The Particularity of Scandal

Jean Malouel’s Pietà | Wikipedia

News Analysis

By Douglas LeBlanc

Joshua Heath, a junior research fellow at Cambridge University, earned himself lasting notoriety November 20 when he speculated that Jesus had a transgender body, at least after a Roman soldier pierced his side during the crucifixion.

Heath floated this theory during an Evensong sermon in Trinity College Chapel, prompting at least one worshipper to speak of heresy while leaving in protest.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Banner, dean of the chapel, announced — as though he were a character in the broadly satirical Heavens Above! (1963) — that Heath’s speculation as “was legitimate, whether or not you or I or anyone else disagrees with the interpretation, says something else about that artistic tradition, or resists its application to contemporary questions around transsexualism.”

Heath based his sermon on his interpretation of several artworks, including two paintings: Jean Malouel’s Pietà (1400), and Henri Maccheroni’s Christs (1990). He further argued that in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg (14th century), Christ’s side wound “takes on a decidedly vaginal appearance.”

“In Christ’s simultaneously masculine and feminine body in these works, if the body of Christ as these works suggest is the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body,” Heath said, according to a report in The Telegraph.

“Heath also drew on non-erotic depictions of Christ’s penis in historical art, which ‘urge a welcoming rather than hostile response towards the raised voices of trans people,’” The Telegraph added.

Pietà reflects the traditional wound in Christ’s side, at a considerable distance from the vagina. That Christ’s blood flows from there to the groin is not a 15th-century artist somehow anticipating 21st-century notions of embodiment. Christs is so abstract that only the title suggests any connection to the figure described in the New Testament.

Telegraph columnist Suzanne Moore, even while maintaining that the Church of England has more serious matters to resolve, was unpersuaded by Heath’s skills in interpreting art.

“The vagina is not a wound,” she wrote. “What a peculiar way to think.”

British media attempted to drag Archbishop Rowan Williams into the frame because he was Heath’s doctoral adviser while serving as master of Magdalene College. What was Heath’s focus in that doctoral thesis? “Language and Metaphysics in the Thought of Sergii Bulgakov.”

Heath’s sermon has managed to turn the scandal of particularity (a reference to Jesus becoming God incarnate as a Jewish man 2,000 years ago) into the particularity of scandal.

This is not the first time Jesus’ body has been borrowed to make a point. Consider art that depicts Jesus’ body covered with HIV-related scars. Consider Adventist painter Harry Anderson’s kitschy image of a giant Jesus awaiting admission at the United Nations, or Mormon painter Jon McNaughton’s Last Supper of a Blessed Nation. Consider popular images of the Holy Family, traveling because of a compulsory census, as representing besieged immigrants.

Yes, Jesus comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor, as Mother Teresa often observed. Yes, holy work of compassion and mercy should occur among people with HIV and besieged immigrants. Yes, we should refrain from treating other people with hostility.

But Christians should tremble before reducing Jesus’ image into an icon for any political or social cause. There is already ample theological reason to relieve suffering. It starts with the clear biblical declaration that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have an inherent dignity. It continues with the Old Testament prophets and Jesus stressing God’s concern for the poor and oppressed.

If a person treats Jesus’ body as a rhetorical cudgel in making such connections, that tells us more about the person’s habits of thought than it does about the Redeemer’s identity.

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