Augustine of Hippo, the famous 4th century Catholic, writes in his Confessions of his friend Alypius dying. “For I felt that my soul and his were one soul in two bodies, and therefore life was a horror to me, since I did not want to live as a half; and yet I was also afraid to die lest he, whom I had loved so much, would completely die.”
It’s nice to have something to live for?
Augustine reflects bitterly, attacking himself for the erotic current he’d felt between them. “Thus I contaminated the spring of friendship with the dirt of lust and darkened its brightness with the blackness of desire.”
When a gay theologian, John Boswell, pointed this out in his 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, many were startled. They had read Augustine, but hadn’t?
That’s how it is in Christianity. Look closer, and you’ll see it.
A 15th century manuscript celebrating the Catholic saints depicts two images of Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, getting up from bed and putting on a really lovely dress.
The story was that a monk snuck into his room, and replaced Jerome’s habit with the woman’s garment. Waking early for Matins, the saint hadn’t even noticed? The shame from the fallout causes him to flee Rome for the Syrian desert, where he writes a hallucinatory description of himself exposed to the heat of the sun, and the heat of lust for “bevies of girls.”
That might’ve happened, or it might not’ve. Reading his work, we can see it seems with feminine reference—for himself. As Virginia Burrus notices, he’s given to playing the woman in the Song of Songs, or Mary Magdalene: “Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, I watered them with my tears, I wiped them with my hair, and then I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence…”
Could Jerome be transgender? Could those around him have read him so?
This is hardly incidental or gossipy. It was Jerome, as Joel N. Lohr details, who created the inaccurate translation of Genesis 3:16. He took a Hebrew word that meant ‘turning’, and substituted ‘submission’—a word totally unrelated to the context, but which created the message about women that Christianity learned to love:
thy submission shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
The actual verse says that the woman, though childbearing will cause her pain, will ‘return’ to the man, but Jerome created a new meaning, whose origins would seem to be the woman he kept fighting within himself.
If he wanted her to ‘submit’—she never did.
If the Bible is read without the tradition’s blinders, it’s an absurdly pro-LGBTQ document. That spiritual people are often sexually different is openly acknowledged when Jesus praises the “eunuch for the kingdom” in Matthew 19:12. That left Christianity having to invent the historical hoax that eunuchs were non-sexual.
Eunuchs were famous for being sexual — even in Christian sources. As J. David Hester notes: “Jerome and Tertullian doubted castration bridled any passion in them.” A ‘eunuch for the kingdom’ is someone who focuses less on biological family than on the family of God.
This was Jesus himself, who has one scene of intimacy, in John 13:23, with a younger man. “Love one another,” he says.
But Christian scholars and commentators reflexively deny the queerness of their saints. After John Boswell died of AIDS in 1994, they moved to resurrect Augustine’s heterosexuality. “Thus there is no evidence,” notes Alan G. Soble in 2002, “that he engaged in sexual acts with this friend.”
Like Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained blue Gap dress, the new standard was cut-and-dry physical evidence. Lacking any description of the men having sex, Augustine’s homosexual lament, Soble says, was “irrelevant.”
For regular people, life is a series of rules, codes, directives, directions. For queer people, life is often a series of signs, suggestions, missed connections, omissions—and guesses? Maybe Augustine was such a misogynist because he was repressing the female in himself. His attacks on women became identified with Christianity, and now seem amazing in intensity.
“Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards,” he writes, “as the caresses of a woman and that physical intercourse which is part of marriage.”
A biographer notes: “No woman might set foot over the threshold of his house. No woman might speak to him except in the presence of some other person. . . . He did not even make an exception for his own elder sister and his nieces, all three of them nuns.”
It reminds me of the old gay bars with signs on the door: “No fish.”
I’m reading letters by Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. He had a young theology student named Jerome Waller living with he and his family, tutoring their children. Waller was given to depressive bouts, and Luther writes him with advice.
In these kinds of struggles, you must show contempt for the devil if you wish to defeat him. Laugh at him, scorn him, and ask him who he thinks he is. Most importantly avoid being alone, for the devil becomes most dangerous to you when you are alone. The devil is conquered by mocking and insulting him, not by resisting and arguing with him. Therefore, Jerome, joke and frolic with my wife and others. That’s the best way to rid yourself of diabolical thoughts and be strong.
The phrase “joke and frolic with my wife” seems odd, but I’d let it go? Luther writes young Waller again in 1533, this time explaining how he personally deals with depression.
How often have I grasped my wife and rubbed against her naked body that by arousing sexual desire in this way I might drive away those thoughts that come from Satan. But it has not been very effective; he refuses to give up. For Satan is the author of death; he has so defiled our nature that we do not accept consolation. Hence let everyone strive to expel these diabolical thoughts by arousing in himself other thoughts such as of beautiful girls, or by hearty eating and drinking, or by stirring up in himself some other powerful feeling. I recommend these things, although the best of all remedies is to believe in Jesus Christ.
When a man writes a young man who’s lived with him, to describe how he rubs his naked wife, but it doesn’t help . . . and urges thoughts of beautiful girls, or eating, or thinking of Jesus—I hear two very repressed gay men.
Many conservative Christians still don’t know that King James, of the ‘King James Bible’ fame, was homosexual.
In front of his advisors, he addressed the controversy. “I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his John, and I have my George.”
The History of England, published in 1883 by Samuel Rawson Gardiner, reports in shocked tones: “He did not see, or did not care to see, that the King’s prostration at the feet of Buckingham was more than a temporary evil, or that the disease was one which would require a sharper cure than any that his statesmanship was able to administer.”
The ‘he’ who isn’t ‘seeing’ is Francis Bacon, the great scientist, whose admirers long believed he had been unable to see the king’s evil. An 1885 biography explains: “Such a disappointment would have been too bitter for endurance; and he avoided it by shutting his eyes to patent facts.”
Bacon, as revealed later, was himself gay.
One might think Christians just don’t see the signs, read the cues, or really, see much of anything. But queers, who often live in the vague, undefined, nebulous and shifting, were not around to teach them.
Biographies of famous Christians don’t always discuss the subject’s nascent queer theology’? I was reading Diane Reynolds’ 2016 book The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany, about the theologian that the very conservative John Piper had called the “patron saint” of Evangelical Christianity.
But Bonhoeffer has had a remarkable ability — for a Christian — to speak to everyone. He might be the subject of a post at Piper’s conservative Desiring God site, or an article in Feminist Theology. (“His final perspective on gender and representation might be more advanced than expected,” notes Ulrike Auga in 2015.)
Conservatives were dazzled by their hero’s daring plot to execute Hitler and a call to extreme ‘discipleship’ . . . and overlook that Bonhoeffer spent his last chunk of life, in prison, writing letters to Eberhard Bethge, the love of his life. And re-thinking the sexual ethics of the last two millennia.
Bethge published the letters in 1951, as Letters and Papers from Prison, andthe world was moved by the Christian pastor writing to the future he predicts would have “no religion at all: men as they are now simply cannot be religious any more.”
This was taken to refer to effects of the world wars, etc. But another factor, as later biography would disclose, was in the mix: Bonhoeffer’s apparent inner quandary over his sexuality.
No words for it were available to him. Reynolds notes that Bonhoeffer read George Santayana’s homoerotic novel The Last Pilgrim. “I have sometimes recognized myself in Oliver,” he writes Bethge. “Do you understand that?”
It’s not clear the letters survive uncensored. Reynolds notes “the pattern of missing letters and pieces of letters just at moments where there’s apparently an uncomfortable discussion of love or sexuality.”
What’s clear, even so, is that they tell a gay love story.
The first edition hadn’t noted any personal names, Bethge recalled, and when promoting them in America, he was told the letters “must have been between homosexuals. Otherwise such an intensive correspondence was hardly imaginable.”
He laughed it off, but before his death in 2000, notes biographer Charles Marsh, Bethge was asked about the possibility of Bonhoeffer being gay. He replied that “while their relationship had not been sexual, he understood why people might ask such questions.”
Marsh’s biography, in 2014, had first disclosed what Christian academics had long discussed in private: the mystery of Bonhoeffer’s sexuality. Nothing was certain, but there were clues? — like he and Bethge sharing a bedroom, bank account, going on vacations, fighting and signing their Christmas cards, “Dietrich and Eberhard.”
Reviewing Marsh’s book for The Gospel Coalition, Michael Littell called it “reprehensible,” “unnerving,” and hoped people wouldn’t read it.
The eminent theologian Scot McNight pondered the matter, and told the faithful: fear not!
There is no explicit evidence; the relationship remained chaste; Bethge was engaged and then married and Bonhoeffer himself was engaged; there is Hitler’s extermination system that included homosexuals; and Marsh speculates on things without any evidence. There are suggestions according to Marsh: they shared a bank account, they shared Christmas presents, they spent constant time together, Bonhoeffer’s (not Bethge’s) endearing language in letters, Bonhoeffer’s getting engaged not long after Bethge got engaged, and Bonhoeffer’s obsessiveness with Bethge. OK, but it’s all suggestion, and this is complicated by Bonhoeffer’s obsession with clothing and appearance.
Amid the anxiety over whether the two men had made physical contact, a fact was overlooked: that Bonhoeffer had begun to dream of a world, post-Christian perhaps, but devoted to love?
The vision was smuggled in . . . hidden where Christianity wouldn’t be able to see it: right in the open.
“Sexuality is nothing but the ultimate possible realization of belonging to each other,” Bonhoeffer writes. “It has here as yet no life of its own detached from this, its purpose.”
That was written with ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in mind, but he was, perhaps, getting flexible.
It was the other great Christian romance of the 20th century: C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. In 1961, after she dies, he writes A Grief Observed, a memoir of himself mourning. But there’s a brief reference to her.
“For those few years H. and I feasted on love, every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.”
The movie Shadowlands, in 1993, depicted their charming story: the aged Oxford don and world-famous Christian commentator getting married. “Well, I’m not entirely sure of the procedure,” the actor (Anthony Hopkins) says awkwardly, but charmingly, of their getting sexual.
She guides him through his usual rituals as he gets ready for bed. “When you get to the last bit, I’ll be here too,” she says. “That’s the procedure.”
Biography dismantled this fantasy completely. Since teenage years, Lewis had a fascination with erotic spanking, “beautifully intimate and also very humiliating for the victim.” He’d sign his name Philomastix, ‘lover of the whip’. He liked Rousseau’s Confessions, for the spanking theme. Famously, the French philosopher writes of his pleasure in receiving erotic tortures from a woman, which Lewis reports: “I can feel too, but it is a feeling more proper to the other sex.”
He seems to have had a long romance, of sorts, with a woman twenty-five years older, but late in life was pressed to marry Joy Davidman, a Jewish poet who fancied him. He married her, it seemed, to help her out, though didn’t it help him? His reputation as lifelong bachelor was put to bed.
Lewis and Davidman, by several reports, were never sexual. He writes a female friend: “You will not think that anything wrong is going to happen. Certain problems do not arise between a dying woman and an elderly man. What I am mainly acquiring is two (nice) stepsons.”
But it seems she’d married him with hopes of a sexual relationship. An autobiographical set of poems was recently published.
O my Antarctica, my new-found land
Of woman-killing frost! but could I dare
More than the least touch of a casual hand;
Could I but come upon you in your bed
And kiss you at my leisure . . .
She writes in a poem following: “I wish you were the woman, I the man . . .”