The Passion for Christ

Gay Times February 2001

James Kirkup’s poem, The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, was condemned as a blasphemous libel, but was it any good as a piece of literature? And does that matter, anyway? Novelist and broadcaster MICHAEL ARDITTI revisits the poem 25 years on

Several years ago, I was a guest at a theological college and wanted to take my morning bath. Knowing that there was a strict rota, I usually waited until the ordinands had all taken theirs, but, on this particular day, I had an early appointment- As I ran the water, I was interrupted by an irate student who, unwilling to break the rule of silence, mimed that I had jumped the queue. Feigning incomprehension, I poured in some oil while pointing to a notice on the door, which read Guests must be treated as Christ. ‘If Christ were here,’ I said, ‘I’m sure you’d offer him the bath.’ ‘If Christ were here,’ he spluttered, ‘he wouldn’t need a bath.’

His reply neatly encapsulates one side of the Christological debate. To the ordinand, Jesus was a kind of plaster saint: a man who didn’t sweat and certainly wasn’t subject to other bodily secretions. Blair, the Christ-figure in my novel, Easter, puts forward the opposing view, when he says ‘1 believe the word was made flesh to be the most telling phrase in the Bible and a damning rebuke to those who would like to see Him as a piece of animated calligraphy. To deny the flesh is to disincarnate Christ, not to follow Him.’ To Blair, the Incarnation means that Christ experienced the full range of human emotions, including desire. Whether or not he acted upon it is impossible to know, but each of us is entitled to draw on the example of His love, in its human as well as its divine aspect, as we lead our own lives.

In 1976, James Kirkup’s poem. The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, used a Roman centurion’s expression of his desire for the dead Christ to endorse the universal – even sacramental – nature of same-sex passion. The scandal it provoked was out of all proportion to any offence it might have caused to believing Christians, just as the celebrity it achieved was out of all proportion to any merit it might have enjoyed as literature.

The poem itself is tawdry and insignificant. Its lack of authenticity is apparent from the title, which is not merely an inverted cliché but one that is forever associated with Alfred Douglas. Its imagery is relentlessly pornographic, from the opening verse where we read that the dead Christ has
‘the tough, lean body of a man no longer young, beardless, breathless, but well hung’.

In the fifth verse, we read that
‘I knew he’d had it off with other men – with Herod’s guards, with Pontius Pilate, with John the Baptist, with Paul of Tarsus, with foxy Judas, a great kisser with the rest of the Twelve, together and apart.’

This ludicrous list – one half-expects it to end ‘Old Uncle Nicodemus and all’ – begs so many questions that it is hard to know which to address. All the subtleties of the Passion story are sacrificed to the passionless repetitions of a pom film. The mention of Paul is particularly inane, since Paul never met Christ and many Christians suspect that his message might have been very different if he had.

Moreover, Kirkup betrays his ignorance of the gospel story by leaving out the most likely candidate for ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved': St John. He not only makes Christ’s sexuality another Feeding of the Five Thousand but turns the fellowship of the Apostles into an orgy. With his emphasis on penis size and ejaculation, he is closer to the ‘no pecs, no sex’ rule of a Miami Beach party than to the miracle of Universal Love.

The truth is that this is a poem about violence and abuse. It could serve as a validation of gay love only for those who equate such love with necrophilia. In a passage as perverse as it is obscure, the Centurion feels the dead Christ
‘enter into me, and fiercely spend his spirit’s final seed within my hole, my soul’.

But then this emphasis on wounds and violation is only to be expected from one who views gay sex as a ‘passionate and blissful crucifixion’ and its participants as inflicting
‘loving injuries of joy and grace one upon the other, till they die of lust and pain.’

What is so depressing about Kirkup’s choice of protagonist is that many scholars believe that the centurion who, in Luke’s gospel, begs Jesus to heal his servant may well have been the man’s lover. After all, to such an eminent Roman, a servant was a mere chattel. For him to have cared so much about his fate betokens an exceptional intimacy. Likewise, Jesus’s readiness to help the pair indicates his approval of their love.

None of this, of course Justifies the poem’s prosecution. Christians always come off worst when they invoke the secular law to safeguard their religious privileges. Christ’s message is more than strong enough to survive both denial and differing interpretation. The last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy in England was a young schoolteacher, George Holyoake, in 1842. Nevertheless the crime remains on the statute book. It is especially alarming in the wake of the Rushdie affair that, rather than press for its removal as an anachronism, there are many who want to extend its scope to other religions.

Such a demand poses particular dangers to those of us who wish to explore the links between spirituality and sexuality that lie at the heart of the world’s great religions. One need only remember the furore that greeted Martin Scorsese’s screen version of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation, let alone the Danish director Jens Jurgen Thorsen’s attempt to make a film about the sex life of Christ.

The irony is that much classic religious art has always been intensely erotic, whether it be Guido Reni’s St Sebastian, which was a favourite painting of both Oscar Wilde and Yukio Mishima, or Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, which depicts a truth evident to any open-minded reader of her story: that her ‘raptures’ are essentially orgasmic. The following passage, in which she describes being pierced by a seraphim’s spear, might with only minor alterations serve for a seduction-scene in Fanny Hill: ‘In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with the love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it.’

Mary Whitehouse did her cause no service by prosecuting a poem which would otherwise have sunk into well-merited oblivion. She did, however, do me a considerable service, for it was in reports of the case that I first learnt of the existence of Gay News. Reading the poem for the first time since then, 1 can only feel grateful that, in the intervening twenty-five years, gay writing, gay spirituality and gay consciousness have advanced so far.

Michael Arditti ‘s novel. Easter, is to be reissued by Arcadia in April.