The Challenge of Christianity for Gay and Lesbian Criticism-And Vice Versa

By Jones, Norman W. | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Challenge of Christianity for Gay and Lesbian Criticism-And Vice Versa


Jones, Norman W., Christianity and Literature


The current turn to religion in literary criticism is a return--a repetition, but one with critical differences. Arguably two of the most important differences are, first, that literary critics today are generally less knowledgeable about even the most influential religious traditions (including Christianity) than our forebears in the profession were. Second, in light of contemporary literary criticisms well-established concern for marginalized voices and perspectives, there seems to be a growing recognition (though sometimes uneasy) that religious voices and perspectives are often among those marginalized. More pointedly, as Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe argues, religious voices tend to be marginalized especially by scholars.

In the case of Christianity, there is a special relationship between these two aspects of the recent return to religion in literary criticism. As scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson contend, the widespread lack of sophisticated understandings of Christianity ironically owes in part to the ways in which Christianity is not a peripheral but rather a central, dominant worldview in U.S. culture. Witness contemporary literary critics' increasing "discoveries" of Christian formal and thematic influences in Anglo-American literature as if for the first time, when in fact those influences have been there all along. Indeed, literary criticism's current return to religion should not be taken to suggest a corresponding return to religious themes and interests in contemporary literature, for instance; on the contrary, such themes and interests are not new to contemporary literature because, broadly speaking, they never left it.

This means, among other things, that sophisticated consideration of the relationships among cultural centers and peripheries holds special promise as a heuristic for exploring Christianity not only in literature but also in literary criticism itself. Christian voices may be found at peripheries as well as centers--sometimes both at once, and not always in immediately obvious forms. These complexities help belie the oversimplified secularization narrative that would neatly dichotomize scientific rationality and Christian faith, chronicling the rise of the former and the fall of the latter. In this vein, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age offers one of the more potent recent critiques of such secularization narratives.

In Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative, I argue against the pervasive use of such secularization narratives in gay and lesbian criticism. While gay and lesbian criticism has produced insightful accounts of the complex relationships between centers and peripheries that are enacted in marginalized sexual subjectivities, it has tended in general to reproduce simplistic accounts of the historical and contemporary roles played by Christianity in these subjectivities.

For example, critics have not yet adequately explained the fact that gay and lesbian literature, in many of its most characteristic narrative conventions, draws on and indeed parallels Christian narrative conventions--and not simply to subvert them. On the contrary, Christian discourses and gay and lesbian ones actually share certain common foundational commitments that are implicit in their representational conventions, even when these two groups of discourses are apparently furthest apart from each other. Specifically, these conventions or topoi comprise three types of narrative representations, which are interrelated and which often overlap: identification as incorporating intractable mystery through a dynamic rather than static interplay of difference as well as similarity; personal ethical transformation emblematized in coming-out stories and conversion stories; and the formation of communities defined by nonbiological kinship bonds that are more created than found but are nonetheless foundational.

Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction delineates a theoretical paradigm by which gay and lesbian criticism (and sexuality studies more broadly) may take faith perspectives more seriously on their own terms, which allows for a more sophisticated and useful conceptualization of the roles played by Christianity in marginalized sexual subjectivities. …

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