Boswell, History, and Women

bible_womanThere was one element of the preface I didn’t mention in my previous post because it deserves commentary of its own. Even Boswell devotes less than 100 words even though it is really a huge deal. He puts it this way;

History was written by men about men, and where women are mentioned, it is generally peripherally.

In a big way therefore, any discussion about the Bible and homosexuality, isn’t really about Sexual Orientation or homosexuality in general, but rather it is about the Bible and male gender roles and how male sexual expression aligns with gender role expectations. It is a true statement: there is nothing in the Bible about Sexual Orientation, just as there is nothing in the Bible about dinosaurs, the Ice Age, the plethora of galaxies out there I n the Universe, or even that a Universe exists. But again, Boswell’s purpose is History, and the history of attitudes from the beginning of the Christian Era to the fourteenth century.

It is not a part of his book, but the degree to which intolerance of homosexuality is really just the intolerance towards gay male behavior is or ought to be a primary argument against anyone who claims that the Bible is against homosexuality or claims that religious intolerance is the reason for social intolerance.

I have some thoughts about what this means and how we respond because of it, and that will most likely come out as we move through the book.

This past is part of a series on Boswell’s text.Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

Boswell, History, and Theology: the preface.

John BoswellSo often, the preface isn’t all that important, and it is easy to skip ahead to where the actual book begins and start reading, but in the case of Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century,” that would be a mistake. The premise laid out within his preface is crucially important to grasp , and so I want to devote this first post to those four and a half pages. This is important, and if we don’t come to terms with what this means, we won’t really be able to put the rest of the book to much use. For this post, I used Boswell’s original paperbound book, copyright 1980.

History and the role of the historian

One of the most important statements made by Boswell within this entire book begins the preface:

“No matter how much historians and their readers may wish to avoid contaminating their understanding of the past with the values of the present, they can not ignore the fact that both writer and reader are inevitably affectedly the assumptions and beliefs of the age(s) in which they write and read.”

We don’t tend to think of that however, either while writing or as a reader. History, we tell ourselves, is a set of facts and so they are what they are, no matter who is telling them, when and for what reason, right?  Not according to Boswell: both the writer and the reader carry all sorts of stuff to the text- to the history- and considering what these things may be is essential to understanding the text and history. To some, this may seem obvious, but in a huge way it isn’t and leads to false ideas, or is intentionally overlooked, again leading to false ideas. Why is this important? He writes:

“If religious texts are widely supposed to have been the origin of a medieval prejudice, their role in determining the attitude in question must be carefully understood.”

Today, the morality of homosexuality is the issue, and too much of the dialogue revolves around the question, ‘are religious ideas the basis for discrimination against homosexuality and gay and lesbian people.’ Boswell doesn’t set out to argue the morality of homosexuality, rather his goal is to illuminate ideas about homosexuality in the period from the beginning of Christianity until the fourteenth century, not to speak either for or against them.

History is not theology

Two points are at the center of his work in this book:

  1. To display that what may have seemed to be the source of antipathy  in the past, often was not;
  2. To clarify the differences between ancient objections to homosexuality and modern objections.

Now many readers, and I include myself in that group when I first read this book, simply want Boswell to tell us that theologians have had it wrong all along and the Bible isn’t negative about gay and lesbian people. But we aren’t going to get that from Boswell or this book if that is what we are looking for. We will get something far more important if we are open to it and willing to do the work for it. Because the argument, “The Bible is this or isn’t this” is a useless argument because we will never come to any final outcome: we will simply spin our wheels, and at the same time allow those who claim the Bible is anti-gay to have more power than they deserve.  When we begin to demystify the Bible and the history of it- the historical reasons it is what it is, then the text itself loses all of that magic mojo that the opponents of the LGBTQ movement try to use against us.

People object to or support the full acceptance of gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer people. They may use the Bible as a weapon to support their position of opposition, but it only has as much power as we allow it. One of the strongest arguments that the anti-gay people use, is that culture, and especially Christian culture has always felt this way about gay people, but is this really true? Or are oppositions that exist now a modern thing, not well supported by the past.

Methodology and the reader

Before we dig into the meat of the book, just a word about methodology. Boswell heavily footnotes his text: what are we as readers to take from that, or how are we to read that? It almost becomes two texts: the book itself, and the footnotes. Unlike some books where the footnotes are only citations supporting where claims or ideas come from, in this text, they go a bit beyond that. Sometimes they are small forays into a tangential discussion. For example, in the Introduction, footnote #2 is a wildly interesting aside about social tolerance, intolerance and acceptance. My personal suggestion is to read the text at least twice. The first time through, ignore the footnotes. Then, read through the footnotes and refer back to the text where each is cited as you go. And lastly, sometimes it will be helpful re-read portions of the text itself after considering the footnote.

Lastly, my suggestion is to do what I’m doing here to a degree, and make notes as you read. Jot down phrases, words, or short sentences that summarize what you are reading. Do it, as you read- don’t wait to get to the end of a chapter to jot some things down.The idea isn’t to merely spend the time to get from page 1 to page whatever. Rather it is to end up with a new appreciation, awareness or understanding from that time spent. This doesn’t have to be like school. No one is going to test you. But you will leave the experience happier and perhaps smarter.

New Series: The Bible and Homosexuality

John BoswellBeginning June 1st, I’m starting a new series and invite my blog readers to join me in a book study and discussion regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality. Issues surrounding Gay Rights and the morality of same-sex marriage as well as homosexuality itself will remain front page news as more and more US States accept same-sex marriage, and everyone who cares about this Justice issue ought to be able to converse about what the Bible does and doesn’t say, even those who do not believe in the importance of the Bible.

Those who oppose same-sex marriage and the general acceptance of the LGBT Community, claim that what the Bible says is crystal clear, but there is scholarly work done that sheds different light on the subject. John Boswell’s seminal work, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century” calls into question many of the ideas scholars and theologians have had about the subject. His book is not the easiest read, full of footnotes and written with a depth that allows it to be considered solid scholarship. But it is a valuable read none the less. So, get a copy of the book, and join me! Each week or so, I’ll post as I read through the book, cover to cover, exploring Boswell’s ideas. Read with me, or merely join the discussion offering your comments each week to my blog posts.

One might say, that what the Bible says is irrelevant given that here in the US, the Constitution is the basis of our laws and civil culture. But 100% of the vitriol and opposition to the full respect and equality for gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer persons is rooted in and supported by the use of this ancient text. We can expect the opposition to remain vocal, loud, and will grow only more hostile as same-sex marriage gets accepted everywhere. But full respect, inclusion, and equality is not a done deal here in the United States, and across the globe, there are many places more hostile towards LGBTQ folks. Our ability to counter the opposition is essential.

I’ll be using an electronic ebook from the University of Chicago Press. The book is available from them as a paperback, or as a download. It is also available for rent from your local library as well as purchase from other sources. You may be like me and have an original copy on the bookshelf as well. Get it down and read along with me.

Boswell died too soon, and I don’t believe anyone has really followed his lead in this area of scholarship. I won’t simply take his word as if he is definitely correct and thousands of years of the status quo are simply wrong in their understanding, but asking why Boswell has arrived at his conclusions and how they differ from traditional ideas will be the basis of discussion.

Are you ready for this series? I hope so! Summer is a perfect time to sit back with a book,so I hope you will choose this one and read along. Then each week participate in our discussion here about what I’ve read.