Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Uncanny Images and the Literalism of Modernity

Ali Qadir and Tatiana Tiaynen-Qadir offer an initial description of the widespread presence of uncanny images in religious practice in South Asian Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Drawing on their multi-sited fieldwork, the authors map the presence of two religious images in each tradition that are familiar yet eerie, and that signal a rupture from the ‘normal’ order of things. Their analysis proposes that uncanny images make a phenomenological demand of the viewer that inherently challenges literalist or allegorical readings. While literalist readings increasingly attempt to tie down singular meanings of such images (or ban them altogether as in many Islamic cases), in practice many faithful viewers assign differing meanings to them as part of their locale, era, and life condition. The persistent use of such inexplicable images in vernacular religious practice opens the path for further empirical mapping and theoretical analysis into our collective religious unconscious.

MLA citation format:
  Qadir, Ali and Tatiana Tiaynen-Qadir
"Uncanny Images and the Literalism of Modernity"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 21 September 2016. Web. [date of access]  

Image 1: Painting of Christ with breasts, Hospices Lessines, Belgium. Image credit.

Since the seminal paper by Leonard Primiano there has been much development of the concept of ‘vernacular religion’, or religion as it is lived (Primiano 1995). Mappings of vernacular practices of religion have revealed hitherto ignored insights into how people live their faith in a range of settings, from participating in pagan rituals in Britain to pilgrimages in Spain to following supernatural phenomena in Estonia (e.g. Bowman and Valk 2012). Rooted in folkloristic studies, the concept cuts across older binaries of 'official' vs. 'informal' religion, underscoring how all religion is a matter of embodied practice. It focuses, thus, on ‘the experiential component of people’s religious lives’. However, the powerful idea of vernacular religion has rarely been applied to theorization of materiality in religious practice. In particular, there has been little attention to material images, not just how people relate to the idea of a picture or image, but how people live their religious lives in relation to actual, physical paintings and the like. 

Our recent work has been exploring precisely this nexus of how people relate to material images in their religious practices. In our fieldwork among Orthodox Christians and Muslims in a range of settings, we have come across a remarkable phenomenon: the presence and use in religious practice of images that can only be described as ‘uncanny’, or mysterious but oddly familiar. Such images tend to resist any singular interpretation or meaning. Their disproportionate or entirely unreal nature—as in Image 1 above—is disquieting and disturbs the modern order of things. Yet they are oddly resonant and familiar to faithful across cultures, and are widely ‘used’ in religious practices. What do these images do in religious practice? How should we make sense of physical paintings and depictions that do not themselves make any literal sense? What does it tell us that uncanniness is to be found in so many religious images across traditions? 

In this blog post we focus on one such image each in Orthodox Christian practice in Russia and in Indo-Persian Islam. There is no unavoidable reason why we focus on these, except that we draw on our own long-term, ethnographic engagement in the two communities. In ongoing research we draw also on related images, their histories, and examples of their uses in these traditions. By ‘tradition’ we do not mean some archaic beliefs and outmoded practices. Rather, we use it in the sense of living traditions, involving perpetual handing-on of teachings, practices, mores, truths, and so on. A tradition’s contemporaneity is what makes it relevant, and its sense of its own historicity is what makes it ‘traditional’ (Gadamer 1987). Far from being ossified, traditions are living, pulsing domains and, as such, are highly contested. Virtually every instance of ‘tradition’ that we discuss here may be hotly contested by other interpretations. Consider, for instance, the common perception today that Islam (especially Sunni Islam) is aniconistic and, in particular, prohibits depicting the figure of the Prophet Muhammad. Yet, our research into Islamic images show that this is far from true across the board, and is even less so as we go back in time to what are often considered more ‘pure’ times of Islamic history. 

Theory: Vernacular religion, materiality, and the uncanny 

Our understanding of religion here is best captured by the concept of ‘vernacular religion’: 
Vernacular religion is, by definition, religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand, interpret and practice it. Since religion inherently involves interpretation, it is impossible for the religion of an individual not to be vernacular. Vernacular religious theory involves an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religious lives of individuals with the special attention to the process of religious belief, the verbal, behavioral, and material expressions of religious beliefs, and the ultimate object of the religious belief. (Primiano 1995, p. 44) 

Primiano suggests that vernacular religion is necessarily the product and process of various influences and factors. Criticising the binary and unproductive division between ‘official’ and ‘everyday’ religion, Primiano underlines vernacularity also in institutional and theological elements of religiosity. Even the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople practice their religion vernacularly: there is always some ‘passive accommodation’ and ‘active creation’, some reflection on lived experience that influences how these individuals direct their religious lives (Primiano 1995, p. 46). The point is that common ways of thinking about religion in the abstract, which is then turned into practice, is mistaken. Rather, more often religion is lived in praxis and dogma follows. 

The emphasis on ‘human artistry … the experiential component of people’s religious lives’, spotlights the importance of creativity and artistry expressed by the human drive to interpret religious experience. The focus on art leads us into how vernacular religion materializes (Bowman and Valk 2012; Houtman and Meyer 2012). Materiality is the felt-life of a religion, and begins with an assumption that religion is grounded in the body as the matrix of human experience (Morgan 2005). Religion is experienced mentally, bodily, emotionally and practically, and people make sense of the experience holistically, in an ‘embodied and embedded praxis’ of ‘religious aesthetics’ (Meyer and Verrips 2008). Religious aesthetics is not purely a matter of mental belief, but involves feeling, emotion, sensation, and perception. Faculties of imagination, intuition and discernment are more important than conceptual thinking (Morgan 2005). This perspective draws attention to the fact that many believers approach material objects, including images, as mediums that facilitate encounters with the divine and bringing immediacy (Meyer 2011). 

But, what about uncanny images? Images that show the human body disproportionately, or in unsettling ways are more common than we might assume, and especially so in religious practices. There is a long history of thought about the uncanny, but much recent work builds from Freud. For Freud, in his 1919 essay on The Uncanny, the term related to an ‘estrangement in the home’, something new and unsettling in what is otherwise well-known and settled (Freud 2003). The uncanny is as important for what it hides/ conceals as for what it shows/ reveals, and it is this tension that produces a cognitive dissonance. In the terminology of Freud’s once-protégé and later arch-rival, depth psychologist Carl Jung, the uncanny is a symbol in the true sense of the word: it cannot be fully captured or literalised, yet it can be still widely used. For Jung, a symbol’s meaning can never be affixed, yet it is crucial to our lives since symbols say what cannot be expressed in any other way. A symbol, crucially, is not simply a sign or replacement for saying something differently, like an allegory or simile: it is a fundamental challenge to the literal that resists singular interpretation. The uncanny, in this sense, is an uber-symbol. 

In our research, we have come across a variety of such uncanny images that faithful employ in their religious practice. We discuss here two such: an icon of the Virgin in Russia depicting her with three hands, and a painting showing the Islamic Prophet Muhammad with two left hands. Our purpose is not to affix a single reading on an image, but to show how these have been absorbed into vernacular religious tradition. 

The three-handed Virgin in Orthodoxy 

Icons depicting Jesus, the Virgin, or saints occupy a central role in the practice of Russian Orthodoxy, and there are literally hundreds of miraculously revealed icons that people make pilgrimages to see in person. Copies of icons, mostly painted (or ‘written’) by hand, are not only central to Orthodox churches but also occupy prime places in home altars. People often buy and pray through a particular icon because of a ‘connection’ they feel to it. It was in such a setting that we came across the icon of the three-handed Virgin Mary (who is referred to as the Mother of God). 

Iconography of the three-handed Mother of God originates in early eighth-century Syria during the struggle for defence of icons (Tradigo 2006, p. 219). According to tradition, John of Damascus (a key theologian of icons) was unjustly accused and imprisoned, and had his right hand cut off. He spent the night in prayer, had a vision of the Virgin, and woke up healed. Moved by his vision and the miraculous cure, John of Damascus hung a silver hand upon the icon of the Mother of God. This icon became especially venerated in the Serbian Orthodox church, and up till now remains the main treasure of the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos in Greece. During some periods, this icon virtually acted as the abbot in the monastery. Over time, two variations of the Three-handed Mary became canonical: one that depicts a silver hand alongside the Virgin, and another that depicts it hung around the neck of the Mother of God. In both cases, the third hand clearly represents John’s hand and reminds the viewer of the miraculous healing.  

Image 2: Troeruchitsa icon in the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Hilandar, Mount Athos, Greece. Image credit.

Yet, iconography of the three-handed Virgin underwent an amazing transformation in Tsarist Russia, when icon-writers (ikonopistsy) started depicting the third hand as belonging to Mary herself! The miraculously healed hand of John of Damascus became a third hand of the Virgin. Growing popularity and vernacular use of icons depicting the three-handed Virgin (Troeruchitsa in Russian) became surrounded by folklore tales. Today while many Russian Orthodox believers would refer to the legend of the miraculous healing of John Damascus, some will also turn to those tales in their practices and understandings. According to these stories, the icon commemorates the episode from Mary’s life, when she had to cross a river while escaping, the third hand was given to her by God in assistance. There are variations in which the Virgin crossed the river with one child (Jesus), or even with two children, some in which she was fleeing to Egypt with her Child and others when she was fleeing robbers (Belova 2015). Some of our interlocutors mentioned that they in fact had not noticed the third hand of Mary for many years, even when a copy of the icon was in their homes or in a nearby church. The three hands are depicted so naturally that it may go unnoticed for many years of engagement with the icon.  

Image 3: The Troeruchitsa icon in the Krestovozdvizhenskiy church, Petrozavodsk, Russian Karelia, 19th century. (photo by authors)
Even church poetry, used in liturgical practice in Russia, incorporated the vernacular vision of Mary as having three hands. The troparion in Church Slavonic, available on the Russian Orthodox website ( [last accessed on 4 August 2016]), glorifies the three hands of the Mother of God that ‘emerge in the image of the Holy Trinity’, in which two hands hold Christ, and the third one ‘delivers’ from pain and troubles those to turn to the Mother of God. This poetry speaks of Mary with three hands naturally; Mary emerges both as the eternal Mother who holds her divine Son in her two hands, and at the same time the Helper to those in need with her invincible powers that the third hand embeds. People pray in front of this icon, asking for health, especially in cases of injuries to hands and legs as well as mental disorders. This Russian iconography of Mary with three hands is also well known in Orthodox communities worldwide, for instance in the Finnish Orthodox Church. Icons of the three-handed Mother of God are given as baptism presents or when joining the church, and are also popular amongst Finnish intellectuals and artists.

Historical trajectories surrounding the icon of the three-handed Mary illustrate that Orthodox Christianity has provided substantial space for vernacular practices around this uncanny image, and the ROC has mainly incorporated this vernacular vision in its church practice, manifested in both iconography and church poetry. Yet there have been voices within official Orthodoxy that have been resisting this vernacular vision of Mary with three hands. For instance, many priests recognize only rationalized explanations, insisting that the third hand ‘merely’ signifies John’s hand. The official site of the Orthodox Church in America is firm on this allegorical reading, ascribing the third hand of Mary in the iconography to a ‘mistake’ or ‘ignorance’ of iconographers and insisting on the use of scare quotes to set apart the ‘three hands’ from normal ideas of the human body (OCA). Similar ‘explanations’ exist for other Orthodox icons, such as those portraying St. Christopher with donkey’s or a dog’s head (Image 4), an icon that we found in a private collection in Finland. Rationalists insist that this is due to a mis-spelling of the Saint’s name in Latin (originally Cananeus, referencing his ethnicity background in Canaan, to Canineus, meaning dog) by the person translating into Greek. Even the Russian Orthodox Church has banned this image since the 18th century for being against ‘natural history’. Yet, that has not stopped at centuries of icon writing around the world continuing with the uncanny depiction that defies any single interpretation.

Image 4: Icon of St. Christopher, Byzantine Museum of Athens (originally from Asia Minor, 17th century). Image credit.

The Prophet with two left hands 

The history of Islam, too, reveals such tensions, although the dynamic has been different. In contrast to the common assumption about Islamic aniconism, it is important to emphasise that sacred images used to be common in the Muslim world, including depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The iconographic style of these images (similar in many respects to Orthodox icons) indicates that the images were not meant to be taken literally as precise representations. Consider this medieval painting of unknown origin that depicts the flight of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina with his Companion Abu Bakr in AD 622, being chased by the Quraysh. A closer look at the painting (Image 5a) reveals that the Prophet has two left hands – another eerie image. This image contests not only literalism of not depicting the Prophet, but also categorical advice by many modern Muslims to ‘use the right hand for noble matters, and the left hand for lowly matters’. Arguably, this image points to the importance of the state of receiving revelation, which lies within the domain of senses and intuition. 

Image 5: Charge of the Lion, painting of unknown provenance, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

The nature of contemporary Muslim practices around images varies from place to place. In West Africa, for instance, devotees frame and touch paintings and photographs of Sufi saints and their descendants to receive Baraka (blessing, Divine Grace) (De Jong 2016). Traditionally in Indo-Persian Islam (as in the case of Image 6 below) such illustrations were common in religious treatises dealing with spiritual enlightenment or providing instructions on religious life. In South Asia, vernacular expression takes, for instance, the form of ‘truck art’, (Image 7) in which Buraq - the mythical steed that carried the Prophet Muhammad on his spiritual Night journey (Miraj) – is still a common image (Ahmed 2011, p. 6). Increasing pressure of modern religious literalism (often conveyed by authorities today) on vernacular religiosity is evident in the fact that depictions today tend to omit the Prophet or blank out his face.  

Image 6: Muhammad et ange en forme de coq, Illustration in book Me’răj nămeh by Farid-ud-din Attar (AD 1436), Bibliotheque National de Paris, Record# RC-C-02688.

Image 7: Truck art in Pakistan with the image of Buraq. Image credit.

The medieval illustration depicts an episode from the Prophet’s Night journey, when he ascends to Heaven and speaks to God, who instructs him regarding the prayers, and when he meets older Prophets. On the way he meets, of all creatures, the Heavenly Rooster with feet planted on the earth and crown brushing the heavens. In Islamic practice today there is hardly any space for images of the Prophet due to the dominance of religious literalism, an irrevocable condition of modernity. Nevertheless, arguably even the aniconistic art of calligraphy, mosaic and ornament can be seen as ‘visual representation of God’ in Islam, representing divine presence in the world (Elias 2011, p. 127). Similarly, the popularity of Buraq, depicted on trucks for safe journeys, illustrates the appeal of material images in vernacular use. A winged creature, something in-between a mule and a horse with a woman’s head and often a peacock’s tail, is both eerie and surprisingly familiar. Buraq, too, cannot be reduced to any singular interpretation or reading, but belongs to another domain of the disturbing yet comforting, self-evident yet elusive. 


We have addressed only a few of the uncanny images that we find in our fieldwork among Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Common to all of them is the feature that they resist any single, allegorical reading: each of them stands by itself, with no one literal explanation and a multitude of ‘stories’ surrounding their use in religious practice. Showing bodies disproportionately or differently from common biology, they provide a disjuncture in the normal order of things. What we find is that faithful make up meanings for themselves, or adopt them as part of tradition, according to their era, and even life situation. As in the case of Troeruchitsa, these interpretations may well change over time and locale. 

We analyse this as images—especially uncanny ones—making a phenomenological demand of the faithful that inherently reaches beyond the loci of literalist readings. Rather, meanings are to be found in the vernacular practice of the faithful, and just as those practices are tied to time and place of traditions so are the meanings. This cuts across the divide between ‘official’ and ‘everyday’ religion, since any interpretation (for instance an icon-writing style) can be taken over into official dogma by some yet be rejected by others, as in the case of St. Christopher. 

As in the case of all traditions, contests abound around the interpretation or ‘appropriate’ use of religious imagery. One strand of contest has universally come from the desire—or, perhaps, impulse—to find a rational, literal explanation for uncanniness that reconciles with the state of sanctioned scientific knowledge of the time. Such is the nature of modernity in connection with religion, what Jung’s famous student and depth psychologist James Hillman called a ‘Cartesianist’ outlook. 

In Cartesianism, literalism is: 
an idol that forgets it is an image and believes itself a God, taking itself metaphysically, seriously, damned to fulfill its task of coagulating the many into singleness of meaning which we call facts, data, problems, realities ... Remember: the enemy is the literal, and the literal is not the concrete flesh but negligence of the vision that concrete flesh is a magnificent citadel of metaphors (Hillman 1975, pp. 150, 74). 

 We venture to suggest that such an impulse has always been present: in this sense, if in no other, we have always been modern. This impulse is far more common in Islam than in Orthodox Christianity (Ahmed 2010), as evident in the almost complete ban on iconic depictions defended violently by ordinary Muslims almost across the world now. It should be said, following Hillman, that there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’ about a reductionist or rationalised explanation of, say, an image. This is one way, and a valid one, of describing reality. However, our era of modernity is marked by the exclusivism of literalism, in which no ‘Other’, no alternative interpretation, is sanctioned, which is more and more the case with Islam. 

Yet, uncanny images persist in Islamic and Orthodox traditions. Despite all literalist readings or rationalised critiques, faithful continue to have and use these images in different ways. Indeed, a dual effect of modernity is that, on the one hand literalist critiques deprive the uncanny of its uncanniness, while on the other hand technology offers the means to circulate those same images around the world at the click of a mouse. It is the very fact of this circulation that reveals the phenomenological significance of uncanny images. In our current research we understand this tremendous spread and use in a post-Jungian framework of the ‘collective unconscious’, that part of each person’s unconscious that is shared across all of humanity (Jung, Collected Works Volume 7, §437ff). ‘Tradition’ gains significance in this framework as reflecting and extending humankind’s collective unconscious. Virtually ipso facto, tradition has been the enemy of literalism. It remains to be seen what happens to uncanny images as our modern tradition evolves. 


Ahmed, D.S. 2010. Penetrations: A Psychocultural View of Modernity, Fundamentalisms and Islam. In Islam and Europe: Crises are Challenges, eds. Carlier, J-Y and Foblet, MC, 53-69. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Ahmed, D.S. 2011. The Journey: Buraq, Jhuley Lal and Zulljinah. In Mazaar Bazaar: Design and Visual Culture in Pakistan, ed. Zaidi, S, 2–9. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Belova, O. 2015. Иконография святых и рассказы о них: Богородица „Троеручица”(принципы взаимодействия образа и текста). Проблеми на изкуството, no 2: 50-53.

Bowman, M. and Ü. Valk. 2012. Introduction: Vernacular religion, generic expressions and the true dynmic of belief. In Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, eds Bowman, M and Valk, Ü, 1–19. London: Routledge.

De Jong, F. 2016. Animating the archive: The trial and testimony of a Sufi saint. Socal Anthropology 24, no 1: 36–51.

Elias, J.J. 2011. Not reading the writing on the wall: The purpose of Qur'anic Calligraphy on Buildings. In Mazaar Bazaar: Design and Visual Culture in Pakistan, ed. Zaidi, S, 120–29. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Freud, S. 2003. Ed. Phillips, A. The Uncanny Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books. (Orig. pub. Das Unheimliche, first published in German in 1919 in Imago 5(5-6).)

Gadamer, H.-G. 1987. The problem of historical consciousness. In Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look, eds Rabinow, P and Sullivan, WM, 82-140. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Orig. pub. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal (Fall 1975) 5(1): 8-52).

Hillman, J. 1975. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper & Row. 

Houtman, D. and B. Meyer eds. 2012. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press.

Meyer, B. 2011. Mediation and immediacy: Sensational forms, semiotic ideologies and the question of the medium. Socal Anthropology 19, no 1: 23–39.

Meyer, B. and J. Verrips. 2008. Aesthetics. In Key Words in Religion, Media and Culture, ed. Morgan, D, 20–30. London: Routledge.

Morgan, D. 2005. Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Oca.  Icon of the Mother of God of "the Three Hands"., last accessed 2 Sept. 2016.

Primiano, L.N. 1995. Vernacular religion and the search for method in religious folklife. Western Folklore 54, no 1: 37–56.

Tradigo, A. 2006. Icons and saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Getty Publications.



Thursday, August 25, 2016

Flaying the Second Skin: Mormon Underwear and Intersectionality

Dai Newman draws attention to movies in which gay Mormon men engage in their first sexual encounter. In each case, the films include a brief moment of exposing sacred Mormon undergarments on the cusp of erotic contact. Newman considers how the garment is a visible, physical marker of conflicting identities and raises questions about the ability of intersectionality theory to explain the overlap of religion and sexuality.

MLA citation format:
  Newman, Dai
"Flaying the Second Skin: Mormon Underwear and Intersectionality"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 24 August 2016. Web. [date of access]  

The September before her husband lost the presidential election, Ann Romney set off a minor controversy in Mormon circles for her choice of outfit for an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. At issue was not the strangeness of the leather ensemble, but its hemline. Some Mormon viewers immediately jumped to the conclusion that Ann Romney, the most visible Mormon woman in America, was not living up to her religious obligations. The skirt, they claimed, could not possibly cover the underwear that she had covenanted to wear day and night as a temple-endowed Mormon. This was far from the first time the election cycle drew attention to the Romneys’ underthings, with Bill Maher’s vitriolic jabs at “magic underwear” and other late night jokes reminding Mormons of continued suspicion. Outsiders’ sense of Mormon weirdness and secrecy find a powerful emblem in Mormon underwear. While treated mostly as a punchline, a few filmmakers have included moments with Mormons exposing and removing their undergarments not for comedic impact but as a powerful emotional threshold. These moments reverberate beyond Mormonism and raise questions about intersectionality. Central to this theory is the idea that subjects are formed through overlapping axes of difference (gender, race, age, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc.) in a process that gives rise to complex, multiple identities. The first step towards justice for intersectional theorists is to recognize and reconcile identities in order to make meaningful differences visible. What happens, however, when a subject does not seek to reconcile competing identities? 

The undergarments, officially called garments of the holy priesthood, are worn by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after they have taken part in the initiation ritual of washing and anointing. The garments, said to represent the coats of skins God made for Adam and Eve, consists of two pieces and cover from just above the knee to over the shoulders. They are made sacred by the four embroidered marks and can only be purchased directly through the Church. Initiates are instructed to wear them day and night but not to reveal them to anyone who does not understand their significance. In return, wearers are promised safety and protection. Research among garment-wearing Mormons suggests they take seriously the injunction to keep them covered and garments serve as a powerful identity marker [i]. They are a reminder of group affiliation but also one that is to be kept hidden, signaling to the wearer her own commitments rather than broadcasting them. The injunction to not reveal the garments makes Mormons particularly sensitive to their portrayal in film, though the LDS Church has released a video that describes and shows the garments. 

Image 1: Joe Pitt flays himself in Angels in America.
The removal of the undergarments always occurs in relation to a struggle over sexuality. In Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003), the closeted, still-married gay Mormon Joe Pitt shows his commitment to his Jewish lover Louis by promising to give up anything to keep him, including his skin. As he strips down to his temple garments, he prepares to take off what he calls his “second skin.” Louis does not understand asking, “how can you stop wearing it if it’s your skin?” Joe does not stall and triumphantly declares “I’m flayed!” In his struggle to be a fully committed gay man, the garments are a hindrance to be cast off. Similarly, Latter Days (C. Jay Cox, 2003) and The Falls (Jon Garcia, 2012) follow missionaries discovering their same-sex desires and exposing their garments to lovers. While garment exposure also occurs with inappropriate heterosexuality in Missionary (Anthony DiBlasi, 2013) and the TV series Quantico [ii], removal of garments is always connected with homosexuality, a sign of the impossibility of being gay and Mormon. 

These exposures might appear simply for the erotic thrill of exposing this hidden practice of Mormonism. Indeed, the pornographic website focuses on impossibly sculpted Mormon missionaries engaged in sexual contact in (and out of) their garments. You can also buy your own garments for “sexy role play” through Mormon Secret. I argue, however, that garment removal in non-pornographic films is more than erotic frisson of the forbidden. The garments are visible for only a brief moment, suggesting they are not a striptease to be dwelt upon but a flash to mark a state change. The exposure of the garments in Latter Days, The Falls and Angels in America show the sense that being gay and being Mormon are an unbridgeable chasm. They suggest that a body can either be closed off and protected by religion or open and accessible to same sex contact. These two routes are mutually exclusive. 

It might seem like a path out of this problem is intersectional or matrix thinking. Indeed, just as woman has been presumed white or black has been presumed male, we have here a case where Mormon is presumed heterosexual and gay is presumed non-Mormon. Intersectionality would pressure us to reconsider these presumptions. Matrix thinking that rejects either/or should open up for the both Mormon and gay. The garment, however, remains a problematic barrier between single-axis identities and the more lifelike and complicated existence of both/and. Instead of blurring and combining, the garment separates. 

Thinking intersectionally, Maria Lugones argues for two kinds of separation and employs metaphors from cooking for both. One is the separation of a pollutant, like the clean separation of yolk from egg white. The other, the marker of impurity, is like when mayonnaise separates: an emulsion that “breaks” and moves from coherent whole to obvious parts. In the case of the gay Mormon the garment is a potent symbol of both these kinds of separation. On the one hand, it is a barrier to keep the body pure and isolated from contact. As Lugones argues, the logic of purity insists on a subject who can stand outside by hiding the ways that subject is constituted. Even though all subjects are formed through “need, emotion, and body,” purity attempts to obscure these three taints from the dominant subject [iii]. Since no such pure subject actually exists, it is imagined by hiding these elements. The garment, as a hidden marker of difference that becomes naturalized for Mormon wearers, is a means of purity separation through occlusion and hiding. The Mormon enters a religious closet every time he puts on the clothes that cover this marker of his identity. The garment stands between the world and the wearer, constraining body, controlling emotion, and structuring needs yet doing so without being seen by others. 

Image 2: RJ and Chris risk breaking surface tension in The Falls.
On the other hand, the exposure of the garment, right on the cusp of sexual contact shows how the garment serves as a bodily image of an emulsion breaking. The wearer is literally tossing aside his Mormon-ness, the surface tension that has held together his unspoken desires and his religious identity. The “curdled” identity [iv] is, like oil and water, suspended but constantly in danger of separating. While both these identities are in the head as an intellectual proposition, they can coincide. Once these identities are mapped onto the body and enacted in space, the garment is a zone of contestation: keep it on and remain Mormon, take it off and become gay. The mayonnaise separates. Gaymormonnaise spins apart to gay or Mormon, never both. Impurity through mingling and fracturing ensues. Mormon identity and gay identity both rely on action and the body. While we might be prone to assume that mental constructs are cleaner and neater, in this case, simplicity is found in the physicality of wearing or removing the garment while the complexity of both/and can only reside in the mind. 

Image 3: Aaron about to remove his garments.
The momentary pause in Latter Days and the ways in which the Mormon missionary appears on the border of light and shadow as he disrobes drive home how much this action crosses a threshold: his body becomes a gay one through erotic contact and ceases to be a Mormon one through exposure. Mormonism has to be shed in order to actualize sexual identity. This film employs its own metaphor of mixing: a laundry load of whites and colors. Christian (the gay seducer) is surprised when he sees Aaron (the Mormon missionary) doing laundry with everything mixed together. He argues for purity, a clean distinction of colors from whites. Later when he confesses his love, he pleads with Aaron that maybe whites and colors do mix as a way to argue that life is not so clean cut. 

Image 4: “Colors and whites don’t mix, Aaron.”
This metaphor works by arguing that Mormonism is white and therefore bland (matching the color of the garments) and austere while active gay sexuality is colorful and therefore lively and exciting (like Christian’s colorful, skimpy and frequently visible underwear). The problem with this logic is that whites and colors can mix, but only at the cost of tinging the whites. This is not an emulsion that holds inseparable parts together in something greater than the parts but an assimilation. It is the garments, the whites, the Mormonism that must give way as a barrier. Living authentically, as gay liberation urges all sexual minorities to do, means at some level a rejection of anything but the brightly colored. 
One thing these scenes with garments show is what forms of power and recognition are at stake. Mormon doctrine requires marriage in a temple for the highest level of salvation and eternal progression [v]. Temple marriages are only opposite-sex and any deviation from that path, including the celibacy gay members are enjoined to practice, is viewed as a failure. As someone straddling two groups, the both/and of gay Mormon entails a loss of power when viewed from either axis. Among Mormons, admission of and pursuit of same-sex intimacy is declaring oneself an apostate, a loss of power and privilege with eternal consequences. On the other hand, to admit affiliation with a stridently anti-gay church can often undercut one’s status among other queers. The gay men in these films acutely feel this: as their gay lovers urge them to shrug off Mormonism and their Mormon peers hurl insults at them once their sexuality is discovered. RJ in The Falls asserts his perspective has “changed” since they started having sex. His companion in response defensively calls RJ a faggot. Here Chris wears both pieces of his garments while RJ wears only half, a marker that Chris, the one expelling his own homosexuality, is less removed from the Mormon standard than RJ is. 

Gay Mormons are an example of what Lugones calls “thick members”[vi]. Transparent members are those whose needs, interests and instincts seem to line up with the presumed normal vision of the group. Thick members are the messy ends that need to be erased or ignored. The gay Mormon is thick from two angles: he is a thick Mormon because his sexual needs, interests, and instincts run contrary to culture and doctrine but he is also a thick gay man through his continued belief in a homophobic religion. His is a curdled identity trapped between these two. Following Lugones, his is a mestizo consciousness that pressures our understanding of difference. This consciousness is a combination of unmixable identities that creates a new substance, forming new identities with surprising new possibilities. They do not simply add together and exist in a separable state, but whip up into something entirely new. Sometimes these mestizo identities are emulsions and other times they are curdled, but either way, they resist either/or assimilation to one side of the blend. While this route contains possibility, I want to raise a question of it that suggests a way in which religion is different from other markers of identity. 

As Vivian May argues in her recent book, intersectionality has become both too present and too empty [vii]. By ignoring the radical, ethical, and political demands of matrix thinking, writers throw in the term intersectional to perform a kind of ornamental diversity. The generally simplistic, poor understanding of intersectionality leads to multiple critiques that May expertly dismantles. I do not wish to repeat the errors of others who have misread the approach to argue that the method presupposes identities as self evident, coherent and separable. Being gay and being Mormon, despite the song from the popular Book of Mormon musical, cannot be thought of as tiny boxes to be crushed or light switches to be turned on and off. Nor do I want to say the problem is that intersectionality fragments ad infinitum and therefore should be shunned as divisive (a replay of single-axis thinking masquerading as intersectional). Rather, I raise the question of how matrix thinking works when the subject with overlapping identities does not actively desire to inhabit both.

In my specific example, I am daring to ask, “What if the Mormon position on sexuality is believed to be right? What can a Mormon who finds himself feeling attraction to the same sex do?” Matrix thinking is very good at highlighting the problem of oppression when lived identities clash with presumptions and power structures. But, inherent and seemingly underexplored in this thinking is the view that the person desires to have these identities recognized, accepted and addressed and anything else is simply giving in to oppression. In the case of a believing gay Mormon, though, he might choose the garments. In each of the films the men made this choice at one point: Joe Pitt is married, Aaron calls his homosexuality “my deepest, darkest secret”, and RJ has brought with him to his mission only his garments and his scriptures (a literalization of the metaphor of baggage). In the films, an outside force (a Jewish lover, a flamboyant gay neighbor, a mission companion) activates a desire that overpowers these previous choices and each ends with the garments off and the men no longer defining themselves as Mormons. These are not men that seek to have both halves recognized. Their stories are viewed mostly as post-liberation indictments of homophobic institutions and fall into a kind of single-axis thinking that places sexuality as the primary and most important recognition one can have. 

Image 5: RJ destroys his garments in The Falls: Another Testament of Love.

Is there no other way? The only other option seen is Chris, the self-hating gay companion in The Falls, who we are not meant to sympathize with when he claims he is “stronger” now and that his intimacies were a mistake, a phase, and a seduction against his will. He opts for Mormonism at the expense of being gay. In either direction, one of these identities is sacrificed. The film prompts us to view Chris as cold and cowardly while RJ is emotional yet brave. The sequel drives this home when RJ finally removes his garments (though carefully ensures appropriate ritual destruction of them) and ends the film “finally free”. But is Chris’s Mormon identity really a less compelling answer to the unbridgeable problem? 

Intersectional theorists would almost certainly offer the answer here that we need to bracket my logic as too in line with the status quo, or we should strive for disidentification, or that we should practice active disloyalty. In other words, the claim that being both Mormon and gay is in conflict needs to be changed and results from heterosexist, patriarchal oppression. What these positions show, however, is a presumption that sexuality and its expression trumps religious belief. They might imply that sexuality is not a choice but religion is. They buy into a dominant logic of liberation that can leave little room for questioning. In other words, they bracket a dominant logic for another dominant logic that requires the shift from the Church’s end. Yet, believing Mormons relying on continuing revelation to living prophets and individual members, claim that such a change is not possible. Why does sexuality trump religion? While I do not think we have to accept conservative religious views of sexuality, intersectional theorists could take more seriously religious claims without jumping immediately to viewing these as pure oppression. If a person has an oppressed identity but also sincerely does not desire to have it recognized, is the only option the route of tossing aside oppression and losing along with it powerful communal ties? 

I do not actually think that Mormonism cannot change nor do I claim that single-axis thinking is accurate and one has to choose: garment or gayness, sainthood or sex. But, following Lugones, I agree that our identities are curdled into emulsions that may require more stirring for some than others to maintain. The current landscape requires much more stirring from gay religious believers. What cost are we asking believers with non-normative sexualities to bear? To constantly guard against breaking and remain curdled requires great effort. But to urge the loss of religious commitments or sexual expression are not welcoming alternatives. Intersectionality does hold promise for eventually decreasing the amount of labor required just to stay coherent by forcing us to understand and interact with each other as more complex subjects. But until the revelation comes and the religious boundaries shifts, the costs are immense and perhaps we are only adding to the burden by arguing that the right answer is always and forever either flaying oneself, casting off garments and oppression, or bending religious belief, scumbling lines to make room for both. 


i. McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University, 1998): 198-220. 

ii. It is telling that the characters in Quantico and Missionary are shown getting dressed. In covering up their garments, they trace a long line in the history of portraying Mormon devotion as an alibi for sexual deviance. 

iii. Lugones, Maria. “Purity, Impurity and Separation,” Signs 19 (1994): 467. 

iv. Ibid., 470. 

v. Doctrine and Covenants 132: 4, 17-21. Marriage is one of Mormonism’s “saving ordinances” that all people must perform (or have performed for them vicariously) to achieve total salvation, the others include baptism, confirmation, ordination to the priesthood (for men), and temple endowments. 

vi. Lugones, 474. 

vii. May, Vivian. Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries. (New York: Routledge, 2015)