Jesus, Madonna, and all the Good Christians

Madonna

“Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow. As the water follows the moon, silently, with fluid steps, anywhere around the globe.”

~ Walt Whitman

gp(page_divider2)Intro

Denise was a good Christian. I know she was a good Christian, because when I worked with her at a call center in the early 1990’s, she reminded me that she was a good Christian frequently.  She loved all things Jesus, even brought a bible to work, which she’d fuss over and highlight in between calls.

I was no stranger to good Christians. My mom’s family was Catholic, my Dad’s family was Baptist, and I was educated by nuns up until high school. All of them were good, honest, hardworking people, but their time with God tended to be more intimate, not so brazenly in my face. Something about Denise’s Christianity was more aggressive. It felt more offensive, or at least I felt more guarded and guilty around her.

Back in the early 1990’s, I was but a wee queer, still somewhat closeted and not yet at peace with my homosexuality. The output resulted in me being a mild mannered, agreeable, clean-cut banker by day / boy crazy, booze guzzling, sinner by night. So while Denise rubbed many of my coworkers the wrong way, I entertained her biblical ramblings, even when her venomous sermons were directed at gays.

In a sense, I saw Denise as my penance, a reminder of how unchristian I had become.

sonofgod“The cross is a very powerful symbol. While it symbolizes suffering, it also is connected to a person who was loving and sharing and his message was about unconditional love… For me, we all need to be Jesus in our time.”

~ Madonna

gp(page_divider2)The Son Of God

Once upon a time, Jesus and I had also been tight. As a boy, while others fantasized about being astronauts and cowboys, I dreamed of becoming a priest. While I wasn’t as fanatical as Denise and didn’t highlight a bible or jeer those who did Jesus wrong, I was still moved by his sacrifices and inspired by his teachings. Like Jesus, I was also in it for the love and wanted to encourage others to be more compassionate and kind.

My childhood aspirations were short lived, however, and by the early 1980’s, when puberty kicked in, my relationship with Jesus grew strained. While I still wanted to invite others to be more charitable and loving, upon realizing that I was gay, it became apparent to me that the priesthood wasn’t my calling. I also began to question whether my bond with the Son of God would endure the test of time.

Before coming out to anyone, I came out to Jesus. When we were alone, I would ask him to absolve me of my sins, to give me the strength to overcome my urges. My efforts proved to be futile, however. With time, my desires only grew stronger and confiding in Jesus became increasingly awkward. Around him, I felt defeated and perverse, undeserving of his friendship and attention. Despite my hopes to the contrary, I feared, in the end, I would only let Jesus down.

As a result of the friction, although it pained me to do so, I made a conscience decision: I stopped praying and parted ways with my childhood companion. I didn’t see my separation with Jesus as succumbing to sin, so much as I saw it as a recognition that Jesus and I had outgrown one another. There were some lessons in life, I concluded, Jesus wouldn’t be able to teach me. If I was to have a role model that would accompany me into adulthood, I needed someone that would be less prudish and, dare I say it, more forgiving.

I didn’t have to wait long.

Perhaps it was divine intervention, but in the absence of Jesus, I soon found solace in another, a woman who seemingly couldn’t be more divergent than the Son of God… Where Jesus and I had parted ways, Madonna found me: wounded and alone, needing to be healed.

“Only the one that hurts you can make you feel better. Only the one that inflicts pain can take it away.”

~ Madonna

gp(page_divider2)The Unsung Daughter of God

While comparing Madonna to Jesus may seem blasphemous, her influence on me throughout my adolescence and adulthood would prove to be equally profound. While Madonna may be unsung by the church, she would nonetheless play a critical role in liberating me from the demons that haunted me as a boy.

In Madonna, I found a new religion. Where Christianity had been sterile and claustrophobic, Madonna was inclusive and lighthearted, a testament that life should be lived without judgement and inhibitions. Like some mystical priestess ordained in rosaries and lace, she invited me to envision a world less monochromatic and stale, where people were more diverse and festive, and even a gay kid like me was welcomed to the party.

Admittedly, the gospel according to Madonna is grittier and more taboo. For me, it proved to be a tale about coming of age. Throughout my missteps, heartbreak, and tears, however, Madonna’s voice and optimism would ground me, make the angst of coming out all the more bearable. While friendship with Jesus came with prudence and stipulations, in Madonna I found my rebel heart, a role model that supported my sexual independence and explorations into adulthood.

In effect, Madonna would do what Jesus had been unable to accomplish: she inspired me to live my life, not a lie.

As a rebellious teenager, I assumed that I was drawn to Madonna for her defiance of the church. And while I found her capacity to provoke and agitate validating, looking back on 1984 and all the years that followed, with age I’d come to realize that my attraction to Madonna was more wholesome and noble than I initially thought.

While on the surface Madonna and Jesus may appear to be polarizing figures, the more I pondered my relationship with both, the more I realized: I was drawn to Madonna for the same reason I gravitated to my estranged childhood friend. While the paths I traveled with each were divergent, the destination was the same.

Like Jesus and me, Madonna was also in it for the love. And like all inspiring gospels, Madonna’s came with a moral, and it was as simple as it was profound: celebrate life, love unconditionally, and when the moment presents itself, never shy away from a dance floor.

To highlight the parallels of both my mentors, ironically, I had Denise – the good Christian – to thank.

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“Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.”

~ Madonna

gp(page_divider2)The Good Christian

By the time I met Denise, Jesus and I had been estranged for a decade, so engaging her was like hearing about an old childhood friend but discovering how much he’d changed. Through Denise I learned that Jesus had become more spiteful, angry, and judgmental, far less friendly than the generous man I knew as a boy. He’d gotten bitter with age, had a scowl embedded into his face…

To my dismay, Jesus had done the unthinkable: he’d become a hater.

But then one afternoon, while Denise was speaking in tongues and my coworkers were gouging their eardrums with letter openers, I had an epiphany. I noticed the cops talking to the Director of Operations, and if there was anything that would help me reevaluate my religion, it was watching my boss escort the police towards me when I had a bag a weed in my backpack. Before I could fall to my knees and beg for forgiveness, however, I realized something: the police weren’t there for me. They were there for Denise, who I’d soon discover had been embezzling money from customers.

I learned an important lesson that afternoon. I was naive to take Denise at her word. Had I been paying attention to her actions instead, I would’ve realized Denise wasn’t so Christian after all. She participated in potlucks begrudgingly, yet she ate more than her share. She never pitched in when extra hours were needed or a coworker’s shift had to be covered. And perhaps most telling of all, she always rushed customers off the phone, so afterwards she could judge and mock them, determine who was going to heaven or hell by their debits and credits.

Although I never claimed to be otherwise, I was guilty of being unchristian the afternoon Denise was arrested. I took satisfaction in seeing her led away in handcuffs. I was comforted by her hurt expression, when I announced to my coworkers, “There goes a good Christian woman.”

I realized that day that Jesus never left me. Like many gay people, I was guilty of allowing others to influence my identity and self worth. While I hadn’t encountered the likes of Denise when I was a kid, the church had nonetheless led me to believe that being gay was a sin. In doubting myself, regrettably, I had enabled others to define my relationship with God.

A Good Christian“I am the moon with no light of my own. You are the sun guarding your throne… I’ll light the candle here in the dark, making my way to your heart.”

~Madonna

gp(page_divider2)While I am no longer religious, and I don’t actually think Madonna is the Messiah, is it so unfathomable to consider that instead of a son, God might send us his spirited baby girl? And are we foolish and naive to assume such a woman would be pure and the void of sin? To me, that doesn’t sound like much of a trial or tribulation.

It’s easy to see Madonna as the devil incarnated, there to lure a generation into a life of sin. Yet it’s for that reason I am a disciple, why I find Madonna fandom as validating as I do liberating. Because to truly appreciate Madonna, after all, I resisted the urge to judge and mock her. I had the proclivity to ignore the righteous indignation of the mob, the wherewithal to grasp: Madonna isn’t selling heresy and sin, she’s challenging all of us to be less judgmental, intolerant, and dogmatic, more forgiving, open-minded, and merciful. Madonna raises my spirit, because she knows what it means to be judged by those who are shackled to the ground.

Whether you pray to Jesus or idolize Madonna, the lessons we learn are what define us. Be weary of those who would confine your soul to a cage, who would lead you to believe that you are unworthy of love or entry to heaven unless you obey their doctrine and share their worldview. That’s not Jesus or Madonna talking; it’s something far more sinister, predatory, and damning – Hate.

I thank Denise for the lesson she taught me. Had it not been for her, I may have remained naive to the intentions of those boasting to be good Christians. Because of her, I am richer for knowing: the real sin is distorting love and turning it into something dirty and perverse, only worthy of those who have the arrogance and audacity to presume to speak for God.

I’ve known and loved many good Christians in my lifetime, yet they never flaunted their Christianity. They never used Jesus as a weapon, because doing so, they recognized, would be unchristian. Instead, they lived life by Christian values. They were gracious, kind, and forgiving, and offered help when they could. But they left judgement to the almighty.

To all the good Christians spewing condemnation and hate, I reserve these parting words for you. If you are truly a good Christian, then I challenge you to be be more Christlike: forgive the sinners, care for the poor, and embrace your lepers. But get your bible out of my face.

Don’t hide behind a book and tell me you’re a good Christian. Prove it. Be more like Jesus and Madonna, and strive to make the world a better place.

Choose love over hate, starting with yourself.

 

 

Madonna & The Plague

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“The light that you would never see.
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me.”
~ Madonna

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Prelude to a Dance.

As long as there’s been AIDS, there’s been Madonna.

madonna_aidsWhile the virus that causes AIDS predates Madonna’s fame, during the initial years of the outbreak the illness was referred to as G.R.I.D (Gay Related Immune Deficiency).  It wasn’t until August 1982 that the disease officially became known as AIDS, after the CDC offered “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” as a less discriminating alternative.

The summer of 1982 was also when a catchy new track began surfacing in New York City clubs. The pulsating groove was infectious, even Sire Records fell victim to the infused beats.  Later that October the record label signed a deal with the bohemian artist singing on the track, Madonna.

And so it came to be, like many gay men of my generation, my story came to be about a boy and two titans, each equally hellbent on world domination: Madonna and the Plague.

ACT I: “The Kid, the Stalker, and a Magic Poem”

I recall the day I first learned about AIDS.  My dad was reading the Chicago Tribune and tossed the completed front section on the floor.  On the back was a full page article about AIDS symptoms.  Among the many ailments listed: fevers, night sweats, wasting, soars in the mouth, and skin lesions.  And if the symptoms weren’t horrific enough, the article stressed that the disease had been especially devastating to the gay community.

It’s difficult to explain how I felt at that moment, but at best I’d describe it as seismic déjà vu. For a moment, time rippled like a tolling bell; I wasn’t reading an article in the newspaper, something menacing from my future was whispering “hello” in my ear.

screen-capture-37As an only child of working parents, I had a lot of time to obsess about my fears and confusion. Poetry, specifically, helped me write what was unbearable to speak.

With AIDS lurking about, by 1985 my poems centered around survival, my hopes of evading “the stalker”. It may seem irrational to be worried about AIDS at fourteen, but I was just coming to terms with my sexuality and had reservations about both lifestyles ahead. As I saw it, however, the decision wasn’t whether to be straight or gay. I knew what I was. Instead, I saw two very different alternatives:

  • In one life, I’d be a prisoner, locked away in a secret cell, peeping at my life regretfully through a keyhole.
  • In the other, I’d be a fugitive. Although I’d be stalked and likely captured, I’d be free to love who I choose.

Not getting AIDS was never a question.  Should I live life as a gay man, I was certain the disease would be my cross to bear.  Although I didn’t see it this way at the time, my decision ultimately came down a very American question – Was I willing to die young for freedom?

Being gay wasn’t the path I wanted to travel.  Yet despite AIDS, my upbringing, and the likely discrimination I’d encounter, being queer felt more honorable and brave. I had just enough foresight to realize that the alternative – lying, faking love and marriage – would be selfish and destructive for all involved.

13-03-13-madonna-secret-projectI said goodbye to a never-to-be wife, confident it was best for her and the kids. Then I closed my eyes and covered my ears, prayed my heart wouldn’t guide me off a cliff… too quickly.

Stumbling blindly into adulthood, I did my best to avoid AIDS, but it proved to be a futile task. By my late-twenties, AIDS was everywhere, and I was surrounded…

What happened in the mid 90’s is a separate post altogether, but suffice it to say – My pleasures depended on the permission of no one. Call it pent up frustration, but my twenties were reckless and carefree, a stark contrast to the introverted poet I was a teenager.

Unfortunately, because I was carefree in my twenties, I misplaced most of my poems from 1985.  Despite the loss of my journals, there was one poem – a simple rhyme that grew louder with each passing year – that haunted me throughout my adulthood.

In the end, that poem is the reason why I created the website, Guy Penn, and why I’m writing this specific post today…

ACT II: “A Fairy God-Diva named Madonna”

For 2 years, I’d done the impossible, I’d managed to ignore Madonna.

Up until 1985, what I knew about Madonna I didn’t like. I was annoyed with the song “Borderline”, because I thought the title was “Waterline”, and anyone comparing love to water pressure was just weird and not to be trusted. I also remember three girls singing “Holiday” during recess.  When I asked them what they were singing, they started squealing about seeing Madonna at “The Virgin Tour”, which was, by all accounts, totally gross.

But then came one fateful night. I was recording Friday Night Videos with my Betamax VCR, eager to capture my favorite song at the time, “We Are the World”.  The video that followed was “Material Girl”, featuring the one woman missing from the star-studded lineup, the one woman who would one day outshine them all – Madonna, wrapped in a big red bow.

screen-capture-38In the age of AIDS, Madonna became my bedazzled life coach. After so much dark introspection and fear, she had a way of drawing me back to the light.

Where AIDS was scary and grim, Madonna was sparkly, high-octane optimism, a musical cornucopia overflowing with Lucky Stars, Holidays, and Shoo-be-doo’s, reminding me life was to be lived, not feared.

Sprinkling disco beats from her celestial powered mirrored ball, Madonna managed to do the impossible in the mid-80’s – She helped me envision a world more celebratory, inclusive, and kind, where even a queer punk like me could be loved and accepted.

Although I became a Madonna fan because of her music, I remained one because of her support.

  • Madonna fought for gay rights when I didn’t have the esteem or the courage.  She challenged social norms and hypocrisy when others wouldn’t, back when her voice was needed most – When men were dieing, the silence was deafening, and you could hear a pin drop on the disco floor.
  • Madonna songs typically gravitate around love, acceptance, pride, and enlightenment. It so happens, I’m a big fan of each.  As an added bonus, I also enjoy dancing and sex (although I’ve learned to avoid both at once).
  • Above all, I must confess – Madonna bridges me to my youth.  Now in my 40’s, where Madonna is concerned, I’m still young, a giddy uniformed schoolboy, flipping eagerly through the pages of Tigerbeat at a local newsstand.

With a catalog of music spanning 30 years, fans sometimes retrofit their lives to Madonna’s songs, and I am no exception.  The Gospel According to Madonna has always had an uncanny way of capturing pivotal acts of my life.  So much so, at times, I’ve enjoyed entertaining the question – Am I Madonna’s muse?

After one year of Madonna fandom, such a moment occurred. I received a special gift from my Fairy God-Diva, a ballad that poignantly echoed the sentiments of my poem, “Time To Play”.

Sappy, sentimental bloke that I am – writing this post now, looking back at the AIDS pandemic – I like to imagine the ballad contains the middle verses of my misplaced poem, “Time to Play”.

ACT III: “Time Traveling with Madonna”

This past April, I turned 42.  Sitting here now, overlapping my poem with Madonna’s song, I realize – Albeit a couple years late, this post is a promise being fulfilled.

Despite my expectations and adversities, I am a man who lived to tell.  As such, I’m feeling obligated to share a secret that I have learned…

AIDS is not the stalker I once feared.  AIDS is my liberator. It didn’t force gay men out of the closet, it demolished the walls that Adam built, left us naked and vulnerable to the masses.

Over 36 million people worldwide have died since the AIDS crisis began, so I don’t mean to typecast the disease or undermine the magnitude of its horror and devastation. But when I frame the pandemic as bookends, I am humbled by how much the United States, among a growing list of countries, has changed.

28 years ago, I didn’t think people cared if I lived or died, because many believed gays were deviants, sinners worthy of the plague.  Today, however, a majority of Americans support the right for me to marry my partner, believe our love is worthy of protection.

AIDS is not an exclusively homosexual disease. It has broken hearts both straight and gay. But in America we are haunted by its origins. Not acknowledging AIDS for the tectonic shift in popular opinion would be an injustice to all the gay men who fought and died, so that I could live to tell. It would be disrespectful to those who lost lovers, friends or family members to the pandemic, who demanded social change and medical research. And although rarely stated, yet perhaps most noteworthy of all, not acknowledging AIDS influence on our national character would discount the breadth of our collective humanity, our nation’s enduring battle to be a more perfect union.

AIDS is a different kind of love story, one that shines from within. In the end, Madonna and the plague are a matter of perspective. Our reaction to each says more about us than them. In the past 30 years, for better or worse, both AIDS and Madonna refused to be ignored.  Each invited our judgement and indignation, provoked us to reconsider the limitations of freedom and love.

The history of AIDS will prove to be a tragedy written in tears, but its final act is yet to be told.  With the help of outspoken artists like Madonna, however, the moral of this plague is becoming increasingly clear – I entered this fight wounded and alone, but I will leave it healed with a nation uniting behind me.

Whether you pray to a book, wrap yourself in a flag, or are enchanted by a pop star, what matters most are the lessons we learn, how we interpret words written and sung.

The Gospel According to Madonna is certainly open to interpretation. And I don’t presume to speak for all gay men of my generation, the first generation of teenage boys to sexually awaken to a world with AIDS in it.  But I hope a few of my Madonna-luvin’ brethren from the 80’s are comforted by the audacity of this closing sentiment…

Where my soul was concerned, Madonna was the cure for AIDS.

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Madonna and Me, 1985

Progressive politics and the politics of Madonna are the subject of “Guy Penn & the Gospel According to Madonna” by Damon Wallace.

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