Seeking Change Through The Power of Art: Our Journey Creating Christian LGBTQ+ Iconography

Mark McDermott

Today’s post is from guest contributor Mark McDermott. Mark is the executive producer of the new film, Wonderfully Made-LGBTQ+R(eligion), which he created with his husband, Yuval David. He was an attorney on Wall Street and is now a philanthropist for several causes.

To learn more about the film and its screening schedule, click here.

Few things are more human than the indescribable yearning for the Infinite.  We all know and feel its call.  As German Romantic poet Goethe has said, it is a persistent, sometimes-maddening “holy longing,” and it is altogether insatiable.[1] Catholic theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson offers the following description of this yearning:

[A]s God-seekers of every age have testified, the human spirit cannot rest in any one encounter but, intrigued by the glimpse already gained, continues to hunger for more.  People keep on journeying through beauty and joy, through duty and commitment, through agonizing silence and pain, toward greater meaning and deeper union with the ineffable God, to their last breath.[2]

St. Augustine, too, captured these sentiments in one of the pithiest and most powerful lines ever written:  “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[3]

One of the most inhuman of scandals is to deny any of our siblings to experience this exquisite longing, and the exquisite rest that it portends.  Yet that is precisely what many do – and they do it in the name of religion, no less.  Some people do this by labeling our LGBTQ+ siblings “objectively disordered.”  Others may claim “all are welcome,” but only if they do not live out who they are or only if they “repent.”

Art is a powerful, sometimes overlooked, agent of change.  My husband, Yuval David, is a professional artist:  an actor, film-maker and host.  Recently, we together decided to use art to try to give hope to LGBTQ+ people — and to try to persuade, without words, the many deniers among us.  We also did it because I, as a Catholic, could find no representations of an LGBTQ+ Jesus that spoke to me.  Alas, it is a void that many people feel whenever they gaze upon paintings, drawing and statues of Jesus that always look shockingly the same.

So, Yuval and I cast nine actors of diverse ethnicities, races, genders and gender identities to portray Jesus as suffering with and for LGBTQ+ people.  We hired one of the top photographic and style teams in the world to capture them with a camera, creating new LGBTQ+ iconography that respects, yet shatters, over 1700 years of artistic tradition.  We’ve had enough paintings and sculptures of a lily white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, male Jesus.

It took us three-and-a-half years to complete this project, and what a glorious and privileged journey it has been!  We auditioned over 500 actors, poured over thousands of images of Jesus,  spent untold hours discussing fabric choices, make-up design, lighting options, and construction of a 12-foot, 500-pound cross.  The pandemic disrupted our work, with two years separating the shoot of our first, “test” model, and the shoot of the next eight.  The planning took months; the shoot days were fourteen hours long; we had upwards of 40 people on set.

In the early stages of this project, we decided to document the creation of this work.  It started as a ten-minute short of behind-the-scenes footage of the photo shoot – then grew to a full-length feature that has been accepted to several film festivals.  Who knew, in February 2019, that we’d eventually hire over 150 people to help in the production?  That we’d use almost 400 pieces of archival footage and commission over 40 music cues before all was said and done?

Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, is one of many heroes whom we interviewed in the film, along with Father James Martin, SJ; Father Bryan Massingale; Marianne Duddy-Burke; Stanley “JR” Zerkowski; and Miguel Diaz, PhD, former Ambassador to the Vatican.  We interviewed some pretty serious theologians in addition to Father Bryan and Miguel, including Natalia Imperatori-Lee, PhD and Jason Steidl, PhD.  We interviewed major activists as well, like Xorje Olivares and Cathy Renna.

In the film, Sister Jeannine quotes some of the most beautiful yet haunting words that Yuval and I ever heard: “All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain.  But their roots are the studier, and their flowering, the lovelier.”  Sister Jeannine said these words to point out that while no one wants suffering and pain in their lives, they do often come through stronger and lovelier than they were before.

LGBTQ+ people indeed have known suffering and pain.  Even with more accepting attitudes today than in years past, roughly 40% of homeless kids are LGBTQ+, with no place to lay their heads, and LGBTQ+ kids are 8 times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops fought funding for a suicide hotline solely because it would have helped LGBTQ+ kids, too, and LGBTQ+ teachers are fired by Catholic schools way too frequently.

What an awful way to hurt our siblings!  To deny them the authenticity of their own holy longing that is at the core of every human soul!  Persecuted LGBTQ+ people indeed may come through sturdier and lovelier, but unfortunately, not all make it, and the pain that has been inflicted upon them is human-made, senseless and cruel in the extreme.  It surely is not the example of the Jesus I know.

People often say that God is in all things, including every one of us.  We forget that idea all the time, though.  Inexcusably, we don’t see God reflected in the faces of our siblings, especially those who are the least among us.  But is there really anyone who is “least” in God’s eyes?  The new LGBTQ+ iconography Yuval and I created is our effort to depict, in ways strangely avoided throughout history, that God really is reflected in every single one of us.  That each of us is, in a very real sense, God.  That is, after all, what the Christian faith teaches, isn’t it?

Mark McDermott, October 1, 2022

Related Article

National Catholic Reporter, “LGBTQ+ Jesus crucified in ‘Wonderfully Made’

Footnotes

[1] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Holy Longing,” translated by Robert Bly, in The Rag and the Bone Shop of the Heart:  A Poetry Anthology (1993); R. Rolheiser, The Holy Longing:  The Search For A Christian Spirituality (2019 ed.).

[2] Elizabeth Johnson, Quest For The Living God, at 13 (2007).

[3] St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1, at 3 (Barnes & Noble Classics Ed. 2007).

2 replies
  1. Deb Merriner
    Deb Merriner says:

    After reading about this documentary, I would love to view a screening but it looks like they were in September. Any more information about when and where we can see this?

    Reply
    • Francis DeBernardo, Editor
      Francis DeBernardo, Editor says:

      Check out the website. I’m sure they will update it with future screenings. (link is in the introduction to the post)

      Reply

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