At first, the relationship seemed idyllic, filled with professions of eternal love and lengthy love letters telling teenager Joseph Richards that they were special.

Then things turned dark. Richards’s love interest became jealous and possessive, causing them to doubt themself. In the end, Richards concluded, their partner wanted them isolated from friends “and what I needed to survive …. He wanted me weak and broken. That’s the only way he knows how to love.”

That’s when Richards ended things with Jesus Christ—or, at least, the Jesus depicted in the Southern Baptist church they were born into during a childhood in rural Wilkinson County, Georgia.

This week, the comedian, autobiographical monologist, and UNC Communication PhD student premieres their solo show, Breaking Up with Jesus, at UNC’s Media Arts Space, an intimate new performance venue in the site of the former Walgreens on Franklin Street. These are the edited highlights from our interview.

INDY Week: You frame your loss of faith in Christianity as the breakup of a gay relationship. Why?

JOSEPH RICHARDS: One of the things I’ve been dealing with since I was five years old is the nature of desire, especially queer desire and what that means. I think two things are at play here.

One is the absurdity that certain forms of Christianity would be so anti-gay, and yet they want people deeply in an intimate relationship with another man—nothing less than an intimate relationship; that’s how it’s thought of.

The punch line of my opening section is that I let Jesus come inside me, which is actually the whole thing: that Jesus comes into your heart. There’s nothing more intimate.

He’s the only person allowed into your bedroom every night. He’s supposed to be watching you while you’re asleep. So, already, how do you extricate that from a deity who is framed as male, as the Son of God—who, for some reason, needs to be in your bedroom every night?

The story is a way to acknowledge just how absurd it is that Christianity could frame it that way but not recognize its own framing is already queer.

An old Southern hymn calls him “Jesus, lover of my soul.”

The other thing, that I don’t fully explore in the piece is that southern male Christian heterosexuality is so weird and fraught. It seems so always on the cusp, always trying to keep that tension: “OK, no, we’re just brothers in Christ.”

There’s a whole scene I cut out where I was in a youth group in high school. Several of us went upstairs with these young adult men who were the leaders. We all had this experience where we were like speaking in tongues, all kind of babbling and giddy. It’s like we all just had a spiritual orgy together. That’s the only way I can think of to frame it. Those bonds were very flirtatious in some ways.

I think that, in some ways, for Southern Christian men who may have other-than-heterosexual desires, Jesus is the place they can put those desires.

Your character finds a different faith as your story develops: a faith in themself and their ability to perceive what’s actually happening in different relationships. But that journey begins with a loss of faith.

The story’s about a loss of faith and also about a loss of trust, particularly in spaces where you could be who you are and explore that fully. But even more, I think this is a story about the loss of unconditional love. That’s what Jesus promises, right? But it’s not the reality of the situation. It’s the story of how we try to find love in different places in our lives, and acceptance as we’re learning who we are. And sometimes, we get hooked on people or relationships that twist us up in ways that require a lot of undoing. For me, the whole piece is untwisting those threads.

Abusive relationships promise a certain intimacy, but after the initial seduction phase, the abuser becomes increasingly dissatisfied and controlling. It’s interesting that you find this dynamic in a relationship with a religious figure.

Ultimately, it’s a very controlling, contingent kind of love. The Christian version of God is incredibly capricious; his emotions can go from “I’ve created you and love you” to “I will wipe you off the face of the earth.”

Your character’s relationships with Jesus and others are in a crisis over authenticity and self-abandonment. Your character’s so dominated and overrun, they’re basically a proxy to Jesus. They can’t have authentic relationships, because they can’t let themself be present.

A lot of times, I don’t think we recognize the self-abandonment that’s an obligation, that’s required in these spiritual relationships. But how we treat ourselves in a spiritual relationship is how we’re also potentially going to treat ourselves in a human, material, corporeal relationship. It’s just reflective.

My relationship with Jesus was reflective of my own self-abandonment, my own self saying, “Well, I can’t be myself, so let me try to be whoever I’m with right now. Let me try to be their version of me.” Through this piece, I’ve come to realize that there is no real material difference for me between my relationship with Jesus and my relationship with another human being. The patterns are the same, the traumas are the same, and the healing is the same.

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