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book review: The Gay Gospels

October 24, 2011

Occasionally I read books about the theology of mainstream religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), especially those that offer new interpretations or re-examinations of doctrines I’m already familiar with. I also seek out books that deal with issues faced by and the lives of QUILTBAG people, partly because I want to be an ally, and partly because I think I belong on the spectrum somewhere. Gender cannot be a binary, as is commonly supposed, because what about inter-sexed people? Transgendered people? My own sense of gender identity is rather fluid, and I’ve developed relationships with (at least) two gender-bending gods.

Anyway, in the spirit of learning more about a major world religion as it relates to people of diverse sexualities, I just finished reading, The Gay Gospels: Good News for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People, by Keith Sharpe.

I found Mr. Sharpe’s arguments plausible and convincing, in some cases, shockingly so. (Unlike many Christians, I read the entire Catholic Bible as a child. So I am in fact familiar with many Biblical passages that somehow are never mentioned in church, CCD, or Sunday school.)

The full humanity of QUILTBAG people, and both Yahweh’s and Jesus’ regard for them, appears well documented by Mr. Sharpe. Well, sort of.

I believe Mr. Sharpe is himself a gay man, so it’s natural that he is most interested in Biblical support for gay men. And indeed, almost all the examples in his book deal with male-male homoeroticism. Yet the title of the book also refers to lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. The one example of lesbians is Naomi and Ruth; the one example of a transgendered individual is Joseph (of the coat of many colors). I suppose the bisexual people must be the ones who had male-male relationships, but also married and fathered children; I don’t remember any chapters devoted to explicitly bisexual people.

I really wanted to like this book, but the further I read, the more uneasy I felt.

Even as a child — one who had read all sorts of passages about genocide, rape, murder, etc., all sanctioned by the Israelite God — I did not like the Yahweh of the Bible. The Holy Spirit was a nonentity to me. Jesus seemed like the one person in the Trinity that was at all appealing, but that was still setting the bar pretty low. The stuff about Jesus that I liked the most — making friends with everybody, being kind and generous, questioning authority, subverting dogma — were the behaviors that were glossed over and mostly ignored all throughout my years of Catholic education (at school, church, and home). Somehow the authority figures ruling my life wanted to emphasize behaviors and attitudes that Jesus did not advocate: might makes right; people in authority and The Law know what’s best; blind obedience; conformity; scapegoating of dissidents.

I felt like the real Jesus was possibly hidden in there somewhere, but what good could it really do me to find him anyway? As a girl, no one ever listened to what I had to say. If I said I had discovered ‘the real Jesus’ in my own readings of the Bible, my parents and teachers would have laughed in my face. And then kept right on oppressing me.

So the person I most identified with, and prayed to the most often, was Mary, so-called Mother of God. Unlike any member of the Trinity, Mary had been born a girl, into a very patriarchal society, where she was not valued at all. Supposedly Yahweh asked her permission before impregnating her teenaged self with the Messiah, but talk about an unequal power dynamic! How could a young girl, raised to think of herself as worthless, conceivably refuse consent? Or perhaps negotiate for a better deal? Was the consent of a female even a concept to the Israelites? No, girls obey their fathers, until they are sold to their husbands, who they also obey. Eventually they obey their sons. Girls and women never had any rights to speak of. And some 2000 years later, things weren’t that much different. So I knew that Mary knew how it felt to feel powerless and unappreciated.

And God the Father didn’t seem to care about Mary much, but Jesus loved her. To me, the most important relationship was Mary, the Divine Mother, caring for her divine children. Not just Jesus, but all children everywhere. Here was one mother who cared about everyone.

I often tried to imagine what my life might have been like if my mother actually liked me, but I just couldn’t picture it. But with Mary, it wasn’t an intellectual exercise, I didn’t have to work at it. I knew deep down that she accepted me as I was, and loved me anyway. Mary was the proud mother I never had: the one who came to see me sing the solo in the musical revue in 6th grade; who watched me compete in the spelling bee for the three years of middle school, and win in 8th grade. The mother who agreed I was right to insist that my plaque for 1st prize spell my name correctly! (The school misspelled my name twice, and both times my mother told me not to make a fuss, to just accept the wrongness of it.) If Mary had been my earthly mother, surely she would have been encouraged my interests in other cultures, in the sciences, and in art; she would have not just wanted me to succeed, but helped me do so.

Praying to Jesus, I felt like I was one out of anonymous millions. Praying to Mary, however, I was a known and loved individual, and I was heard.

+++

Mr. Sharpe has a very different focus. He talks a lot about how very patriarchal and warrior-focused ancient Israel was.

“In this cultural context, Yahweh essentially appears as a warrior chief, also in search of a companion. … The single [unmarried] Yahweh, in other words, is always down at the human level on the lookout for men with whom to form relationships.” (pp. 126-127)

Mr. Sharpe shows how Yahweh picks kings of Israel for their beauty, which He delights in looking upon, at least until they get old, and then they are replaced.

Something I don’t remember from reading the Bible (but I wouldn’t have had the context to understand anyway) are passages in the Book of Judges that refer to both earthly and divine ephods. Apparently an ephod is a “sort of posing pouch or jockstrap, leaving the buttocks exposed and possibly the genitalia still visible, at least in outline.” (p. 129) Two different male Israelites created so-called divine ephods out of precious metals.

“What is important in these two tales, however, is that they focus attention on the way Yahweh’s potency seems to arise, like his human male counterparts, from the genitals, especially the phallus. And whoever has possession of the divine ephod appears to draw on Yahweh’s power and strength, and so prosper.” (p. 131)

Mr. Sharpe mentions Biblical passages that suggest Yahweh feels sexual jealousy over the relationships his human companions have with other human males.

Mr. Sharpe suggests that both the prophets Elijah and Elisha healed boys who were sick by having some kind of sexual contact with them, which may have then bestowed sexual prowess upon them.

In Exodus 33:22-23, Yahweh lets Moses hole up in a rock to look upon Yahweh’s naked backside. (p. 135)

So according to Mr. Sharpe’s interpretations, the god of the Old Testament actually has a physical human body, with genitalia, and He is obsessed not only with dominating people, but doing so sexually. And Yahweh very clearly only cares about boys and men, the ‘manlier’ the better.

But Christians aren’t bound by the Old Testament. The New Testament and Jesus bring the Good News that everyone is welcome in the kingdom of God.

Mr. Sharpe makes a very intriguing claim about Jesus’ feelings about ‘family values’, as they are normally espoused by fundamentalist Christians:

“Jesus’ whole life was a living renunciation of ‘family values’. He does not marry, he does not have children, and he sees nothing special in his relationship to the people whose blood ties make them relations of his. … It is noteworthy that Jesus here links family ties with economic assets and material wealth. And herein lies a clue [about] why he urges rejection of the family. The family is a social and economic structure. Its concerns and drives are all about security, possessions and the transmission of goods and social position from one generation to the next.” (pp. 171-172)

Mr. Sharpe also claims that the New Testament does not show any evidence that Jesus was fond of his mother, nor that he had fond relationships with any woman. Mr. Sharpe believes that Jesus was a gay man, and all of his friends and disciples were also men.

Because Jesus was anti-hierarchy, and anti-patriarchy, Mr. Sharpe says Christians should look forward to … dwelling in heaven, which is a kingdom run by a patriarch, Yahweh. Yes, Heaven is a kingdom in which everyone is equal, and everything is wonderful.

Has there ever been a human society with a ruler or a ruling class (or for that matter, a priestly caste) in which all humans were treated anywhere near equal? If everyone is actually equal, why have a king?

I am much more troubled by how Mr. Sharpe apparently has not noticed that his version of Christianity (and possibly Judaism) does not value women, at all. And it only values people on the QUILTBAG spectrum so far as they can present as a handsome male who finds himself many powerful male protectors (Saul, Jonathan, David, Joseph), or possibly as lesbians who still have to marry a man for protection (Ruth and Naomi). Somehow what endures is the patriarchy, and women cannot flourish in a patriarchy, but even if we could, why should we be asked to?

I really did want to like this book. And Mr. Sharpe makes a great case for gay men being welcome in both the Old and New Testaments, per the text. But, in my opinion, despite the title, this book is written solely for gay men. Which is not very inclusive at all.

I noticed with interest that the six blurbs in the front of the book are all written by men; only one seems to be clergy, so there’s no reason that at least one woman couldn’t have been included.

It’s ironic that Mr. Sharpe is apparently trying to welcome disenfranchised people to his Christianity, which reveres a father God that is obsessed with coercive sexuality (otherwise known as rape), phallus worship, and a ‘divinely ordained’ hierarchy that He sits at the top of, forever; a son God who only cares about his guy friends; and no God for women, or anyone else who is not ‘manly’. Yep, that’s Good News all right!

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