TO BE ALONE WITH SUFJAN
There’s plenty of discussion of Sufjan Steven’s sexuality intermingled with his religious imagery, often suggesting that Sufjan’s religious imagery is actually code for homoerotic experiences, or that Sufjan’s homoerotic language is really the language of religious devotion. While these arguments usually seek closure on one side of this weird form of debate—either the gay or religious—here, instead, I’d like to do a closer reading of Sufjan’s song “To Be Alone with You” and find a suggestion of an intersection of gay desiring and Christian devotion to Jesus. In the song, a desire for intimacy seems transformed into a religious one by focusing on Jesus, while ultimately leaving space open for the singer to desire multiple male figures, rather than exclusively Jesus. Here, I think, we see the ambiguity of a gay Christian experience, open to several types of male-male desiring.
This ambiguity is quickly demarcated, where conditional statements begin the first three lines of the first stanza:
I’d swim across Lake Michigan
I’d sell my shoes
I’d give my body to be back again
In the rest of the room
The first three lines express some form of desire with no clear object through the conditional clauses. Some will be paralleled later in the song with religious imagery, but for now, Sufjan will give up a lot “to be back again/ in the rest of the room.” It might be redundant to say that Sufjan has been in a room before and wants to be there again.
“To be alone with you” is repeated—an ambiguous “you” is alone in a room with Sufjan Stevens. For now, it might be a small leap to suggest that a desire to be alone in a room with another person is a desire for intimacy with that person—opening the possibility (without directly suggesting) that this desire is, at least partially, erotic.
Yet, as we follow the lines of the Genius Lyrics comment, “Whyyyyy do all the gay songs actually turn out to be about Jesus…,” the song qualifies Sufjan’s desire with religious imagery in the next verse (though not unequivocally), defining the “you” with allusions to Christ (for now ignoring the confusing problem of this “you” raised by the question “what type of intimacy is suggested in being alone with Jesus, rather than just with Jesus?”):
You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost
Jesus gave his body to the lonely; Jesus was also stripped before his crucifixion; Jesus did not have a wife and rejected his family; Jesus gave up his ghost, or his spirit. The desire cultivated in the first verse seems to have its object in Jesus, seemingly foreclosing any other types of desire. This interpretation is solidified by the next chorus, “to be alone with me you went up on a tree,” a possible allusion to Jesus’ crucifixion that mediates Sufjan’s relationship to Jesus.
So far, a desire cultivated in the first verse for intimacy in a room with another person is revealed to be a desire for a religious intimacy, until the final line destabilizes the univocality of the religious interpretation. The singer recites, “I’ve never known a man who loved me.” While it is straight-forward that Sufjan never really knew Jesus, for he is not embodied in the present, the line also, through the use of the indefinite article (“a man” rather than “the man”), suggests that there may be another man whom Sufjan knew who have not loved Sufjan, while the man who loved Sufjan (i.e., Jesus) is one whom Sufjan never knew. Or, more clearly, if the song were exclusively about Jesus, the definite article (‘the’) would have been used in this line. There, then, is at least another man who never loved Sufjan. The fact that there is at least a man who Sufjan knew who never loved him is strengthened by the fact that Sufjan, in the first verse, wants to be in a room again physically with that ambiguous “you,” a physical experience denied to Jesus in the last line (because Jesus, by definition, loves Sufjan, but cannot be in a room with Sufjan)—suggesting that there must be another man in the song. While some say that it is Sufjan’s father in the first verse, whom Sufjan is estranged from, the second verse can be read erotically with allusions to a gay experience. So, through this final line, we are permitted to return to the second stanza homoerotically, with the idea that it is a particularly gay desire that finds its expression in religious language.
While “you gave your body to the lonely” can be read religiously, it can also be read as an act of a lover giving their body to the lonely (the lonely, in this case, Sufjan). It is a physical intimacy that makes Sufjan less lonely. “They,” in this case, must be read as ‘he,’ “took your clothes”—that the lover is stripped of his clothing in the act of giving his body. The lover, in this reading, gives up a wife and a family—where male gay couples also give up a wife and, in the most literal and personal sense, a natural or biological family. The final line remains religious, but it is clear that there is also a male-male desiring at play here.
Finally, solidifying the gay-double-meaning is the use of “to be alone with you” or “to be alone with me,” rather than merely the “to be with you” or “to be with me.” For it may be more biblical to understand that Jesus’ statement “I am with you always…” refers to a people in the plural (“them”) in Matthew 28:20, and that while Sufjan can experience solitude in quiet prayer time with Jesus, the expectation of alone time with Jesus parallels a homoerotic intimacy of having alone time with a lover.
So, before moving on, a quick recap of the gay desires hiding behind religious language: Sufjan’s desire to physically be in a room again with a person—which is impossible for Sufjan and Jesus to accomplish; the “giving” of a body in the second verse as an erotic act of a lover; the taking of clothes as another erotic act performed by the singer; the giving up of a wife and family as a part of the gay male experience; the particularity of being “alone” with “you” as an intimacy that exceeds a broader biblical intimacy with Christ; and, of course, the indefinite article at the end of the song, signifying that love occurs beyond just the religious interpretation of devotion to Christ.
Where does this leave us? It would be dishonest to both readings to conclude that this song is either purely about a gay lover or just about Jesus, so we are forced to conclude that religious and erotic intimacy share common ground in a gay Christian experience. (We know, kind-of-cheating here, because we’re bringing in other songs, that Sufjan Stevens has had homoerotic encounters elsewhere, and the use of Christian language suggests that we’re dealing with a gay Christian experience here). So, following the chronology of the song, I’d suggest that the desire cultivated in the first verse and chorus is ambiguous enough to hold an intimacy that is more erotic than religious, and that this intimacy is shaped into religious language in the second verse, while opening back up to that ambiguously, but more pointedly homoerotic intimacy in the last line.
What I’d suggest, then, is that we might be suspicious that religious desires are purely religious. That there may be a case of erotic desire, or, as some people suggest, a desire for an estranged father, that transforms itself into a religious desire. And some preachers might agree—that God is the fulfillment of all these incomplete desires—but, if we look again, this time a bit closer at Sufjan’s final line, we are reminded that Sufjan still remains in a position of either unknowing but loved (Jesus or possibly his father), or known but unloved (possibly his lover). In either case, Sufjan has never known a man who has loved him: there is an unfulfillment of both religious and erotic desires in Sufjan’s gay Christian experience. But, more importantly, we get a glimpse into how desire is shaped into a religious mold—it is this, I think, that provides a model for how religious devotion might work: unfulfilled eroticism placed onto a savior.