Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ending A Long Silence

I have been silent for some time now but I think it's time to speak again. In the last two to three months life confronted me with its own imperatives and I seemed to have been wandering some strange psychic territory for a while. I had toyed for a while with writing a post on mania and writing but I will keep that for another time, perhaps.

Through over half of this month I had been kept busy with work, which ended two weeks ago. And then the Christmas season gave further opportunities for busyness. I've been housesitting this festive season and so was able to host a small family Christmas gathering. The housesitting has also given me a time of solitude which I think I needed. Actually, I know I needed it.

In between work and Christmas, I have been doing a lot of reading. A lot of it has been light reading, short stories, crime fiction, ghost stories, that sort of thing. Also some history. And some theoretical work, in particular the Slavoj Zizek and John Millbank dialogue, The Monstrosity of Christ. I have major problems with both but the book is worth reading. Zizek seems to think that real Christianity is the same as Luther's reading of Paul or at least is only rediscovered with Luther and the Reformers. And then comes Hegel. Or so runs Zizek's trajectory. I have of course simplified it, but the one striking feature of his trajectory is that it is all male. Millbank too is pretty much male focused in his own Christian trajectories. He is one of the Radical Orthodox school in the UK, a tendency I have a certain sympathy with as it is much more Catholic in its approach. But Millbank's Orthodoxy seemed to have outweighed any Radicalism far too much for my taste. And, like Zizek, Millbank is completely male focused in his presentation of Christianity. Zizek ends up in some strange ethical terrain, I think in large part because of his masculinist trajectory, while I couldn't help but think that Millbank really just wants to swim the Tiber.

I much preferred a much shorter book I've just finished by Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, which is a collection of essays and interviews. In places it touches on parts of the Zizek/Millbank terrain but I found much more compassion and, dare I say generosity, than Zizek or Millbank. I was particularly surprised by her very positive evaluation of the late JP2. I can see where she's coming from and I'm prepared to acknowledge some of her points but I will still hold that JP2's pontificate was a disaster in so many ways for the Roman communion. Need stands a rereading or two and I will be writing a review eventually so I will say more on the book at a later stage here. But for now I'm struck by what she has to say on maternal passion/dispassion and sublimation. Elsewhere she stresses the kenotic nature of the Christian God in the suffering and death of Christ. I can't help but think that this kenotic quality, which applies to the Incarnation itself as much as to the Passion and the Cross, is in some sense a partaker in the maternal passion that Kristeva describes: "mothers can transform their hold over their child into a subliminatory cycle resembling that of a witticism, and thereby encourage the pleasure of thought" Maternal kenosis, recognised by many medievals such as Julian of Norwich, who would call Jesus Mother. (Zizek's Christ reminds me too much of Mel Gibson's macho Christ, that Jesus of USAn exceptionalist (imperialist) desire, decked out in pseudo-Catholic trappings).

But for this feast of the Nativity, I want to point you first to this post by Polycarp aka Joel, Christmas the Time for Feminism. He says he's no feminist but all the same he invites his readers to 'think about Mary, for a minute'. He has some interesting stuff to say which sort of fits with what I've been musing about re kenosis, maternity and Christ. Here's some of it:

Christ came not dependent upon man, or independent of any, but dependent upon His mother. Just as any child, he would had fed of His mother, being nurtured in a way to protect His life. In as much, He never dismissed a woman for being a woman, but pressed them, or was pressed by them, to a point that a great spiritual truth was manifested for the entire world. First, it was the prophetess Anna (Luke 2.38) which announced just a short time after His birth, that He was to bring redemption. It was His mother who in Cana pressed Christ to start His ministry. It was the prostitute in Jerusalem (John 8 – yes, I know) where Christ showed what forgiveness under Grace would be. Further it was the Greek (Gentile) woman in Mark 7 that pressed Christ to shed His grace beyond that of Israel, to the Gentiles. Finally (perhaps not), it was Mary Magdalen which announced Christ Risen to the cowering disciples.

It it these voices which we hear when we mediate upon Mary. Imagine being in the shoes of that young girl who had just been given the Blessing of Abraham, the Inheritance of the Faithful, the Word of God. She most likely would have had nothing to her name – her husband having given her ransom to her parents – yet she had suddenly become the richest woman in all the world, and indeed, the most hated and hunted. Yet is was her who was considered the most blessed among women (Luke 1.42).

What's more Polycarp/Joel links back to and quotes from an old Christmas post by J K Gayle back two years ago, Incarnation. Indeed he quotes Gayle's rather wonderful translation of Matthew's account, sort of, of the Incarnation. Matthew's account puts Joseph front and centre; Mary doesn't get a chance to speak. But let me too quote Gayle's wonderful translation for you by way of encouraging to to check out the rest of his post:

18 τοῦ δὲ ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ μαρίας τῶ ἰωσήφ, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου.
This is the birth of the Anointed, Joshua. His mother Miriam was engaged to Josef; before they came together she held in her womb a child who came by the Breath of the Special One.

19 ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.
Josef, her man, her husband, a just person who didn't wish to make a show of her, counseled secretly to release her from himself.

20 ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ᾽ ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῶ λέγων,
ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν μαρίαν τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου·
These inner passions of his were angst. See. An announcer of the Master, in a dream, appeared to him to state:
"Josef, son of David, don't be afraid to take beside you Miriam, your woman, your wife; the baby birthed in her, in fact, is by the Breath of the Special One.

21 τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.
She will deliver a son, and you will call his name Joshua; he will, in fact, save his people from their wrongdoings."

22 τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,
These events were born out entirely so that the things spoken by the Master would be fulfilled through the Prophet who stated:

23 ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐμμανουήλ, ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός.
"See, the young virgin will hold in her womb a child, and will bear a son, and will call his name Emmanouel," which is translated "With us is God."

24 ἐγερθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἐποίησεν ὡς προσέταξεν αὐτῶ ὁ ἄγγελος κυρίου καὶ παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ·
When Josef got up from his sleep, he did what the announcer of the Master told him, and he took beside himself his woman, his wife.

25 καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὖ ἔτεκεν υἱόν· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἰησοῦν.
And he did not know her until after she delivered her son; and he called his name Joshua.

And for this season, I will provide another account, not from the New Testament but from a text that has served as an unofficial and unacknowledged colouring or weight of gravity on the orbits of both New Testament Infancy narratives, I refer of course to the Proto-Evangelion of James, a text I think should at least be appendixed to the New Testament and certainly included in readings at Christmas. This is from the translation by M R James but I would love to see J K Gayle work his magic on some of this text:

XVII. 1 Now there went out a decree from Augustus the king that all that were in Bethlehem of Judaea should be recorded. And Joseph said: I will record my sons: but this child, what shall I do with her ? how shall I record her ? as my wife ? nay, I am ashamed. Or as my daughter? but all the children of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord shall do as the Lord willeth. 2 And he saddled the she-ass, and set her upon it, and his son led it and Joseph followed after. And they drew near (unto Bethlehem) within three miles: and Joseph turned himself about and saw her of a sad countenance and said within himself: Peradventure that which is within her paineth her. And again Joseph turned himself about and saw her laughing, and said unto her: Mary, what aileth thee that I see thy face at one time laughing and at another time sad ? And Mary said unto Joseph: It is because I behold two peoples with mine eyes, the one weeping and lamenting and the other rejoicing and exulting.

8 And they came to the midst of the way, and Mary said unto him: Take me down from the ass, for that which is within me presseth me, to come forth. And he took her down from the ass and said unto her: Whither shall I take thee to hide thy shame ? for the place is desert.

XVIII. I And he found a cave there and brought her into it, and set his sons by her: and he went forth and sought for a midwife of the Hebrews in the country of Bethlehem.

2 Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion. And I looked upon the earth and saw a dish set, and workmen lying by it, and their hands were in the dish: and they that were chewing chewed not, and they that were lifting the food lifted it not, and they that put it to their mouth put it not thereto, but the faces of all of them were looking upward. And behold there were sheep being driven, and they went not forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to smite them with his staff, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the kids upon the water and they drank not. And of a sudden all things moved onward in their course.

XIX. I And behold a woman coming down from the hillcountry, and she said to me: Man, whither goest thou ? And I said: I seek a midwife of the Hebrews. And she answered and said unto me: Art thou of Israel ? And I said unto her: Yea. And she said: And who is she that bringeth forth in the cave ? And I said: She that is betrothed unto me. And she said to me: Is she not thy wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was nurtured up in the temple of the Lord: and I received her to wife by lot: and she is not my wife, but she hath conception by the Holy Ghost.

And the midwife said unto him: Is this the truth? And Joseph said unto her: Come hither and see. And the midwife went with him.

2 And they stood in the place of the cave: and behold a bright cloud overshadowing the cave. And the midwife said: My soul is magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen marvellous things: for salvation is born unto Israel. And immediately the cloud withdrew itself out of the cave, and a great light appeared in the cave so that our eyes could not endure it. And by little and little that light withdrew itself until the young child appeared: and it went and took the breast of its mother Mary.

And the midwife cried aloud and said: Great unto me to-day is this day, in that I have seen this new sight.

And here is the Incarnation/Nativity according to Ode 19 of the Odes of Solomon as translated by James Charlesworth. I personally think the Odes of Solomon should be put into the New Testament. The imagery and poetry of the Odes are simply stunning and in this instance there is a quite remarkable gender bending, which again highlights the Maternal Divine

  1. A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness.
  2. The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;
  3. Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
  4. The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
  5. Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.
  6. The womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth.
  7. So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.
  8. And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose.
  9. And she did not require a midwife, because He caused her to give life.
  10. She brought forth like a strong man with desire, and she bore according to the manifestation, and she acquired according to the Great Power.
  11. And she loved with redemption, and guarded with kindness, and declared with grandeur.

And finally something sent me by my friend Linda in Canberra. It's from Jeanette Winterson. I like it and I hope you do too. And again it's a sample of a longer post which I recommend you check out

"And the spiritual? We know that the Church took over Pagan festivals, and that while there is no clear date for the birth of Jesus, locating it near to the old Saturnalia, and the winter Solstice on December 21st, held the newer religious story in close contact with earlier reverential worship.
The winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, is a dark time, and was traditionally a fire festival – a way of lighting the dark, which is what the Church understood the birth of Jesus to be – a way of lighting the dark.
I never look to the Bible for literal factual truth – the Jews have always understood that the Scriptures are neither a geography nor a history, but a developing emotional and imaginative revelation, which is why, in Torah, the commentary is as important as the text, and each generation must add its own commentary – in other words, scripture isn’t relevant because it is unchanging – a fixed point in a moving world, but because it is strong enough, central enough and eternal enough to change its interpretation, without losing its message. Not rigidity but a breathing living daily experience.
I realise that Fundamentalists of all faiths cannot accept this.

At Christmas I read the story in Matthew and Luke (the accounts are very different) and in the right spirit, I write my own version, which is what THE LION THE UNICORN AND ME really is.

At Christmas, which should be a pause, and which should have nothing to do with how much you can spend and eat and drink, there is a little crack in time for meditation and contemplation, to be with friends and to be alone – yes always to be alone, for only in that alone space can we drop down to deepest peace. It is not about being lonely, and it isn’t about being a hermit, but time with yourself is time with past present and future, and Christmas is about all time being present, and perhaps above the surface of our minds, when usually we are sunk in it – time passing but not being noticed as time, only as events in time, but time itself, when felt, is mysterious. It can only be felt alone

It is only the 6th day of Christmas (Gregorian calendar) with another 6 more days to go and so I can still wish all of you out there reading this.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas, Capitalism and Advent

Yesterday, was the first Sunday of Advent, the four week period leading up to Christmas (although Eastern Orthodox adopt a longer 40 day Advent). Advent is like Lent and is supposed to be a time of preparation and recollection for the Christmas period. In my childhood, it was very much a time of fasting for adults, just like Lent but nowadays there seems to be little stress on fasting and it would appear that, unlike Lent, Friday abstinence is not required in Advent either. I'm largely vegetarian these days so abstinence from meat is not a big issue for me anyway. In recent years, I've tried to apply an Eastern Orthodox approach to Lent and, to a lesser extent, Advent by going mostly vegan during the period, at least for food I prepare or purchase for myself (but if I'm invited to dinner by friends or family I happily eat what I'm given out of respect for their hospitality). This year I have some feta cheese in the fridge and so, as I also don't like to waste food, I will finish the feta before I move to a more vegan diet.

Last Thursday in the US was Thanksgiving, not something we've ever observed in this country or across the Tasman, although I believe there is a Canadian Thanksgiving but observed one or two months before the US one. A friend of mine who comes from the US says that one of the advantages of US Thanksgiving is that it puts a barrier beyond which all the commercial Christmas frenzy can't go.

Oh bliss! because here in Australia XMAS, which is how I'll render the commercial, corporatised consumer festival of Christmas shopping, has been going for two to three weeks already. It was two weeks ago that I was meeting my elderly friend for his birthday in one of the suburban shopping centres to go to the movies. It was one of the big shopping megaplexes and although mid-November, the full XMAS frenzy was in full swing, decorations everywhere AND a musical ensemble parading around playing XMAS music, all suitably secular stuff to do with snow and winter cheer and Santa and stuff. Of course outside, temperatures were in the 30s Celsius.

I like Christmas and I'm happy to do things like cards and stuff. I like some of the seasonal foods and I enjoy a good midnight Mass with carols and all. Since most Anglican churches have a midnight Mass that ends around midnight instead of starting midnight, from 2004 I've been able on most years to do two midnight masses, starting at the local Anglican church and then ducking around the corner to the Roman one. Unfortunately, as I'm housesitting over Christmas in a neighbourhood where the Anglican and RC churches are too far apart and may not even have a midnight event anyway, I won't be able to do ecumenical midnight Mass this year (but I would strongly urge RCs and Anglicans in areas where their churches are very close together to coordinate their liturgies to allow for more such ecumenical inter-action).

However while I like Christmas, I really despise XMAS. Lets face it for capitalism, shopping has been elevated to the status of a sacrament and ironically, following the global financial crisis, it has also taken on an almost patriotic veneer too. All the Thanskgiving news reports out of the US spoke of how important strong Christmas spending was for the good of the US economy and likewise in this country we've had the same discourses of the importance of a strong shopping splurge as a measure of this country's economic well-being.

As someone who is a sessional worker XMAS can be a rather anxious time. I have no idea what work prospects I have for next year, not an unusual situation for me these days. My current work ends in three weeks time. So the prospect of being caught up in the XMAS shopping melee does not fill me with delight. I try to avoid it as much as possible. At least I try to buy gifts that aren't too expensive and, if I can, I stay away from the big department stores. Eventually I hope to do Christmas without the expectation of gifts, to eliminate XMAS as much as possible from the festive season

Nowadays, I'm becoming keen to rehabilitate Advent. I think there is a certain sense to the notion of preceding a festival with a time of preparation, one that actually involved cutting back on things, living more simply, less frenetically. In today's Age there was a story about the Parliament of World Religions. It's headline was to do with religious freedom and laws against apostasy but towards the end the story turned to the question of asceticism and fasting:

On the environment, Professor Pedersen 300 million people were already living with the effects of climate change. Global warming and resource depletion were going to force people to change how they lived.

''People see asceticism as extreme, people who sleep on beds of nails, are celibate and [who] fast. I'm scrutinising the idea of what is extreme. We think a 40-day fast is as much as the body can stand but a Korean Buddhist nun friend told me, 'It's no big deal, we all do it,' '' she said.

Asked for examples, Professor Pedersen said preaching at people was futile. ''But do you have to have a car? How many sets of clothing are enough? They say the meat industry contributes enormously to greenhouse gases, so eat less meat - there's an ascetic practice right there.''

Professor Pedersen, 63, who ran her most recent marathon a year ago, said the secret of restraint was training, like an athlete or musician.

''Don't think of it as self-denial, but what you can accomplish,'' she said.

Imagine if Roman Catholics, like their Orthodox cousins, went vegan in Lent and Advent (mind you I don't know how strictly most Orthodox observe the Lenten and Advent fasts). And rather than thinking of such practice as self-denial it could be regarded as a way of giving respect to the biosphere, of even slowing down the capitalist frenzy (although I'm sure it would eventually generate a frenzied market in vegan shopping sprees, such is the nature of the capitalist beast).

I will certainly maintain my Advent observances and in time hope to one day only celebrate Christmas and ignore completely the capitalist XMAS. [1]

[1] Or if I was to do gifts they would be little surprises without any expectation of being in a gift giving round

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Jim West and Homophobia revisited

The other night my sister asked me if Jim West had actually put up his reasons as to why he condemned homosexuality as a species of depravity. She was referring to an inter-blog discussion earlier this month between Jim, Roland Boer and myself on homosexuality and the bible stemming from Jim's very public and often averred homophobia. You can read my previous post on the discussion here.

Well, Jim finally did put up his reason and one that was rather surprising given that he seems such a minimalist otherwise on matters biblical. Here it is

διότι γνόντες τὸν θεὸν οὐχ ὡς θεὸν ἐδόξασαν ἢ ηὐχαρίστησαν, ἀλλʼ ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς αὐτῶν καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ἡ ἀσύνετος αὐτῶν καρδία. φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν καὶ ἤλλαξαν τὴν δόξαν τοῦ ἀφθάρτου θεοῦ ἐν ὁμοιώματι εἰκόνος φθαρτοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ πετεινῶν καὶ τετραπόδων καὶ ἑρπετῶν. Διὸ παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς ἐν ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις τῶν καρδιῶν αὐτῶν εἰς ἀκαθαρσίαν τοῦ ἀτιμάζεσθαι τὰ σώματα αὐτῶν ἐν αὐτοῖς· 25 οἵτινες μετήλλαξαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν τῷ ψεύδει καὶ ἐσεβάσθησαν καὶ ἐλάτρευσαν τῇ κτίσει παρὰ τὸν κτίσαντα, ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν. (Paul, to the Romans 1)

My reason is purely theological and has everything in the world to do with the setting aside of God’s revealed purpose for human life and the usurpation of his will by mere human desire. In sum, your desires are not more important than his purpose. In sum, it is idolatry- the worship of an object (whether it be self or other) that is not God.

For those of you who can't read Greek, here is an English version of the Greek text that Jim has quoted from Romans 1:24-25

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

Now there is no reference to homosexuality in these two verses unless Jim reads it as meant by 'impurity' or 'dishonouring of their bodies' so I found it odd that Jim quoted this passage and not the verses following it

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.

Now I wish Jim had quoted this passage and not the generic condemnation preceding it because this is substantial and provides grounds for a discussion. But I don't think Jim wanted that, he wanted certainty as a way of closing down discussion. Because these verses in Romans are not quite as cut and dried as people think. I plan to come back to them later in this post but first off I want to deal with verse 26 which is regarded by most people as the one explicit reference to lesbianism anywhere in (Christian) Bibles. I used to think that myself until I discovered about 5 years ago that early Christians did not think so and that reading it as a reference to lesbianism only happened about 3 - 4 centuries after Paul. In the East, John Chrysostom has the dubious honour of pioneeering that reading. (He is also, in my research, the pioneer of the Christian homophobic reading of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). At about the same time, Ambrosiaster (Pseudo-Ambrose) launches that reading in the West. And it took several centuries for the reading to stick as the dominant one. Other readings of verse 26 included women engaging in adultery, prostitution or even adopting the wrong sexual position with their husbands (being on top rather than on the bottom).

So in other words, in the centuries after Paul, there was no automatically recognisable reference to female homo-eroticism in verse 26. Indeed the verse had no clear explicit reference to any specific female sexual behaviour without such being read in for many centuries of the first millennium of Christianity. James Alison puts it nicely:

irrespective of who is closer to the mark as to what St Paul was referring to, one thing is irrefutable: what modern readers claim to be ‘the obvious meaning of the text’ was not obvious to Saint Augustine, who has for many centuries enjoyed the status of being a particularly authoritative reader of Scripture. Therefore there can be no claim that there has been an uninterrupted witness to the text being read as having to do with lesbianism. There hasn’t. It has been perfectly normal for long stretches of time to read this passage in the Catholic Church without seeing St Paul as saying anything to do with lesbianism.
James then continues:

This means that no Catholic is under any obligation to read this passage as having something to do with lesbianism. Furthermore, it is a perfectly respectable position for a Catholic to take that there is no reference to lesbianism in Holy Scripture, given that the only candidate for a reference is one whose ‘obvious meaning’ was taken, for several hundred years, to be something quite else.

This point is a negative one. It clearly demonstrates that there is no obligation on a Catholic to agree that what St Paul is saying is obvious, or to read those words as referring to lesbianism

James then goes on to cite the contemporary Catholic position on biblical interpretation which warns against "‘actualization’ of the texts, ... reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities" as spelt out in the 1993 document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, which says:

Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary ... to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the Jewish people

James concludes:

if we are urged to avoid absolutely any actualization of the text, then the following statement must, a fortiori, be at the very least perfectly reasonable, if not actually highly recommended, as a guide to a properly Catholic reading of a passage dealing with something rather less important. Here it is: given the possibility of a restricted ancient meaning in a text which does not transfer readily into modern categories, or the possibility of one which leaps straight and expansively into modern categories and has had effects contrary to charity on the modern people so categorized, one should prefer the ancient reading to the actualized one.

In which case then, as a Catholic, not only am I not under any obligation to read Romans 1:26 as a reference to lesbians but I should actually RESIST such readings because of the effects they have "contrary to charity", as James puts it, on modern women so categorised.

Jim West is not a Catholic, of course, so he might not feel such an obligation. But even so, Jim has no secure grounds for claiming that female homoeroticism is singled out or even specified in this passage or indeed anywhere in any Bible, Christian let alone Jewish.

If I seem to have laboured this point it is because the received wisdom is that here in this passage we have the one scriptural condemnation of female homoeroticism. It has been a certainty that has sustained generations of Christian homophobia but one which on closer examination disappears as the smoke and mirror trick of over determined reading that it is.

So what about the other part, what about us guys? Well, here I would agree with Jim that this text clearly refers to male homoeroticism. I would go so far as to say that it is the only text in the New Testament that actually does so, and I might go into that topic in a subsequent post. So does that mean that Jim can rightly refer to male homosexuality, homoeroticism, and love as depraved? Well no, not at all. As I responded to Jim "Paul is wrong. I accept he’s referring to male homoeroticism of some form here – it’s not clear what though, presumably he and his audience had a shared suite of references that we don’t possess, even if it’s just a prejudice based on the Levitical proscriptions." And that's the point I want to develop here.

Now according to Roland, while Jim is a maximalist on Paul and the New Testament, he is, it seems, a minimalist when it comes to the Old Testament. In which case, I gather he's not someone who puts very much weight on Leviticus. Now I don't know that for sure so I'm not going to make assumptions on Jim's attitudes let alone make my case dependent on them.

But I first want to make it quite clear that I have no doubt that ancient Judaism in most of its pluriforms, at least, did not endorse male homoeroticism. The reasons why can only be conjectural but textually it all goes back to Leviticus, the two proscriptions in Leviticus 18 and 20. I also agree with those who argue that these two passages condemn anal sex between men only. They do not condemn or refer to other sexual activity between males at all. That's why many observant gay Orthodox Jews abstain from anal sex so as to maintain loving and sexual relationships that conform to Torah.

Now interestingly, read in that light Leviticus seems to fit a pattern of proscriptions on male male anal sex found in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. A very similar set of proscriptions are found in the Zoroastrian scripture, the Zend Avesta:

The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva [demon]; this one is the man that is a worshipper of the Daevas, that is a male paramour of the Daevas (Vendidad, Fargard 8:26-32)

Now I don't think the Zend Avesta borrowed off Leviticus although I would be inclined to think that perhaps this passage may even lie behind, so to speak, the Levitical proscriptions. It doesn't bother me either way because both are representative of a broader cultural tabu underpinning them. The tabu was specifically on the penetrated, the feminised male. Prisoners of war were subjected to anal rape before being sent off into slavery. Anal sex was not seen as anything other than an assault on male integrity of the person who was the bottom. As penetrator, the top was performing the masculine role and so there was no opprobrium attached. These attitudes are not just part of the ancient cultures but have continued through to the present in Western cultures and others including the modern Middle East (where I suspect they are fueling a postcolonial homophobia).

I was reminded of the currency of such attitudes by a beautiful essay in today's Age by Christos Tsiolkas reviewing a documentary on aboriginal actor, Jack Charles. Charles' life has been a representative horror story of what life is like for an indigenous Australian, particularly for one who has had a momentary escape into fame and acclamation in the dominant white society. Tsiolkas, a gay man, addresses the question of Charles' loves and sexuality:

Jack Charles is possibly a homosexual. That word is never used; what we hear instead are reminiscences and regrets about a man he loved, the one man who he believes showed him love.

They never f---ed, did "that act", not Jack to him, not him to Jack, because that act is the violence that occurs in the institutions meant to protect him, meant to reform him. "That act" is not about love.

In a different world perhaps Jack Charles and and the man he loved would have expressed that love with anal sex, or any form of sex, but not in the world in which he's lived. Tsiolkas understands that and so can I. And for all my studies of the ancient Middle Eastern world it becomes pretty clear that anal sex between men in that world functioned pretty much the way it has done in Jack Charles' world. That's not to say that there weren't men in that world for whom that construction didn't apply although in the ancient world there were third sex options sacral and 'secular' by which they were not covered by the tabu because they were no longer counted as men.

So I think Leviticus should be read with those worlds in mind. Read that way, Leviticus seems to be promoting a form of male bonding and respect by precluding sexual power games in which anal sex, anal rape, play such a strong part. I don't say this to justify Leviticus or let it off the hook but rather to to understand it and thus to avoid actualisation. I would also accept the consensus whereby Leviticus is dated to some time in the Persian period. It could be later, I don't think it's much earlier. But the thing is after Leviticus is written comes Alexander and the supremacy of Greek culture in the Levant. Now I don't subscribe to the notion that ancient Greece was a homosexual paradise or Eden but the Greek/Hellenistic attitudes are different to the Jewish on what we might term homosexuality. Given the globalist, colonial and multi-cultural dynamics of both the Hellenistic and subsequently the Roman worlds, and the minority colonial and diasporic realities of ancient Jewish life, I can also understand how the Levitical proscriptions can be redetermined to fuel minoritised prejudices against the ruling Gentile cultural groups especially after the successful Maccabean revolt against Seleucid rule. in the 2nd century BCE. Add to that mix good old fashioned patriarchy shared by Jew and Gentile alike with the fear of the feminised and you have a nice brew of Jewish homophobia at the turn of the era. And while I have to read more details about it it appears that there may well have been growing Gentile homophobias at that time too.

Now Paul was a Jew, there's no doubt about that. He was most likely Pharisee, for whom Torah observance was central in a way that was not for other more Temple focused Jewish groups. So I have no doubt that Paul had his own share of homophobia. Did he ever get over it? I'd like to think so, not least because I think his Master can be counted in the category of the Not Straight. But that's not a question I'm going to address here. More importantly I want to return to this passage in Romans on which a lot of homophobic scaffolding has been built. As I said before I think Paul is wrong in what he says here. I don't have a problem saying it, I'm not a Bibliolater. Scripture is not always right and when it's wrong there is no need for us to be complicit in such errors. I would regard that as also consistent with a practice seeking to avoid actualisation.

But I also agree with Roland Boer when he says:

On the terms of this debate, both Jim and Michael opt for that well-tried canon within the canon approach, preferring some texts over others. Obviously, any position one wants to take on the Bible has to follow such an approach since the Bible is such a various and contradictory collection of texts.... The same applies to politics. We don’t even have to go outside Paul’s letters, since he was a thoroughly contradictory thinker, writing letters on the run, making things up as he went along, never quite clear where he stood. (I’ve argued in my Irreligious Criticism that Paul’s contradictions are actually a desperate effort to make sense of thoroughly contradictory and tension-ridden social and economic situation, but that’s another argument.)

Paul is a contradictory thinker and his letters are shaped by the circumstances generating them. I would argue that no one can maintain a strictly coherent stance in that situation. Now Romans appears addressed to a Jewish/Hebrew community in Rome. James Alison argues that what Paul is doing in the opening chapter is setting up his audience to take the fall by way of arguing against any sort of complacency on their part because they are followers of the Mosaic Law. As part of his strategy Paul plays on their anti-Gentile prejudices before puncturing their balloon. It's probably best if I let James speak:

At this point, please notice something quite subtle: Paul is shading towards puncturing the pride of those he has been building up for a fall. After the graphic depiction of a set of practises which were self-evidently pagan, and would allow the Jewish listeners to feel very much a ‘we’ against the silly ‘they’ being described (and the words Paul uses are those concerning purity and shamefulness rather than morals and evil which is why I use words like ‘silly’ and ‘idiotic’ rather than ‘wicked’), Paul moves on – still talking about ‘they’ – to a list of much more serious things: deep internal attitudes of heart. And of course he would still have his listeners absolutely on side:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.

You can imagine that we are still in the realm where the listeners will have been able to say ‘Right on, Brother!’ – this was still the sort of thing they were used to hearing. But Paul sweeps on, moving on from those deep attitudes of heart which the silly ‘they’ are full of, to what one might call a list of rather more banal, domestic, common-or-garden forms of wickedness:

Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.

You can see why those who divided the chapters divided the argument here: it sounds like the end of a breath – and it is. It is the end of a breath, but not the end of the argument, because the sting is still to come, and without the sting the argument is not complete:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

Now you can see what the effect of this phrase is on the preceding argument. The effect is rather similar to what would have happened if Paul had said ‘We all know that the gentiles do idiotic things, get involved in bizarre rites and frenzies, and guess what terrible consequences this leads to: they become gossips, disobedient to their parents! Behave foolishly! How unlike anyone we know!’ and then paused for the first giggles of self-recognition to break out.

Now of course this rhetorical device of building up his listeners for a fall, and then puncturing their balloon, wouldn’t work at all if Paul were claiming that his listeners had been doing the same things as the pagans – that is the bizarre cults and frenzied sexualised rites leading to castration. His point is not that his listeners have been doing these things, but that even though they haven’t, and wouldn’t dream of doing them, they share in exactly the same pattern of desire, and the ordinary banal wickedness which flows from that pattern, the really serious stuff, which they have in common with the pagans who do indeed do those silly things.

Paul confirms what he has been doing all along by moving, at last, from ‘they’ to ‘we’, and his use of ‘we’ is interesting:

We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.

Paul appears to repeat the anti-pagan charge – that ‘they know God’s decree, and still do these things’. His repetition of it here, but in the form of ‘we’ sounds awfully like; ‘Whether or not they know about God’s judgment, we certainly do’. And then he goes on to address ‘you’ – not just a Jewish you, nor just a Christian you, but the human ‘you’ that is any of us.

Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

From here Paul will go on to develop his understanding of how the human problem is fundamentally one of desire, and it is at the level of a change in the pattern of desire that we are saved by and through Christ, a change in the pattern of desire which even the Law, which was good in itself, could not effect.

I like James Alison's argument, even if he's rather ready to identify the specifics of what sort of homosexuality Paul is referring to, i.e. transgender sacral homosexuality. But apart from providing an example of how to avoid interpretation that actualises to modern day realities, I think James also raises the very important question of whether those who, like Jim West, take Romans 1:24-28 as a model for denoting and identifying DEPRAVITY are most likely missing the point that Paul wants to make altogether, not to mention sinning against charity. Indeed I think it was Augustine himself who said that any interpretation of scripture is okay provided it advances the cause of charity, by which he and James Alison and I mean care and concern , love, for our fellow human beings (although I'm pretty sure Augustine would not feel very charitable towards the likes of James and I).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Class, Sexuality and the Other in Tampa

My friend, Jon, posted this story on his Facebook page.. It's about a marine reservist in Tampa Florida who was arrested for attacking a Greek Orthodox priest who had gotten lost and was wanting to get directions. According to the report

Marine reservist Jasen Bruce was getting clothes out of the trunk of his car Monday evening when a bearded man in a robe approached him. That man, a Greek Orthodox priest named Father Alexios Marakis, speaks little English and was lost, police said. He wanted directions.What the priest got instead, police say, was a tire iron to the head. Then he was chased for three blocks and pinned to the ground — as the Marine kept a 911 operator on the phone, saying he had captured a terrorist.

It would appear that Jasen freaked when confronted by a stranger and a foreigner, to boot. Be they Orthodox monks or mullahs, bearded foreign men in robes for Jasen, clearly fit the stereotype of the evil Other. This was Jasen's big moment of patriotic glory, defending the homeland against the terrorist menace. Except it would rapidly unravel when the authorities arrived in response to Jasen's emergency call.

When Jon posted this link on his Facebook page he made this observation "Don't you love how this defender of our way of life has a bob with THREE of the worst sins against the American Dream?" What Jon referred to is the fact that when Jasen realised he had not been locked in battle with Teh Terrorist Menace, he changed his story and began giving excuses for why he had acted the way he did. All up he gave three, and as Jon notes, all three relate in some way to crimes against the American Dream, and all involve some aspect of the Other. These are te three reasons he gave as listed in the report:

The man tried to rob him.

The man grabbed Bruce's crotch and made an overt sexual advance in perfect English.

The man yelled "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great," the same words some witnesses said the Fort Hood shooting suspect uttered last week. "That's what they tell you right before they blow you up," police say Bruce told them.

Given that Jasen had rung the 911 service, I suspect the last one listed is the first he gave. It clearly is rooted in the foreign Other, the Islamic Other. I'm not certain which order the other two fit but I was struck by the way sexuality, specifically homosexuality, was invoked. Did Jasen pick that when he found out the person he'd attacked was a priest? A foreigner with little English, did Jasen think he could make such an allegation against the priest with impunity? And what's more did he think the violence of his response would be understood and approved by his fellow Americans? Interestingly some of the comments made on the report indicate that many of Jasen's fellow Americans would do so. Several comments refer to the child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church ad at least one commenter is prepared to accept some validity to Jasen's allegation. According to someone called Floridadave most priests are pedophiles and faggots so Fr Marakis is probably one too. Fr Marakis is celibate and by all accounts a very gentle, caring man, which no doubt for those such as Floridadave, would be confirmation enough of Fr Marakis' faggotry. Certainly that's god enough for OddManOut (!) who says

2 wrongs don't make a right here. first, Jasen was wrong for chaseing him down, there was no emmediate danger to himself so that constitutes assult. second, a priest? celibacy? that only means that thay can't have sex with adults or females. wearing a robe, doesn't speak english and wonders why? the 'priest' needs to look in the mirror, I would have slugged him, but it was wrong to chase him down.

And, no doubt, that's where Jasen is coming from too. He's presented in the report as a type of guy best described as pumped, always working out; in Australia we'd say he's very blokey, A BLOKE! Even though Jasen had to eventually resort to the sanctity of private property, the great lynchpin of the American Dream (built as it was on theft on a grand scale), it's clear that Fr Marakis now enjoys the dubious honour of joining the stock parade of homophobic stereotypes.

But the plot gets even more intriguing when, in the comments, homophobia gets turned back on Jasen himself. Someone called Not Online has this to say:

This appears to be a boy raging against his gayness by lashing out at innocent, smaller citizens. Tarponmarc, .... This is NOT the kind of soldier that you want in a war zone. I wouldn't have liked depending on him in a combat situation...drugged up and irrational, and shooting anything that moved.

If there's a faggot here it must be Jasen! After all, he's such a BLOKE - or is it jock in the US? - and goes to great extent to hyper-masculinise himself that he can't be real. Such hyper-masculinity can't be real, it's a mask, a form of drag. So if it's not real then he's hiding something. What else could a man hide except his gayness. Jasen is the faggot trying to hide out in the marines from his true self, his outsider self. And that way, Jasen, who's hyper ignorance, xenophobia and homophobia have not only exposed the way these elements work US cultural forces (and not just US) but as a marine reservist has put the armed forces under the spotlight of ridicule at a time of heightened national solidarity following the Fort Hood shootings. But if Jasen is a faggot then he's as much an outsider as Fr Marakis or Osama bin Laden and certainly not representative of the military whose integrity is consequently preserved. Our boys aren't ignorant comic klutzes like that faggot Jasen but good clean all-American straight boys.

But I reflect that I have seen plenty of Jasens here in Australia and I have no doubt they are plentiful in the US too. They're young, they're poor/working class/underclass. They're very blokey, and they get themselves pumped and ripped. They're tight physically and emotionally too. But are they all closet queens burying their yearning desires for another man beneath a mask of hypermasculinity? And how convenient the closet and repressed homosexuality is for othering that which disturbs bourgeois niceties, that holds up a mirror to the underpinning ideologies of exclusion and dominance which have to be hidden to be effective. Not only does Jasen expose them but he holds them up for ridicule. If we all laugh too much we might realise just how ludicrous these ideologies really are and chuck them away.

So why do guys like Jasen get into their hyper-masculine drag, because drag is what it is. I think it's do with power and class. Jasen, and guys like him, is down towards the bottom of the hierarchy. He's not at the bottom, of course. That's where women and blacks and faggots are. Faggots especially, as Jasen's behaviour shows they can be beaten up with impunity. But as a low class and young male and subject to the power of the system, Jasen has to show them that he's as good a man as they are. The only way he can do that is by accentuating his masculinity. proving he's as much a man as the guys up the top. Because otherwise he'll be fucked metaphorically - well as a low class person he is fucked by the system - maybe even physically, because you can fuck faggots, they're not real men anyway. Just so long as you don't let them fuck you. And if Jasen doesn't prove he's as good a man as any other he will be taken as a faggot and fucked or worse.

Because the men up the hierarchy don't have to prove their masculinity. They have their power and privilege. I was struck by this just the other day walking along the river. Beneath the Story Bridge there's a cluster of old waterfront buildings and these are used for a variety of purposes. There's a rather interesting looking art space there. And walking past it the other day, I saw a group of men, probably in their 40s or 50s. They weren't suited but they were wearing their regulation dark trousers, light blue shirts and dark ties. All of them! This was their drag, their uniform of power. It's a middle ranking bureaucratic power but it's power nonetheless. There was not a woman amongst them. Now they don't have to get ripped or toned because there's no doubt about their status unlike the Jasen's of this world. And the further up the hierarchy you go the more the confidence they have in their masculinity. So that rather than accentuate it they can play it down in a shared sober uniform of authority.

So Jasen, and others like him, are not closet cases although they do lack confidence in their sexuality, or more correctly their masculinity. That lack of confidence comes from their lack of power, lack of status in the class (and age) hierarchy. Thus Jasen reveals quite tellingly the way class sexuality gender are interwoven to maintain these hierarchies of power (and a whole lot more). Consequently and ironically, Jasen must be enrolled alongside Fr Marakis in the grand parade of homophobic stereotypes.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Homophobia and the Biblioblogosphere

Roland then went on to challenge Jim as to what other medieval views he had. So I posted the following comment
the ‘problem’ with the confusion with sodomy is something that develops over time. Looking at the old penitentials ‘behaving as the sodomites’ is a term prmarily used to denote anal sex between men, other forms of sex between men are not grouped with sodomite behaviour. Peter Damian who invents the word sodomy expands the sodom reference to include all same sex behaviour amongst men, including aolo masturbation which a there is only one sex involved (as there’s only one person) could be considered a form of same sex sexual behavour

The confusion arises when sodomy gets entangled with the category of the unnatural. Aquinas is pretty clear that there are several categories of the unnatural, Sodomy, same sex eroticism, is one, bestiality is another, non-vaginal sex between men and women is another and masturbation yet another

By the Reformation we find a blurring and hence confusion of unnatural and sodomy. Bullinger terms bestiality vilest sodomy in a sexual sins list which curiously does not include same sex eroticism. Homosexuality’s unspeakability is thus used to abject bestiality.

And this blurring of sodomy and the unnatural to abject a range of other behaviours is what makes for the very confused nature of the term in the early modern period.

As for Jim’s homophobia, well that’s another story entirely. I just hope he recovers soon because it’s really not a pretty sight

To which Jim posted this reply:

michael im not afraid of homosexuals- and hence i am not homophobic.

i even have some homosexual friends. and though they are scary, its not because of that.

I answered:

Jim, you have a fear of and resulting prejudice against the homo-erotic, hence homophobia. It’s not pretty because it leads you to say odious things that sustain hatred and prejudice against a class of people to which I belong, a do most of my friends and so I am always conscious of the hurt and malice that goes with such prejudice even if you aren’t. I live with the consequence of your prejudice every day and in my long life I have seen the very great cost in lives traumatised and wounded as a result of the prejudices you promote.

I know what homophobia is even if you don’t. And it’s not a pretty sight. But the good news is that it’s not something indelible. You can educate yourself and get over it and become a more human being as a result,

Roland then put up the two statements in a separate post, The Challenge to Jim West, and asked Jim "Now Jim, what have you got to say for yourself?"

So Jim went and put up a new post on his own blog, What do I have to Say? This

First, I reject Michael’s definition of homophobia. I have neither fear of nor prejudice against any class of persons. I have now, and have always determined what I thought of persons on a case by case basis. I don’t deem all Church of Christ members shotgun toting lunatics because Mary the Murderess Winkler shot her husband in the back.

I don’t deem all Blacks murderous thugs because Lemaricus Davidson and his crew brutalized Channon and Chris.

I don’t imagine all homosexuals child molesters and murderers simply because Jeffrey Dahmer was.

In point of fact, it is Michael who prejudges and distorts- by assuming that my viewpoints deem me worthy of being lumped together with people whom he disdains merely because he disagrees with them. His hetero-phobia shines through more brightly than any presumed ‘homo-phobia’ he attributes to me.

Second, I reject his false assertion that I promote prejudice. Rather than spewing such generalities I challenge him to provide even one example of my inequality or unfairness. I am no respecter of persons. For him to accuse me of such behavior clearly displays for all to see the fact that he neither knows me, nor has he bothered to read what I’ve written on a whole range of topics. No one in all biblioblogdom is as forthright in what they say as I. And that without hiding behind the veil of anonymity or pseudonymity. So, then, Michael, show us one point where I have dealt an unfair hand.

Third, and finally, I reject Michael’s assertion that his viewpoint makes him more human than I, and that until I agree with him I am less than human. What is his attitude but hetero-phobia taken to it’s logical conclusion: the heterosexual person is less than human. And isn’t that exactly what he would ascribe to me, without merit or evidence I must add?

To which I replied:

Jim, I do not call heterosexual love, relationships, and eros distorted or depraved so I’m not heterophobic. You however call ALL homosexual love, relationships and eros a distortion and depraved. Clearly you are here not determinng what you think of “persons on a case by case basis.” I regard that as prejudice of the first order and what’s more it’s part of a history of prejudice that has wounded countless lives not to mention the loss of life that has resulted on top of that. If you want to stand in that tradition so be it, but it is a tradition hateful and odious in its history and its effects.

But it is possible for you to get out of it. Other people have, and what’s more they remain both heterosexual and even Christian. I would say better ones.

And, as one of the people who suffer as a result of the prejudices that declare my love depraved and a distortion, I have the right to call you on your prejudices and name them for what they are.

At this stage my comment is waiting in moderation. No doubt time zone differences mean Jim is still to wake up to Sunday morning.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Power of Insult and the Politics of Sexuality

"The insult lets me know that I am not like others, not normal. I am queer: strange, bizarre, sick, abnormal."

I have been reading a truly riveting book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self by Didier Eribon. I haven't finished it yet but so far it's one of those rare books which almost seems to be telling my life. Eribon is a prominent French gay theorist and social commentator whi has also written two biographies of Michel Foucault. In this book he critiques, Foucault's proposition that the modern homosexual identity was a creation of late 19th century medical/psychiatric discourse. Interestingly, Eribon will highlight the way this argument by Foucault contradicts aspects of Foucault's earlier work. But I have yet to read Eribon's critique of Foucault because Foucault is very much the focus of the third section of the book but I'm still in the second section, "Spectres of Wilde". In this section Eribon explores the work of Wilde, Gide, Proust and others and locates it within earlier patterns of homosexual discourse, especially, for Wilde, the work of Pater and Symonds. Ulrichs is also quite important for the Continent, but Eribon also introduces the work of earlier figures in 19th century and 18th century Europe as well.

I was also fascinated to read Eribon's account of the impact of the emerging visible lesbian and gay (sub)cultures in contemporary France in the 1990s (the timeframe of the writing of this book). We in Australia and other Anglosphere countries are used to the multi-cultural pluralist nation state. In comtrast, for France and much of Europe, they work on a universalist model nation state. In other words, the nation/state provides all the main points of identity and community in which all the citizens share to build a commonality. This includes marriage too. In France the only legitimate form of marriage is that performed by the State. You can supplement it with a religious marriage, but a religious marriage on its own does not suffice. In the 1990s the emerging lesbain gay communities were denounced in French media (from both right and left) as a threat to this universal national model. Queer folks represented a particularity which disrupted the universal aspirations of the French state, la patrie. Oddly what Eribon describes seems to anticipate recent cultural panics in France about Muslim identity as a threat to the national ideal and the resulting moves to suppress expression of that particularity i.e. wearing of religious/Muslim dress, such as the headscarf and other symbols, especially in such prime spaces of the universalist state as schools and other educational institutions.

But it is the first section, in which Eribon describes insult and gay socialisation, what he terms the practices of "subjection and subjectivication", which are typified by the language of insult. Reading his analysis was like a kind of revelation for me. He was describing social facts that I knew all too well. He points out that the language of insult, of derogation of homosexuality, of the abjection of same sex love pre-exists each and everyone of us. The language helps to create the social space of marginalisation to which we are consigned by our sexuality. It's important to note here that he is not interested in an etiology of homosexuality. The futile and arid debates constructionism vs essentialism are quite irrelevant to Eribon's analysis.

Instead he makes his starting point te fact that there is a sexual hierarchy in our society and quite an ancient one too which place the homosexual, same sex love and passion and attachment, below those attachments of heterosexual household, procreation and biological family. 'Below' is probably too weak a term the homo-erotic is abjected, scorned, vilified. And for the greater majority of us who are queer we will first learn of our difference through the discourses of insult vilification scorn and abjection. Thus is homophobia internalised in both queer and straight. The mechanisms of the closet are pretty much inbuilt into this discursive process. Not every insult that we hear will be directed at us personally, we will overhear or be made spectators to such discourses of vilification and we will learn the strategies of hiding, of deflecting the sharp barb of insult, the arts of passing, the relief that once more I escaped being made a spectacle under the sharp spotlight of insult. But even if we do escape, such discourse of insult and vilification still serve to define, to explain our already perceived difference, to name it for ourselves even if (at first) we hide it, pretend that we are like the norm even though we know in our hearts that we are not. We are one of those. And Eribon points out that so often for so many of us that knowledge of who we are is compounded by the sense that we are such a rare breed, we might even be the only one of our type in the world (forget the myopic vista of the only one in the village). Eribon describes repeated accounts of queer folks who in their youth, really beleived that they were alone in the world, the only one in the world. And this would certainly be the case for people of my generation who grew up in times when public discussion of homsexuality was minimal and same sex love was rarely if ever portrayed in film or other media.

One thing I knew from very early on was my strong sense of difference. I knew there was somethng different about me. I didn't know what. I'm not certain at what age, maybe 5, definitely 6. Already at age 6 and 7, I was being targeted at school and I was starting to gravitate towards other kids who were in some sense different, such as the newly arriving Italians. I had another friend who was somewhat effeminate and who I would meet up with again as an adult, like me he was gay. He died beginning of 1985 from AIDS. Another boy in convent school was very asthmatic. His family eventually left our neighbourhood and moved out to Kedron. I remember he told me about the boys school he would be going to there. I have a memory of asking my parents if I could go to that school. The local convent school was only a primary school and so I would have to leave at high school anyway. And this particular boys school inlcuded the upper three or four years of primary school. It was at that time evolving out of a local parish school . Now how much my entreaties to let me go to that school influenced my parents. But I wanted to follow my friend, I did get to that school but tragically my friend didn't. And so I started there on my own. As was my way I befriended the odd ones out. But this was an all male/boy environment and the outsiders there were targets of serious brutality. My final two year of primary school were a horror story of hatred and violence, both verbal and physical.

I didn't intend to write about that aspect though and I'm surprised at how the autobiography of violence disrupted my flow. Maybe it didn't disrupt. It was somewhere around that time that my parent's got a Jerusalem Bible. In those days, bibles weren't a normal part of a Catholic home. Lives of the saints, perhaps, missals definitely. But I certainly remember at maybe age 12 or 13, checking out those bits in Leviticus. How I knew where to look, I can't remember now. We wouldn't have been taught that in school. But we had a dictionary and I also remember looking up words such as pervert and sodomite, maybe even homosexual. Many years later reading Well of Loneliness I could immediately identify with Stephen Gordon exploring her father's large library to find out more about herself, about what she was. For me though it wasn't my father's library ( a small book case in the lounge room ) but the public library that was the place of my researches (furtive of course). How did I find the words? I can only assume the words were available in the language of vilification and insult to which I had been subjected

But my earliest memory not so much of insult but of being made aware that I had crossed a line was in grade 1 or 2. I was friends with a boy then, Gary I think his name was, and I have the distinct memory of sitting or maybe standing beside him as he was sitting eating lunch in the school yard. I was playing with his hair, running my hands through it, twisting it around my fingers. I remember being called on that, perhaps by one of the nuns, or maybe by one of the boys, or maybe even by Gary himself. It's so vague. But I remember the sense of shame associated with it. I don't think Gary and stayed friends after that either. He certainly doesn't figure in later memories. That might have been the year. too, an older boy tried to hang me by the neck from the bag racks after school - a vague memory of a, thankfully, rare occasion of physical violence I expereinced in the convent school.

I've wandered far away from Insult, my memory seems to have become somewhat Proustian this weekend, all manner of things surfacing. There's a marvellous chapter in this book on gay melancholy, which Eribon describes as mourning for things that are lost or maybe disavowed through the project/discovery of one's different sexuality. As far back as I can remember I've had a strong sense of melancholy. I've always liked autumn for the melancholy nature of the light. And I've always had a thing for places after hours. In my school days, I got a strange nostalgic/melancholic thrill of being around the school buildings late in the evening when just about everyone else had gone. All that was left were the traces, the ghostly echoes of the days bustling. This after hours apreciation has continued into my adult life. I would enjoy working back on overtime (in the days when I had a regular job) on my own into the night because again the workplace become a place of traces and ghosts framed with a sense of yearning for something. Did they want me to set them alive again? And I spent so much of the PhD at University of Qld in the after hours especailly in the later years. Writing the dissertation woke up a lot of old ghosts as it was but they would find plenty of company in the corridors of the Forgan Smith Bldg

Melancholy, the project of mourning, it's been a regular companion. There is all the mourning for the possibilities that could not be. The mourning for the inevitable separations of space and person. The mourning for the grief that you know you will bring to others, in particular parents. I have a friend whose grandfather thinks that the penalties laid down in Leviticus should be law of the land i.e. us queers, including his grandson, should be stoned to death. How much sorrow does that represent?

Eribon points out that the project of queer emancipation, of lesbian and gay liberation, of acceptance and affirmation will always be incomplete. The sexual hierarchy still remains, albeit moderated through law reform and so forth over the last few years. But we can never be sure that we will get there, wherever there is, because we will always be on the margins. The closet remains exerting its power. I have met people in recent months who are still living lives mostly in the closet. And all of us have to decide every day just how out we will be on that day. I wish we could get rid of the silly notion that once you come out that's it. That's not true. We will keep coming out all the way to our graves. And it is the mechanisms of insult and caricature that keep it so.

Thus is not a review of Eribon's book. I'm certainly not doing it justice. Rather as with most of the stuff of blogs it is reflections and responses. But I strongly recommend this book. It tells much of my life. How many other lives does it tell? Plenty, I reckon. Plus his analysis of Proust and Ulrichs is definitely worth it. And I haven't finished it yet. And now I have more paid work for a few weeks I might even lash out and add it to my library.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Samson and Delilah - melodrama and biblical narrative.

I like music, I like listening to it. As I write this, I have the radio on playing classical music from ABC's classical music network. Over the last few years I seem to have moved from listening to more popular music to classical. Apart from the intricacy and variety of classical music, think another reason is that on the classical music stations there is generally a lot less talking than on other stations. I used to listen a lot to 'talking radio' in the form of ABC's Radio National, which I once described as the jewel in the crown of Australian radio. Sadly, I think it's been considerably run down over the years - Howard's revenge. I persisted with their breakfast program into last year, it had basically replaced the daily newspaper. But last year, following the change of government, I found that it had not moved on. All the commentary remained stuck in Howard era style politics. Quite frankly I'm past it. It's not relevant to the real issues facing this country or the planet. Mainstream media discourse on current affairs, including the ABC's, is basically irrelevant to those important issues. And I'm not really interested in confected dramas about trivialities or the ongoing perusal of arcane poll data, especially when it relates to Opposition figures. I just don't care. And life's too short to be caught up with such irrelevant ephemera.

So I ended up listening to Classic Breakfast with Emma Ayres. The music is quite varied and often rather fun too and she doesn't seem to thnk that we are all tuning in for the sound of her voice. The program includes some fun regular segments and one I rather like is 'Tears on Toast' which each week plays excerpts from one of the great melodramatic operas. I'm not into opera much but, in this format, you can enjoy the campy quality of opera but in short daily doses.

This week's opera is Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah. I think it's the first biblically themed one I've heard and I've been struck by the way this opera demonstrates the way biblical narratives are taken, adapted even completely rewritten in such cultural appropriations. This rewriting relies on a general cultural familiarity with the story and its characters but also a complete cultural ignorance of the details of such stories.

The story of Samson is a classic example. Samson is generally regarded as a heroic figure, perhaps because he epitomises the masculinist dream of possessing superhuman strength. He's superpowerful, he's got to be a hero hasn't he? My response is, just go read the story for yourself. When I read Samson's story in Judges, the overall impression I get is that this guy is not only a sociopath but a particularly stupid one too.

But back to the opera. I didn't pay a lot of attention to the first aria played in yesterday's Tear son Toast but my attention was caught by Emma Ayres' description of events afterwards. The aria is Samson's and in it he calls on the Hebrews, who are slaves to the Philistines in Gaza ,to rise up against their oppressors. Of course, the biblical narrative contains NO such rallying cry by Samson or anyone else and Samson never leads any Hebrew uprising. He never leads anyone and seems only to ever follow his own desires in whatever he does.

I thought I'd find out a bit more about the opera's story and went looking for a synopsis. I found one here at the Music with Ease site. It describes the events around the aria from the first act as follows:

Before the curtain rises we hear of the Philistines at Gaza forcing the Israelites to work. When the curtain is raised we see in the background the temple of Dagon, god of the Philistines. With the lamentations of the Jews is mixed the bitter scorn of Abimelech. But Samson has not yet expressed a hope of conquering. His drink-inspired songs agitate his fellow countrymen so much that it now amounts to an insurrection. Samson slays Abimelech with the sword he has snatched from him and Israel’s champion starts out to complete the work. Dagon’s high priest may curse, the Philistines are not able to offer resistance to the onslaught of the enemy. Already he Hebrews are rejoicing and gratefully praise God when there appear Philistines’ most seductive maidens, Dalila at their head, to do homage to the victorious Samson. Oh what use is the warning of an old Hebrew? The memory of the love which she gave him when "the sun laughed, the spring awoke and kissed the ground," the sight of her ensnaring beauty, the tempting dances ensnare the champion anew.

Oh my, pure soap! Totally cheesy and bearing no relationship to the biblical story whatsoever. And so I have to laugh when I read elsewhere on the same site that, "'Samson and Delilah' is in three Acts, and the libretto has so faithfully followed the Bible story that there is no need to outline the text." Clearly the writer has never read Judges. But the story of Samson is one that is abroad in the culture and everyone remembers it as a great man - a hero - undone by a scheming woman. Saint-Saens clearly plays with that element in his opera and so everyone thinks he has been faithful to the narrative.

I'm sure the opera is delightfully cheesy and melodramatic. But if you really want melodrama befitting the daytime soaps. The biblical story of Samson can't be beaten. As I said this man is at least a totally self-obsessed individual or a sociopath. He never leads anyone, he never issues clarion calls to the Israelites, he only follows his personal agendas. He has the rather disturbing habit of going berserk every so often but, unlike the judges before him, he never shows a whit of interest in doing anything for the Israelites.

He is a wildman and in a Gothic way rather humorous, or should I say comic. Comedy certainly is the only way to read the account of Samson's miraculous conception in Judges 13. Not many people know that Samson marries a Philistine woman. His treatment of this woman is appalling. He is also quite a stupid man. His interactions with Delilah show him to be a complete klutz. One can also read Delilah as the arm of Fate, paying Samson back for the treatment of his wife.

Given that the whole narrative is drive by Samson's desires, which all too often bring grief to others and finally himself, it really is the stuff of soap opera. It's a nasty soap opera but I guess soap needs a certain amount of schadenfreude to engage its audience. I think that with Samson any possibility that Judges is a heroic narrative is ripped apart. One can say that Jephthah is a tragic character of sorts but you can't say that about Samson. After Samson, the world of Judges just spins apart. He is the transition point.

Poor old Delilah gets treated as a femme fatale but I like to think of her as the avenging arm of hubris. In the end, even she fails - in Judges pretty much everyone fails - Samson can call on the berserker within even without his hair and that rage unleashed will go on to infect the people of Gibeah and destroy the Benjaminites and culminate in the massacre and pack rapes at Jabesh Gilead and the pack rapes at Shiloh, defiling the sacred festival at the national sanctuary in Shiloh itself.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Day Reflections - hospitality, queer folks, the kingdom of heaven and the communion of saints

It's All Saints Day today, a day almost over now. It's also known as All Hallows, hence Halloween, yesterday, the eve of All Hallows. The feast does coincide with the old Celtic New Year, Samhain, Halloween being the time when, as one year dies and a new one is about to be born, the barriers between this world and the spirit world is most permeable. The dead and other spirits were beleived to walk close among the living. I don't know how widespread in old pagan Europe this date was shared with the Celtic so I don't know what prompted this date being chosen for the celebration of all the saints, not to mention the following day, 2 November, the feast of All Souls, the day of general commemoration of the dead. In most of Catholic Europe, All Souls has been a time for visiting the graves of the dead. In Mexico, the tradition seems to have fused with local indigenous traditions giving rise to the Day of the Dead, which has a more festive air than the European All Souls. I must admit to being quite partial to the Mexican festival. There's been a lot of death in my life over the years, not all of it AIDS related, and given the widespread practice of cremation, there aren't any graves to visit either. I rather like the idea of an All Saints/All Souls festival incorporating Mass prayers and parties/feasting so that we can talk about our dead, celebrate our dead, pray for them, remember them.

I'm the Convenor of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Action Group in QAHC and yesterday I held a gathering of queer folks past and present who had been part of the various Queer/LGBT groups at University of Qld over the years since the first, Campus Camp, was formed back in 1973. I'm happy to say that we had between 20 and 24 people there and it was a time for telling stories. And there were a lot of stories, personal stories to tell. But in opening the gathering I also had to acknowledge two who were no longer with us, two young guys who I can still remember coming down to the old queer room, the Rona Room, back in the 90s. With one, Jason, I can still remember when he first entered the Rona Room back in 1994. That was the year when we had the (first) big influx of first years in first semester. That year was a very magical year and there were some very wonderful people I got to know in the Rona Room and still care for very much.

Indeed, with just about everyone I've gotten to know through the Rona Room and its successor, the Carden Room (yes, for some silly reason they wanted to name it after me back in 2000 - it's been rather strange hearing queer folks self-describing as Cardenites over the last few years), I feel privileged to have known them. I keep thinking what remarkable and wonderful people they all have been and remain.

I count myself very lucky when I reflect on my life. I have known and worked and played and lived with and loved and still love some very amazing people. Most of them, of course, dykes and poofs and bis and trannies. I've known and still know some real heroes. There are many people I've known since they first came out. It's been one of life's rare gifts to befreind someone coming out, to share and help and support. That was one of the beauties of the queer space at UQ, we were able to experience that over and over again. The Rona and Carden Rooms have been places of remarkable grace for so many lives and crucial to them both has been that they are places of hospitality.

I think it was in Taking a Chance on God that John McNeill named hospitality as one of the key queer (he probably would have said gay) virtues and talents. It is one of our gifts and has become so because we are required to create communities from scratch, just about, because we are not born into one already as is the case with most other oppressed and marginalised groups. We are the ugly ducklings, the odd ones out, the ones who don't belong and we know from very early on that we don't fit, we don't necessarily know why, at least not until puberty hits. So our quest is to find not so much ourselves but our own, other like us; to not be the only gay in the village/suburb/city. For many of us, it felt like being the only queer in the world. Hospitality is thus a survival virtue and places like the Rona/Carden rooms skill us in that hospitality.

When I look at all the truly beautiful people I know and have known I often have to shake my head in puzzlement. I can't help but contrast them to the homophobic slurs, vituperation I was exposed to growing up and the incredibly vile and demented homophobic stuff I see on so many websites, that I pick up on the media, that you still hear, in casual conversations overheard in buses, trains, shopping centres. Then, in my mind's eye, I look at all the very many wonderful people I've known throughout my life since coming out. I really can't understand the homophobic stuff at all. I can't see how these homophobes could really want to defame such beautiful people. I can't get my head around it. You see, if I was to be given a choice to rerun my life as straight, I would reject it because it would mean I would never have the opportunity to know such amazing and beautiful people as I have known. If this is depravity, give me more of it. The world needs more such depravity.

And you, my queer sisters and brothers, are all such amazing and beautiful people. Yeah we all fuck up at times, some of us quite spectacularly. That's life. But that doesn't change the fact that you are all so amazingly beautiful. In my farewell speech the day I finished at the old Qld AIDS Council back in 1991, I described all that community of people I'd been privileged to work with for the previous few years as a communion of saints. And they were. Hospitality was key to what QuAC did. And all the queer folks I've known are a communion of saints.

Hospitality is what makes God divine. Creation, the universe, is the supreme act of hospitality, an act of hospitality that, for Catholics, is celebrated, instantiated in every Eucharist/Mass. We queer folks have been given the charism of hospitality, well maybe it's been forced upon us but we take to it like ducks - or swans - to water. Hospitality is what makes the Kingdom of Heaven and I like to think that if you wanted to get a sense of what the Kingdom of Heaven must be like, the old Rona Room (especially the parties) and the current Carden Room are little fragments of Heaven on earth. And you are all a communion of saints.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

More on Canterbury and Rome

A couple of potential spanners in the works have appeared concerning the Roman overtures/responses to dissident Anglo-Catholic Anglicans. Over at the In All Things blog at America magazine, Austen Ivereigh draws attention to a published interview with Msgr William Stetson, "an Opus Dei canonist who has the snappy title of secretary to the Ecclesiastical Delegate of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the Pastoral Provision for former Episcopal priests (does he introduce himself like that at parties?)." In this interview, Stetson lets drop the clanger that while current married Anglican clergy coming into the Roman Catholic church and married Anglican seminarians would be able to be ordained as married clergy in an Anglican use rite, they would be the only exception made to the rule of celibacy for the priesthood. Clearly this is Rome's way of circumventing or minimising the tensions of married and celibate clergy side by side. As Ivereigh himself notes most commentary and news coverage assumed that the proposed Anglican rite would retain a married priesthood as is the case with the various Eastern rite Roman churches. I'd even read a number of comments on various sites praising the presumed retention of a married clergy as a way of maintaining a key element of Anglican church life, the family life of the local priest as a key part of the local parish community. You can read the full interview with Stetson here.

Nevertheless, presuming that there would be a large number of married clergy coming into the Roman fold, there is another issue that could also raise problems. Over at dotCommonweal, the Commonweal group blog, Kathleen Kaveny raises the issue of contraception and the Pill. She points out that:

In 1930, the Lambeth Conference declared that contraception was not always immoral, and could be used (for serious reason) to regulate the number of children that a married couple had. That declaration prompted a negative response from the Roman Catholic Church–the encyclical Casti Connubii, which declared that the use of contraception was never morally permissible. As most people know, that stance was reaffirmed by Humanae Vitae.
And asks:

As far as I am aware, however, the morality of contraception under certain circumstances has been more or less a settled issue among Anglicans–even traditionally minded Anglicans. How will this change work out?

She continues:

It’s true, of course, that many Roman Catholics make their own decisions about this matter, and come to their own private peace with God in the “internal forum” of their conscience. But the new influx of Anglicans will include people who will not be able to come to a purely private peace–the married members of the clergy, who will be required to follow Humanae Vitae no less than other married persons.

Are Anglican priests prepared to balance the demands of a big family with the demands of a big parish? What about the wife of the priest? I know a number of Anglican priests whose wives (and husbands, but that is not an issue here) work full-time to supplement the salary. Are wives willing not only to convert, but to convert on the matter of contraception? Are Roman Catholics willing not only to see, but to support financially and in other ways, married priests with six, seven, or eight children?
As she observes, most Roman Catholics nowadays would probably not follow Papal teaching on contraception. The main factor determining Catholic adherence to Humanae Vitae would appear to be economic as this story from the Philippines shows. But the Church largely turns a blind eye, it has no other choice, to these choices of its parishioners. With its clergy, however, it is much more rigorous. That rigor would also apply to the wives of clerics.

So I am not that certain that Rome's response to the various overtures it has received over the recent years will lead very far at all. Perhaps the independent Traditional Anglican Communion may join and perhaps a number of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England may join but I could only see a handful in Australia. I think most of the Anglo-Catholic opposition here had already left to join the TAC. In this country the Anglican opposition on women's ordination and affirming LGBTQ people is driven by the evangelical and extremely low church Sydney Archdiocese. They will never go to Rome. And neither, I think, would most of the Africans. I get the impression the greater part of Africa's Anglicans are more evangelical than Anglo-Catholic. And in some places they also accept plural marriage/polygamy, at least as a temporary expedient, to prevent the dumping of surplus wives by converts. The notorious Archbishop Akinola in Nigeria has too much to lose both in terms of his faith and his own authority by swimming the Tiber.

I would like to see an Anglican rite in the Roman church but even more I would like to see full communion between the Roman and Anglican communions. It will happen eventually. And it should be pointed out that not all Anglo-Catholic Anglicans and not all evangelical Anglicans are opposed to ordination of women or even to the affirmation and ordination of LGBTQ people. Interestingly, I think the more the Anglican communion moves down that inclusive path, the more and more Catholic in the full sense it sounds and, I would assume, becomes. As an example here is a response to Cardinal Kasper on Women Bishops by Bishops Tom Wright and David Stancliffe. I know of Wright as a biblical scholar and I know he comes from the evangelical wing of the Church of England. I don't know his colleague but the piece was published on an evangelical Anglican website. But I was very impressed and kept thinking just how Catholic in tone this piece is, a superb piece of inclusive Catholic theology, in fact (even citing Greek Orthodox theologian Zizioulas). A far cry from Sydney!

And finally a couple of interesting pieces from the Guardian this past week. Austen Iveriegh argues that the Vatican move will actually have good results for Anglican - Roman Catholic relations while Maggi Dawn cautions Anglo-Catholics not to go rushing into the arms of Rome yet.

UPDATE From this post by Greg Kandra, it would appear that Rome might have been a bit too clever by half and this cleverness is putting a spanner in the works. It's all to do with celibacy. It seems that while Rome will accept and reordain current married Anglican clergy abut ny future clergy in the proposed Anglican rite will be expected to be celibate

So Rome is manouvering to minimise any possible upsets to its established order. I think this will likely put the kybosh on it all. Maybe the Traditional Anglican Communion might join but I think a mass movement from the C of E let alone any other Anglican church is unlikely.

But the desire for full communion is there and on both sides. It's very noticeable here in Australia where apart from Sydney, Anglicans are very similar to Roman Catholics and the two communions are roughly the same size and already collaborate in very many ways.

I think it will come eventually but probably after Rome and the East have restored communion. When that happens it will be a momentous event. Reconciliation with the East will have to mean major changes to the Roman outlook, changes that will make it easier, in the long run for Anglicans and episcopal Lutherans (and maybe even episcopal Methodists) to negotiate full communion too.