Spectrum's Bare the Musical, as a show, is punctuated just as much by the things people don't say as the things they do say. Many scenes involve difficult, tense silences as one character teeters on the brink of a confession to another: I'm gay, I'm pregnant, this was my fault, I'm sorry. As the two main characters wrestle with the dynamics of their secret gay relationship, they struggle to find their places within the Catholic boarding school they attend, and the audience sees these edge-of-confession moments go by one after another. The unsaid dialogue behind all of these scenes glares neon red: If I reveal my true identity, will I be accepted? It is a question that circulates Northwestern's campus, and it is a dialogue that the Sheil Catholic Center participated in just last weekend. Sheil supported Spectrum's presentation of Bare, and it set a terrific standard for conversations about identity at NU.
There are a lot of issues on our campus that are hard to talk about, and, in some ways, it seems that spiritual or religious organizations, with their centuries-old belief systems, have a harder time breaking into this modern context. That's why, as a Christian at NU, it was so refreshing to see Sheil's partnership with Bare. Thematically, the show centers on identity: sexuality in the face of religion, social anxiety in the face of rejection, even pregnancy and shame in the face of abandonment. Does Bare present a conclusion to all of the issues it brings forth? No – if only it was that easy – but the show does an excellent job of presenting the conflicts and challenges prevalent both within the LGBTQ community and the challenges that exist surrounding the LGBTQ community.
"I was very impressed with how [Bare] handled the varying elements of identity," said Sheil pastoral associate Mary Deeley. "We were happy to be a part of the conversation."
Immediate impressions might deem it strange that Sheil is supporting a show primarily about homosexuality, and it is important to note that while the Catholic Center never explicitly endorses the themes portrayed in Bare, it does find a chance to peacefully enter the conversation. For example, one of the show’s second-act songs, “Absolution,” is sung by a priest, and the lyrics actually serve well to present the Catholic doctrine on sexuality. During the song, the priest actually reveals that he identifies as gay, and he goes on to describe how he has chosen a life of celibacy and leans on his faith to help him resist his inner sexual temptaions. Indeed, Bare makes it clear that the Church does not condone homosexual acts, but the tone is also far from condemnation.
"Whatever struggle, whatever identity you are, we have to walk with you," Deeley said. "We cannot marginalize. It's about whoever you are."
From my perspective, it seems that Christian churches historically stumbled into three main pitfalls when it came to dealing with sexuality. One, we had isolated and intensified the “evils” of homosexuality as greater than other evils. Two, we had trivialized the situation of sexuality through ideas like, “It’s just a simple choice, and you’re choosing wrong.” And three, we had, for a long time, failed in our attempts to understand these complexities and nuances. That lack of understanding led to a lack of empathy, and that lack of empathy led to many negative sterotypes of the religion-to-LGBTQ relationship. Living within that stereotype was challenging; we could all acknowledge that we needed change, but no one could figure out how to make the first move. It felt like entering a minefield.
Amazingly, despite this history, Sheil firmly says that Bare's cast and crew was instrumental in bringing the Catholic Center into the discussion. Credit was especially given to set designer Bryan Matias and outreach director Ben Weiss for inviting Sheil into a conversation on the show's themes of exploring identity.
"They invited us," Sheil campus minister Tim Higgins said. "A lot of credit should be given to the students. [Weiss] wanted to dialogue with us. [We] felt welcomed and included."
Through this dialogue between Sheil and Bare, we see that the old stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the so-called “non-progressive Christians” are starting to fall away. Bare’s narrative dives right into the very complications of identity that the Church, for a long time, seemed to ignore: the two male leads struggle with being gay amid a religious community, the priest struggles with homosexual desires and other side characters fight issues like teen pregnancy, bullying and social rejection. Bare is practically a checklist for all of the hot-button issues that Catholicism (and Christianity as a whole) has been wrestling with for decades, and now Sheil is saying, with regards to all that previous condemnation, this is enough. It is time to join the conversation, explore these issues and gain some perspective. It is time for Sheil to learn from Northwestern. Deeley ultimately cites Pope Francis as the basis for this philosophy.
"Does the Church teach certain things? Yes, but if that's not where someone is starting from, we need to meet them where they are," she said. "We want to encounter people, to dialogue with people, and to extend the grace and mercy of God."
There it is. That is what all this should be about. For so long it felt like being a church-going Christian meant that you could not associate with certain people, but when we return to the heart of what faith is about, what Christianity is about, we know that it is about meeting people where they are. Sheil went out and did that with Bare last weekend, and it has set the precedent for some of the most productive faith-and-identity dialogue we have had during my time at Northwestern.
And now, this opens the door for other spiritual groups on campus to explore the topic of identity. InterVarsity, Cru, RUF, Hillel, NU Muslim Students Association – each can bring a unique and original perspective to the identity discussion. This is not something that can be viewed simply, as Bare articulates, and with so many perspectives and ideas waiting to be contributed, Sheil has taken a vital step toward addressing this issue in a way that is civil, blame-free and inclusive. It is time for others to do the same.
Religion and sexuality have often been content to keep their distance from each other, but the Sheil Catholic Center took a huge step away from that stigma this weekend. Supporting Bare was a statement that the faith community was no longer content to keep the issue of sexuality at arm's length – it wanted to bring its thoughts and views and unique spirituality into the ring. It wanted to not only contribute its own perspective, but gain understanding and perspective as well.
"It was my hope too that people would see us as a resource," Higgins said. "If someone just wants to come in and talk, it doesn't have to be about religion. We take the person first."
"We can talk, whether you're coming to explore your faith, argue with it, or explore who you are," Deeley said. "[Campus ministers] can help the student to find the best version of themselves."
Questions about identity have been circulating Northwestern for a long time, but Bare and Sheil laid out all the cards this past weekend. The conversation is moving forward, and it is time for other faith groups to hop onboard. Finally, we are picking up speed.