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Body and Soul

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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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