Body and Soul

Ten years ago, it was The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese's passionate rendering of the existential gospel, in which Jesus imagines himself descending from the cross to achieve sexual union with Mary Magdalene. In 1994, it was Priest, Antonia Bird's moving examination of a young cleric whose gayness erupts in a parish where sexual secrecy is the golden rule. And last week, it was Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally's still unseen play about the disciples--and male lovers--of a messianic gay man named Joshua.

All these works were targeted by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, all of them inspired death threats, and all became flash points in the culture wars. In each case, the forces of repression were repelled, but only after liberals mounted a fierce campaign. The Manhattan Theater Club, which pulled McNally's play from its roster last week, cowed by threats of terrorism and loss of funding, reversed itself on Thursday, propelled by the even greater threat of a playwrights' boycott. But lingering in the wings was a vow by the Catholic League to ''wage a war that no one will forget'' if the show goes on.

This sort of rhetoric focuses the mind wonderfully. But it also obscures the reason why a tabloid account of McNally's passion play produced such rage. It is part of a growing and potent repertoire of novels, dramas, films, and even music videos in which the body of Christ has sexual parts. These brazen works are emerging at the very moment when the mystique of the presidency is undergoing a similar shift, leading to a male panic not so different from that of the Catholic League. If the King of Kings and the commander in chief are both embedded in the web of ordinary desire, what does that say about society?

Call it blasphemy to portray Jesus as a sexual being, or call it the gospel according to Jenny Jones. But Corpus Christi is another sign that the ethic of sexual liberation has come so far--despite the power of organized repression and the trauma of AIDS--that it is now being codified into a theology. Inevitably, this funky dogma is amending the Greatest Story Ever Told. What began innocuously enough in Jesus Christ, Superstar, with Mary Magdalene's lament, ''I don't know how to love him,'' has become a rush to desublimate the savior.

The new sexual code--love over probity--has deep roots in American transcendental thought. But it also makes for great television and talk radio, where what begins as shock-horror often ends as eager speculation. By now, the fact that no one has seen or read McNally's play is beside the point. The concept of a pansexual Jesus is irresistible because it's already present in the culture, an idea waiting to be made flesh.

''I can't make the claim that Jesus had homosexual relationships,'' says John J. McNeill, a Catholic priest and practicing psychotherapist. But McNeill does make the case for ''a homosexual love bond'' between Jesus and John, whom the gospel calls ''the disciple whom Jesus loved.'' ''John was the one who had the position of honor at Jesus' right at the last supper, and leaned his head on Jesus' chest,'' McNeill writes in Freedom, Glorious Freedom. ''John was the one who stood at the foot of the cross with the women, when all the other men fled. And it was to John's care that Jesus committed his mother.''

For teaching that Jesus felt an ''intimate affection'' for John, and accepted such relationships between men, McNeill was silenced by the church in 1977. Ten years later, he was forbidden to counsel gay people. ''I could not in conscience obey that rule,'' McNeill says, ''and as a result, the Vatican ordered the Jesuits to dismiss me.'' But that allowed McNeill to resume speaking out, and today he is part of a growing movement in the church to change Catholic teaching on human sexuality, especially the idea delineated in a 1986 Vatican letter that homosexuality is ''an orientation to evil.''

''Over the past 25 years, there's been a gradual integration of gay people into the Catholic community,'' McNeill says--''but not in the hierarchy.'' This line has been drawn in most Christian, and for that matter Jewish, denominations. There may be an embrace of gay people, but the doctrine that homosexual acts are sinful remains more or less intact.

Yet as the culture propels us to judge the meaning of sex by its relationship to love, it has heightened the tension between Christian attitudes that may always have been at war. The scholar John Boswell has produced compelling evidence of same-sex union rites in the early church, and recent research suggests that the Albigensian heresy, in the age of courtly love, embraced a gay-friendly sexual ethic. (The term buggery comes from a French word of that era for heresy.) Today, the theater and the tube are arenas of apostasy, and artists like McNally and Scorsese--not to mention Madonna--are crafting the stained-glass windows of the church envisioned by theologians like John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, who maintains that ''sexuality is at the heart of every debate in every Christian denomination.''

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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