I feel like I just stepped out of a Dr. Seuss book–Oh the Places You’ll Go!
Yesterday I spent about six hours with Christopher Hitchens, Peter Gomes, and Harold Kushner. No, I was not having a read-a-thon about faith or the need to annihilate it. Instead I had the privilege of volunteering for the Connecticut Forum, an organization in Hartford, CT that creates public conversations among luminaries. Last night’s topic? GOD-Big Questions…BIGGER Questions.
And what role did they offer to this queer Quaker Christian? I was the personal valet to Christopher Hitchens. In addition to the main stage event at the Bushnell Theater, the Forum runs a series of pre-Forum events with their guests–a book signing, a press conference run by Youth Forum members, a cocktail party, dinner, and then all the backstage activities. The role of the valet is to make sure his or her guest is comfortable, not harassed by fans, and most importantly, that he or she gets to the next event on time (preferably sober).
I somehow think the Forum continues to ask me back to valet because as a performance artist, they understand that no one fascinates me much than myself. That and I lived in NYC for 10 years where one gets trained to walk with a catlike aloofness toward all manner of celebrities. (As a result, some years back I got to spend a glorious Forum evening with Kurt Vonnegut and his secondhand smoke.)
Of all the Forums that I’ve done, this is the one that generated the most buzz from my friends. On Facebook I announced that I would spend the evening with these three men, and immediately the requests came pouring in.
- Give Peter Gomes a hug and kiss from me
- Tell Rabbi Kushner I said hi
- Take ME with you!
Even my agent, Sarah B. Miller, who can suntan next to Orlando Bloom in Palm Springs and not bat an eyelash, got all giddy and asked me to get Hitchens to sign a book for her boyfriend. (Which of course I did in completely unobtrusive valet fashion.)
Richard Sugarman, the cuddly Buckeye fan who runs the Forum with his wife Doris, (who looked super stylish in a tailored Chanel black and white tweed suit), asked me why I thought people showed so much interest in this “God” Forum. In fact, they expected over 2500 people that evening to sit and listen to three guys talk about religion. I said I think it is because religion matters to believers and non-believers. These are conversations that we don’t often have, yet religion effects our lives culturally, politically and personally.
Other staff and volunteers at the Forum who know me and my quirky Quaker ways wondered why Richard wanted me to valet for Hitchens, the outspoken atheist. I admit I felt a natural inclination towards Peter Gomes, who recently spoke at the Gay Christian Network Conference. (“They were delightful!” he told me in his charming high Bostonian accent. “I didn’t even know such a thing existed.”)
Hitchens and I turned out to be an effective pairing. When introduced as his valet for the evening, Hitchens broke into a mischievous grin and replied in his Oxford/Cambridge drawl (he attended both schools) “I’ve always wanted a valet.” For all the public bluster and aggression (you should have seen him take on genital mutilation with Kushner–yikes!) I found Hitchens to be thoughtful, engaging and very very smart.
Turns out Hitchens’ daughter attends a Quaker school where they have silent worship most mornings. I asked him why he would choose a religious school for his daughter, to which he replied, “Well it is a good school.” When I asked about the worship, he stated, “Ah, but they just sit in silence,” which I think we can take as a passive endorsement of Quakerism from this outspoken non-believer.
In preparation for the evening I read Hitchens’ book God is Not Great–How Religion Poisons Everything. Even as someone who thinks that God is pretty great, I enjoyed the book and agreed with much of his reasoning about the negative impact that religion has had on individuals, societies and governments. Dogma, doctrine, control, fear, shame, subordination of women–these elements sadly have been the hallmarks of many if not most religious traditions. Perhaps this is why I have chosen a strain of Quakers for myself where we do not have ministers laying down the law, a creed to profess or sacraments to enact. Instead we have to work much of it out for ourselves as we sit together and listen. (I see it as a church for adults).
Whatever one may feel about Hitchens and his views on religion, one can’t help but admire his taste in literature. He is a huge fan of George Eliot (Marian Evans) and Saki (H.H. Munro), two of my all time favorite English writers. As we chatted during the intermission, Hitchens told me how he thought that Saki had been a man who liked men, although we have no proof of this (other than his writing which bristles with camp and fops). Hitchens told me that during the Edwardian period no one even mentioned Oscar Wildes’ name, yet in Saki we see echoes of Wilde all over the place.
For me the most exciting moment of the evening took place during transport from dinner at the Marriott to the Bushnell Theater, a 10 minute ride in a limo-bus contraption replete with disco lights and a bar. I positioned myself across from Peter Gomes, chaplain at Harvard and writer of many progressive books on theology including his newest The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus–What’s So Good about the Good News. My goal? To seduce Peter Gomes with my unorthodox Biblical interpretation on gender.
After a brief introduction and some talk about the Gay Christian Network Conference, I casually dropped my theological bait,
Me: I perform a play about Transgender Bible characters. (pause for effect)
Gomes: Really?!? Who is transgender in the Bible?
Me: Well, the eunuchs for one. The story of Esther would completely fall apart without the surgically altered, differently-gendered eunuchs. And of course one of the first converts to the Christian faith was a Black African eunuch.
Gomes: That’s really something! I am going to have to use that in a sermon.
Knowing I had tapped into his geeky exegetical side, I pressed in with stories of Joseph from Genesis and “the man” carrying a pitcher of water in the Gospels. Gomes seemed genuinely dazzled by all this (Hey, not only am I a performer, I do have a unique take on the scriptures virtually unheard of in most churches, synagogues, and seminaries.)
All this took place in a span of seven minutes. As we arrived and shuffled off the limo-bus, Harold Kushner, having overheard the conversation about gender variant Bible characters, turned towards me to comment. I somehow expected a rebuke or a correction for mishandling the scriptures. Instead he told me that in the Midrash there are stories of Joseph putting on makeup and looking as beautiful as his mother. Ha!
Backstage at the Bushnell Pulitzer prize winner, Connie Schultz, the moderator for the evening, prepped for the colossal task of facilitating a conversation between these three men. (One question that arose later in the program–Why no women panelists talking about faith? Indeed.) During the pre-show run up, Connie also connected with much of the backstage staff–the doorman, the caterer, the tech folks–asking about the theater and interacting with genuine interest. I thought that if I had been in her shoes, I would have been a nervous wreck. Instead she helped everyone else feel at ease and valued.
Finally the three men and Connie sat on stage to began their conversation, a roller coaster discussion that ranged in topics on faith, religion, politics, God, President Obama, and, well, genital mutilation. Hey, it is the Connecticut Forum. Anything can happen.
I’m so jealous. What a cool event, and what interesting (and impressive) interactions.
Coolness! I got to have lunch with Gomes at the conference and he is indeed a genuine delight.
Oh, Peterson — Thanks for this insider-view. Terrific fun to hear how you seduce a chaplain!
Great reporting, Peterson. Specially enjoyed your putting your oar in about transgendered people in the Bible! That was an eye-opener to me also.
This is brilliant. My partner and I shared a table at dinner last night with Reverend Gomes — I’m not sure he knew we were gay. (My partner was awkwardly introduced to him as my “friend” by our hosts. Ugh, cringe.) I did send up a question asking for the Reverend’s take on the abolisionist (and pro-slavery, for that matter) movement’s use of the Bible as a defense of their position vis a vis the current use of the Bible to justify denial of marriage equality — but, as you know, that question didn’t make the cut. I’m glad you got the opportunity to have the conversations you did — and that you shared them.
My girlfriend has a terrible crush on Mr. Hitchens. As we were walking home afterwards (we live downtown) we were wishing that we had the courage to ask him to pop by for a Macallen afterwards, served neat, of course. We were happy that he upgraded his Scotch to a plastic cup in the second half from that horrible Dasani bottle he had used in the first half.
What would have happened, I wonder, if you’d written a transgender question for them to answer!
I was there, too, and was blown away by Hitchens’ passion. Kushner and Gomes certainly seem like good-hearted men, but they could not find a way to talk about God without personifying God, despite the fact that they knew that was limiting them and what they were communicating. I wish YOU’D been on the panel.
This is just amazing! I’m surprised that Hitchens’ daughter goes to Sidwell Friends. I also love how you got to Gomes.
I’m still recovering from the “spent an evening with Vonnegut” comment. Lucky dog.
what kody said. wowser. 🙂
Wow, to spend so much time with Hitchens. I love his voice, too: (as in, I’d love to hear him say that about me, being his valet). 🙂 I thought it sweet for him to discuss men-loving-men authors with you as he did.
I was surprised to read that Hitchens’ daughter goes to a religious school. How funny! I wonder if some of his most rabid fans know this. Maybe Hitchens strikes a more strident demeanor in order to draw more focus on what he’s actually saying and writing, but in “real life” is far more tolerant and accepting? Oh, the things people do for attention, right Peterson?
Interesting stuff…. and you were obviously enjoying it all too!
Hope it leads to further good things in the future.
Even as an atheist, I still really like your blog and your perspective. I look forward to reading through the rest of your writing!
Terrific write-up. (Terrific blog as well; have subscribed to RSS Feed.)
I came across a YouTube clip of Hitchens laying into Kushner over circumcision, which I am going to use in my post on the practice that I am currently drafting.
Do you know where I can get a tape of the full event? Usual suspects like Google Video, YouTube, torrents sites and the CT homepage have drawn a blank.