At the beginning of Recruiting Young Love, a study of twentieth-century Christian rhetoric about homosexuality, Mark Jordan announces that his book “does not conform to any standard pattern for history writing.” He then explains that
it might be better conceived as rhetorical criticism—or, more exactly, as a sequence of rhetorical retrievals, or historically alert re-performances…. I dreamed of presenting what follows as a polyphony of periodic orations—the salience of one group of voices following another, propelled by deep rhythm, like the flights of sampled solos over the dance beat of house music.
After stating his ambition, Jordan announces that his dream of scholarship-as-house-music cannot be realized, for it “would suppose that we still had sophisticated genres for representing religious rhetoric or developed tastes for assessing it. We do not.” Apparently “we” readers are deaf to his project; even if Jordan produced the academic equivalent of a glowstick-lit warehouse, bass thumping until dawn, we would lack the “developed tastes” for it. We’ll have to read something else after dropping Ecstasy.
Yet with Recruiting Young Love, Jordan has written something very much like a “polyphony of periodic orations,” with the confused results one might expect. Its title aside, his book is not about recruiting young love. There is, in fact, something unseemly and cynical about the book’s marketing: the deceptive title, the bright-yellow cover with pink lettering and a Rockwellesque oil painting of a pompadoured, ginger-haired ephebe wearing a creepy bright smile. It takes a moment to realize that Recruiting Young Love is not a how-to guide. It is, rather, Jordan’s meandering cruise along the shores of twentieth-century American Christianity, disembarking now and then to ask how various Christians at various times talked about gayness.
In one chapter, Jordan examines churches’ reaction to the Kinsey Report in 1948. In another, he deconstructs the gay community’s response to the campy homophobia of Anita Bryant, the orange-juice pitchwoman who in the 1970s helped repeal local ordinances protecting gay men and lesbians. The gay community’s response involved, quite inventively, dressing up like her: “Dragging Anita mocks her. It exposes the artifice of her own womanhood. But it also takes her over, puts her on. Dragging Anita hollows out a space for the queer in the middle of homophobic evangelism.” In his chapter on Robert Wood’s 1960 book Christ and the Homosexual, a rambling plea for religions to welcome homosexuals, Jordan mocks the author’s pretense that he is simply a benevolent outsider, rather than a homosexual himself. Wood’s “detailed knowledge of queer life betrays him,” he insists. Wood “knows how much this season’s trendy coat costs and how often in the past gay fashions have passed into straight markets.” He makes awkward use of the second-person, as if addressing the homosexual other, but his intimate knowledge of an S&M party could not, Jordan believes, be the fruit of detached scholarly inquiry:
The rhetorical device is supposed to increase the reader’s sense of immediacy—like a point-of-view shot in a film. “You” are there! But “you” are curiously like Wood’s “I.” You are obsessed with details of props and costuming, about which you are astonishingly well informed: the cowboy boots tied to a slave’s testicles with rawhide and slowly filled with water as his back presses against the roughened plaster of the wall. (How did you spot rawhide and roughened plaster across a room? Didn’t “you” have to move up close to see—to touch?)
Recruiting Young Love teems with such close, belligerent readings of obscure texts; Jordan’s grappling is so passionate that it can seem athletic. The book does not lack valuable sections, especially Jordan’s revelations about pro-gay Christian churches and activists in postwar California. The history of gay America in the 1950s and 1960s tends to focus on Washington, DC, and New York City, so Jordan’s refusal to stick to the Northeast is intrepid. But his unit of analysis is the paragraph, or the section; within a chapter, he makes no attempt to be synthetic, comprehensive or even coherent. From one page to the next, what Jordan’s topics have in common is that they are texts he thought he would enjoy pinning to the mat. One is a sex survey from 1948, another an unknown gay cleric’s apologia from 1960, and another is the late-1980s street theater of ACT UP, a random assortment that Jordan does not believe requires much justification.
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When a writer chooses to eschew clear, linear thinking, relying instead on guile and style, he may still produce a moving book, perhaps an influential one. At the American Academy of Religion conference in San Francisco in November, there was a panel discussion of Recruiting Young Love, featuring Jordan and several highly sympathetic interlocutors. The room was packed with scholars and, unusual for an academic conference, nonscholars. A few ministers were seen mingling among the crowd. A man stood during the question period and, breaking with emotion, said something like, “Mark, thank you for another wise and generative book.” At that moment, I had no doubt that Recruiting Young Love would mean something to other people, if not to me. You are either a fan of this book or not; if you aren’t disposed to love it, it won’t win you over. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a need for more books about recent Christian attitudes toward homosexuality. Jordan can only write the book he is called to write, but it is worth describing the more important book, for posterity rather than a small readership, that remains unwritten.
Until about thirty years ago, there were very few books about the history of gay people. As we know, “homosexual” and “gay” are recent categories, and for most of human history same-sex acts were not presumed to define anyone’s “sexual identity.” While there have always been human beings with primarily same-sex desires, they were not thought—in the West, anyway—to constitute a minority group, or to be participants in meaningful subcultures. There must be thousands of books incidentally about gay people—biographies, for example, about men and women whose biographers did not know they were gay, and who we will never know were gay. But books about gay people as gay people are a recent thing, and there remain gaping lacunae in the historical record.
Several of the first ambitious works of gay history were intellectual histories that focused on religious attitudes toward homosexual behavior. In 1955 Derrick Sherwin Bailey published Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, and in 1980 the great John Boswell published the argumentative Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. These two books span, roughly, the years from the beginning of gay liberation—the Mattachine Society was founded in 1950—to the beginning of the AIDS crisis. In that period, the first generation of openly gay historians, and historians doing explicitly gay history, was attending graduate school and beginning scholarly work. Unlike Bailey or Boswell—a convert to Roman Catholicism—most of the new gay historians were secularists, and their sources were not church teachings but diaries, newspaper clippings and crime logs. In one decade, several excellent new books about the gay people who had been everywhere, and thus who were invisible—gay people who were neither publicly marching nor publicly dying—were published. Among those books were Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (1991); George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (1994); and Jonathan Ned Katz’s Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality (2001).
Neither Bailey nor Boswell would have copped to producing interest-group history. Bailey was an Anglican priest whose fidelity was to the Gospel, while Boswell was a polyglot, awesomely learned, who insisted that he cared only about the facts: “This book is not intended,” Boswell wrote on the first page of Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, “as support or criticism of any particular contemporary points of view—scientific or moral—regarding homosexuality.” But he and Bailey were committed Christians and liberals on the gay question. Bailey fought for the decriminalization of homosexuality in England, which came about in 1967. Boswell’s ache for a more tolerant version of Christian history led him to write the credulous Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, in which he argued that certain early-Christian brotherhood ceremonies were really a kind of same-sex marriage. (“Whatever these texts are, they are not texts for marriage ceremonies,” the classicist Brent D. Shaw wrote in The New Republic in 1994, the year Boswell died of AIDS.) It is difficult to imagine that either Bailey or Boswell practiced a totally disinterested scholarship. Who really does?
As long as they write honest history, it does not matter if most of the pioneers of gay history are gay, or pro-gay (or straight, or vegan). But it’s unfortunate they don’t have more colleagues. Broad social histories, like Chauncey’s Gay New York, and sweeping, diachronic histories of ideas, of which Mark Jordan’s own The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (1997) is considered one of the best, sit sparse on the shelves, like model houses in a development waiting to be built. Where is the history of gay Jews? Of gay political Washington? Of gays at Harvard? Gays in the Works Progress Administration? There are a million books lying low in the gay quarter of town, waiting to be written.
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I suspect that Jordan planned to write one of those absent books: a history of Christian attitudes toward gay sex and gay people in the twentieth century. It would have been a continuation of his earlier work on the idea of sodomy, and he is certainly the right person to do it. Why then did he write instead a series of loose, impressionistic glosses on forgotten books, eccentric figures, isolated moments? A simple answer might be that Jordan is not at home in the archives. His is a scholarly temperament given to mastering languages, reading voluminously, tracing connections between ideas and puzzling through ethical quandaries—Jordan is also the author of The Ethics of Sex (2002)—but not to going on the dogged fact-finding missions required to write broader works of history.
Which would be fine, except for the grand claims he makes for his book. Jordan seems to think that there is something transgressive about his critical project, that his quirky rereadings of certain texts amount to a momentous political act. “I have reread appropriations of Christian ritual through camping or disruptive reversal,” he writes in his conclusion, referring to “the playful rites of [drag troupe] the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence; the angry refusal of ACT UP to respect the line that keeps ‘politics’ from ‘church’—that keeps infected queers back from the Eucharistic body.” Jordan is proud to “have recited descriptions of rites yet to come,” like “the spiritual cathedral” in Forman Brown’s 1933 novel Better Angel and “the benediction of the French Quarter” in John Rechy’s City of Night, his classic 1963 novel about a male hustler. “I now claim all of these rituals for queer religion—and even for queer Christianity. Or I want to.”
But all of us know there is a difference between what we want and what we can have. There is little chance that the rituals Jordan chooses to inspect, drawn from the jumble of texts that happen to have intrigued him, will become part of queer Christianity. Gay men and lesbians practice the same religions the rest of us do, so they need to be historically located among other people, not among fictional characters in cult novels. They need to be treated as human beings whose culture changes over time: for example, life for gay people in 1950 was quite different from life in 1940, because World War II had intervened. Gay people experience denominational differences, so it makes no sense to write about their Christianity without considering the top-down ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic or Episcopal traditions, or the diffused power of Low Church evangelical communities. In gay and lesbian church history, does it matter that Methodists hold church trials, while Pentecostals do not? What about the male and female religious communities in Catholicism?
Jordan’s indifference to historiography—his unwillingness, really, to be pulled in any direction other than what suits him—leads to some astonishing misdirection. If you know the field of gay history, or gay studies generally, you wonder why there is no place in his bibliography, let alone his text, for the classic anthology Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, published in 1985. And while Jordan does introduce some new people, he doesn’t make room for important, well-known gay activists, like Unitarian minister James Stoll, the first openly gay minister in any mainline church. Stoll came out in 1969, and his activism helped lead Unitarians to become the first denomination to welcome gay people. It seems that the author of this book on Christians and homosexuality does not know about Stoll.
There is an increasingly vibrant queer Christianity, thanks to the work of believers, clergy, theologians and historians who are salvaging planks and driftwood from the gay religious past to erect the frame of a gay religious future. It is hard work, and it requires a crew of thousands. Jordan’s well-meaning book might help, a little.
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Jordan finds hope for queer Christian practice in fiction, street protest, new and heretical churches—down avenues where more traditional Christians would be afraid to venture. Jay Michaelson crisscrosses the streets Jordan leaves behind. A gay religious Jew, he parks himself in the front pew of the biggest church or synagogue in town, pulls out his Bible and says that it’s his book too. In God vs. Gay?, Michaelson argues that gay Jews have nothing to fear in the Hebrew Bible (the collection of writings known to Christians as the Old Testament), and he believes that gay Christians should be comfortable with the New Testament too.
“‘God versus Gay’ is a myth,” Michaelson writes. “It is untrue, unsupported by Scripture, and contradicted every day by the lives of religious gay people…. Not only does the Bible not say what some people claim, but the Bible and centuries of religious teaching in Christian and Jewish traditions argue strongly for what sometimes gets called ‘gay rights.’” Michaelson is candid about the “half a dozen verses that may say something about some forms of same-sex behavior,” but he believes that “what they have to say is ambiguous, limited, and widely misunderstood,” and must be read in the light cast by “hundreds of other verses that teach us about the importance of love, justice, and sacred relationships.”
Like Jordan, Michaelson is a partisan. He spent years, he tells us, tortured by his homosexuality, trying to pray the gay away (if I may borrow an evangelical Christian locution). “I was an Orthodox-practicing Jew, and my religion gave meaning and shape to my life,” he writes. “But I repressed my sexuality, acting out occasionally but regretting it afterwards, and I tried, for years, to change.” Ten years in the closet nearly destroyed his faith. “The pain, isolation, loneliness, and shame had grown so great—the futile relationships with women, the arguments with God, the hatred of myself for being unable to change—that I was ready to forsake my religion for the sake of my happiness.”
But Michaelson discovered that coming out made him more religious, not less. “My spiritual path began to unfold, my prayer life began to awaken, and my love for other human beings slowly unfurled itself and expanded,” he writes. That Whitmanian tone is characteristic of Michaelson. Since he and I met, about fifteen years ago, he has become a leading writer on Jewish mysticism, Jewish Renewal and all kinds of alternative Judaism. That is not my cup of herbal tea—and my traditional, synagogue-centered Judaism is not his. Michaelson and I do not pray alike, and we do not think alike. (In 2003, in a review of my first book, Michaelson asserted that my “methodological orientation is that of a previous generation of scholars”—levying the vile charge of old-fogey-ness.) But in God vs. Gay? he generally refrains from Burning Man incantations, instead patiently guiding the reader through the ways that anti-gay clergy and theologians have misread Leviticus, Romans and other biblical books, deliberately ignoring the philology of words and the context in which they appear.
Michaelson is an attorney as well as a scholar, and there is something lawyerly about his attempt to speak to Jews and Christians at once; he believes that Christians, gay or not, worship a false messiah, but, as if to reach every member of the jury, he includes them in his brief for liberation. Otherwise, Michaelson’s training in litigation serves him well. His arguments are well crafted: first, establish the ambiguity of “anti-gay” Bible passages; second, divine the overall message of the Bible, the context in which to read the anti-gay passages; third, resolve the ambiguity in favor of the overall message. “To put it another way,” Michaelson writes, “the pro-gay readings don’t need to ‘win.’ They just need to ‘tie.’ Because in the case of a tie between competing interpretations, we are compelled to take the reading that aligns with our fundamental values.”
See, for example, Leviticus 18:22, which the flawed King James Bible, much beloved by conservative Christians, rendered, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Michaelson offers another translation: “And at a man you shall not lie the lyings of woman; it is a toevah.” Read this way, the passage seems to be about men being made woman-like, perhaps raped, degraded, penetrated. It is not about men having sex with men in any general sense. And the Hebrew mishkevei ishah, the lyings of a woman, is a vulgarity; for lovemaking, as when Adam “knew” Eve, the Hebrew is yada. So it could be that what Leviticus prohibits is not two men making love, but—let’s say it—fucking.
Finally, no matter what the King James translators thought, toevah does not mean “abomination.” Rather, it means “taboo,” and it almost always refers to cultic practices of non-Israelites, of alien people. Toevah is therefore culturally relative: what is taboo for Egyptians, like being a shepherd (see Genesis 46:34), is normal for Israelites. So Leviticus 18:22 may actually be saying something like, “Jewish men shouldn’t be penetrated by other men; that’s what foreigners do.”
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Such chauvinistic proclamations are common to all ethnicities in all times. Homosexuality, in particular, is often derided as a foreign barbarism. The current leader of Iran believes that there are no gay men in his country, and Fidel Castro considers homosexuality to be a symptom of bourgeois decadence. It is not surprising to find such ignorant views among our own ancestors. For Michaelson, it is a mark of sophistication, of theological maturity and moral growth, to leave such outmoded, primitive teachings behind.
How to know which views can be discarded? Not, Michaelson insists, by embracing a comforting relativism, re-reading Scripture to accord with liberal politics. Bacon tastes as good now as it did a thousand years ago, but Michaelson finds no biblical support for abandoning kashruth. Rather, consider the spirit of the whole book, the original understandings—and then, for good measure, do what Christians and Jews have done for millennia: lean toward love. “In religious contexts, love tilts the balance in favor of those readings that engender more love, more holiness, and more justice,” Michaelson writes. “Jewish interpreters of Scripture have read literal commandments such as ‘an eye for an eye’ allegorically, since the literal reading would be too cruel. They have said that almost all commandments are to be set aside in cases of pikuach nefesh, saving a life. And despite the many calls for the death penalty in the Bible, they have said that a court which metes out a single such penalty in seventy years should be regarded as being a bloody court.” In the Gospels, Jesus too was ostentatious in preferring compassion to legalism: “He healed a sick person on the Sabbath, in violation of the letter of the law (Luke 13:10–17). He ignored biblical rules on stoning an adulterous woman ( John 8:1–11). He ate with people who hadn’t washed before the meal (Mark 7:1–22).”
Michaelson’s book is not just a sourcebook for gay believers, or an invitation for ex-believers to return. God vs. Gay? is also about why communities should welcome sexual diversity. It is about the perils of commingling church and state. It is a primer on the science of sexual diversity and what we can learn from the animal kingdom. It is a defense of gay marriage. It is a short book, but an ample one. Some readers may feel ambushed by so much polemic in so few pages; Michaelson is a gentle guide, but he does move quickly.
I appreciated Michaelson’s user-friendly manifesto, which bundles history, science and theology like a nifty app for my Droid. Not everyone will care, of course—if you are not religious, or if your disgust with religion in politics has closed your ears and swollen your eyes, then you might prefer Jordan’s Recruiting Young Love, with its moments of elegant literary criticism. God vs. Gay? is Michaelson’s simplest book; I don’t mean that as a criticism, although this book may disappoint fans of Michaelson the mystic, perhaps those who have read his last book, Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (the title alone scares me: is my Judaism dual? How come no one told me?). God vs. Gay? is the people’s book, one I would hand to any of the millions of wavering skeptics: those well-meaning Jews and Christians who love gay people, and love God, and need their God to love gay people too.