musings from my rich inner world…

Reflections on The Invention of Sodomy

In The Invention of Sodomy Mark Jordan traces the roots of the term Sodomy from its first appearance in the Middle Ages through a complex evolution witnessed in various religious texts over three centuries. Jordan begins his work by asserting that "the category ‘Sodomy’ [is] problematic no matter where or how it is used" (6). Based on the context provided by each of the texts selected, we find quickly that the meaning of the word Sodomy varies widely.

The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology book coverJordan points out that our concept of Sodomy is "the result of a long process of thinning and condensing" (29). Drawn from the events in Genesis 19 in which angelic emissaries of Yahweh travel to Sodom to remove Lot and his family before God metes out destruction for Sodom’s preexisting and undescribed wickedness, the term has been reduced to an uncertain sexual crime that encompasses many different physical acts depending on the text in which the term is used. Peter Damian’s neologism takes its Latin formation as sodomia from the proper name of the city of Sodom and the suffix of blasphemia from which we derive the English word "blasphemy," bringing with it the broad category of acts that deny God (Jordan 29). The Roman category of luxuria, which includes a wide variety of acts associated with over-indulgence and decadence (and often later associated with genital acts), is also worked into the new category (Jordan 29). However, by the time of Augustine, the sin of the Sodomites has come to explicitly include the intended rape of angels, as well as pride, uncleanness, depravity and blasphemy itself (Jordan 34).

In Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah the specific acts defined as Sodomy divide into four types: solo masturbation, mutual masturbation, frottage and anal sex (Jordan 46). Paul of Hungary will refer to the sin against nature as the spilling of semen "‘outside the place specified for this,'" widening the category to include nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse (Jordan 97). For Albert the Great there appears to be no concept of a sexual sin, but same-sex relations are recast in the term luxuria that is redefined as a misuse of procreative power or, as Jordan states, as a reproductive sin (127- 129). The line-up is filled out by Thomas Aquinas and his "Sin against Nature," which, as Jordan points out, Aquinas is reticent to actually describe in any detail (151).

I had attempted to read this book the first time in 2000, before I had begun any formalized theological education. The general outlines I have described above were all clear to me at that time. However, this time I noticed something different. In his introduction, Jordan discusses the nature of geographic metaphors and how references like "Greek love" call to mind whatever practices we associate with the inhabitants of Greece (7). To be more explicit our own gay subculture associates this reference with anal intercourse. "French love" is a reference to oral sex, just as "French kissing" is kissing that involves the tongue. Jordan suggests that when we hear the word "Sodomitic" this also calls to mind what we’ve heard and imagined about the city of Sodom (7). The key phrase for me was that these geographic descriptors suggest that the activities they describe are not of local origin – that they are alien to our experience. Those who participate in these practices are either foreigners or folks who consort with them, leading to an easy transition into characterizing these acts as a contagion and their practitioners as bearers of a disease (Jordan 7).

According to René Girard, the scapegoating process that lies at the root of all human cultures follows discernible patterns by which we dehumanize our victims. As we construct our stories we begin by establishing the "otherness" of the scapegoat through a process that characterizes the target as a foreigner or an outsider. Is this not the very same process involved in the labeling of men as Sodomites? Girard further describes the process by which our sacrificial victims are described as monstrous, accused of violating the most basic boundaries in human culture: parent/child (incest), human/animal (bestiality, cannibalism), male/female (homosexual activity, gender switching) (Girard 15, 34). Each of these cultural taboos can be found somewhere within the texts that Jordan has chosen for his work. For example, an anonymous fifth-century poem written in Gaul includes among the sins of the Sodomites "mixed" and incestuous marriages as well as a rebellion against nature (Jordan 35). Peter Damian also refers to Sodomitic bishops who "engage in unnatural, incestuous acts with their spiritual children" (Jordan 49). Jordan points out that a misreading in Aquinas that associates homosexual lust with the sins of bestiality and cannibalism, thus collapsing the Aristotelian distinctions between the three categories into notions of bestial or subhuman desire (149, 150). References to men becoming effeminate are found throughout the works surveyed. All of these accusations belong to a larger mechanism of demonizing a group, setting the authors and their adherents over and against those they identify with these transgressions, to enforce a cultural hegemony.

Finally, the goal of this independent study is to examine LGBT responses to Christian tradition and scripture. Here we have an example of one response. Jordan has chosen two routes. In his chapter titled "The Discovery of Sodomy," he provides an overview of proof texts. By examining each passage some attempt is made to show that the biblical witness does not support the rarified claims about Sodomitic vice formulated by the medieval authors. The relevant passages list a variety of non-sexual sins associated with Sodom. When sexual sins are named they do not single out same-sex acts.[1]

However, the problem with proof-texting debates remains that if I can convince you of my argument with an appeal to scripture, then chances are someone else can counter my argument with other texts that may possibly sway your opinion once again. From conversation with the author I know that he shares this insight and is not interested in pursuing a proof-texting debate. Thus, he moves to a more sophisticated response. Rather than simply lobbing scriptures back and forth, he has chosen to interact with a selection of texts, examining their own constructs for framing the discussion and pointing out that we have no coherent whole from which to work. The texts themselves are not even in agreement as to just what constitutes Sodomy. There is no way to build a stable category from their legacy.

One modern example of how unstable the category is can be found in how Sodomy has been used as a term in U.S. state laws. Until all sodomy laws were stricken down by the U.S. Supreme Court, each jurisdiction was compelled to explicitly define the term for themselves. Following a similar pattern to the one that appears in our texts, the acts described in sodomy statues varied from state to state, as did the definitions of the parties involved. While in some cases the scope of the law was limited to same-sex conduct, in others even non-vaginal intercourse between a husband and wife might qualify.

By providing a closer look at the history of Sodomy as a theological construct, Jordan embodies a response to Christian tradition within our community that examines the very premises on which our modern framework rests and finds them lacking. This path of destabilization appears more promising for change than anything that we might hope to accomplish through a proof-texting debate.

[1] One exception, pointed out by Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, may be the possible metonym of "abomination" used in Ezekiel’s description of Sodom (269).

Works Cited

Gagnon, Robert A. J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: texts and hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Instructor’s Comments

Well done, Bryce —

This book is hard to capture in four pages – but I think you got some important points.

This is a book worth re-reading periodically.

When we meet – I want to explore further this dynamic of othering and how we see this mechanism at work.


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