Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Boswell Thesis (book review)

It seems hard to believe that twenty-six years have passed since the publication of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (CSTH). A landmark in its field, that title continues to sell well for an academic book, especially one in medieval studies. (In my last few years of teaching I learned, to my dismay, that medieval studies are decidedly unfashionable nowadays.)

Strikingly learned in several languages, Boswell sought to accomplish the decoupling of Christianity and homophobia. He held that the passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament commonly interpreted as antihomosexual were not—that they could be in effect detoxified. He further maintained that for at least the first twelve centuries of its existence Christianity had not been opposed to same-sex love. Indeed, as he later argued, the church even created a ceremony allowing two members of the same sex to enter into a marriage-like union. Acknowledging that homophobia became active in the church during the later middle ages, he attributed its origin to sociological and not doctrinal factors.

In my view (I was one of the first reviewers of the book), he failed to establish these contentions. Others have concluded differently. Many gay Christians greeted the book with hosannas of praise. For a considerable period, Boswell received letters of commendation to the tune of 250 a week. A sexy photograph appeared in a weekly newsmagazine, and John Boswell, then a junior professor at Yale University, became a celebrity.

As one writer notes, for many gay Christians CSTH functioned as a talisman, a protective holy relic, if you will. The four letters of the acronym are a kind of tetragrammaton. It was not necessary to understand the book, or even look inside its covers, to cherish its profoundly efficacious apotropaic significance.

Buoyed by this success, Boswell assumed an evangelical mantle, making frequent appearances before adoring gay Christian groups. One admirer, a close friend, has gone so far as to suggest that for millions of people Boswell is a saint.

Now the issues are revisited in The Boswell Effect, edited by Professor Mathew Kuefler and issued by the University of Chicago Press, the original publisher of CSTH. The sixteen essays in the book, all but one by chair-holding academics, are largely celebratory. Significantly, not one of Boswell’s academic critics, and there have been many, was invited to contribute. To be sure, several authors, including Mathew Kuefler, note the points of skeptics here and there, but generally so briefly as to suggest that they are not of lasting moment. Boswell’s book, they seem to believe, has met the test of time. A contemporary classic, it has left its detractors in the dust.

In addition to enabling gay Christians, CSTH enabled gay scholarship. The contributors apparently feel indebted to Boswell for opening a space for their paid employment. Once the kiss of death, academic study of homosexuality (though commonly repackaged as "gender studies") is now, for a few at least, the path to tenure and security. However, some of us had been doing gay scholarship long before. In fact Boswell’s magnum opus had been preceded by another work of scholarship covering much of the same territory, but arriving at less reassuring conclusions. That is Michael Goodich, The Unmentionble Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period (1979). Boswell, as he acknowledges in his notes, was aware of Goodich’s findings, some of which had been previously published in the form of articles.

While affirming John Boswell’s most controversial conclusions, the authors do find mild fault in two other areas. First, he projects the situation of American homosexuals in the second half of the twentieth century onto the past. This is the main function of his adoption of the term “gay.” He deliberately elides the inconvenient fact that many earlier same-sex relationships were age-differentiated—that is, they were pederastic. The assumption of an unchanging homosexual essence has been widely derided by many contemporary scholars of the Social Construction tendency. They label the unchanging view as "essentialist," normally a grave sin in their eyes. Yet Boswell, a sexual essentialist if there ever was one, is largely let off.

Secondly, it is claimed that he is indifferent to lesbians. This charge seems unfair. Just as we can and do study the history of women as such, we ought to be able to study the history of men, without imposing some Procrustean standard of gender parity. In fact Boswell’s neglect of women reflects not his misogyny but the paucity of sources in his area. Historians of medieval lesbianism, who have not come up with much, tacitly acknowledge this limitation.

Perhaps the book’s most penetrating contribution is by Mark Jordan, author of an important monograph on the emergence of the medieval concept of sodomy. He finds that Boswell failed to strike a proper balance between the two roles he espoused: objective scholar and prophetic minister (or preacher if you will). Jordan, a cradle Catholic, suggests that Boswell, a convert, had little awareness of the major advances in theology that had marked the middle years of the century. Moreover, he failed to understand the character of the church’s process of change. Boswell seemed to think that scholarly findings could themselves effect the doctrinal shift he desired. As everyone knows, the response of the Vatican has been thunderously negative. The paradox is that Boswell has argued that Christianity made an unwarranted change in moving from approval (or at least neutrality) regarding same sex relations to condemnation some eight centuries ago. Now he wants the church to change again. Why is the new change appropriate, while the former was not?

As I noted above Boswell has not merely been an enabler of gay Christians, but also of a small body of tenured (or tenure-track) academics, who are grateful to him for opening a path to their careers. At one time, one might have applauded such efforts as part of a salutary consolidation of Gay Studies. That has not been happening. Wracked as it has been by the winds of doctrine, Gay Studies never really got off the ground in our universities. In my view that impasse represents a great opportunity missed. You would not realize this from the papers in The Boswell Thesis.

6 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

I would quibble slightly with the final paragraph of your fine review. Gay studies per se has not gotten off the ground but has not the notion that such a mode of inquiry would be legitimate found a home in humanities?

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