On Easter Monday, Inside Higher Education, an online trade paper covering academia, published an article about a presumed free-speech controversy that had emerged during Holy Week at Holy Cross College, a 175-year-old Jesuit institution in Worcester, Massachusetts. Here is how Inside Higher Ed wrote it up:
The Fenwick Review, a conservative student newspaper at the college, published an article about the writings of Tat-siong Benny Liew, who holds an endowed chair in New Testament studies at the college. The article featured quotes from Liew’s writings suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth may, in some New Testament writings, be seen as a feminine figure, and in other writings may be best read as a “drag king.” Liew also suggested that Jesus may have had “queer desires.”
In Inside Higher Ed, as elsewhere in the secular media, the dispute—which had led more than 14,000 Catholics to sign an online petition calling on Holy Cross to dismiss Liew—was strictly about the academic freedom of a Catholic-college professor whose scholarship doesn’t align with traditional church teaching.
Holy Cross’s president, Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., rushed to Liew’s defense, pointing out that Liew’s “drag king” essay, titled “Queering Closets and Perverting Desires: Cross-Examining John’s Engendering and Transgendering Word across Different Worlds,” was a full nine years old, having appeared in a 2009 book that Liew had co-edited. It was unfair to penalize Liew on the basis of some decade-old thoughts about Jesus that weren’t “intended for an undergraduate classroom,” Fr. Boroughs wrote in an official statement. Not only that, but “[s]cholars in all disciplines are free to inquire, critique, comment, and push boundaries on widely accepted thought.” On the other side, Robert J. McManus, the Catholic bishop of Worcester, issued a statement calling Liew’s theories “blasphemous” and averring that “academic freedom …, particularly in the fields of theology or religious studies, cannot provide cover for blatantly unorthodox teaching.”
Leave aside the questionable relevance of the fact that Liew hadn’t actually assigned “Queering Closets” in his undergraduate courses (a copy of the 2009 book in which it appears, They Were All Together in One Place?: Toward Minority Biblical Criticism, is prominently displayed in Holy Cross’s religious studies department, where Liew teaches). The real issue isn’t even whether Liew ought to be teaching New Testament at a Catholic college. It’s whether he ought to be teaching New Testament at any college.
Readers of the Inside Higher Ed story who click the link to the March 26 Fenwick Review article, by Holy Cross senior Elinor Reilly, may be surprised to discover that “drag king”—asserting that Jesus gender-identified as a woman cross-dressing as a man—was perhaps the mildest of Liew’s 2009 theories about the Savior. Reilly also quoted this bit of eyebrow-raising exegesis of John’s Gospel (content warning: it’s not for the faint-hearted):
One may, as a result, turn around Jesus’ well-known statement in John, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6c): Jesus himself needs others to [obscene homophone for “come”] with the Father. Jesus’ statement that “I in them [his followers] and you [the Father] in me” turns out to be quite a description. What we find in John is a Jesus who longs to be “had” by the Father. … Things do not get less queer as one gets to the other parts of John’s Gospel. It is noticeable that throughout the Gospel Jesus and his Father form a “mutual glorification society” (5:41; 8:50, 54; 12:28– 29; 13:32; 17:1, 4– 5). This constant elevation or stroking is nothing less than an exciting of the penis, or better yet, phallus.
And then there’s this:
During the passion, Jesus is not only beaten (18:22– 23; 19:3) and flogged (19:1); his body is also nailed and his side pierced (19:18, 23a, 34, 37; 20:24– 28). Oddly, John defines Jesus’ masculinity with a body that is being opened to penetration. Even more oddly, Jesus’ ability to face his “hour” is repeatedly associated with his acknowledging of and communing with his Father (12:27– 28; 14:12, 28; 16:10, 17, 28; 17:1– 25; 18:11), who is, as Jesus explicitly states, “with me” (16:32) throughout this process, which Jesus also describes as one of giving birth (16:21– 22). What I am suggesting is that, when Jesus’ body is being penetrated, his thoughts are on his Father. He is, in other words, imagining his passion experience as a (masochistic?) sexual relation with his own Father.
Furthermore, as Reilly pointed out, this was not the first time Liew had recast the Gospels as gay-dungeon adventure stories:
The 2004 article “Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurion, the Chap, and the Christ in Matthew 8:5-13,” provides a representative example. Professor Liew and his co-author, Theodore Jennings, argue that Matthew 8:5-13, the story of the centurion who goes to Jesus to ask for healing for his servant, ought to be interpreted in terms of a sexual relationship. Matthew’s account, runs the argument, does not concern a centurion and his servant, but a centurion and his lover/slave. “The centurion’s rhetoric about not being ‘worthy’ of a house visit by Jesus (8:8) may be the centurion’s way of avoiding an anticipated ‘usurpation’ of his current boylove on the part of his new patron [Jesus],” they assert.
So much for Matthew and John. Liew’s first published book, Politics of Parousia: Reading Mark Inter(con)textually (1999), was described by its publisher as a study of the evangelist Mark’s “colonial politics.” Liew accused Jesus, at least as presented by Mark, of “colonially mimicking” in his harsh words about sinful conduct the oppressive policies of the Holy Land’s Roman overlords. He returned to this theme in a 2016 essay, “The Gospel of Bare Life,” in which he wrote: “If John’s Jesus, as well as those who follow John’s Jesus, are supposed to be fully subjected to the will of the Father to the point of death (6:35–64; 10:1–18; 15:1–16:4; 21:15–19), then are we not back to a scenario in which a Caesar-like head sits comfortably in a choice seat and watches bare life performing death for his purposes and his enjoyment?”
This stuff—which constitutes nearly the whole of Liew’s published professional output, as far as I can see—isn’t scholarship. It’s sadomasochistic sex-fantasy dressed up in postmodernist jargon. Now, I’m not a New Testament expert (my doctorate was in medieval studies), but I do know that if you want to interpret a work of literature credibly, whether it be from the thirteenth century or the first, you need to ground it in an appropriate historical context. Take crucifixion. Much as Liew might like to cast it as a thrilling “penetration” experience on Jesus’ part, it was actually something real and shameful and ghastly that the Romans and other ancient peoples practiced widely and often pour encourager les autres not to engage in conduct that they regarded as a serious threat to the social order. In 1968 Israeli archaeologists uncovered the bones of a man named Jehohanan who had been crucified perhaps as brutally as Jesus. I don’t think Jehohanan—or the more recent victims of ISIS crucifixions in the Mideast—thought they were “performing death.”
Liew isn’t just a New Testament professor. He’s an endowed-chair New Testament professor with a doctorate from Vanderbilt who teaches at a respectable Catholic university. Perhaps New Testament professors have finally run out of things to say about the New Testament, or perhaps the rewards for running the New Testament through Michel Foucault’s meat-grinder of sexualized power relationships are the only rewards that New Testament professors can expect these days. Liew’s offense is not so much blasphemy as banality.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.