Monday, April 9, 2018

How Obscure Article By Holy Cross Prof Made It Into The Right Wing Outrage Factory

How did a second semester senior at Holy Cross manage to create what I can only describe as a major you know storm for our college including a rebuke of sorts from the Bishop of the Diocese of Worcester and out-of town protesters at the gates of the college?  In one of my rare forays into being an investigative reporter of sorts, I think I found the answer.  It was Breitbart and a crafty unidentified Jesuit priest.  Here is the story as far as I have been able to put it together.

Crusading Without Weaponry

My alma mater, The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester Massachusetts has been providing grist for the right-wing outrage mill of late.  There was the matter of the Crusader moniker which, no surprise if you reflect on it, has some negative connotations.  They resolved that probably to no one's satisfaction with keeping the nickname but demilitarizing it - no more knight in white and purple armor with a blunt lance as a mascot.

New Testament Queer Theory

Well that was fun, but the latest is something else.  LGBT Jesus! Holy $$$$!

The story is all over the place, but you want a really balanced treatment so here is Fox News - Jesus was 'drag king' with 'queer desires,' claims theology professor' by Caleb Parke.
A theology professor at a Catholic college is making some bizarre – some would even say blasphemous – claims about Jesus Christ that is causing a stir on campus. 
Dr. Tat-siong Benny Liew, chair of New Testament Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said Jesus was a “drag king” who had “queer desires.” He also claims the Last Supper was a “literary striptease” and that Jesus was not a man, but gender fluid. 
The “Gospel of John” professor cited the book of John in the Bible to try to back his arguments.
Now I am not going to get too deep into what Dr. Liew wrote for a very good reason. I have not read "Queering Closets and Perverting Desires: Cross-Examining John's Engendering and Transgendering Word across Different Worlds".  In order to read it I would have to get my hands on We Were All Together in One Place: Toward Minority Biblical Criticism. There is no kindle edition and the paperback is forty bucks.  I did find some links in the other coverage, but they seem to be to google books, so you don't get the whole thing.  Regardless, I pretty much don't understand it.  Here is the overarching concept of the book.
Critics from three major racial/ethnic minority communities in the United States African American, Asian American, and Latino/a American focus on the problematic of race and ethnicity in the Bible and in contemporary biblical interpretation. With keen eyes on both ancient text and contemporary context, contributors pay close attention to how racial/ethnic dynamics intersect with other differential relations of power such as gender, class, sexuality, and colonialism. In groundbreaking interaction, they also consider their readings alongside those of other racial/ethnic minority communities. The volume includes an introduction pointing out the crucial role of this work within minority criticism by looking at its historical trajectory, critical findings, and future directions. 
I have a small taste for New Testament scholarship, but I have some skepticism that after a couple of hundred years of treating the scriptures like any other historical document, they are going to come up with much that is new.  Of course the Gospel of Thomas and the Dead Sea Scrolls did give them  some new old things to chew on.

Regardless, if we think of the Gospels as documents created by humans, there has to have been a lot more thought about them than went into them in the first place making it tough to come up with anything new.  As it turns out gay Jesus is not something new. Check out the wikipedia entry on the sexuality of Jesus and you will see what I mean.

The Second Semester Senior

What intrigues me is how this became a thing and the implications of the Fox story to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not because Professor Liew has been shouting from the rooftops that Jesus is gay or even telling his undergraduates that Jesus was of indeterminate gender.

No. The source of the current scandal may well be a sort of Holy Cross second semester senior prank.  We didn't have the Fenwick Review back in my time at Holy Cross 1970-1974.  Its role was filled by my friend Bob Gasser who was ready to give his life to prevent the Radical Students Union from firebombing the Air Force ROTC building (the one with the peace symbol painted on the roof) again.  Anyway the conservatives got their own journal.  It's mission statement is:
As the College of the Holy Cross’s independent journal of opinion, The Fenwick Review strives to promote intellectual freedom and progress on campus. The staff of The Fenwick Review takes pride in defending traditional Catholic principles and conservative ideas, and does its best to articulate thoughtful alternatives to the dominant campus ethos. Our staff values Holy Cross very much, and desires to help make it the best it can be by strengthening and renewing the College’s Catholic identity, as well as working with the College to encourage constructive dialogue and an open forum to foster new idea
In the March Issue Elinor Reilly Class of 2018, whom I am certain will turn out to be a cousin after we do enough research, wrote New Ways in Theology at Holy Cross. In typical second semester senior fashion the article was posted at 4:15 AM and updated at 5:32 AM. It provides the juicy quotes from Dr. Liew's work that have lit up the internet, but here is the thing that I really love.  Ms. Reilly's article is in no way judgemental.  It is really pretty much just the facts.
Professor Liew’s unconventional readings of Scripture has brought a new theological perspective to Holy Cross. The position and prestige which accompany an endowed chair in Religious Studies testify to the esteem in which his work is held by the College’s administration and academic community. He continues to be held up as an example and a bold successor to the learned and discerning tradition of our Catholic and Jesuit College of the Holy Cross.
I just love that sentence - Professor Liew’s unconventional readings of Scripture has brought a new theological perspective to Holy Cross - I mean how can that be a bad thing? The only way you can tell that Ms. Reilly might be a conservative is the platform.  The piece could have been promoted by Abigale and Allies the Holy Cross Gay-Straight Alliance to let everybody know what a great guy Professor Liew is.

The viewpoint that she is putting forth subtly in that pieces is much clearer in the review of Beyond The Abortion Wars in the November 2017 issue.
"Beyond the Abortion Wars" has good points throughout, and Professor Camosy’s analysis of the actual views of the American public on abortion is particularly interesting. However, as a Catholic theologian working at a Catholic university, his deceptive statements about Catholic teachings and moral truths are unacceptable. He should clarify the instances in his book where he dissents from Church teaching—or better yet, he should cease teaching theology at a Catholic institution and stop representing himself as Catholic if he so clearly disagrees with the Church. As a Catholic teacher, he ought to recognize that he has a duty to his students’ (and readers’) souls as well as their minds. There is a tradition in Catholic religious communities that when a superior dies, he or she will have to answer at the throne of God for anyone led astray under their care. Professor Camosy would do well to reflect on this idea. (Emphasis added)
And then, working backwards through the archive there is "Why Holy Cross Needs A Monastery" in September 2017
 Holy Cross needs a monastery so that we can return to our Catholic roots. I do not suggest that we abandon altogether our career searching and grad-school applying, only that each of us re-evaluates our priorities. A monastery on campus or just outside the gates is a way to emphasize the importance of prayer and refocus the mission of the school on bringing souls to heaven and not just to Fulbrights. The spiritual and financial investments would be worth every bit.
Clearly my second semester senior prank interpretation is unfair to someone as committed as Ms. Reilly, but I still think there is an element of it in the article about Liew.

Conservative Catholics

I have a certain grudging sympathy for the views of conservative Catholics even though like the faculty adviser to the Fenwick Review Professor David Schaefer, who is quoted in the Worcester Telegram, I don't have a dog in the fight.  Professor Schaefer, a long serving teacher of political science at Holy Cross, is Jewish and I am a Unitarian Universalist.

Like a conservative Catholic, I don't understand why somebody who has the perfectly reasonable view that not practicing birth control can be irresponsible or that it is just fine if graduates of Xavier High School or pre-1974 Holy Cross graduates  marry one one another (Both all male schools) chooses to remain a Catholic.  Unitarian Univesalism is much more suitable and if you really like all that ritual there is always the Episcopal Church, as long as you pick the right diocese.

Only I do understand it, because it is tribal. And there is a attachment to many fine institutions and I don't share the embitterment that many ex-Catholics have.  And those institutions were built and supported by people who didn't necessarily swallow all that infallible teaching whole and sometimes had a jaundiced view of the clergy.  

That American Catholicism had for a time possibly the most devout laity in the world may well have some roots in Ireland where Catholics were persecuted with the persecution continuing in milder form as they moved into being the most despised white people in the United States and of course successive waves of immigrants from Catholic countries have faced prejudice which helped bind them to the church, regardless of their thoughts on particular points of doctrine.

The Bishop Reacts

The wave of outrage includes a stern warning from Bishop McManus of Worcester. 
Holy Cross has a duty to, at least, ask Professor Liew if he rejects the biblical positions he penned some ten years ago or if he supports and defends those positions today. If he disavows them, then he must state so publicly, so as not to create confusion about the nature of Christ.  If he does not, then it is my duty as the Bishop of Worcester to clearly state that such teaching is a danger to the integrity of the Catholic faith and, in prudence, warn the Catholic faithful committed to my pastoral care that such unorthodox teaching has no place in a Catholic College whose mission is to promote and cultivate the Catholic intellectual tradition. 
Well I guess compared to burning at the stake it is not that stern a warning. After all nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

The College Reacts

The Holy Cross response to the whole thing is kind of interesting.  Back to the Fox Story

Holy Cross spokesman John Hill told Fox News that Liew hasn't taught the controversial material in the classroom. “The decade-old work referenced in the Fenwick Review article was not intended for an undergraduate classroom, nor has it ever been assigned at Holy Cross. It was an intentionally provocative work, not a statement of belief, meant to foster discussion among a small group of Biblical scholars exploring marginalization. No one has made a complaint about the content of Professor Liew’s classes in his four years at Holy Cross.”
Here we get an implicit, very subtle rebuke to Elinor Reilly.  What is she doing publicizing stuff written in a book that normal people would never read?  Doesn't she know that old truth - What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

A More Eloquent Defense of The College.

To get a different sort of Catholic view of the matter I reached out to Professor David. J O'Brien who retired from Holy Cross as the Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies.  He is an historian.  He was one of the people who inspired me to want to be an historian, but I try not to hold it against him.  I'm not the first person who has asked since he came back with a two pager, which I would publish here if he ever got back to me with permission.  Here are some of the high points:
 The College President and Provost have praised the professor’s teaching, scholarship and character, and they have properly reminded everyone of the importance of academic freedom. Some Catholics, including Worcester’s bishop and some devoted alumni of the College, are not persuaded. They claim to be “outraged” at the very idea that a professor at a Jesuit and Catholic college would speculate in public about Jesus’ sexual orientation
As a retired Holy Cross Professor I can assure friends of the College that the faculty and administrators who hired this professor did so with due deliberation, weighing the problems that would unfortunately arise if this earlier essay became widely known against the quality of his overall body of work. They must have determined that he would make an important contribution to the “conversation about basic human questions” that is central to the Holy Cross mission. I know and love Holy Cross graduates and the College’s many friends, and I believe deeply that Christian intelligence and imagination are invaluable to people of all sorts and to our diverse and often contentious human family. 
I am confident that the Holy Cross community, which has welcomed and now supports this professor, is deeply committed to teaching and research that leads to truth, and to love for the world and all people. In this and much else it is as Catholic as it ever was.
But How Did This Become A Thing?

I also reached out to Professor Schaefer who, having no dog in the theological fight, did have something to say on the academic side of things to the Worcester Telegram along with a bit of pride in what the students had accomplished:
I would be inclined to guess that this is the biggest scoop the Fenwick Review has run in 28 years.
He goes on:
I want to emphasize what is quoted from this man’s writing is the same kind of approach that has infiltrated what are broadly called the humanities across the United States. About 20 years ago somebody ‘discovered’ that the composer Handel was gay. Needless to say, Shakespeare was a cross-dresser and so on. Whether in English, philosophy, religion, history, and I’m sorry to say, in political science, my own field, this is how you get ahead: by coming up with something that first, will be outrageous or cutting edge, and second, will appeal to certain constituencies
I have to say that there may be as much or more of a threat to academic freedom from the left as there is from the right, but this time it is the right acting up and I wanted to find out how it got started.  Professor Schaefer got back to me quickly.  He didn't know but couldn't resist plugging the achievement of the students.
Please understand that as faculty adviser to the FR I have no supervisory role - barring some catastrophe (such as has never occurred) - and am limited to offering suggestions to the editors, both positive and negative, that they are free to ignore. I had no idea whatsoever that this article was being written or published, nor have I ever met the author. So I was in no position to anticipate any sort of reaction to it. Nor, finally, do I know how it wound up on Breitbart (and until your email I did not know it was there.) So far as I know the first national medium to pick up the story was National Review and I don't know how they got wind of it.  
I have not seen O'Brien's response, but I will simply observe that since the story appeared nobody has come forward to deny a single statement in it - not surprising since the author apparently drew directly on the professor's own writings. In my opinion the story seems to be a most impressive and much-needed work of journalistic enterprise. 

Like Professor Schaefer, I had thought that National Review had broken the story on a national basis.  There was Defending the Indefensible at Holy Cross by George Weigel a followup on March Madness at the College of The Holy Cross.

Under the regnant canons of academic freedom, Liew’s repulsive eisegesis will doubtless be defended by some, including colleagues at Holy Cross, as a “challenging” opinion that causes his readers to think again. To which the appropriate response is, “Bosh.” This isn’t challenging exegesis; if you want challenging exegesis, try the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright, or Duke’s C. Kavin Rowe. Liew’s eisegesis is ideological besottedness from the academic fever swamps. Anyone who considers it “scholarship” calls into question his or her own credentials as a scholar.

I tried reaching out Mr. Weigel who is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, but didn't have any luck.  If I ever got to talk to him I think I would want to ask how you can ever keep a straight face when your title is "distinguished senior fellow".

So I went through the tedious process of doing a day by day google search and I'm pretty sure I found the first shoot from the seed planted by Elinor Reilly and the Fenwick Review -

Holy Cross Theology Professor Says Jesus Was A 'Drag King' With 'Queer Desires" by Thomas D. Williams Ph.D who is the Breitbart Rome Bureau Chief.  I don't think the lead paragraph is that fair of a characterization of the Fenwick Review piece:
The theology program at the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross has taken on a new tone ever since the school appointed a gender-obsessed Chair of New Testament Studies who claims Jesus was a “drag king,” a new article contends.
Doctor Williams has a lot more theology training than I do, though.  I suspect that he is not responsible for what you might call the flaming Jesus photo that accompanies the story.  Doctor Williams expresses a concern:
What makes the heterodox perspectives of Professor Liew all the more scandalous at this Jesuit institution is that they are not reserved for some obscure graduate seminar, but are offered to undergraduates. In his prestigious role as chair of New Testament, Professor Liew often teaches “New Testament,” the College’s primary New Testament class.
As noted above, the College denies that Professor Liew was bringing these matters up in his classes.  You know the as long as you don't frighten the horses defense or undergraduates in this case.

I reached out to Doctor Williams and was pleasantly surprised when he got back to me.
A friend of mine (a Jesuit priest…) sent me a heads-up on the story. He thought it might be good to give it some publicity
Something tells me that that particular Jesuit priest did not call Father Philip Boroughs, President of the College of the Holy Cross, to ask him whether it would be a good idea to get his friend Thomas at Breitbart interested in the story.

Everybody Should Lighten Up A Little

Although, of course as the saying goes I don't know most of them from Adam, I really kind of like everybody involved in this story.  I think they are all engaged in "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning", the Fourth Principle of Unitarian Universalism and all trying to do the best job that they can.  There is probably a good chance Father Burroughs and Bishop McManus are frenemies.

My personal problem is that I tend to be attached to and admire various institutions I encounter, but seem to lack the ability to become a true believer in anything and muddle along as best I can.  I feel bad that my lack of attachment to any side in this debate has me experiencing a bit of schadenfreude.

 Overall I think Dr. O'Brien comes out best:
Our church most of the time teaches that genuine love more than anything else makes God present in our world. I am confident that the Holy Cross community, which has welcomed and now supports this professor, is deeply committed to teaching and research that leads to truth, and to love for the world and all people. In this and much else it is as Catholic as it ever was. 
But what do I know?

Peter J. Reilly CPA writes about taxes for and whatever piques his interest on this blog.  He graduated from Holy Cross in 1974 with a degree in history.  He has gotten over them changing the words to the school song, so nothing will phase him now.

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