There’s a scene at the end of the independent film C. O. G. (Child of God) I just can’t shake from my mind. C. O. G. is loosely based off a series of essays from American comic writer David Sedaris. The film stars Jonathan Groff (Glee, Looking) as Samuel, a pretentious Ivy League graduate who decides to move across the country to Oregon to experience life among the working class, picking apples in orchards and later taking up a third-shift job sorting apples in a factory.
Oh, and Samuel likes guys.
As Samuel works at the factory, he develops a friendship with Curly (Corey Stoll, House of Cards, The Strain), a forklift operator. Curly savors Samuel’s dry humor and educated perspective. Both friends are aware of their growing physical chemistry; a language spoken only through eye contact and flirtatious smiles. Yet Samuel’s sexuality doesn’t play a central role in C. O. G.; it’s not until the end of the film that Samuel chooses to see his attraction for men as a defining characteristic of his personality, though Samuel never seems torn about his feelings.
But what makes C. O. G. intriguing for me is how Christianity weaves throughout Samuel’s story. A Bible-pushing ex-con asks Samuel on the trip to Oregon if he knows the Lord. Samuel tries to brush off the conversation, but eventually states religion is for the simple-minded.
“The Bible says…” begins the zealous Christian.
“I know what the Bible says,” Samuel interrupts.
“So what’s your problem?”
“It’s poorly written.”
Yet the enlightened atheist finds himself surrounded by Christianity in rural Oregon. When Samuel’s friendship with Curly goes sour after discovering Curly’s, uh, weird sexual interests, Samuel abandons his job at the factory and asks for help from Jon, another Christian Samuel meets in his journey. Jon makes clocks out of jade stone and hands out Bible tracts labeled “C. O. G.” on the street corner. He’s a veteran and recovering alcoholic with a quick temper. Jon agrees to let Samuel stay with him, keen to influence Samuel with his faith.
But Samuel’s no longer the same guy as he interacts with Jon and the family from church who shelters the two of them. There’s a sense of humility we haven’t seen before, a desire to observe the world around him without pride or bias. Samuel goes to church and one Sunday Jesus just clicks. When the pastor asks if anyone in the congregation would like to receive Christ, Samuel raises his hand. The pastor beckons Samuel to the stage, asks Samuel several questions, and instructs Samuel what to pray. Tears stream down Samuel’s face as he asks God to forgive his sins and smiles as acknowledges Christ’s love. But his grin fades into discomfort when the pastor encourages Samuel to ask God for a wife and children. The satiric scene is meant to be funny, and in a sense the moment is hilarious knowing Samuel’s sexual orientation. But it’s heartrending too when you’ve grown up around straight privilege your whole life and you know this scene is more than exaggerated caricature.
It’s not clear whether Samuel’s newfound faith sticks or if he just got caught up in the moment (interviews I’ve read with the director seem to suggest the latter), but Samuel continues working with Jon creating clocks to sale at the upcoming fair, going to church, and handing out tracts on the street corner.
When the day of the fair arrives, everything changes. No one will buy Jon’s over-priced clocks, just the little boxes Samuel constructed from the leftover scraps of jade stone. Jon becomes frustrated and begins to snap at disinterested customers as Samuel tries to pacify his irate spiritual mentor. On the drive home, Jon projects his anger and failure on Samuel, needing someone to blame. Samuel remains silent as Jon berates him, a far cry from the young man we met at the beginning of the film.
Jon stops the truck.
“You know what, there’s a story I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I didn’t think I should have until now. Back in the war… One day my squad was ambushed by a—oh, a couple of local fools, just the five of us and the four of them. It was nothing serious. We took out the towelheads, but not before one of them shot one of our members in the gut. He was bleeding out all over me… Nothing we could do for him. I would have prayed for him, but this was before I knew Christ, so I didn’t do shit for his soul. And so I asked him, you know, ‘Do you know have any last requests?’ He looked me right in the eye and he asked me if I could hold him.”
Jon scoffs at the idea.
“That’s what he said to me. He goes, ‘Can you hold me?’ Jon mimics with disdain.
“I had both my legs then and I used them to kick the shit out of him. …There are a lot of sick people in this world, Samuel, and you gotta watch out for them.
Jon pauses and turns to look Samuel in the eye.
“You’re that way too, aren’t you? You’re sick like that man, aren’t you?”
Tears form in Samuel’s eyes. Samuel’s tone is soft, but he speaks with unflinching strength.
“I’m as sick as they come.”
“God.” Jon turns away in disgust. “You’ve used me—my tools, my patience, and now you want me to pat you on the head like you’re a good little boy. You know what? You’re not a good boy. You’re not even a good girl,” Jon sneers.
“You’re a user.
You’re a taker.
You’re a faggot.
Christians aren’t users.
Christians aren’t takers.
And they certainly aren’t faggots.”
Jon tosses Samuel enough money for the bus and abandons him on the road. The camera stays with Samuel as he walks along the road ruminating in silence, an array of emotions running across his face—disbelief, rejection, frustration… Samuel looks over his shoulder one last time, sighs, and a subtle expression of quiet strength comes over Samuel face as he looks up to the sky and walks out of sight. I can’t help but wonder if this concludes Samuel’s brief flirtation with Christianity as all fades to black.
/ / /
C. O. G.’s final scene gets to the heart of the Christian vs. Gay debate, doesn’t it? Is it possible to be both? While many conservative Christians would show more civility than Jon, they still arrive at the same conclusion—the two are always incompatible; Christians cannot be gay. But what stands out to me is Samuel’s silence; he doesn’t seem to disagree with Jon. As Samuel finally embraces his sexual orientation as an external, identifying characteristic of his personhood, it’s possible he believes he must relinquish his newfound faith to become an integrated human being. Maybe he simply doesn’t want Jon’s ugly faith. When our pastors incite shame and homophobia and Christian organizations like The Gospel Coalition urge Christians to acquire a gag reflex for LGBTQ people, the results can only be devastating for sexual and gender minorities in our congregations. The only hope of survival for many LGBTQ Christians is to run away from the faith that raised them.
Despite the fact many of our church denominations are seeing declines in membership and conversions, the number of LGBTQs who identify as Christian continues to grow—the Pew Research Center estimates 48% of sexual minorities now identify as Christian. C. O. G. encapsulates the conflict between the church and LGBTQ people, but it doesn’t begin to offer the nuance this conversation deserves.
Paul appeals to the Roman church to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God as part of their spiritual worship. He further exhorts the church not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by renewing their minds so they can discern God’s will and determine what things are good, acceptable, and perfect. What does that mean for me as a gay man? Am I conforming to the world by identifying with my sexual orientation? How do live my life as a living sacrifice to God as a Christian sexual minority? What is God’s will for me in the middle of this explosive debate?
As I’m winding down my blog over the next few weeks in preparation for my next adventure in graduate school, I want to consider these questions from scripture along with some other concluding thoughts.
Grace and Peace.
P. S. As of July 2015, you can still watch C. O. G. on Netflix if you still have any interest in watching the film after all my spoilers. It’s rated R for strong language and sexual content, just to let ya’ know.