“This book has three geneses: simians, sex, and sacrifice.” Readers may not know from the first sentence of Eugene F. Rogers Jr’s Blood Theology: Seeing Red in Body- and God-Talk what a remarkable book they’re in for, but they might get a sense of the tone: a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary, inventive meditation on blood-talk in Christian thought and history written with the wry, restless, and often humorous tone of one of the more compelling theologians working today. Perhaps best known for his breakout work Sexuality and the Christian Body (Blackwell, 1999), Rogers’ work is diverse, but is generally focused on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, the intellectual infrastructure of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, human sexuality, and the function of analogical predication in religious discourse. All those appear here. Add in extensive meditations on Emile Durkheim, Mary Douglas, and evolutionary theory, all underwritten by a eucharistic sensibility, and you only begin to grasp the novelty of this book. Peppered with italicized interludes that read like excerpts from his writing notebook (he likens them to hymn refrains), Rogers’ book is constantly taking unexpected turns to highlight the “strangeness” of blood as a religious concept (5).
Rogers’ premise is that blood is socially constructed, and so we first must “repeat blood’s language subversively, to free it from contexts of oppression or violence” (7). To that end, Rogers divides the work into three parts. Part 2 (part 1 functions as an introduction), “Blood Seeps in Where It Hardly Seem to Belong,” discusses blood-talk in the Hebrew Bible, focusing particularly on sacrifice (the Akedah and the Levitical system) and the “gender of blood” in the Christian Gospels. Reading Isaac’s near-sacrifice as a “trickster story” allows Rogers to highlight the divergences in Jewish and Christian traditions regarding blood sacrifice: “under the influence of the eucharistic ‘pouring out’ of the Synoptic Gospels, Christians . . . need more blood than Leviticus allows” (51). Vividly recounting site visits in the West Bank to a Palestinian Christian church and a Samaritan Passover service, Rogers observes the relative bloodlessness of actual sacrifice and contrasts this with the New Testament “technology” of bloodiness, then reimagines the concept as a social reality (he ends with Black Lives Matter). Finally, Rogers discusses the blood of Christ, pointing out that while crucifixion is a relatively bloodless means of execution, the Christian imagination has been anything but; however, the closest analogy to the bloodiness of Christianity, especially in Western medieval visual culture, is not sacrifice and crucifixion, but menstruation and birth.
Blood bespeaks permeable bodies; so, in part 3, Rogers explores the “totem or touchstone” of blood in the social language of dispute: same-sex love, creationism and evolution, and the colonization of the Americas. Chapter 5 is one of the more grounded sections of the book, taking on an accusation made at an Episcopal House of Bishops discussion on the theology of same-sex desire: that such relationships “impugn the blood of Christ” (117). “What could this mean?” Rogers ponders. In reply he reimagines marriage—including same-sex marriage—as an interpretation of atonement, premised on an extraordinary interpretation of the thief on the cross as Jesus’ bride. Chapter 6 takes the reader through creationists’ anxiety about humans sharing blood with “brutes” (i.e., sharing DNA with apes) and shows the alignment of that anxiety with a separatist cosmology that shades all too easily into segregationism (149). Finally, in chapter 7, the Spanish obsession with limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) meets the Aztec practice of “autosacrifice” in two competing colonial-era economies of blood that both violate by taking what can only be given—blood from others.
Part 4 homes in on the undercurrent of the book: eucharistic-christological blood is the means, in Christian thought, by which the divine shares human blood in the incarnation. Here Rogers conceives of the Eucharist as a means of “modifiable blood chemistry”: “I have a taste for nutritive theories of the Eucharist, but they are hard to swallow” (189, 185). Thinking together theories of deification with the science of emotions in primates, and touching on Aquinas, Sergius Bulgakov, Alexander Schmemann, and others, Rogers develops an account of the Eucharist as embodying the divine Logos, which “structures and inscribes itself in the world at creation, and . . . repairs and elevates the ‘whole world’” (199). Finally, this Logos theology (drawn from Maximus) illumines human toolmaking, from the earliest hominins on, as participating in this Logos structure of reality that is united in creaturely blood. “The Logos became blood—not just in Mary, not just in human beings, not just in higher animals, but in all things intelligible—so that blood, in all things, might coagulate to embody the Logos and take part in its divinity” (216).
This is a devilishly difficult book to summarize (perhaps I should say bloody difficult), given its exploratory nature, polymathic virtuosity, and rhetorical cunning. Rogers himself states he does not have a single thesis (25: “There are far too many for that”). Clear argumentative conclusions are difficult to restate, because the book’s method is not deductive but kaleidoscopic, even impressionistic, and because Rogers is at heart a subversive thinker, at the same time deconstructive and reimaginative, and because he effortlessly jumps from historical theology to midrashic exegesis to cultural anthropology to primatology. Perhaps instead of trying to boil this down to a set of propositions, then, I can say that this book rethinks Christian blood-talk, particularly atonement and Christology, from its foundations, and imagines this central symbol in terms of a kind of social incarnational economy. It will be an indispensable touchstone in Christian theology going forward, and will also make for compelling discussion for anyone working in religion and science, cultural anthropology, comparative theology, sexuality, and ecclesiology. Blood Theology deserves to be read as a provocative, compelling (and perhaps occasionally even a little confounding) exercise in exploring Christian theology in a wholly original way. I recommend the book with the highest enthusiasm.
Travis E. Ables is an independent scholar and affiliate faculty at Regis University, Denver.
Travis E. Ables
Date Of Review:
December 29, 2023
Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. is Professor of Religious Studies and of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of six books, including Aquinas and the Supreme Court (2013) and Sexuality and the Christian Body (2003), which was named 'essential reading' by Christian Century among books published in the past 25 years.
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