Inventing a Dream

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

“There is the ache of a dream not fulfilled. But what about the ache of a dream never dreamt? A life without hope or aspiration.”

Last night a friend shared those words with me. We were reflecting on the hopes and dreams we had for ourselves as teenagers when we came to an awareness of our sexuality. What does a young Christian teen dream for themselves when they realise they’re gay?

What we realised was that we didn’t dream of anything. We had no picture of what life could–or should–look like for people like us.

What sort of life could we aspire to? Or rather, what dreams were we inheriting from our culture?

See, we rarely make up our own dreams. Usually we adopt them from the culture we exist in. We might be as oblivious to our culture as a fish is to water, but our culture is still shaping us and forming our values whether we notice or not. One of the powerful ways culture shapes us is through the idea of a “cultural script.”

Mark Yarhouse (Christian clinical psychologist and researcher) defines a cultural script in his most recent book and writes about a particular script that he calls a “gay script.”

“A script is a shorthand way of speaking of cultural expectations for behaviour and relationships. Cultural expectations inform many of our behaviours, ranging from such quotidian habits as how we greet one another to major behaviours and life decisions. These behaviours and life decisions might include cultural expectations for when single people ‘should’ marry or when married couples ‘should’ start a family. When we discuss a gay script, then, we are discussing cultural expectations for understanding one’s same-sex sexuality.”

Mark Yarhouse, Costly Obedience: What We Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community, 67-68.

In the second chapter of this book, Yarhouse engages with the idea of a gay script that exists in Western secular culture. Or to be more precise, he acknowledges the existence of gay scripts as a plural, but refers to a particularly predominant script that he identifies as influential in shaping LGBTQ+ culture. His description of that script reminds me of a passage in another book I’m reading by a clinical psychologist and gay man, Alan Downs:

“Remember when you first knew you were gay and imagined how your life would be? You probably imagined meeting a handsome fellow, falling madly in love, and living your lives together with a few dogs or, if you were really progressive, even children. You imagined your family would eventually accept your lover as a part of the family and you’d live happily together for a lifetime.”

Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, 23.

What I found striking about this cultural script is that it feels utterly foreign to me. That’s not a dream I could relate to as a teenager, and it’s not one I can relate to now. As a celibate gay Christian, I am technically included in the LGBTQ+ population, but this sort of cultural script doesn’t speak to my experience at all. As I’ve written about before, it took years of having crushes on guys to even realise I was gay because the culture I grew up in didn’t acknowledge being gay as an option. Even after I realised I was attracted to men, I still convinced myself that “gay” was not something that applied to me. And so I grew up not really aspiring to those dreams of finding a man for my ‘happily ever after.’ At the same time, I was relinquishing other inherited dreams, like the heterosexual cultural script that looked something like “white picket fences and a dog, a trophy bride and children,” as I slowly realised in all likelihood I would never marry a woman either.

I had to grieve the loss of the heterosexual dream. Then try to navigate the void of not having an alternative dream for myself as gay Christian. What was life even supposed to look like for me?

There may be a very influential scrip telling gay people where their identity is to be found, how to express their sexuality, and what a life of flourishing looks like… but this script feels devoid of meaning to me as a Christian with a fundamentally different experience of sexuality.

This, in part, is Yarhouse’s point, and why he raises the existence of such a gay script; it illustrates the unique and confusing position celibate gay Christians occupy within the LGBTQ+ community. On one level, we belong to this subset as sexual minorities, and yet the existence of scripts like this can remind us of how much we don’t belong in that culture.

But even Alan Downs, writing from the perspective of a gay man who is not a Christian, acknowledges the inadequacy of this gay script. Eventually, he says, we become disillusioned to find that the pursuit of a sexual romantic relationship isn’t enough to give our lives meaning:

“Is this enough? I am a man. I need to be loved. I need to love myself. I need to feel strong and to cry. I need to feel alive and to grieve my losses. I need to know that there is someone in this world who truly loves me. I need to love someone. I need a safe, stable, and committed home. Truth is, I need all these things much more than I need great sex.”

Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage, 22.

So all this has me thinking: what alternative scripts is the church offering to gay people? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Christians criticise this gay script as inadequate, but I can count on one hand the number of times Christians have even attempted to offer an alternative dream. Is it enough to tell a gay teenager that the secular gay script fails to reflect the beauty and coherence of God’s design and then walk away from the conversation? Sure, we might hammer them with theological concepts or even topical books, but what do we actually offer in the way of a tangible, concrete dream to aspire to?

If we’re calling on gay Christians to consider giving up their hopes and dreams for a same-sex relationship, what are we inviting them to aspire to instead? Because no one aspires to a lack of something. Nobody thrives with what Eve Tushnet calls “a vocation of ‘no,’” where queer people in the church are only ever told “no” in regards to what they cannot do with no clear vision to what we are saying “yes” to when we choose celibacy. What is the Christian picture of a flourishing life for a gay person?

“If we’re calling on gay Christians to consider giving up their hopes and dreams for a same-sex relationship, what are we inviting them to aspire to instead?”

The thing about a cultural script is that it’s not just doctrines and teaching; we often absorb cultural scripts without ever hearing a word on the topic. We simply learn the expectations and values of our culture from our interactions within it and from observing people who model that way of life for us. You don’t need to tell a kid in a youth group that you expect them to marry in their 20s and raise a family; they will see the church culture, the older people modelling this script around them, the way people in the community respond, the milestones the community celebrates, the things we talk about, and the things we stay silent on. They will hear the cultural script loud and clear, and even if they’re not conscious of the script, before long it will shape their values and behaviour.

Straight people might say, “But no one gets the luxury of a script for their life; we all just work it out as we go along.” There’s some truth to that, but think about your 15-year-old self and ask how many straight and/or married Christians were in your life, modelling to you what a life of following Jesus might look like for a straight married person. Now ask yourself how many gay Christians your 15-year-old self could have named. Without realising it, we’ve inherited certain cultural scripts in our DNA, but for those of us who don’t marry and/or are same-sex attracted, we are desperately in need of cultural scripts to guide us in everyday life.

So I wonder what the gay person walking into your church will find. What are your community’s expectations for how a gay person will live their lives? What does your church culture say about marriage? About parenting? What does the culture say to those who are unmarried and childless? How does the church culture offer meaning to the experience of same-sex attraction? What script does it give for how a gay person might find a life of flourishing?

What are your dreams for us? What dreams should we have for ourselves?

I don’t just mean generic copypastas like “you should aspire to a life of faithfully following Jesus.” Yes. We all should. But what specifically might that look like in the daily reality of a gay person?

As a teenager, I had no dream for what the flourishing life might look like for me as a gay Christian. Most gay Christians tell me that when they realised they were gay, the one thing they were certain of was that they aspired to take their secret to the grave. Nobody could ever know.

The strongest hope they had for themselves was that no one would ever see that deeply into their heart. The only long-term aspiration we held was hoping that our secret died with us.

That’s not an aspiration.

That’s not a dream.

We need a new dream, a dream fed to us by our community and centered on the good news of Jesus. A dream where family is redefined the way Jesus defined it that includes single people meaningfully. A dream where marginalised people are shown the special tenderness and love that Jesus showed them. A dream where intimacy and love are given and received in so many ways outside of a sexual relationship. A dream where this life isn’t the final word and we are part of an eternal redemption story.

“What are your dreams for us? What dreams should we have for ourselves?”

I’ve been trying to re-write my cultural script for years. I have some ideas of where we can start that I’ll share in another post. But I don’t want to do that here. Not yet. Because the thing about a cultural script is that you don’t learn it from reading someone else’s ideas. You learn it from seeing it embodied in your culture. So I want to leave you reflecting on what your own community has to offer. I want you to start scrutinising your community’s practices, noticing the unspoken scripts that reveal your culture’s values.

What sort of cultural script does your church offer to the 15-year-old who’s just realised he’s gay?

What aspirations of flourishing does your community dream for him for when he’s a 70-year-old single man?

What do you dream of for us?

4 thoughts on “Inventing a Dream

  1. Hmm. I’m not sure the Church could give you a script. For me, the Church has never been a context which really deals with the amazing and far reaching complexities of humanness. It is a “place to go to,” no matter what kind of outreach or small-group ministries they start in order to show they are integrated with everyday life..
    Church structure has become the dried out and rigid wineskin, into which members are expected to “fit” their lives. For that reason, thousands have either left the church proper and/or left Jesus altogether.
    I don’t think the scripts are limited for just LGBTQ people, though the Church does share the cultural scripts for straight people that come from the general culture. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of scripts and complex scenarios that the Church proper barely acknowledges, if at all!!! And, sadly, I have little hope they ever will.
    Thoughts?

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I reckon your experience would resonate with a lot of people. The Church hasn’t done a great job of actually applying its teaching to the complex, real-life situations people encounter, especially for those people whose experiences don’t fit neatly into a box.

      I think it’s worth making a distinction between The Church (in capitals, AKA The Invisible Church or Universal Church) and the specific communities of individual church congregations. Because I think the specific churches will be where culture is developed and experienced, for better or for worse. Regardless of widespread Christian trends, if a particular church family fosters a healthy culture with nuanced frameworks for people like me, I’m far more likely to flourish when embedded in a real, embodied community. Because cultural scripts are intrinsically “cultural,” I think they need to emerge from the specific cultures of these communities, not generic universal teachings of “The Church.” Ideally, these cultural scripts will come not just from a community who knows and understands gay people generally, but a community who knows and understands ME, Matthew Ventura. Because they are my family and we share life together. That’s where the meaningful cultural scripts will be found.

      You’re right that church structure can often feel like a “dried out and rigid wineskin” and a “place to go to” rather than a family to belong to. I think that’s wrong and it shows how far the church has strayed from its God-given design. But I’ve experienced enough glimpses of church becoming family to believe it is real and possible. I don’t know if you live locally, but I would love you to come spend time in my community and connect deeply with the people in it. The way I experience church is that they are like family to me and we are connected in big and small ways all through the week. This might be different from your experience of church, though. I’d love to hear more about your own experiences… ?

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  2. Cultural scripts are on their way out. I teach my kids to write their own. In fact I urge them to get take the red pill and get out if the matrix. I was sucked into it many years ago but my eyes are open now.

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    1. That’s super interesting and I love that you raise your kids to think for themselves. But it sounds like you’ve described textbook Expressive Individualism as an alternative cultural script? I don’t know that we can ever truly exist in a vacuum removed from our culture and its influences, so the way I understand it is we aren’t so much asking whether we take on a cultural script, but which cultural script we accept (consciously or unconsciously). What do you think?

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