Jennings Book Event – A Review of the Trilogy

Jennings’ trilogy on homosexuality has changed my view on homophobia, the Bible, and Christianity. Before I began the series, I was under the impression that homosexuality was not a sin, yet my Biblical justification for that conviction was weak. Arguments might have included, “well that was way back when” or “God takes the sides of the oppressed and marginalized”. However, I always knew that the Biblical foundation for my pro-homosexual position was tenuous; given that conservative Christians (and liberal Christians) are in agreement that the Bible is homophobic.

As I approached the first book of the series, Jacob’s Wound, I’ll admit that I was quite skeptical that there were homoerotic narratives in the Hebrew Bible. My anxiety that he would be engaging in what psychoanalysts call ‘wild analysis’ quickly diminished as I began reading the text. He offers insightful textual analysis that queers the Hebrew Bible including the major relationships between Ruth and Naomi and Saul, David, and Jonathan. After finishing this text I moved on the next book in the trilogy, The Man Jesus Loved. Although I have always enjoyed Jennings’ work, I thought the title was a bit much, and I doubted the hypothesis of Jesus’ male lover. Again, Jennings impressed me with his clever exegesis of gospel texts to tease out the homoerotic affirming material. The text reads well and Jennings emphasizes the importance of recognizing the New Testament’s radical stance against the family. Not surprisingly, the argument that the gospels contain homoerotic material is controversial (just look at the Amazon reviews where one reviewer casts aspersions on Jennings calling him a heretic and another reviewer implies that Jennings wrote the text to deal with “personal [sexual] conflicts”), yet I think it is made quite convincingly.

However, I knew that his work on Paul might be the toughest After all, Paul is often derided as homophobic and even as a homosexual in denial. For example, in Bishop Spong’s work Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, he writes, “[t]he war that went on between what he desired with his mind and what he desired with his body, his drivenness to a legalistic religion of control, his fear when that system was threatened, his attitude toward women, his refusal to seek marriage as an outlet for his passion — nothing else accounts for this data as well as the possibility that Paul was gay.” (117). Jennings would beg to differ. His work Plato or Paul? is easily the strongest text in the series. Unlike Bishop Spong and other liberal Christians who merely explain away the supposed  homophobic passages in Paul’s letters, Jennings is much more radical in challenging these readings and the general consensus (from both mainliners and evangelicals) that Paul was homophobic. This text is bold and somewhat counterintuitive given that Jennings argues that Plato not Paul is responsible for Western homophobia. In Part I of the work, he analyzes Plato’s later texts in which Plato constructed a homophobic project whose arguments are surprisingly still common in homophobic discourse today (its against nature, fear of incest, etc.). In Part II he argues that the Platonic homophobic legacy impacted the anti-homosexual texts of the Stoics, Hellenistic Jews, etc. Jennings goes on to discuss the case of Paul in Part III, which was my favorite section of this work. Both chapters are extended discussion of Pauline passages that have been generally interpreted as condemning both male and female homosexuality. After reading these chapters I am quite convinced that Paul is not condemning homosexuality across the board. In fact, what I found most surprising was Jennings argument that Paul cannot be arguing that homosexuality is unnatural in Romans 1:26-27 because Paul does not believe that the goal of sexuality is procreation (see 1 Corinthians 7). In the final section Jennings describes the way the Platonic homophobic legacy infiltrated early Christian hermeneutics and laws.

This trilogy is an indispensable contribution to gay affirming Christian communities. Unlike the majority of the mainliners who don’t bother arguing for homosexuality on a Biblical basis (an implicit acknowledgement that evangelicals actually are interpreting the Bible correctly), Jennings fights fire with fire using the Bible against repressive right-wing evangelicals who demonize homosexuality. Even if one disagrees with Jennings’ well-argued exegesis, I believe Jennings accomplishes a major goal of problematizing the superficial conclusion that the Bible is indisputably homophobic. After reading the trilogy, one is forced to admit that any homophobic Biblical texts are rivaled by gay affirming Biblical passages. Lastly, Plato or Paul? is perhaps the most important text because Jennings argues that homophobia is an accidental, dispensable legacy of Christianity. As Christians, we have no Biblical or theological foundation for homophobia, and I agree with Jennings that must put an end to “the crime of Sodom: the violation of the vulnerable” (223).

3 thoughts on “Jennings Book Event – A Review of the Trilogy

  1. To me, that’s what’s most important about this project: disproving the widely accepted notion that the Bible “clearly condemns” homosexuality. Against this supposed unequivocal rejection of homosexuality, hand-wavy appeals to love just don’t work. Yet this conservative argument is actually extremely vulnerable, because if you can introduce any significant uncertainty into the equation, everything changes.

    If the Bible involves clearly valorized main characters — Ruth, David, even Jesus — in relationships that can plausibly be interpreted as homoeroetic, for instance, and if those “clear” condemnations can be shown to be either irreducibly ambiguous (Paul) or unexpectedly narrow (as when Leviticus is shown to prohibit nothing other than anal penetration between males, which is far from being the dominant sexual practice even today), then suddenly the case for viewing the anti-homoerotic material as an unambiguous trump card completely falls apart. Then you actually have to argue the case on the merits, in terms of generally accepted moral principles — for instance, claiming that homosexuality is somehow always harmful or abusive — which is very, very difficult to do.

  2. Spong pretends he’s radical when he’s really just your typical liberal theologian. He’s pretty worthless, and I’ve never read him I just heard him say that once and was amazed he was actually serious. I can’t believe he can still play the Jesus vs. Paul game.

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