This is not my first blog. Back in 2005 I made an attempt at a blog but it didn’t last. I didn’t have a regular internet connection and I had other stuff happening not least like ‘where am I living these days’. I was a bit of an involuntary nomad back then. Plus I had other commitments and I found between it all that I was unable to give the commitment necessary to keep up a blog.
But it was always in mind to re-establish a blog and now several years later I’m having another go. The name Jottings comes from a column I wrote for a while when I worked with the QLD AIDS Council (QuAC – pronounced quack) back in the ‘80s. It was a regular column in the QuAC magazine, Duck News. The column had originally been written QuAC’s secretary, Peter North, and was first known as Jottings from my Diary. In 1988, he asked me to take it over. At that stage I was the volunteer rep on the management committee. It was always a more sporadic piece and soon after I took it on I was sent up to Townsville in Nth Queensland to work on revitalising the branch there in preparation for the appointment of a fulltime worker. Those were difficult times, even though I have a soft spot for Townsville to this day (and I confess I’ve not been back to the north since I left there over 20 years ago). I came back to Brisbane at the end of ’88 and was appointed as an Information Officer and Volunteer Roster Co-ordinator in the Brisbane QuAC office. Part of my new job was editing and producing Duck News. At the same time, the volunteer sub-committee had gotten organised and eventually a specific volunteer newsletter came into regular production called DUV (Don’t Understimate Volunteers). In all that process, Jottings lapsed. So when I was thinking of a title for this blog, Jottings came to mind and I decided to run with it.
In part, it was because I’ve just finished reviewing Musa Wenkosi Dube’s The HIV & AIDS Bible for the Bible and Critical Theory e-Journal. Reading her essays and the horrendous picture that emerges of what is happening in Africa, now, not 20 years ago, took me back to those terrible days of the pandemic here in Australia, especially here in Qld aka the Deep North. In those days we were cursed with a virulently reactionary and homophobic conservative state gov’t whose approach to AIDS was to run the poofters out of town and south of the border and thus make it go away (and at the time to make an electoral play to popular prejudices). But this was a gov’t mired in corruption and repression. Poofterbashing might just have saved its bacon once but the whole cesspool of corruption could not be contained and eventually the 30 years of conservative rule was swept away in the December 1989 election, ironically on the day after World AIDS Day.
I say all this because in many respects it is because of HIV/AIDS that I ended up in biblical studies. With the change of gov’t came new funding opportunities and a whole new climate. AIDS was becoming almost respectable and there were career paths opening up. But this new era was not like those terrible but exhilarating days of the previous few years. I say exhilarating because of the community of people who were brought together by the pandemic. It was a privilege to have known and worked with these people. Many of us were probably half crazy if truth be told. Maybe it needed half crazy people to stand up and be counted. Certainly by the early 90s many of us were tired and burnt out. When my appendix exploded in 1991, I knew it was a signal to stop busting a gut as the saying goes. So I went off to university to have a rest and study as a number of other friends had already done. To quote from my forthcoming review:
(In the AIDS Council) I saw firsthand the impact of homophobia not only as a cultural disease but on a personal level, the internalized homophobia we all have to deal with, thrown into sharp relief in my life and the lives of those around me at risk from HIV, living with HIV and, most terribly in some cases, dying from HIV disease. One of the important wellsprings of homophobia is religion. In the early 90s, when many of us who’d struggled through the dark days of the pandemic in the previous decade realized we were burnt out and in need of a rest, we went off to study at university.... So I chose to study religion, which led me to biblical studies, because I wanted to tackle with the beast in its lair.
Biblical studies at the time, especially the Old Testament area, was experiencing a paradigm shift and I was lucky to have been taught by Ed Conrad who was one of the trailblazers in that shift. Because in studying religion I had anticipated that I would be studying comparative religion and theology but had never really expected to get into biblical studies. And as far as Bible was concerned, I would have expected to study New Testament or at least gospels and certainly those not musty old texts of the Old, or as I learned to term it the Hebrew Bible/scriptures. But Old Testament it would be and thanks to Ed, I discovered the joys of reception criticism and history of interpretation, which was actually a great way to combine a whole range of different interests together under the biblical studies tag. Doing my PhD I discovered the wonderful world of Rabbinic texts, midrash and kabbalah. One of the most amazing things from my encounter with Jewish texts and mysticism was to rediscover the depths my own Catholic heritage. It’s been common to talk of a polarity of Athens and Jerusalem even though now many realise that’s a false dichotomy. Likewise there’s been a similar dichotomy of Rome and Jerusalem operating as a paradigm. Through studying Judaism I came to see what a false dichotomy that was how much Judaism and Catholicism had in common. By Catholicism I don’t just mean the Church of Rome but the broader world of Catholic Christianity – sacramental, liturgical, Marian Christianities. I was struck by how much that was Catholic seemed grounded in a Jewish matrix especially when seen through the lens of midrash and kabbalah. I know I’m not the first to see that. The medieval and renaissance Christian kabbalists, starting with the 13th century Ramon Llull had also seen it.
And so my interest in the sexual politics of the Virgin Motherhood of Mary stems from the realisation that virgin motherhood is not a late pagan import into early Christianity but a very Jewish idea associated most prominently with Sarah and also Eve and, in 2 Enoch, the mother of Melchizedek. I can’t help but think it has anti-patriarchal utopian associations but maybe it takes the insights of, say Luce Irigaray, to tease out these possibilities. In some respects the ancient Temple was itself a virgin mother, Eden. Each year the LORD became flesh on the Day of Atonement in the womb space of the Holy of Holies. That is why I’m very interested in the homoerotics of atonement. Atonement is central to Christianity even though, in part thanks to Anselm, it has come to be understood as propitiation or expiation - Jesus the god man taking on the penalty for our sins. I don’t believe that bit of savage theology at all. Instead it seems that the annual rites of atonement, which underpin the Christian motifs of atonement deployed to understand the execution of Jesus, were in fact rites of cosmic healing, healing the universe with the life power (represented by blood) of the LORD. So Atonement is healing and reconciliation on a cosmic level and is instantiated in the Eucharist/Mass/Divine Liturgy. I owe a lot here to the insights of Margaret Barker and others pushing for a re-appraisal of the centrality of Temple motifs and themes in the biblical world(s) and the religions deriving from there. And curiously, it took a little known early work by gay literary scholar Rictor Norton to alert me to the homoerotic potential in the apparently sacrificial rites of atonement and hence the homoerotic matrix of Christianity’s central image. Given that I think virgin motherhood is likewise very rich with queer, Sapphic anti-patriarchal possibility then it means that some of the central Christian motifs are potentially radically queer indeed. As my friend Rollan McCleary has said, Christianity is probably the gayest, I would say queerest, of all the religions. I think that applies most properly to Christianity in its fullest, Catholic, forms.
My agenda has not been to abolish religion but to queer it, for Catholic Christianity to explore and release its queer possibilities (resources). Catholic Christianities come in many different forms (I’ve provide links to a suite of different Catholic churches, eastern and western, historic and contemporary/independent). And interestingly for a biblical scholar, there is a diversity of bibles that go hand in hand with this Catholic diversity. One thing I’ve learnt is that scriptural diversity is not an aberration but is a feature of the scriptures known as Bible as far back as we can go. In other words there is no such thing as an original, pristine, ur text of any of the texts that make up any of the different canons of the old (and new) testaments. These texts have always existed in multiple editions. Likewise, while it’s been common in Protestant countries to think of the Hebrew Bible of Judaism as representing the canon of texts from ancient times the reality is that there has never been a single authoritative canon of texts for all times and places. In our own day there is a number of different canons of texts. I hope that one day there will be full intercommunion restored amongst the historic Catholic churches of east and west. I would expect that when that happens an open Catholic canon will emerge that incorporates the variety and textual plurality of Catholic bibles past and present. Indeed, I see myself as an advocate for such an ecumenical scripture. In large part that arises from my experience of the evangelical Christian fetishizing of the text, notions such as biblical inerrancy, infallibility, together with sola scriptura which stand behind the savage bibliotary brought to bear in the culture wars especially to attack LGBT people and women struggling against societal and ecclesial patriarchy. The reality is that scripture is not set in stone and did not fall out of the sky from heaven. It certainly is not meant to be taken as literal truth, history or, God forbid, science.
So I hope to be writing on these and other issues here at Jottings. It will be a Biblioblog but not just a Biblioblog. It will be a queer and political and cultural blog as well. But then given the important role of bible in our culture (no matter how effectively illiterate our society has become in understanding its own culture) a Biblioblog could not be anything else but queerly political and cultural.
So finally as a good Catholic queer boy all that now needs to be done is to bless this blog and I will do so with an invocation using the very embodied blessing imagery of Ode 27 from the Odes of Solomon (needless to say I think the Odes of Solomon should become part of any Catholic Bible)
I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord
For the expansion of my hands is His sign
And my extension is the upright cross