Paul Rudnick’s 1998 play The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told has always faced some backlash for its subject matter. Retelling the story of Genesis with two gay men named Adam and Steve, who are also joined by lesbian couple Jane and Mabel, the play puts comic twists on ancient Bible stories to explore LGBT themes. Now being revived by Atlanta’s Out Front Theatre Company, the play is once again back in the news, this time as a result of an ongoing hate campaign being waged on the theater by the Pennsylvania-based far-right Catholic group America Needs Fatima. Having started a petition with almost 50,000 signatures demanding the show be cancelled—primarily for its portrayal of Mary as a lesbian as well—ANF is also now sending hundreds of threatening calls and emails to the theater, to the point where the Atlanta Police Department and even the Department of Homeland Security have been notified. Despite the outcry, however, Out Front Artistic Director Paul Conroy has not been deterred; while some security measures have been stepped up, the show will continue to run as planned.
This controversy has made international headlines, but despite the familiar religious-uproar-over-blasphemous-art narrative it seems to fall into, is this play really so controversial? ANF is a particularly conservative and aggressive group with no formal ties to the Catholic Church, and they regularly protest art they deem offensive. But according to campaign contribution data from the FEC, church leaders across denominations tend to favor liberal politics by a ratio of about 2 to 1. Many denominations are also fully accepting of LGBT rights and even incorporate it into their theology and social justice work. So to get another perspective on this supposed controversy, I reached out to a friend, the Rev. J. Manny Santiago. Santiago currently serves as the Executive Director of The Crossing in Madison, Wisconsin and will soon be heading east to run the Rainbow Center, a Washington advocacy organization for LGBT rights and education.
Hi Manny. Are you familiar with The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told?
I am not too familiar with the play beyond the stories I’ve read about it. I understand that this is a piece of art that invites the audience to rethink some of the stories shared among Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. (Yes, Islam also considers the stories of the Jewish Torah and the Psalms as sacred.) Presenting the stories from a different perspective certainly offers people an opportunity to reflect on our values, our mores, our idiosyncrasies and our way of understanding humanity’s relationship with Divinity. Personally, I find the premise of the play intriguing and would love to have the chance to enjoy a showing soon.
Generally speaking, how do you feel about adapting stories from the Bible to explore LGBT issues?
There is an important thing people need to understand: we do not need to “adapt” the stories of the Bible to explore LGBTQ issues. The Bible does have stories that contain gay, lesbian or bisexual protagonists. Some theologians have approached the Bible from what we call a liberationist lens. This is a lens that uses the experiences of particular oppressed communities when doing a reading of Sacred Scripture. A few of these theologians – like myself – use the lens of what we call “queer theology,” which takes into consideration the experiences of LGBTQ communities when approaching Scripture.
From this queer theology perspective, we can certainly see how the story of David and Jonathan, found in 1 and 2 Samuel, is the love story of two men who overcome all odds to show their passionate affection to each other. Other queer theologians have also identified glimpses of a lesbian love in the story of Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth. As you can see, the lives of LGBTQ communities are already sewn into the sacred story of salvation!
However, we also have to keep in mind that art in all its forms has a twofold purpose: to create and invite us to enjoy beauty, and to challenge us as humans to look at reality from different perspectives. Adapting other biblical stories to LGBTQ realities only helps us in approaching the sacred stories from a different perspective; it helps us to expand our understanding of what is “holy.” The adaption of biblical stories to reflect on and explore LGBTQ issues does not take away from the sacredness of the stories. On the contrary, it adds to it. It helps us to look at the stories from different eyes and experiences, which can only add to our way of relating to God.
What are your thoughts on artists using parody, satire or irreverent humor in the context of religion?
I think it’s great! There is a false expectation on the part of society – and a hypocritical one at that – which tells us that religion is to be a serious endeavor with no relation to humor. It is something similar to what’s happened with science and religion.
Our relationship with Divinity includes irreverence, humor, parody and satire.
Anyway, I think that humor and religion can go together, and can be used in any context in which is appropriate. I have no qualms with artists using religion both as an inspiration and as an object of their art. Am I going to agree with every which way they portray it? Absolutely not! But it is not my role to censor artists who want to do this. However, I do believe that, as with any other thing – race, sex, violence, etc. – it needs to be done in a way that makes sense.
I don’t know how familiar your readers are with the religious world, but there is a great pastor and comedian from New York City! Her name is Susan Sparks, and she’s a colleague in the American Baptist Churches (my denomination) who leads Madison Avenue Baptist Church in the city, but she also does the rounds with her professional comedy show. You all should check her out! There’s also another comedian, Anjelah Johnson, who uses a lot of inspiration from her Christian faith in her stand-up comedy shows.
What would your response be to a conservative Christian who is uncomfortable seeing characters from the Bible being depicted as gay?
I cannot control the way people react to art, but I can suggest they not expose themselves to what makes them uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this means sheltering themselves from a beautifully diverse world that God has created for us to enjoy.
What is something you wish more arts audiences understood about Christianity or the Bible?
We are not all stuck-up, stone-faced, boring people! I mean, I am full of dad jokes! (Although, I do not think that my audiences appreciate the art there!)
The Bible is filled with wonderful stories that need to be told and retold in many ways. To the audiences, I say stay open to welcome art for what it is — beauty and creativity. Offer yourself the opportunity to enjoy the complexity of the text we consider sacred.
The stories that have been inherited by our tradition are wonderfully complex.
I also want to tell something to the artists: continue exploring these themes, continue creating art that inspires, challenges and calls us into reflection. It might not be welcomed and understood by all, but it is your sacred calling to create!