Jonathan's Loves, David's Laments

Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Dirk von der Horst
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , March
     196 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


To the perennial question of “were Jonathan and David friends or lovers?” (7), Dirk von der Horst provides a most sophisticated response: who’s asking, and why? Given that it is difficult enough to determine the sexual intimacy of one’s own friends, speculating about sexual contact between Biblical characters seems futile. Yet, in contemporary culture wars over same-sex inclusion and moral status, what David meant in declaring that his love for Jonathan “surpassed the love of women” has become emphatically vital (2 Samuel 1:26). Von der Horst’s Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference states clearly that queer commentators who seek to reclaim these lovers as prototypes, and traditionalists opposed to LGBT rights asserting plausible denunciation for any queer Biblical reading, are locked in a battle that ultimately serves no one. Instead, von der Horst turns to a deft blend of historicism, contextual analysis, and reader-reception history to provide a nuanced approach. His treatise achieves three impressive intellectual feats: incorporating music into Biblical interpretation, radically questioning the foundational search for LGBT ancestors in Biblical texts, and accepting subjectivity as an interpretive lens while simultaneously articulating its limitations. This book is a through-composed accomplishment that constitutes a must-read for those interested in musical meaning, LBGT theology, and contemporary Biblical interpretation. 

Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments is remarkable for the voices present in its internal dialogue; theorists and theologians featured include Rosemary Radford Reuther, Carter Heyward, Gary Comstock, Jean Calvin, Sheila Daveny, Walter Benjamin, Susan Cusick, Richard Taruskin, Susan McClary, and Philip Brett. The musical selections span a narrower strip of history—England from the late 16th through the early 18th centuries—but the composers represented from Tomkins to Handel witnessed vast changes in theological presuppositions, from the Elizabethan synthesis through the Puritan Civil War and into the early Enlightenment era. Von der Horst pays careful attention to matters of class, gender, and historical context as he enables this “motley crew” to engage in the “task of bringing the past into the present” through their shared commentary on the David and Jonathan story (3). For instance, von der Horst points out that Heyward and Comstock, in their attempts to reclaim David and Jonathan for relational queer-feminist ethics, have easily overlooked David’s role in the anti-egalitarian political consolidation of ancient Israel; as von der Horst simply states “the sheer magnitude of textual erasure Comstock performs [shows] that he needs a text he does not have” (45).

Once music is introduced into the analysis—amplifying subjective response via the physicality of music—von der Horst articulates the full gap between certitude and ambiguity. This, of course, harkens back to the original David and Jonathan question—were they “lovers” in a physical sense, or not? The question of what same-sex activity meant, how same-sex male desire was expressed, and what coded language may have been used to mask it in its original Biblical context, are all questions that we are not in a position to answer, as von der Horst freely admits in saying that we can’t move “from textual ambiguity to doctrinal clarity” (6). But the key move he makes is to recognize that we, in the present day, cannot assume that reading the text with care can “deliver us from our own agendas” (74). So instead, von der Horst embraces ambiguity, even noting how “discomfort with ambiguity” seems to be at the root of much homophobia, while also being honest that a mere “celebration of ambiguity” can fizzle into “political atrophy” (55). By adopting an epistemological approach through music, he unties such knots, choosing instead to explore his “visceral and sensual responses … while looking for areas in which historical difference highlights the contingencies” of his reactions (137). 

Ultimately, von der Horst is able to demonstrate that reader/listener-response to both the Biblical text and the musical representations of the David and Jonathan story provide open windows into same-sex desire. Their historical contexts and contingencies, though, also reveal glimpses into authoritarian world-views, dismissal of female perspectives, and similar ethically dubious viewpoints (from our presentist position). The ultimate advantage to adopting ambiguity over certainty is its allowance for immanence, for the dialogic movement of experience, and for open ontologies that invite persons to similar experiences. Von der Horst’s conclusion stems from his epistemological understanding of “music’s inescapable temporality” which can “unsettle the tendency to fix thought into exclusionary binaries” (157). We cannot recover exactly what David and Jonathan were to each other in the mythic past, nor can we be certain what their story meant against the tortured understanding of sodomy in early Stuart England, nor will the story’s importance to us be clear to future generations. But we can recognize that our multi-generational return to this text “is a continual re-establishment of connection between past and present, between worlds lost and worlds in the making” (155), for “whatever people in the past were doing and thinking, their legacies can spark new insights in the present. A spark, however, is not a mirror” (156). The great favor that von der Horst has done for us in Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments is to spark us, his readers, and, as Ruether wrote, give us, in the process, “a classic in the literature on gay theology” (x). The secret is, this classic will move and change as we do.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Rycenga is Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at San José State University.

Date of Review: 
March 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dirk von der Horst is Instructor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary's University, Los Angeles. He is a coeditor of Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether (2012).

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments