Abandoned to Lust, a revision of Knust's Columbia University dissertation, examines the ideological and theological commitments undergirding the early Christian use of sexual slander. According to Knust, the Christian appropriation of longstanding assumptions about sexuality played an essential role in the formation of Christian identity: sexual invective functioned not only to distinguish the followers of Jesus from both pagans and Jews, but it also proved effective for demonizing "others" in intra-Christian debates. The first chapter, an outline of gender and the function of sexual rhetoric in the Greco-Roman world, acts as a foundation for analyzing Christian invective against non-Christians (chapters two and three) and the use of vituperative discourse within the Christian tradition (chapters four and five).The title of the introduction to the book is "Who's on Top? Sex Talk, Power, and Resistance."
This sort of thing was already becoming popular when I was in graduate school in classics way back in 1978. That's coming up on thirty years ago, and it's a little surprising that the archeology of sex is still such a profitable vein to mine. I suppose what's a little new in this is the focus on Christianity, but even that is becoming so mainstream now that one wonders what the continuing thrill consists in. In particular, one of the central theses of the book, according to the reviewer, is downright old-fashioned:
Knust argues that the rhetoric of sex and gender represents an effective strategy of resistance. Specifically, when Christians promoted themselves as the sole practitioners of sexual morality, they indicted non-Christians for their vice, effectively challenging the legitimacy of both the Roman empire and the emperor. In essence, they adopted the rhetorical invective of the Greco-Roman world and turned it against the empire.Instead of raising what I would have thought to have been a centrally important question--what are the hermeneutic principles that compel us to accept Knust's reading of the events rather than some other--the reviewer simply purrs
Knust's study is a superb addition to recent works that have explored the relationship between sex and gender, culture, and power in early Christian discourse.Although I'm sure the book really is every bit as superb an addition to that body of work as the reviewer claims it is, I am prompted to agree with Michael Dummett, who had this to say about the pressure put upon young scholars to publish as much as they can as soon as they can:
Academics who delivered their promised manuscripts twenty years late used to cause us amusement; but it was a respectful amusement, because we knew the delay to be due, not to idleness, but to perfectionism. Perfectionism can be obsessive, like that which prevented Wittgenstein from publishing another book in his lifetime, and probably would have done so however long he had lived; but, as the phrase goes, it is a fault on the right side. Every learned book, every learned article, adds to the weight of things for others to read, and thereby reduces the chance of their reading other books or articles. Its publication is therefore not automatically justified by its having some merit: the merit must be great enough to outweigh the disservice done by its being published at all. Naturally, no individual writer can be expected to be able accurately to weigh the one against the other; but he should be conscious of the existence of such a pair of scales. We used to be trained to believe that no one should put anything into print until he no longer sees how to make it any better. That, I still believe, is the criterion we should apply; it is the only means that exists of keeping the quality of published work as high as possible, and its quantity manageably low. The ideologues who in their arrogance force their misconceived ideals upon us attempt to make us apply virtually the opposite criterion: publish the moment you can get editor or publisher to accept it. We are compelled outwardly to comply with their demands; let us inwardly continue to maintain our own values.There isn't really anything all that unusual in publishing one's dissertation as a book or as a series of journal articles, at least not these days. But Dummett is right that the best ideas require time to come to fruition, and this time is not often given to young scholars who must publish whatever they can get into print if their hopes to earn tenure are themselves to come to fruition. It is an unfortunate state of affairs, not only for the young scholars who must rush into print whatever banal ideas they have floating around in their dissertations, but also for the students who must be taught by young scholars who have yet to learn the most fundamental strategies and methods of teaching and who will put off learning those things while they collect their meagre thoughts for publication.
(From Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, p. x.)