‘Not a Tame Lion' - A look at a brilliant historian -- John Boswell - AmNews Curtain Raiser


Monday, August 1, 2022

‘Not a Tame Lion' - A look at a brilliant historian -- John Boswell


‘Not a Tame Lion' - A look at a brilliant historian -- John Boswell 

In this new documentary, we push into the complicated life of the religious historian John Boswell who would easily be described as a man of great faith and contradiction, but it’s that complexity of character that helped pave the way for gay acceptance.

In the world of academia, historian John Boswell is deeply respected. He spoke 14 languages and at Yale, where he taught, he was constantly voted by students as the best teacher. In this new film written and directed by Craig Bettendorf and narrated and edited by Kai Morgan we get a fine introduction of Boswell, known as Jeb to his closest friends, we also get a peek at just how prejudiced America was towards LGBTQ+ people in the 1980s and ‘90s, which helped the spread of the AIDS epidemic with many religious leaders calling it a “curse from God” and this is the start, of the rise of the misguided, and the zealous religious right. 

Boswell died on Christmas Eve, 1994, of complications of AIDS.  Even as the brilliant Boswell struggled to live, he was finishing up what would be his masterwork, “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” an exhaustive look at the history of the Catholic Church’s views on marriage and after years of dedicated and detailed research, including trips to Europe to visit libraries and monasteries, Boswell unearthed evidence that the church not only tolerated gay unions but actually performed the services with the liturgical blessings of priests. Wait, I can hear your jaw dropping to the floor. Wait, there is more. There are even Saints who were rumored to be gay couples, such as the soldiers Sergius & Bacchus, whose love was spoken of as the highest form of purity by the faith. Additionally, Boswell researched how in ancient Greece many politicians were men married to other men — and there were even instances of straight men entering false, gay marriages to help their career.  

Boswell’s work is so respected that he, along with earlier seminal texts on the relationship of the church to homosexuality, is credited as laying the groundwork for wide acceptance of gay marriage.  He’s so profound in this area of expertise that serious Gay religious studies are now referred to as “before Boswell” and “after Boswell.”

 Craig Bettendorf assembled a diverse group of colleagues, former students, admirers, and friends to give their inner thoughts on Boswell in all of his roles, one of which was a supporter who was also battling HIV.

It’s difficult to write about the Catholic church and not enter the world of contradictions and to that end, Boswell himself was haunted by contradictions. To begin,  Boswell came from a military family and never came out to them before dying at age 47 despite being in a long-term relationship with Jerry Hart, who he referred to him as his close friend than his boyfriend or companion. 

Here are more contradictions to chew one.  Boswell considered himself a devout Catholic, converting from his family’s Episcopalian faith very young.  Remember, he lived a closeted life and decided to fight on the behalf of other LGBTQ+ priests and parishioners which is, in a small way, helped develop more empathy and acceptance of gay followers of the faith. And naturally, for this, Boswell often found himself attacked —from the left and the right and LGBTQ+ activists of the day dismissed him as an apologist for the corrupt church.

Boswell’s siblings do appear in “Not A Tame Lion” giving us more insight into their gentle but determined brother,  along with the pastor of his church during the final years of his life. It’s clear that he meant more to his family and friends beyond his brilliance as a religious historian.

“Not a Tame Lion” would have benefitted from a strong edit, polish, and trim and there should have been more attention to the third act which seems to just praise Boswell over and over again. 

The filmmakers did have the challenge that there was a very little video of Boswell but when he does appear on camera he sparks with energy when speaking about the need to include LGBTQ+  in the conversation about equality and discrimination.

I admit, before reviewing “Not a Tame Lion” I had never heard of John Boswell but I am glad that I know about him now. 

#LGBTQ #Gay #Queer #Religion

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