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Testament by Hal Duncan

On my Patreon, one of the rewards, for $5/month, is collectively choosing something for me to review at the start of the next month; that goes up at the start of the month for patrons at that level, and they decided that they should also go up publicly! As a result, a month after my patrons see these reviews, they’ll be posted here. And in February, my $5 patrons decided I should review… Hal Duncan’s Testament

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In the 21st Century, a scalpel slices bible pages, passages spliced to restore lost truth. In the days of King Herod, the messias rises, calling to black sheep: walk with me. Now, here, between two aeons and across Æternity, a beloved student rebuilds his Gospel for the era of Anonymous: anarchist, socialist, atheist, revolutionary. Forget the tale you were spun and open your ears to the teacher who said, I will have mercy and not sacrifice. From the Hebridean fishing village of Capernaum, to a Jerusalem under Il Duce Pontius Pilate…

The Empire ends today.
~~~~~
Hal Duncan is possibly best known as a poet and a commentator on science fiction and fantasy from a queer, anarchist, iconoclastic, somewhat punk perspective, setting himself up as the Elder of Sodom, and the blurb of Testament lays out his manifesto in the book perfectly accurately: it is a retelling of the Gospels from a queered point of view, with God taken out of the equation.

It must be emphasised that taking God out of the Bible is a long tradition, though I’m not sure Duncan would see himself as in continuity with Jefferson or Pullman; but as a project, this has very similar roots – suggesting that the morality Christ taught is valid, but the idea of his divinity is not. Whereas Jefferson simply removes those as later interpolations and Pullman posited a fictional, manipulative brother, Duncan suggests they’re a misreading of what Christ was saying: there is no God but only humanity, the “everyman”; Christ’s father was not God, but an unknown revolutionary. The problem with any of these projects is the same, though; picking and choosing what bits of the Gospels you accept as true, and which bits you think are lies, can never be backed up by anything but “Because I say so”, and Duncan’s project, though explicitly fictional, does nothing to stand up to the question of, “Aren’t you ignoring the actual language involved for your own purposes?”

Testament also stands in a long tradition of Jesus/Judas slash; this particular queering of Jesus is a slightly odd one from Duncan, relying as it does on reading three distinct people as all being Judas, and on presuming all love (at least, all love between men) is sexual. It’s absolutely true that there’s no textual evidence that Christ wasn’t queer, and indeed some that He may have been, although it’s… at best tenuous, but what strikes this reader as strange is the effort Duncan goes to in reading queerness into parts of the Bible where it wasn’t, while ignoring areas where there is much stronger evidence of queerness (the pais of the centurion, here treated simply as a slave, for instance). Queerness, for Duncan, appears to be specially reserved for Christ and the Disciples, and not all of them.

That’s not the only odd, tenuous reading, of course. While many people have questioned how the epistles of Paul fit with the teachings of Christ, and how the edifice of the Catholic Church (as founded by Peter who was Simon) fits with those teachings, Duncan’s explanation is… unsatisfactory: Paul was a sleeper agent sent by the Roman Empire to undermine the Church? Peter founded the Church and was the one who reconciled it to Empire? And yet, chronologically and historically and sociologically, in terms of the Early Church, that just doesn’t make sense (think Diocletian, if you’re wondering why). Testament doesn’t engage with later persecution of the Christians, going right up to the modern day, instead casting Christianity as purely persecutor; an argument that strains credulity.

Finally, there’s the approach to chronology and timeslipping that Testament deploys. This is fundamental to Duncan’s project; he slips references to modernity into this Gospel of Judas, with Christ preaching at the kirk, with the setting changed from Judea to Aberdeen, with the Romans pepperspraying lines of Christians. It’s evocative, to be sure, but it also feels messy; it departicularises Christ from his time and place, something Duncan sometimes relies on, to universalise everything he says, even when it isn’t. The time slipping is especially problematic in the way Duncan, a Gentile, deploys the Holocaust, and how he, a white Scot, deploys Black suffering; laid at the foot of the Christian Church (not unreasonably), he takes them as his own stories to tell, as his own events to use however he wants. As a Jew, this is, to say the least, offensive to me.

I’m not the right person to engage deeply with the theology of Testament; it seems to me to be taking the messages of Jesus and distorting them in a mirror image of the way some established churches do. But for what I can comment on, while this is an artful novel, and an interesting one, it’s also a deeply flawed project that repeatedly undermines itself; useful to read, but with one’s head cocked, as it were.

DISCLOSURE: Hal Duncan is a fellow Glaswegian and a friend.

If you found this review useful, or if you’d like to help choose what I review next month, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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