Body and Soul

Like McNeill, Spong has been the target of ecclesiastic rage, in his case for commissioning a 1987 report that urged Episcopalians to reconsider their teaching about sexuality. Today, Spong is one of the strongest Christian voices for blessing gay unions and embracing a broader definition of family. ''Jesus might well have been married,'' he writes in Born of a Woman. ''Mary Magdalene is the primary female figure in the Bible. She is the chief mourner...and she is the one who claims the body of Jesus. These data certainly raise questions about her relationship to Jesus.''

Speculations about whether Jesus was straight or gay (or even bi) reflect the modern preoccupation with sexual identity. But they also transcend these rigid categories, and that may be the most liberating thing about the new theology: It points to a broader definition of desire. ''I wouldn't be one to say that Jesus had sex,'' says Delores Williams, a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary. ''But you could say Jesus had a lot of erotic power, and that He evidenced a holistic sexuality involving the unity of parts.''

What would it mean if Jesus had a holistic phallus? ''The doctrine of original sin, the notion of humankind as naturally depraved, would be challenged,'' says Williams. In its place, a new ethic of desire as the instrument of radical empathy might replace not only the Madonna/whore complex, but the stunting polarities of straight and gay. And what about the ultimate Western dichotomy--between body and soul? What would it mean if, instead of washing the feet of a leper, Jesus gave a hummer to a hustler with HIV? We may find out in Corpus Christi, God and the police willing.

Theologians can argue about whether this is sacrilege. But as the prophet Jenny Jones hath preached, it's not what or who you do that counts--it's the spirit you do it in.

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