While the Western Christian world is observing the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ this weekend, and the Eastern Christian world is completing Great Lent and preparing to celebrate the triumph of Christ next weekend at Pascha, the administration of the College of the Holy Cross (one of those Catholic schools in the Jesuit tradition, as they say these days) in Worcester, Mass., is in full damage-control mode, thanks to some theological sleuthing in the college’s alternative student newspaper, The Fenwick Review.
There, an enterprising Holy Cross senior, Elinor Reilly, recently reported what she had found when she dug into the Biblical commentaries of Tat-Siong Benny Liew, who holds the college’s Class of 1956 Chair of New Testament Studies — and is scheduled to become the chairman of the college’s department of religious studies in September. Here is one sample of Liew’s work, as he discusses various verses in the Last Supper discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of St. John. Those chapters of the most theologically dense of the four Gospels will be pondered by hundreds of millions of Christians over the next week, but it’s a reasonably safe bet that very few of those readers will interpret them as Liew did:
Oddly, John defines Jesus’ masculinity with a body that is open to penetration. . . . Even more oddly, Jesus’ ability to face his “hour” is repeatedly associated with his acknowledging and communing with his Father (12.27–28; 14.12,28; 16.10, 17, 28; 17.1–25; 18.11), who is, as Jesus explicitly states, “with me” (16/32) throughout this process, which Jesus describes as one of giving birth (16.21–22). What I am suggesting is that, when Jesus’ body is being penetrated, his thoughts are on his Father. He is, in other words, imagining his passion experience as a (masochistic?) sexual relation with his own Father.
To which one can only reply that “oddly” and “even more oddly” hardly seem les mots justes.
When the Holy Cross Class of 1956 funded Liew’s chair at their 50th anniversary reunion in 2006, it seems unlikely that this is the kind of Biblical exegesis they were expecting to foster with their gift. Indeed, this isn’t “exegesis” in any proper sense at all. It’s what I was taught to call “eisegesis”: reading one’s own preoccupations and prejudices into the Biblical text, thereby distorting its meaning rather than explicating it for a contemporary reader. Liew’s preoccupations would appear to be with those phantasms known as “queer theory” and “gender theory,” which, when applied to John’s Gospel, lead the professor to “suggest” that the Cross of Christ — putatively the icon of the college where he teaches — is an imagined occasion of incestuous sodomy, probably (note his deployment of that delicate, scholarly “?”) masochistic as well.
I leave it to others to judge whether Liew’s writing constitutes blasphemy, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines as “failing in respect toward [God] in one’s speech,” which is a violation of the Second Commandment. But whether Liew is a blasphemer or not, and laying aside for a moment questions of the yuck factor, his exegesis of Christ’s Last Supper discourse is exceptionally inane, even by the debased standards of some forms of historical-critical Biblical interpretation. Under Liew’s ministrations, the text of the Gospel disappears, to be replaced by a projection that tells us far more about the exegete and his imagination than about St. John and his intentions in crafting his account of the Last Supper. If this is scholarship, then Al Goldstein, the founder of Screw, is an editor on a par with Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker.
Under the regnant canons of academic freedom, Liew’s repulsive eisegesis will doubtless be defended by some, including colleagues at Holy Cross, as a “challenging” opinion that causes his readers to think again. To which the appropriate response is, “Bosh.” This isn’t challenging exegesis; if you want challenging exegesis, try the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright, or Duke’s C. Kavin Rowe. Liew’s eisegesis is ideological besottedness from the academic fever swamps. Anyone who considers it “scholarship” calls into question his or her own credentials as a scholar.
In recent months, the College of the Holy Cross has been engaged in a fitful and highly public debate over whether its sports teams should retain that politically incorrect name “Crusaders.” The final decision — which one suspects was influenced by alumni pressure — was to retain the moniker but rebrand it. Holy Cross’s “Crusaders” are now, according to the school, knights errant promoting social justice, gender equality, environmental sustainability, and all that good stuff. The debate in Worcester over the meaning of “Crusaders” was mildly amusing for those of us who like to watch college administrators turn themselves into Möbius strips as they strain to satisfy the demands of both alumni fundraising and political correctness. But the debate kicked off by The Fenwick Review’s (entirely straightforward) report on Liew’s writings and course work is different.
That debate certainly ought to cause alumni to pause and consider their support for a school that turns the alumni gift of a chair in New Testament studies into a platform for idiocy. And parents who are paying north of $60,000 per year for tuition, room, and board at Holy Cross might want to protect their investment by suggesting that their sons and daughters tack away from the New Testament course taught by Liew, which, as The Fenwick Review reports, is “the College’s primary New Testament class.” Challenge is one thing, and a good thing, in college. Immersion in ideological posturing is quite another.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center