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Michel Tournier, Christian fiction, and homosexuality: a second response to John M. Dunaway. (Dialogue).

This is the last of four essays that, beginning as a discussion of French novelist Michel Tournier, has evolved into a debate on the qualities that fiction must have to be considered Christian. In the first essay John M. Dunaway argued that Tournier claims to be a Christian writer but publishes novels contrary to Christianity, and he specifically criticized Tournier's novel about the Magi, Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar. In replying, I offered evidence that Tournier does not claim to be a Christian writer but that nevertheless Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar is a Christian novel. Professor Dunaway has since answered, graciously accepting my definition of a Christian novel and clarifying some of his points. In this, my second reply, I will further explore our disagreements: whether Tournier claims to be a Christian writer (he does not), whether Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar is a Christian novel (it is), and why Tournier's other fiction cannot be classified as Christian (its ideas are too heretical). Beyond those questions, though, is a broader one--namely, how Christian fiction may treat "the ethics of `sexual orientation'" (Dunaway, "Tournier" 107). That is where we disagree the most strongly.

In his second article Dunaway reiterates a point that, though prominent in his original essay, he has now relegated to an endnote: the claim that Tournier has called himself a Christian writer ("Tournier" 108n1). There is no point in repeating the evidence I have already presented showing that the statement by Tournier quoted by Dunaway is more accurately translated as "I have always considered myself a writer who is also a believer" (Petit, "Michel Tournier" 313-14). I must, however, contest Dunaway's assertion that "in a predominantly Christian culture" if one says one is a "believer, one will naturally be understood to mean a Christian" ("Tournier" 108n1). Surely when as precise a writer and speaker as Tournier says he is a "believer," that is what he means and not something else. (1)

Of more moment, however, is whether Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar is a Christian novel. Dunaway has accepted my definition that a novel must be considered Christian if, "as a whole, it reflects Christian beliefs more or less explicitly and in a fashion that presents those beliefs as true. The beliefs need not be those of a particular church, but they must conform to the central doctrines of Christian churches generally or derive clearly from the Gospels and Christian tradition" ("Michel Tournier" 320). Although Dunaway says that Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar "fails to qualify" under this definition ("Tournier" 106), his reasoning is unpersuasive.

One of Dunaway's objections has to do with passages from a different novel by Tournier, Le Roi des aulnes, and is therefore irrelevant. His only specific complaint concerning Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar itself is that the novel's "focus on the Incarnation strikes [him] as being too much" like the theology of Thomas J. J. Altizer and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin ("Tournier" 106). This claim is unconvincing because he does not show what in the novel suggests those authors' ideas, does not explain why he cannot consider their theologies to be Christian, (2) and does not explain why focusing on the Incarnation would disqualify Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar as a Christian novel. The Incarnation is of supreme importance in the novel, but that is to be expected in a book about the Magi.

One may certainly question the novel's theology. I have said elsewhere that because the fourth wise man, Taor, is carried bodily to heaven before the Crucifixion, "he is not saved by Christ's death [and] not justified by his Resurrection, because those events have not yet happened" (Michel Tournier's Metaphysical Fictions 146). The plot and themes of Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, however, center around the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, which not only are presented as true but are expounded by the archangel Gabriel on Christmas Eve near the center of the novel (169-73). Original Sin is also discussed in two passages (47-49, 194-96). Tournier has been at pains to assure that this novel reflects central Christian doctrine.

Unlike Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar, the vast majority of Tournier's fiction adopts a questioning and adversarial approach to Christian thought and doctrine, partly by emphasizing the Holy Spirit over Christ. Tournier told me in an interview years ago that he is attracted to heresies because "`to lock oneself up in orthodoxy [means] to give away one's freedom, to lose all one's creative power'" (Michel Tournier's Metaphysical Fictions 174). (3) It is because of that impulse to contest and question that his other fiction cannot be considered Christian, not because of scatology or the criticism of Christian clergy to which Dunaway has objected in both of his essays in this dialogue ("Michel Tournier" 358; "Tournier" 106). In my earlier reply I confined myself to showing that scatology and criticism of churchmen cannot keep a work from being Christian. Now, to show why most of Tournier's fiction is not Christian, I will look at its treatment of religion.

I do agree with Dunaway that Le Roi des aulnes is not a Christian novel, but my reasons are different from his. What keeps the novel from being Christian is that it presents Tiffauges's religious ideas as only a reflection of his psychological make-up, not as truths, and those ideas are a strange mix of idiosyncratic readings of the Bible, myths, and sexual pathology. Similarly, Robinson in Vendredi, ou les limbes du Pacifique abandons his Quaker faith to create a new religion based on sun-worship and bonding with nature; Paul in Les Meteores has a drug-induced, half-pagan, Dantesque vision at the novel's end that reflects his desire to escape from pain; Gilles de Rais in Gilles et Jeanne believes he must commit terrible sins to be reunited with Joan of Arc; and Eleazar in Eleazar ou la source et le buisson is consumed by his identification with Moses but thinks very little about Christianity despite his being an Anglican minister. These novels cannot be understood without referring to Christianity and Christian tradition, but they do not imply that Christianity is true, and sometimes they imply that it is inferior to other religious beliefs. Further, the books' theological arguments favor heresies, such as the Joachimite heresy in Les Meteores and Prelat's theory in Gilles et Jeanne that Gilles can find God only through sin. These works could not be considered Christian without a much broader, more individualistic definition of a Christian novel than we have agreed on.

As Dunaway pointed out in his second essay in this dialogue, we differ strongly about how Christian fiction can treat homosexual relations. Dunaway objects to Tournier's fiction in part because of its acceptance of homosexual practices, which figure only briefly and tangentially in Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar but prominently in Les Meteores and in some of the short fiction. (4) Dunaway claims that fiction cannot be Christian if it accepts homosexual behavior because such acts are "consistently condemned as sinful not only in the Old Testament but in the Epistles as well" ("Tournier" 107). The issue here is no longer Tournier's fiction--which paints a fairly bleak picture of most sexual relations, whether heterosexual or homosexual--but fiction in general. To consider the question, I will use three criteria: what the Bible says about homosexual relations, what Christian doctrine and Christians accept as true, and how important sexuality is in defining Christianity.

Our agreed definition of a Christian novel does not refer to either the Old Testament or the Epistles, but I will address Dunaway's claim that both "consistently" condemn homosexual acts. The Old Testament's interdictions of male homosexual acts in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 form part of the many Jewish laws, such as dietary restrictions, that Christianity considers abrogated in the New Covenant. The Epistles, however, include three passages that merit consideration. (5) In Romans 1:26-27 Paul wrote against men who lusted for each other, and in 1 Corinthians 6:9 he condemned males (malakoi and arsenokoitai (6)) who engaged in active and passive homosexual acts, along with drunkards, idolaters, swindlers, and others who, he feared, imperiled the spiritual health of the fledgling Christian communities in Rome and Corinth. In the third passage, 1 Timothy 1:10, the author (Paul or a later writer) forbade a large number of acts (unruliness, kidnapping, lying, perjury), including those of malakoi and arsenokoitai. The specificity of the Greek words used in Corinthians and Timothy makes it difficult to know whether all homosexual behavior is being condemned or only that involving a passive and an active partner. Also, in all three passages the acts are put into a context of lust (Romans), lawbreaking (Corinthians), and violent criminality (Timothy), not loving relations, and none of the passages seems to refer to the sorts of partnerships that many gay couples establish today. One might also wonder how strong the condemnation is. Is one supposed to believe that liars and drunkards, disturbing as their behavior may have been to the early Christian congregations, are beyond the pale?

Every reading entails interpreting in light of the context. Paul insisted that women not cut their hair or speak in church (1 Cor. 11:5-6, 14:34-35), and the author of Timothy forbade women to braid their hair with gold or wear pearls (1 Tim. 2:9); these injunctions, however, are generally read as applying to the place and time of their composition, not to the here and now. (7) Christian churches no longer defend slavery by citing Paul's urging slaves to accept their condition (Eph. 6:5), nor do they preach against the overthrow of tyranny because Paul told the Romans to accept their government (Rom. 13:1-7). In condemning certain male homosexual acts, Paul was probably responding to problems caused by some church members, expressing disapproval of temple prostitutes (which some of the new Christians may have been), and reflecting his Jewish upbringing (Bailey 156-57). Clearly these condemnations of male homosexuality are few in number and need not be read as applicable beyond those congregations to which the Epistles were written.

Second is the question of what Christian churches and Christians believe. Here we must focus on Christian belief generally, not on that of a particular denomination. However, it is instructive to consider the positions of the Catholic church and of certain Protestant denominations. Much Catholic theology relies on "natural law" to decide questions that the Bible does not answer clearly. A new understanding of sexual orientation led the Catholic church to declare in 1994 that the "homosexual condition" is the result of nature and is not sinful, though it continues to condemn homosexual acts (Fox 133). The natural-law reasoning underlying this condemnation is the belief that "genital sex acts must be open to the potential for procreation" (Fox 134), and homosexual acts are not procreative. This doctrine looms particularly large in the thinking of Pope John Paul II, who believes that "sexuality was created for procreation, not enjoyment" (Modras 154). (8)

The Catholic church, however, marries infertile people, such as menopausal women, and it softened its long-standing position that intercourse is wrong unless there is the potential for conception when it sanctioned marital relations for couples who know that conception is impossible. The church's acceptance of the "rhythm method" was a logical extension of the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii (known as "On Christian Marriage"), which first advanced the doctrine that "mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence" are valid reasons for intercourse, although it added that preserving "the intrinsic nature of the act"--that is, procreation--should not be compromised (qtd. in Fox 35). Recognizing the importance of the "unitive" element of marriage is a step toward realizing that intercourse has other functions, and may have other goals, than pregnancy. (9) It also leads to asking why, if procreation need not be the sole justification for intercourse, only heterosexual genital sex acts should be permitted. Catholic priests, theologians, and laypersons are increasingly questioning their church's conservative position on many of these matters (Theobald 60-61).

In contrast to the Catholic church, most Protestant churches, perhaps because their clergy and theologians are usually married, do not consider birth control or many non-procreative sex acts between married people to be sinful; they emphasize companionship, love, and mutual aid over reproduction as a reason for marriage. This separation of sexuality from procreation has led many Protestant churches to be more accepting of homosexual practices. As I write, the American Presbyterian church is in the process of voting to repeal a ban on "actively gay clergy and lay officers," and the Episcopal church has voted to "acknowledge" unmarried couples, including gay ones (Ostling 2F). Lutherans and Baptists are also actively arguing similar issues. (10) There is no question that Christian doctrine is becoming increasingly accepting of loving homosexual partnerships and that more and more Christians and Christian churches do not believe that same-sex acts are necessarily contrary to Christian belief.

The third issue--and it is the basic one--is how important sexual matters are in defining Christianity. Essential Christian doctrine, which is broader than that of particular churches, is stated in the creeds developed in response to theological rifts. The most widely accepted are the Nicene Creed, adopted in the fourth century and modified in the ninth, and the Apostles Creed, created in the seventh century. Both are concerned with the Trinity and redemption from sin, but they do not treat sexuality or other elements of everyday life, which their authors did not consider essential to a definition of Christianity.

Although the Gospels do give some instructions on conducting one's life, they say nothing about same-sex acts. When asked by the young man what he had to do to be saved, Jesus said not to steal or perjure, not to commit murder or adultery (Matt. 19:16-22). Elsewhere he stated that the great commandments are to love God and one's neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). These, the creeds and the Gospels, set the standard to which Christian fiction must be held. Because they ignore same-sex acts, acceptance of homosexual behavior cannot be used as a touchstone in defining Christian fiction. This judgment conforms entirely to the definition of Christian fiction that I proposed and that Dunaway accepted. One may be offended by a book's representation of sexuality; one may find its language offensive; one may dislike its treatment of certain denominations. Those reactions, however, do not keep a work from being Christian. Only its stated and implied theology can do so.

This discussion has come a long way from its starting point in Dunaway's first article on Tournier. I hope that his and my explorations of the issues have helped bring about a fuller understanding of what can and cannot be considered Christian fiction, and I thank Professor Dunaway for his raising the issues and Christianity and Literature for permitting us this forum in which to explore these points.


(1) In a more recent interview Tournier said he was "penetrated with religion" but that for him "what is good in life is creation"--that is, creativity, whether creating art or raising a child, to use his examples ("Entretien" 153; my translation). This comment, which echoes many others he has made, does not focus on Christianity. Tournier is a "cultural Christian"--raised as a Christian, permeated with Christian ideas--who wants to redefine Christianity.

(2) Some of Teilhard's writing alarmed the Holy Office to the extent that it issued a monitum or warning in 1962 concerning it, but his work was not condemned or listed by the Catholic church. In any event, though Tournier is unquestionably familiar with Teilhard's ideas, he probably does not support them, for he makes fun of them in Le Roi des aulnes by giving "omega" a scatological meaning.

(3) Wood has recently pointed out incompatibilities between the demands of novels and religious doctrine, observing that "it is hard to find many major novelists who were orthodox believers." He says of Bernanos: "He was a Catholic novelist. Artistically, he is sometimes as limited as this term suggests, and when he is powerful it is because he is being more of a novelist than a Catholic, or more of a religious individualist than a Catholic" (28).

(4) Tournier is fascinated by the variety of sexual perversions and even claims to have invented one, la phorie (delight in carrying boys), in his novel Le Roi des aulnes. I have discussed elsewhere his use of perversions ("Varieties of Sexuality").

(5) Some will count also those passages that refer to the punishment of Sodom, but Sodom came to be associated with homosexual behavior only after the Epistles were written (Jordan 35-39; see also Fox 134, 141).

(6) These terms have no equivalent in standard English and, perhaps necessarily, are translated badly in English Bibles. The Revised Standard Version's use of "homosexuals" is particularly unfortunate (Bailey 39; see also Larue 133). I am drawing here from the King James translation, the Revised Standard Version, and the New English Bible.

(7) See, for example, the discussion of these admonitions in Bristow (81-91).

(8) Tournier's view, incidentally, is just the opposite: "I think we must disconnect eroticism and procreation.... Human sexuality isn't directed by nature; man has invented his sexuality" ("Entretien" 154-55; my translation). In this 1998 interview he goes on to state that "perversions are ... a model of what should be" because they can provide "inoffensive" pleasure without such dangerous or unhappy consequences as a need for birth control or abortion ("Entretien" 155).

(9) There is biblical support for the interpretation of marriage as being primarily a matter of companionship and mutual support. God creates Eve because it is not good for Adam to be alone, not because Adam needs children (Gen. 2:18).

(10) There are, of course, outspoken Protestant homophobes like Jerry Falwell, but he does not represent a majority view, as indicated by the shock he occasioned after the 11 September 2001 terrorist acts when he initially claimed that God was punishing the United States for "abortion, homosexuality, secular schools and courts, and the American Civil Liberties Union" (Goodstein).


Bailey, Derrick Sherwin. Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. London: Longmans, 1955; rpt. Archon, 1975.

Bristow, John Temple. What Paul Really Said about Women: An Apostle's Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.

Dunaway, John M. "Michel Tournier: Christian Writer?" Christianity and Literature 49 (2000): 357-70.

--. "Tournier: Christian Writer? A Response to Susan Petit." Christianity and Literature 51 (2001): 105-08.

Fox, Thomas C. Sexuality and Catholicism. New York: Braziller, 1995.

Goodstein, Laurie. "Falwell's Finger-Pointing Inappropriate, Bush Says." New York Times 15 Sept. 2001: A16.

Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.

Larue, Gerald. Sex and the Bible. Buffalo: Prometheus, 1983.

Modras, Ronald. "Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body." John Paul II and Moral Theology. Readings in Moral Theology No. 10. Ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. New York: Paulist, 1998. 149-56. Rpt. from The Vatican and Homosexuality. Ed. Jeannine Gramick and Pat Furey. 1988.

Ostling, Richard N. "Lutherans Debate Gay Issues." San Jose Mercury News 18 Aug. 2001: 1-2F.

Petit, Susan. "Michel Tournier: Ecrivain croyant?" Christianity and Literature 50 (2001): 313-26.

--. Michel Tournier's Metaphysical Fictions. Purdue University Monographs in Romance Languages 37. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1991.

--. "Varieties of Sexuality in Michel Tournier's Les Meteores." Literature and Psychology 37.1-2 (1991): 43-61.

Theobald, Christoph. "The `Definitive' Discourse of the Magisterium: Why Be Afraid of a Creative Reception?" Trans. John Bowden. Concilium: Unanswered Questions. Ed. Christoph Theobald and Dietmar Mieth. London: SCM, 1999. 60-69.

Tournier, Michel. "Entretien avec Michel Tournier." With Zhaoding Yang. Dalhousie French Studies 42 (1998): 149-58.

--. Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar. Paris: Gallimard-Folio, 1989.

Wood, James. "Writing under God." New Republic 26 Feb. 2001: 28-32.

Susan Petit, Professor of English and French at the College of San Mateo, is most recently the author of Francoise Mallet-Joris (2001). In addition to her book on Michel Tournier, she has published extensively in both journals and essay collections. She also writes regularly on creative and critical works for French Review.
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Author:Petit, Susan
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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