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The all-important question: Sufjan’s ‘Wasp of the Palisades’

For many years, I’ve been a big fan of Sufjan Stevens, that incredibly quirky singer-songwriter responsible for such oddities as the “Christmas Unicorn,” the (defunct and mostly imaginary) Fifty States Project, some pretty weird and at times unlistenable symphonic folk-electronic experimentation, a continuing and adorable collaboration with Rosie Thomas, as well the lovely and haunting Carrie and Lowell, which reminded me, and probably others, why we started listening to Sufjan in the first place.

I do an occasional pop-song analysis project with my high school students, and I have been thinking about introducing them to Sufjan for my example presentation. In the process, I’ve had to think a little more deeply about one of the most elusive and interesting songs in the repertoire, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” from Illinois. Take a listen here:

 

I remember listening to this song for the first time and thinking, Wait, is this gay? The kiss, the insistent “we were in love” refrain … but surely not. Sufjan has a large following among, for lack of a better term, cultured evangelicals of a certain age, and so the possible gay interpretation needed to be worked around somehow. If it was there, it had to not be there.

But of course it is there, and it’s interesting. One commenter on Tumblr wrote, “[I]t seems silly to me to talk about this song without talking about how gay it is.” Whatever Sufjan is talking about, the song seems to resonate with the experience of adolescent same-sex attraction. Another person wrote in a web comment:

For anyone who isn’t precisely heterosexual, one of the most poignant experiences of your young life is when you have that one friend you feel … differently about, and I feel that here Sufjan is telling us a story of an experience he had with someone who was “different” to him, and confusing.

That phrase, “anyone who isn’t precisely heterosexual,” really struck me, because I think that’s part of the problem that this song rubs against. We want things to be precise, but they’re often not precise. One of the consequences, maybe, of the decades-long conflict about sexuality in the Western Church has been a kind of retreat toward unfounded precision among both progressives and traditionalists. But, while we have been throwing around terms like natural and unnatural and choice and orientation and sexuality with wild abandon, we have no idea what most of these things mean. (One of the more interesting alternative views is well-represented in this article from 2014.) We just want our side to be right.

Back to Sufjan. Is the song gay? Is Sufjan gay, bisexual, or something else? These are misleading questions that presume exactly the kind of modern “heteronormativity” that contemporary gender theory tries to deconstruct. And Christians have an interest in likewise deconstructing those questions, not with an eye to free-for-all sexuality, but with an eye to the authentic forms of love. The song is obviously about a boy being in love with another boy. What does it mean to be “in love”? Is love always something that leads to sex and/or marriage?

Perhaps what I like about “The Predatory Wasp” is that it lets these questions linger without clear answers. It is very insistent about love: it is passionate, enduring, and transformative. It is worth talking about, even if “the telling gets old.” It is not easily convertible into a message or a political strategy concerning one’s personal identity.

Frankly one of the difficulties of the “love is love” strategy from recent years is the way that it shuts down the conversation. We have not been permitted to think about what love really means, and whether there are different kinds of love, and whether those loves offer unique gifts and opportunities and challenges. Reducing everything into the flattening language of rights and identities actually obscures the validity and beauty of the whole range of human desires and the ways that we order those desires toward the good. Why, as our colleagues over at Spiritual Friendship have long been asking, do we find it so very difficult to speak of real, abiding, and passionate love that doesn’t find its fulfillment in sex?

Perhaps, in another age, Christians like Sufjan Stevens can sing about their experience without facing immediate reduction into sexual identity politics. Our challenge shouldn’t be figuring out whether people are gay or straight (so we can then figure out the rules how we should “accept” or “reject”), but in figuring out how, as the body of Christ, we can encourage true love’s flourishing in its various forms — secular friendship, marriage, and coenobitic or eremetical religion.

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