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Jesus's legacy gets lost between obscurantism and fundamentalism

By Scott Stephens - posted Thursday, 12 June 2003

My first response to the controversy surrounding Rollan McCleary's research into Jesus' sexuality was déjà-vu. Haven't we witnessed this precise scenario before?

In August 1989, right-wing US Senators Alphonse D'Amato and Jesse Helms charged the National Endowment of the Arts with using American tax dollars to support art which was "blasphemous", "obscene" and "pornographic." They insisted that the US government itself must ensure that such "tax dollar funded perversity" not be allowed to continue. The piece at the centre of the commotion was, of course, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a Cibachrome photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in the artist's blood and urine.

In October 1997, this photograph would go on to achieve a certain infamy in Australia when George Pells, then the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, applied for an injunction to prevent the National Gallery of Victoria from exhibiting Piss Christ, on the grounds that doing so would constitute an act of blasphemous libel. Justice Harper's ruling was pre-empted when, three days later, two youths attacked Piss Christ while on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, forcing the director of the gallery, Timothy Potts, to close the exhibition.


The media coverage of McCleary's controversial research seemed to follow the same script. Both The Courier-Mail and the ABC's 7:30 Report focussed on the scandal of using tax dollars - the figure cited was $51,000 - to fund a doctoral thesis which suggests, at least in passing, that Jesus' own sexual orientation was gay, along with a number of his disciples. (See Professor Alan Rix's letter to The Courier-Mail, 30 May, for clarification of the content of McCleary's thesis.) The 7:30 Report's coverage was then garnished with hackneyed commentary by Fred Niles and a conservative bishop from the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

There seem to me to be three primary issues that arise from this controversy.

First, it was insinuated that McCleary was given exceptional funding for his thesis. In reality, he simply received an Australian Postgraduate Award (a meagre, but very common government stipend of around $18,000 per annum) like many other postgraduate students at Australian universities. But I was more concerned by the suggestion that all government-funded research should be submitted to the public for the final verdict as to the merits of the research. This would effectively cripple research in this country, particularly in the humanities.

The fact, however, of the inevitable public outrage over any non-conventional suggestion about Jesus - or any other matter of faith - raises a greater issue (my second point): to what extent should the church take steps pre-emptively to oppose research into matters of faith by individuals considered to be unorthodox? From one perspective, McCleary's proposal (whether in its nascent form in the thesis, or in his subsequent book) must be regarded as pretty tame, relying on his putative "discovery" of Jesus's astrological birth chart, and thus of the dates of Jesus's birth and death, and of his sexual orientation.

My fundamental question here is very simple: where is the true scandal? Jesus' sexuality has been the topic of far more controversial publications, from Barbara Thiering's Jesus the Man (1992) to Stephen Moore's God's Beauty Parlor (2001). The true scandal is not McCleary's rather weak proposal regarding Jesus' sexuality/spirituality but rather that he effectively conceals the significance of Jesus behind a kind of esoteric obscurantism that fails to recognise the hard reality of Jesus' political vision.

Against the many contemporary portraits of Jesus — from a Zen-like teacher of esoteric wisdom to a non-political founder of an alternate spirituality — there can be no doubt that Jesus sought to dissolve those fundamental socio-political ties that determine so much ancient Mediterranean life, and thereby establish a new, robust society that is characterised neither by ethnocentrism and racial violence, nor by the oppression of genders and social stratification. The fact the Jesus consequently died the death reserved for failed political insurrectionists enacts its own judgment upon every political organisation that is sustained by perpetual violence. To this extent, I would even suggest that Andres Serrano's Piss Christ captures something of the essence of Christianity: isn't the genius of this photograph the uncanny fusion of the real of the excrement and the appearance of a golden aura? The significance of Jesus' act lay in the very appearance of its failure. But because this failure is paradoxically identified as the activity of God, it is the most authentic affirmation of humanity over and against the obscene precision of all political oppressions. To reduce Jesus' life to the determination of inert celestial bodies is, for me, the most scandalous suggestion of all.


That said, and here I am on to my third point, I cannot support the censorship of unorthodox research into matters of faith. My reason simply is that, even in the post-Christian West, Christianity remains part of our social space, endlessly cited in literature, television, film, etc. This is precisely the legacy of robust Christianity: to finds its true place in the middle of contemporary culture, working, debating, liberating … not to remain protected in advance by ecclesiastical privilege.

It is vital to preserve precisely this legacy, because, to paraphrase the European philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the authentic Christian legacy is much too precious to be left to New Age obscurantists and fundamentalist freaks.

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This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 9 June 2003.

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About the Author

Scott Stephens is an author, theologian and minister with the Uniting Church of Australia. He has been a researcher with the Centre for Theology and Politics, Brisbane, Queensland.

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