Inception

The most curious thing about Inception has been its reception. While generally positive, it’s been overpraised and savaged by loud minorities, the former by those who see philosophical profundity in Deepak Chopra, the latter by those whose expectations were too high or who insist on judging the film by the wrong yardstick. This is a heist movie, not epic drama, and one should no more expect a Godfatheresque thriller than fault it for not being so. The one legitimate complaint that can be leveled is the remarkable lack of character development over its two and a half hour length. But even that’s a small crime in a film whose important strengths lie elsewhere.

I won’t waste much time on the plot, since I’ve already broken it down completely, only to reemphasize that it’s not nearly as inconsistent as some believe, though Nolan does drop the ball on a couple of points. The time differential on the level two dream isn’t correct, and by rights Arthur should have woken up on level one when his team of dreamers missed the first kick. As far as I can tell, everything else lines up properly. With regards to the ending, there seems no end to debate. Did Cobb wake up in reality and go home to his kids? Did he choose to stay down in limbo? Did he dream the entire mission on the plane? I favor the second option since upon reuniting with his children, they appear exactly the same as he remembers them (same clothes, posture, age, etc). It’s not clear whether or not the totem tops, and Nolan was obviously leaving the matter ambiguous. Either the first or second scenario is satisfying since the mission is successful in either case, though the second has the added benefit of tragedy. The third is lame, and I rather doubt was intended to take seriously. [Edit: I now accept the first reality option, since it has been pointed out that Cobb’s kids are actually wearing different shoes, and they are at least implied to be older by the fact that different actors were used to play the kids (per IMDB).]

Regarding the structure of dreams, Inception takes the opposite approach of What Dreams May Come, serving up clearly defined labyrinths, mazes, and landscapes which conform to the laws of physics (when things are going well), purposely designed this way by an architect (Ariadne, played by Ellen Page) so that when the subject’s mind is invaded, everything will seem “normal” and not prompt defensive reactions from the subconscious. Nolan is hardly suggesting that dreams usually function this way; they are imposed this way on a victim for a specific purpose. Dramatically this works to great effect, and I love the minimalist feel to Inception‘s dream architecture, especially the preponderance of greys and blacks (again, opposite the blazing rainbow colors in What Dreams May Come), which go well with the gritty action sequences.

I also adore the story’s premise: that the “protagonists” of the Inception team are basically on a mission to destroy a decent man (or at least his financial world), though a critic like Carson Lund is nonplussed, complaining that “the emotionality that drives this complex operation is cruel” and that “any rewards the team receives after their inevitable success are at the expense of ruining one man’s personal and professional life, pounding into his head that his father never loved him and was disappointed that he tried to repeat his own path”. But that’s a strength of the story, not a weakness, making us pause before shelling out too much sympathy for the lead character (Di Caprio’s Cobb) who is tormented by his wife’s suicide, for which he was tragically responsible.

The strongest indicator of the film’s success is that it’s over before you know it. Even on second viewing I couldn’t believe I spent two and a half hours in my seat — it’s as if that seat had been a lower level dream with the film taking up a fraction of its time. Surely that’s the most fitting praise for Inception.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Wind Through the Cradle

Carson Lund, former employee of the Nashua Public Library, and who authors the blog, Are the Hills Going to March Off?, has made a short film along with Michael Basta (another ex-library employee). The film is called Wind Through the Cradle, is 27 minutes long, and may be watched here. The synopsis:

“A retired writer (Clifford Blake) who once had a passionate intellectual following has since retreated to the woods to live in complete isolation. Wind Through the Cradle involves the arrival of his distant relative, a young journalist (Natasha Mogilevskaya) for an unspecified source who comes to immerse herself in his lifestyle and probe his inner being in an attempt to bring his enigma to public light. A tension builds as the journalist stays for longer than intended, which builds to a deeply ambiguous climax. Told with languorous narrative rhythms, minimal dialogue, and a graceful observational camera, Wind Through the Cradle is a mysterious examination of the limits of familial bonds in the foreboding silence of the forest.”

Check it out. Carson generally has fine cinematic tastes, though must be forgiven for his misguided hatred of Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Inception: Plot Analysis

This isn’t a review of Inception but a careful outline of the plot. Many complain that the film is confusing to follow (on first viewing anyway) and even that it violates its own rules of the dream world. While I don’t think it’s a fraction as confusing or inconsistent as some critics make it out to be, there are a few points where I could use more closure. Please leave comments if you think any part of this analysis is askew, or if other parts of the plot demand clarity.

I’ll review the film later, but for now simply note that while it’s very good, I don’t agree with Doug Chaplin that it’s Nolan’s best, certainly not as good as The Dark Knight, and perhaps not even Memento though admittedly close. My one problem with Inception is the remarkable lack of character development over two and a half hours. The actors do a fine job with what they’re given, but aside from Leo Di Caprio’s Cobb, we don’t get to know them well. (In stark contrast, The Dark Knight‘s two and a half hour length gave us an intimate look at almost every character.) But that’s an admittedly small complaint, given that the film’s strengths lie elsewhere. And Doug is right about the tempus fugit effect of watching it: it certainly doesn’t feel like a long film at all — almost as if we’re dreaming it ourselves.

THE PLOT OF INCEPTION

The mission of the Inception team is grand: to implant an idea deep in the subconscious of a corporate executive (Robert Fischer Jr., played by Cilian Murphy) so subtly that he will believe its his own idea, and choose not to follow in his fathers footsteps, thereby leaving business to others and allowing a rival competitor to dominate. Planting this idea requires such intricacy that it must be done on a very deep level, a third-level dream — a dream within a dream within a dream — where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up or falling into limbo escalate dramatically.

The level one traffic dream is dreamed by Yusuf (Dileep Rao) on the airplane (level zero). Saito is shot on this level and starts dying. The team captures Fischer, and Eames (shapechanged as Fischer’s right hand man, Browning) tells him they’ve been torturing him (Browning) to get the combination to his father’s safe, and that his father left an alternate will in the safe allowing him to dissolve the empire if he so chooses. The first seed is planted: that Fischer may not wish to follow in his father’s footsteps. Fischer’s defensive projections zero in on the Inception team, who flee in a van. They are relentlessly chased and shot at in busy traffic. Yusuf stays behind on this level to keep driving the van as the rest of the team go to sleep and enter the level two dream. He will signal down to level two when he’s ready to initiate a kick by driving the van off a bridge.

The level two hotel dream is dreamed by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the van on level one. Saito continues dying on this level from the previous gun wound. Cobb (posing as “Mr. Charles”) convinces Fischer that the Inception team are Fischer’s own defensive projections to help fend of dream invaders, and that Fischer’s actual defensive projections are the enemy invaders; they encounter Fischer’s projection of Browning, whom Fischer accuses of working with the kidnappers and wanting the alternate will for himself. The Browning projection says he can’t just let Fischer destroy the empire by rising to his father’s last taunt — to build something for himself. Fischer’s subconscious is feeding these ideas given by Eames on the first level, so in effect Fischer is by now giving himself the ideas. The second seed is planted: that Fischer can create something for himself. The Inception team succeeds in recruiting Fischer on this level, convincing him that Browning isn’t telling the whole truth, and pretend to use Browning’s subconscious to enter level three and determine his motives (but of course they’re still using Fischer’s subconscious). Arthur stays behind on level two to watch over the rest of the team as they go to sleep in the hotel room and enter the level three dream. He will signal down to level three when he hears Yusuf’s signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by detonating the charges he planted in the ceiling of the room below, bringing the dreamers through the floor.

The level three snow-fort dream is dreamed by Eames (Tom Hardy) in the hotel room on level two, who then stays behind on level three when Cobb and Ariadne unexpectedly have to enter limbo in order to retrieve Fischer when he is killed by Mal. They hook up to the dreamware and navigate their way to limbo as Cobb had learned how to do long ago with Mal. Eames will signal down to limbo when he hears Arthur’s signal from above and is ready to initiate a kick by planting explosives on the building to make it drop. They are only guessing that limbo might function as a “level four dream” this way in being responsive to kicks. Saito finally dies on this level after Cobb and Ariadne go to limbo.

The limbo level is dreamed by no one, since it is a place of shared consciousness. (On levels one to three, each dreamer’s dream is filled by Fischer’s subconscious.) It contains nothing other than decaying remains of whatever was built by those who had been there before, such as Cobb and Mal. Cobb and Ariadne find Mal, who gives up Fischer only after extracting a promise from Cobb to remain with her in limbo. Ariadne learns from Cobb that one can escape limbo by dying in it (he tells how he and Mal freed themselves from limbo after fifty years by throwing themselves in front of a train), and so she pushes Fischer off a building and then throws herself off likewise, not bothering to wait for the kick from Eames on level three (and they were never quite sure they could be kicked out of limbo as in “regular” level dreams anyway). Cobb remains behind, telling Ariadne that Saito must have died by now and he needs to find him (lest Saito succumb to the lure of limbo and decide to stay there forever, believing it to be reality; Cobb of course needs him to clear him of charges so that he can go home). Ariadne warns him not to lose himself as he did before with Mal.

Back on level three Eames resuscitates Fischer with the defibrillator (after Ariadne frees him from limbo by killing him) who then enters the hospital room and meets his dying father. The third and most critical seed is planted, thus completing the mission: that Fischer Sr. never wanted his son to be like him. Note that Saito cannot be resuscitated the same way since he has been dying on all three levels of the dream, unlike the case of Fischer, whose bodies remain intact on levels one and two; and even if Saito could be resuscitated this way, he is still lost below in limbo. He becomes trapped there, believing it to be reality (like Mal did). Cobb also loses himself in limbo, until he eventually finds a very aged Saito and kills/liberates him.

So when the mission is completed on level three (Fischer meeting his dying father), the kick from level two (the elevator falling down the shaft) snaps Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level three dream and they wake up on level two. Then the kick from level one (the van hitting the water) snaps Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, and Fischer out of the level two dream and they wake up on level one. Finally, after a few days of milling about on level one, Arthur, Eames (still shapechanged as Browning on this level), Ariadne, and Fischer get “kicked” up to reality when the sedation wears off on the plane. Cobb and Saito wake up too, but they had to wait many years since they were stranded down in limbo.

Note: The first kick on level one — the van falling off the bridge — was missed, as the mission was still unfulfilled and no kicks from levels three or two had taken place yet. The team would be given a second chance when the van hit the water, but because the level one dreamers were now in freefall, the level two dreamers became suspended likewise, thereby requiring Arthur to come up with a new and creative kick for zero-g environment (the elevator falling down the shaft). (The van’s freefall didn’t effect the gravity of the level three dream, only the level immediately below.)

Note: It appears that kicks can be resisted. (1) When the the first kick on level one is missed (the van falling off the bridge), it at least should have woken up Arthur, since he was awake (and not dreaming like the others) on level two. (2) Similarly, the kick on level three (the fort crumbling and falling) should have woken up Cobb from limbo (assuming that one can get kicked out of limbo like this, which the team is unsure of), but didn’t. Obviously Arthur needed more time on level two to initiate a kick there, and Cobb needed to find Saito in limbo. The implication is that (trained dream invaders?) can resist kicks.

Regarding time: We are told that ten hours of real time (on the airplane) translates into seven days in a level one dream, six months in a level two dream, and ten years in a level three dream (and God only knows how much in limbo). So when the van has a mere (three?) seconds to hit the water, that should translate into one minute on level two and twenty minutes on level three. We are indeed told that the team on level three has twenty minutes to complete their mission after they miss the first kick, but we’re told that Arthur has three minutes (not one) to initiate a kick on level two — and it sure seems like it takes longer than three minutes (let alone one) for him to bind everyone up and rig the elevator.

Finally, the ending is left wonderfully ambiguous, since it’s not clear if the totem tops or not. Did Cobb stay down in limbo or go home? Given Chris Nolan’s penchant for the tragic, I prefer to think the former. Notice that when he finally meets his kids, they appear exactly as he remembers them, in the same clothes, not having aged a day. I believe that Cobb decided to remain in a dream with his wife and kids, rather than in reality with his kids alone.

UPDATE (7/21/10) Here’s my actual review.

UPDATE (7/23/10): I stand by everything said in this post except the last paragraph. Eagle-eyed Vic Holtreman points out that at the end Cobb’s kids are actually wearing different shoes, and they are at least implied to be older by the fact that different actors were used to play the kids (per IMDB). So Cobb’s homecoming is probably real after all.

Shogun: Fact and Fiction (IV) — Treachery and Loyalty in an Honor-Shame Context

shogun 1In the last post we looked at the theme of homoeroticism in James Clavell’s Shogun and considered commonalities between the medieval Japanese and ancient Mediterraneans. In this post I want to examine the tricky relationship between treachery and loyalty in honor-shame cultures. If the reader of Shogun is struck by the imperative of loyalty to one’s liege lord, it is just as striking that so many of the novel’s characters are constantly scheming against their superiors, and backbiting each other left and right, saying one thing and thinking another. What gives?

In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith, who doesn’t hesitate to point out Clavell’s errors when he sees them, concedes that on the point of duplicity and treachery Clavell understands the Japanese mindset quite well:

“Clavell was scarcely deviating from historical reality in his heavy reliance on the theme of duplicity to build the plot and create the driving suspense of his novel. While this undeniably perpetuates the Western stereotype of the Japanese (and other Asians) as ‘inscrutable’, one must realize that the stereotype was in full flower in the era of Shogun. Consider the advice of the pilot Rodrigues to Blackthorne: ‘Never forget Japmen’re six-faced and have three hearts. It’s a saying they have, that a man has a false heart in his mouth for all the world to see, another in his breast to show his very special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, which is never known to anyone except himself alone’… There is little doubt that both treachery and loyalty were the central themes of sixteenth-century Japanese politics, and Clavell can scarcely be accused of exaggerating them.” (“The Struggle for the Shogunate”, pp 52-53)

Smith attributes much of Japanese duplicity and treachery to the transitional era of c. 1600, “from the utter chaos of the mid-sixteenth century to the amazingly stable and well-ordered regime of the Tokugawa shogunate a century later. It is precisely this process of transition that helps us better understand the seemingly contradictory mixture of a country which is alternatively described as in total political chaos and at the same time a paragon of law and order (p 54)”. But that’s a largely superficial answer, because the issue transcends politics. Rodrigues’ remark is a general one suggesting people conditioned more by culture than politics.

To me, the issue is pressed home most strongly in chapter 34, when Toranaga, about to invite the daimyo Yabu to be one of his vassals, asks Mariko for advice:

Toranaga: “What’s your opinion of Yabu?”

Mariko: “Yabu-san’s a violent man with no scruples whatsoever. He honors nothing but his own interests. Duty, loyalty, tradition, mean nothing to him. His mind has flashes of great cunning, even brilliance. He’s equally dangerous as an ally or enemy.”

Toranaga: “All commendable virtues. What’s to be said against him?”

On the face of it, this is rather astounding praise for a soon-to-be vassal. In a culture that values honor, duty, loyalty, and tradition above everything else, why would someone commend the precise opposite in a subordinate he needs to rely on so heavily? Toranaga is just as aware as we are (as readers) that Yabu is a backbiting shark who’s constantly itching to splash Toranaga’s head on the ground even as he’s drawn into alliance with him.

Retainers and vassals are always walking a tightrope in honor-shame cultures, keeping their lords’ interests at heart enough to not incur wrath while keeping their own interests even closer, but discreetly so as not to arouse undue suspicion, yet still enough to insure their own gains. Lords like Toranaga know the system perfectly, and as long as their subordinates mind their interests to the appropriate degree and give all due outward displays of respect, they don’t begrudge duplicity in their subjects — in fact, if they’re smart, they stand to gain a great deal by encouraging such duplicity and self-serving interests. Retainers can do a lot of dirty work for them, siphon off anger that would otherwise be directed at the lord, exploit others for profit, and other activity that carries dishonorable risk.

Looked at this way, treachery is simply the other coin side of honor-shame loyalty. One calls forth the other. Human beings are self-serving creatures, after all, and in a culture that has strong loyalist mechanisms to contravene that inclination, treachery will out in other ways — and fiercely. It makes for constantly precarious relationships: Toranaga never trusts Yabu, who indeed doesn’t get through a day without contemplating murdering or betraying him to get ahead; Omi is just as hell-bent on killing Yabu (though Yabu is oblivious to this, thinking his nephew a genuine loyalist). While lords like Toranaga of course need truly loyal retainers (like Hiro-Matsu) as their closest confidents, they also need sharks like Yabu to obtain goals otherwise out of reach. But the sharks have to be shrewd. Shrewd enough not to get caught, and shrewd enough to make everything seem loyal and honorable. In the character of Yabu, Clavell portrayed this phenomenon better than anything I’ve read in any work of literature.

Insofar as biblical parallels go, it’s difficult to light on them for the obvious reason that one doesn’t portray treachery where loyalty is expected, save in places where (shameful) treachery is the issue at hand (as in the case of Judas and Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus). And the biblical writers don’t get into the minds of their protagonists the way a modern novelist like Clavell does so well. Yet biblical specialists have been using the duplicity model to help us understand treachery in various texts. For instance, in the parable of The Dishonest Steward, we find a master commending the dishonest behavior of his own manager who cheats him, and at Antioch we see how the pillars backstabbed Paul despite the “agreement” made in Jerusalem.

In the next and final post, I’ll wrap up this series and suggest what a novel like Shogun can help teach us about biblical values.

Bill Arnal Reviews Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Terror

Check it out at RBL. Readers will recall my own review for The Nashua Public Library blog, and of course there was the colorful review on this blog by Leonard Ridge.

Here’s Arnal’s commentary on Crossley’s Context-Group bashing:

“…Crossley goes after the Context Group for promoting Orientalist scholarship (disclosure: I am a member of the Context Group, though not an active one). It is, in the first place, unclear why this particular group of scholars is being singled out for scrutiny when there are so many potential foci for Crossley’s analyses; the work of the Context Group (as Crossley admits at points) is hardly consistent in its Orientalism, nor hardly the most egregious example of such an approach. Crossley’s point is certainly well taken that broad characterizations of ‘Mediterranean’ culture as, for example, rather timelessly based on honor-shame tend to play into and confirm stereotypes about a contemporary ‘clash of civilizations.’ But does this have any real bearing on the motivations of the scholars who reconstruct such anthropological models? Are such motivations even relevant? Indeed, does the potential misuse of these models (even by their own authors) have any implications at all either for their accuracy or their utility in the analysis of ancient Mediterranean cultural artifacts (which is, after all, what they are being used for)? Crossley needs to provide satisfactory answers to these questions.”

Bill is one of the panelists who will be reviewing Crossley’s book in Atlanta this November (the others being Mark Goodacre, Zeba Crook, and Roland Boer). I’m looking forward to the session. Zeba Crook is a Context Group member and will naturally have some interesting things to say. I didn’t know that Bill himself was a (non-active) member of the group until reading this review.

Shogun: Fact and Fiction (III) — Homoeroticism in an Honor-Shame Context

shogun 1In the last post we looked at the theme of love in James Clavell’s Shogun, and saw that it was about duty and attachment more than affection, just as it was for ancient Jews and Christians. We turn now to homoeroticism. What parallels do we see between medieval Japan and the ancient Mediterranean?

The issue is addressed at a memorable point in the novel (in chapter 20). The English pilot John Blackthorne has just been granted an audience with the future Shogun, Lord Toranaga, who then departs and leaves him in the care of a few guards and ladies, in particular the lady Mariko, his interpreter. Conversation turns to matters of pillowing (sex), about which Blackthorne is very embarrassed, but Mariko and the ladies are concerned that he isn’t getting enough sex and so offer to send him a woman or indeed many women. He grows increasingly uncomfortable by the bluntness and lack of delicacy, and Mariko misconstrues his lack of enthusiasm as a preference for boys.

“Oh! Perhaps – perhaps you would prefer a boy?”

“Eh?”

“A boy. It’s just as simple if that’s your wish.” Her smile was guileless, her voice matter-of-fact.

“Eh?”

“What’s the matter?”

“Are you seriously offering me a boy?”

“Why, yes, Anjin-san. What’s the matter? I only said we’d send a boy here if you wished it.”

“I don’t wish it!” Blackthorne felt the blood in his face. “Do I look like a God-cursed sodomite?”

His words slashed around the room. They all stared at him transfixed. Mariko bowed abjectly, kept her head to the floor. “Please forgive me. Here some men want boys sometimes. I foolishly presumed that your customs were the same as ours.”

The samurai leader, Kazu Oan, was watching angrily. He was charged with the barbarian’s safety and with the barbarian’s health and he had seen, with his own eyes, the incredible favor Lord Toranaga had shown to the Anjin-san, and now the Anjin-san was furious. “What’s the matter with him?” he asked challengingly, for obviously the stupid woman had said something to offend his very important prisoner.

Mariko explained what had been said and what the Anjin-san had replied. “I really don’t understand what he’s irritated about, Oan-san.”

Oan scratched his head in disbelief. “He’s like a mad ox just because you offered him a boy?”

“Yes.”

“So sorry, but were you polite? Did you use a wrong word, perhaps?”

Homosexual practices were widespread in medieval Japan and entirely respectable, just as they were in the ancient Mediterranean, particularly Greece. In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith, often critical of Shogun‘s portrayal of Japanese culture, acknowledges that on this point Clavell gets it right, noting further that homosexuality was particularly esteemed as training for samurai warriors, again comparable to the ancient Spartans:

“Although in general homosexual love was merely accepted without censure among the samurai, one does find in certain instances a positive and idealistic justification of homosexual practice as useful training for a warrior. A homosexual relationship was seen as a sort of tutorship in Bushido, with the younger lover imitating the older in the cultural and martial arts, much as among the warriors of ancient Sparta. In particular, such relationships were considered invaluable for teaching the virtue of loyalty, and samurai lovers generally proved dependable comrades in battle, loyal vassals, and trustworthy bureaucrats.” (“Consorts and Courtesans”, p 112)

Medieval Japan, in fact, is probably the closest analog we can find to the ancient Mediterranean with regards to homoeroticism. Or at least to the ancient pagans. What about the Jews and Christians?

There is no uniform view of male homoeroticism in the Judeo-Christian bible (and it is studiously silent on the question of female homoeroticism, depending on how one reads Rom 1:26). There are texts from the Holiness Code of Lev 18:22 and 20:13, which speak of one who “lies the lying down of a woman” — probably referring to men who “take it up the ass” — and demands that both the penetrator and the penetrated be put to death. Paul echoes this in Romans (1:27), affirming that men who engage in homosexual activity “deserve to die” (Rom 1:32), but before this also makes an unprecedented and ambiguous remark about women who “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural” — which could refer to women who either “like to be on top” of other women or “take it up the ass” from men. Clearly there is a strand of Jewish tradition, which an apostle like Paul affirms and goes further, that is hostile to homosexual practices and/or anal intercourse.

Of course, the existence of a regulation like Lev 18:22 and 20:13 doesn’t mean that reality always conformed to it. There is the well-known case of Jonathan and David (I Sam 18:1 and II Sam 1:26), where the latter speaks of the former’s love to him being “greater than the love of a woman”. Jonathan’s “delight” in David (I Sam 19:1) recalls Shechem’s earlier “delight” in Dinah (Gen 34:19), where the same word (kaphets) refers to sexual delight, and his asking David to “go out into the field” (I Sam 20:11) evokes the place where lovers go when they want to be alone (as in the blatantly erotic Song of Songs, 7:11). Jonathan and David may have shared the same kind of relationship as Achilles and Patroclus, and it’s no accident that their love occurs in the context of “comradeship in arms”. In the ancient Mediterranean, like medieval Japan, homoeroticism was especially taken for granted in military contexts. That still leaves the question as to why Israelites eventually developed taboos against homoeroticism, to be followed (at least in some circles) by later Jews and Christians.

The answer hinges on purity. Homoeroticism, like incest and bestiality, became viewed as morally impure to the extent it was seen as almost coterminous with idolatry (certainly Paul is leveling his diatribe against the pagan faction in Rome, reminding them how their godless heritage convicts them). Many scholars emphasize that in honor-shame cultures, the only thing offensive about men having sex with men is when it involves men of equal status, thereby forcing one of the males into the passive role reserved for women, boys, or men of lower social class. That’s true, but it’s not the full story. The Holiness Code demands that the “macho” penetrator be put to death as much as the “effeminate” one who takes it up the ass. And it’s not just the two men who contract uncleanliness, but the whole land of Israel. Purity laws (whether ritual, like regulations for corpse preparation and menstrual blood, or moral, like the one under consideration) were designed to keep Israel separate from the “pollution” of unholy Canaan. In the case of Lev 18:22, the prohibition follows that of 18:21, which forbids worship of Molech, who had a fertility goddess consort named Ashtoreth; in pagan shrine prostitution, anal sex was viewed as an offering to the goddess. This background likely accounts for the origins of the fierce taboo against Israelite men who engage in the “lying down of a woman”. It was, in a word, idolatry.

It remains significant that aside from Lev 18:22, 20:13 and Rom 1:26-27, the bible has nothing to say about homoeroticism (in I Cor 6:1, malakos refers to the “soft”, or men who “pretty themselves up”, often for heterosexual as much as homosexual exploits; and arsenokoites refers to some form of sexual exploitation too, though again not necessarily homosexual). The Holiness Code is a strand of Israelite tradition, and Paul is one apostle. Any “homophobia” on the part of early Jews and Christians had little to do with sexual ethics in any case, and a western prude like John Blackthorne could hardly have been reared in a culture that produced the Song of Songs or esteemed a character like David. The texts of Lev 18:22, 20:13 and Rom 1:26-27 later became co-opted by western sexual ethics, just as the virtue of love became understood in terms of affection more than duty.

In the next post we’ll deal with the tricky relationship between loyalty and treachery.