I’m still not on TikTok. I think about trying it out occasionally, but then invariably I come across a clip of a particular person so disturbing that I change my mind and figure I have better things to do. This person is a man—obviously so—but he claims to be nonbinary. He wears lipstick and earrings and women’s clothes. He is Dylan Mulvaney adjacent in his grotesque, mocking patronization of women as a sex. His name is Jeffery Marsh and the fact that he has so many followers is appalling. I try never to watch him when he appears in my Twitter feed, but I was tired last night, and it was late. My defenses were down, and so I clicked. In one short video, he explains how you can pick special, unpronounceable pronouns that are “beautiful” and “poetic.” I’ve transcribed what he’s said, and then, if you can stomach it, you can watch him:
Xenopronouns. Perhaps one of the most beautiful concepts, one of the most poetic ways to approach this subject. Xenopronouns refer to any pronoun a person has that is unspeakable. That is unworkable in the language of a person. So an example of a xenopronouns would be, a word, I can’t even say it, right? Because that’s the point. They’re unsayable, and sort of effervescent and unknowable, kind of like a person’s gender. That’s why I love this one. So an example would be, you know, a xenopronoun would contain a set of letters that is a pronunciation that human beings can’t pronounce. It’s some sound that a human being can’t pronounce. Or that a xenopronoun contains an image or a concept that it’s alluding to, that is actually something that language has no way to express. The movement of understanding where non-binary people come from can sometimes take us into very lofty, beautiful, spiritual, poetic places. Thank you for your willingness to understand, and thank you for your willingness to honor us.
There are so many ironies—if that’s the word I want—spilling out of this frame. First, this person is using language rather effectively to make a point about how special he is. He does want the viewer to understand something knowable. He says you can choose a “word” that is unsayable, that can’t be produced by human vocal cords, but as he is describing that unknowable thing, he is perfectly able to communicate the most important concept. And that is that he is better and more important than you.
Second, he thinks that embracing something incomprehensible, something beyond human speech, will take him to “lofty, beautiful, spiritual, poetic places.” He won’t be bound by pedestrian comprehension, by the facile anxiety of being understood by others, but will be perfectly and gloriously alone. Except that you must look at him there, and accept him, though you don’t deserve to know what and who he is. The lofty, spiritual transcendence he seeks can only be found in the presence of an adoring and subservient audience of lesser beings.
I think “irony” is the word I’m looking for because perhaps you, like I, have been glancing at the lections all week, wondering at the way God arranged the images, the circumstances, the people in his book. He appears on the page not to veil himself, but to reveal who he is. In so doing, he calls you to look at him, as he is, and finally there, in him, to understand yourself. I wouldn’t have imagined TikTok could have, in the hubristic lecturing of Mr. Marsh, provided a more perfect inversion, blasphemously so, of Jesus.
The lectionary organizers give us the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus in two pictures. There is the account of Jesus himself, on the mountain—not alone—but with three of his disciples and two of his forerunners. And, there is the account of one of those forerunners, himself going up the mountain to meet with the One whom we then see displayed so brilliantly in the gospel. Here’s Moses, first:
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.
You might remember that Moses had been up on the Mountain for quite a long time. God had delivered his people out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness to reveal himself to them. But they couldn’t just trot up the mountain themselves. If they had seen God, face to face, they would have been undone, indeed would have perished. And so God made Moses go up to receive the Law, to discover what was required to know and worship the Lord. And we shouldn’t think that while he was up there he was being affirmed as we might understand it, or undergoing some sort of Wellness Time, going deeper into himself to discover the positive delights therein. No, Moses was held in the crucible of God’s knowledge and self-revelation.
Going up the mountain, in its spiritually metaphorical sense of course, is a dangerous occupation unless you have sorted out how to clean your hands and your lips, not with lipstick, not with nail polish, but out of the heart, so that nothing you say or think or do contradicts the beautiful order of God’s own world. Moses was only able to go up because he knew himself to be small and wrong, because of his faith in a Savior who had the power to burn off the dross of his own sin, because of the Sacrifice that would come so many millennia later. And he had often to go up into the mountain spewing fire and holiness, because the people for whom he was interceding were constantly, in the plains down below, turning their faces away and stopping up their ears from seeing or hearing the Name and character of their own God. In this instance, when Moses comes back down:
Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded,the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Imagine, being thus cut off from your kindred, but laid bare before your God. A lot of us think we might like this—indeed, Mr. Marsh of TikTok, there above, describes such a circumstance. Being alienated, Babbel-like, from all those who don’t deserve to know the delights of your person, to search out your “gender” as if some precious, hidden gem, takes you up to the heights. And what is up there? Surely God, or someone like him. But Moses, in having to endure the presence of God, finds he is too much for his own people. In this way, he gets to experience, beforehand, what it will be like for Jesus to come to his own, and his own not be willing to receive him. Luke picks up the narrative:
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
What departure is that? you might ask. Why, he is going up another mountain, alone, to hang between heaven and earth, to take on himself the degradation and corruption and ruin of our estate, to feel in himself the complete alienation between God and man. He will be alone, unveiled, naked, rejected. No effervescence, though certainly, his name is unspeakable by all those who look up at him in horror. He has become a by-word—the sort of name no one speaks because they cannot bear to look at themselves. But this mountain is not yet that mountain. And Jesus, though his face is set like flint, is still revealing, bit by bit, his plan, his love, his character and nature:
Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
“Not knowing what he said” should be the motto of at least 75 percent of the very-online. You peer into the camera and speak and yet you do not know what you are saying. But there is someone who does have the power to speak, the power to show, the power to bring what is hidden into the light and make it understood. And look what he says—“This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him.” Peter’s sleep-addled countenance can’t see or know the fullness of what he’s just been given. Like Israel shielding their eyes from Moses, he is groping around the dark, trying to find something to grasp, something that makes sense. To see Jesus in his glory, he never even asked for that gift. He didn’t understand it when it was given. It took seeing Jesus in his other glory, in the wasteland of his death, in the astonishment of his rising again, for all the pieces to fall into place. Peter says this about it, so much later:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Those words–“my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”–must have so seared themselves on the heart of Peter that he muttered them over and over in the long days between the crucifixion of Jesus and his own. Isn’t it ironic how you can go along saying and trying to believe so many foolish lies, using language to confuse and muddle and lecture, but when you run up against the truth, face to face, unveiled, suddenly you find you don’t have anything to say? The astonishing thing is that this can happen anytime, anywhere in the lowlands of the wilderness. You don’t have to hike up a mountain, or scroll online. You can flip open your phone and pop open the app, or reach forward and grab the book in front of you and crack it open and read it. And then, that lamp shining in a dark place will illumine the very darkest depths of your heart and soul and mind, and then God himself will make the words make sense, will tell you who he is, will show you that even you can be a son, a daughter, with a precious and knowable name. For heaven’s sake, and your own, go to church.
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