Religious Studies Professor’s Scholarship Sparks Controversy and Protest

Caroline Ahearn, News Editor

In the March 2018 issue of The Fenwick Review, Elinor Reilly ‘18 authored an article entitled “New Ways in Theology at Holy Cross,” outlining works from over a decade ago by Professor Tat siong Benny Liew of the Religious Studies department, before he was hired by the College.

Professor Liew was appointed 1956 Chair of New Testament Studies in 2013, and specializes in cultural and racial interpretations and receptions of the Bible, among other fields of theology. The writings Reilly pointed to in her article show what she called, “an unconventional approach to gender, sexuality, and race in the biblical texts.” For example, in a 2004 article, Liew and his co-author argue that the story of the centurion asking Jesus to heal his servant can be interpreted in terms of a sexual relationship. Reilly also pointed to other scholarly articles, quoting Liew as believing that Christ could be considered “drag kingly,” and saying that “John is less clear about … whether Jesus is a biological male,” describing the scene of Jesus washing his disciples feet, a task typically done by Jewish women or non-Jewish slaves, as “suggestive, even seductive.”

Though The Fenwick Review’s mission statement describes the publication an “independent journal of opinion,” Reilly’s article is more of a descriptive piece. The strongest words she uses to describe Professor Liew’s writing are “unusual,” “unconventional,” and “a new theological perspective,” never stating whether that is a positive or negative thing. Reilly declined to comment to any media.

Though Reilly opted out of stating a strong opinion on Professor Liew’s writings, many others did not. The story was picked up by the far-right syndicated news and opinion site Breitbart, which called Liew “gender-obsessed” and “blasphemous,” as well as accused him of taking over and changing the tone of the entire Religious Studies department. Reilly’s article continued to spark a conversation after it was picked up by Fox News on March 29 by associate editor Caleb Parke. In the conservative news outlet’s coverage, Parke quoted a Holy Cross parent who said they sent their son to the College for its “conservative Christian values,” which are now being “shattered,” causing the parents to consider having their son transfer schools.

John Hill, Director of Media Relations at the College, spoke to Fox News for the article, saying that “The decade-old work referenced in the Fenwick Review article was not intended for an undergraduate classroom, nor has it ever been assigned at Holy Cross. It was an intentionally provocative work, not a statement of belief, meant to foster discussion among a small group of Biblical scholars exploring marginalization. No one has made a complaint about the content of Professor Liew’s classes in his four years at Holy Cross.”

Following the elevation of the story to the national conservative news, TFP Student Action, a branch of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, created an online petition asking the College’s president, Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., to remove Professor Liew “for openly attacking the Sacred Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ with unrepeatable blasphemy.” The petition then outlines those blasphemies and accuses the Religious Studies department of “showcasing” that blasphemy to its students. So far, it has garnered 19,584 supporters.

Father Boroughs issued a statement in response to the petition, writing “I know Professor Liew to be a dedicated teacher and an engaged scholar. He is a man of faith, and he and his family are active members of a church community. Academic freedom is one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. Scholars in all disciplines are free to inquire, critique, comment, and push boundaries on widely accepted thought. However, I strongly disagree with the interpretation of John’s Gospel, as described in the Fenwick Review, and I find it especially offensive in this most sacred of all weeks in the liturgical calendar.”

The controversy continued to escalate when Worcester bishop Rev. Robert McManus published a criticism of both Liew and Boroughs. McManus called Liew’s teaching “seriously flawed,” “highly offensive,” and “a danger to the integrity of the Catholic faith.” He went on to criticize Boroughs’ comment about academic freedom, saying “Academic freedom certainly plays a role in the intellectual life of a Catholic institution of higher learning like Holy Cross. However, how that academic freedom is exercised, particularly in the fields of theology of religious studies, cannot provide cover for blatantly unorthodox teaching.”

The controversy reached its peak on the morning of Saturday, April 7, when dozens of members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) gathered at the gate on the corner of Linden Lane and College Street to protest, and were met with counter-protesters, primarily Holy Cross students from campus groups such as HC Students for Scholarship and Pride.

The TFP describes itself as “an organization of lay Catholic Americans concerned about the moral crisis shaking the remnants of Christian civilization.” Their protest was entitled a “Rosary Rally for Reparation,” which included prayers and the singing of religious hymns. In the follow-up article covering the protest on their website, the TFP deemed the slogans of the student counter-protesters, such as “Love thy Neighbor,”  as “odd” and described the actions of the counter-protesters as “sad.”

The counter-protest was organized by student leaders Carly Priest ‘18 and Adam Coshal ‘20. According to Coshal, co-chair of Pride, Holy Cross’ LGBTQ+ forum, the counter-protest was put together at the last minute, because he and Priest only learned of the protest two days before it was to occur. “We created a Facebook page and started chatting with friends, and had a better-than-expected turn out!” he said. “It was absolutely amazing to see not only an amazing turn out from the Holy Cross community, but also to see so many people drive by and show support. To not have a counter-protest would fall right into the typical Holy Cross climate of apathy and inaction. I wanted to not only try to disrupt [the protest], but also show that scholarship is something that is valued here at the College.”

The College has yet to comment on the protest and counter-protest, only expressing to the protesters and counter-protesters that all have the right to publicly voice their concerns.

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