I just discovered that Ted Jennings’ book Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia is available for preorder on Amazon. I have been deeply involved with this project of Ted’s since my first semester at CTS, and I am convinced that it represents a radical assault on the notion that homophobia is somehow inherent to Christian identity. Instead, Ted argues, the scapegoating of same-sex eroticism is rooted in the Plato’s Laws, which retrospectively reads as a chillingly accurate summary of the rhetorical strategies of homophobia.
This book completes a kind of trilogy on homophobia, consisting also of The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives in the New Testament and Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel. The strategy here is clear, aggressive, and absolutely necessary: he absolutely abandons the defensive stance of “explaining away” the supposedly “obvious” homophobic elements in the Bible that “everyone knows” about and instead presents us with a scriptural account that is deeply homophilic, even to the point of presenting us with a possible male lover for Christ himself. Once this ground is cleared, the question then becomes how a Scriptural tradition that is so overwhelmingly affirming of same-sex eroticism came to be read as the legitimation of homophobia. This final book is an attempt to answer that question.
I have said that I am thoroughly convinced by his overall argument, but I’m not naive — I know that even many religious people who are opposed to the scapegoating of same-sex eroticism will find Ted’s project absurd on its face. The homophobic framework through which even homosexuals and their allies often read Scripture (not just the proof text passages, but the whole thing, assuming that it’s simply impossible that the Bible could ever affirm same-sex eroticism) is extremely tenacious and difficult to displace. That will be even more the case for conservatives who are not in the least uncomfortable with affirming a homophobic agenda.
Who is the audience, then? Certainly it is first of all religious homosexuals themselves, whose struggles — leading in many cases even to suicide — inspired Ted to write in the first place. If they can be convinced that the religious tradition with which they wish to remain identified is not foundationally opposed to their erotic practices, that in itself will significantly relieve suffering. But the aim seems to me to be wider: Ted wishes to supply advocates for full inclusion of practicioners of non-normative sexualities in religious life with the means to “go on the offensive,” with a way of saying that, more than simply violating a vague and easily dismissed principle of “love,” the homophobic agenda has deeply warped the reading of the very Bible it claims to champion.
In short, it provides the materials for a kind of “Gay Reformation,” a return to the sources of Christianity that undermines the interpretative, moral, and liturgical tradition, not out of a desire to “water down” Christianity or make it more palatable to “worldly” values, but out of fidelity to Christianity. The stakes here are high, arguably even higher than the simple inclusion of certain excluded individuals: what is more fundamentally at stake is the development of a new Christianity that would no longer be afraid of the erotic. The success of such an attempt is far from guaranteed, but Ted’s work here has cleared out a space where we can say with real integrity and seriousness: this is what we want Christianity to be, and we are right to want it.