‘Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech’ by Mark D. Jordan | Review

I’ll start my review of Mark D. Jordan’s latest book, Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech, 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.