Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Gay Centurion

In Catholic tradition, Longinus is the name given to the Roman centurion at the crucifixion who pierced Christ's side with his spear.  Some writers, like Paul Halsall of the LGBT Catholic Handbook, also identify him with the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his "beloved boy", who was ill. It is this second person that I am interested in here.  In this persona, he is one of my personal favourites, as his story shows clearly how the Lord himself is completely not hostile to a clearly gay relationship, and also because we hear a clear reminder of this every time we attend Mass - if only we have ears to hear.
It may be that you do not recall any Gospel stories about a gay centurion and his male lover, but that is because cautious or prudish translators have softened the words of the text, and because the word "gay" is not really appropriate for the historical context. You are more likely to know as the story as the familiar one of the Roman centurion and his "servant" - But this is a poor translation. Matthew uses the word "doulos", which means slave, not a mere servant.  Luke uses quite a different word, "pais", which can mean servant boy - but more usually has the sense of a man's younger male lover - or "boyfriend".

Monday, 6 February 2012

Faith vs Religion: Ecclesiolatry, Scribes and Pharisees.

There is an important distinction between "faith", which refers to belief and a relationship with the divine, and "religion", which refers primarily to the human structures which support it, with their rules, rituals, and clerical castes. They are obviously linked, interdependent, and ideally, support each other. There are grave dangers though, when we lose sight of the importance of balance, for example by exaggerating the importance of religious structures, over authentic faith itself.

In recent weeks, I have found two important passages on this theme, by two very different authors, that I have wanted to write about - but have struggled to make the time to add my own response. Instead, I simply share with you the passages, and leave you to ponder the import yourselves.

The first is by the Catholic theologian James Alison, taken from a recent post at his website "The Portal and the Half-Way House: Spacious imagination and aristocratic belonging ", in which he refers to the way in which some Catholics use "the Church" as a weapon with which to coerce others into their own way of thinking. In a striking turn of phrase, he describes this as "Ecclesiolatry" - a form of idolatry, with "the Church" used as an idol to replace God:

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Bible and Textual Abuse: The Case of "malakoi" and "arsenokoites".

Sane and rational discussion of the Bible and same-sex relationships are bedevilled by difficulties with language, arising from problems with translations on the one  hand, and vastly different cultural conditions which make it difficult sometimes to make sense of the applicability of the words, even where the literal meaning is clear. This is especially important in the case of two obscure Greek words which, in poor translation, appear to say clearly that the Biblical teaching is opposed to homosexual activity.

Several notable scholars (Boswell, Countryman, and those that followed) have shown that these translations are faulty, casting doubt on a large chunk of the case for biblically based homophobia. Michael Carden, an Australian biblical scholar, has a post up which first notes that Christianity is unique in depending on translations for its scriptures, and then goes on to a lengthy, detailed discussion of the problems presented by translations of these two troublesome words.

From the opening of a much longer discussion at Michael Carden's Jottings:
Christianity is rather unusual in the family of Abrahamic/Middle Eastern religions in the role of scripture and language. For Judaism and Islam, and I suspect traditionally for Zoroastrianism too, the language of scripture, i.e. the language in which it was written, is also the language in which it must always be read. So countless Jews and Muslims have grown up learning something of Hebrew and Arabic and not just any Hebrew and Arabic but the Hebrew of the Torah and Tanakh and the Arabic of the Qur'an, even if it means just memorising slabs of text (as a pre-Vatican 2 Catholic child I have a resonance with this because I remember being taught the responses of the old Latin Mass, which I regard nowadays as a valuable bit of rudimentary childhood second language teaching). For Jews and Muslims too any translation of scripture is counted as an interpretation, it does not share in the authority of the 'original' text. Christians, on the other hand, have always read their scriptures in translation.  Christian bibles are comprised of two parts: an Old Testament comprising texts originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; and a New Testament comprising texts originally written in Greek. Early Christians used as their Old Testament the Greek translation/version of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts known as the Septuagint, together with those texts Protestants term apocryphal that were written in Greek. Just about all of the ancient Christian translations of the Old Testament were from this Greek text. Only the Syriac and Jerome's Latin Vulgate included translations from (some of) the Hebrew version shared with Rabbinic Judaism. So from the very beginning Christians have been involved in the project of translation. For many cultures too, ancient and contemporary, their first body of written literature  has been a translation of one canonical version or another of the Christian Bible. 
So for Christians, unlike Jews and Muslims, linguistic questions of meaning, equivalence and translation, can become highly fraught theological and political questions.
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