Re-writing the Script Together

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In my last post I talked about the idea of cultural scripts that tell us how to live and behave: what to aspire to. Cultural scripts embody the virtues a community values most highly.

But what do we do when our community doesn’t value things that ought to be valued? What do we do when the cultural script we are handed is inadequate in guiding us to a life of flourishing?

I think our culture needs to re-write those scripts. Notice I didn’t say we re-write them ourselves. I think it needs to happen off the back of cultural change.

See that’s the difference between aspiring to a personal dream and having a cultural script. I used these ideas synonymously in my last post, but actually they originally came from two distinct posts that I drafted a year apart which then eventually found their way into a combined work together. It’s all well and good to have personal aspirations of what I think the flourishing life could look like for me, but I still need the cultural script of a community that understands my way of life: a community that is partnering with me in pursuing the ideals embodied by that way of life.

“I need the cultural script of a community that understands my way of life: a community that is partnering with me in pursuing the ideals embodied by that way of life.”

Why does it have to be a cultural script, though? Why can’t I just write my own?

Well, as tempting as it is to embrace Expressive Individualism, the reality is that I cannot exist in a vacuum removed from a culture and its influences. At least, I cannot flourish that way. To be human and to flourish is to be deeply connected to other people in meaningful relationships, and any time people are connected in a community, there will be unspoken cultural scripts present in that community.

So the way I understand it, I can never entirely break free from the influences of the culture surrounding me. I can exercise agency in how I respond to those scripts, but the culture is still there shaping me in countless unseen ways.

So I think the most powerful way to effect change is to change the cultural scripts themselves. Because taking an individualistic approach will only get me so far while I’m still immersed in a given culture.

It’s also important because as much as I can try to rewrite my own individualistic script, I still long to find my place in my community. I don’t just want me to know where I fit in, I want my whole community to know what place I have among them. I long to belong, to know how to love and be loved in that community, to find what it looks like to be deeply connected with my people and have a valued place in that group. But I know I don’t have complete control over those things. To have a valued place in a culture means having to negotiate that role with the community, not just inserting myself and hoping for the best. Like any healthy relationship, it needs to be a two-way street of mutually understanding how we connect to each other.

A cultural script needs a culture.

So I want to start by humbling acknowledging that no matter how many ideas I might come up with, I’m only one person, and what we actually need is a real-life embodied community. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that we don’t read some ideas and stop there, thinking our job is done. We as a community need to keep working until we have embodied these values not just in our teaching but in the liturgy of our lives.

“We as a community need to keep working until we have embodied these values not just in our teaching but in the liturgy of our lives.”

On a hopeful note, I want to add that all these ideas are things that I’m already seeing in action in my own church community and others. I think the ingredients are all there. We’re still working out the recipe to combine all these ingredients into something beautiful, but the ingredients are there. I’m hopeful that in time and with prayerful dependence on God’s design for flourishing, these components will converge into a coherent script (or scripts) that see gay Christians thriving in the long term.

Here are a few of the ingredients that I’d like to include in the recipe. Are there other ones you’d add to the shopping list?

Redefining family

Jesus radically redefined family as being more than ‘nuclear family’ units when he declared all his followers were part of a truer family: the church (Matthew 26:46-50). Notice I said “truer family,” not “spiritual family” or some other abstract language that might imply it’s less real than nuclear family. As far as the Christian is concerned, when it comes to family, the Church is the real deal. We see that beautifully expressed in concrete terms when Jesus is suffering on the cross, and he uses his dying breath to tell his grieving mother and his beloved disciple John that they would now be mother and son. From that day, John took Mary into his home and cared for her as family (John 19:25-26).  To me, this story is such a beautiful confluence of biological family and spiritual family: Jesus sees his responsibility of caring for his biological mother as her oldest son, so even in his dying moment he ensures that she will be cared for. But because spiritual family is True Family, it means John can become her son and care for her in real, tangible ways as his own mother despite the lack of biological bonds. Acknowledging church family as True Family doesn’t need to threaten biological family, because Jesus’ model is far more inclusive than that.

I also see beautiful expressions of True Family in my church community like when my friend (a single woman) invited a family of 4 to live in her home for a few months while their house was renovated and they needed somewhere to live. Or when a couple invited a single student to live with them, as well as regularly opening their home to other young people in the church who they mentored and shared life with. Or how I have a standing invitation to come over to my pastor’s place for dinner once a week and hang out with his family.

When family is redefined on Jesus’ terms, it becomes a far more inclusive community where single and married, gay and straight people all have a valued place in the family and no longer need to be married with 2.4 kids to enjoy familial closeness.

Finding non-sexual intimacy

Since the sexual revolution of the 60s, our culture has sexualised intimacy. We struggle to love or be loved in nonsexual ways, and both marriages and single people have suffered for it.

As a society and as the church we’re still trying to rediscover how to love and be loved in nonsexual ways. Probably the area it’s easiest to see this is in nuclear families, where parent-child love or love between siblings can be very close and committed but decidedly non-romantic love. As the church acts more like family, we can start committing to loving each other in these deeply familial ways too.

I’ve also been blessed by some pretty special friendships that show healthy intimacy can be found in platonic friendships. Like the friend who always tells me “I love you” and I know he really means it. Or the friend who makes time to call every week for an hour-long deep and meaningful chat about life. Or the friend who has realised that as single people we don’t always get the chance to debrief with someone at the end of our days so has started texting me in the evenings to ask how my day was. Or the older woman in my church (‘my adopted grandmother’) who is very cuddly and helps me find some of the physical affection I crave.

In all these and more I see that it’s possible to flourish, loving and being loved, without needing to be married.

Celebrating singleness

Closely related is valuing singleness as a worthy vocation in itself. I’ve written about that before so I won’t go into detail here, but as the church starts celebrating the unique and meaningful ways single people contribute to the community, it starts becoming something we can aspire to. Not just tolerate or even enjoy, but aspire to. When I read 1 Corinthians 7, I take to heart the idea that single people are uniquely freed to invest in God’s community without the distractions of caring for a household; I aspire to be that sort of single person.

My friendship with some older single people has shown me that many of them feel more connected to a greater number of deep friendships than their married friends. That’s the beauty of being in community–singleness doesn’t equal loneliness, especially when it means a far more extensive support network than most married people would have the time to maintain. The church can help by celebrating these friendship as the loving and life-giving relationships they are, and by acknowledging the higher capacity single people have to invest meaningfully in others.

And personally I’ve been disproportionally blessed by the ministry and friendship of single people who have had far more capacity to invest in my spiritual well-being than their married counterparts. It’s no coincidence that the first person I ever came out to was a single pastor who in his singleness had invested so deeply in his ministry and friendships that he quickly became the person I trusted most for this conversation. People like him have a special place in my life, and they deserve a special place in our community.

Recognising the unique gifts gay Christians have to offer the church

This is an important one, because one of the most critical roles of a cultural script is injecting an experience with meaning. Mark Sayers says repeatedly on his podcast This Cultural Moment that “we are meaning-making machines,” meaning as humans we have an irrepressible instinct to find and attribute meaning to our experience of the world. Mark Yarhouse agrees, writing that “A gay script is a cultural expectation for making meaning out of one’s experiences of same-sex attraction.”

As well as a robust theology, I think a key source of meaning is seeing the unique ways same-sex attracted people are a gift to the church. And celebrating those. Despite all the theological books I’ve read trying to explain why I am the way I am, some of the most significant meaning-making moments for me have been when someone personally acknowledged value and purpose in my sexual orientation.

Like the time during the plebiscite when I was lamenting to my old pastor about how hard it was to be a gay Christian and he responded by telling me I should consider going into ministry because of my sexuality and the ways it had wired me for empathy and pastoral sensitivity. “We need people like you leading the church.” That was deeply, deeply affirming. It went beyond sympathy and showed purpose in my experience. It gave me a roadmap for pursuing flourishing in tangible, specific ways.

Or the time a prominent Christian leader posted this reflection on Facebook acknowledging the spiritual exemplar of gay and lesbian Christians who, just by living our everyday lives, are calling the rest of the church to a higher standard of costly obedience.

Michael Paget
27 June 2019

"The heroes of the faith in this era are surely our lesbian and gay Christian sisters and brothers who are striving to joyfully heed Jesus' call to deep friendships in chaste singleness outside marriage (a call which many of their heterosexual fellow-believers appear to treat as suggestion only, without censure) in the midst of bigotry and demonisation from the right and the constant urging to a false vision of freedom and self-actualisation from the left. You have my most profound love and respect."

Holding the Gospel story as our past, present and future story

Again, because finding meaning is so central to a sense of purpose, we need to understand our personal stories in the context of God’s great redemption story. My church, and thousands like it around the world, relentlessly preach the same gospel message every single week because it is at the core of what we need to flourish.

The past gospel story reminds us that we are irrevocably adopted into God’s family, and unconditionally loved by Jesus. This is the cure for the shame we feel as gay people, always fearing that if we were seen for who we truly were, we wouldn’t be loved.

The present gospel story reminds us that we have the Holy Spirit living in us and transforming us to be more like Jesus every day. We live in the now-but-not-yet, expecting that we will still struggle with brokenness in this life but struggling with hope because we experience God’s transformation at work.

The future gospel story reminds us that we still anticipate the consummation of our love story in the New Creation when Jesus returns to be united with his bride the church. Looking forward to this True Marriage means that whatever sacrifice this life might hold, I look forward to the blissful intimacy of eternal life. This gives meaning and hope to the daily slog.

A New Script

I’m not sure of the exact recipe yet, but I hold out hope that with these ingredients and maybe a few others, we might yet produce something beautiful. Maybe we will re-write a cultural script that gives the 15-year-old kid who’s just realised he’s gay a reason to joyfully aspire to celibate singleness. A script that projects a vision of flourishing that he can run towards. A script that gives meaning and understanding to his sexuality. A script that shows him what it looks like to love deeply and be loved in return. A script that shows everyone else what part they play in his story and how they can help him flourish.

That’s a script I’d read. I reckon it’s the script God wrote for us at the beginning before we starting writing our own stories.

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