Professor Tat-siong Benny Liew, slated to be the next chairman of the theology department at the College of the Holy Cross, reads homosexuality into the New Testament. He had been teaching on campus for more than four years when last month Elinor Reilly, writing in the Holy Cross student journal The Fenwick Review, chronicled a bit of his “unconventional readings of Scripture.” The plain factual information that she laid out in her brief, restrained article about his scholarly output went viral and has provoked strong reactions. The Catholic bishop of the diocese of Worcester, for example, has called Liew’s ideas “offensive and blasphemous,” “false and perverse.” In two recent articles, George Weigel brings NRO readers up to speed on the controversy.
The Gospels have been sexualized before. Remember Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation (1988) of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel (1955) The Last Temptation of Christ? In Greece, Orthodox bishops had sought to have the book banned, and the Vatican had entered it in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The movie, too, generated denunciations from Christian leaders but also a groundswell of popular outrage and protest. In both the novel and the movie, Jesus is subject to fantasies about sexual relationships with Mary Magdalene and Mary and Martha of Bethany. The story includes other elements that Christians object to, but the suggestion that he had sexual feelings is high on the list. The Greek bishops wrote that the novel “seeks to destroy his divine nature.”
Slippery and narrow is the path between Arianism and Gnosticism, between denying Jesus’s divine nature and denying his human nature. Christians are always falling into one error or the other. Does Jesus’s sinlessness have to mean that his male brain was never touched by even the hint of a sexual whisper, a species of those unbidden thoughts that the Greek Orthodox call logismoi? Yes, according to Thomas Aquinas. I’m not so sure — to be visited by a thought is not the same as inviting or entertaining it. In any case, regardless of whether the proposition that Jesus experienced concupiscence is heretical, for Kazantzakis and Scorsese to have speculated about it and then drawn pictures of what they imagined to be the case was disrespectful. Everyone, even Christ, is entitled to some privacy.
You might say that Liew’s distasteful vision of a homoerotic drama between the Father and the Son, the First and the Second Persons of the Holy Trinity, is only a variation on a more general modern prurience about the content of Jesus’s imagination, but the attempt to sexualize his filial relationship with God is uniquely destructive. The cost of “queering” Christianity in that manner is borne heavily by young men who are deprived of a father’s love, a strong form of which runs through Scripture and is proffered in it but is worse than worthless if it’s seething with sexual preoccupations you might expect from a Joyce Carol Oates tale.
The first thing that men with absent or abusive fathers need is a father worthy of his son’s wish for approval. The second thing they need is his approval. The last thing they need — no, let me rephrase it. The first thing that they need their relationship with their father — and with their mother, for that matter — not to be is sexual. That’s what makes the clerical sex-abuse scandals, whose victims were preponderantly boys and young men, doubly abominable. That they were molested was criminal. That their molesters were men who were father figures — men whom, according to the custom, they addressed as “Father” — was diabolical.
“I was a 13-year-old boy sitting next to him,” Naomi Wolf told the Sunday Herald of Scotland back in 2006, describing a vision she had had of Jesus, “and feeling feelings I’d never felt in my lifetime, of a 13-year-old boy being with an older male, who he really loves and admires, and loves to be in the presence of. It was probably the most profound experience of my life.” I know, but do you think that Jesus’s visitation to Paul on the road to Damascus was any less odd? If Wolf’s experience was genuine, give Jesus points for his sense of humor: He chose a professional feminist to be his messenger of the father-love that he gives in abundance because he receives it in abundance. It overflows.
That the message was of the father-love specifically between a bar mitzvah–age boy and “an older male, who he really loves and admires,” will elicit the familiar complaint that Christianity is diseased with patriarchal bias, but women have an easier time with the religion than men do, to judge from who goes to church and who doesn’t. Twelve years later, that boy who Wolf was for a moment now belongs to the Jordan Peterson demographic, and God knows where he’s ended up. What he craves he might have found in Christianity, despite all the Christians whose example would persuade him that to look for any kind of paternal love in church would be a joke. Meanwhile, just to make sure, there stands Professor Liew, blocking the door.