epiphany” for the Nativity Project, which revisits and revitalizes the Gospel with new images of women. “It’s easy to get so caught up in regal images of Matthew’s night visitors that we miss the core message -- Christ for all people,” Marian says.

Conservative Christians protested against the inclusive “Epiphany” in 2007 when it appeared on the Christmas cards of the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth, Texas, sent a notice to clergy and 2007 convention delegates condemning Jefferts Schori for her choice of art. “Happy Multicultural Feminist Celebration Day,” sneered the headline of a traditional Anglican blog where nearly 100 comments were posted condemning the image as “stupid,” “faux-nouveau hipster theology” and worse. For more info, see my previous post Conservatives blast inclusive Christmas card.

McKenzie denies the accusations that she is trying to be divisive and rewrite scripture. “Of course this is as far from my thinking as possible,” she says. “I feel called to create sacred and secular art that includes and celebrates those systematically ignored, relegated and minimized, and for the most part that is women and people of color.”

The artist continues to be amazed that her loving images provoke so much anger. “Even this gentle image of a loving Holy Mother and Child, with no agenda except to include and honor us as the nurturing feminine beings we are, surrounded in community with other women, is still misunderstood -- even at this late date,” she says.

McKenzie has weathered even bigger storms before. Her androgynous African American “Jesus of the People” painting caused international controversy when Sister Wendy of PBS chose it to represent Christ in the new millennium.

Critics focus on the content of McKenzie’s art, but her outstanding artistic style is one reason that her work attracts attention. The Vermont artist uses drawing and line with oils to build images that glow. Her painting technique and pastel colors are reminiscent of American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, who is famous for painting intimate scenes of mothers and their children.

The controversy over McKenzie’s work is a reminder of the power of art, and the continuing need for progressive spiritual images. Opposition seems to fuel her passion to paint. “We all need to find ourselves included within the sacred journey of life, and afterlife,” McKenzie says. “I have been surprised to find archaic and out-dated hate still in place, still alive and well and fueled by fear, in response to some of my art. I have made the decision to respond to such hate not in the way it comes to me, but by creating ever more inclusive art that confronts prejudice and hate. The only path open to any of us is the one of love.”

McKenzie’s art is featured in my book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More” and her book “Holiness and the Feminine Spirit.”

(Special thanks to Barbara Marian for permission to quote from her article “Recasting the Magi.”)

“The Epiphany: Wisemen Bring Gifts to the Child”

Queer gifts

Father William Hart McNichols paints another kind of queer Epiphany. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Roman Catholic priest whose gay-positive icons have caused controversy. He worked at an AIDS hospice in New York City from 1983-90, when many in the gay community were dying of the disease. During that period he painted “The Epiphany: Wisemen Bring Gifts to the Child.”

St. Francis and St. Aloysius are the wise men visiting the baby Jesus in this icon.  Instead of the usual gold, frankincense and myrrh, the “gifts” they bring to the Christ child are people with AIDS, perhaps gay men. The baby Jesus reaches eagerly to receive these gifts. The child and his mother appear in a form popular in Mexico and other Latino cultures as Our Lady of Guadalupe and El Santo Niño de Atocha. The halo around them echoes the colors of the rainbow flag of the LGBT community. McNichols offers a prayer with this icon:

Dearest Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Mother of the poor and the oppressed,
we watch full of reverence
and joy as St. Francis and
St. Aloysius bring the gifts of
these two people afflicted with AIDS
to the Holy Child in your arms,
who is so eager to receive them.
Teach us to find and embrace
your Son Jesus in all peoples,
but most especially those who
are in greatest need and
who suffer most.

In closing, the question arises: What gifts are queer people bringing today to Christ, the church and the world?
Related links:

LGBTQ Nativity 4: Queer Magi visit Mary, Josephine and Jesus

Nursing Madonna honors body, spirit and women

“Wise Women Also Came” and Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson


This post is part of the LGBT Calendar series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to LGBT and queer people of faith and our allies.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts