Monday, February 14, 2011

The Fabulous Jesus: A Heresy of Reconciliation

I recently presented at an amazing conference in which participants were asked, among other things, to address the prospects and problems of the inter-relationship between Mormonism and the intellectual world. I found the conference productive and edifying in profound ways. In many ways, it began a new chapter in my life. Hopefully more on that in a later post.

For the paper I presented, I specifically address the problems inherent in reconciling the often disparate philosophies and demands of faith and the academy.

This paper touches upon many of the other issues that I have examined in the other essays of this blog, so I felt that it was appropriate to post it here. In particular, this paper addresses the relevance of my own experiences as a gay Mormon within the wider context of faith-science relations. This will become clear should you choose to read any of the other essays in this blog. [If you choose to do so, read the very earliest post first (Of Fauns and a Post-Narnian Theology). It give context for all of the others.]

This paper adapts and incorporates the themes of my most recent blog post (Is Jesus Gay?), but frames them differently and arrives at somewhat different conclusions. Indeed, I didn’t know what the conclusions of either the blog post or this paper would be until literally the moment I wrote them. Perhaps this was inspiration or revelation, or maybe I found reconciliation.

Many people asked for copies of the paper. As a general rule, I do not provide written copies of my talks, because I feel that so much is lost going from ear to eye. Speaking and writing are such very different mediums. I considered making a voice recording of the talk—something I still might do. I also considered making extensive changes to translate it into better written style. I decided to keep it as close to the original reading as possible, however, as a new translation would be a different work. So, despite my qualms, I have provided what is basically a written transcript of my talk, with only a few editorial changes to make some parts of it comprehensible to those who were not at the conference.

You are welcome to share my remarks with other. Please just give credit to the keeper of this blog or, if you attended the conference, to the real author of this paper. As always, I welcome comments and discussion.

The Fabulous Jesus: A Heresy of Reconciliation

I start by saying this is not an academic paper; there are no footnotes. It is rather a personal reflection addressing the difficult questions of reconciling faith and the academy—many of which have already been raised today.

I hope that you are amused by the title of my talk. I hope that you are envisioning Jesus brunching by the Sea of Galilee, wearing bejeweled Armani sunglasses and a pashmina ascot, sipping mimosas and flamboyantly expounding the homosexual agenda with an Aramaic lisp. I also hope you are thoroughly baffled, maybe even a little offended. [Although this crowd seems shameless.] Those among you who are New Testament scholars are required to be annoyed by this ludicrous and anachronistic characterization Jesus. Faithful members of the church will be deeply troubled by the mimosas. But however ludicrous, ahistorical, or even heretical a gay Jesus might seem, I submit that he is a highly appropriate metaphor for our unique project. As both practitioners and scientists of religion, we often find ourselves in a rather ludicrous position, at once derided for believing in the absurd and impossible, and distrusted for making irreligious and unspiritual investigations. We balance history and science on the one hand and faith and revelation on the other. We are baffling, and a little offensive. So my fabulous metaphor stands. You (and especially me) are all fabulous Jesuses. And, as I hope to demonstrate, we are all heretics, or, at least, should be.

[Before I continue, I need to make a general disclaimer: I don’t know anything about epistemology, but I’m going to talk about it like I do. And I am likely to make stuff up.]

It is with a certain smugness that every intellectual generation concludes that it has, once and for all, settled the ultimate questions of epistemology over and against the obvious idiocy of its predecessors. We are indebted to the Enlightenment for their offended chastisement of passé religious superstition and for their discovery of pure, rational, and unbiased objectivity. But, we are also relieved that post-structuralism has completely reversed the Enlightenment by clearly demonstrating the instability of meaning. And what a blessed day when Post-Modernists deconstructed the whole damn thing! While, ostensibly, epistemology is concerned with the science of knowledge, it is often more concerned with how out-of-style epistemologists got it wrong. It is, like most intellectual systems, a reactionary science.

The intellectual orientation of the 18th century gave us Immanuel Kant. The 19th century gave us Joseph Smith. Both preached a “coming of age,” but they disagreed considerably about where it was coming from. The Second Great Awakening and American Transcendentalism had very specific targets. They sought to reclaim the soul of humankind from the mechanical and self-congratulatory excesses of Enlightenment philosophy and academic elitism. At the heart of this struggle was the basic question of epistemology: how do we know what we know? And, indeed, what exactly is it that we know and why do we know it? Rejecting the hyper-secularism of the 18th century deists, Transcendentalism sought to restore experiential and spiritual sources of wisdom. The 19th century defined itself by what the 18th century lacked. Mormonism, born at the dawn of the Transcendental movement beautifully and dramatically typified this restoration. Early Mormon theology and culture largely defined itself as a reactionary movement, embracing a posture of antagonism, difference, and peculiarity. It still does.

The players have changed and the debate has evolved in the last two-hundred years, but it is not unfair to say that modern Mormonism still defines itself in opposition to secularism, academic intellectualism, and even mainstream scientific investigation. Its epistemology is revelatory and it is fundamentally suspicious of other sources of knowledge. By contrast, the academy (at least on its face) adheres to the scientific method, rejecting divine revelation as unsuitable evidence for determining historical accuracy. Their epistemologies, their methodologies, even their philosophies are defined by what the other is not.

To demonstrate my point: Bruce R. McConkie, arguably Mormonism’s most influential and widely-read doctrinal authority of the last fifty years wrote book, many of you may have heard of, entitled Mormon Doctrine. While the book was neither authorized by, nor—officially—affiliated with the church, it has, nevertheless, become enshrined as a definitive source for, well, Mormon Doctrine. McConkie has a lot to say about nearly everything, Mormon and non-Mormon. If you look under the heading of “Higher Criticism” in Mormon Doctrine, it says “see also, Apostasy.”

Exhibit B: Before the most recent meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a former member, Ronald S. Hendel, wrote an excoriating article against SBL, claiming that it had lowered its academic standards by providing too large a space for religious practitioners and faith-based projects at their annual meetings. To quote from his article, “facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts.” Support for Dr. Hendel’s position was considerable, such that SBL revised its oversight procedures to better emphasize and encourage its academic mission. This is not a polite disagreement. The church and the academy impose mutually antagonistic paradigms, or, as I would like to call them, hostile orthodoxies.

Scripture tells us that we cannot serve two masters, but here we are, standing in the sliver of a very angry and ever shrinking Venn diagram. One of the questions posed by this conference, is how do we maintain a place for ourselves? Shifting the pillars of these orthodoxies themselves is likely a task beyond our ability. If, then, institutional change is not a viable option, our prospects are individual. Can our dual identities be reconciled? The simple answer? Maybe. But it’s tricky. In the path toward personal reconciliation, how do you stay faithful to these two mutually antagonistic orthodoxies? You don’t. You can’t. Instead, I suggest you practice heresy, double heresy, to be precise. I suggest this because I am a self-professed heretic and have found, in my heresy, reconciliation. If you would indulge a brief autobiography, I would like to describe a personal heresy that repaired a mortal fissure in my ultra-orthodox soul.

As I am sure it has become clear (by the purple cuff-links if nothing else) I am gay. I was Mormon. Two and a half years ago I began a master’s program in New Testament at Yale Divinity. At the time I was a closeted homosexual, but openly intellectual. And devoutly Mormon. My intellectual interests were well received by my peers and professors, though they were a bit tepid about the whole Mormon thing, questioning whether I would be able to endure challenges to my faith. Since I was card carrying Mormon, the New Haven singles branch was delighted to receive me, though they were troubled about my openly intellectual lifestyle and were, regrettably, distrustful of the mission of the Divinity School altogether.

Both the academy and the church were uneasy places for me, not so much because they so often disagreed, but because they decided to disagree before a disagreement ever came up. Ultimately, it was not the historical Jesus who brought the tension to the breaking point. It was the Fabulous Jesus, or, rather, the Jesus was non-yet-fabulous. Being gay at Yale Divinity School is a lot like being Catholic—in Italy. Our queerness is legendary even for the gay Ivy. Being closeted at Yale is…well, it’s hard. While Mormon theology is met with open hostility, queer theology is happily practiced in our chapel. By contrast, while McConkie may be quoted regularly from the pulpit of my local branch, Oscar Wilde is not.

And so, there were places I could be an intellectual; there were places I could be a Mormon; and there was a place where I could have been gay. But there was really nowhere that I could be all three. Things really began to fall apart for me on October 10th of 2008, the day the Connecticut Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be an inalienable right. For weeks leading up to the decision I was strongly encouraged by church leaders to do whatever was in my power to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state. When the decision was announced at the divinity school, the room erupted into cheers. I wanted to disappear forever.

On that day, a line had been crossed. My church leaders wondered how I could support such an organization that tolerated and championed that kind of moral degradation. To them, the divinity school typified the sort of arrogance, moral bankruptcy, and worldliness that they believe characterizes the liberal movement. My fellow students—my friends—at the divinity school questioned how I could be a part of what they saw as a close-minded, intolerant, and unloving institution. On that day, the Venn diagram was just too small. And so, unable to serve two masters, I clung to one and watched my soul tear apart. I left the church. I came out of the closet.

That is not reconciliation. Choosing one orthodoxy over the other is not reconciliation. In leaving the church I did not find reconciliation—at least, not immediately. I merely became an apostate and a heretic. But I wasn’t a good-enough heretic. Because a good-enough heretic pisses everyone off. A good enough heretic makes mutually exclusive orthodoxies agree at least about one thing (namely, that he’s a heretic). Let me describe to you a good-enough heretic. To Mormonism, the concept of a gay, ascot-wearing, Jesus is thoroughly heretical. But to the academy, particularly in the field of LGBT studies, the ascot is perfectly acceptable. A Mormon Jesus, on the other hand is completely unacceptable and offensive to the academy. But a Mormon Jesus for the Saints? Well, duh. Both a gay Jesus and a Mormon Jesus are heretical, but they are not heretical enough. But a gay Mormon Jesus, maybe even a gay Mormon, intellectual Jesus—there we have something. Something that pisses everyone off. That is a good-enough heresy.

An intellectual gay Mormon Jesus is shocking and offensive to just about everyone. Except, perhaps, to an intellectual gay Mormon who has been scorned by the intellectuals, rejected by the gays, and cast out by the Mormons. But, to me, that resonates with the New Testament characterization of Jesus—the Jesus who was not understood, who offended the orthodox and the powerful, who was abused and cast out by his own people. But also the Jesus who identified with, condescended below, and lifted up the poorest of the poor. Now, I wish to make it clear that, in my melodramatic reference to rejection, I am not claiming to be among the poorest of the poor. Nor am I claiming to be Jesus. (I assure you that I took my medication this morning.) But through this mixed metaphor of this mixed Jesus, I am telling you something you already know—something I wish I had remembered during those dark and lonely days—all is reconciled in Christ. While these two orthodoxies are defined by what the other is not, Christ is only defined by what is. And God is more nuanced, more complicated, and more complete than either of these orthodoxies can circumscribe. God is the infinite Venn diagram. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled into that Venn diagram, or rather, I stumbled out of orthodoxy altogether. For the Jesus I came to know and who knows me is so mixed up that he is something wholly other.

A good-enough heresy offends both orthodoxies because it forces each to see itself melded with the other. It forces each to see itself in the other, reconciled with the other. To see that its identity need not be defined by what the other is not, but rather that its identity can be completed by what only the other has. A double heretic embodies a completed orthodoxy. Our heresies complete us.

I do not consider myself to be a particularly graceful double-heretic. Like I said, sometimes it’s tricky. I did not, nor do I believe ever will, find a place for myself in the church. On the other hand, while there may be a place for me in the academy, it won’t an orthodox place. I hope never to give up heresy completely. As a New Testament scholar I may be quick to dismiss the Gospel of John as fundamentally ahistorical. But I will accept as truth the words of the Johannine Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus didn’t say that, but Christ did. That is a double heresy. And that is good-enough.

I am not suggesting that the answer is to leave the church. Nor am I suggesting it isn’t. But wherever you are—wherever we are—we should not be quiet, feeling obligated to vote along party lines; we should not define ourselves by what the other half of us isn’t; we should not be orthodox. If we wish to reconcile our competing orthodoxies we must practice a healthy dose of heresy. Reconciliation is found by living in the other.

As a student of history I have to admit, however reluctantly, that Jesus didn’t wear pashmina ascots or Armani sunglasses—but nor did he wear white shirts and dark suits and a bicycle helmet. Jesus wasn’t fabulous but nor was Jesus a 21st century Mormon. It’s hard to tell whether he was even an intellectual. Of the historical Jesus we know so very little. But what does seem clear is that he didn’t play by the rules. He caused great offense to official authorities—Roman or Jewish. And he attracted a following of not particularly notable people. We are not particularly notable people. But we are people with issues, people who are complicated, who are torn—people in need or reconciliation. And so, we can follow him. And break the rules. And cause offense. And be made whole. Of course, if you’ve read to the end of the book, you know that it’s a rather risky venture. But as Paul taught, the Cross that offends also gives life. And all is reconciled in Christ.


  1. Amazing piece. It makes me think of Latin/black/feminist liberation theologies where Jesus is understood as poor/black/female. I would like to see more of a gay/queer liberation theology. Or even a Mormon queer liberation theology.

  2. Thanks for posting this; it was one of my favorite talks at the conference.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this Scott... I trust it will continue to do good with a wider audience. I am excited to hear about your experience with the conference!

  4. Wow. I stand all amazed at the fabulous Jesus.

  5. So much fabulous awesomeness. I love the description of standing in the tempest of double heresy, and making it good enough to piss off everyone. Love it!

    WWJD? This^^