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).

Jennings Book Event – Righteousness of the Flesh or Paul?

A non-homophobic Christianity. Let’s note, first of all, what this is not. It is not Christian homphilia. I understand that Jennings has elsewhere demonstrated the basis for a Christian homophilia—and if that work is anything like the work found in Plato or Paul?, it is no doubt successful. That said, I want to stick to the frame of this excellent book, which is to stick to the question of speaking about Christianity as not homophobic. It is not, Jennings powerfully argues. But homophobia is here, and its carrier has no doubt been Christianity … and so blame must be apportioned for the rise and development of homophobia that Christianity—even if it has not originally produced—has aided and abetted. Who’s to blame? Plato (and some others). I want to ask, then, what it means to apportion blame to the others of Christianity. Continue reading “Jennings Book Event – Righteousness of the Flesh or Paul?”

Jennings book event–(The importance of) history and context (and how they function)

Plato or Paul? is an impressive text, by virtue of its detail alone. Rather then expend the time noting its achievements, I want to focus on one contribution of this text that I found particularly valuable, and the subsequent concerns and questions that arise for me in light of that contribution. Jennings explains:

Homophobia, far from being a natural concomitant of Christian perspectives, actually takes a very long time to be engrafted onto the body of Christianity. It is in this sense a ‘foreign element’ that can therefore be removed without in any way affecting what is important about early or patristic Christianity (14).

Continue reading “Jennings book event–(The importance of) history and context (and how they function)”

Review of Ted Jennings’ The Man Jesus Loved

This review comes from Roland Boer, a close friend of the blog. Roland is currently enjoying life in People’s Republic of China, where he is visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad, Fudan University, Shanghai. He is teaching a seminar series on Marxism and Religion to a very active, criticially engaged group of Chinese graduate students.

Ted Jennings has the gift of a clear, easily accessible style. He is remarkably unburdened (thankfully) by the assumption drummed into intellectuals that turgid prose and dense argument, supported by thickets of sources, are the signals of ‘solid’ scholarship. I also suspect that this is driven by a concern for the communities of the faithful, and not merely those who find themselves on the margins of such communities or perhaps from alternative communities. The chapter on ‘Theological Significance’ (ch. 6), along with the whole of part 3 on ‘Marriage and Family Values’, indicates this focus in terms of content as well, but the book as a whole breathes this desire. So it is not a surprise that one can easily imagine Ted expounding, carefully and with attention to his listeners concerns, some of the positions put forward here before religious communities.

I found most persuasive and interesting the discussions of the ‘hidden tradition’ of homo-erotic readings of the ‘beloved disciple’ in John (75-91), the bravura reading of John’s text itself (19-35) as well as the exercise in ‘troubling gender’ (145-69). Continue reading “Review of Ted Jennings’ The Man Jesus Loved

Jennings book event prep: Open thread over Part Four and Conclusion

In this section, Jennings traces the genealogy of the Christian appropriation of the Platonic program of homophobia, as a result of both intellectual influences and political pressures. What is most remarkable about this process, however, is how fragmentary and tentative it is — for example, how long it takes for the homophobic reading of the Sodom story to become normative. In the conclusion, he considers the reasons that an “engrafting” of homophobia onto Christianity may have seemed necessary or appropriate, and in conclusion he calls for Christians to reject their “unholy alliance” with homophobia.

What did you think, dear readers?

Jennings book event prep: Open thread over Part Three

In this section, Jennings pursues a twofold argument. First, he claims that the key terms from Pauline vice lists that are normally translated as references to homoerotic activities are mistranslated and actually have nothing to do with homoeroticism as such. Second, he argues that the homophobic reading of Romans 1:26-27 is completely misleading and serves to obfuscate the scathing political polemic Paul is engaged in throughout the first chapter of Romans. The overall take-away is that Paul does not embrace the Platonic-Hellenistic paradigm of homophobia and that the attempt to interpret him through that framework actively impedes our understanding.

What did you think, dear readers?

Guest Review of Ted Jennings’ Jacob’s Wound

In preparation for our Plato or Paul book event, we asked a few friends & colleagues to review a couple of Ted Jennings’ related works. The following review by Dr. Mark Brummitt (Associate Professor of Old Testament Interpretation, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) is an AUFS exclusive review. I am posting it on his behalf:

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Theodore W. Jennings Jr. Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2005), vii-xv, 1-288

Jennings’s intentions are more pastoral than prophetic—he seeks to bring healing to individuals rather than disruption to the church. “The Bible seemed to me to be too wonderful and important a treasure,” he writes in the preface, “for it to be used as a weapon of mass destruction against the vulnerable and defenseless:” “to batter people into submission to reigning cultural values,” as he puts it a few sentences earlier (vii). Worthy as these intentions might be, one must wonder at them a little: mass destruction is hardly at odds with the Bible’s own practices—if the Bible can be said to have practices, that is—and its chosen weapon/weapon wielder to achieve this end is very often its very own deity, Yhwh. More than that, it frequently makes use of these measures precisely to promote reigning cultural values—albeit those of its own day—that if it is now presumed too wonderful a treasure to be sullied by them, then usage must be markedly different from that suggested by a prima facie encounter with its content.

Jennings own impulse arises out of a personal encounter: having tended to a dying man afraid that God hated him for being gay, Jennings determines “to relieve the wholly unwarranted spiritual agony that afflicted him and so many others” (vii)—unwarranted, that is, since Jennings argues that the Bible is not hopelessly homophobic as one might presume, but—and this will be something of a surprise to the majority of Bible readers—brimming over with homoerotica instead.

Take, for example, the apparently heterosexual heroes of the Hebrew Bible: Saul and David. Both are warriors with wives and concubines; both are known for their militaristic exploits and derring-do. But both also inhabit the predominantly homosocial world of the ancient warrior—the world of raid, skirmish, and camp—no, not that kind of camp, although as Jenning notes, the military encampment is indeed a man-on-man world where women seldom have a place. There is a place, however, for the older warrior’s younger male companion—an aide de camp, as it were—every bit as essential on the battlefield as sword or shield, it appears. Even before he becomes a warrior, when he is merely a youngest son in search of the family donkeys, Saul takes a male companion along with him too. David, Jennings notes, is first employed as just such a companion to Saul, adding that David himself is unusual in not taking a male companion when he rises to the ranks of a warrior. Unless, that is, we consider Saul’s own son to be such—Jonathan, that is, who has an armor bearer-cum-companion all his own in 1 Sam 14. Continue reading “Guest Review of Ted Jennings’ Jacob’s Wound

Jennings book event prep: Open thread over Intro and Part One

In his introduction, Jennings lays out the basic outlines of contemporary homophobia, drawing on official documents from the U.S. Supreme Court and the Vatican. In Part One, he moves through the works of Plato, showing how Plato, while initially immersed in a culture where pederasty was widely accepted and even institutionalized, gradually evinced greater and greater skepticism toward homoeroticism. Finally, he argues that Plato’s Laws provide a kind of blueprint for implementing an ideology of homophobia in order to repress homoerotic desire.

What did you think, dear readers?