I live a somewhat isolated life as a gay celibate. I’m ravenous to find countercultural examples of love—examples not dominated by romance and clothes-stripping. In other words, Nicholas Sparks makes me gag. Sorry, gals.
Frankly, the American Christian’s imagination sucks. We’re narrow-minded; ignorant of a wide variety of callings and gifts God has given His children. We act as if life follows the same linear path for all sane, well-adjusted people. You know, American Dream and all that jazz, right? Go to school, get a job, climb the social ladder, get married, have kids, then grandkids, retire, and die. The end.
So, ok. I’m a little weird. Maybe I’m desperately grasping at anything that will make me feel a little more normal. Something to remind me my life has meaning even though I don’t have a girlfriend (which would appease the church) or a boyfriend (which would appease the gays). But if you filter through enough film, TV, literature, and music, you’ll find some surprising illustrations.
I recently found a surprising one in Dr. Who.
My family had watched the show from season 1, but it wasn’t until Matt Smith’s portrayal of The Doctor in Season 5 that I was hooked. To my surprise I found that pieces of dialogue and storylines resonated with me on an emotional level. While I live a fairly ordinary life, there’s still a sense of something “different” about my experience that sets me apart from the average Christian. I felt like The Doctor understood that feeling as a humanoid alien spending most of his time around humans.
So, yes, if I haven’t lost you by this point, The Doctor is an humanoid alien known as a Time Lord. The Doctor is somewhere around a thousand years old and regenerates into a new body and personality when one body gets old or suffers a fatal injury. He travels in a time machine called a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which looks like a British police box on the outside, but turns out to be much larger on the inside. The Doctor travels through the universe (past, present, and future), drawn to danger and adventure—rarely with a plan, but usually saves the day in the end (he’s a very clever old alien). And most importantly for the purpose of this post, The Doctor rarely travels alone.
The Doctor’s “companions” are selected for a variety of reasons and serve different purposes. In many ways the companion helps The Doctor witness the wonder of the universe like a parent seeing the world through a child’s fresh, untainted perspective. And he probably won’t tell you, but The Doctor gets lonely too. Road trips are far more fun with company.
Matt Smith’s Doctor primarily travels with Amy and Rory, a married couple. We first meet Amy as a child, the first living being this version of the Doctor beholds in his newly regenerated form. The Doctor tells “little Amelia” that he will return in a few minutes, but minutes turn into years, and The Doctor returns to find Amy a grown woman. The Doctor develops a strong bond with Amy, a bond that eventually extends to her husband, Rory.
In one scene, the Doctor returns for Christmas a bit sheepishly after a long absence from Amy and Rory. Amy is justifiably peeved with more years waiting on the Doctor to re-enter her life (and squirts the Doctor with a water gun for good measure). But during this particular period of absence, Amy and Rory begin a tradition: every Christmas they await The Doctor’s return by preparing a third place at their table. You see, the Doctor is more than just a friend; he has become family. He is a person wanted, a person who has become part of Amy and Rory’s normal rhythm of living. The adventures have become more characteristic of real life for Amy and Rory than their normal, monotonous tasks and responsibilities.
This little, perhaps insignificant, Christmas tradition was incredibly moving for me. I have a wonderful family who loves and supports me, but someday I will have to move out and become an adult. God’s call for my life may take me far from my family of origin, and that’s when celibacy may become difficult. I hope for friendships like The Doctor and Amy’s. Their connection is a beautiful thing to watch, but something I don’t always trust to find in a busy world and a busy church. Unlike The Doctor, I don’t have a time machine that can whisk people away and bring them back to the places and times their schedules demand. And yet for all the disappointment likely awaiting me, I can’t help but hope we’ll find a way. God hasn’t called anyone to live without a family. I have to believe He’ll provide.
~ ~ ~
Now The Doctor is far from celibate: at one point in his time-stream he has a wife, River Song. Yet The Doctor lives on for centuries, while River Song and all his regular companions eventually have their endings. They’re human after all. Over and over The Doctor finds himself alone, but with each loss he takes another risk, needing a new friend to share the miracle of existence. The Doctor needs his companions to witness life with him. I couldn’t help but think of a great post Julie Rodgers wrote about the tragedy of going through life alone, unwitnessed:
“What I’ve longed for more than anything is a shared history with someone, where (together) we recount the way this place or those people or that near-death experience shaped us into the people we are today. There is no shared history, though, because the places and people and near-death experiences were things I arrived at alone and left alone. Then I moved into another space where I would tell other people about those experiences, grasping for the adjectives to capture it as accurately as possible so they might come a little closer to understanding who I am and where I’ve been. But they don’t really know.”
This “shared history” is exactly why The Doctor continues to let more love in when, as River Song says, he hates to say goodbye. He wants someone to share in his adventures, to share his life with. Julie craves it, I crave it, we all do. And honestly, it’s how God has designed us to thrive. As Julie points out in her post, “It’s not good to be alone.” And as I’ve seen Julie and many others write, we can live without sex, but we can’t live without love and intimacy. We were made to connect.
It’s this core element of love that unites and encapsulates our various callings. We’ve been uniquely gifted by our Father to love the world around us. Maybe it makes me a complete nerd, but I think that’s why I’m drawn to superhero characters. The superhero must undergo a rigorous emotional and spiritual journey to accept his or her gift to help mankind. The hero wrestles with whether to embrace the vocation or ignore it and live a normal life. There’s sacrifice; often romance and a personal life are put aside for the greater good of humanity. But the hero bears the loneliness and sacrifice out of a desire to do good, to set an example, and to love. In the Superhero genre, we don’t call it crazy or necessarily depressing, but noble.
The Doctor can’t help but assist those in need. He’s wired to work that way, to be a savior to the universe. Settling down is not an option for this Time Lord. It’s not that married life is a bad thing or a weak thing, it’s just not his calling (at least not for his overarching story). The Doctor belongs to the universe, to whoever happens to be in his company and needs him in that moment of time. He lives a vocation of love.
I can’t begin to express what impact Eve Tushnet has had on the Side B, celibate gay Christian niche (Wes Hill does a far better job here). Perhaps her greatest contribution has been in articulating the concept of vocation. There’s no telling how many times her famous line “You can’t have a vocation of no” has been quoted (me included). Eve, and the writers who expanded her vision, taught me my vocation as a celibate gay man is not a life excluded from love, but actually quite the opposite. I live a life devoted to love.
Eve writes in her book Gay and Catholic, “You are called to something, not merely away from something.”¹ How foreign is that concept from what the church preaches about homosexuality? The church tends to take gay people down a dead-end road. Don’t have sex. Well, ok. What then? Blank looks and silence usually follows that question. That’s why we need trailblazers like Eve—who in reality are just dusting off old traditions and teachings we’ve forgotten as we’ve pursued The American Dream and Western individualism.
Eve continues, discussing the solution to both her struggles with alcoholism and chastity: “My project right now is to build a way of life in keeping with my God-given vocation. And thinking about sobriety in this way helps me to see that I need to be more connected to others: more honest with my friends, and therefore more intimate with them, and closer to my family. Not having gay sex and not drinking are things I can do on my own, at least for awhile. Living out my vocation is something I can only do with the people I’m called to love”²
The Doctor would have no story apart from the people who need him. He would just be a crazy man in a box, doomed to a long, lonely life. But The Doctor chooses to share his life with his close friends, and his friends provide meaning for the short time their lives intersect. I learn so much from that. Some people assume I will live a sad, lonely life without a husband or wife, yet I think it all depends on how you look at it. If I were to live as a hermit, cloistered from the world, then yes, that would be terribly depressing and a waste of the time God has called me to steward. But when I think of people like Mother Teresa, a real-life superhero, I see something powerful and inspiring. Every day of my life can be given in love to the people God places in my sphere of influence right now. Everyday I can choose to serve, to give, and to help those in need. Our Father saves us so we can assist in saving His creation, because that’s His ultimate goal—to make right what we made wrong, to heal what this callous world crushed, to make even better what was once deemed merely “good.” That’s why Christians continue to marry and have babies in the face of evil and suffering, that’s how singles, celibates, widows and widowers can participate in the formation of shalom. We’re all working together to push back the darkness, to create new life and new love, and redeem this fallen, cursed planet. And one day when we have played our role and done our part, our Father will call us home, beaming as He proclaims, Well done, my good and faithful servant! The gospel gives us one goal, but many–so many–callings to achieve the goal.
And I think it’s pretty cool Dr. Who reminds me of all that.
1. Eve Tushnet, Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2014, 59.