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Charlotte Allen and George Weigel have each written sharply on the controversy at the College of the Holy Cross. We don’t need any further proof of deep-rooted decadence at the college than a chaired professor’s conversion of the Crucifixion into a bizarre sex act.

But let me add another context to the affair. It bears upon a change in the practice of criticism in the last decades of the twentieth century. Previously, scholars had approached a work with the intention of getting it right. Much of the work of humanities researchers was archival and bibliographical, empirical labor aimed at producing reliable editions of canonical authors. The complement to it was interpretation of novels and poems and plays that sought to open them up, to explicate them (ex- “out” + plicare “fold”) and bring their full meanings to light. Certain critical studies had authoritative status as supreme renditions of the truth of a work—for instance, Northrop Frye’s book on William Blake, Robert Penn Warren’s long essay on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and A. C. Bradley’s Shakespeare.

Theory changed all that. From roughly 1975 to 1995, a different conception of interpretation took hold. In simple terms, we went from criticism as truth-telling to criticism as performance. Previously, the job of criticism had been to illuminate the object, to detail it and explain it and contextualize it accurately and precisely. In the age of theory, the job of criticism is to implement a theoretical approach, to display one’s facility with interpretative concepts. The focus shifted from the nature of the work to the dexterity of the critic. One had formerly asked, “Does this book or essay reveal important things about the work?”—things that are really “in” it? After the advent of theory, we ask, “Does the critic handle concepts astutely? Does he wield the tools well and produce a compelling rehearsal of a theoretical school?”

We should look at the Holy Cross professor’s writings in this light. To be frank, I don’t think that Professor Tat-Siong Benny Liew really believes one word of what he says about the Gospels and queer sex. The Bible isn’t that important to him. In the essay that provoked the controversy, a 30-page distortion of the Passion, Liew lists 118 entries in the works cited section. Nearly all of them come from the world of queer theory, gender theory, feminism, postcolonialism, identity politics, and their founders, not from traditional Biblical scholarship. In the course of the essay, the references come so swiftly and predictably that they sound less like evidence invoked to support a point than name-dropping by a professor out to show how up-to-date and in-the-know he is. He never lets slip a chance to insert a theory gesture into a description.

For example:

In the Fourth Gospel, the Father’s world above is—alongside the queer identifications and pleasures—always already—like the world below—a site/sight of hierarchical relations and leave-taking.

The insertion of “always already” and “site/sight” serves only one purpose: to prove that Liew knows his deconstruction. Derrida used the “always already” formulation repeatedly in his analysis (though it originates with Kant, who insisted that experience is always already structured by the categories of the understanding). Derrida’s followers also favored puns and homonyms such as “site/sight,” crafting them ad nauseam in an effort to demonstrate their sensitivity to the playfulness of language. The thing about the usage here is that, in both cases, it adds nothing to the assertions about the worlds above and below. The terms are there for show. They serve to certify the sophistication of the professor, not to spotlight something in the Gospels.

We shouldn’t, then, take what Liew says about the Gospels seriously. The New Testament is just a pretext. His essay is merely an occasion for him to practice his theoretical chops. This is the deeper decadence of the Holy Cross situation. The faculty hired Liew not because they thought he was a brilliant Biblical scholar. They hired him because he knows his queer theory. The Bible just happened to be the object to which he applied his routine. That his colleagues found the routine interesting and insightful and edgy and brainy is the worst element in this whole sorry episode.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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