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Epiphany on Brokeback Mountain

Quick on the heels of Christmas, Epiphany takes its seat between the Slaughter of the Innocents and Ash Wednesday. It’s a skinny season of immensely hopeful proportion. During these brief winter days of Epiphany we celebrate the surprise - no, the shock, like the first lightening bolt from an unexpected storm - of the manifestation of God’s good news to the gentiles.

It is doubtful that Annie Proulx, author of the 1997 short story, Brokeback Mountain, ever imagined her story could be an apt sermon illustration for an Epiphany homily, let alone provide the narrative for the triumphant movie, but I’d like to make a case for it. For those who have yet to read the story or see the film, here is a brief summary.

In 1963, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, teenage cowboys in Wyoming, get jobs herding sheep for the summer. Ennis is desperate for a job and Jack is scratching his itch to “be somewhere, anywhere else than Lightening Flat,” his remote hometown. Sheep herders have always been despised by cattle ranchers, a history not lost on the author who casts these discarded “pair of deuces going nowhere” as shepherds. We worry from the opening scene that nothing good will come of them.

The two boys on horseback and their sheep dogs drive the thousand ewes high into the Rockies where the dense beauty, isolation, and raw power of Nature propel the action. As Ennis and Jack guard the sheep, they are hailed on, snowed on, rained on, and struck by the kind of lightening that charges companionship with love and sex. There they discovered Brokeback Mountain, a harsh place of belonging, “a place both empowering and inimical,” claims the author, a landscape of surprise.

Over the next twenty years, Ennis and Jack married strong women, raised children, worked rodeos and ranches, sold farm machinery, and after two decades of occasional “fishing trips” near Brokeback to rekindle their fire, the story comes to a tragic halt. The scene shifts from the verdant mountains to the desolate flatlands. The years of emotional and physical isolation, the internalized homophobia, the denial of self, and the denial of love, converge like rivers flooding the grief-stricken plains. All that we see and feel is desolation.

In her no-nonsense style, Annie Proulx said of Brokeback Mountain, “It is a story of destructive rural homophobia.” Throughout the film we are witnesses to the panoramic views of homophobia ruining lives - physically, emotionally, economically, and socially. This drives the drama and pathos of Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and Jack store it in their bodies like ammunition ready for battle or self-destruction. Their internalized self-hatred stifles hope, feeds their fears, blurs the lines between intimacy and violence, isolates them from each other, from the world, and from themselves. In a poignant conversation on Brokeback, Ennis says to Jack, “Bottom line, we’re around each other and this thing grabs on to us again in the wrong place, wrong time, and we’ll be dead.” In the midst of an unsafe time and culture, Brokeback Mountain was their only place of refuge, a mountainous theme looming over every scene.

A reasonable hope of belonging to a safe place and to safe people is often an anxious prayer for many people. Who doesn’t desire to be safe in our own home, at work, at school, in our church, in our own skin? Yet this is not the real or perceived reality for most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in our communities and congregations, even when “Will and Grace” airs on prime-time. Two-thirds of out LGBT youth in the U.S. were threatened or injured with a weapon at school last year. Matthew Shepherd’s crucifixion on a Wyoming stock fence, less than a year after the publication of Brokeback Mountain, still serves as a compelling symbol of the coercive, violent force of homophobia, and not only in the rural West. Wyoming is merely a metaphor.


by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 2101/27/2013

In a New York Times article on Brokeback Mountain and gay Wyoming cowboys, journalist Guy Trebay wrote, “What is most emotionally corrosive about Brokeback Mountain, some say, is the film’s placid portrayal of the violence that has always been part of gay experience.” One gay cowboy interviewed for the story said, “’The Shepherd thing goes through my mind all the time. People think that could never happen again. It could happen. It will happen.’” (New York Times, 12/18/05).

I believe that the official rulings and language of our churches about something we call “homosexuality” only serves to strengthen homophobia’s hateful grip on our world. The recent United Methodist and Vatican rulings do not simply function as ecclesial decisions guarding ordination and church membership. Like judgments from the Inquisition, they are as lethal as a tire iron in the hands of violent men, for these rulings continue to isolate human beings from communities which are called upon to be life-giving. Couple this isolation with language that dehumanizes men and women as “innately disordered” or worse, and the self-hate and desperation often lead to death. Gay and lesbian teenagers in the U.S. attempt suicide at more than five times the national average. Annie Proulx noted the “fact that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the [U.S.], and that the preponderance of those people who kill themselves are elderly single men.” Ennis and Jack managed to stay alive for each other as long as they could, the way soldiers do in war, not fighting for great causes or honor, but for those particular soldiers with whom they had become inextricably bound.

Brokeback Mountain, in addition to magnifying the destructive power of homophobia, also shatters a compelling myth in our divisive discourse about sexuality, the myth that we freely choose our “sexual orientation.” When Jack and Ennis were raised to despise “queers” and when they knew first-hand the life-threatening risks of getting caught, they would have been insane to make such a choice - in 1963 or in 2006. They chose this love like they chose to be wet when it rained or cold when it snowed. “Without a single polemical speech, [Brokeback Mountain] dramatizes homosexuality as an inherent and immutable identity, rather than some aberrant and elective ‘agenda’ concocted by conspiratorial ‘elites.’” (Frank Rich, N.Y.Times, 12/18/05). Hopefully the church can let this myth die.

Before the movie was made, Annie Proulx said to the newly-hired director, Ang Lee, “I was very afraid about this story, that making stories sometimes took me into off-limits places.” “Off-limits places” is what we celebrate in Epiphany. Off-limits is how the Pharisees and Temple wardens would have regarded the gentiles. The sacred places, sacred people, and sacred scriptures, the hope for the messiah and the light of the world were surely off-limits to those gentiles. But then Epiphany.

I wonder as I wander at the foot of Brokeback Mountain if the church has the capacity and courage to declare a Jubilee? – or an Epiphany? - a time and space in which it would listen to the sacred love stories of Jack and Ennis or any of its members, setting aside worn-out labels such as “homosexual” for words we understand: son, daughter, friend, neighbor, sister, brother, partner. Could we listen well to the flesh-and-blood stories of fear and desolation, joy, discovery, liberation, belonging, and love? Like the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, could we bear to hear our own stories of crucifixion? Could we go to those places which have been off-limits to pulpits and pot-luck-suppers?


by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 101/26/2013


Listening to sacred stories is what we Christians are called to do. Perhaps if we listen well, we will be transformed both by the stories and by the Epiphany hope that with unexpected people God continues to surprise us - shock us - and continues to call us to off-limits places, continues to do A NEW THING in the world.

So how do I know when this new thing is of God? When the story is true. When the news is good. When the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. At the moment we call Epiphany, while Herod’s death-dealing decree echoed through the land, the magis - excluded from the promise - arrived at the stable in the hills near Bethlehem and took their place beside the shepherds.


by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 201/26/2013

LOVED the movie!!

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 501/26/2013

Oh I am a girl

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 601/26/2013

my husky mussy gets all wet just thinking about them fucking in the tent

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 701/26/2013

Posters (if it's not just one asshole dumping cookies) like this prove the point that the DL is suffering an infestation of homophobic, racist people who cannot discern the difference between humorous social commentary and hate speech.

This is bad for the site and the people who have enjoyed it.

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 801/26/2013

What intellectually bankrupt responses so far.

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 901/26/2013

I loved the movie and I felt that Jack and ENNIS could have formed a life together without marrying poor unsuspecting women. They could have moved to San fransisco or lived together on a ranch as "friends"

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 1001/26/2013

sexually they were bi, but emotionally they were gay. They only loved each other

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 1201/26/2013

r11, iS a flamer bottom!!

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 1301/26/2013

OP, thank you for posting this. If only all Christians thought this way, I wouldn't have a problem with Christianity as it is mostly expressed in the U.S. today.

Datalounge has always had a history of assholes getting drunk or high and shitting their self-loathing all over every thread. It seems to be there's at least one of these people going on a bender here. This sad, useless fuck is going crazy all over the Beyonce thread. Though I have a small amount of sympathy for someone so seriously affected by internalized hatred, I find it just about impossible to have sympathy for a racist--no matter what their circumstances are.

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 1501/26/2013

[quote]Especially Ennis. He was a classic bisexual leaning towards straight,

Really? Because the movie shows him as eventually only able to take his wife from behind, as if he needed to imagine she was a man.

I'd call that gay, not bi.

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 1601/26/2013

r16, exactly!!!

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 1701/26/2013

What's sad is that Atlanta is still such a backwards dump that such a lecture is necessary.

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 1801/26/2013

I am essentially bi. I am attracted to men on a sexual level, but I want to have intimacy with a feminine woman!!!

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 2001/26/2013

I thought it was a beautiful essay, and I'm not even Christian. Its' why I posted it.

Such strange responses.

by Dr. David Jenkins, School of Theology, Emory Universityreply 2101/27/2013
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