For many years, I’ve been a big fan of Sufjan Stevens, that incredibly quirky singer-songwriter responsible for such oddities as the “Christmas Unicorn,” the (defunct and mostly imaginary) Fifty States Project, some pretty weird and at times unlistenable symphonic folk-electronic experimentation, a continuing and adorable collaboration with Rosie Thomas, as well the lovely and haunting Carrie and Lowell, which reminded me, and probably others, why we started listening to Sufjan in the first place.

I do an occasional pop-song analysis project with my high school students, and I have been thinking about introducing them to Sufjan for my example presentation. In the process, I’ve had to think a little more deeply about one of the most elusive and interesting songs in the repertoire, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” from Illinois. Take a listen here:



I remember listening to this song for the first time and thinking, Wait, is this gay? The kiss, the insistent “we were in love” refrain … but surely not. Sufjan has a large following among, for lack of a better term, cultured evangelicals of a certain age, and so the possible gay interpretation needed to be worked around somehow. If it was there, it had to not be there.

But of course it is there, and it’s interesting. One commenter on Tumblr wrote, “[I]t seems silly to me to talk about this song without talking about how gay it is.” Whatever Sufjan is talking about, the song seems to resonate with the experience of adolescent same-sex attraction. Another person wrote in a web comment:

For anyone who isn’t precisely heterosexual, one of the most poignant experiences of your young life is when you have that one friend you feel … differently about, and I feel that here Sufjan is telling us a story of an experience he had with someone who was “different” to him, and confusing.

That phrase, “anyone who isn’t precisely heterosexual,” really struck me, because I think that’s part of the problem that this song rubs against. We want things to be precise, but they’re often not precise. One of the consequences, maybe, of the decades-long conflict about sexuality in the Western Church has been a kind of retreat toward unfounded precision among both progressives and traditionalists. But, while we have been throwing around terms like natural and unnatural and choice and orientation and sexuality with wild abandon, we have no idea what most of these things mean. (One of the more interesting alternative views is well-represented in this article from 2014.) We just want our side to be right.

Back to Sufjan. Is the song gay? Is Sufjan gay, bisexual, or something else? These are misleading questions that presume exactly the kind of modern “heteronormativity” that contemporary gender theory tries to deconstruct. And Christians have an interest in likewise deconstructing those questions, not with an eye to free-for-all sexuality, but with an eye to the authentic forms of love. The song is obviously about a boy being in love with another boy. What does it mean to be “in love”? Is love always something that leads to sex and/or marriage?

Perhaps what I like about “The Predatory Wasp” is that it lets these questions linger without clear answers. It is very insistent about love: it is passionate, enduring, and transformative. It is worth talking about, even if “the telling gets old.” It is not easily convertible into a message or a political strategy concerning one’s personal identity.

Frankly one of the difficulties of the “love is love” strategy from recent years is the way that it shuts down the conversation. We have not been permitted to think about what love really means, and whether there are different kinds of love, and whether those loves offer unique gifts and opportunities and challenges. Reducing everything into the flattening language of rights and identities actually obscures the validity and beauty of the whole range of human desires and the ways that we order those desires toward the good. Why, as our colleagues over at Spiritual Friendship have long been asking, do we find it so very difficult to speak of real, abiding, and passionate love that doesn’t find its fulfillment in sex?

Perhaps, in another age, Christians like Sufjan Stevens can sing about their experience without facing immediate reduction into sexual identity politics. Our challenge shouldn’t be figuring out whether people are gay or straight (so we can then figure out the rules how we should “accept” or “reject”), but in figuring out how, as the body of Christ, we can encourage true love’s flourishing in its various forms — secular friendship, marriage, and coenobitic or eremetical religion.

About The Author

Sam Keyes serves as Professor of Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California, and a priest in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

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4 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman

    Teenage has been known to be a fluid period for a long time. And, no, having a level of infatuation has never implied sexaul relations.

    In is not unusual for two 11, 12, or 13 year old boys to have a close relationship. That relationship won’t be acted upon the same way a relationship with a couple of 18 year olds or 20-somethings.

    Will this author next think about the possibility of a sexual relationship between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn?

    Relax. Enjoy the music. And sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.

  2. Tom D

    I’m not christian, but just happened upon this article while looking for discussion about this song.

    I must admit, I didn’t begin this article expecting a contemplation of the song, of Sufjan and of love quite as nuanced and thoughtful as this – and I guess this reveals my preconceptions and wariness towards Christianity and the church when it comes to anything related to not “precisely heterosexual”.

    As for the song itself – I think that like all media, there is of course room to read it in a number of ways, and I understand that some may not be comfortable with the idea that it can “only” be read as describing gay feelings/same-sex-attraction.

    However, as mentioned in the quote you referenced, everyone who isn’t heterosexual (myself included) does have that special ‘a-hah’ moment at one stage in their youth (it can often be very young), and while it can (and arguably should) be a joyful experience – it’s love! what a feeling! – that joy is usually accompanied by a shame so intense and overpowering that it can utterly overwhlem and quash this joy. What should be a memory of the excitement of a budding love/crush is tainted with intense shame, and buried away and forgotten.

    Hearing someone recount this first experience of same-sex attraction in such a celebratory, nostalgic and happy way is so rare and special that it really can mean a lot to people who have struggled to accept themselves and whose own memories are so tainted with shame. It’s very, very common for references to same-sex attraction in art, song, theatre, tv, movies and other media to be interpreted/dismissed as the platonic love of friends – and it can get frustrating for people who have so little reference material for how to live and love each other happily.

    It has become a bit of a cliché, but I do want to say to those so determined to deny the presence of same-sex love in stories like these: please just let gay people have nice things.

    Thank you for your article – it was exciting to read such an open, non-jugmental christian perspective of love, in its many forms.

  3. Alan Richards

    I was very pleasantly surprised by this article- very thoughtful and well put. This is my favorite of Sufjan Stevens’ songs :)

  4. C T

    I’m not pleasantly surprised or impressed by this article. It seems to be written so gently and compassionately–but all to the end of saying, “Maybe the song is not about sex, just a deep nonsexual love.” Implying that it would not be good (enough) or right (enough) if it *were* about sex. So the article, by a clearly thoughtful and intelligent professor, becomes just another example of wasted false empathy, self-deceiving congratulation, whizzing right past the actual humanity, goodness, no-need-to-explainness of people who have sex with partners of the same gender.


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