“He will die for you but ignore your texts,
and change the subject if you mention sex.
He has a small Oedipus complex.”
This is the stanza that people who read ‘God & Friends’ tend to remember, and it’s one that is probably quite easy to dismiss as ‘teenage girl employing shock tactics’. There’s a well-established tradition of belittling teenage girls (“I hear you’re a poetess,” I sometimes get from elderly family friends. “What are your poems about? Are they ‘confessional’?”) and I hope I’ve made it clear that that’s not how it was written. The question I want to raise is why it is seen as taboo to sexualise religious figures, especially when, like Jesus, they are explicitly supposed to experience the same physical urges as the rest of the human race. Wilson makes the point that the historical Jesus was, in all probability, married. So why is it shocking for a young Amos to tell her missionary grandmother that she thinks he’s “cute”? Expecting women to idealise one unattainable man, and then to sublimate that desire into relationships with other, fallible men is damaging for both sexes. And of course I’m only talking about heterosexuality here: there’s scope for it to get even more complicated.
Two days after ‘God & Friends’ went online, an amazing thing happened. A young Pakistani writer sent in a poem about Muhammad, which was published under the pseudonym ‘Amna Y. Khan’. Despite coming from opposite strands of the Abrahamic tradition, she and I seemed to be tackling very similar questions: the unknowability of these supposedly perfect male figures; the sense of abandonment in realising that anything you feel towards them will be unrequited. “Muhammad,” she writes, in simple, careful language, “Like every other man I have lost/I do not think you will return to me.” And, later:
“O elusive Messenger
when precisely did you become
another man I had to tear out of my heart
just to be able to breathe?”
When we talk about Jesus, we often find ourselves speaking at cross-purposes. My poem deals with one version of him among thousands — some positive, some negative, all too under-informed to be accurate. It is fascinating to witness the same phenomenon in Khan’s poem, where “the many faces of you” go from “terrifying” to mundane and comforting, a “tree planting volunteer … picking up the litter other people have dropped.” The poem is a masterclass in the creative power of anger; but the anger, unlike the poem, is not directed at the prophet himself. She asks, “isn’t it blasphemy, after all/to call you divine?” and it is this forced deification which, I think, forms the crux of both of our arguments. As A.N. Wilson has already shown us, it is impossible to see these figures with any kind of clarity in a society that will punish you for even contemplating that they are less than perfect. Personally, I like the sound of Jesus the holy man, who never claimed to be the son of God, drinking and cracking jokes with his prostitute and tax-collector friends. Khan likes the sound of “the man/with Muezza in his lap” — but as her closing lines put it so poignantly,
“…that is a poem I cannot write.
That is a cartoon we cannot draw.”
A few weeks ago, it was difficult for us in the West to picture a situation like that in Pakistan, where the penalty for blasphemy can be death. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre it suddenly doesn’t seem like such a distant concept. I can’t imagine the kind of bravery it must have taken Amna Y. Khan to write, let alone publish, this poem — but it is more important than ever that bravery of this kind exists. We should feel able to discuss religion in the way that makes most sense to us, without fear of punishment — whether that’s execution, or even just baleful glances from family members following inappropriately-situated readings (they skipped church to come and support me. Oops.)
Tori Amos and I disagree on a number of issues. I don’t believe in fairies, for example. I don’t believe ‘Original Sinsuality’ is an acceptable title for a song under any circumstances. But for sheer intensity of experience, very little compares to hearing, as a fourteen-year-old girl,
“God, sometimes you just don’t come through.
Do you need a woman to look after you?”
There are countless girls the world over who will never hear anything of the sort. If we pray for anything, let it be for them: because women have minds, voices, and the right to reject any belief system that teaches otherwise.