The tenth chapter in the book of Acts, the first New Testament book immediately proceeding the four gospels, tells a very important story that has shaped much of Christian culture, though it can easily go unnoticed. In the account the apostle Peter sees a vision in which something like a sheet is lowered from the sky, and on the sheet are a large number of animals that Peter recognizes as traditionally unclean according to the Law of Moses. However he hears the voice of God say to freely eat them, and in response to Peter’s objection there is the retort from heaven, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (New American Standard, Acts 10.10-16) While the vision specifically pointed towards a change in perspective on food, Peter immediately attributes this to a change in perspective of Gentiles, now seeing all people as able to have access to the gospel of salvation, the spirit of God, and eternal life. Because of this event, cultures like the western world converted to Christianity. But the message of change regarding the old Law, the stricter rules that set the Jewish nation apart from the rest of the world were considered a part of that culture and not carried over to Christian theology. Throughout history, we see sects and denominations split themselves again and again and often over debate over traditional doctrine. Someone is always going back to passages like Acts 10 to advocate for a less rigid way of living for God.
This is what I think the protagonist of British author Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is getting at. As the character of Jeanette stands firm on the non-perversity of her love and desire for other women, one line in particular stands out that also echoes Peter’s vision: “To the pure all things are pure.” (156) This iconic moment in the text is quoted by critics from Laura Doan to Jeanette King, but they all appear to be coming at the text with a more objective lens given their likely secular viewpoint. For anyone accustomed to the study, research, and debate of literature it should be readily acknowledged that true objectivity is impossible—and honestly pointless—because ethos inhabits too vast a portion of the human psyche. And with such substantial potential for emotional intelligence, what good does it do anyone to hinder it?
And so I, as a Christian and scholar of literature, approach Winterson’s Oranges with a peaked interest in how a traditional, and yet postmodern, Christian audience approaches this text, should they be so fortunate as to both stumble upon it and read it in its entirety. Winterson states in her introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Oranges that
“In structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel. This didn’t worry me, neither did it worry Philippa Brewster, my publisher at the newly former Pandora Press. It did worry her bosses though, who couldn’t see its market or its merit, and who were reluctant to waste a hardback on it.” (xvi-xvii)
Especially now, more than thirty years since the novel was published and any audience reading Oranges now is living in a world in which many countries—including the United Kingdom and the United States—have legalized same-sex marriage, the tensions between Christian churches and LGBTQ+ communities seem to be greater than ever. Did Winterson expect any Christians—both in 1985 and in the future—to pick up her controversial novel and read it? I would say that she did. But if by reading it they aren’t converted into this “to the pure all things are pure” theology, what is the object for them to come away with? I believe it is meant to prompt the question of “What makes sin sinful?” but also for readers to recognize Christianity’s religious origins in a patriarchy that controls first women and then any additional “Other”—be it other races, cultures, or sexual orientations—and the grave problems this produces.
The uniqueness of the book—which Winterson described in her introduction—has much to do with the ambiguity of her target audience. While the subject matter may make most conservative Christians squirm in their seats, it is by no means a book for secular folks alone. This is demonstrated in several ways, namely how the chapter titles are the first eight books of the Bible (Genesis-Ruth) and from the highly religiously intelligent narration of the protagonist, Jeanette. In fact, there is almost complete absence of reference to same-sex attraction for the first half of the book. It’s not until a hundred pages in that Jeanette meets the first girl that she will fall in love with. All prior to this is tens of pages describing the religiously devout life that Jeanette leads, thanks to her mother who adopted her for the sole purpose of raising her to be a missionary. In an essay tackling issues of homosexuality and the adoption of children, Margot Gayle Backus remarks on this undertaking:
“Ultimately, Jeanette’s mother earmarks Jeanette, rather than herself, to be the missionary in the family, thus enabling her to lay claim to the sacrificial aspirations of a saint without having to sacrifice anything. As Jeanette remarks, the process of rearing a child dedicated to such a holy mission would provide her mother with ‘a way out now, for years and years to come’ (10).” (136)
I first found it odd that this religious upbringing should be the focus of the entire first half of the book while the supposed central conflict didn’t arise until one hundred pages in. There are certainly many reasons why Winterson chose to write in the way she did, but one in particular is the process of building a firm foundation for the Christian audience. There must be a strong bond between the narrator and this kind of reader for any empathy to be cultivated. For once this familiar bond is set in stone, challenging questions can now be asked that will be given more credibility and serious thought, instead of being regarded as a piece of propaganda that gets tossed to the side without a more conservative reader having taken even a glance at it.
“What makes sin sinful?” seems at first to have a fairly clear answer: that which is not pleasing to God. Yet, if homosexuality is not pleasing to God, and therefore sinful, how can Jeanette reconcile her homosexual desires and behavior as sinless? This is the flabbergasting question that boggles the Christian’s mind. Critic Laura Doan notes this in The Lesbian Postmodern,
“Jeanette reaches what seems a sensible conclusion: if her love is not evil, it must be good. Jeanette experiences neither guilt nor self-doubt—let alone second thoughts. Her lovers attend her church, listen to her preach—they pray together before going home to make love. By embracing a credo (“To the pure all things are pure”) that assures her of the rightness of her love, she reconciles her private involvement with women and her public position in the church. She perceives no discrepancy, moral or otherwise, between her sexual preference (natural and essential) and the prescriptions of the church (cultural and social) because she believes, like Winterson, that love shouldn’t be ‘gender bound.'” (144)
What Jeanette finds to be evil is not what is written on a list of Do Not’s but rather evil is deliberate hurt of other people. This includes ill treatment of people, physical violence, theft, lying, etc. All very unloving things that can be done and are certainly not a reflection of God. If she is not hurting anyone—that is, if the sexual relationship is consensual—and she is doing it out of love, Jeanette sees it as not unnatural or sinful. Separate from being displeasing to God—for any sexual relations between non-married couples is sinful according to the Christian tradition, as with many other religions—many Christians feel that while the same-sex partners themselves do not feel they are being harmed, Christians themselves sometimes feel manipulated by their loved ones by their coming out. This is reflected in the Christian teen novel by Melody Carlson, Bright Purple: Color Me Confused, in which the narrator reacts inwardly towards her friend’s coming out by lamenting over how “my entire life spins totally out of control” (11) and later gives a general statement about coming out.
“I think people who decide to become gay should consider these things more carefully, especially before they jump out of the closet and scare everyone to death. They should think about how their new “orientation” completely disorients others around them. They should consider the unfairness of their selfish and sinful choice, and how it hurts all the people who love and care about them.” (34)
Surely many more Christians today would not have such a harsh view of LGB people, but this response is also still not far from the norm. Bright Purple’s narrator is able to lovingly accept her friend by the end while still holding on to the fact that God can save the friend, “from living the rest of her life as a lesbian.” (203) If this is a more homophobic stance than Winterson’s audience may be, Jeanette may receive some empathy for her sexually exploring teenage self, because of the fact that she holds so tightly onto her faith, despite the cruelty of other Christians. However, Jeanette takes it even further by not only declaring herself innocent but by accusing others as sinful for not accepting her as God made her.
“The problem, as Jeanette sees it, stems not from her exquisite longings for women, but from others’ inability to recognize and acknowledge the loveliness of sexual love shared between women. Jeanette’s strength and the strength of this coming-of-age/coming-out novel, emerges from a profound and unshakable conviction that her lesbianism is right and that any attempt to condemn or despise her—a celebrant of the most natural of passions—constitutes perversion.” (Doan, 137)
Certainly the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, and thus to reject, ostracize, and take judgment into one’s own hands would not constitute as loving someone as yourself. Here is where Winterson’s book might bring some Christians to serious questioning of their own convictions and even changing their minds, though many more may see same-sex attraction and relationships as unloving to God, if not to their neighbor.
Still, there is another aspect of religion that Jeanette’s character critiques for the benefit of any conservative Christian audience: patriarchal control. Upon a first reading, this may be lost on the audience, predominately because the Pentecostal church Jeanette grows up in is full of and run by women. Or so it seems. Pastor Finch is sometimes mentioned as is Pastor Spratt (often off doing missionary work), but these are the men who are actually running the show behind the mass of wailing, tongue-speaking, gossiping women. Even Jeanette’s mother, with a mostly absent husband and seeming to be pretty independent, actually is more controlled in her actions than may appear at first sight—because a second glance takes note of her devotion to male superiority, including a strange obsession with Pastor Spratt.
“[Jeanette’s mother] is an example therefore of the woman who identifies totally with the male symbolic order, deriving her status from it by serving it. Her conformity to the church’s patriarchal view of female sexuality is evident throughout the novel. She appears to have no sexual relationship with her husband,” (King, 119)
It is this same patriarchy that quickly accounts for Jeanette’s “deviant” behavior by her undermining male leads by giving sermons herself as a woman, though she—as well as other women—had been doing so for years without any sort of conflict.
“I knew my mother hoped I would blame myself, but I didn’t. I knew now where the blame lay. If there’s such a thing as spiritual adultery, my mother was a whore… So there I was, my success in the pulpit being the reason for my downfall. The devil had attacked me at my weakest point: my inability to realize the limitations of my sex.” (Winterson, 172)
Sexual orientation is quickly reworded to be an issue of gender, something more familiar, but still qualified as “Other” enough to be accused of being subversive and thus silenced. Critic Jeanette King goes on to argue the predestined betrayal of mother to daughter when an exorcism previously performed has not fully healed Jeanette; the pastor proclaims, “‘The demon…had returned sevenfold.’” (Winterson, 168) leading to Jeanette’s demotion from church leadership. “Given that Jeanette’s mother has identified herself with the patriarchal church in this way, it is inevitable that she will betray her daughter when Jeanette comes into conflict with the church by falling in love with another young woman” (120) With patriarchy comes tradition to keep the status quo, to keep the men in power, and the Pentecostal church’s literal readings of the Bible are un-persuaded despite Jeanette’s convictions.
In her book titled “Lesbian Panic,” Patricia J. Smith remarks on the intersectionality of equal parts Christian and lesbianism that other books do not similarly approach.
“While institutional religion, Christianity in particular, is generally perceived as a primary source of social prohibitions against homosexuality, few of the novels I consider in this study have directly considered the interaction between the church and the lesbian individual; it is as if they actively deny the pervasive influence of this interaction over their subjects. Winterson, having herself been a child evangelist, unflinchingly examines the relationships between the male-controlled church policy of homophobia and finds an endless cycle in which the former is both the cause and effect of the latter.” (183-4)
While the intensity of the church presented in Oranges is not the norm in either the United Kingdom or the United States, and is often read with an ironic eye, it is neither the gay-bashing and homophobic material of Carlson’s Bright Purple nor one that treats the church like a joke. Perhaps this is thanks only to the intersectionality of both the narrator and author herself, but it is a dual-identity that is held by more people than many are willing to admit. Where the bosses at Winterson’s publishing house saw neither market nor merit for Oranges at first, the merit and market are invisible but larger than both a secular and religious audience might suppose. It is the patriarchal aspect of tradition that keeps literal readings of scripture the law of the land. Though Oranges may not be transforming many minds by itself, every year longer that it exists on bookstore and library shelves is one year further into a new age of Christian reform mirroring those of the past: from inter-racial marriage, to the emergence of Protestants, to the cleansing of formally unclean animals on the sheet in Peter’s vision. “To the pure all things are pure” may be comforting to some and subversive for others, but it certainly challenges an audience who might not readily agree and ally with everything Oranges brings to the table.
Backus, Margot Gayle. “‘I Am Your Mother; She Was a Carrying Case’: Adoption, Class, and
Sexual Orientation in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” Imagining Adoption. 4rd ed. Ann Arbor: UM, 2004. 136. Print.
Carlson, Melody. “Bright Purple: Color Me Confused.” Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006.
Doan, Laura L. “Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Postmodern.” The Lesbian Postmodern. New
York: Columbia UP, 1994. 137-44. Print.
King, Jeannette. “‘Outside Time’: Prophets of Transgression.” Women and the Word:
Contemporary Women Novelists and the Bible. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. 118-20. Print.
New American Standard Bible.. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1977. Print.
Smith, Patricia Juliana. “The Proper Names For Things.” Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in
Modern British Women’s Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 183-84. Print.
Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. 3rd ed. London, UK: Vintage, 2010. Print.