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Other Articles By Neil Ellis Orts:
The Noise of God
Sometimes we mistake the silence of God as an absence, which it is not. Sometimes we hear silence when the Spirit is most fully present, interceding in sighs too deep for words.
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Telling Truths in Church:
Scandal, Flesh, and
by Mark D. Jordan
I'll start my review
of Jordan's latest book with a few confessions, appropriate, I suppose,
to the title of his book. First, this is the only book by Jordan I've
read. I've been aware of him and his work for a few years, but just haven't
gotten around to reading any of it. I cannot reflect on the place of this
slim book in his greater body of work.
Closely related is my confession that
I long ago grew weary of theology books that focused primarily on homosexuality
and its place in the church. So much of it seems to rehash the same studies
on the same Bible verses and just generally becomes an apologetic for
gay and lesbian lives in the church. If sexual apologetics is all that
theological reflection from a GLBT point of view has to offer, then I
opt out. (This will also explain my absence from the pages of Whosoever
for some time.) I don't care for apologetics in general, with my own apologies
to the C. S. Lewis fans in the audience.
So, there is some good news in saying
that Jordan's latest book is not another in the long line of such books.
It doesn't make a case for why homosexuality is an okay state of being
but instead goes from the assumption that it is acceptable to extrapolate
on how the church might benefit from openly accepting and blessing its
gay and lesbian children. I found myself happily reading his reflections
on what gay marriage might do for theology around marriage in general.
While none of it was exactly new thought for me, it was nice to see someone
admit that what generally happens at marriage ceremonies is less about
church doctrine or theology and more about the current trends in Bride
magazine. It isn't often that one finds a Roman Catholic admit that much
of marriage is a civic function and we often just invite God to the wedding.
Within that discussion, his concept of
the "icon loop" fascinates me some. If I understand correctly, he's referring
to the tendency within popular culture to fixate on iconic figures or
customs and play them over and over with some hope that if we just follow
the pattern everything will be okay, we will have achieved some sort of
cultural transcendence. Jordan sees same-gender marriage within the church
as one way to break into the false cycles of the loops to reveal a deeper
understanding of what a marriage might be.
Another discussion within this book that
I found interesting and worthy of more reflection was the portion referring
to the gender of Jesus. He points out the dichotomy of saying Jesus' maleness
is of ultimate importance to church theology (often used as a reason for
why a woman is not suitable for altar and pulpit duties) and yet any discussion
of Jesus' actual gendered body is looked upon with more than a little
discomfort. His example of the politely loin-clothed crucifixion scenes
is spot on. A big part of the Roman practice of execution was to hang
them up completely naked, completely exposed.
Now comes another confession. By the time
I was reading the third chapter, I had to go back to the first chapter
because I wasn't quite sure what the book was about anymore. The first
chapter spends most of its time discussing the Boston priest/pedophilia
scandal and I was lulled into thinking this book would be an examination
of that scandal. But by the third chapter, we haven't read anything about
the scandal for quite a few pages and instead we're reading about Christian
marriage. Going back to the first page of the book, the author tells how
these chapters were first delivered as a series of lectures in Boston,
right as the furor over the scandal was hottest. As he goes on to say,
the scandal of pedophilia was not new to the Roman Catholic church, citing
an earlier case in Dallas and comparing the media frenzy (or lack thereof)
around each case. We don't have much of a clue that the entire book won't
be about the pedophilia scandal. The best I see on the first page is the
sentence, "The topic for my lectures had been set about a year earlier."
I suppose the assumption here was that the title of the book clearly disclosed
what that topic was, but in my mind it had not. A simple reiteration of
the topic as handed to him might have been helpful, especially since the
jacket copy was pretty vague on what the book was about as well. All the
references to "truth telling" could very well have been about the pedophilia
scandals and cover-ups, especially with such vague references to "the
ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church . . . "
In the end, my feeling about "Telling
Truths in Church" is that it has the curious distinction of being both
too broadly and too narrowly focused. If Jordan had, indeed stuck to discussing
the many layers of truth telling needed within the pedophilia cases, it
might have been a stronger book. Had it been a book about gay and lesbians
lives within the church, it might have been a stronger book. Had it been
about sexual shaming and dictated "norms" within the church (and included
such topics as pre-marital sex and divorce--huge issues for some faithful
heterosexuals), it might have been a stronger book. As it is, I felt like
we were just getting into something meaty and then the next chapter was
about something else. And while narrowing the discussion down might have
helped, there were times when expanding the scope might have been enlightening.
Last paragraph's suggestion of including
sexual issues for heterosexuals--which in my experience has been an entrance
into my life as a gay Christian for some straight folk--might have opened
up this discussion beyond what is still a small audience for this sort
of book. Also, a time or two Jordan mentions how the dynamics of lesbian
relationships are ontologically different from gay male relationships,
due in no small part to the dominance of a male church hierarchy. This
was an interesting and potentially controversial idea that I would have
liked seen developed further. Since he doesn't, the book often feels too
much focused on gay male issues and lesbian lives get shortchanged. Jordan
does continually refer to lesbians throughout the book, so I have no reason
to believe he shortchanged lesbians deliberately, but there were instances
of his saying, to effect, "here I'm talking about gay men specifically
because lesbian lives are very different" while never giving equal time
to the women.
I suppose I'm asking too much (and maybe
Jordan, the lectures' sponsors, and the publisher too?) of a book that
is barely 120 pages long. Each chapter really, for me, doesn't get enough
into the meat of the issue at hand and so I would recommend this book
more as a discussion starter than as a manifesto on truth telling (which
the cover copy implies it is). Seeing as how it avoids the usual apologetics
traps, it's a welcome addition to the growing shelf of GLBT theology books.
I just kept wanting more from it.
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