Towards a Drag Christianity

by jdavidcharles

Garbo ‘got in drag’ whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man’s arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck… bear the weight of her thrown-back head… How resplendent seems the art of acting! It is all impersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not.—Parker Tyler, “The Garbo Image” quoted in Esther Newton, Mother Camp

Over the past few days I have been asked a number of times what “kind of christian” I am. This is a curious phrase—the demand for a label, the religious truth of the subject, that will reveal itself by confession. Suffice to say my answer has taken a few forms depending on context but which has consisted of intentionally tense phrases like “secular/materialist christian,” “believing atheist,” or “reformed neo-pagan.” These titles of course are intentionally camp-y. They exemplify how “I” try to do the whole christian thing: as drag.

Drag—as espoused by Esther Newton, Judith Butler, and others—presents us with a duel confrontation. On the one hand, it presents us with an exterior woman who is *really* a man, and yet also presents us an exterior man who is *really* a woman. Drag, as pastiche, reveals simultaneously the absurdities of interior/exterior, male/female, essence/accident, and subject/object binaries. In Gender Trouble Butler notoriously shows how drag functions as a subversive act to reveal the constructedness of gender. Drag, for Butler, just as much as any engendered position, is a strategy, a posture which both situates the subject as well as produces the subject. The difference between a “man in drag” and a “woman” is precisely the normalized and compulsory practices which sanction and produce the woman as natural. Thus drag works as a means of not only subverting naturalized socially sanctioned positions but co-extensively produces a new position.

The key thing is this happens only by taking up the very languages and practices of the social. Butler is highly skeptical of any discourse which appeals to an origin *before* a parasitic or extrinsic power that corrupts some pure essence (like some feminisms which appeal to a matriarchal/matrilineal pre-patriarchy). Like Derrida, Butler finds no “before the Law”—any origin is produced retroactively by the Law’s conditions and prohibitions. If all we have are the terms of the Law, how do we escape (the “we” it produces)? Just because we only have the terms of the Law doesn’t mean we can’t use those terms in new and creative ways to undermine the very systems of power and oppression that the Law implements itself. This is, in short, how Gender Trouble seeks to show performatively subversive acts, like drag, can re-distribute power-relations and normative constructions of engendered subjectivity, opening up new possibilities of relation.

Likewise, asking questions about what christianity was “before the Law” (I think here of questions concerning a historical Adam and Eve, historical resurrection, literal second coming and resurrection, fulfillment of prophecy, eschatological literalism, etc)  are nonsensical and irrelevant regarding what christianity *does* and what type of christian subject it produces. Likewise, alternative positions which attempt to circumnavigate christian discourse (I’m looking at you new atheism) often uncritically accept and replicate the terms and cultural practices of christianity. I think a large problem with this is the tacit assumption that christianity is a system of beliefs—something subjects choose—rather than a historical object that conditions, positions, distributes, etc, its subjects. If we assume the latter though then we can see how christianity, as a structuring and organizing and productive machine itself needs subversion and critique.

Now subversive acts that reveal the artificiality of christian belief or practice needn’t happen by someone who identifies *as* christian, but merely by positioning oneself as a speaking christian subject (just as the “man in drag” accepts given gender categories). It is by speaking from this position, by using components of the discourse, its objects of construction, that one reveals christianity’s composition. Just as drag shows the artificiality of interior/exterior through its performance, so acts of drag christianity disrupt this very notion of an inside/outside of “a” christian community (saved/damned, orthodox/heretic, sacred/secular etc). Instances of drag christianity include textual manipulations (William Blake), liturgical subversions (HIV-positive men lying down in protest within notoriously homophobic churches), cultural parody (Life of Brian jumps to mind), among other options. The point isn’t whether an individual subject is within or without the christian discourse/practice but how these various ordering of bodies are rearranged to reveal new possible (and hopefully less oppressive) relations by questioning that very relationship. Just as the “man in drag” accepts the terms of normative gender relations and compulsory heterosexuality in order to reveal the discourse’s contingency, so too drag christianity accepts doctrines and practices in order to invent new practices and recodify its subjects.