Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lunar New Year - Congratulations and Good Fortune for the Year of the Earth Ox

As of yesterday, January 26, we are now in the Lunar New Year, this year being the year of the Earth Ox. Chinese astrology is based on a combination of 12 animal signs and 5 elements, which at its most basic gives a 60 year cycle year of animal/element combinations. I was born in the year of the water dragon and that combination will come round again when I turn 60.

This year, of course, falling on January 26, the New Year is concurrent with Australia's own national day, known officially as Australia Day or unofficially as Invasion Day. January 26 1788 is the date the first fleet landed in Sydney cove to found a system of penal colonies in this southern land which served as a sort of British imperial gulag on the other side of world. The date thus marks the beginning of the European invasion/colonisation of this land and the dispossession of the indigenous Australians. Choosing this date as Australia's national day was designed to highlight the imperial connections with then Great Britain and Australia's dominionship status in the British Empire.

The date might not have been so bad in the past because we rarely had the official holiday on 26 Jan. Instead it was always held on the closest Monday to that date thus honouring the noble Aussie tradition of the long weekend. Consequently, celebratins were always low key as most of the population were away at the beach (or stuck in traffic on the way back home from the beach). But sadly in the last 20 years or so this country was overwhelmed with a silly sense of patriotic fervour leasding to holding the celebrations on the day itself and hence adding insult to injury to the indigenous Australian communities.

There have been frequent calls to change the national day to a date not fraught with such awful associations (and apparently it is ALP party policy). This year's Australian of the year, indigenous leader and scholar, Mick Dodson, has publicly raised the issue much to the chagrin of our PM. I think it's time we put this colonialist and imperialist date behind us and picked a different date, preferably in the second half of the year (surely something significant for this country must have happened between July and December. That's if we must have a national day at all.

In the meantime we can make the Lunar New Year a holiday. The good thing is that, like Easter/Pascha it's a movable feast thus giving us a certain amount of irregularity. It also marks a significant date for Australian Chinese, Vietnamese, Tibetan and Mongolian communities and encourages the rest of us to share and celebrate as well. I believe we should make holidays of significant dates for the many cultural/ethnic/religious communities that make the Australian people today.

So to find out what this year of the Earth Ox has in store you can check out this article from Asia Times online. And if you want to find out more about your own Chinese sign and how the Earth Ox will impact you can go here.

But what's that you say? A biblical scholar into astrology? Well, astrology permeates the biblical texts. Not Chinese astrology, of course, but that of the ancient Middle Eastern world. There is a long tradition of Hebrew/Jewish astrology. We find horoscopes amongst the Qumran scrolls and many of the great medieval rabbis were accomlished astrologers. Biblically the 12 tribes of Israel are linked to the 12 signs of the zodiac and the sevenfold menorah representing the seven spirits/archangels of God is linked to the seven planets of ancient astrology. Astrological references abound in biblical texts as said, especially Ezekiel, 1 Enoch and Revelation. Ancient readers/hearers of Matthew's infancy gospel recognised that the wise men or magi who come from the east were astrologers. The 4th century Church Father, John Chrysostom, who was opposed to astrology, was especially discomforted that the gospel itself recorded uncritically pagan astrologers following astrological portents in order to come and pay homage to the infant Jesus.

So rather than it being odd for a biblical scholar to be into astrology it should be considered more remarkable that too few biblical scholars have any astrological knowledge at all.

So for all of you reading this - Congratulations and Good Fortune for this year of the Earth Ox!

Monday, January 26, 2009


I planned this to be an occasional blog i.e. a posting frequency of once a week roughly. But here I am putting up two posts on the same day. But yesterday I got word of the death of Colin Griffiths in Newcastle. I’d been emailed the night before that Colin was in hospital and not expected to live very long.

Where to begin with Colin? Maybe right at the very beginning. I don’t think Colin or I ever worked out when or where we first met. We had too many overlapping circles of friends, which was a fact of Brisbane gay life and a fact consequently of the Brisbane HIV/AIDS ‘community’ in those days. But one thing Colin and I worked out pretty quickly was that we were astro twins, born the same day, same year, same city – Sydney 5/7/1952. I had a pretty good idea of when I was born – my birth, it turns out, was a bit of a medical emergency and so my father remembered the nurses saying the time I was born when he went in to the hospital to visit Mum. However Colin only knew that he was born around lunchtime. His father remembered getting the word when he came home for lunch. I ran up a chart for him on www.astro.com for the time 12.10pm. I’m not into rectifications and the time was sort of a compromise based on Colin’s recollections of what his father had told him but the chart seemed to make some sense. But I guess the interesting thing about astro twins is we represented to each other different possibilities of what our lives might have been given that birth, our own birth, is something over which we humans have no control whatsoever. But while we might represent different possibilities to each other we also had some uncanny instances of parallel tracking. I remember still to this day when we were first alerted to this fact. I can’t quite remember the year, 1989 or 1990. I was then working for the AIDS Council and Colin worked for the Injectors AIDS organisation, QuIVAA. We both went to a meeting in Qld Health, it might have been a World AIDS Day planning meeting or maybe a meeting re the non-English language speakers national AIDS campaign that the federal gov’t launched in 1989. But anyway Colin and I turned up at the meeting wearing exactly the same shirt. We were also wearing blue jeans and sneakers. Jeans and sneakers were fairly standard dress in the community sector and while jeans come in a variety of colours blue is pretty standard. But the same shirt! Everyone commented on it as did we ourselves who had a bit of a giggle about it. Neither of us knew we had that shirt – think I might have bought mine not long before. I don’t know when Colin bought his.

In 1996, Colin moved into the house I was living in, in Brisbane’s West End. The house belonged to Stephen Brown who had also worked in the AIDS Council in those days and was studying social work at Uni of Qld. Both Steven and I had started our doctorates. Colin, Steven and I lived together in that house until late 2003 when Colin moved to Newcastle. By that stage Steven had dropped out of his doctorate and was back working at the AIDS Council. The following year major funding changes meant the end of QuAC as we knew it to be rejigged in ’05 as a community based health promotion organisation, Qld Association of Healthy Communities (also pronounced quack). Steven took the change as an opportunity for ‘early retirement’ (he was younger than me) to be partly financed by selling the house. In retirement, he would live between Pattaya, Thailand and Brisbane. It was in Thailand, two years ago that Steven died suddenly of a stroke, pretty much on this day or the day after. So it is quite uncanny that Colin, whose health had been deteriorating markedly over the last year, should die at this time. It’s also very strange to realise that the two people with whom I lived for 7-8 years are now both dead.

So I’m thinking about Colin and thinking about Steven and thinking about death. Curiously next month will mark 24 years since my first experience of a friend dying from AIDS. It will also be three years since the death of an old ex of mine in Wagga, also from HIV disease (it seems Marc could not respond to the treatments cocktail being given to him – but given that his sister had died in the year before, reopening all manner of family wounds I suspect he might have died of grief). Like most gay men my age, I got used to the ways of death and funerals a long time ago. What was strange for me was the lull that occurred from the late 90s onwards with the kicking in of the new treatment regimes. But the last four years have been marked by a rising tide of deaths and funerals, the only difference being that most are now not HIV related.

I prayed for Colin this morning and will pray for him over the coming days. For some time now as part of my spiritual practice I pray for those who’ve died. It’s a very Catholic thing to do – also very Buddhist, especially for those in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. I remember a film I saw many years ago in my AIDS Council days. I can’t remember the name – maybe it was Longtime Companion? – but it was about the pandemic and it’s impact on a community of gay men in New York in the 80s. There’s a beach, probably at Fire Island, that recurs throughout the film. Early on it’s a place of much gay abandon – the favourite summer haunt of these New York queens. The final scene, which stays with me still, is set on the beach. A couple of surviving characters are on the beach talking about the last few years remembering all those who have died. All of sudden great crowds of people surge onto the beach. They are all the dead, and the living, back together in an amazing moment of gay eschatology, recapitulation, reconciliation. It reminded me of the final chapter in D M Thomas’s White Hotel, itself a remarkable evocation of life, life within death, life beyond death. Following the bayonet rape/death of the main character at Babi Yar in the previous chapter, this chapter opens with the arrivals of all these trainloads of people, including Lisa, the main character, at the end of their journey of 'resettlement in the east', in a dreamscape Palestine beyond, which is rapidly filling with all manner of folk as the massacres of World War 2 progress. And while the initial arrivals are Jewish this Palestine is a place open to all and hence not marked out by borders and fences, not owned/claimed by anyone.

The German Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch, asked how can we live when the Revolution comes knowing how many countless generations did not make it to the new age of justice and freedom. How can one live in the new age knowing that it rests on the bones of the countless dead? An AIDS musical from the 80s ends with Vaccine Day celebrating the eventual end of the reign of HIV. But what of those who never made it? A Russian theologian/philosopher, from the 19th century I think or maybe early 20th century (his essay is in an anthology on Russian spirituality, which I might have packed away but even if not, I’m housesitting and so don’t have access to my books), wrote that the only task of Christians is to raise the dead. He doesn’t actually say what he means by that, at least not in any sort of logical, rational way. His essay is mystical, poetic. Intuitively, poetically, I know what he means but to put it in dry mundane speech is not possible. At best I can only say – to raise the dead means to remember them, to value them, to live and hope for a time of recapitulation, reconciliation, restoration. Vaccine Day, the Revolution can only be fully realised if the dead themselves somehow share in that moment.

One text that turns up frequently on ancient lists of New Testament texts is the Apocalypse of Peter. If people think the Book of Revelation is scary (I don’t, actually) then they should read the Apocalypse of Peter. It’s really nasty stuff. But in my readings of and around this text I stumbled across a reference to a scholar (whose name escapes me now) who argued that despite its horrors, the Apocalypse of Peter originally included the notion that at the last judgment those who are consigned to damnation are saved by the prayers of the saints (i.e. Christians) that indeed those saints will be praying for all those others, that it is a natural thing for saints to do. The idea is definitely found in the 2nd century Epistle of the Apostles and also in the Christian Sybillene books. And I wonder if such thinking lies behind eastern and western catholic traditions of praying to the saints, especially the Virgin Mary, and asking them to pray for us. And does such thinking lie behind the extraordinary medieval accounts of how Mary saves so many reprobates (read ordinary people trying to get through life in all its day to day fucked-up-ness) who have kept up praying to her despite all else? (Some of these stories are quite delightful and would make the fire and brimstone set wince) In other words, far back in the Christian tradition there seems to be the notion of a universal reconciliation and restoration. I should add that in 2 Enoch, at the last judgment all the animals are there to give testimony on human behaviour, to call humans to account. In other words it’s not just humans who are included in the new era of the eschaton. For those who don’t know it, 2 Enoch is part of a whole library of ancient Jewish literature that was only preserved by Christians (in 2 Enoch’s case, Slavonic Christians).

And so Catholics pray for the dead. We pray in part because we recognise we are part of a community that transcends time and space including the walls of death. (That is why Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches are adorned with images icons paintings statues of the saints – to acknowledge and affirm that community) We pray for the living and we pray for the dead and (the hope) the dead pray for us too. It is part of what it means to work together, to help each other, to support each other. It is part of justice making, of community making, of what in Judaism is known as tikkun olam, the spiritual repair of the world, a repair that comes through, to coin a term of Peter Kropotkin, mutual aid. Mutual aid is the mark of the Revolution, of Vaccine Day. It’s how the Revolution is waged. It’s how to raise the dead.

And so I pray for Colin and I hope he’s saying a prayer for me. And I look forward to catching up with him sometime, somehow, perhaps on a beach, or a beachside terrace. We can share a few camparis and soda and some joints (my stash runneth over). And he’ll laugh and say ‘it was a bit fucked up sometimes but we did it fine’. (And I hope, even though he didn’t like parties, that Steven will come along for a drink too).

Solidarity forever!


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