In the Company of Friends: Loving Touch in John and the Culture of Bromosexuality

In recent years, as white gay male identities have become more mainstream and sexual practices have become more public on social media, the cultural backlash has taken an interesting turn, with a proliferation of categories of relationships like “friends with benefits,” “fuckbuddy” and “bromosexual”: intense, intimate and often sexual relationships between men who identify as “straight” or “not gay.” Increasingly, the decoupling of “kinds of sexual predilection from degrees of masculinity and femininity” (1) is being grounded in “biblical relationships” among rural white masculinist evangelicals. Religious expressions of “bromosexuality” can be found in popular contemporary Christian music, composed and performed by men, where the personal relationship to Jesus is conveyed in the frankly and unapologetically erotic language of physical union. Inspired by Jesus’ embodied intimacy in the company of friends, powerfully portrayed in the washing of feet in John 13: 1-20, the mimetic practices of “bromosexual” culture among contemporary Christians can help us understand how white masculinist Christian cultures are negotiating masculinity, intimacy and power in their communities in ways that “flesh out” the “queerness” embedded in the gospel narrative from which they draw.

Loving Touch in John 13:1-20

The language is earthy. Jesus strips to the waist and washes his friends’ feet, starting with Peter. Jesus does this, according to the author of John, during the meal, a highly unusual time for the gesture that suggests its special significance in this instance, (2) and also understandably elicits incomprehension from his gathered friends. Peter is partly taken aback, we might assume, by the shocking social implications of the gesture. Foot washing in this culture was, after all, an expression of social status and often conducted by slaves. “For a superior to perform the act for an inferior would be an incomprehensible contradiction of their social relationship.” (3) But after Jesus chides his disciple, it is the intensity of the love embodied in a gesture that overturns social norms that lingers. (4) The author of John makes sure we understand this from the outset: “Having loved his own… he loved them to the end” (13:1). We know that this intense love will take the form of the ultimate sacrifice, but here, in the Upper Room with his friends, (5) foot-washing is a concrete example of embodied agape that the disciples are instructed, in no uncertain terms, to follow (13:15). (6) This “following” can be understood less as imitatio Dei than mimesis, which was common in classical pedagogy, where reciprocity and mime were elements of education in ethics. (7)

The Johannine gospel’s central theological motif, the incarnation, makes John a rich source for reflection on the importance of touch to the Johannine Jesus. This emphasis on embodiment and the senses was radical for its time, and remains radical in ours. For followers in the imperial context of the narrative, the idea of a deity expressing vulnerability, humility and kenosis (8) would have been difficult to comprehend, requiring a paradigm shift in thought and action. In classical culture touch was the lowest of the senses, morally inferior to all others, but also necessary for the functioning of the higher senses. (9) Early Christian culture was therefore of two minds about touch, the poles represented by the Apostle Thomas, who demonstrates that touching is believing (John 20:27), and Mary, who is warned against touching the body of the risen Christ (John 20:24-29, 20:17). (10) But touch, especially when initiated by Jesus was also liberative. Jesus elevated the lowliest of senses by deploying touch in ways that upended the hierarchy of the age, even the hierarchy of the senses. As Elna Mouton observes, “Jesus’s response to the context of his time was that of seeing distressed people, of stopping by the roadside, acknowledging their humanity and need, having compassion for them, and touching them, more often than not against society’s socio-cultural and political grain.” (11) In John’s narrative, as a counterpoint to the physical violence Christ is about to suffer, the practice of gentle and empathic touch among the disciples, whom he calls friends (15:9-17), resonates in ways that can get lost in the focus on Christ’s pain as the source of salvation, completely eclipsing the praxis of liberative touch in an attitude of devotion, reciprocity and “holding the other person in high regard by cherishing that person” that Jesus models in the Upper Room. (12)

While much of the commentary of the washing of feet has focused on aspects of hospitality and humility, John’s focus makes it clear that embodiment itself (an embodied love of the neighbor) is the theme to which the others are subordinate. While humbling servanthood is radically defined in the scene, it is radical because it is the natural result of true love. The focus here is on the transforming intensity of Jesus’ love. (13) Here touch is not only important in the context of healing, but also, more generally, as the embodiment of a totalizing agape.

It is hard to overstate how problematized depictions of touch as an expression of agapic love remain, particularly among Christians in a masculinist culture where the performance of discipleship is often tied to the performance of masculinity. The “muscular Christianity” of early Twentieth Century protestantism has been taken up to a great extent by contemporary evangelicals, who construct masculinity around the heteronormative doctrine of gender complementarianism. (14) “Safe” reflections on Jesus’ touch have often been limited to the categories of explicitly healing touch emanating from Jesus, the infliction of pain on Jesus’ body, or the touching of his dead body or wounds. Empathic touch among friends like that depicted in John 13:1-20 is less often a source of deep reflection and is rarely depicted in art as portrayed in the Gospel of John. An example of the enduring discomfort the scene elicits is the reception of Ford Madox Brown’s pre-Raphaelite painting “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” (figure 1), which remained unsold for several years because its depiction of a semi-clad Jesus scandalized Victorian society. Madox Brown was forced to “rework the figure in robes” in order to make the work socially acceptable. (15) This despite successfully completed commissions for the Crucifixion and the Deposition depicting an identically-clad Jesus. (16) This discomfort and aversion to depictions of Jesus engaged in loving touch with the disciples is one of the great missed opportunities if not outright tragedies of modern Christianity.

FIGURE 1: depiction of the before and after versions of Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6), at the Tate.

The Invention of the Bromosexual

By the time the New York Times first recognized the “bromosexual” in 2016, (17) the cultural phenomenon had been trending for some time on social media. Every generation reinvents sex and sexuality, and the millennial generation has departed in significant ways from previous generations in the ubiquity of social media and its centrality to relationships and group- and individual-identity formation. For the generations immersed in these media, sex and gender are social and performative in ways that are intriguingly new. The “meme economy” of social media has also given new meaning to mimesis as a power in passing on culture. It is impossible to think of the internet without pornography, and it, too, plays an important, if often overlooked or suppressed, role in both secular and religious culture. As for the latter, in the US “a reliable positive association of moderate-to-large association size exists between state-level religiosity and searches for the term ‘sex.’” (18) According to one recent study, “40% of conservative Protestant men under age 40 have seen porn in the last year.” (19) While some see this as a crisis, the numbers among “the faithful” are actually consistent with wider trends. “But for conservative Christians the effect is far more damaging. … [B]ecause these Christians engage in … ‘sexual exceptionalism’ — regarding sexual transgressions like pornography use as far worse sins than, say, hoarding wealth, screaming at one’s children or spreading gossip about a neighbor — their spiritual well-being and entire Christian identity rest on this one factor.” (20) The burden of resisting such a dominant trend in the culture will likely, especially for the generation immersed in it from birth, lead to greater accommodation of the culture of porn among evangelicals. What might be seen by some as a “weakening of the sense of sin” (21) might also be seen as a much-needed normalization of sex as an expression of human relationship, where talking about it more openly could integrate Christian ethics into sexual practice in more meaningful ways. Whatever the case, knowing that the audience for porn among evangelicals is vast and that what happens in porn has real world behavioral implications, (22) findings showing nearly a quarter of straight- identifying porn viewers viewing gay porn might suggest a healthy curiosity about less rigidly binary expressions of sexuality. The saturation of personal media with practically infinite, fluid and participatory depictions of sexual relationships may be helping to normalize sexual behavior that was once considered “kink,” and encouraging the proliferation of social-sexual identities defined by object preference and kink.

Gender, always performative, has become self-conscious performance in the age of ubiquitous diy porn and social media, and “kinds of sexual predilection” have become increasingly uncoupled “from degrees of masculinity and femininity.” While the late ‘90s had its gender-fluid moment with the “metrosexual,” the “heteroflexible,” (23) and the apparently common practice of “dude-sex” — male–male sex “that white, masculine, straight men in urban or military contexts frame as a way to bond and build masculinity with other, similar ‘bros’” (24) — the “bromosexual” is not a liberal urban phenomenon, but is instead rooted deep in the masculinist American “heartland.” Recent studies have identified rural variations of modern “bromance” that distinguish it from the catch-all “MSM” (men who have sex with men). One study noted that the phenomenon of “bud sex” was a way rural white men “reinforced their straightness through unconventional interpretations of same-sex sex: as ‘helpin’ a buddy out,’ relieving ‘urges,’ acting on sexual desires for men without sexual attractions to them.” (25) Such a cultural practice could be seen at least partly as a reaction to the relative normalization of white gay identities common in today’s media, by men who regularly engage in sex with men but who insist on describing themselves as “not-gay.” (26) The irony here is that “not-gay” men may be queerer than out gay men in a contemporary culture where gay men often cling to gender-binary stereotypes and strive to present as hypermasculine. (27) Bromosexuals may be, in part, rebelling against the obsessive codification of gay categories, and the perceived privilege that gay white men have to freely construct their secular sexual identities, while straight men must “follow the rules.” “Bromosexuality” is self-consciously defiant of existing gay categories, and this defiance often finds surprisingly frank religious expression.

Religious Expressions of “bromosexuality”

The Christianized popular culture of the white evangelical Midwest includes ecstatic expressions of love and need that frame Jesus as a friend, and clearly one “with benefits.” This conception of an intense relationship is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the popular Christian Contemporary music industry, with its listening audience of over 215 million. (28) Grammy- winning Christian rock band Casting Crowns’ hit, “Your Love is Extravagant,” is representative of this trend. The lyrics, composed and performed by frontman and former youth pastor Mark Hall, read like they were written by a lover:

Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel like moving to the rhythm of Your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place. (29)

In the next stanza, Hall sings of being “spread wide in the arms of Christ.” The imagery is fumblingly erotic, evocative of two teens clumsily going at it in the back of a Dodge Dart in the church parking lot on a school night. This is extremely intimate “friendship,” and the bromantic “Capture my heart again” of the final verse is a frank and unapologetic paean to the blurred lines between the erotic and apapic that parallel the blurred categories of the bromosexual phenomenon. And Casting Crowns are not alone in their “bromantic tendencies.” Love songs like “Your Love is Extravagant” are incredibly popular in the American Heartland, and can be heard not only on contemporary radio, but on popular movie soundtracks like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which includes the Christian rock crossover hit “Awake & Alive” from hypermasculinist Christian grunge band, Skillet. (30) Lead singer and lyricist John Cooper, who also wrote and performed the theme song for the wildly popular World Wrestling Entertainment’s Raw franchise, (31) uses graphic double entendres in “Suspended in You,” a song about his personal relationship with Jesus: “I’m suspended in You/Stretch me bigger… the pressure on/exploding me into open space… Gushing with surrender in your hands.” (32) Lyrics echo those of other Christian contemporary songs, with references to “What is hidden” in “secret places” that borrow from the queer experience of being forced to live and love in the closet. But given the popularity of this genre among Christian listeners, if it is a secret, it’s an open one.

These depictions of embodied agape and ecstatic loving touch communicate integral theological elements embedded in Christianity itself. The songwriters are not innovating here. What they are doing is giving voice to “warehoused” aspects of their tradition that have themselves been hidden in plain sight and whose suppression has not only been used to perpetuate violence against gay men, lesbians and other sexual minorities, but also has been felt as a deep inner lack by Christian men who identify as straight, and who feel trapped in a masculinist culture that toxifies the loving touch at the heart of the gospel. The point here is not that there is hidden meaning in Jesus’ touch or that it is strictly translatable to the contemporary categories of gender and sexuality, but that, regardless of interpretation, it simply is loving touch. The fact that Jesus’ experience of pain has received much more attention and is much more readily grasped in masculinist cultures does not eliminate the focus on the pleasure of touch in the Gospel of John. Touch is vital to the communication of God’s intense and unbounded love, according to John, and God’s command to pass it on through loving touch is central to the “ring composition” of John 13. While appropriating queer elements of gender performativity may be a function of sexual privilege among white male evangelicals, acknowledgment in popular expressions of the importance of loving touch in the Gospel narrative may yet have a positive impact on a toxic culture.

Conclusion

“Bromosexual” culture, while a broad cultural development, has had an impact on the white male Evangelical culture of the US Midwest that can be seen in religious expressions that deploy the language and sentiments of “bromance” as an idiom for embodied agapic love like we see in John 13:1-20. While the depiction of Jesus’ loving touch has proven problematic in ways depicting his pain and death are not for masculinist culture, expressions in popular Christian culture that describe this love in loving detail, seem to do so with total confidence in the love command, and a certain faith in its replication through mimesis. Elements of modern bromance in contemporary Christian music, social media culture and internet memes all suggest a growing desire to challenge the stifling boundaries of intimate male-to-male touch that have characterized the toxic masculinity of evangelical “sexual exceptionalism,” with inspiration from the loving touch of Jesus found in the Gospel of John.

Notes

1 David M Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990), 25.

2 Jan van der Watt, “The Meaning of Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples (John 13),” Neotestamentica 51.1 (2017): 30.

3 Van der Watt, 31.

4 See Van der Watt, 36: “Footwashing has a clear meaning as a key to a rejection of social hierarchy and new form of social relationships based on Jesus.”

5 See 15:12-15, where Jesus calls the disciples his “friends” and repeats the love commandment of 13:34- 35.

6 John 13 is a ring composition which begins with an expression of Jesus’ intense love for his friends in 13:1 and circles back around in 13:34-35 to the commandment that they love one another “just as I have loved you.”

7 Van der Watt, 35.

8 Elna Mouton, “Torah Reimag(in)ed between σάρξ and δόξα?Implied Household Ethos in the Fourth Gospel,” / Neotestamentica 50.3 (2016) Special Edition 93-112. pp.105-6.

9 Anthony Synnott, “Puzzling over the Senses: From Plato to Marx,” in The Variety of Sensory Experience. A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses, ed. David Howes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991): 63.

10 David Chidester, “Haptics of the Heart: the Sense of Touch in American Religion and Culture,” Culture and Religion, l(l) (2000): 64.

11 Mouton, 106.

12 Van der Watt, 32.

13 Van der Watt, 31.

14 See James S. Bielo, “Act Like Men: Social Engagement and Evangelical Masculinity,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2014): 233-248.

15 Tate.org.uk, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/brown-jesus-washing-peters-feet-n01394 (accessed December 12, 2019).

16 These works can be seen at: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/fmb/glass/8.html and https://arthive.com/fordmadoxbrown/works/542263~The_burial_of_Jesus_by_the_apostles_Fragment, respectively (accessed December 12, 2019).

17 Jim Farber, “The Rise of the ‘Bromosexual’ Friendship,” The New York Times, October 4, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/07/fashion/mens-style/gay-straight-men-friendship.html (accessed December 12, 2019).

18 Cara C. MacInnis and Gordon Hodson, “Do American States with More Religious or Conservative Populations Search More for Sexual Content on Google?” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 44, Issue 1 (2015), 137–147, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0361-8 (accessed December 13, 2019).

19 Jana Riess, “Conservative Christians have a porn problem, studies show, but not the one you think,” Religionnews.com, August 6, 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/08/06/conservative-christians-have-a- porn-problem-studies-show/ (accessed December 13, 2019).

20 ibid.

21 George Orwell, quoted by Joseph Hynes “The ‘Facts’ at The Heart of the Matter,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter 1972): 715.

22 Recent studies have found that “viewing a greater proportion of Sexually Explicit Media (SEM) containing condomless anal sex was associated with engaging in more condomless anal encounters, while viewing a greater proportion of SEM containing anal sex where condoms were used was associated with fewer condomless anal sex encounters. MSM reported that viewing SEM caused changes in their sexual fantasies, desires, and behaviors.” Indeed, as for the behavioral implications of internet porn, this is where “the rubber meets the road.” From Eric W. Schrimshaw, Nadav Antebi-Gruszka and Martin J. Downing, Jr., “Viewing of Internet-Based Sexually ExplicitMedia as a Risk Factor for Condomless AnalSex among Men Who Have Sex with Men inFour U.S. Cities,” PLoS ONE 11(4) (2017):e0154439. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0154439, accessed December 13, 2019.

23 Hector G Carrillo and Amanda Hoffman, “From MSM to heteroflexibilities: Non-exclusive straight male identities and their implications for HIV prevention and health promotion,” Global Public Health, 11(7-8) (2016): 923-936.

24 Tony Silva, “Bud-Sex: Constructing Normative Masculinity among Rural Straight Men That Have Sex With Men,” Gender & Society 31(1) (2016), 61.

25 Silva, 68.

26 For a fascinating discussion of the “not-gay” phenomenon, see Jane Ward’s Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015).

27 For a discussion on this phenomenon, see Francisco J. Sánchez, Stefanie T. Greenberg, William Ming Liu, and Eric Vilain, ”Reported Effects of Masculine Ideals on Gay Men,“ Psychol Men Masc. 2009 Jan; 10(1): 73–87.

28 Christine Thomasos, “Christians Music Still Impacting the World With 215 Million Listeners, Says GMA President (Interview),” Christianpost.com, August 24, 2015, https://www.christianpost.com/news/gma-president-says-christian-music-continues-to-impact-culture-as- 215-million-americans-listen-to-gospel-music-despite-warnings-of-decline-interview.html (accessed December 13, 2019).

29 The video with lyrics, viewed almost a million times, can be found at https://youtu.be/-DqlLAVm0cg (accessed December 8, 2019).

30 CBN.com, “Skillet Featured on Transformer 3 Soundtrack,” https://www1.cbn.com/music/skillet- featured-on-transformer-3-soundtrack (accessed December 13, 2019.

31 WWE on twittter, https://twitter.com/WWE/status/1177674793744773130 (accessed December 13, 2019).

32 Lyrics at http://cms.klove.com/music/artists/skillet/songs/suspended-in-you-lyrics.aspx (accessed December 8, 2019).

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