John Boswell and the Gay Christian Movement Watch

DL Foster pens an interesting note on John Boswell, who was a Yale history professor until he died of AIDS.  The book that Foster is referring to is Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.  It is an amazing book, not just for the topic but just for the incredible research that was put into this work.  The footnotes alone are like reading another book.  Unfortunately, and as usual, it appears that Foster only quotes what other people have to say about it instead of actually reading and understanding the book.  On the other hand, my copy is one of the most worn-out books that I own. 

I first read this book years ago and I have to say that the most frustrating part of this book were the footnotes.  Most of them contain the original languages, which include (among others) Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  Boswell knew that his topic was controversial and gave his audience as much background information and supporting material as he could.  When I first read the book I did not have the languages to fully appreciate what he did.  But now I do and re-reading the book has been an eye-opening experience.  That is not to say you can’t understand it if you don’t know the languages–that is not the case at all.  It is an amazing piece of scholarship and anyone interested in Christianity and its history with gays and lesbians should really read it and the follow-up volume, Same-sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

About Boswell and the book Foster states:


In fact, if any Christian is confused by the rhetoric of tolerance and acceptance preached by the gay christian movement of today, one would need to look no further than Boswell’s book as the origin. Boswell’s book, more than the man himself, was the fathering voice of gay christian movement.
Advocates of homosexuality hailed the book primarily because they saw it as long awaited proof the sexually restrictive moral codes and standards of Christianity were indeed wrong. In Boswell’s book, they found the “authority” required to assault those standards.

Using his extensive Yale training in history and medieval languages, Boswell shrewdly argued that homosexuality was both tolerated and admired in historical western Christianity.

But like many homosexuals who have written what could be termed brilliant exposition or some other form of self-enabling research (Simon LeVay And the Hypothalamus theory), Boswell was out to prove a point that would stand only to benefit himself and others who rejected predominant Christian teaching on homosexuality.
But James Brundage, a professor of history and law at the University of Kansas, was quoted in an Associated Press story of Boswell’s death that, while the “mainstream reaction” believed Boswell raised some interesting questions, he hadn’t proved his case.

Two things I need to say here–Greek, Latin and Hebrew are not ‘medieval languages.’  Foster should spend a bit of time researching what he is actually writing about before showing his bias and his ignorance.  Second, it is clear that Foster probably did not even open the book because even though he states that this spectacular research was ‘self-enabling,’ the preface of the book states:

It is, on the other hand, the province of the historian not to praise or blame but merely to record and explain.  This book is not intended as support or criticism of any particular contemporary points of view–scientific or moral–regarding homosexuality.  Where extended discussion of arguments against homosexual behavior has been presented, the aim has been twofold:  to demonstrate that what may seem to have been the origin of popular antipathy in the past often was not, and to clarify crucial differences between ostensibly analogous ancient and modern objections to homosexuality.  (xv)

Clearly Foster understands what ‘self-enabling is’ (just look at his own life’s work), but clearly what Boswell did was not.  This argument that writings about the history of gay men and women by gay men and women is naturally suspect and ‘self-enabling’ reminds me of a conversation I had at the Society of Biblical Literature in November.  Part of a dinner discussion revolved around a gay scholar who was arguing that an early church father was gay.  One of my scholarly friends said, ‘oh, that is a bit suspicious.’  Now I don’t know if these friends know that I am gay or not (it has never come up) but I chimed in and said that if that were really the case, then everything that straight men and women who write about straight families and straight history could be seen as naturally suspicious as well.  The conversation stopped briefly and I could see that my dinner friend had a moment of new understanding and she agreed wholeheartedly.  So it is ridiculous to point to a gay scholar who spent a decade researching this book and call it ‘self-enabling.’  In fact, it is down-right insulting.  Foster probably has no clue that Boswell also wrote a book called The Kindness of Strangers:  The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance.  Do you think that Foster would also call this a self-enabling book as well?  Probably not, since it has nothing to do with gays and lesbians.  Hence you can understand the bias that Foster has against anything written by a gay man about gay and lesbian issues.


And speaking of insulting, here is the last thing that Foster, who clearly never read the book, has to say:

Boswell left a legacy which, in our opinion, will cause many well meaning individuals to be blinded by Boswell’s brilliant lie. For all the intelligence and intellect Boswell harnessed to construct such a web of deception, be himself seemed to be its greatest victim.

‘A web of deception’ and ‘a brilliant lie’?  Foster makes it sound as if Boswell spent a decade traveling over Europe and translating all of his own texts just to deceive and lie to people.  Then again, if there are two things that Foster understands, it is deception and lies. 


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4 Responses to John Boswell and the Gay Christian Movement Watch

  1. Rob says:

    I once wanted to read Boswell, but then I decided as a non-christian, I really didn\’t care what they based their superstitions on – and since we lived in a country that has a seperation of church and state, their superstitions shouldn\’t have any weight on our laws.  I may still be interested in Same-sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe though.

  2. Kevin says:

    Hey Rob, I can see your point.  But since their beliefs do have weight with our laws (like all of these anti-gay marriage amendments), I thought that it was a good book to use to fight these people who really want a theocracy instead of a democracy. 

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