Skylar Burris's Reviews > Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell
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Mar 02, 10

bookshelves: christianity, sexuality, sociology
Read in January, 2010

The author of “Christianity, Homosexuality, and Social Tolerance” begins his book with the odd claim that he is not supporting any particular moral position with regard to homosexuality. I say it is odd because the massive volume is clearly aimed at convincing the reader that Christianity is, if you really dig into history and read the Scriptures just right, supportive of homosexual love and the sex that is an expression of that love.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with books with agendas. I very much enjoy reading persuasive writing. But I find the claim that one is merely being scientific (and if the science happens to agree with my personal agenda, what a coincidence!) to be disingenuous.

The book has a scholarly appearance and copious footnotes, but the author engages in a great deal of interpretative gymnastics with regard to Scripture, Christian tradition, and especially history. This is revisionism of the most agenda-driven variety. Boswell’s agenda is two-fold. First, he wishes to prove that homosexuality was generally accepted and approved of until about the 12th century and, secondly, he wishes to “rebut the common idea that religious belief -- Christian or other -- has been the *cause* of intolerance in regard to gay people."

Boswell is considerably more convincing when arguing for the second point than when arguing for the first. This is not to say that he convincingly argues that Christianity did not condemn homosexual sex, but rather that he convincingly argues that Christians who condemn (and have condemned) homosexuals are more often motivated by their prejudices than by their religious devotion. (That is, they would likely condemn homosexual sex in the absence of any Christian tradition, and they are not concerned with honoring the Christian tradition in other respects that are inconvenient to them personally.) However, Boswell does not merely argue that Christianity as a belief system can be interpreted in such a way as to not condemn homosexuality; he actually argues that Christianity as a historical institution did not condemn homosexuality until relatively recently – and that is such an absurd claim that the mental contortions involved in supporting it are at times amusing. Where he is most convincing, however, is in attacking the “natural law” argument against homosexuality – which is pure persuasive writing and not an attempt at reinterpreting Scripture or history as part of a claim of being scientific.

Despite its incredible revisionism, I do think the book worth more than one star, and if I could, I would even give it 2.5 stars. (When are we getting half stars on goodreads?!?!) Why? Because it did persuade me to rethink some of my ideas (always an interesting exercise) and because it gave me a fascinating perspective on the history of attitudes towards homosexuality.
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02/26/2010 page 70
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