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Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
The Gay Disciple:
Jesus’ friend tells it his own way
O Books, paperback, 152 pages, $8.77
Available from Amazon.com
The Gay Disciple: Jesus' Friend Tells It His Own Way
Reviewed by Toby Johnson
“The Life of Christ” is, in itself, a literary genre. Authors down through time, starting with the gospel writers themselves, have used the story of Jesus of Nazareth as a template for conveying the various threads of spiritual wisdom, morality, and social structure that is called Christianity according to their own personal interpretations and intuitions. The basic story of Jesus’s life is well established—by traditional belief if not by actual historical evidence. Thus one thrust of the genre these days, made possible by modern scientific research techniques, tries to describe Jesus’s life as it actually was. Another thrust—and this is the one the evangelists themselves were part of—tries only to convey the message and the spiritual experience of the author; this thrust deals with historicity rather cavalierly.
In the last few years, perhaps encouraged by the success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, a new generation of writers have been inspired to reimagine and retell the story of Jesus with a whole new feminist and modernist sensibility. The very idea that the gospels are more poetry than history is itself a distinctly modernist insight.
Besides the highly promoted life of Christ by Anne Rice, the gay-popular horror writer and mother of a gay son, three gay sensitive lives of Christ have passed across my desk in the past year.
Retired MCC lesbian minister Kittredge Cherry tells the story in the first person of Jesus—a daring perspective!—in a book with a daring title: Jesus in Love. Taking the myth motif of Jesus as the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity literally, Cherry portrays him, paradoxically and enlighteningly, as fully conscious of being God and as being a regular guy and a modern, psychologically sophisticated and sexually aware ego-person. Cherry’s Jesus is remarkable; by portraying him as having an inner erotic life (with some mind-blowing fantasies if ever there were), the author is able to articulate a wholesome Christian spirituality of sex.
University of Southern California anthropology professor and longtime director of L.A.’s ONE Institute Center, Walter L. Williams, has written a life of Christ called The Teachings of Jesus. Williams is author of the book The Spirit and the Flesh which first piqued gay America’s interest in shamanistic two-spirit tradition in Native American cultures—and my collaborator last year on the novel Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo. Williams’ book, similar to Thomas Jefferson’s effort in the so-called “Jefferson’s Bible,” paraphrases and interweaves the stories of the four gospels in order to extract the philosophy and spiritual teaching of Jesus. Williams brings a Buddhist perspective to the telling, so his Jesus comes across, like Buddha, as a wise teacher, not an incarnate God. Williams’ expression of Jesus’s message is gay-sensitive and modernly sensible.
John Henson, a Welsh progressive Christian minister and school teacher, and though heterosexually married with three children and nine grandchildren, a longtime activist with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in England, has taken an entirely different tack in The Gay Disciple: Jesus’ friend tells it his own way. Henson has imagined the story of Jesus’s life from the perspective of minor characters in the New Testament, what might be called the “back story” of Jesus and his friends. He thus insightfully invents some plot twists.
The woman disciple in the New Testament called Salome, for instance, Henson reveals was indeed the dancing princess who’d called for the head of John the Baptist but who then experienced a conversion and became a follower. The “Gethsemani Streaker” mentioned in passing in the Gospel of Mark was the young son of the couple who ran The Phoenix Hotel and Bar where Jesus and his friends rented a second floor party room for their Passover gathering. The boy had waited tables the night of the Last Supper and was so excited from meeting Jesus he couldn’t sleep; so when he saw the torches of the soldiers coming toward the gardens on Olive Hill where the party guests had gone walking, wrapped himself in a sheet and ran out to see what was going on. (He shows up again in a couple of pleasantly surprising roles, but I won’t ruin the surprise by saying any more in this review.)
Also telling their side of the story are: Zaccheus, the tax collector Jesus befriended; Veronica, the woman who wiped Jesus’s face with her veil on his way to his death who turns out to have been the woman accused of adultery whom he forgave with his famous words about the first stone; Mary the sister of Lazarus who reveals she was actually the basis of the story of the Prodigal Son; Clopas, the husband of Jesus’s mother’s younger sister, also named Mary, who was also at the crucifixion, who tells that he was one of the disciples to whom Jesus appeared on the way to Emmatown the night after the Resurrection. The book takes its name from the longest of these accounts, that by a character cobbled together out of several Biblical references, who is identified as Lazarus.
This man who has become Jesus’s close friend and who is raised from the dead by Jesus is revealed to have been the “rich young man” to whom Jesus says “Sell all that you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” In Lazarus’s account, the reader learns that though he had at first turned away because he was afraid of losing his fortune, he soon had second thoughts—and a rush of infatuation—and came back to accept Jesus’s invitation. He sells off a major portion of his inheritance, including an olive and date farm called Dategrove, in order to finance Jesus’s first social service projects. Jesus wisely tells him to retain some of the property so they’ll have place for the disciples to all live communally and to provide housing for homeless lepers.
Henson’s stories of the New Testament are remarkable because of their tone of voice and the “translation” of biblical language into modern, everyday lingo. This is exemplified in the characters’ names. Lazarus goes by the nickname Larry, Peter is called Rocky, Salome is Sally, Zaccheus is Keith, Clopas Clover, Mary Magdalene Maggie, and the Blessed Mother is Mam.
Larry Dategrove is “liberated” and consciously homosexual, though he doesn’t use that word, but simply says he wasn’t interest in marrying, had no feelings for the opposite sex and didn’t find that a problem. He’s the “gay disciple” and he’s the disciple Jesus loved, though it is never clear how sexual the relationship is between them. But he’s the “spouse” who stays home to mind the house and farm while Jesus is out teaching and traveling and who takes care of Mam after Jesus’s passing.
There is a down-to-earth realism in how John Henson’s multiplicity of voices recount their stories about Jesus. This is maybe what the original gospels would have sounded like to native speakers. While The Gay Disciple is a reimagining of the New Testament stories, it’s more about the development of the early church out of his friends’ fond memories than it is about Jesus’s life (the crucifixion happens in chapter three).
The title of the book is reminiscent of Theodore Jennings’ The Man Jesus Loved with its analysis of sexual patterns in gospel times to elucidate what the expression “beloved disciple” could have actually meant. But this is really an entirely different sort of book. The “gay message” of Henson’s story is less about Jesus’s orientation than about how naturally the Christian reform would have included sexually liberated and gender variant men and women.
Current day Fundamentalism and Biblical literalism have turned the story of Jesus to stone. But beyond the Bible, this story of the insightful young man who saw through religion and got himself murdered by the Church of his day because he told people doctrine and law didn’t matter as much as love and kindness remains a rich and meaningful story. The “Lives of Christ” as literary genre enrich this wisdom and apply it to contemporary realities. Though they certainly can’t get themselves added to the canon of Scripture anymore, the writers mentioned above—Kittredge Cherry, Walter Williams, John Henson, even Anne Rice—are doing what religion is really about: recreating the myth for their own times. Gay consciousness is now part of human consciousness and naturally recapitulates Jesus’s teaching that love and compassion trump religion and law. It’s good that the Jesus story be written to include gay experience. The Life of Christ is an appropriate subset of gay literary genre.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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