Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Author discusses “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love”: Will Roscoe interview

Gay anthropologist Will Roscoe gives new insights into the connections between Jesus and same-sex love in an interview today at the Jesus in Love Blog.

He discusses recent archeological discoveries related to the queer Christ and his own beliefs about Jesus. His groundbreaking book “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love” is back in print with a new edition from Lethe Press. [Update in July 2020: It is back in print AGAIN with a new edition that is independently published.]

Drawing on recently discovered ancient sources, the book makes a persuasive argument that gay love and mysticism form a hidden tradition in Christianity. It won a Lambda Literary Award in 2005 and the new edition includes updated material.

In the following interview with lesbian Christian author Kittredge Cherry, Roscoe offers his detailed response to the latest controversies over the Secret Gospel of Mark and his analysis of newly discovered archeological evidence related to the queer Christ, such as the Gospel of Judas and a bowl with an inscription about “Christ the magician.”

The interview below also includes his thoughts on the role of Jesus in his own life. He tells how he identifies with “the love of equals and sames that Jesus refers to again and again.” He even reveals a recent spiritual experience that he had while viewing the Infant Jesus of Prague statue on a trip to the Czech Republic.

Will Roscoe 2012
(photo by Cass Brayton)
Roscoe is one of the most important scholars in the areas of queer history, anthropology and spirituality, especially Native American two-spirit traditions. Based in California, he has been active in the gay movement since 1975, working with such pioneering leaders as Harvey Milk and Harry Hay.

Roscoe’s first book, “The Zuni Man-Woman,” received the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology. His other books include “Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature” and “Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities.” Roscoe holds a Ph.D. in history of consciousness from the University of California in Santa Cruz and has taught anthropology and American Studies at various colleges and universities.

Lethe Press is an independent publisher specializing in titles of gay and lesbian interest, literary fiction, poetry, speculative fiction and science fiction.

Kittredge Cherry: Based on all your research, what do you believe about the sexual orientation of Jesus? What role did same-sex love play in the Jesus movement during his lifetime?

Will Roscoe: I don’t think I believe anything about the sexual orientation of Jesus. There just isn’t evidence. We have no idea what a gay Jewish peasant man of that era would even look like. Anyway, I don’t think it’s worth the effort trying to argue that Jesus was gay—or had a sexual orientation all. The resistance to that will always be enormous.

But everywhere in the gospels Jesus extols a special, new idea about “love,” using an uncommon term for love in a new and special way—“agape.” This is the love that occurs between individuals who are equal, who are not sharply differentiated by social status or age or gender. It is God’s gift of loving and being loved unconditionally. And it is the love of equals and sames that Jesus refers to again and again when he seeks to explain agape, which he sharply counters to the prevailing social relationships of his time: the highly stratified Greco-Roman world and the patriarchal relationships between men, women, and children in Jewish tradition.

My sexual orientation is that of a gay man. Pursuing my desire for bonding sexually and emotionally with a man who is my equal has led to me to provide experiences of love, and made me witness to what Jesus holds up as the most important teaching he has given his disciples when he says, “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Had he said “one’s family,” “one’s kin,” “one’s priest,” or “one’s king,” I wouldn’t have known what he was talking about. But this I understand. My life—my gay life—attests the truth of it.

Kittredge Cherry: Important new scholarship on the Secret Gospel of Mark has been published since your book “Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love” was first published almost 10 years ago. How has this changed your understanding of Jesus and the shamanic same-sex tradition?

Will Roscoe: In my book, I described the storm of controversy that greeted publication of Morton Smith’s study of the letter he discovered at a desert monastery in Palestine in the late 1950s. But once the controversy subsided, I noted that a “strange silence” followed. At that time, in the early 2000s, there was still a dearth of research concerning this revolutionary text, even as a growing consensus among mainstream scholars had accepted its authenticity. Indeed, many scholars now go further than Smith did in Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark: not only is the letter genuinely Clement’s, the passage from an unknown Gospel of Mark that Clement quotes is likely written by the same author who wrote the canonical gospel as we know it.

It’s taken a generation, but now the silence is ending. A growing number of books and articles are undertaking the task of assessing the implications of this remarkable discovery—a fragment of gospel text older than, but missing from, the canonical version. The value of this simply can’t be overstated. It is a loose thread in the tightly woven narrative by which the churches cloak themselves in authority. If we tug on it hard enough, the emperor will soon be revealed to have no clothes. Here is definitive evidence that the gospels are the product of human handiwork and human agendas. Our sacred texts have been edited.

Growing numbers of New Testament scholars now challenge the distinction between canonical and noncanonical early Christian writings as arbitrary and ideologically motivated. I think the Secret Gospel tips the scales. And as this distinction crumbles, the body of evidence available for our inquiries into the history of early Christianity expands exponentially.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Because what is the picture of early Christianity that the Secret Gospel gives us a glimpse of? In fact, all of its elements and characters and imagery and story lines are familiar to us. It’s a version of the Lazarus story; it hints at esoteric teachings—and similar hints are peppered throughout the gospels, especially in Mark. But here all these tropes are brought together in a single short passage. And now what the hints are hinting at is undeniable—Jesus taught secretly things he only alluded to in public.

The Secret Gospel answers a longstanding, although seemingly minor mystery—the reference to the naked youth fleeing from Gethsemane. Now we know who he is (a youthful follower of Jesus) and what is going on (a nocturnal session in which Jesus taught “the mystery of the kingdom of heaven.”)

But the Secret Gospel also solves a larger mystery. How and when did the Christian rite of baptism originate? The gospels don’t provide an origin story for this distinctive practice of emergent Christianity. John even seems to deny that Jesus practiced baptism at all. Yet, it is a well-established practice, the source of important theological speculations and vivid allusions, in the writings of Paul. Where did it come from?

To me, the Secret Gospel is immediately relevant to this inquiry about the origins of baptism. But this remains controversial, and few have seriously pursued it. The most important new work on Smith’s discovery is substantially devoted to arguing against seeing anything in the Secret Gospel of Mark or Clement’s letter having to do with ritual, whether baptism or other.

I’m referring to Scott Brown’s Mark’s Other Gospel, published the same year as Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love (2005). Brown starts with an impressive argument for the authenticity of the Clement’s letter and the Markan authorship of the Secret Gospel. (“Secret Gospel” is Smith’s translation of Clement’s term mustikou euaggeliou, which Brown better translates as “mystical Gospel.” Brown, however, for reasons devolving from his agenda, prefers to call the text the “Longer Gospel of Mark.”) Brown thoroughly debunks two recent books which claimed that Smith forged these texts—and that the motivation for doing so was tied to the fact that he was homosexual. (Speculations that Smith was gay remain unconfirmed, but have been the subtext of thinly veiled homophobic criticisms of Smith throughout his career.)

Having laid these controversies to rest, Brown goes on to develop new evidence that the Secret Gospel was written by Mark, based on recent insights into Mark’s literary techniques. However, Brown devotes the bulk of his effort to debunking Smith’s interpretation of the “Longer Mark”: namely, that it provides evidence of a baptismal practice by Jesus. Brown is at great pains to deny that any such ritual interpretation of the text can be made. To do so, he must argue that Clement’s description of the origin, purpose, and meaning of the Secret Gospel, while seemingly permeated with allusions to mystical experience and esoteric beliefs, is purely metaphorical. He sums up his position this way: “This figurative use of mystery-religion language was standard in the writings of Alexandrian Jewish and Christian authors of this period and should not be taken to imply a cultic setting for readings of the longer text.”

I am not convinced. Of course, I was trained in graduate school in postmodern discourse theory, and one doesn’t need to make a special argument that any given text refers, not to a putative reality, but to…other texts. From the point of view of discourse theory all language is always metaphorical and figurative.

But I am also a student of anthropology and religious studies. I know that in all traditions myth and ritual are intimately connected, that rituals are enacted myths, and myths are instruction manuals—liturgies—for ritual. It would be an exception to these patterns to find myths, such as those told by Clement, Origen, and the Secret Gospel, employing ritual structures and weighted with symbols of ritual, to not to have had, at some point in their history, a relationship to ceremony—that is, to the performance and enactment, using gestures and symbols, of what myths tell. It seems to me that Clement and Origen are saying just this: these words ARE metaphoric and allegorical, allusive language for representing something that ultimately cannot be represented: experience. But these words are true and you should believe them because what they describe is something that can be and has been experienced.

So when I read the Secret Gospel, I see the undeniable outlines of a ritual structure: the rite of passage. It follows precisely the stages Arnold van Gennep identified in his famous work, The Rites of Passage. And we see this kind of structure and language in references to baptism throughout the early Christian period, in canonical and non-canonical texts. For me, there’s just too much evidence to ignore the conclusion that actual ritual practices and religious writings had a long and symbiotic relationship with each other: rituals enacting, preserving and transmitting myth; myth providing narratives that give ritual deeper meaning and resonance for those who undergo them.

And…in any case…even without evidence of a “cultic setting,” I’m mindful of a comment by Claude Levi-Strauss—where did I read it?—that myths are “thought rituals.” That is, the mental “performance” of a myth by reading it—that is, “thinking” it—or as Jung put it, “dreaming the myth onwards”—produces the psychological effects of performed ritual—which, as in all rites of passage, is nothing less than an experience of death, rebirth, and return, a passage from an old self to a new, higher state of being.

Aside from this recent scholarship, two new findings of primary evidence have occurred in the years since Jesus was first published. The painstakingly restored Gospel of Judas, released with much fanfare in 2006, provides a unique glimpse into the worldview of a marginal Christian community in the mid-second century C.E. The text mounts a withering critique of what is presumably the orthodox branch of the Christian movement at the time. And in the eyes of the Gospel of Judas, these Christians look remarkably like Paul’s opponents as I described in my book. They engage in mystical practices involving interactions with angels and stars, they are interested in astrology—and they are arsenokoitēs; queer if you will, using Paul’s idiosyncratic word which seems to refer to male prostitution or, perhaps, homosexuals generally. In fact, the Gospel of Judas is a distinctly Pauline text in its themes and language. All this is fully consistent with my argument in Jesus.

Paul’s opponents, it should be remembered, represented the church in Jerusalem and knew Jesus personally—claims Paul could not make.

A second fascinating discovery comes from the waters off Alexandria in Egypt. It is a bowl, roughly dated to the era during and after Jesus’ lifetime, inscribed with the phrase “by Christ the magician.” It appears to be an example of precisely the sort of bowl used in the magical procedures that Smith argues many early Christians engaged in—procedures which produced, among other things, an hallucinatory experience of ascending through the heavens.

I have articles on both these discoveries posted on my website at

Kittredge Cherry: Are you Christian, Will?

Will Roscoe: Funny you should ask that. Officially, of course, no—as in HELL no. I am a feminist gay man who rejects patriarchal religions of the book, and I practice an alternative spirituality that derives its values from nature and from the life-creating and sustaining powers that women, especially embody. I am one of those fanatical ex-Catholics who can’t say enough bad things about the Church. You know, “whore of Babylon,” “legions of Pharisees,” and such.

I initially approached my work on Jesus as a student of religion, interested in diverse religious beliefs and practices, respectful of all heart-felt spiritual experience but viewing none as especially better than any other. But the more I engaged with the New Testament texts the more I thought, “This isn’t what they told me Jesus was about at all.” I kept having this uncanny sensation that I get this, I get this guy, I get what he’s saying about love. Not only does it resonate with my experience as a gay man; he tells me that my experiences are central to what this mission of love is about.

Infant Jesus of Prague
(Wikimedia Commons)
In April of this year I was in Prague. I visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious where the Infant Jesus of Prague “doll” is installed. Maybe I was tired after a long day of sightseeing. Maybe it was jet lag. I knelt and I prayed. The kneeling only lasted about a minute before the pain was too much. But I prayed for longer, and I asked for help for myself and friends I’m concerned about. I haven’t done that since I was a child. For years, I’ve practice a form of meditation, and I always assumed that if there was anything to praying, it was because it involved similar techniques to meditation. But I found that the experience involved something different than meditation, something I needed to do. That is, to invoke in my mind deity as I envision it, and then to talk to it like it was a friend who loved me unconditionally. Mind you, I was praying to a wax doll wearing a dress—the Infant Jesus, protector of women and children—not Jehovah. But it was a powerful experience.

So, no. I’m not Christian. But I guess I’m still a Catholic!

This post is part of the Queer Christ series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not surprised at all to see a gay man pervert all historical characters to his view in order to make himself feel better. In real history, homosexuals were beaten, stoned, and left to rot. That is real history, but nobody wants to hear that. Instead, we hear a doctored version of history written by a gay man with his own interests that seeks to normalize his own perverted fantasies. I guess the story of Sodom never happened, did it?