Our next book event

In October, we are planning a book event over Ted Jennings’ book Plato or Paul? The Origins of Western Homophobia.

We will be using something approximating the new format I proposed last week, and we will be sticking with AUFS regulars this time around: Anthony, Brad, Brandy, Dan, and Jeremy.

In the lead-up to the event, we will have guest reviews over Jennings’ previous books on homoerotic narratives in the Bible, in addition to periodic open threads to keep prospective participants on task.

I always highly recommend the books we cover in our events, but in this case, I feel a particular urgency in exhorting you all to read it, because I honestly think you will not be able to look at the issue of Christian homophobia in the same way again. Ideally, one would read all three books, but Plato or Paul? is simultaneously the climax and foundation of the argument, the final and crushing blow to the common-sense notion, accepted by conservatives as well as most liberals, that the Bible “clearly condemns homosexuality.”

Review of Jennings’ Transforming Atonement

Jennings’ Transforming Atonement is an excellent work. Unlike other liberation theologians that generally focus on ethics or politics, Jennings’ political theology of the cross is grounded in Biblical exegesis. In Part I he focuses upon the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and death along with Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed and the sinners of society.

I want to focus this review on the last chapter of Part 1 and last chapters of Part 2. Many Christians view Jesus’ death as a peace offering to appease a wrathful God that hates us. Jennings argues quite persuasively that it is humanity that needs to be reconciled to God, according to Paul. Humanity is angry and “we are the ones who have a “beef” with God” (128). However, God takes the initiative to reconcile us. God has come in Christ to remove our alienation from God.

In chapter nine, Jennings asks “[w]hat are the implications of the theology of the cross for our understanding of God?” (199). Jennings worries that older formulations tried to protect the Godhead from the death suffered by the Son by insisting that only Jesus’ human nature was impacted by crucifixion. However, this splitting apart of Jesus’ two natures potentially threatens the unity of the Godhead. [That’s why it’s always been no surprise to me that Lutheran theologians have been able to proclaim that God is dead since they tend to err in the other direction away from these Nestorian Christological formulations]. This would contradict the Biblical witness that God was “present in the fate of the crucified Messiah” (203). This splitting apart of the Godhead ultimately encouraged the idea that the Father was “an agent rather than as sufferer” (203) in the death of the Messiah. Jennings then briefly reviews other theologians who have likewise critiqued the idea of an impassible God such as: Whitehead, Bonhoeffer, Kitamori, Moltmann, and Altizer.

Jennings then turns to discuss Heidegger’s famous remark that “only a God can save us” and Derrida’s critique of the sovereign God of onto-theology. Jennings writes, “only with the idea of a nonsovereign God, a vulnerable God, indeed a God who can die, can humanity be rid of the dreams of invincible power that has consigned our history to violence and suffering” (213). Jennings recognizes that his position is very close to Altizer’s gospel of Christian atheism, which is the idea “that God is emptied into history as the coming sociality of mutual care, of justice, generosity, and joy” (214). This coming community is the only thing that can save us.

In the closing chapter Jennings discusses different atonement theories. He argues that there is no orthodox reading of the tradition. He rejects satisfaction metaphors because satisfaction can function as a substitute for justice, not to mention the whole notion is unjust even if Christ’s death was voluntary. Next, he takes aim at forensic metaphors which he believes betray the Pauline distinction between law and justice. Substitution will not do because it underemphasizes the important ethical implications of the cross. Instead Jennings favors Soelle’s idea that Christ represents us temporarily but is not a substitute for humanity. Although he appreciates liberation theologians’ re-interpretation of the patristic tradition, Jennings is doubtful that these new readings share much in common with older ransom models. Finally, the Abelardian theory is inappropriately individualistic and might encourage abuse since God wills Jesus’ death to demonstrate God’s love.

Jennings believes that all three theories have holes and that any sort of attempted synthesis is doomed to fail. What is ultimately sacrificed is “the divine claim and call for justice” (223). Moreover, what mattes is not a theory but “a confrontation with all systems of arrogance and violence, of domination, and death, of privilege and prestige, that holds humanity hostage” (229).

This work is a bold attempt to argue for an updated political theology of the cross. Although I did not focus on the more exegetical chapters, his mastery of Pauline literature is simple amazing. He is able to navigate deftly through the epistles and to demystify so much of the jargon to explain the heart of the Pauline message. Theologically I am drawn to this work as it weaves together quite convincingly two of my favorite theological traditions: radical death of God theology and liberation theology.

Ted Jennings’ Statement for the AAR “Death of God” Panel

[Since time ran out before Ted Jennings’ statement could be presented at the AAR panel “Whither the Death of God,” I am posting it here.]

Every year my friend Kunitoshi Sakai and I attend Good Friday services. Those who know us and that we almost never attend church ask about this odd custom. To which Kunitoshi always replies with a mischievous gleam in his eye: we go to make sure that God is still dead.

Continue reading “Ted Jennings’ Statement for the AAR “Death of God” Panel”

A Way Back Behind Christian Homophobia

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.

Was YHWH Gay?

Any evangelical and/or other homophobic types – please save us all some time and don’t bother asserting whatever it is you believe in the comments. We have a strict comment approval system and I will continue to delete your comments. Feel free to use this to bolster your sense of moral superiority. – APS

Many people struggle with the question of how to reconcile basic human decency and the clear testimony of the Bible, which in four or five difficult-to-understand verses clearly condemns homosexuality. Why? Well, it’s hard to come up with a reason that actually makes sense, but one thing is absolutely clear — the Bible is clearly against homosexuality and clearly condemns it. That’s just a brute fact that we have to deal with, clearly.

I don’t think it’s clear at all. In fact, through studying with Ted Jennings, I have become convinced that the majority of the Bible is actually pro-homoeroticism and that the few verses that seem to “condemn” “homosexuality” are not clear at all, in either their referent or their intention — in fact, the only “clear condemnation” seems to be a prohibition of male-male anal sex in Leviticus, a book of the Bible that is not and cannot be directly binding on Christians. Romans 1:26-27 is unclear in its referent, particularly 1:26, which is the only passage that can even arguably be construed as maybe referring to female-female relations — but which is in fact a very weirdly constructed, elliptical verse whose meaning is not at all clear. All the supposed references in Pauline vice lists are isolated words, one of which appears to be Paul’s own coinage, and none of which draws on the rich vocabulary of homoeroticism available to and widely known by speakers of Greek, for God’s sake, which is to say, the language of the culture most famous for its penchant for homoeroticism.

So: if the argument is that the Bible “clearly condemns” homosexuality such that we need to treat it as a brute fact, well, sorry — it’s not clear at all.

Of course, this post is rather impatient and unclear and probably unconvincing to those who need to be convinced. For that reason, I direct you to the first two parts of a projected trilogy by Ted Jennings: The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament and Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative In The Literature Of Ancient Israel. The third part will trace the origin of homophobia and show how it became grafted into Christianity. (It is unfortunate that this last one is not published yet, because it provides the back-up for many of my exegetical claims above.)