Esmee Wright

Anthony Oliveira’s Queer Retelling of the Bible.

Anthony Oliveira, (Strange Light, 2024), 432 pages, $25

When naming queer icons from the Bible — an activity carried out by a fairly small group of people — an equally small number of names tend to crop up. There is of course Saint Sebastian: masochist, pretty boy and inspiration to innumerable artists. Occasionally David is mentioned, though more often in association with the later Michelangelo than with his (homosexual, -social or otherwise) biblical partner Jonathan. The kiss of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane has done a lot for theories of a queer Christ in popular culture, though not quite as much as Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

In his debut novel Dayspring, culture writer and film programmer Anthony Oliveira pulls from the depths of the New Testament a different figure whose voice — part narrator, part poet, part left-behind boyfriend —guides us through this meditation on the difficulty of being a queer person for whom the edicts of a religion they grew up with have crumbled around them. The story unspools in the voice of ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, a figure from the Gospel of John. In the Gospel, this disciple is the one who asks Jesus who will betray him, is present with him in the garden of Gethsemane and, so later religious lore goes, will live to see Jesus return to Earth. In Dayspring, he is Jesus’s long-term partner. We see their relationship developing from awkward high school maths tutoring sessions to blessed son-in-law to the Virgin Mary as Jesus dies on the cross.

If the timeline sounds confusing, that’s because it is in the text itself, set at once in both 21st-century Canada and first century Nazareth. Jesus is the closest to a point of stability we have, always a travelling speaker and a leader of men, although the content of his campaign is obscured beyond his continued persecution by Romans, and his continued belief in the importance of love. The identity of the ‘beloved disciple’ is less clear. Oliveira never names him. Some scholars have argued that the biblical title referred to John the Evangelist, an apostle and the writer of the Gospel of John and the Revelations. Others argue that he was Lazarus, as the figure is not mentioned until after his resurrection. At moments in Dayspring, it seems obvious that he is John: he has a brother named James who wears a silly hat, he was on the fishing boat for the miraculous catch, and he was present in the garden of Gethsemane. Then it shifts. He is Lazarus, raised from the tomb, being looked after in the house of Simeon. And then it shifts out of the field of biblical characters entirely. I cannot imagine John the Evangelist or Lazarus took the subway much.

This confusion is not limited to time or identity. Formally it is a hard book to grasp a hold of. The work opens with the creation story from the Gospel of John; before long however, it slips, without warning, into unpredictable images of explosions and expansions before collapsing down into flesh and sweat, a story of the growth of the universe and the growth of the Christian Church, before it boils all the way down to the individual it centres around. As the first pages go, it is unexpected and overwhelming, a sensation you can never quite escape while reading Oliveira’s reference-packed, poetic text. He clearly loves words — he has a PhD in the literature of seventeenth-century England and hosts a podcast where he analyses John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Regained and the Gospels. But it’s in Dayspring that this love of words, and how people before him have used them, shines through.

Though Dayspring is being described as a novel by its publisher, at least one reviewer has described it as a poetry collection. It self-describes as everything from a chapbook to a hymnal and a gospel, as well as a blasphemy – and a work of plagiarism. The identity of the beloved disciple is far from the only place where Dayspring made me feel like my twenty-four years of church attendance and an abiding obsession with the medieval has still left me severely lacking the knowledge necessary to understand this book. Quotations from literary sources, biblical and otherwise, are woven throughout the narrative. Sources are only occasionally cited. The title page alone gave me two new words and a heresy to Google. Sometimes there is a whole page dedicated to a poem, as with George Herbert’s The 23rd Psalm. Sometimes there is so much thrown in so subtly that you miss the TS Eliot reference while congratulating yourself for catching the Shakespeare quote. I felt proud of myself for drawing a similarity between a reminiscence about the donkey at Jesus’s birth and G.K Chesterton’s Palm Sunday poem The Donkey, before utterly failing to recognise, even with citation, that the 1909 Tremendous Trifles was not in fact a poem — as it appeared — but a section of an essay. The words of the Bible, Carmelite nuns, John Milton and Joni Mitchell are given the same importance. The book is a maelstrom of references. So much so, you could be mistaken for thinking that Oliveira doesn’t actually want his writing to be understood. But then, Oliveira is — potentially — writing from the point of view of a figure who has spent the last millenia waiting for his lover to return.

Dayspring is not just a crash course in Christian literature of the last 2000 years. Just as it all becomes painfully metaphysical, Oliveira slips the narrative away from the transcendent and firmly into the real. Augustine’s Confessions lead to a first meeting in the weird nook of school architecture well-known to every lonely child who wants to hide away from bullies. Jesus’s speech is always distinguished with red text in reference to the typography of the King James Bible, but while he declares himself ‘The Way the Truth the Light’, he also says ‘Please do not ask me stupid fucking questions.’ He is scatological as well as eschatological, burping, farting and defecating like a real person (Oliveira is almost too graphic about which side of Valentinus’s debate he falls on). Early on, the disciple says it outright; this Jesus is not the ‘perfect and golden and alien and unrecognisable…’, symbol of what he has become, but a man — a man with a spotty arse, broad thighs and poor maths skills.

This humanity is how Dayspring, for all its cerebrality, makes the story of Christ devastating. At one point, Jesus has a meltdown at a fig tree. This is a biblical event, written about in three of the gospels, and is often read as being symbolically directed against the Jewish Temple for not accepting Jesus as their king. It isn’t for another 300 pages that Oliveira asks: what if it wasn’t a metaphor about Judaism and Christianity and the fate of the world but just a thing that happened to a person? How would you expect a man who knows when he must die to feel when he has no more autumns left? The visceral awfulness of the crucifixion comes not from complex metaphors or Bible-style double columns, but from the everyday speech which accompanies unseen nails splitting through flesh and bone. Here, Jesus is not an unknowable concept, but a human, who has suffered alongside the rest of us. By contrast, it is the disciple who becomes abstracted, unidentified and unknowable. He becomes a cipher for anyone who has ever been left by Jesus, and who is still waiting for him to make good on his promise to return.

In a recent interview, Oliveira, who grew up in a Catholic Portuguese family in Canada, described the sense he gets when considering his current relationship with Christianity of ‘squatting in the ruins of churches and being like: It sure looks like it was pretty’. And this book feels like his attempt to share what these ruins look like to him. Oliveira has previously written about the German philologist Erich Auerbach’s essay Odysseus’ Scar, in which Auerbach compares the constant, suspense-less present produced by Classical Greek poetry’s constant externalising of the emotions, thought processes and histories of its subjects with the Bible’s contrasting language of silence, where ‘Only what we need to know… here and now, is illuminated…’. Auerbach gives the example of Isaac, who is described only as ‘thine only son, whom thou lovest’ at the moment of sacrifice. Read as a text so familiar most people engage with it like reciting their times tables, it feels like a bald statement of how little Isaac matters beyond his service to the narrative. As a literary text, however, this simple language holds the audience in this suspenseful moment when all eyes turn exclusively to Abraham’s awful choice. Medieval texts sometimes return to the same dramatic moment and repeat it over and over, suspending the progression of the story to instead observe every angle of the image. In Dayspring, Oliveira brings these ideas of illumination and refraction together, turning the story of the New Testament into a literary experience again; strange and new and suspenseful. To the enigmatic prose of the Bible, Oliveira layers meaning upon those ruins, not to move the story on, but to give voice to the unspoken fear: what would it mean if Jesus never returned to you? And perhaps even more frightening – what if he did?


Esmee Wright is a graduate from the University of Cambridge, currently working at The National Gallery, London. She has previously been published in Russian Art + Culture and Polyester Zine. In her spare time, she divides her interests between modernist dance and medieval art.

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