10 Apr Longing & Loss | Reflections from Call Me By Your Name
I’m excited to share these reflections from guest writer Pieter Valk on the popular movie Call Me By Your Name. Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts below, keeping in mind that reactions to this film vary across the spectrum, and that’s okay. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Pieter Valk is the director of EQUIP, a Nashville-based team of missionary consultants who partners with churches to become places where LGBT+ people can belong and thrive according to an orthodox Christian sexual ethic. He is also a clinical mental health counselor that serves LGBT+ college students. Learn more at EQUIPyourcommunity.org.
Call Me By Your Name is a very broken story. At some level, it is just a story of a hormone-filled adolescent boy exploring his sexuality and seeking pleasure wherever he can get it. He finds love that, while honest and physically intimate, can only be as mature as a 17-year-old kid can muster; the other half of the pair is a mid-20s man who resists the relationship but ultimately relents for a fun, temporary adventure that is incompatible with the practicalities of adulthood. More often than not, the love is a self-serving use of another’s body for personal pleasure. And yes, there were moments that felt increasingly pornographic when I had to look away—I am glad I saw the movie with a trusted safe friend to process with afterward. Both constructive and nonconstructive emotions have lingered, and I am still ambivalent about whether it was good for me to have seen the movie or whether I would recommend someone else see the movie.
Nevertheless, it is powerful for me to see people like me portrayed as normal people in mainstream movies. I feel less evil, gross, bad, and disgusting. And it helped me connect with what I am feeling and honor those desires as genuine, even if I choose not to take action upon them. When anyone—an artist, poet, scientist, or philosopher—captures or describes something good, beautiful, or true (even if only a tiny sliver) in a moving way, God is present. All good, beautiful, and true things ultimately come from God, and by common grace even those who curse God can stumble upon deeper truths—truths that may one day lead them to the real source of that beauty. This movie affected many people deeply—and not just because of the sometimes-intoxicating images—but because, at times, it captures something deeper, even if only by accident. So to that end, Call Me By Your Name helped me connect with and process my own feelings of longing and loss. Let me be clear, this is not an endorsement of the movie but instead reflection on the constructive emotions I personally experienced.
Following the early stages of the two main characters’ relationship highlighted strong feelings of desire in me: desires to seek out monogamous, self-giving love that seems normal and good. Most (straight) Christians can act upon that desire in the context of marriage. But for me and many people like me (who experience same-sex attraction and don’t feel called to marriage with someone of the opposite sex), those desires seem impossible to fulfill.
However, instead of discarding these desires altogether, I wondered what part of this longing is invitation to lust after the romantic and sexual versus a holy longing—the longing in the spiritual friendships of David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and John, and Paul and Timothy? What if these were desires to lean into healthy friendship with someone you love, let yourself need them, let them know you, travel together, see beautiful things, talk long into the night, serve one another, hold each other while crying?
Even more movingly, Call Me By Your Name highlighted feelings of loss. The main character watches his lover leave on a train, only to later learn over the phone that his lover is engaged to a woman. I felt deep heartache, because I’ve experienced versions of this time and time again. I’ve felt this after falling in love with guy friends at camp as a teen, only to leave them a week later. I’ve felt this during the weddings of close straight friends, forced to accept that his new commitment necessarily meant less time available for our friendship. I’ve felt this when sexual sin and the fear of repeating those mistakes destroyed dear friendships.
We aren’t meant to connect deeply with people only for that connection to be severed, and that is one of the reasons God instituted marriage—because it would be bad for men and women to connect sexually and have children and then be torn apart. And that’s why He instructs us not to engage in those things outside of a covenant. God saw something that would bring great pain to our lives (to connect deeply only to be torn apart), He called it a sin, and He asked us to stay away—for our sake.
For single people, the Church often suggests that our only option is to endure our loneliness as opportunities for sanctification and deeper relationship with God. But what if God intends deep, committed relationships for everyone? What if we all need that, married or celibate? What if precisely the way God has called us into deeper relationship with Him and to be sanctified is through covenant friendship and marriage? What if God doesn’t want us to connect deeply in friendship only to be torn apart later any more than He wants us to do that in marriage?
For those called to celibacy, committed relationship looks different, but not lesser. We are still called to diverse, intimate, spiritually procreative relationships that are maintained through covenant and sacrifice. We need to rediscover and emulate the spiritual friendships of Scripture. We need a renewed practice of non-romantic, non-sexual relationship where we could say and do the following: “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). “After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt” (1 Samuel 18: 1-4).
After an emotionally heavy time with my pastor talking about my loneliness and my hope of being part of a monastic community for celibate men, he asked me, “What do you really want?” I replied over email a few days later, “I wish the world were a place where me marrying a man fit God’s intentions for creation and my flourishing just as much as me marrying a woman does.” My pastor responded by noting that Benedictine monks take a vow of stability—a vow to remain at the monastery for the rest of their lives and commit themselves to family with the other men. My pastor shared that when he gives wedding homilies, he often likens the vows of marriage to the vows of stability. He ended with a simple but powerful suggestion: “Perhaps the playing field is more level than you think.”
If we ever expect some of those who experience same-sex attraction to joyfully accept a life of celibacy, we can’t offer empty promises of community: we can’t expect anyone to stick around through loneliness, depression, and suicidality. We must become a Church where those called to celibacy—gay or straight—can find family of their own in the Body of Christ—where they can enjoy diverse, intimate, spiritually procreative relationships that are maintained through covenant and sacrifice. We must become a Church where those called to celibacy can enjoy the best parts of the love shown in Call Me By Your Name and where they don’t have to endure the pain of deep friendships being torn apart.