Excerpt: Salvific Manhood

The following is an excerpt from Salvific Manhood: James Baldwin’s Novelization of Male Intimacy (October 2019) by Ernest L. Gibson III.


In Search of the Fraternal

My most immediate memories of my grandmother involve the church, the Black church, to be particular. When my siblings and I were young, she forced us to attend service multiple times a week. What I felt as an imposition on my childhood was more of an introduction to God, a strategic placing of Black children in religious space, a teaching, “This is where you go for sanctum.” We went because our grandmother went; because someone in our family before her went; because someone close had been ushered or pulled or called into the space, and so they went. While my grandmother would guide us in our studies of Christian doctrine, though she would tend to and cultivate our blooming faith, she never mentioned how deeply cultural this practice was, how churchgoing was a part of a larger Black tradition. She never told us the quiet parts of this ritual; the dark that engendered its necessity; how we went for our spirits and for ourselves, for our safety, and for our peace.

The last time I would see my grandmother, and the last time we would intimately share a space, was in a church. It was, quite unfortunately, her funeral. I stood in the pulpit, before family and friends, and shared some words about her, about her life, about the southern Louisiana parish that bore her into the woman I came to know and am still coming to know. I participated in the ritual of the celebration of life I had learned so well, thanked God for “His” blessings, and encouraged family to find peace. When I think about my grandmother, I almost always think of the church. What I did not know in youth, I know now as an adult man. She knew, like so many Black folks before her, that this world held certain promises for Black people. That among these will be suffering, struggle, and tragedy. She offered me one of the best things she inherited from our folk—religion. If I am to be honest, I learned the power of God long before I learned a need for it; I learned to place myself within the hands of religion long before I understood I would someday need to be held. And this is the beauty that makes the paradox of Black religious folks so crucial—religion offered itself as an entrance to God’s favor, a refuge from “man’s” hell. Hell had not introduced itself to me completely in the early days of my youth, or I did not know how to identify its presence, so I did not understand the complete function of religion beyond the pronounced ritual. However, soon enough, I learned why I needed the church, why religion was so central to the lives of Black people, how God’s power offered itself. I learned how people found themselves called to that institution, how they went looking to be saved. While my grandmother was my first introduction to an idea of salvation, it was the literature of James Baldwin that would help me better understand how it tied humankind to a notion of God and men to each other.

There is a now classic photo of a 1963 James Baldwin standing in a church pulpit at a podium draped with the phrase “God Is Love.” The idea captured by this photo mirrors Baldwin’s radical philosophy of love, a philosophy born out of the Black church and a Christian ethos. The statement is both an identification of God’s warmth and gentle embrace of humankind, of the principles by which we are to live, as well as an ontological claim that speaks to the heart or essence of a western conception of God. When I first saw the photo, I thought of my grandmother, of those earliest teachings of God, of Baldwin’s earliest teachings. If God is love, and God is also salvation, what does that say about the relationship between the power to love and the power to save? Does it not beg for us to consider how love functions or operates in the inevitable calling for us to be saved? Does it not encourage us to rethink or reconsider the ontology of religion? Baldwin’s “God is Love” photo, in the context of his writings, invites us to refigure and expand on how we have come to know God and exactly what we mean by religion.

I am interested in the ways in which a journeying into the worlds of novelistic Baldwin encourages a reconfiguration of religion or its sovereignty over the conception of God as love and salvation. That is, What happens when we reimagine the objects of religion as shareable, when we admit how they can be located within different institutions with the same potency? If religion’s relationship to salvation is understood through how it opens itself spatially to those in need of saving, then intimacy, in its most abstracted sense, maintains the same power. Here, I am arguing that human intimacy, in its ability to serve as a space for refuge and a sanctum, mirrors, if not supplants—parallels, if not folds itself into—a sort of religious space. I am suggesting that, akin to how we are encouraged to read God as Love, we ought to configure intimacy as religion. After all, if institutions are defined by the artifacts they offer, then those who bear the same objects also bear a similarity in essence or in function.

In Salvific Manhood: James Baldwin’s Novelization of Male Intimacy, I want to pursue a Baldwinian theology where “God Is Love.” I want to imagine the transformative power in metaphors of the body as church and of intimacy as religion. I am asking a question of performance. How do intimacy and the body, as space and institution, perform acts of salvation? What happens when we explore physical intimacy from a meta physical vantage? Can intimacy, as a doctrine of the body, offer deliverance or redemption? Even more, Salvific Manhood asks us to theorize the nature of salvation, to identify the essence of that which grants it.

Though Salvific Manhood is interested in salvation as an object of manhood, as a possibility born of its presence, it is also invested in examining salvation as a quality. This theorization positions people as agents of inti-macy that can, by extension, save. It is a theory concerned with how these agents might be defined as salvific, as entities or institutions endowed with the power to offer salvation. This book advances “salvific manhood” as a theory positing the quality of salvation within the space of manhood. Salvation becomes the object of manhood, maleness, and masculinity; it becomes one of its defining characteristics. In this project, I am pointing toward “intimacy” as religion, as the vehicle carrying the object that is salvation. And here, I am also understanding “intimacy” as a site of exchange, a site that performs itself within another space. For instance, just as we might imagine religion as an intangible space, we must also understand intimacy this way. Just as we might admit how religion performs itself, in some ways and in some moments, within the space of the church, we might admit how intimacy performs itself, at times, within the space of the body. In these ways, Salvific Manhood grounds itself frequently within a theory of space: it is concerned with how the space of salvation is formed, who occupies that space, and, unfortunately, who is denied it.

The question of a denied access to salvation takes us back to the church. While I was there learning about salvation, and as Baldwin was there learning of the saving power of God, we both bore witness to how the need to locate salvation within a place or idea meant that its absence might also be endured and experienced. The lack of salvation, or the state of being unsaved, evokes a religious crisis, one in which a body is left outside the gates of deliverance and protection. The unsaved are, fundamentally, defined by two states of being. They are either those who are in need of salvation and thus in the process of seeking it out, or they are those rejected from it after the expression of need, those who are unable to occupy salvific space. In Salvific Manhood, this denial announces itself most regularly in spaces of exchange at the sites of the body and intimacy but can also be traced to traditional physical and institutional space. As this work is largely concerned with the queering of salvation—the act of moving the idea beyond the scope of religious thought and into the space where gender, as sex and sexuality, plays with and undoes itself—the idea of crisis factors prominently into the discussion.

In a way, our religious compulsions toward God, in a Judeo-Christian sense, might be understood through the rhetoric of longing and need. We might imagine a desire to be in God’s favor, to come to a better conception of ourselves through a proximity mediated by doctrine. But we might also understand that longing as a manifestation of need, a need to be protected, refined, or saved. Whether we prefer the language of longing or need, the space outlining separation is best understood as crisis. Distance, despite being forced or self- intended, often announces itself through or as crisis. A faithful person’s separation from God, for instance, signals incompletion, a lack of fulfillment, a wayward spirit plagued by personal or spiritual ills. Moving outside of the religious realm proper, distance also lends itself to these readings. The space distance opens up ought to be understood as rupture, as a symbolic space-in-between, and, more specifically, as a crisis. Salvific Manhood, with an interest in examining the distance existing between men, understands this rupture as fraternal crisis.

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