Boswell lecture to examine New Testament through queer theory

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 3, 2024
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Professor Luis Menéndez-Antuña, shown with Finn, his golden doodle, will be delivering the Boswell lecture at the Pacific School of Religion's Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. Photo: Courtesy Luis Menéndez-Antuña
Professor Luis Menéndez-Antuña, shown with Finn, his golden doodle, will be delivering the Boswell lecture at the Pacific School of Religion's Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion. Photo: Courtesy Luis Menéndez-Antuña

This year's Boswell lecture at the Pacific School of Religion's Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion will be offering an interpretation of the intersection between sex and the Bible based in queer theory.

The Berkeley-based Protestant Christian seminary puts on the lecture. This year's iteration, the 17th annual, "Why Do Biblical Interpreters Hate Sex So Much?" will be presented by Luis Menéndez-Antuña, a gay man who's an assistant professor of New Testament at the Boston University School of Theology.

The lecture, which is free, will be Thursday, April 18, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Pacific time. People interested in watching or listening should register in advance on the CLGS website where they can sign up for a Zoom link.

Menéndez-Antuña's lecture questions the progressive interpretations of the New Testament, which, he said, often come about to affirm one's own preconceived identity and conclusions.

"I'm very honored and pleased," Menéndez-Antuña said in a recent Facetime interview. "I've been working on questions of queer interpretation for quite a while now and I'm very pleased to give this lecture particularly because these are issues with which many pastors, practitioners, and theologians struggle with, and also because for pastoral purpose, one of the consequences of this approach is in the life of the church ... a stronger awareness of the need for sex education, and what sex is and what sex does."

The lecture is named for the late John Boswell, considered one of the founders of queer theology. An Episcopalian-turned-Roman Catholic theologian and Yale professor who focused on the intersection between homosexuality and Christianity in his studies, Boswell died of complications due to AIDS in 1994. In his work "Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe," Boswell famously wrote about an eighth century liturgical Greek manuscript featuring a sacramental union between two men — and wondered if this was, perhaps, a marriage ceremony.

Menéndez-Antuña will argue that progressive circles have maintained "Paul's rather contemptuous stance on pleasure," the CLGS website states, which have "morphed into less visible iterations — harder to identify and, therefore, assuming more insidious postures."

"Part of the assumption within progressive circles is we can go back to the Bible in order to retrieve historical information that will help us to be better to people, in a way," Menéndez-Antuña said. "My argument goes against this trend because drawing against this trend, drawing from recent queer theory, sex is mostly a force that goes against identity formation."

Menéndez-Antuña said he's drawing from a strain of queer theory inaugurated by the late academic Leo Bersani, who argued in his AIDS-era essay "Is the Rectum a Grave?" that "there is a big secret about sex: most people don't like it."

What people don't like about sex, Menéndez-Antuña said, is that it deconstructs identity.

"Sex is a force that deconstructs the ego," he said. "Humans tend to build identity on ego formation. I'm a teacher, I'm a husband, I'm a journalist, I'm a theologian, I'm a son: all of those are ego identifications, and his [Bersani's] argument is sex is a force that chips away at identity formation, and instead of looking away from this destructive force, we should actually take it in the center of how we think of ourselves."

The lecture will give four ways in which this intersects with the New Testament's views of sexuality, some of which buttress identity and some of which deconstruct identity, but all of which should be read on their own terms, Menéndez-Antuña said.

"There's not just one way to read the Bible in a queer way," he said. "Instead of paying attention to those [passages] which reinforce where we are, we should pay more attention to the ones that deconstruct who we are."

For example, "in the gospels, we see Jesus talking about asking the disciples to abandon their wives. That's a good example in which a moral norm goes against the construction of identity. For many people, marriage was the foundation of their identity. In other cases, for example Paul talks about same-sex relations going against Christian identity because they're an example of idolatry. In that case, moral forms reinforce identity rather than destroy it."

Conservative theologians typically take the dissertation in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans chapter 1 as a blanket prohibition of homosexuality; progressive theologians typically argue it is a reference to temple prostitution and pederasty, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported in a story about a recent documentary that alleged a related passage of the New Testament had been mistranslated.

"Sexuality is an identity — gay, straight, lesbian, a plethora of identities — and his [Bersani's] argument is that sex does away with those kinds of identities," Menéndez-Antuña said. "That's actually what I'm trying to point out at the end of the lecture — progressive circles try to take moral norms from the Bible to enforce the ego, when at the center is the negation of the ego."

MCC pastor completed time at center, ED says

Bernard Schlager, Ph.D., associate professor of historical and cultural studies at the school and the executive director of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion, told the B.A.R. that the Reverend Dr. Roland Stringfellow, who'd been the managing director of the center in 2023, has now left.

Stringfellow is the pastor of a Metropolitan Community Churches congregation in Detroit; Schlager was on sabbatical last year, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

"Roland left CLGS at the end of December 2023 to move into full-time social work in the Detroit area where he has been living (and pastoring) for the past several years," Schlager stated to the B.A.R. "CLGS is opening a search soon for Roland's replacement as coordinator of the CLGS African American Roundtable; that was a part-time position held by Roland for many years. We miss him but are grateful for his 15-year connection to CLGS: first as a student and then as a member of our CLGS staff."

Stringfellow did not return a request for comment.

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