Monthly Archives: December 2014

“The Ghost Slept Over” by Marshall Thornton— Meeting the Ghost

the ghost slept over

Thornton, Marshall. “The Ghost Slept Over”, ADS, 2014.

Meeting the Ghost

Amos Lassen

Cal Parsons in an actor who cannot seem to make good. Finally he travels to New York so that he can claim the estate of his famous and estranged ex-partner. McCormack Williams, when he gets a surprise. There he meets the ghost of his ex and if that is not enough, his ex invites him to be with him forever… for all eternity. Cal is anxious to get away from the ghost and he finds himself lusting over Dewitt Morgan, the young good-looking attorney who is handling the estate.

I know Marshall Thornton as a writer of mysteries and have reviewed most of his “Boystown” series so reading this book was something new from Thornton and I really enjoyed the change. He certainly has the knack for writing humor.

Set in the small town of Marlboro, a quiet and somewhat isolated community, we see what could be homophobia even though Dewitt lives his life openly. It is as if he is protecting himself from falling for Cal even though it is obvious that he wants to do so. With his inheritance, Cal’s financial problems are over but there are new problems, one of which is the ghost who refuses to go to eternal rest without him. What makes this even a bit zanier is that it was McCormack who ended the relationship some fifteen years earlier yet maintains that Cal was the only man he ever loved.

As he waited for the estate to be settled, Cal moved into the house and even becomes a bit active in the community. Because of the estate, Cal had to meet regularly with the lawyer and there is an instant connection. (McCormack does not approve of this).

McCormack is angry that Cal is attracted to the lawyer and plans to move on with his life (with his money). We immediately sense the comedy that can come out of this and Thornton uses it perfectly. In order to keep Dewitt from thinking that he’s gone insane, Cal has to convince him that McCormack is haunting the house. Then there is the issue of the community theater which needs money to continue and members are pressuring Dewitt to ask Cal for money and threaten to make the request themselves when Dewitt can’t seem to do so.

It might be necessary to suspend belief to enjoy this book but believe me it is worth it. I enjoyed this Marshall Thornton and a change of what I usually expect. I really liked the idea of the story being told through two points of view– Cal’s and Dewey’s and in this way we get two different dimensions of the main characters—how each sees himself and how the other sees him.

“JD: A Novel” by Mark Merlis— Life on the Fringes

jd

Merlis, Mark. “JD: A Novel”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Life on the Fringes

Amos Lassen

It is great news to hear that one of our literary heroes has a new book coming out in March from the University of Wisconsin Press. Mark Merlis brings us the story of Jonathan Ascher, a man who had been a radical writer and cultural hero in the 1960s who has been dead for three decades. His widow, Martha, has been approached by a biographer who wants to write Ascher’s story and this leads her to go through her husband’s papers for the first time. She finds journals that at first seem to be a look at life on the fringes of society, of the New York literary scene, and she soon discovers her husbands activities in the sexual underground and social upheavals, two happenings that led to his writing his book, “JD”. As she continues reading, she finds herself having a discussion with her husband and once again fighting with him “about their rocky life together and learning about the unseen tragic drama in her own apartment that ended with the destruction of their son, Mickey.” She learns about herself while she faces the man who would not let her go even when he was dead. Merlis gives us a look at America that we have seldom seen before as it is performed by three people who are unable to let the others know of the love they have for one another.

Not yet published, the book has already been hailed by other literary giants all of whom I have reviewed their work and two of whom I have met personally and count them among my friends.

 “An important novel that masterfully evokes the tensions and social upheavals of the 1960s and sheds a fresh and highly insightful light on gay liberation, family life, and American masculinity.”—Trebor Healey, author of A Horse Named Sorrow

 “Powered by stunning emotional, intellectual, and erotic complexities, JD is a trenchant portrait of a marriage and its heartbreaking casualties and at the same time something far more ambitious: a disquieting meditation on how and why America’s best hopes went so stupendously awry during the sixties and early seventies. What emerges is an angry, loving hymn to a generation’s failure to create the world we so passionately believed we longed for. There is no better novelist at work in our troubled country right now than Mark Merlis.”—Paul Russell, author of Immaculate Blue and The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov

 “It’s vintage Merlis: historical yet timely, intellectually rich, bracingly witty, unnervingly erotic, and, finally, deeply tender and affecting.”—Michael Lowenthal, author of The Paternity Test

“An amazing novel: beautifully written, ingeniously structured, involving and dangerous. This is a chamber drama about one family yet it’s full of windows that look out on the wider worlds of the Vietnam War, New York literary politics, and the gay revolution. Mark Merlis is a major writer and this is his best novel yet.”—Christopher Bram, author of Eminent Outlaws

“Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism” by R.W. Holmen— Into a New Age

queer clergy

Holmen, R.W. “Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism”, Pilgrim Press, 2014.

Into a New Age

Amos Lassen

We all have had the idea that Christian churches are gay-bashing homophobes. Self-appointed spokesmen and evangelicals have fostered this image. There are progressive Protestant denominations ordain gays and lesbians and celebrate LGBT weddings, but we all know that it hasn’t always been that way. It has only been in the last ten years that the principal ecumenical denominations–the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and earlier the United Church of Christ—began to adopt inclusive policies that have reversed long-standing exclusions that kept gays and lesbians from the pulpit and restricted clergy and congregations from celebrating covenant services of blessing and marriage ceremonies. Though the Methodists lag behind, prophetic voices rally the faithful and countless clergy are openly defying the Book of Discipline and facing ecclesiastical charges. We are finally in a new age.

Straight ally and author, Obie Holmen, author and straight ally in “Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism”  gives us five separate sections for five denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ) and then he brings the five together and shows their common paths and parallel journeys.

We see how these changes have come or have not come about over the last decades. Because each denomination has its own governance, advocating for change has to be crafted to that structure. R.W. Holmen understands the complicated governance structure and culture of each denomination and then he explains it to us in ways that are easy to understand. He gives us five case studies on how to advocate – each involving proponents, strategists, gatekeepers and the larger community. Into each denomination, author Holmen presents the personal, community and institutional stories. We see the differences in decision making so that we better understand the struggles some churches faced and very evident is the culture clash between emerging American values and those of the third-world, which has particularly affected the Methodists’ process of full inclusion. We certainly become more aware that misogyny and homophobia are two sides of the struggle, and that in a patriarchal system such as traditional Christianity, the two are often paired together.

The book contains much documentation and the details are here making this a very important study. It is  a celebration of how far the church has come in a relatively short time.

“The Thousand-Petaled Lotus: Growing Up Gay in the Southern Baptist Church” by Michael Fields— Gay and Baptist in Nashville

the thousand petaled lotusFields, Michael. “The Thousand-Petaled Lotus: Growing Up Gay in the Southern Baptist Church”, Langdon Street Press, 2014.

Gay and Baptist in Nashville

Amos Lassen

Having been raised in the South, I can say that growing up there can be a very strange experience and growing up gay can be harrowing (if you let it). Michael Fields shows us that it can also be a very funny but also a thought-provoking journey. He take us back to Nashville, Tennessee, a place with many characters where he had his sexual awakening and live with prayer and his search for the truth. Using the lotus as a metaphor for his growing up and coming out, Fields tries to reconcile his sexuality with his religion and his faith in God and his ultimate discovery that the concept of the kingdom of heaven is where we are right now, the present.

We have had many stories about the conflict between the church and sexuality but here it is treated differently. Fields’ story is personal and about his growth within the framework of his church, his family and the city of Nashville in the 1970s. In that journey, he touched teen gospel music, experimental theater, rock star David Bowie and he explored different philosophies until he reached his own enlightenment. While this book is about growing up gay it is also about being creative and searching for meaning within a conservative culture. Of course Fields writes about his religious and spiritual journey and his struggles to find and understand his place in the world, his relationship to God and to the Universe in general. This personal story is also filled with his thoughts of issues theological and metaphysical and this gives so much strength to his story.

His world was that of the born again Christian. His family was very religious and his dealing with his homosexuality changed things quite a bit. We begin in Nashville of the 1960s where Michael prayed that God would not let him be gay and he had to accept who he was while still being the paragon of a good Baptist boy. He is wonderful at finding humor is troubling experiences and this helped him make sense of what was going on within himself. He stresses that homosexuality is not something that is acquired and that there are gay people who follow their religions. He also stresses that while he was coming to terms with his sexuality, he learned that being gay was a liability and then could have resulted in electroshock therapy, jail time in many states for consensual same-sex behavior, raids on gay bars and institutionalized homophobia.

He begins his book writing about God and eternity and defines God as “limitless in every dimension including the fourth, exists outside time altogether.” With this, it makes it that much easier to reflect upon eternity and God. For Fields heaven is not about an afterlife, but about life here and now. This is very similar to the conclusions that I have reached as an observant Jew. Life on earth is as good as we make it and if we err, we face that here on earth.

“To Begin to Know: Walking in the Shadows of My Father” by David Leser— Father and Son

to begin to know

Leser, David. “To Begin to Know: Walking in the Shadows of My Father”, Allen & Unwin, 2014.

Father and Son

Amos Lassen

I am always curious to read books about relationships between fathers and sons mainly because my father and I had a lousy relationship and I have a hard time using the word relationship—let’s just see we each knew that the other existed. So many wonder about the meaning of life and the entire purpose of living. Are we taught to ask the questions we need and do we regularly conduct self-examinations?

David Leser is a journalist who more than ten years ago began to write his father’s biography. His father, Bernard Leser, had been a legendary magazine publisher. However, the younger Leser could not finish the project because he did not want to use his writing skills and techniques to show his father to be something different than what a loving son thought about his dad. Once he no longer was being held to the project, he started to see his father as a man, a man he loved but also as a son and a father who had flaws and who did not know it all.

The harder he looked at his father, the more he saw himself and how his own life had been lived both in tribute to and rebellion from the legacy of his father. What we get is a beautifully lyrical, deeply moving and honest memoir of two men, father and son, and their shared truths and burdens. This is a book about love and forgiveness, of acceptance and hope. It ass the questions we have all wanted to ask but don’t for whatever reason.

Leser exposes lots of private information including so many of his own foibles. Not sure I really needed to know all that. We meet a dynamic father, who dragged himself out of terrible circumstances and got on with his life. Much like myself, David Leser spent time in Israel, particularly during the early days of the Intifada, and his somewhat mess of a life at Byron Bay (and beyond), and his father’s extraordinary ability to work a room leads to a lot of name dropping. But there is a lot of color and interest here and I would not call it gossip.

“A Life of Unlearning: a Preacher’s Struggle with his Homosexuality, Church and Faith” by Anthony Venn-Brown— Battles

a life of unlearning

Venn-Brown, Anthony. “A Life of Unlearning: a Preacher’s Struggle with his Homosexuality, Church and Faith”, ADS, 2014.

Battles

Amos Lassen

From the time that we are young we are taught accepted truths and then later we have to unlearn them—this happens when our beliefs are challenged and while everything seems to be fine, we know that it isn’t. Author Anthony Venn-Brown was a respected and popular preacher, a husband and a father. He preached at one of Australia’s growing mega-churches but behind the scenes he fought a constant battle to conform, believing his homosexuality made him unacceptable to God and others. He loved like this for some twenty-two years and had there not been a chance meeting, he still might be dealing with this. The meeting forced Venn-Brown to make a really hard choice, a decision that would either let him continue with the false façade that he had been living or to be honest with himself and lose all he had worked so hard to build. As I can only imagine he was tired of living a lie and so he confessed and came out as gay.

As a result, he embarked on a lonely journey and came to peace with himself. This is the story of that journey and we watch as our preacher reaps the rewards of resolution and integrity thereby making the journey worthwhile. His story is ultimately about being true to one’s self. This is a human story about finding acceptance and love and is one we should all read.

Anthony Venn-Brown stood up on one Sunday morning and obeyed the edict to perform a public confession of his adultery before his church and then take what was coming to him. The result was the pushing aside of one of the most dynamic and effective pioneers of evangelism the Australian Christian Churches movement. We see how prejudice and limitation, both externally and internally imposed, were worked through courageously in order that Venn-Brown could live his life.

This book does something very special— it allows us to see and understand the world through the perspective of the lived experience of a homosexual man. As we are informed, we empathize with the struggles, see the heartbreak and appreciate the strength and courage required for this journey. It is hard not to think about how we have been taught to listen to the loudest voices. Venn-Brown speaks honestly and openly about the secrets and rituals of sexual truth seeking in adolescents which have always been, yet have consecutively been silenced or shrouded in taboo. He invites us to a new conversation and exciting discourse, one that will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of and freedom for males (and females) growing up and finding their sexual identities. We have to know how is it possible to hate when hate is such a demeaning emotion.

Venn-Brown gives us an accurate description of what he went through and what he did to rebuild himself. He shows us the contradictions within and the systemic and historic failure of the leadership and organization of the Australian Christian Churches movement of which he was such an integral and vital part to adequately address homosexuality and LGBT persons with any kind of consistency or compassion. Venn-Brown describes the ACC neglect and reticence towards bringing greater inclusion for the LGBT community, demonstrating how it is both historic, and systemic, reflecting the ACC general lack of fortitude for dealing adequately or with warranted attention to such areas as sexual identity.

We know that in the past where social justice was concerned, be it freedom for slaves, civil rights for African-Americans, or votes for women, change comes slowly, but is inevitable. However, that the church chose not to help with civil rights and equality is unforgiveable.

There is pain here, and it runs deep and only with more stories like this will that pain go away. The church is supposed to protect and nurture did nothing more than lip service. It turned its back on a `friend’ and fellow Christian and this is unforgivable.

“Just Like You?” by Matthew Alan— Recollections on Acceptance

just like you

Alan, Matthew. “Just Like You?”, CreateSpace, 2014.

Recollections on Acceptance

Amos Lassen

Matthew Alan brings us a book about acceptance which is fashioned by a series of recollections about struggling to gain internal perspective, while remembering that everyone is going through some battle within their own lives. Once we share our thoughts with others it makes it that much easier to close the differences that exist between people.

Matthew Alan grew up in Canton, Ohio. After he graduated from Kenyon College, and receiving a Master’s degree from Western Illinois, he began a career in teaching and coaching. He is an avid swimmer, dog enthusiast, and reader. He tells us that his life was a struggle but he always managed to find humor in the roughest times.

Matthew had issues that he hid from others and he candidly tells us about them. But it was the fact that he struggled so hard that he became the man he is today. He tells us his personal story so well that we feel as if we have always known him. While this is the story of a gay man coming out, it is also about facing challenges. Matthew is bipolar and the is totally honest about this. This is quite a courageous look at life and I am so glad that I had the chance to read it.

“Blind Bugger Blind” by Martin Bramble— Growing Up in Australia

blind bugger blind

Bramble, Martin. “Blind Bugger Blind”, Pukkah Wallah, 2014.

Growing Up in Australia

Amos Lassen

Martin Bramble shared with us his memories of growing up in Australia between the 1950’s to the 70’s. He was different from other boys and he was rough. He was raised in the suburbs—his father was a blind man on a pension; his mother fought to keep the family together, his brothers were somewhat problematic and his sister suffered from asthma that almost took her life a few times. There were nosy neighbors who were anxious to know everyone’s business and they hatred anything that was a bit different especially foreigners and queers. This was an age before color television and we learn that the author was constantly derided and vilified at school. The other guys spit on him and harassed him because he was different. It is never easy growing up gay but when the situation is volatile it is that much worse. Bramble takes us with him on his journey of discovery in which he tries to find himself.

“Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible” by Stuart Macwilliam— Marriage as a Metaphor

 

queer theory and

Macwilliam, Stuart. “Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible”, (BibleWorld), Routledge, 2014.

Marriage as a Metaphor

Amos Lassen

In the Hebrew Bible we have the metaphorical marriage of God to Israel in three different places—Jeremiah 2-3, Hosea 1-3 and Ezekiel 16 and 23. This is often used as a religious model or else criticized as divinely sanctioned misogyny. In this new volume, Stuart Macwilliam looks at and responds to the various readings and understandings by using literary, linguistic, critical and autobiographical tools as well as an issue of popular gay magazine that was published some ten years ago.

Some see the metaphor of marriage in the Hebrew bible as portraying men and women as complementary, each with their distinct and ‘natural’ roles. This is where Macwilliam uses contemporary scholarship to critique this heteronormativity. He examines the methodological issues involved in the application of queer theory to biblical texts and draws on the concept of gender performativity, the construction of gender through action and behavior and with this he can argue for the potential of queer theory in political readings of the Bible. In doing so, he offers a radical reassessment of the relationship between biblical language and gender identity.

One reviewer sees Macwilliam as being roguish methodologically, ideologically and stylistically and further claims that this provides for a wonderfully delightful read. Marriage is a very hot issue right now in the world and debates about marriage equality have disseminated to literally every society. Debates about marriage have given rise to new ideas and arguments on both sides. For those who oppose marriage equality, one of the strategies used has been the writings of both the Christian and the Hebrew bibles. The opponents have searched for ways to reify the assumed idea of what they call traditional marriage. They have chosen to ignore or just pass by the fact the modern concept of the nuclear family is the result of post-industrial revolution. The opponents find their allies in some biblical passages that they choose to read with their own interpretations. However, this is quite difficult when we look at the Hebrew bible and the way it supports traditional marriage. We just need to look at Jacob who was married to Rachel and to Leah (Genesis 29:1–30) nor King Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Aside from these two obvious non-‘traditional [modern] marriage’ examples, author Macwilliam reminds us of the case of the prophetic marriage metaphor as portrayed in the books of Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel. It is easy to see that those verses do not validate the idea of traditional marriage.

Macwilliam this marriage metaphor as conceptual shorthand for the sexual imagery in the description of the relationship between God and Judah/Israel. What Macwilliam does is to queer the marriage metaphor in order to expose the gender performativity at play in these three biblical texts. The book is conveniently divided into three sections. Section I contains theoretical and methodological writing that is grounded in Judith Butler’s ideas on gender. The next step is to find a way to apply theory to biblical texts and thereby create a way to apply that theory to the biblical texts. This is not easy reading and it is filled with information on how to go about this. Section II focuses on the process of queering, first the metaphor and then the idea of ‘Israelites as males’ so that we can finally explore a queer analysis of the texts in Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel. Section III presents an innovative way to use ‘camp’ as a methodological resource in order to queer Ezekiel. The last chapter of the book is a summary of what we have learned here.

I understand that this was originally Macwilliam’s doctoral dissertation and as such it could have been too scholarly for the average reader. However, Macwilliam has transformed it into easy reading that is very valuable. We are immediately aware of Macwilliam’s scholarship in the areas of queer theory and the bible.

What is so ingenious and fascinating is the way the author has based his work on Butler’s analysis of gender performativity as well a Susan Sontag’s idea of camp which he then uses as a tool for queering the Bible. (Another example of the use of camp in the bible is the performance of Josh Mostel as Herod in the film of “Jesus Christ Superstar”). In queer culture, camp not only defines humor and sarcasm but it also gives “a particular sensibility and a theatrical display by gender- bending and gender-variant individuals in order to transgress the boundaries of the dichotomy ‘female/male’.” Sontag in her 1960s essay saw camp as a contribution to mainstream popular culture from the gay community, the act of ‘camping’ and transgressing the dictums of both the gender-role expectations and the sexual division of labor precludes Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity. Macwilliam’s uses ‘camp’ as a way to address and even to ‘hyper-narrate’ and while doing so, deconstructs the biblical text. Without question, this is a creative act that gives us important contributions towards future looks at new ways of reading the Sacred Scriptures – Hebrew, Christian, and of other religions – by queer individuals and communities.

It is through the use of linguistic and literary criticism as a methodology that Macwilliams is able to deconstruct the marriage metaphor. In his analysis of it, Macwilliam points out the homo-social character of the texts by questioning whether both the Israelites mentioned by the prophets and the audience of their writings are all males and through this Macwilliam characterizes the texts as ‘gender exclusive’. The reason that this is important is that the marriage metaphor indeed seems to be framed in heteronormative terms, that is, the joining of female and male. On the contrary, if Israel is male, then we have, in fact, a proto-notion of same-sex marriage, although Macwilliam does not express this idea in this manner. However, his analysis queers the ‘naturalized’ heteronormative tone of these texts, providing new and much needed entryways to the manifold layered text. Yet in reading about it seems so simple that I could only wonder why no one had thought it before. We have all noticed that the Hebrew bible is written totally in the masculine which should have told us something.

It is through the use of camp as a device to interrogate the seemingly heteronormative tone of the marriage metaphor in Ezekiel, Macwilliam opens up a new layer of the text that has tremendous implications for future biblical studies. He proves that God, the male narrator of the tale reproduced by Ezekiel, displays an wide array of sexual fantasies which are projected onto Oholibah, the name given to Israel in the story. Oholibah/Israel is, then, described as a prostituted female with a notorious sex-addiction for the large penises and exceedingly cum loads of the Egyptians. The pointing of these erotic and graphic descriptions give us shifting positions and the reader is left with the question of who is the real sex addict, Oholibah or the God?

So what happened to the arguments about traditional marriage? The marriage metaphor to a degree becomes the center for the destabilization of mono-directional hermeneutics that have traditionally reified and justified heteronormative religious discourses.

I realize that this is a lot to take in but then I also consider the task that the author set out up[on. His research is wonderful and his prose is a pleasure to read, but…. Macwilliam did not translate the Hebrew and this really bothered me. In order to fully understand the work that has been done here, it is necessary to have the Hebrew and its translation, there are not that many Hebrew scholars around who can walk into this blindly. Yet even with that Macwilliam has certainly opened the door for future researchers and theorists to walk through.

Macwilliams is a much needed and welcomed contribution as well as a key pivot in the beginning of a new path for biblical studies. It is up to future biblical scholars to take Macwilliams work and look for new ways to engage in queer hermeneutic adventures.

 

 

 

 

 

“Double Header: My Life with Two Penises” by Diphallic Dude— Twice Blessed

double header

Diphallic Dude. “Double Header: My Life with Two Penises”, DDD Publishing, 2014.

Twice Blessed

Amos Lassen

Certainly one way to gain fame is to be born with two penises. Our unnamed author has been featured on the front pages of RollingStone.com, Jezebel.com and was covered by The Huffington Post. Both Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno have spoken about him in their monologues. He has been the most popular feature of Reddit AMA featured him and he has spent 48 hours discussing his life with a genetic condition known as diphallia. Medically speaking, only one in 5.5 million males worldwide are born with two penises. However very few (if any) are born with two working, and by all accounts, attractive penises. DoubleDickDude has not spoken openly about his for twenty years (DDD) and now the has, he has amassed thousands of followers on Twitter and Tumblr in a matter of hours.

Now he has written a longer and detailed account of his life. He writes of his childhood and how he knew that he was special when he was young. He tells how and when he had his first sexual experience as well as other sexual adventures. He reiterates some of his favorite questions and answers, discussing sexuality and acceptance. The stories are sexy and the book is written in the first person with lots of details and reflections of some really steamy happenings.