Why I Wrestle With Gods

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Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, 1865

Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, 1865

This is the second blogpost in our 18 Days of Tesseracts and though I frequently contribute here, this one is a more personal blogpost about why the wrestling is important.  I was one of the co-editors of Wrestling With Gods: Tesseracts 18.

______

Liana and I are asked quite frequently why we chose the topic of “Wrestling with Gods”–who came up with the topic, why the wrestling, etc?  I think we both had an interest in religion and speculative fiction.  But when we sat down together–thousands of miles away—on the phone, we decided that we didn’t want stories of the true believers or the die-hard skeptics.  They had their ideas about religion figured out.  They would both, in some ways, be evangelical—one preaching about the saving power of Jesus Christ or God or Krishna or Buddha–and the other preaching about how deluded we all were.  No, what intrigued us were the people in the middle: the large struggling subset of believers who had doubts and questions but who still had faith.  That’s where the tension was.  Tension makes better stories and better characters.  Assured characters who had no fear and who had a God that would get them out of any situation would make for boring stories.  But characters who faced difficulties, even huge questions to their beliefs, and struggled onward–they sounded interesting.  They sounded like us.

I don’t know why Liana loved this as much as I did–I will let her tell her story to you.

But I can tell you why I wrestle with gods.

________

I was a teenage True Believer. My dad became a Southern Baptist minister when I was nine. We were not the “Hellfire and Brimstone” preachers (though we did witness those in our circle).  We were the stern Principal version of God while Jesus was the beloved homeroom teacher.  Before he became a pastor, my dad was a senior chief petty officer in the Navy (or as he puts it, a Super Chief), so discipline he learned there probably merged well with the discipline we were to have as Christians.

Ours was a great home, and I grew up loved and cared for, and we never missed a meal, and we never knew that we were struggling financially on a pastor’s salary and Navy retirement.  I had two brothers and a sister.  Growing up in a Christian home, you have these safeguards: I grew up always knowing that my family would keep me secure, my church family would support us as a family, and my God would keep our family and church protected.  After all, we were always following God and in the Right.

A boy holding a cat, his sister looks over his shoulder while his brother looks on. A black and white photo.

I’m holding the neighbor’s cat while my sister, Jenifer, looks over my shoulder and my older brother, Jeff, stands beside us. Navy housing, probably Poway, California.

I grew up in the 80s, when Reagan shielded us from a corrupt government and was wheeling and dealing to make sure hostages were brought home.  We could have big hair, listen to rock, and play atari because America was safe.  Even the assassination attempt on Reagan drove home that we were doing things right: of course people were upset at us! Look how fast Reagan and the Pope recovered from their near simultaneous assassination attempts!  The 80s were the new 50s, but with Glam Rock.

You don’t have to wrestle with gods if you are doing this well.  

I led a pretty privileged life–one that you could get for being a white boy, from a lower middle class family and smart enough to win some scholarships.  I left home and attended a Baptist university, a good place where professors had your class over to dinner and Christmas parties at their homes, where you again were loved by a giant family of people.  I left one family and joined a larger family.  We all had the same values and beliefs (though to my professors’ credit, they stretched my understanding of those beliefs—was there really a devil?  Was the world really created in six days? When would the rapture happen–before the government turned against us or after we were tortured?  You know, the smaller questions)

I did not know I was gay till I was 34 or that my life and feelings of security would soon be completely dismantled, my beliefs scrambled, my direction changed.  You can read more about the specifics of my coming out over at Talking Dog Resources.  Suffice it to say that my relationship with the church changed drastically as they asked me to step down from being a deacon, stay away from the Youth and children of the church, and take a vow of lifelong celibacy.  This is how you protect a church from an LGBT person.  I did NOT take a vow of celibacy—but chose to conform to the rest with the idea that I could stay in the church and answer questions, that we would eventually talk about this, that everything would work out in the end if I was patient.

It didn’t work out in the end with that Baptist church.  I eventually left.  I struggled with them for a year and a half, did crazy things to create dialogue, get the word out to change people’s minds, etc.  All of that, again, you can read over at Talking Dog (and see a nice video of me talking about it).  I eventually joined the United Church in Whitehorse, and it is a great church, an accepting and loving one.

But my faith has been changed.  I wrestled for three years before I came out because I needed to know that my faith would stay intact if I came out—if I dated.  I learned that yes, the Bible could be misinterpreted this way, as it had been misinterpreted many other times with regards to women, black people, immigrants, pagans.

I wrestled because I was losing everyone I loved, including my family, friends, my entire wide support network.  I wrestled for several years after I came out because when everyone you love opposes you for similar reasons, you want to rethink what you think you know so you can get the love back.

I wrestled because my life was on the line.  In realizing I was gay, I nearly took my life because I didn’t believe you could keep your faith and be gay.  I was taught that by well-meaning, loving people who at that time did not think that I was gay. Which of us knew that this lie would nearly lead to my death at 34 on a night in January when the temperatures were to fall to -50 and no one would think twice about an American losing his way in the forest?

I wrestled because my faith was on the line.  Everything that I’d been taught for 34 years was either a lie or it was the truth, I thought—and to break any single part of it, I stood to fragment the whole thing.  I didn’t know I could question a part of it without damaging the whole.  And I assumed God hated me. I loved God, not just the concept of him, but of the real relationship I had had with him for 34 years–a relationship bound up in mystery–as it turned out, part of that mystery was who I was.  But I wrestled with the Bible and with others and with prayer to discover if God had plans for a gay man.

I wrestled because the lives of others mattered to me.  I could not abandon the people who loved me, the families I had along the way.  To make a decision about myself that could lead to hurting other people was unconscionable.  However, if I was right—that God loved the LGBT people and that they were doing nothing wrong—then I could also help the thousands of LGBT who are raised in churches who take their lives, like I would have, if they could know the truth.  My decision–my wrestling–mattered to others.  I came out partly because of the story of Esther in the Bible—a closeted Jew who becomes the King’s favorite wife and is in the position to save the Jewish people IF she risks her life and comes out.  Certainly, I can see in the years afterwards that my decision to come out, lose hundreds of family and friends, did help others–others who were struggling and wrestling with their faith, their churches, themselves.

A wrestled faith is not a damaged faith; it is a stronger one.  I truly believe that if you do not question your faith, struggle with it, wrestle with doubts and certainties, that your faith will hurt you and others.  It will not be something that is a source of strength to you.  It can be used by others as a weapon against them. After I came out, I have been able to help others much more than I ever could closeted or ignorant of who I was.  I feel like I have a stronger purpose in my writing.  I can populate my science fiction with LGBT people so that people like me can see that we exist and matter in the future, in all those plots to save the world.  I also created the website Talking Dog to meet the needs of churches and individuals to navigate coming out and keeping faith.

Science fiction loves the strugglers and the wrestlers.  It favors the questioners and the bold changers.  The heroes are the ones that ask the questions and act on the answers they find.  It is a natural fit for science fiction and fantasy to have characters who believe in a higher power and who struggle with their culture’s concepts of that being. Or characters that struggle against the Powers that Be in their stories to find their place in the world and culture.  The strongest characters, to me, are not the ones who chuck the whole thing, because to do so can often mean they are completely cut off from their culture.  I like those characters who can carefully discern the truth from the lies and keep the truth–keep the parts of their culture that help define them, cast the rest away.

I like to think I would be that kind of character.  I wrestle with gods because I’m allowed to, encouraged to, because I want to, and because I don’t want to accept everything at face value.  I can live with uncertainty.  I can live without people who reject me.  I can live with being laughed at for having a faith.  That’s okay.  I wanted the peace and the mystery and the joy that comes from believing in God–and I didn’t want anyone else to dictate to me what I could have.  In the end, though, I lived because I was true to myself and to my personal faith.  I had to have both, because I am both sides wrestling with each other.

In many ways, I am the wrestle.

About jstueart

Jerome writes science fiction/ fantasy and LGBT fiction and has been published in many magazines and journals. His first novel, One Nation Under Gods, is forthcoming from ChiZine Publications in Nov 2016. He's co-editor of Wrestling with Gods: Tesseracts 18 from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing and of Imaginarium 4 from ChiZine Publications. He makes his home between the Yukon Territory and Ohio.

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