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reviews of Gay
Read Toby Johnon's review of Boisvert's Sanctity and Male Desire
Here's Donald Boisvert's review (which appeared in a somewhat shortened form) in The G&L Review discussing Theodore Jennings' book The Man Jesus Loved and Toby Johnson's Gay Perspective in an interesting discussion of the nature of "gay spirituality."
(The G&L Review is a wonderful magazine, a journal of ideas about gay life, that deserves community support.)
In recent years, queer scholars have been paying a great deal of attention to religion. This may seem odd, or perhaps even perverse, considering the negative attitudes of most religious traditions with respect to all things homosexual or even slightly queer. Some might say this is an honest attempt at struggling with our most oppressive demons, while others might opt for a more cynical explanation, arguing that it is all simply a dead-ended attempt at further collective delusion. As Toby Johnson would no doubt claim, perhaps "being gay" and "being spiritual" fit together quite naturally, like Gilbert and Sullivan. Or more appropriately, in this case, like top and bottom.
There now exists a fairly well-defined field of study called gay spirituality. Its practitioners tend to fall into two camps: those concerned with scripture and the rehabilitation of biblical texts that have been historically dismissive and intolerant of homosexuality, and what could be called the Higher Consciousness group, more in the tradition of Edward Carpenter and Harry Hay, who believe that gays (and yes, even lesbians) share a unique vocation as spiritual guides and change agents. In most cases, this latter group tends to draw its inspiration from pre- or non-Christian androgynous traditions. Theodore Jennings and Toby Johnson represent rather well, each in his own way, these two complementary outlooks.
Jennings' The Man Jesus Loved is, by far, the more scholarly of the two books. Though its central theme is not totally original, the book has garnered a modest amount of attention in claiming that Jesus was gay and that he had a lover, something shocking, if not downright blasphemous, for most fervent Christians. A professional theologian and United Methodist clergyman, Jennings provides what he terms "a gay reading" of the New Testament scriptures by exploring in detail some of their more mysterious yet compelling homoerotic narratives, such as the centurion's lad and the naked youth in the Garden of Gethsemane. For Jennings, the teachings of Jesus were powerfully subversive of traditional gender and family arrangements, primarily those that were ascetic or body-denying in nature, and his own open and generous lifestyle was defiantly affirmative of same-sex desire. To the question of whether Jesus was gay, he answers rather cautiously by asserting that "ÉJesus' primary affectional relationship was with another man, one who is called in the Gospel of John "the disciple Jesus loved" (É) and the reading of the references to this relationship that makes the most sense is one which infers a relationship of physical and emotional intimacy, a relationship that we might otherwise suppose would be the potential subject of erotic mediation, of sexual expression." (p. 233)
It's precisely this sort of careful crafting that makes Jennings' argument so compelling. But who exactly was the so-called disciple Jesus loved? Tradition has it that it was John the Evangelist. There are other suspects, however, and Jennings explores the pros and cons of all of them: Lazarus, Andrew, Nathaniel, Philip, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, among others, perhaps even someone not named. Jennings' conclusion is that he can't conclude with certainty. This does not mean, however, that the quest, in and of itself, was not an exciting one. That, in fact, is the most engaging thing about this book. It leaves no stone unturned. It takes a holistic view of New Testament teachings on sexuality, specifically their homoerotic dimensions, and it builds a solid case for a man-loving Jesus. If that isn't enough to excite any queer, I'm not sure what would.
Jennings' writing is lucid, reasoned, precise, and well referenced, and his argumentation is nothing if not persuasive. All the appropriate New Testament passages, canonical and not, find themselves dissected. This is the sort of book that, by some strange and wonderful twist of fate, you hope might fall into the hands of all those self-righteous and insufferable televangelists, only to be the cause of their sudden demise by heart attack (a most unchristian thought, I readily confess). Though the book does bite back, it is a quiet masterpiece of reasoned discourse: calm, soothing, and brilliantly thorough in its theological analysis and implications. You cannot help but admire its fine and elegant structure. Jennings' inspired method of not doing the texts violence, of letting them speak at their most obvious level of discourse, works wonders. You walk away fully confident that Jesus was a gay man, that he lived openly with "the beloved disciple," and that who it was does not ultimately matter. If only, however, everyone were as calm and rational &endash; and ultimately convinced &endash; as Jennings.
For that is the problem. Not everyone will be convinced, try as you may. But then again, why should you even want to? There can be no doubt that, down through history and still today, the Judeo-Christian scriptures have been a (if not the) major source of institutionalized homophobia. The efforts of those scholars, such as Jennings, who systematically and eloquently refute such argumentation are therefore important and needed. We cannot let the religious bigots, of whatever denominational persuasion, lay exclusive claim to the biblical terrain. Our lives can depend on it. Other scholars, however (and I admit I am one of them), are becoming increasingly impatient with the constant need for scriptural refutation, playing, as it were, the game of the enemy, wasting time engaging them on their turf, always being on the defensive. Is it not better to move beyond the bible, to begin crafting a spirituality emerging from our own lives, one not requiring some scriptural justification or blessing, as feminists have been doing for so long? If Jennings can prove that Jesus was a man-loving man, all the more power to him and, by extension, to all of us. But to the church-going homophobe, will it really make any difference? Doubtful. Is it not perhaps time to move on?
To Toby Johnson, the answer is a resounding "yes." For him, all religion is a metaphor, and this is succinctly and engagingly expressed in Gay Perspective. The author of Gay Spirituality and former editor of White Crane Journal, Johnson has long been a staple in the field. His gamble in this most recent book is to argue, somewhat too prosaically, that gay men possess a unique "perspective," a special intuition that, by virtue of their marginality, makes them particularly susceptible to spiritual insight. Unfortunately, such observations, though they may ring true at the level of anecdote, are all too often coupled with quick-and-easy clichés. He writes, for example: "There are certain talents that seem to come with being gay: the ability to decorate a room or to assemble an outfit, for example. These talents come from what we earlier called gay intuition. Also among these gay talents are mythopoesis, religion, and the creation of liturgy and ritual." (p. 130) While it may be sadly true that the world possesses an over-abundance of liturgy queens, it is highly doubtful that they all partake equally of the collective pool of good taste. Such statements unfortunately tend to discredit Johnson's main argument about the distinctive cultural role of gay men, which, though it remains a battered tenet of much gay spirituality, he still manages to defend with eloquence, insight, and much vigor.
Johnson's approach is that of the eclectic pedagogue. With chapter titles such as "Things our Homosexuality Tells Us About:," he discusses a surprising mix of topics running the gamut from Life to God, while passing through Sex and Religion. All the biggies, in fact. Throughout, he sticks to his core argument that gay men are "blessed" in some very special way, the carriers of a higher (and no doubt more refined) form of consciousness. There are some perceptive, if slightly off kilter insights, such as when he refers, in chapter 9, to the Mystical Body of Christ: "All of us are organs in the Body of Christ. Following this metaphor, we might say gay men play the role of the penis of the body of Christ (and lesbians, that of the clitoris of this sexually androgynous body)." (p. 198) Christocentrism aside, this might well be a gay man's fantasy. It certainly provides erotic food for thought. This is what Johnson does best. You may disagree with him, consider his ideas outlandish, you can't help but resonate to their inner logic and appeal. We all know we're different as queers, without really being able to put our finger on why. Johnson puts his whole hand -- all five fingers -- on, or rather into, it.
For a gay man looking for pride in who and what he is, and particularly for young just-came-out men, Gay Perspective comes as a godsend. It is a passionate, defiant, and challenging piece of work. Thankfully, Johnson gives straight men a run for their money, laying blame for much of the world's problems at their cocky and insecure feet. Few authors have dared to tackle this issue head-on, but he does so with all the aplomb and verve one would expect from an intelligent gay man. He even asks sardonically: "Doesn't it sometimes seem that homosexuality might be the cure for all the problems of straight men?" (p. 90) I can hear a deafening echo of affirmative gay voices from sea to shining sea. Spiritually, however, Johnson is not without his favorites. A Catholic by upbringing (he spent several years in seminary with two different religious orders), he now practices Buddhism, with a splash of New Age flavor (his glowing reference to A Course in Miracles is telling in this regard). In the latter part of his book, he spends several chapters expounding the non-dualistic Buddhist way, thereby suggesting that it and the so-called "gay perspective" are one and the same. Though this may be a valid spiritual insight, it further dilutes his earlier defense of gay intuition as something critical, marginal, and ultimately subversive of both mainstream culture and religion.
There can be no doubt that, through these texts, Jennings and Johnson make important and relevant contributions to a queer understanding of the dynamic that is religion. In itself, this is laudable, considering the natural dislike, if not outright fear, that many gay men tend to exhibit when it comes to this topic. Jennings' The Man Jesus Loved will endure, if only because of the boldness and eloquence of its thesis. Johnson, however, is not to be neglected. What he has succeeded in doing, in Gay Perspective and in his earlier works, is to anchor solidly the gay experience in the language and mythos of spiritual enlightenment, certainly no small task. If Theodore Jennings' Jesus is delightfully queer and sexual, then Toby Johnson is the guy who makes him resonate with post-modern, cosmic vibes.
All of which brings us back to the dilemma of gay spirituality. Will Jesus being gay, or queers being more enlightened, really make a difference in our lives? For the gay man, believing or not, perhaps; for the homophobe, one can only hope. In fact, that's what gay spirituality is really all about at heart: conversion. An old fashioned religious idea if there ever was one.