APRIL 3, 2021
H. L. HIX IS a poet, translator, and literary scholar who has written or edited more than 30 books. Raised in an evangelical Christian tradition, he has written poetry that is deeply influenced by religious literature, including texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, as well as the “sayings gospels,” lesser-known accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. His poetry includes a retelling of the Book of Job in First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals, 1985–2010 (2010) and a redaction and translation of a sayings gospel in Rain Inscription (2017). His writings work to give a more eclectic expression of the gospel than the four canonized men included in the Bible.
Hix’s new book, The Gospel According to H. L. Hix (published by Broadstone Books last December), is a work of literary nonfiction that retells the story of Jesus in a contemporary American argot. The Greek word κύριος, translated as “lord” in the King James Bible, is “boss” here; money is “bucks”; Jesus says, “Don’t piss me off”; and so on. At times, this unusual gospel seems to be a work of Southern Gothic. The most drastic change in this new translation, however, has to do with gender and sexuality: Hix does not assign the male gender to God or Christ, instead using xe/xer pronouns; this translation of the gospel is thus the first to depict God and Christ as genderqueer.
As a writer with my own complicated feelings about the Christian religion and its definitive texts, I was eager to sit down (virtually) with H. L. Hix to discuss his radical reinvigoration of the gospel.
IAN ROSS SINGLETON: Why depict God and Christ as genderqueer?
H. L. HIX: We’ve been slowly recognizing as a culture that our language is our concepts, and that, to make our society more equitable to our genders, we have to change our language. We’ve made (or at least begun) this shift in other realms, yet in religion, few inroads have been made against using exclusively masculine pronouns to refer to an entity or presence or substance to which we impute universality. It’s a grating dissonance. Producing an edition and translation of the gospel that refers to divinity in ways that don’t imply binariness or impute masculinity to Jesus and God seemed like a step toward reducing that dissonance.
In your gospel, Christ says: “Some were born genderqueer, some became genderqueer in their environment, and some have made themselves genderqueer for the sake of the realm of the skies.” Are the genderqueer closer to God because God is universal?
That passage comes from a canonical Gospel, from Matthew 19:12. The word I’ve translated as “genderqueer” is εὐνοῦχος. It’s almost always translated with the English “eunuch,” the English word that transliterates the Greek word, but that approach has a major flaw. The English “eunuch” retains the sound of the original but loses its sense. The Greek word is a compound, formed from εὐνή, bed, and ἔχω, to hold or preserve. To capture that aspect of the Greek, a better English solution would be “bedkeeper.” The first meaning of “eunuch” in my OED is “a castrated person of the male sex”: the English word designates a physiological feature. The Greek word, though, designates an office or function: it had to do with social role, social position, and social interrelationship as it related to sexual orientation and sexual desire, rather than having to do primarily with physical difference and physical alteration.
So, when the passage says that some people choose this and some are born this way, it’s as if Jesus is describing a contemporary understanding of gender. I might be “born into a male body” but “be female,” and “understand myself as female,” and so on. We now regard gender as a fluid construction, and that’s exactly what Jesus says in that passage. It’s exciting to skip over existing English translations and go back to the Greek, in which it’s as if Jesus is using the term “queer,” and deploying a contemporary understanding of gender.
It’s radical, in the sense of going back to the root. How can a translation reinvigorate a text? There’s also a passage where Jesus says, “I myself will trans her to make her male so that her living breath matches that of any male.” What’s the language behind that?
That passage comes from the Gospel of Thomas 114, so it’s a Coptic original. Bart Ehrman and Zatko Pleše, in their 2011 version, translate it as, “I am going to guide her.” The word being translated is the future form of CWK, which Andrew Philip Smith (in his 2002 translation) gives as “draw, pull, gather, be drawn, also means flow, glide.” But it is related to the Greek σώζω, which means to keep safe, often, Liddell and Scott say in their classic Greek-English Lexicon (1843), with the “sense of motion to a place, to bring one safe to.” In the context of gender, the closest contemporary equivalent is “trans,” which deploys the same genders-as-places metaphor, going across from one gender to another. The context is that Peter is trying to exclude Mary from the group because she’s female, and Jesus’s response, in essence, is, “Well, then, I’ll make her male.” Saying, “I will ‘trans’ her,” seemed to me like a normal contemporary way to say it.
What else could that be? But that nuance would have been buried without this recent adjustment of our own language.
Right! There it is in the ancient text. I’m not putting stuff in that wasn’t there before, simply drawing out aspects of the text that for centuries have been glossed over or elided.
Do you see your work as following in the tradition of translating religious texts into the “vulgar” languages so that everyday people can read them instead of only priests?
I do. The canon is so rigidly enforced that plenty of people regard the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the divinely inspired Word of God, and don’t even know that there are other gospels in the world. But that is a “manufactured ignorance” imposed by institutional fiat. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John haven’t come to be the gospels because they are the only (or self-evidently the best) accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings, but because the Church has been so effective at telling us what we can and can’t read.
Translating religious texts into vulgar languages has always been a way of granting wider access, pushing back against control by a small coterie of people who decide what is read, and how, and by whom. It’s a way of extending and redistributing that control. We’ve figured out in relation to other literature that to read more widely is to think more broadly, yet in relation to gospel literature the canon has remained steadfastly closed. Reducing the gospel to the four canonical Gospels is gatekeeping, a flexing of institutional muscle. The gospel has been co-opted by the Church and the State, and I want it back.
You translate “lord” as “boss,” which is more like the kind of person who looks over your shoulder and makes sure that you’re doing your work. There are a number of such colloquial phrases in your version: “sonofabitch”; “bucks” for money; “sycamore” rather than plane tree. There’s almost a Southern Gothic sound to it. Can you talk a bit about your choice of lexicon?
Languages don’t correlate in a way that would permit perfect translation. But in my work on The Gospel, I was intent on resisting what I call “translation inertia.” It’s a major issue for the canonical gospels because they have been so often translated, over so long a period of time. We fix texts that we value: religious texts we consider sacred; founding political documents such as the US Constitution; literary standards such as Shakespeare’s plays. We preserve the exact words of the originals, but that doesn’t stop their meanings from changing. Think of what words like “bad” or “queer” mean in 2021 as compared to what they meant in 1921. Translation inertia happens when words get “stuck.” A word continues to be used as a translation even though its meaning has changed since its first use.
“Lord” is a perfect example. It was a great translation of the Greek word κύριος in 1611, when the King James Version of the Bible was published. The word “lord” in England at that time was widely used to refer to various people in various stations, but we don’t use the word that way, not in the US, not in 2021. The meaning that κύριος had when the gospels were written hasn’t changed, so if “lord” was a good translation when it meant what it meant in 1611 in England, then it can’t be a good translation when it means something very different here and now.
Something similar is true of “angel” as a translation of ἄγγελος. From centuries of frescoes and etchings, “angel” now conjures a white-robed figure with large wings on his back and a golden halo. But that’s not what a Greek speaker reading, say, the Gospel of Mark would have conjured from ἄγγελος. It was a very common word that referred to any kind of messenger, not only divine messengers with special physical characteristics and special powers. You have that sense of Southern Gothic: there’s another great instance of vernacular language meeting up with a spirit-live world.
I think it has to do with the culture of the people talked about here. These are rural people, farming people. They all know the bosses, but they’re not the bosses. Jesus is a revolutionary. At one point, as a child, xe says, “Don’t piss me off.” You also quote Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas: “I come not to bring peace but to bring the sword.” On one page of your Gospel, Christ says, “Don’t mock my extraordinary rendition to black sites.” Or xe says, “Don’t throw me out among the genocided.” What motivated that?
The religious background of my youth strongly emphasized the sense in which the gospel was outside of history, above history. I try to recognize also the sense in which the gospel is embedded within history. Using contemporary terminology and even alluding to contemporary events is a way of recognizing that the gospel developed within history, not outside of it. The earliest gospels were “sayings gospels,” just collections of sayings attributed to Jesus. Over time, as such gospels were circulated, other material began to be added: Jesus’s travels, the miracle narratives, the birth narratives, and so on.
Not all of that material looks like what the canonical Gospels incorporate. For instance, various infancy gospels, which ignore the adult life and teachings altogether, depict a willful child Jesus, rebellious enough to foreshadow the nonconformist adult Jesus who, even in the canonical Gospels, sides with outcasts, over and over. When someone who is socially entitled has a conflict with someone who is not, Jesus consistently advocates for the less entitled person. Against the socially entitled person, Jesus always takes the side of the misfit, the outcast.
Jesus says, “Xe has sent me to declare detainees free.” It’s clear that xe’s a revolutionary. And all the contradictions, as you say, are in the canonical gospels. But your Gospel really throws that idea of the staid, meek, white European Jesus out the window. You even include some literary theory: “I am the sign of the significance that differs from difference.” I thought of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The interpretation is what’s important. Was that an influence?
Fear and Trembling surely informs the project, simply because it has been so important for me personally. Kierkegaard identifies how high the stakes are in spiritual matters, how hot it is at the friction point where valuation meets decision. That seems to me directly connected to the anti-establishment Jesus we were just talking about, who gives at least as much discomfort as comfort. Fear and Trembling warns me against assuming that my own, or my group’s, sense of the good binds God. Maybe today God will charge me to do what everyone else agrees is ethical, but maybe tomorrow to do what everyone else says is wrong, what makes me into a social outcast. I take the Jesus in my version of The Gospel to be animated by that recognition.
Is it your hope that people well versed in the New Testament will read your work? Do you want to challenge that calcified, canonized knowledge? Or do you want to bring new readers to The Gospel?
I hope there will be interest from at least two “positions.” One would be much like my own background. I was raised in a fundamentalist Protestant context, and now find objectionable the belief structures on offer from the churches of my youth, which seem to me, as you say, “calcified” in a way that is deeply at odds with the original texts, identifying as Christianity much that is counter to anything Jesus would have affirmed. So, one prospective reader would be someone with a sense that institutional forms have travestied an originary impulse that might still be recuperable. Another reader would be someone not from a religious background, to whom the gospel narratives may never have been alive as works of literature in the way that, say, a Greek tragedy might be. My hope is that The Gospel According to H. L. Hix can make these stories “available” as literature in the way that encountering a new translation of Antigone might, recharging it not so much with religious as with literary energy.
How does it fit in with the rest of your work?
I have tried in my poetry to listen to others’ words and stories as closely as to “my own” life experience, in ways that sometimes blur the line between translation and “original” writing. For example, in my most recent collection, Rain Inscription, one of “my” poems arranges and translates the fragments of Herakleitos, and another creates, by a new redaction and translation, a sayings gospel. There’s a connection, too, with my sense about where my work is headed. I hope I’m becoming more politically aware, more alert to the implications of my own actions and identity, attuned in my work to pressing issues of social justice and human well-being.
What are you working on now?
Next out will be a novella, The Death of H. L. Hix, based on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, but with the twist that I narrate my own death. I didn’t plan it, exactly, but maybe there’s a certain logic to going straight from The Gospel According to … to The Death of …