This review comes from Roland Boer, a close friend of the blog. Roland is currently enjoying life in People’s Republic of China, where he is visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad, Fudan University, Shanghai. He is teaching a seminar series on Marxism and Religion to a very active, criticially engaged group of Chinese graduate students.
Ted Jennings has the gift of a clear, easily accessible style. He is remarkably unburdened (thankfully) by the assumption drummed into intellectuals that turgid prose and dense argument, supported by thickets of sources, are the signals of ‘solid’ scholarship. I also suspect that this is driven by a concern for the communities of the faithful, and not merely those who find themselves on the margins of such communities or perhaps from alternative communities. The chapter on ‘Theological Significance’ (ch. 6), along with the whole of part 3 on ‘Marriage and Family Values’, indicates this focus in terms of content as well, but the book as a whole breathes this desire. So it is not a surprise that one can easily imagine Ted expounding, carefully and with attention to his listeners concerns, some of the positions put forward here before religious communities.
I found most persuasive and interesting the discussions of the ‘hidden tradition’ of homo-erotic readings of the ‘beloved disciple’ in John (75-91), the bravura reading of John’s text itself (19-35) as well as the exercise in ‘troubling gender’ (145-69). The latter may not be exceedingly original, but it does present in concise form some of the more significant features of scholarship in this area, along with Jennings’ flair for communication. Hidden traditions, however, are always the most intriguing, especially the way they throw another light on the biblical text itself, as Jennings does. Supposedly heretical and marginal groups or even individual readers who keep open possibilities of interpretation and thereby practice (sexual, political, economic and so on) are to be treasured for the subversive possibilities they show within Christianity.
The discussions of the other Gospels I found more tenuous and Part C I found less appealing, but that may be due to the specifically American situation that it assumes, especially on the issue of family values. Admittedly matters of marriage, family and procreation touch directly on (Roman Catholic) concerns wider than that context. However, my questions relate to another feature of this discussion: the minimal role of an awareness of cultural difference. In his discussions of the gay material, Jennings is keen to stress cultural difference again and again: we must be sure, he argues, not to import our very different assumptions concerning same-sex relations back into the very different situation of the time and social place of these biblical texts. However, I find little of that carefulness when matters of ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ are discussed, at least on a theoretical level. The terms themselves are not troubled; his target is the way biblical texts undermine what seem to be largely the same perceptions of those terms, then and today. Would he not have strengthened his argument by considering the very different assumptions, practices and social functions of what we call ‘family’ and ‘marriage’?
However, the most significant issue is that Jennings largely assumes a given framework for undertaking biblical interpretation. That framework may be represented by three propositions:
1. Interpretation is guided by a desire to recover an original meaning that has been distorted by the subsequent tradition for a range of usually less than honourable reasons.
2. This entails that we avoid ‘eisegesis’, doing violence to the text through our own presuppositions. Instead, as he repeats again and again, he seeks an interpretation that renders the text intelligible, that is most natural to it.
3. We should be able to make historical conclusions concerning the text, especially on the question of Jesus’ active same-sex relationships.
Each of these methodological assumptions is well known. The first is endemic, not merely to biblical scholarship (in which each scholar’s motivation is to identify an interpretation that does away with the accretions of tradition), but also to Christianity as a whole. The constant drive for reform is predicated precisely on this pattern of recovering the original. The second is based on the assumption that we can put aside, at least temporarily, our complex web of assumptions, in order to let the text speak (the ‘Word’ perhaps). The response here is by no means new: who in reality can do that? Indeed, is not that very assumption something we ‘read into’ the text?
However, I would like to focus on the third proposition. Given the methodological assumptions outlined above, Jennings must, in the end, argue that Jesus really was ‘gay’, or rather that Jesus had a male lover and that they expressed their love in a physical relationship. I also wonder whether part of the motivation for this move is that the need for a historical Jesus will carry more weight with communities of the faithful. To argue that this is but one image of a complex web of images of Jesuses, and that it is an image one may validly appropriate would perhaps not have as much appeal in that context.
Jennings is not unaware of this problem, especially in a discussion of ‘Origin’ (69-74). It is a thoroughly intriguing section, for it begins with the conventional scholarly doubts over historicity of the Gospels and the inability to grasp even a few wisps of historical information. But then he goes on to argue precisely for such a historical basis to the presence of Jesus’ ‘beloved’ – as an anomaly that is thereby historical. But is such a historicist argument necessary? Perhaps Jennings feels that this conclusion will give his reading added weight in the inevitable conflict of interpretations. And a conflict of interpretations leads us to a conflict of often contradictory images of Jesus generated by interactions between readers and the Gospels. That is, I wonder why a more literarily sensitive approach is not deployed. As I suggested earlier, why not present this as a viable image of Jesus, one attested by the ‘hidden tradition’, one that needs more publicity than it has had, but one that is no more or less historical than the others? At this point, we may argue that images of Jesus that are not sexist, homophobic, economically exploitative, racist and so on are ethically and theologically more desirable.
Then again, I am falling into the trap of wanting Jennings to have written a book that I would have written. But that is not the book that Jennings wrote. The one he has written is provocative enough.