A review of The Crucifixion of Hyacinth by Geoff Puterbaugh, Authors Choice Press, USA, 2000
More pamphlet than book, The Crucifixion of Hyacinth is the type of publication that deserves to be a cottage industry. If engaging with history is a fading pastime, maybe the bookish equivalent of a lively coffee house discussion, which this book is, could re-spark some interest. Geoff Puterbaugh speaks directly from his own personal point of view, and backs it with a well-marshalled collection of sources. The brevity, the conversational style, allow the reader to put aside the more weighty mental apparatus required for a scholarly tome, and encourages a free interplay of ideas and fancies to flourish along the way.
Puterbaugh's aims are necessarily simple and straightforward. After an excellent outline of the pederasty prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, he then focuses on the rise of Judeo-Christian homophobia and its eventual dominance in the decaying Roman Empire. While a book of this sort has to be narrow in its field of study, a little more context, a slightly broader view of Christianity's role in the world, would have been helpful. The author's comparison of the early Christian revolution to the Marxist revolutions of our own time is a fallacious libel. Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, paints a convincing portrait: a new quality of care and kindness at the community level was Christianity's secret weapon. Underestimating one's enemy is never a good strategy -- even worse is an inability to learn from them.
The vastness of Christianity's vision and mission, the great good it brought into the world, has to be acknowledged if its attendant puritanical excesses are to be properly understood. One could argue that still today an unwillingness to broaden our historical view limits our ability to see puritanism in its true colours, still busily at work with its blinkers and its casuistry.
Origins of cultural phenomena seem to entrance the students of history, and Puterbaugh is no exception. He traces the original source of homophobia, in its strident Judeo-Christian form, to the Persians around the time of the Babylonian Captivity. From the teachings of Zoroastrianism, the God-given proscription on homosexual acts passed directly into the book of Leviticus and from there the whole shooting match took off. I couldn't help being reminded of the Ancients' diligent efforts to track down the original wily inventor of pederasty. I suspect the true origins of both phenomena are far more biological than politico-religious. The moment proto-humans first gained a modicum of rational thought, some Neanderthal do-gooder would have been demanding the clan needed to clean up its act -- and he would have been right, up to a point.
Puterbaugh writes in the Forward: "Although the rise of sexual intolerance has been overlooked by other authors, a closer study will be attempted here."
I would have thought the Christian-sponsored rise of sexual intolerance has been very well covered over the last few decades (The Crucifixion was published in 2000). It's part of the air we breathe now and something we pride ourselves on being superior to. Puterbaugh's ridicule and debunking of the early church fathers is certainly the least appealing part of the book. Really, is there a single scintilla of Faith that hasn't been debunked within an inch of its salvation? He quotes Clement of Alexandria at length, and his constant interjections, via footnotes, to nudge and wink at the reader, is quite vexing. Even in a casual coffee house chat, a few manners don't hurt.
But it is a valid form of entertainment, in its place, to enjoy a few laughs at old superstitious beliefs. Clement's musings on hyenas, their fake vaginas and annual sex changes, is a testament to the power of man's sex-spooked imagination. The laughter we enjoy should partly be the shock of recognition -- just how many of our current truisms will one day look as bizarre as Clement's pederastic hare with a dozen anuses?
As Puterbaugh describes the evolution of the Church's homophobic attitudes and proscriptions, the target of its attack becomes a little blurred. Again, a little contextualising from the author would have helped. The primary form of homosexual activity at this time remained pederasty, although the fulminators quite often railed against effeminate men who took the woman's role. It's a tactic that made good sense. Trying to denounce pederasty was an almost hopeless task. As St. John Chrysostom (349 – 407) lamented (quite loudly):
But the worst of the evil is that this abominable crime [pederasty] shows itself in public with complete impunity. Although it is contrary to all laws, the average man might call it legitimate and lawful—for has it not passed into custom? No one blushes at all; no one dislikes it; no one shivers, revolted by horror. What am I saying? The guilty are as proud of their crimes as of their gallant speeches to the ladies. In their eyes, modest-men are madmen! Those who dare to give them sage reprimands are, according to them, extravagant madmen. Reproach them, if you dare: if they are stronger than you, they will beat you with no mercy; if weaker, they will content themselves with mockery, jeering, and a thousand pungent jests at your expense.
Attacking effeminate men was much more efficacious -- a smaller target and much more liable to gain the sympathies of the general populace. From that toe-hold, over the centuries, they could push on and broaden their scope.
The preference of the author to describe Christian homophobia as being directed at a generalised homosexuality probably served to lessen the jarring effect of his conclusion. Puterbaugh's Afterword, mirroring Wayne Dynes's Forward, spoke only of gay men's history of oppression and their recent, long overdue achievement of societal tolerance. Given the book's sole focus on the title fight between two cultural titans, Pederasty and Puritanism, to discuss the modern situation without mentioning pederasty is glaringly illogical -- something that could perhaps earn him a future Clement of Alexandria award. If persecution is justified now, why not then? Chrysostom might today be seen as suspiciously mild in his denunciations. Puterbaugh takes previous historians to task for their unwillingness to discuss homosexuality in antiquity -- perhaps if he were to ease up on Christianity a little, he might become inspired to address the beam in his own eye.
So, as in any good coffee house chat, opinions are put, disagreements ensue, the blood rises, and a few laughs bring it all home. I enjoyed this book and came away with the impression that despite, or perhaps because of, some differences of opinion, Geoff Puterbaugh would be a fine fellow to chat with over a hot brew.
Reviewed by Sam Hall for this website, 14 December 2017