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American Primitive

American PrimitiveAmerican Primitive by Mary Oliver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Today I had the day off, so I spent the day reading a wide array of things, including this early volume of Mary Oliver's poetry. As always, there are some great lines and passages ("Joy is a taste before it's anything else"). And I admired where the homoeroticism was strong in this work and puzzled how even with that she was America's favourite poet for so many decades. Her ability to describe wild nature--in the outside world and in our own bodies--is exceptional.

We'll be doing a four week worship series based on Mary Oliver poems this summer, concluding with Pride Sunday. She was not only America's beloved poet, she was one of our greatest spiritual writers and greatest queer writers. So interesting that she combined all of those in one person.

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I Know What Heaven Looks Like

I Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age StoryI Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age Story by Lawrence T. Richardson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Lawrence speak at the annual meeting of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ. His vulnerability, resilience, and humor blew me away. He's coming to preach for us at First Central on Feb. 17, so I wanted to read his book ahead of time.

It is, at times, a harrowing read, as he recounts his childhood experiences of poverty, neglect, and abuse. But it is also a story of finding faith and a calling to ministry and how those brought healing and hope. Then it is also the story of a gender transition and the violent reaction that initially generates from family and his faith tradition.

This is a powerful book. I recommend it.

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The Queerness of Mary Oliver

When Mary Oliver died last week, I missed seeing explorations of her as a queer artist, so I was glad for this piece written by Jeanna Kadlec on the role of queer desire in Oliver's poems, including some of her most familiar ones.  An excerpt:

Take “Wild Geese,” perhaps her most beloved poem. “Wild Geese” is distinctly, uniquely queer. In the poem, the speaker gives the reader permission to inhabit their body: to be present in it, to know and own what they want without shame. Harder to do than it sounds, as any queer can tell you. Brandon Taylor has written about how this poem speaks to validating the reader’s worthiness. For me, someone who grew up in the evangelical church, the experience of reading “Wild Geese” has often been about receiving permission to desire within my own body: I do not have to be good; I do not have to repent.


Harold Stevenson or The Prominent Artist I Knew

Harold
Last night I was reading an e-mail from a friend in Norman, Oklahoma and it mentioned friends of hers who had died this year.  I had missed in the news in October that Harold Stevenson had died.

Harold was a prominent artist who never quite reached the fame and popularity of his contemporaries.  You can read an excellent obituary here that gives you some of his history, which includes working with Andy Warhol and having one of his paintings exhibited on the Eiffel Tower (it was taken down when it caused a giant traffic jam).

The New Adam

Harold's masterpiece was The New Adam, the most monumental male nude ever painted by an American artists (the actor Sal Mineo was the model).  The paintings is forty feet long and was intended to be displayed wrapped around three walls of a gallery.  It was to appear in a show at the Guggenheim in 1962, a show that made names such as Robert Rauschenberg famous, but the painting was rejected at the last minute.  The Guggenheim finally purchased the work in the early Aughts, though it hasn't been on display in a while.  In 2005 a detail from the painting was selected for the cover of the book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art.  I reviewed that book here.

So, how did I know this prominent gay painter?

He was from Idabel, Oklahoma, a small town in the pine woods of southeastern Oklahoma where he returned in his final years and he was friends with people I knew in Oklahoma City.  It was my privilege to hang out with Harold on a few occasions.  A few times he attended the church I pastored in Oklahoma City, including once being there for the annual pet blessing.  He gave me a signed print.

Harold was a delightful person, funny and smart, and full of great stories of some of the most significant characters in twentieth century American cultural life.

Harold's other masterwork is less well known, though it has been exhibited in Paris.  This work is entitled The Great Society, and now belongs to the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus, though it is also currently in storage.

The Great Society

The Great Society is 100 larger than life size portraits of the citizens of Idabel, Oklahoma painted by Harold in 1966.  In 2006 the paintings were exhibited in Norman, Oklahoma and I reviewed the opening for Hard News Online (which no longer exists, though you can read the opening paragraphs of the review here).  That night Michael and I were fortunate to be part of a small group that went to dinner with Harold after the premiere, where we peppered him with questions.  That night, in answer to one of my questions about the paintings, Harold responded, "You must understand, Reverend Doctor, that each one was spontaneous; after the session, I never touched them again."

I hadn't seen or talked with Harold for some time, one of the losses of moving to Nebraska, but I was sad last night to learn of his death in October.  He was a fascinating figure--this great erotic gay artist from rural Oklahoma who returned there and in one of his greatest works elevated its ordinary citizens into the world of fine art.  


Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel

Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient IsraelJacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel by Theodore W. Jennings Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this very well argued book Ted Jennings claims that "same-sex eroticism in Israel is inseparably connected to Israel's Yahwism. It is no extraneous import but something deeply and inextricably embedded in the religion of Israel."

Jennings begins in the obvious place--the sagas of David, Jonathan, and Saul--and from there considers stories of Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, elements of the prophetic tradition (particularly Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and then the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Jacob, before wrapping up with Ruth. In other words, here is a systematic overview of much of the Hebrew scriptures demonstrating the role that same-sex eroticism plays in the development of the biblical tradition. Jennings credits same-sex eroticism as being the key element that moves YHWH from a violent warrior God to a God of steadfast love and compassion. In other words, the key essence of the biblical tradition arises from the experience of homoeroticism.

Along the way, Jennings' interpretation makes sense of a wide range of passages, including some of the strangest in scripture. He makes far more sense of them than other interpretations I've read.

Also along the way, Jennings deals with a longstanding false idea in Western culture that Greece was the culture most accepting of homoeroticism while Israel forbade it. Instead, homoeroticism is key the Israelite religion predating its significant emergence in Greek culture. Plus, it is a homoeroticism based upon the desire of bottom rather than the activity of the top, which is how he characterizes Greek culture.

He shows how the Holiness Code in Leviticus is very late to the tradition and doesn't fit a wide range of stories from the sagas (not just those dealing with homoeroticism). He argues that the Holiness Code is borrowed from Zoroastrianism and should not be understood as reflective of Hebrew culture prior to exile.

This is an excellent book; I highly recommend it.

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Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology

Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer TheologyRadical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cheng contends that "Christian theology is fundamentally a queer enterprise" what with doctrines like the Trinity, incarnation, etc. More than a simple overview or introduction to queer theologies, the book itself is a survey of all the traditional major doctrines of systematic theology around the organizing theme of radical love. He defines this as "a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries." Cheng writes that "Christian theology can be understood as a three-part drama about radical love." For example the Trinity is understood as an internal community of radical love, Jesus as the bearer of radical love, the church as the external community of radical love, etc. I appreciate some of these formulations and will incorporate them into my own rhetoric.

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Call Me By Your Name--the novel

Call Me by Your NameCall Me by Your Name by André Aciman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I actually prefer the movie. James Ivory did an incredible job of turning this story into a different, even better story. One marvels at how he sometimes turned a few sentences into rich scenes.

This novel is enjoyably erotic and there are layers of complexity in Elio not present in the movie. I enjoyed some of that in the first two, lusty, sections. And I enjoyed that Oliver was a richer character than in the film. But I didn't care for some of Elio's back and forth that were dispensed with for the film, particularly his regret after the first time they have sex. Also the supporting characters are more richly drawn in the film.

One thing I'm curious about is the change of setting from the coast in the novel to the countryside in the movie. And from Rome to a smaller town for the final trip.

One good comment I read about the film in a review was that there was no attempt to deal with orientation or coming out, it was just a love story. But those elements are in the novel, and I wished they hadn't been. Though they are more realistic. It made me realize how much the film is a fairy tale.

I really didn't like the third section when they take their trip. In the novel it is to Rome and they spend all this time at a party with sophisticated people and I kept rushing through that section trying to get to one-on-one time that was missing.

And in the fourth section I missed the emotion of the film. And the scenes from 15 and 20 years later hold some interest but I'm glad the filmmakers thought them unnecessary (I really don't want them to turn it into a trilogy as they have discussed).

But the final paragraph is superb.

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