Don’t’ you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3.16-17)
Note: My delay in getting Saturday’s post up has us running slightly behind. I’m catching up now with the post originally intended for Sunday and we’ll be back on schedule.
The acclaimed 1990 documentary Paris is Burning chronicles the lives of New York City gay youths who come together twice a month for drag balls—fiercely competitive events where contestants vie for the title as the best cross-dresser in one of many fashion categories. The film first garnered interest because “voguing,” the dance craze immortalized in Madonna’s hit, originated at the balls. Yet moviegoers and critics left the picture enthralled by the subculture’s two undergirding pillars: realness and houses. Realness measures authenticity of expression. It inverts the traditional drag dynamic, which affectionately teases the opposite gender’s traits and styles through overstatement, by co-opting fashion to discover and convey inner beauty. Therefore, “being real” in Paris is Burning is about transforming style and affect into self-revelation, not simply deceiving the eye or lampooning gender with costuming. Once the film establishes this subtlety, we understand why realness is the drag-ball community’s lifeblood. Many of the film’s subjects tell of being kicked to the curb after coming out to their families. To be real is to be themselves—and to earn respect from peers who personally relate to how difficult it is to be real.
Their world is structured by houses, loosely affiliated (yet tightly knit) cadres of people whose personal blends of realness share common traits with other house members’ styles and personalities. Each house is named for its founder, the first “parent” whose prominence in this universe entitles him/her to gather “children.” (Again, we see a touching convention explicitly designed to counter family and social rejection.) Each house’s members attach its name to their rechristened drag identities; David Xtravaganza, for instance, fathers The House of Xtravaganza, whose children include Anji, Bianca, Danny, and Venus Xtravaganza. The semi-monthly balls serve as the houses’ regular opportunities to reinforce the drag community’s solidarity as well as “represent.” How each house fares overall in the contests gauges how well it nurtures realness in its members. A strong house will make a strong showing, while a poorly maintained one will soon fall into disgrace.
It’s Got to Be Real
Closed minds would automatically presume drag balls in present-day Harlem and the first-century Church to share nothing in common. In light of today’s readings, however, the parallels are striking. They’re especially overt in Paul’s message: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3.16-17; emphasis added) The Body of Christ, then and now, is a unique subculture consisting of countless geographically dispersed houses that come together as one house founded by Christ, whose members take Christ’s name. We regularly gather in our respective locales to reinforce our solidarity as believers, and we represent our house via demonstrative praise and devotion. Here, too, realness gauges how well we’ve been nurtured, along with how receptive we’ve been the teachings and example of Christ. The authenticity with which we express praise—not necessarily outward, but always sincerely—witnesses our faith. For faith is our medium of discovery and self-realization.
Praise intended to impress or deceive amounts to costuming. It’s readily detectable and serves no purpose. It’s got to be real. And how can we tell if praise is real? We just know, because the Holy Spirit, Which dwells in Christ’s house, The House of Praise, ratifies true praise. While there are no empirical standards to verify or measure genuine praise, we’re inexplicably able to discern between true praise and pretense of praise. True praise moves us with its honesty. It exults in God’s grace and goodness. It reveals our innermost feelings and desires. Pretentious praise goes through the motions without stirring our emotions. It may look and sound pretty, but it’s obviously not real. What’s missing is receptiveness to God’s Spirit as the binding Force that unites us in praise.
At a glance, today’s selection from the Gospels (Mark 3.31-4.9) appears odd. Overlapping chapters is unusual to begin with, and the two passages don’t seem to fit together. The portion from chapter 3 recounts one of the more awkward moments in Jesus’s ministry. He’s responding to rumors that say He’s possessed, that His teaching and miracles aren’t really from God. Just prior to today’s passage, He says, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (v25) Then His family shows up. Apparently, they’ve also heard these rumors and have come to see if Jesus has gone over the edge. When Jesus hears they're looking for Him, He asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (v33) He answers His own question in verse 35: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Next, we turn to chapter 4 and read the parable of the farmer, who scatters seed with mixed results. Some seed gets dropped and birds eat it up. Some falls on rocky ground and doesn’t root deeply enough to withstand the sun’s heat. Some falls among briars, which choke it before it yields grain. But some falls on good ground and produces a handsome crop. Although Jesus explains the parable to the disciples in private, today’s Gospel ends with His final statement to the crowd: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (v9) How curious—until we marry the Gospel with Paul’s text (and take blatant hints in today’s Psalms, particularly 150, which closes with “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”). We must become “good ground,” receptive to God’s Spirit, if we intend to belong to Christ. We’ve got to be real in all we do—our principles, practices, prayer, and praise. Realness makes us family. Realness brings honor to The House of Praise. It unites us in purpose lest our house become divided against itself and crumble. May God’s Spirit give us ears to hear truth in Christ's words so we can bring truth to our praise.