More than a scapegoat
I predict that the title of Theodore W. Jennings Jr’s book The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament will make readers mad, sad or glad to borrow a phrase from a pastor I once knew. Unless you’re one of those individuals who’s already decided that there’s no way your Bible says that, and even if you are, I challenge you to take this journey with the author to see where his bold interpretation of Scripture is leading with that as an opener. I’m also going to ask you to refrain from presuming, based on the title, that this is just a queer reading with the expressed goal of presenting Jesus as a gay man. Mr. Jennings is definitely making use of a gay affirmative reading of the texts. His intention however is to speak to everyone, regardless to sexual orientation, about some of the traditional Jewish and Christian moral codes that he feels have continued to distort social ethics concerning sexuality in human relationships.
Before addressing his theme, there’s a Chapter 1 summary called “Homosexuality and Biblical Interpretation.” This gives a brief overview of the debate going on in the Christian Church over the issue of homosexuality. It points out that the homosexual rereading of the Bible is but the latest in a chain of debates that have been necessary to come to grips with such social injustices as; the institution of slavery, the suppression of women, anti-Semitism, and the isolationist tactics toward the poor, issues that were all at one time made justifiable by Biblical texts. Rereading has served to upgrade the stance of the Church on these issues which either led or followed social reforms. The author holds out hope that this same process will take place on matters of sexuality.
The theme is divided into three parts, Part One, “The Man Jesus Loved,” goes right into the relevant verses, primarily in the Book of John, which places the disciple that Jesus loved at key points in the Gospel story raising questions which the author fully investigates. He looks at the aspects of the possible identity of the disciple, his role in the story, and the nature of intimacy that may have existed with Jesus in that singular fashion outlined in John. In all of this the author is quick to acknowledge that while there is no explicit evidence as to the depth of this relationship, implications are there within the context of the story.
Part Two, “The Jesus Tradition,” takes a broader look at other stories about Jesus told by Gospel writers to see if John is alone in his suggestions or if there are other traces of what the author calls, “dangerous memory”. The writers of the Gospel wanted to capture the qualities of a life they found totally unique and inspiring. Despite the controversies of mentioning something of this nature, it appears they couldn’t edit out all of the references and stay true to the goal of their writing. This section also takes a fresh look at the unconventional views and teachings of Jesus as further indications of his liberating views about roles and relationships in the Kingdom of God.
Part Three, “Marriage and Family Values,” yep, just reading that tells you where he’s going next. It’s the fairly modern appropriation of Christianity for the purpose of buttressing marriage, procreation and family values while marginalizing and excluding other relationships as inappropriate, unacceptable or even detrimental to their self-ordained status. The author wastes no time demonstrating that this institutional tyranny is in direct contradiction with the admonitions and examples made by Jesus, who instructs his followers to love and accept people from all walks of life. And beyond that, Jesus encouraged them not to let any tribe, tradition or institution stand in the way of their access to this boundless love from God.
It needs to be said that, being written by a professor of theology, this book is occasionally expressed with theological terms that sent this reader to the dictionary a few times. While I wouldn’t recommend this book to the uninitiated, the text is not rigidly academic. So, if you’re fascinated by the search for more understanding about what motivated the Gospel writers to saying what they said then I think you’ll find this book interesting and accessible. I also feel that it would be an excellent guided study reference for those who might want to teach on this subject.
Due to the iconic image of the sinless Jesus of Christianity, a tradition that sees any erotic relationship with Him as incompatible, the author is sure that many will find this interpretation both offensive and blasphemous. In my opinion, the real value in these considerations is not in determining who Jesus loved or how he loved but in giving full, human expression to every aspect of the man who was perceived to be one with God. In doing so, we begin to see his humanity in direct relationship with our own. That connection opens us to share in that fullness which is the only point I can see in calling yourself a follower of Jesus.
Many in the faith are trained to focus on Jesus’ death for our sins. This book has confirmed and expanded on what I’d already felt, that his death would have meant nothing if he hadn’t lived for something much greater than being our scapegoat. His life was an example of healing and wholeness, showing unconditionally the loving potential of being, and seeing that in every aspect of life.
Florida native Dan Greshel studied at Ringling College of Art and Design and lives in Columbia, S.C., with his husband, who he legally married in 2014 after 17 years together.