John Boswell talks about Gay Christian History: Part4

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Ron Rizzo

May 31, 1984, 5:46:12 PM5/31/84


[Summary of a talk given May 21, 1984 at the Church of the Covenant in
Boston by John Boswell, author of the ground-breaking study CHRISTIAN-
ITY, SOCIAL TOLERANCE & HOMOSEXUALITY (Yale U. Press, 1980) and profes-
sor (at a tender 37 years of age) of history at Yale.]


[All errors of logic or fact or stylistic inelegance are mine. Much of
the summary's wording is taken verbatim from Boswell but not quoted to
make reading easier. --- Ron Rizzo ]

The most famous of the gay lover/saint couples widely venerated in the
church from the 4th to 13th centuries was Saints Serge & Bacchus (isn't
that a great pair of names!). They were Roman soldiers and lovers who
rose to high rank in the imperial army. They both became Christians (&,
it should be needless to say, remained lovers). When they refused to
worship the emperor as a god, they were stripped of their rank, tortured
hideously, & executed, Bacchus well before Serge. As Serge awaited his
own death in prison, growing despondent, Bacchus appeared to him in a
vision, urging him not to despair because when he died he would get --
not union with the Divine, eternal life, or the beatific presence, but --
Bacchus! Thus fortified, Serge's spirits revived & he faced death cheer-
fully. (The above narrative is taken from the actual hagiography, or
church-approved biography, of the two martyrs.) [I may've mixed up the
two saints in the above story.]

Heterosexual Christians weren't married in the church until around 1000 a.d.
Yet Boswell has found a marriage ceremony for gay couples in a church bre-
viary from 8th century Greece (he plans to publish the text in the not-too-
distant future). The ceremony remained a standard church practice for near-
ly a thousand years. The formula to which the couple pledged themselves
parallelled the later heterosexual formula, but with a telling difference:

the heterosexual formula was "fides [faith], proles [offspring],
in sacramentum [consecrated by the church]";

the gay formula was "fides, in sacramentum, amor [love]".

Boswell said his current research also includes locating and analyzing
manuscripts around the world describing such gay lover/saint couples &
eventually publishing what he finds.

He then took questions from the floor: what about Judaism? He replied
it would take someone with a mastery of response literature and the Mish-
nah [? -- I may've got this wrong] to write The Book on Judaism, but from
what he knew (he's fluent & widely read in Hebrew) the range and variety
of response to eros historically in Judaism is very similar to what he
found in Christianity. Parallelling Europe's High Middle Ages is Muslim
Spain: many lyrics of frank homosexual love were penned by leading Jewish
poets, scholars & thinkers of the period.

Public reaction to his book included a number of surprises:

1) He expected the most violent criticism to come from fundamentalists.
Yet what happened was very curious: they completely ignored the book,
quite literally pretending it didn't exist. For example, on three
separate occasions, Jerry Falwell denied knowledge of the book (either
he has a very short memory or he's lying, quipped Boswell). Yet the
author said he knows for a fact that a journalist publicly presented
one of Falwell's closest aides with a copy of the book. Apparently,
the facts & implications of Boswell's study are so intimidating to
bible-thumpers that they must deny the work's very existence.

2) From secular & religous academics Boswell anticipated the "Perugian Wax
Syndrome": to become a scholar, one learns everything there is to know
about wax from Perugia from 1304 to 1307, and spends the rest of one's
life only criticizing each mention of early 14th century Perugian wax
which appears in print. Instead, CST&H received a warm and wide recep-
tion: academia embraced Boswell's discoveries & conclusions. [They
gave up without a fight, despite the enormous homophobic tradition
most scholars had helped to maintain! I was disappointed. Someone
attributed the "unconditional surrender" to the current fashionability
of gay topics in the academic world.]

3) The worst reaction came from an unexpected quarter: quite a few secular
gay politicos, leftists, and academics savaged Boswell's book, using
the outrageous argument that Boswell's "opinions" couldn't be "trusted"
because he himself was Christian. Some members of the New York branch
of the Gay Academic Union published a 12-page pamphlet basically de-
nouncing the work.

Boswell then gave his own reasons for not rejecting Christianity:

1) His individual beliefs; he thinks much rejection of the religion is
based on an often gross stereotyping of its beliefs & practices.

2) Our culture is profoundly stamped by Christianity. It may not be easy
to overcome misogyny & homophobia, but some of the effective strategies
may actually be quite simple: merely being aware of "virtus" & its role
and removing it from ethics will go a long way; openly acknowledging the
truly massive contribution gay people have made to religion will also

3) The lesser known Christian views of eros -- ambivalence & positive valu-
ation -- are promising traditions in which gay Christian have made deci-
sive contributions and can serve as models for the reform of Christian
ethics and the restoration of authentic doctrine.

Subject: John Boswell talks about Gay Christian History: Part 4
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