Young author challenges historian Boswell’s conclusions
Since John Boswell’s Christmas Eve death to AIDS in 1994, no one has risen to fill his position as the foremost scholar on the history of lesbian and gay Christianity.
Mark Jordan may be one candidate to fill that void. While Jordan recognizes Boswell’s contribution to his field, he is not a disciple of Boswell, who opened the field of lesbian and gay Christian history with the publication in 1980 of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century.
“Boswell took a lot of risks personally and professionally in writing that book and it nearly cost him tenure at Yale,” Jordan told Second Stone. “So, I have a lot of respect for his courage, but I disagree almost entirely with his conclusions. Almost everyone uses [the book], and almost no one buys its conclusions.”
Jordan’s new book, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, is every bit as controversial as a Boswell book. Jordan writes that he found the first time the category “sodomy” was used and draws his own conclusions about the legitimacy of the term’s use – since it did not appear until the year 1050, according to Jordan.
“The conclusion that follows is that the category is absolutely worthless for serious theology,” Jordan said. “It then becomes really odd that the category should be written into English and American law as the main category under which we were persecuted. Of course, my point in writing this book is to take the category away from the people who want to use it against us, especially the people who want to use it against us in the name of Christian theology.”
Jordan said he hopes his book will reach people trying to recover from the spiritual damage the Catholic church’s condemnation has inflicted.
“Despite the fact that it has footnotes in it, I wasn’t interested in an academic audience,” he said. “I intended the primary audience to be people who are still being wounded by Catholic condemnations of homosexuality, and I want to say there’s no reason to be wounded, because the supposed arguments that are being used are, in fact, incoherent.”
Jordan, a tenured professor at the University of Notre Dame, said that writing the book changed his views about his spirituality and his church.
“I know that in the course of writing this book I’ve become more radical in my consideration of alternatives,” Jordan said in an interview. “I think it’s pretty clear to me that I no longer want to regard myself as a Catholic, and that my future as a teacher and a writer may be in specifically gay and lesbian Christian institutions.”
Jordan said he can no longer be gay and Catholic because of the church’s denigration of homosexuality.
“I don’t think you can be gay and be a member in good standing of the Catholic church as an institution,” he said. “I think you can be gay and live your Christian life from the Catholic tradition – a way of life that is sacramental and liturgical and incarnational.”
Jordan said Boswell was wrong to assert that the Catholic church once accepted gay people.
“His historical point in [his first] book is that there had been a time when the historical church condoned homosexuality, and I don’t think that has ever been true,” Jordan said.
While he rejects Boswell’s conclusions about the historical role of lesbian and gay people in the church, he does not minimize the contribution Boswell made to gay and lesbian theology and historical studies.
“He opened the field of gay and lesbian Christian history. He made it possible for me and everyone else who’s publishing now on that topic to publish the kind of books we do,” Jordan said.
Boswell’s second book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, created controversy because it claimed even more strongly than the first that gay people had once been accepted in the church. The long-awaited book, published only months before Boswell’s death, cited commitment ceremonies between same-sex couples in the early church. But Boswell misinterpreted the primary document on which he based his finding, according to Jordan.
“I think he was so eager to find same sex marriage in the Christian tradition, that he read over his one crucial bit of evidence,” Jordan said. “He just saw something that wasn’t there – or to be more precise, he overlooked something that is there… a line that separates the ceremony of spiritual brotherhood from the ceremony of the crown which is a marriage rite of the Byzantine church. But John was so sure that he had the goods that he just ignored that line in reading the manuscript.”
Jordan said that more careful and deliberate examination of facts is needed both in lesbian and gay Christian studies and in gay studies in general.
“I think we are at a crucial moment in gay studies,” he said. “We have made some pretty grand claims. Now, we have to get down to the very meticulous work of scholarship – which means being very modest and working slower – looking at a lot of things again in great detail and recognizing that for the sake of politics, we’ve been guilty of glossing over things.”
He said he can be gay and Christian without relying on possible evidence of same-sex unions performed in the early church. The Old Testament is “this incredible patchwork quilt of human experience that has almost everything in it, including, I think, same sex couples which to us look an awful lot like homoerotic relationships,” although those gay and lesbian identities were not available in their time.
While Jordan said Paul condemned same-sex unions in the Greek Scriptures for reasons that were “complicated and not entirely Christian,” there is more hope in other parts of the New Testament.
“In the Gospels, it certainly looks like there is a very different view – a very favorable view – of homoerotic relationships, one of the most famous being the naked young man who appears in the Gospel of Mark, and who, according to at least some ancient sources had a much larger role in the earlier versions of the Gospel of Mark. And there are traces in the Gospel of John of very intense homoerotic feelings,” he said.
It is difficult to determine, Jordan said, how much of the Bible’s texts, whether condemnatory or supportive of homosexuality, are relevant to us.
“The Bible is not one book. It’s a whole library of books, spoken in a lot of different voices with a lot of different relevance to us in the present,” he said. “The Bible is for the sake of the Christian community and not the other way around… The most important thing in Christianity is not a text, it’s people’s relation to God, and the text is an instrument to bring about that relation.”
Comparing Boswell and Fr. John McNeill HOW DOES THE author of The Invention of Sodomy compare the work of the late John Boswell to that of Father John McNeill, author of The Church and the Homosexual, Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families, and Friends and Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else?
“The contrast between Boswell and McNeill is fascinating because it’s a generational contrast and it’s a clerical-lay contrast,” said Mark Jordan. “With Boswell you have a younger Catholic layman who has the force behind him of great academic prestige who was never anything officially in the Catholic church. And with McNeill you have an older priest, who very much comes out of the Jesuits, the most rigid form of clerical culture and who goes through this extraordinary transformation over a much longer period.”
Boswell started early in life and without much of the baggage McNeill brings with him to his writing.
“With Boswell, bang! – here’s his dissertation, published as his first book, and it’s all there, but with McNeill you watch over these fifteen years as he works himself free of his own training,” Jordan said.
While Boswell contributed a great deal of scholarship and study to gay Christian history, McNeill’s contribution is much more basic, according to Jordan.
“The emphasis on freedom and what it costs and what is gives you, I think, is McNeil’s great contribution.”
Author of Eliminate the Silliness: Enjoy Simple, Minimalist Living Without a Lot of Nonsense and What To Do With 5 Minutes, Gip Plaster maintains an archive of interviews, reviews and stories he wrote for the LGBT press at https://gayscribe.com and a blog on minimalism at http://gipplaster.com. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his partner of many years.