Tag Archives: sexuality

Review of ‘The Good Priest’

Tina Beattie’s novel, The Good Priest, is a gripping read with an engaging central character – John, the eponymous good priest – and an intriguing premise. In this review there will be some spoilers, although I’ll try and steer clear of the main plot. I won’t be discussing the murders, which are a significant feature of the novel, but I will talk about sex and sexual abuse.

It is a deeply Catholic book, as one might expect from the title and the author (Beattie is a well known Roman Catholic theologian), but I’m not a Catholic and it isn’t for me to assess the quality or impact of her description of the church. I did look to see whether others had already covered this in reviews, but didn’t find anything with a deep level of engagement – and some obvious venues, such as The Tablet, have yet to review it. It seems to me as an outside that it is deeply loving and equally critical – but perhaps this is an effect of her excellent writing rather than the content. I also think it might turn out to be a novel of the moment; in the same way that some twentieth-century writing is identifiable as ‘post Vatican II‘ or similar, in a few decade’s time this book might seem ‘post sex abuse scandal’. This doesn’t detract from it; indeed, it might make it all the more important to read it now. However, rather than going into this aspect in detail, I want to focus on what it might have to say to two audiences to which I do belong: Quaker readers and queer readers.

Queer readers, I think, may find it compelling, comforting, and disturbing, in various ways. The good priest of the title, John, is gay. He’s clear and straightforward about this even when it comes as a surprise to others – towards the end of the book, he says so plainly in public, on the street, and another character responses with a startled, “You’re wot?” She knows what he means, may even already have known this about him, but is not expecting a Catholic priest to be calm and open about this aspect of his personality. In this, she might serve as a stand-in for the reader, because the calmness and acceptance with which most characters throughout the book, including John himself, treat this fact is noticeable. Sometimes it is highlighted by the narrative, as when a dying parishioner makes a point of mentioning it, but often it is simply there. This is the comfort.

It is interwoven with other aspects of the narrative, though, inextricably so: I read a comment from someone on Twitter who wished Beattie hadn’t ‘made him gay’ – not an option, it is vital to this character’s interaction with the world and especially the church within which he lives and has his livelihood. This is, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Sexuality is not bolted on, but nor is it the main focus. Things would go equally badly wrong if he were straight and subject to similar temptations and stresses, but the details of what happens are intimately related to his sexuality (and to his intimate relationships, platonic as well as erotic). It is also related to the gendered structure of the social world within which he lives: both priests and the most ardent atheists are men, while women occupy a host of positions but are disempowered by their society, even though they often have agency within the narrative. In the same way, although a review in the Church Times suggests that the focus on sex is “verging on prurience”, I didn’t find this so at all. The sex is dealt with in mainly a factual way, and a way which brings out the conflicts, sometimes the horrors, associated with it. The only non-abusive, fully consensual sex is fade-to-black, so much so that I almost wondered whether it had actually taken place.

It is those horrors, faced directly and from both perspectives, which make the book disturbing, but are also one of the important parts of the narrative. John realises during the course of the novel that he has both abused and been abused, another example of the moral complexity which makes the novel compelling. Of course, by writing a gay character in this position, Beattie runs the risk of further associating homosexuality with abuse and continuing a pattern of false charges against the gay community as a whole. However, it could also work the other way: John’s horrified reactions to realising that he unknowingly had sex with a child, and his subsequent compassionate responses and adult, if difficult, relationship, subvert that frequently told story about the role of homosexuality in social life.

And what about reading from a Quaker perspective? Perhaps there is a temptation at first to feel smug about how much more equally Quakers treat LGBTQ+ members of our communities, even while acknowledging that we can always do more to be welcoming and to make sure everyone is treated justly. But Beattie is a Catholic and it is clear that she has a great deal of compassion for the situation John is in, and is critiquing the ways in which his church makes life more difficult for him. For those Quakers with little knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition, too, the focus on the rituals of Lent and Holy Week – and especially confession, which is pivotal to the plot – may be difficult and alienating. However, I found that the way John’s perspective leads the reader into the rituals and their spiritual meanings was easier to deal with than much teaching on these topics. It didn’t make me want to go to confession, but I think it did help me see why some people might find it helpful. (And the novel doesn’t shy away from the practical and theological problems it creates, either.) It might be worth reading for that interfaith understanding.

It might also be worth Quakers reading for the reminder than there is significant disagreement within the Catholic church – not just on social questions, but also on theology. In the course of the novel, characters who doubt and lose their faith, characters whose faith takes on new forms, and characters who disagree about interpretations of theological questions are all treated as fully part of John’s community. I am told frequently by Quakers that it must all be easier in churches where they have creeds and everyone believes the same thing and there aren’t any doubters… but having a written creed, and all agreeing with it, and nobody doubting are three very different things. In this story, as in real churches, disagreement and lapsing flourish alongside co-operation and multiple patterns of engagement.

In conclusion, if you are interested in murder mysteries, novels with religious characters, and/or books which grapple with moral complexity, I highly recommend this book.

Advertisements

A Past Future: chapter 29

You know how old science fiction tells you more about the time in which it was made than the future? I think Qf&p chapter 29, ‘Leadings’, is a bit like that. It was compiled for 1994, when this Book of Discipline was new.

Some of it stands, of course. Predictions about the future are about people, and people don’t change that much. 29.01 talks about walking with a smile into the dark – just as much of a challenge in any age. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved, but there are plenty of other places in the world where you can talk to the “men of violence” mentioned in 29.08.

On the other hand, a lot has also changed.

Some of the leadings which are seedlings in this chapter have grown and blossomed into flowers. 29.03 and 29.18 talk about what we now call sustainability. We have stuck with the inter-faith dialogue mentioned in 29.14, and this work has borne some fruits.

Some positions are clear and consistent but surrounding society hasn’t changed – at all, or in the direction we’d like. 29.09 talks about the arms trade – the technology has changed, but the trade is still happening and Quakers are still protesting it. 29.10 talks about not paying taxes for war purposes – but when I submitted my most recent tax return, HMRC provided me with a handy and horrifying graph to show that more of my money is spent on the military than the environment. (See Conscience for the ongoing campaign.) 29.12 and 29.13 were both written in 1987 – but the poverty they discuss is still very much part of British life in 2017.

Some issues haven’t been taken up by Quakers in the way the authors of these passages hoped they might be. 29.04 talks about the anti-vivisection movement: as far as I know, Quakers in Britain don’t have any united position on this, and while many would want to reduce animal suffering, many still eat meat, and I think most would accept that some medications are best tested on animals. As far as I can tell as a white person, the problems of assumptions about race and ethnicity identified in 29.15 are just as much of an issue now as ever.

Other issues which have been areas for Quaker discussion or even decision aren’t mentioned here. Questions about sexuality and marriage aren’t in this chapter (although they were, as I understand it, on the radar at Yearly Meeting 1994). Questions about gender diversity, assisted dying and end of life care, drug legalisation, and mental health don’t appear here, but have all been raised by meetings since this was written.

Which bits of this chapter do you relate to, and what feels outdated or absent?

Q is for Queer Theory

I was about to say that lots of people ask me questions when they hear that I have studied queer theory, but it’s not quite true. Some people do. Other people just look at me for a minute and then change the subject.

People who do ask questions often begin with something like, “do they really call it that?” Well, yes, it’s genuinely in the title of courses and indeed my degree. It is a provocative name, and I know many people are uncomfortable with the use of the term ‘queer’. The thinking behind its use here has, I think, two main strands. Firstly, using an insult to refer to yourself takes the sting out of it; this process is called ‘reclaiming’. Pagans, especially women, who call themselves witches are doing some of this; religious groups, such as Quakers or Methodists, who take on originally offensive or sarcastic nicknames are also doing this. It turns the power of the word to your advantage – with the disadvantage that a lot of people are going to raise their eyebrows and say things like, “do they [whoever they are!] really call it that?”

The second strand is the need for a clear but not too specific term. ‘Gay’, although sometimes used for all homosexuals or even everyone who experiences same-sex attraction, is more often associated with men – as ‘lesbian’ is with women. Terms like ‘homosexual’ don’t make sense when you’ve noticed the existence of people outside the gender binary – what’s ‘same-sex’ if you’re intersex or third-gendered? Abbreviations – LGBTQIA… – build up into long lists and can never include everyone. ‘Queer’ – people whose sexualities are oppressed under the use of offensive terms like ‘queer’ – can include, as someone memorably put it in questioning me about my course, “gays and stuff”, with a very wide scope on ‘stuff’. Polyamory, kink, BDSM, asexuality, heteroqueer, and a whole array of gender identities can be included under the suggestive-but-not-definitive term ‘queer’.

What does queer theory do, then? Two main things: it theorises queerness and it offers queer readings. Queerness – whatever that is – has often been medicalised and sexuality and gender treated reductively (I refer you to whatever debate about ‘gay genes’ or the existence of ‘female sexual dysfunction’ is happening at the moment). Working from a perspective which takes the experiences of queer people seriously, queer theory can open up new ways of looking at these questions.

Similarly, queer readings of texts – literary works, TV shows, archaeological evidence, whatever – offers insights from contemporary and historical queer experience. Again, this can open up new perspectives on all kinds of questions: the relationships between characters in a novel, the burial of a body with ambiguous gender markers, the ways that gay marriage is depicted in advertising.

Lots of people ask me whether queer theory is really called that, and what it’s about. Sadly, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me why I’d want to study queer theory or what makes it a useful subject – things I do get asked about theology and philosophy in particular. That’s sad because I’d have a lot to say about how enriching I found it as a discipline.

Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.