Sunday, December 27, 2015

Queer Christmas Day Three - St John Evangelist

Sundry thoughts on the Feast Day of John the Evangelist . . .

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For a season wrapped around the infancy narratives of Jesus, how queer is it that the Gospel that we commemorate in the 12 Days of Christmas doesn't have Baby Jesus? 

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This feast day is meant to celebrate the Johannine Literature of the New Testament, that is, the books of the Bible that are attributed to John. These include the Gospel According to John, the three Epistles of John, and Revelation. 

Let's do some myth-busting up front. 

No one really knows for certain who wrote these pieces. People who not only took Koine Greek but actually learned it mostly say that for sure Revelation is written by someone different than the other four pieces. All of them have similar imagery, primarily light and dark, true and false, but apparently Revelation isn't as well written, in the Greek manuscripts, as the others. It is fairly undisputed that they all come from the same mindset, a "Johannine Community," but it is uncertain who actually put pen to parchment here. 

Some would insist on at least the Gospel the letters be from the hand of the apostle, John. This is far from certain, also. They are all some of the latest writings to be included in the New Testament and as such, an eyewitness to the events seems unlikely unless you allow for unusual life longevity for the author. 

There are books full of arguments on all sides of this question, if you're interested in learning more. The above is enough to either make you stop reading or continue on in curiosity. 

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I've come to not like the Gospel of John very much. I'm much more a Mark kind of guy. Mark's Jesus seems a bit caught up in situations that he can't quite get a handle on and ends up on the cross. John's Jesus is very much in control, never having any doubts about the sequence of events. John's Jesus knows he's headed to the cross but that it's going to be okay. I relate much better to Mark's Jesus. 

Having said that, I admit I would not do away with John's Gospel. I would not have a religious life without the opening paragraphs of the Gospel. "In the beginning was the word . . . and the word became flesh . . . the light shines in the darkness . . . " That's good stuff. 

I also would not want to miss out on the story of Lazarus and Mary's confrontation with Jesus at his tomb. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" I relate to that! I would not want to lose the story of the prostitute about to be stoned. "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone." My life would be poorer for not having the Passover/Maundy Thursday speech from Jesus. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another." 

And the epistles likewise have some great lines (and a few opaque ones, too, but that's reading first century writing for you). 

So while I find the "high christology" of John off-putting, I do believe we should keep the writings around. Well, I'm on the fence about Revelations and all the nonsense that has spun out of a 19th Century misreading of it. But it can stay, too, if you promise to read Barbara Rossing's book as a supplement to it. 

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So, Jesus and John were lovers. 

Or so some say. Many believe the "beloved disciple" referenced in John's Gospel to be John himself and the intimacy shared between them was romantic. 

Note that the Gospel that some would say hints at a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene also is used to say that Jesus was in a gay relationship. Either Jesus was polyamorous or John was a sensual writer, leading us to read our own projections into the text. I recognize those are not mutually exclusive propositions. 

I err on the side of caution when extrapolating from any given text about someone's sexual behavior or even desires. Oscar Wilde's sexuality is pretty well documented. Abraham Lincoln's a little less so. Jesus? For those who are even comfortable with thinking of Our Lord and Savior in sexual terms, it seems to me the field is pretty open for making any number of arguments. 

Personally, I feel pretty okay thinking that a fully human Jesus knew sexual desire and had erections. Who or what prompted those erections? I'm less comfortable speculating. I don't feel like I even begin to have enough information on this. 

Am I offended by the notion that Jesus might have been gay, might have been in love with one particular disciple? Not particularly. I just don't feel any real need to defend one way or the other. Am I offended if you do believe Jesus was gay and had a lover? Not at all. I know how finding ourselves in the Gospel story comforts and encourages us, indeed can save us. I'd rather you relegate this belief to your own set of interpretations rather than as a fact of history, but then I can't control everything.

As an act of imagination, empathy, compassion . . . I think it is definitely worth thinking on, meditating on, seeing where your emotions go if you consider these things. I feel that works for a pairing with Mary Magdalene for that matter. I think it is worth considering our feelings around sexuality and Jesus and how those feelings might be wrapped up with either a misguided notion of "purity" with regard to sex or else an objectification of sex and sexuality---not that those are the only options of how our feelings might get tangled up when thinking on such things.

If the notion of a gay Jesus and John as his lover is new to you or if you're curious about some of the thought behind this notion, type in John, evangelist, queer, and theology into you nearest Google machine and you will find some good resources with references to other sources.

But I'll be over here believing that someone called "the beloved disciple" makes him a sexual partner to Jesus with the same fervor that I believe Brutus had a lot of sex partners in the crowd when he started his speech, "Romans, countrymen, and lovers!" [Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Act III Scene II]

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The queerest thing about the Gospel of John is how different it is from the other three. I already noted how John gives us the most in-control Jesus of the lot, but the whole book is almost entirely it's own entity. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all clearly share sources and influences, in some cases down to very near verbatim parallels. John doesn't even use the phrase "the good news," which is a central theme for the other gospels. 

Some scholars will tell you this makes John's Gospel the least likely to reflect the life of the historical Jesus. A few scholars will say the Passover/Last Supper in John is the most historically accurate of the four stories. 

Setting aside for the moment the people who would say Jesus was not a historical figure at all (a worthy discussion, perhaps for another time), the fact of the matter is that there is precious little we can know for certain about the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. We have only a handful of documents that might have had contact with first person, primary encounters with him. 

Which is why I find much of interest when reading the gospel accounts, but ultimately always come back to the core teachings. On this Third Day of Christmas and the Feast of John the Evangelist, I leave you with this one:

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." [John 13:34]

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