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.