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When Crosscurrents invited me to co-edit a journal issue around the theme of "sex and religion," my excitement could scarcely be contained. As a scholar whose work lies squarely at the intersection of religious studies and human sexuality, it has been both professionally and personally fulfilling for me to compile and publish new young voices in the field, complemented by a special interview with leading scholar of American Catholicism, Dr. Robert Orsi.

I initially organized a graduate symposium on this topic at the University of North Carolina--Charlotte in the Spring of 2019, and we gathered additional scholars to fill out the issue. When initially discussing the theme for the conference that this journal is based on, some expressed concern that the specific topic of "sex," especially as it relates to "religion," was not broad enough. However, as the articles in this issue rightly show, there is a wide range of possible projects. Furthermore, they all take up what the late J.Z. Smith identifies as the most important question for the academy to ask: "So what?" (1) The articles here all address this question, either explicitly or implicitly, mostly perhaps because it is nigh impossible to avoid in this context. Whether discussing the significance of overlooked figures in biblical literature, challenging harmful pervasive cultural norms, or bringing attention to the historical significance of certain sexual acts, the importance of each inquiry is undeniable.

As Kathryn Lofton, Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, notes that when discussing the terms "religion" and "sexuality," "any definition of the one will lead to the other: the history of sexuality and the history of religion are co-constitutive." (2) Eventually, discussing either religion or sex/sexuality will inevitably lead to discussing some aspect of the other. Likewise, our esteemed contributing scholar, Dr. Robert Orsi, aptly states in his interview,
It's time that we put sexuality fully into the study of the history of
Catholicism (as Foucault, who grew up Catholic, would agree). And I
don't mean in the sense of prohibitions, but of the dynamic between
prohibition and permission, of the interplay of denial and desire and
what comes of it.

I agree fully with Dr. Orsi's assertion, but I would expand the purview to say that it is indeed time to put sexuality fully into the study of religion in general, not just the history of Catholicism. Again, not simply in the sense of prohibitions, but as a reality, something that does not and cannot exist or be examined in isolation. We therefore asked our writers to contribute as broadly as possible within the framework we provided, and they delivered.

Morgan van Kesteren of Colgate University offers up an in-depth look at two widely known Greek epics, Virgil's Aeneid and Homer's Iliad, specifically identifying places in the text that highlight ancient Greek societal and theoretical understandings of male homosexual relations. She guides us through what she identifies as the erastes-eromenos intimacies of Nisus and Euryalus and of Achilles and Patroclus, given as analogous examples of heavenly love as understood by Plato. On the other hand, van Kesteren argues that the relationships between Dido and Aeneas and Paris and Helen, again through Plato, are better understood as examples of common love. She goes on to say that within ancient Greek society, the heavenly love relationships found between the men in these stories would have been regarded as a "sacred exchange of wisdom and protection," and thus far more societally beneficial than the seemingly hindering and even destructive heterosexual relationships.

Delany James takes up the question of the existence of homoeroticism within the poetry of Rumi, the popularized thirteenth-century Sufi poet. James dissects the writings of Rumi, identifying the places that show an intense love and longing for his teacher, Shams-Tabrizi, the person to whom all Rumi's writings are dedicated. Placing it within the context of cultural attitudes toward sexual and homosexual behavior in medieval Turkey, James argues that Rumi's poetry can best be understood as homoerotic, directed toward his teacher and master Shams-Tabrizi.

Ashley Starr-Morris picks up on a striking similarity between the biblical narratives of Leah and Hagar, positioning them in relation to their matriarch counterparts, Sarah and Rachel. Reminding us that repetition in the Hebrew Bible should always give pause, Starr-Morris argues that by looking at the stories of Leah and Hagar intergenerationally, they lend each other a significance that wouldn't be as visible when read separately. She shows us that, although regularly cast aside by their wife counterparts or the men themselves, Leah and Hagar are undeniably vital in the long lines of descendants of Israel.

Jessica Knippel from Claremont University investigates the ethnographic work of Dr. Melissa Wilcox on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an intentionally parodic queer activist group that embodies certain aspects of Catholic sisterhood. She attempts the daring task of placing what she describes as a "cross between RuPaul's Drag Race and traditional Catholic habits" within a larger legacy of gender-bending sainthood within the Catholic tradition. Juxtaposing the modern Sisters with saints Marinus, Pelagia, Perpetua, and Wilgefortis, each of whom blurred gender lines, Knippel argues that both present performative creations of self-agency.

In my own essay, I look to the Hebrew book of Job as a source worth investigating in queer studies, not just for its intriguingly unique style, but as a boundary-pushing narrative that actually challenges a more traditional reading as a theodicy. Utilizing Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive as a theoretical framework, I argue that Job's God embodies what Edelman calls the "sinthomosexual," a figure defined by its defiance of social norms. I further argue that the value of the Book of Job lies in pointing out just how harmful it is to judge and vilify based on the presumption of wrongdoing, as Jerry Falwell did when blaming the 9/11 attacks on "gays" and "abortionists" and saying "God will not be mocked," or as Pastor John Hagee did, saying that hurricane Katrina was God punishing New Orleans for scheduling a gay pride parade.

Caroline Norman from the University of Melbourne, Australia, explores a different, more ethically oriented tack as she discusses the military sexual slavery of so-called "comfort women" during World War II. Her article provides a historically informed ethical argument that holds repercussions for the larger sex industry throughout Northeast Asia today.

Finally, our interview with Dr. Robert Orsi provides an enticing introduction to his forthcoming book on Catholic sexual abuse, entitled Give Us Boys. Drawing on unprecedented access to first-hand survivor accounts and archival research, this ethnographic and historical study demonstrates how "the Catholic closet made sexuality horribly dangerous for women, for children, for the vulnerable, even as it put into place immense institutions to care for the victims it helped create." Most disturbingly, he argues that "It's not a 'crisis'. It's the modern Catholic normal," and critiques the "willful naivete" of Catholics who think it has been adequately addressed internally. For him as well as for all the contributors to this volume, therefore, "sexuality is not peripheral to the study of religion, but integral to it."


(1.) Jonathan Z. Smith and Christopher I. Lehrich, On Teaching Religion : Essays by Jonathan Z. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 58.

(2.) Kent Brintnall, Religion : Embodied Religion, Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks (Farmington Hills. Mich: Macmillan Reference USA, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2016), 19.

Samuel B. Davis is the Lead Co-Editor Sam Davis will proof his own article as well as the Interview with Dr. Orsi. As a student in both the UNC Charlotte Religious Studies Graduate Department and Women's and Gender Studies program, Sam is currently completing a master's thesis on how the Vatican's handling of sexual abuse by priests is represented and depicted by Catholic news media. Last year, Sam helped organize a graduate conference titled, "Sex and Religion," sponsored by both departments to which he belongs. That conference was held at UNC Charlotte's Center City Campus in the spring of 2019 and was a primary inspiration and source of material for this journal issue. Sam lives in Charlotte, NC with his beautiful, supportive, and talented partner Amanda and their two cats.

Pamela D. Winfield is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University, NC. Her first book, Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Klikai and Dagen on the Art of Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2013) won the Association of Asian Studies - Southeast Conference Book Prize in 2015. Her second book is a co-edited volume with Steven Heine entitled Zen and Material Culture (Oxford University Press, 2017). Her numerous articles and book chapters have appeared in The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, Religion Compass, Religious Studies Review, and the Southeast Review of Asian Studies, as well as in publications by Oxford University Press, Columbia University Press, Brill. and Routledge.
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Author:Davis, Samuel B.; Winfield, Pamela D.
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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