Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mark D. Jordan: Review

Is it a sign of my own complicity that when reading "The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology" (U of Chicago Pr, 1997) on the train, I taped a Post-It over the large noun in the genitive case featured prominently on the cover? Am I too to blame for the history of shame? Jordan, of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute, seeks to recover the multivalent, flexible, and surprisingly non-same-sex context of the original term. I am not saying "sodomy" is not a sin, nor is he, but that it does not have the fixated meaning that roots it in forbidden and often male-male sex. On the other hand, what I find fascinating and frustrating is that even this limited denotation has inescapably permeable connotations, which puts us back in the same maddening dilemma where we started. Talk about an unmentionable sin that must be never known but always confessed. This is the whole problem, Jordan might argue, with the noun.

I wish in fact he explained the original interpretations and their range of adaptability much more, but his short work focuses on around 1000-1270 during the rise of theological, exegetical, penitential, and didactic texts that span roughly Peter Damian to Thomas Aquinas. This is my Amazon US review, posted today. I hope readers treat my considerations fairly, but as with other reviews on such hot-button books as Francis Collins claiming God's behind DNA and Sam Harris denouncing God's beneath our genes, Amazonians tend to rate you not on your critique but on the subject matter of the work itself and how it plays into their own prejudices. Ironic, isn't it?

I agree with earlier comments posted by others about this book's strengths & weaknesses. Jordan writes with verve. The account of Pelagius & the caliph as interpreted and embellished by hagiographers, the twists of an approach that threatened the sinner with doom if he confessed and yet appealed to the sinner to surrender for his own good to the harsh mercy of the punishing Church that Peter Damian's "Book of Gomorrah" promulgated, and the confessional manuals that had to elicit admission of an unspeakable sin-- all these sources elicit a reader's interest. Think of how a manual advises penitents and priests, but without letting the sinner in on the secret that in fact the offense that had to be elided had been named, that others practiced it, and it was perhaps more widespread than the sinner had imagined: these all provide evocative moments than most erudite studies which I have read on exegetical and didactic texts during the Middle Ages. It left me wondering how many men and women lived with their temptations and endured their own secrets for so many centuries.

Apropos, Jordan, who only "came out" when he received tenure at Notre Dame, bitterly and as he explains for just cause in his opinion, rejects classification under moral theology for a mature understanding of same-sex, or non-procreative different-sex, relations. This is a difficult challenge to the Church's sustained, if for Jordan unsupportable, position, admittedly. Perhaps ideally, Jordan envisions a more enlightened and tolerant climate in which Christians can express themselves in love (and presumably playful lust) as fully able to enjoy the pleasures of the body within a wider range of activity than one approved position for procreation, options feared by terrified canonists a thousand years ago.

If, as Jordan asks us, we do not look to these hidebound sources when investigating Newtonian inertia, then why do we insist on these narrow-minded, relentlessly minatory texts as guides for our informed and open-minded sexual diversity so many centuries later? If the clerical authors with so little genuine science and no real psychological sophistication then could not explain away the persistence of a natural desire for non-reproductive copulation and connection within a creation-centered spirituality, we should not look to such antiquated tomes for our own decisions. We know what the earlier authors did not about attraction towards others, and how what they called sin we can term desire-- an astonishing, and for Jordan, body-liberating, soul-nourishing difference.

The latter part of the book shifts towards this spirited conclusion, by dismantling the arguments left unsaid by Alan de Lille and especially Albert the Great. I did find the latter doctor treated less thoroughly than earlier authors had in Jordan, and the chapter drifted about noticeably. Thomas Aquinas gains respect, and Jordan often corrects the exaggerations of John Boswell in reminding us that Thomism is not the original teaching of the Angelic Doctor-- which was left unfinished at his death. Jordan tries his best to be fair in his evaluation of what Aquinas actually codified, as far as we can tell from a Summa lacking full realization. There is far less attention to same-sex relations than modern-day revisionists might have anticipated, Jordan cautions, and you can sense his admiration for what Thomas managed to accomplish despite the friar's familiar fulminations, albeit perhaps more gently phrased than earlier medieval clerics.

Such a free-floating signifier, the word "sodomy." Think of the many ways you have seen the word applied. That's the trouble with this term, used to obliterate any opposition by the very elasticity of the utterance. We fear it, but we struggle to define it.

While Jordan never answers as directly as I wanted my suspicion-- if not this word than surely some other would have condemned the same action between men-- he does show the gradual erosion and expansion of this terribly vague term. Being misattributed, taken out of already dreadful contexts of threats against angels and gang-rapes of men and virgins, the destructive potential inherent in Genesis 19 widens into a napalm blast of fulmination against a category-- Jordan quotes Eve Sedgwick-- both made a minority and a universal class of those to be despised and damned. The term carries a shadow over it, feared by those to whom it is directed, so unstable it threatens to undermine the surety of those who use the term to condemn others, for fear its very vocalization will in turn taint he who dares to speak its name.

Therefore, the term once made not an adjective but a noun becomes fixed, an abstraction that can be applied to specifics that in turn disorder the careful categories of "natural law" that, as Albert & Alan show, do not fit a neatly ordered plan. Jordan takes on not only the medieval lack of logic in fitting "sodomy" into unstable classifications, but our modern lapse in allowing for so long a lazy mental habit that leads to our own contemporary failing of ranking somehow a small anomaly in the order of how people fit together into an enormous error against nature herself. We by now should know much better, Jordan chides. His final pages leave us with the admonition that Christians today need to follow a higher Law than that calling fire & brimstone upon those segregated and banished from the company of sinners to which all in the Church equally belong. Rather than exclusion, Jordan seeks inclusion, tenderness, and understanding to heal us.

Two minor lapses: the merit of this book is its brevity and relative clarity for non-specialists, but often there are in the footnotes inconsistently translated Latin passages; sometimes you get the Latin original, often you do not. Also, the inter-testamental changes in how the Jewish texts interpreted the tale of Sodom and I assume Leviticus gain no attention at all here, and only one sentence in the entire book even nods to this surely momentous change that would influence Christian theology. I know his subtitle looks at the Church and not the rabbinical sources, but this background needed at least a few pages of explanation.

I recommend this despite these gaps, filled in by Michael Cauden's published dissertation on the biblical history of the term "Sodomy." This incorporates Jordan's study into an examination of the misattributions in Christian teaching up to the Reformation as well as Hebrew sources; Cauden supports Jordan overall in rereading the texts as he advocates a gay-friendly theology to supersede and correct the errors that liberal Christians reject in traditional interpretations. This quest, in turn, enters the realm of the social constructionists and gender theory, although Jordan shies away from total identification with Foucault regarding his views on how earlier cultures defined and understood same-sex desire. But, that's a whole other long shelf already written.

{Blog image credit: Nuremburg Chronicle in that heavyhanded Teutonic style, but whose linear clarity and cheery palette remind me of coloring books with crayons and nice thick outlines. The folks leave Sodom & Gomorrah. Except Mrs. Lot. In Islam, 'luwat' is the equivalent, or "Lot-ery." Some jackpot, although Lot's wife looks oddly content. Limbless, easily held, a salt shaker's body in her simplified, petrified, but calmer form. Lot's two daughters seem to have a sororial twinkle in their eye as they lead Pops off (away from the angelic escort, who's seen his share of the singles scene after his last night in Sodom, and that city's bacchanal to end all) to put the wine-and-grind moves on zayde. I think of Eric Gill's erotic sketch of a full-figured backside hovering over the prone, nearly invisible, body of her progenitor, as if he was indeed the last man on earth and the girls gamely doing their covenental duty to make more members of the tribe.

Try Googling the noun Jordan discusses and see what pops up. At least I have "safe search" images left on.}

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