Crush on the Cross: An Interview with Anthony Oliveira

The author of Dayspring discusses queerness, Christianity, and the anxious sense that history is over.

collage image of Jason Kirk

Jason Kirk, author of the novel Hell Is a World Without You, works as a sports journalist and co-hosts the Vacation Bible School and Shutdown Fullcast...

Diptych of author Anthony Oliveira and the book cover for Dayspring

Mike Meehan

“Jesus is more socialist than the socialists,” wrote the theologian Karl Barth, describing the gospels’ politics as downright anarcho-socialist, a worldview too ambitious and perhaps naive for even some of the most hopeful revolutionaries. If Jesus’s politics remain that far ahead of our time, then how long will it take us to reach the rest of him?

In Anthony Oliveira’s Dayspring (Strange Light)—which describes itself as “a memoir,” “a hymnal,” “a great blasphemy,” and many other things—we inhabit a heartbreak. Our narrator is a version of the Gospel of John’s “disciple whom Jesus loved,” identified by ancient tradition as the author of that gospel, though so many other historical and literary voices intermingle in Oliveira’s telling that we’re not just experiencing one ancient breakup, but a widespread yearning now 1,994 years old.

What does it mean to seek a god who, according to the accounts, lived in a body like ours and then…left? Who underlined the most essential element of Hebrew scripture, the version of the golden rule Christianity cribbed from Judaism, and then said he’d be back after a few errands to assess how well we’ve followed it? Who told a bunch of stories with punchlines, allegedly concluding with the biggest gotcha of all: not that he resurrected, but that he then departed anyway?

Oliveira’s narrator is even more abandoned than the rest of us. This man is the disciple whom Jesus loved, so intimately that we learn what rowdy-jock Jesus smells like when he reclines after playing sports, so erotically that the same saliva that functions as an ingredient in biblical miracles also functions as lube.

Reading Dayspring feels like listening to a bar full of saints realizing they’re all pining for the same ex. But through all this grief and loss and desire, something else emerges: a love so universal that it’s flagrantly political, especially when so many of Jesus’s current followers tell us there are people who aren’t allowed to fully partake in it, whether because of orientation or gender or nationality.

From Atlanta, I called Oliveira in Toronto to discuss Dayspring—as well as its kinship with my new novel, Hell Is a World Without You (Shutdown Fullbooks), about a group of 9/11-era teenagers breaking away from American Evangelicalism.


Jason Kirk
I’m curious about your religious background, if you’re willing to talk about the path that led you to writing this?

Anthony Oliveira
I grew up Azorean Portuguese Catholic. I went to an all-boys private school that was run by the Brazilian fathers. There were nuns and priests teaching us. I was an altar boy. I was in the school choir and the church choir. I was raised very conservatively, sometimes with folk elements. For a long time in high school, I was like, Why are my dress shoes always full of sand? I never go to the beach. Then I found out years later that my mother was putting holy salt in my shoes. And I had the holy face of Jesus as a medal sewn into my briefs. That background’s sort of woven into the book. Your book tells us pretty explicitly, I think, what your background was like. Is there any difference?

I spread myself throughout almost all of my young Evangelical characters. There are bits of Isaac, this nerdy jock who thinks his grief is blasphemous, that are very close to me. But there’s also the girl always starting hardcore bands that try to frame themselves as Evangelical ministries, and that was me as well. Isaac’s mother is me turning to the camera and explaining why I’m writing about religious youths years later. Your book also comments on itself as it goes, like it’s about a past that’s still here.

Both our books are interested in religion shaping every dimension of life. I think about this from the queer lens, but we’re coming out of this moment where queer narratives were very much the Love, Simon narrative, where it’s like: you come out to your parents, and they respond, but the religious dimension almost never touches it. Whereas I think we’re both interested in the way these things suffuse your being. And even when you intellectually move past them, they are still haunting the architecture of your brain.

You show someone who is telling the story of Jesus in the moment—while also infusing it with scholarship that this character learned much later. Your apostle Matthew is very intentionally trying to navigate Jesus so that Jesus fulfills a prophecy, which is a thing we learned many years later about the Gospel of Matthew’s composition. It feels like it’s about two thousand years of Christianity at once.

I grew up with Jesus Christ Superstar, the movie, which is somehow [set] two thousand years ago yet they’re ’60s hippies. I thought a lot about The Last Unicorn, a fairy tale where the guards on duty read magazines. Or even Donkey Skin, the Jacques Demy movie where the fairy godmother has a helicopter.

That happens in the Christian tradition; if you go to Florence, you’ll see depictions of Christ’s life—with Florence in the background. These stories demand a kind of updating. Also, my narrator has lived too long to be fully sane.

I wanted the sense of timelessness. To say no, there’s something urgent and contemporary. Whereas your book did crazy flashbacks to very specifically early-2000s culture and mindset and Oh my God, I forgot that’s how my phone worked. Did you work hard on the time capsule element?

It’s funny to research the most vivid time of your life, you know? Like, I remember the Transformers shirt I was wearing the first time I got dumped.

But while researching, some things emerged, like exactly when it was that Christians were and weren’t mad about certain culture war things. There’s an Evangelical magazine that, a year or two before 9/11, was warning parents against Harry Potter. A year or two after 9/11, it was like, Harry Potter is fine. I tried to make it feel connected to a specific time, but also, if you changed nouns, like it could move to any other time or place. To me, my setting is 2000s white American Evangelicalism, but so much of it is about post-Augustinian theology through the lens of emo kids.

Please say more about that. What is Augustine up to in this book?

David Bentley Hart presents Eastern Christianity as in the tradition of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, whom my nerdier characters stumble upon—and a figure I imagine was on your radar when you were including Origen in yours. Gregory presents the divine in humanity, a reclamation; hell is about purification, not punishment. Compare that to what we got in the West: original sin and feeling bad about ourselves all the time.

What is kind of unique about Christianity—kind of—is that God made himself human. He ate and slept and got mad and cried for his mom. The human is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something God was.

What I find useful about Augustine—and the devil uses Augustine in my book at one point—is that original sin gives me a way to think about the guilts we inherit just by being alive. There is something about the throne-ness of being born in North America as a middle-class person. There’s a guilt to: I don’t know who made my clothes. And that’s been something that I’ve been, quote unquote, guilty of since I was an infant. We don’t have a mechanism to “grace out” of that, except to say you start from where you start and you figure it out from there.

That’s the useful way to talk about original sin. A way to talk about privilege, right? One reason to study religion is to discover things that are more universal than we realize. The Evangelical and Charismatic traditions are often mocked for their music, called “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music” because of lyrics about Jesus’s sloppy kisses and laying your head on Jesus’s heartbeat. But as your book shows, there is an extremely rich vein of Jesus-is-my-boyfriend material throughout Catholic and Orthodox traditions. I knew Julian of Norwich was going to show up like a hundred pages before she did. Because when they say God wore skin, we long to touch that skin, right?

In the gospels, Jesus gets fingered. The first thing he does after resurrection is: Yeah, touch my wounds. Eat my body. The physical mass of Christ is important to the earliest days of Christianity. But in North American culture, Jesus is not useful as a weapon of war, as a justification for imperialism, if you remember he was a person who had his body mutilated by the state. Whereas if you celebrate that body, if you think about it the way Julian of Norwich does, or Rupert of Deutz, or Zinzendorf making out with his side, then you have to admit there’s something sacred about life. It is undeniable to anybody, no matter how they feel about my book, that there is a moment where Jesus talks about someone he loves the most, and that person reclines on his bosom, you know?

Your book is dealing with that too, this mortification of the flesh and Matrix-y refusal to engage with the body, denying the kids are going to find ways to make out in the bushes. I think it actually feels, with its urgency, very Christian.

So many Christian experiences are about funnelling horny young bodies toward marriage. And at that point, the adults in charge can say: Okay, those two people are no longer my problem. Presumably babies will emerge, and then we will funnel those babies toward marriage.

Within the tradition I was raised in, we talked about the pain my sins were putting Jesus through, but we didn’t talk about what it meant that his Brown body was destroyed, in solidarity with poor people, by an empire. We talked about the conquering Jesus who has evidence of that destruction on his body, but has overcome it by shining very hard.

In the Stephen King sense.

It feels that way. So, in many depictions of Jesus, he’s morbidly proceeding toward something we’re told is inevitable, whereas your Jesus is a golden retriever boyfriend, the hippie uncle the kids play football with. How does Jesus emerge for you as a fully realized, childlike adult?

That honestly comes from spending time with these texts, when you scrape away the barnacles. I’ve had the fortune of working on my podcast, The Devil’s Party, in slow motion, working through the gospels of Mark and John, and now we’re in Revelation. In those books, he’s very charismatic. The gospels are very funny. Like the moment I didn’t make up where he curses at a fig tree—it says, “And the disciples heard it.” It’s like the camera on The Office finds someone grimacing.

The parables are amazing crowd work, almost joke-telling, right? Almost all of them have this twist ending, right? The fact that it is a good Samaritan and not a good Galilean is a twist.

Jesus is a troublemaker. He causes the scene in the temple. He plays weird pranks, like when he says he’s not going to go down to Jerusalem, then puts on a weird disguise and surprises his disciples. Later he does the same thing, as soon as he’s resurrected. There’s the bizarre moment in the Gospel of John, where it’s fully like The Carbonaro Effect, where he’s pranking Mary Magdalene. “Who are you looking for?” And she can’t figure out his disguise.

Because he’s dressed up like a gardener.

Fully TikTok-ready prank show. His sense of humour is almost at odds with proper religious belief, like the moment where he blesses the person at the fountain of Bethesda and the angel is like, No, there’s an order. It’s supposed to be the first one to get here, gets the blessing. He’s like, But I’m going to give it to this guy back here. And that’s all a miracle is: when the way things are supposed to go gets interrupted. So if you are the great miracle worker, then you are a cosmic prank.

Your book is also hilarious. It does amazing work with double consciousness, where you are thinking a thought that can’t be true, yet you feel your brain just bend around it and do what it wants anyway. It was very unusual for me to be like, Oh! His internal monologue is like my internal monologue, this sadistic version of you and God that is somehow meaner than both.

My narrator, who’s constantly arguing with this Disco Elysium voice in his head, doesn’t know whether he believes the thing, but he believes consequences will happen if he can’t believe the thing. So while he’s sitting at Taco Bell, he’s trying very hard to believe the thing.

Yeah, skipping the math.

There’s so much emphasis on “believe,” the most important verb in so many Christian traditions. We’re told it’s about what can you attest and confirm. There are lots of versions of the resurrection I can talk myself into, but I haven’t found creative enough language to talk myself into affirming an entire creed since I left the church. But it’s funny that I still kind of want to, right? Your book gets at that too.

There is a thought that haunts me in these books: Oh, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? I truly wish I could believe, but here’s the honest truth of where I am. I don’t think the early days of Christianity were that interested in belief, either. Jesus is like, okay, there’s two sons, and their dad tells them to do something. One says, “I’m going to do it,” and doesn’t do it. And one says, “I’m not going to,” and then does it. Which has done his father’s will? And Jesus is very clear that it’s the one who lived it.

Sometimes people are like: Do you identify as a Christian? And the shortest answer I know how to give is 432 pages long. I was told I wasn’t Christian by someone else long before I ever thought it of myself. My book is interested in: What would it even mean to me to be a Christian? Kierkegaard said the last true Christian died on the cross, and I feel like so much of this book is about expressing the feeling of squatting in the ruins of churches and being like: It sure looks like it was pretty. I wonder how I’m allowed to access it, you know?

You write with this sense of: The divine struck earth. We are sitting in the crater. Your book tours around to all these churches that have their roofs blown open, and we’re looking up at the sky. Now what? And it’s funny because Jesus told us now what, and it’s this thing that takes so much work to get to. It’s so simple. And the Bible has to reiterate it because it’s so easy to lose track of. It doesn’t feel like a spoiler to say both of our books put characters through hell but end with the thing Jesus said is the kernel: love each other, learn to love yourself, love the universe. And it took both of us hundreds of pages to get to it.

My beloved disciple is a few different disciples. But Saint John was the only apostle not martyred. There was a long tradition that, toward the end of his life, he became like a parrot, constantly saying the words “little children, love one another.” And they asked him, “Why do you keep saying that?” He said, “Because that’s all it is. Little children, love one another.” If you took only one thing from Christ, that was the thing to take, in John’s imagination.

The Christian experience for two thousand years has been: something happened, then something might happen again. We have to pretend that it might happen in our lifetime, and maybe it will. But ultimately, you live in the great between. That between is also the thing that socialist politics are trying to learn, that you may not see the revolution. You still have to, every day, create the conditions that will allow that apocalypse to occur. There may come a time when Christ comes again and we’re back in paradise. You might die first. You still have to do it. And I think that that’s something we’re now kind of renegotiating in leftist circles.

Both our books say there might be something here that they took from us that we could use. I get, especially living in queer circles, there are people who have no interest in revisiting it. I have lived several of those traumas myself. But I think there’s a queer weirdo who started all this, and I want to really think about what he said.

Your book, before I started reading, I was like, “Is there any queer stuff?” You were like, “I don’t know, a little bit.” It’s actually a major vein in your book, a character I adored and recognized as very much like myself. Where did that come from for you?

A number of my friends, around this time, came out at a Southern Baptist church. Seeing what that world did to them affected me. I didn’t even realize how angry it had made me until I was halfway through writing this. I didn’t try to base any characters on any of my friends, but I knew I was going to find LGBTQ characters. I wanted them to have varied and shifting relationships with religion, because I’ve seen a lot of people who grew up religious and have things that they want to hold on to. Two of my LGBTQ characters end up much more orthodox than me, but I needed to present those people honestly and as complete people.

Your book constantly reminded me of T.S. Eliot, specifically The Waste Land. Agonized anticipation of renewal and stitching together mythologies and biblical language smashing up against pub conversations. And obviously, you quote Eliot in there. How has the work of Eliot shaped yours?

I was a 17th-century scholar. Eliot and I read the same corpus. Taking the past and re-stitching it is something I always knew the project would do. When I was in academia, people would be like, why are you talking about comic books to explain Shakespeare? Now that I’m writing comic books, people are like, why is this alien quoting Paradise Lost? One of the subtitles I gave the book is “a great work of plagiarism.”

I fold in all of these quotes because, if you want to dismiss this book, you have to explain why you dismiss Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, who also said these things. And here’s where, in the Book of Acts, it’s said that this Black trans person has nothing that bars them from being Christian.

I do share with Eliot an anxious sense that history is over and it’s my job to gather up the pieces. This kind of a monkish, Canticle for Liebowitz thing. But you’re right. This thing stinks of Eliot.

It’s a good smell. Speaking of comics, when you describe the mind-controlling firebird of Pentecost, I picture its counterpart in Marvel Comics, Jean Grey’s Phoenix. Were there lessons learned from comics that you incorporated here?

It’s very funny that the Pentecost feels like a Dark Phoenix reference when the Dark Phoenix is so much a Pentecost reference, right? The key moment, when the narrator meets Christ, is a window scene, like where a person is reading a comic and the love of their life comes over and asks to read the comic with them. It’s how Wiccan and Hulkling met, because I wrote that issue. In fact, my title itself has a comic book resonance. Dayspring is one of Cable’s names in the X-Men comics, and Cable is also riddled with imagery of Christ.

My dissertation was about the way that, in a space where maybe I’m Catholic and maybe this person is an atheist, we negotiate a common ground. Maybe we go see Hamlet together. Culture becomes a sacred space. We learn our values from each other through comic books, through television, through the art we share.

My characters share art. Mary Magdalene and the narrator read Archie together. And that’s an old Christian tradition, right? You draw half a fish, and if the person knows how to draw the rest of the fish, they’re a Christian.

Pop culture is also obsessively threaded through your book, these kids relating to each other through pop culture, forbidden and not. Again, it was triggering. Oh my God, this is exactly how Pokémon felt. The adults seem to be circulating the same document my mom had.

When you grow up in this world that is trying to construct its own alternate market of music made by a certain kind of Christian, you still want to listen to everything else as well, even though it’s demonized. So the soundtrack of the authentic Evangelical experience is going to be a little bit Switchfoot and a little bit DMX. And both of those are Christians, as a couple of my characters discuss.

For me, pop culture was a liberator. I look back on moments when I listened to hip-hop that taught me about systemic racism, and I was told I shouldn’t be listening to that music, allegedly because of cuss words. It was filtering in things that I was unlikely to hear at my white church, things that Jesus was also telling me.

And so much Evangelical-market pop culture was made by young creators who then, when they left, took us with them. There were Christian punk bands that then spent twenty-five years as secular punk bands, and at their concerts now, it’s a bunch of former church kids. That machine claimed it wanted to prevent us from seeing the world because we would see nudity. But really, that machine wanted to bar us from the world because we would see the world. On top of that, it’s just fun to smash things together, to say, no one has ever combined Diablo II and C.S. Lewis, so I will.

I played so much Diablo II.

I bet! One of your scenes sounded like the ending of Diablo II. Like, a demon dies and a soul floats away?

Oh, yeah. That’s right. It must have been in my mind. I did the same thing as you. I was a kid, watching the X-Men cartoon. Jubilee’s sitting on the couch, eating popcorn, and she’s watching the news talk about how mutants are evil. Just eating popcorn. Before I even knew I was queer, I was like: Oh, the world will lie to you about what you are. It was comic books that let me imagine ways of resistance, whether it was the X-Men or Magneto.

That is what Christ did, right? Revolution is a Christian virtue. And there are people who would be mad about me saying it, but it’s hard to deny.

The connections between our books affirmed for me the love inherent in scripture. Sometimes love tramples, and sometimes it’s selfish love. But the Bible begins with a couple sneaking off together, and the New Testament ends with a honeymoon. It’s a love story. The way you unearth so many voices from Christian history, just saying that over and over and ending with projecting this love outwardly.

God came down, and he really liked us. There’s a moment in the Letters of John where he says even though our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts. There are very few passages that can still knock me on my ass with how fresh they feel. And that is one of them. Oh my, God likes me even when I don’t.

When you flip over my book, it says there are few stories of love in the holy books. Love is what costs. Love is what ruins Adam and Eve. In the book, I describe a version of an event in Paradise Lost, where God takes Eden out of the earth and smashes it into the river.

Like Ultron.

Yes. A great theologian, actually. But I want the book to undo that. It ends up almost facile in its sense of: All you need is love, right? Christianity is so simple that you can miss it. The call to insist upon its message is what this book is kind of about. And your book too. Like, actually, what if you slow down and read that message? What if you took it seriously? Just read it. What does it say?

collage image of Jason Kirk

Jason Kirk, author of the novel Hell Is a World Without You, works as a sports journalist and co-hosts the Vacation Bible School and Shutdown Fullcast podcasts.