A Celebration of Rev. Robert Wood

This is a few weeks old, but a friend of mine, John Boyd, an MDiv student at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, has a post up on LGBTQ Nation about author and UCC minister Robert Wood, who was one of the first people in the twentieth century to write on queer inclusion without using a pseudonym. His 1960 book Christ and the Homosexual: Some Observations (AZ | WC—it’s out of print, but you can find one in a library) was a real groundbreaking piece. Wood argues, for example,

To say without reservation that homosexual marriages are immoral and should not be sanctioned by the clergy is to sacrifice the homosexual upon the altar of the status quo.

On gay clergy, he says,

Whether a homosexual can be a Christian and a clergyman, the answer is “yes.”

This is pretty powerful stuff, especially considering the time it was published. Robert Wood turned 89 on May 21 and now lives in a retirement community in New Hampshire. If you get a chance, head over to LGBTQ Nation and check out John’s post.

Gay rights pioneer, groundbreaking author Rev. Robert Wood, turns 89

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Introduction – Take Back the Word (2 of 23)

Take Back the Word book cover

Goss, Robert E., and Mona West, eds. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000).
AZ | BN | WC

This post is part of a series of posts on the anthology Take Back the Word.

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The introduction to Take Back the Word shows us that the anthology is a reclamation project. The authors recognize that the Bible has been used as a weapon against LGBTQ people in the past, and they (along with the other authors in the book) to provide different ways of reading. The Bible contains “texts of terror” (drawing from Phyllis Trible’s book of the same name), but we can “out the Bible” (drawing from Nancy Wilson’s Our Tribe) in order to find more positive readings. The authors of the introduction identify the book’s hermeneutic as reading the Bible as a friend:

When we approach the Bible as a friendly text, as a text that ‘does no harm’ [drawing from John Wesley, I believe], the terror of Scriptures is transformed into the life-giving Word of God. (5)

This is a highly optimistic view that the authors don’t explore much, except to give brief summaries of the chapters that follow. I’d be intrigued to know whether the aforementioned texts of terror can indeed be read in a friendly way; they don’t say how friendly we can be with the Bible. But the introduction has provided an encouraging foretaste of what we’ll see in the rest of the book, laying the (very brief) groundwork for a positive queer reading. I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

“Camping around the Canon” by Elizabeth Stuart – Take Back the Word (4 of 23)

Take Back the Word book cover

Goss, Robert E., and Mona West, eds. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000).
AZ | BN | WC

This post is part of a series of posts on the anthology Take Back the Word.

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Today’s reading is chapter 2 of Take Back the Word, an essay titled “Camping around the Canon: Humor as a Hermeneutical Tool in Queer Readings of Biblical Texts.” Stuart claims that while humor has been seen as a hermeneutical tool, she is the first person to use laughter as such. Camp is one way that queer populations can incorporate laughter into interpretation because it subverts the status quo. It is “the lie that tells the truth” (Philip Core, qtd. in 28). She calls her camp/laughter approach “queer-response criticism” (29).

Biblical reader-response critics have generally failed to appreciate that meaning is generated in and by the act of reading, which is always contextual. Queer readers, on the other hand, should have no difficulty integrating postmodern insights into their reader-response criticism[. . . .] The whole notion of “queer” challenges the understanding of the concept of the stable self and replaces it with an understanding of the self as unstable and constituted by “performance” and improvisation within and in resistance to dominant discourses. [. . .] To read as a queer is therefore to join the swelling ranks of resisting readers who read against the grain of the reading traditions we have inherited, not only resisting the de-queering but also all other racist, sexist, and classist strategies. [. . .] To read as a queer is also to learn to laugh at a reading of a text, whether yours or another’s, to learn to accept one’s body as a site of epistemology. (30)

Queer reading is contextual, unstable, embodied. She has a lot of hope for the efficacy of laughter as a hermeneutic.

Perhaps there will be a Stonewall-type moment of laughter when queer Christians sitting in a cathedral hearing the intonement of Romans 1:26–7 one more time or one of the stories of the biblical eunuchs or Jesus’ words about marriage in heaven in Matthew 22 told “straight” will begin to laugh, quietly at first but building to a crescendo that will sweep the queer world and disturb, disorder, and transform the straight church and its relationship with the biblical text. (31)

She offers a reading of Eph 5:21–23 that uses disarming laughter to undo the heteropatriarchal tones or intention of the text (based off a prior reading by Gerard Loughlin). We can laugh at a harmful text’s undoing.

in this passage Christ himself is represented as transgendered—a male with a very female body, and the church is represented as a female body with a “male head.” (32)

I find her suggested hermeneutic fascinating, if underdeveloped. To be sure, this short essay does not have the space to fully explore her reading techniques, but this is a very interesting start. Her hermeneutic is very subjective, so the results can be as numerous as there are funny passages. If you can laugh at it, there are no limits.

Making laughter a criterion for interpretation is a little strict for me, but camp has even more possibilities. Stuart Macwilliam uses camp as a hermeneutical tool in reading Ezekiel in Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, but I’ll save that for another post. At this point, I merely find camp and humor interesting possibilities, but I would need to see more of it in action to be able to use it to its fullest extent.

My Master’s Thesis: Reading Hosea Queerly

Most recently, my time has been spent focusing on the first three chapters of Hosea. It is a very violent and in my opinion rather depressing text, but it yields a lot when it comes to gender studies or queer theory. If you’re interested, take a look at my master’s thesis on Scribd and on Emory’s thesis depository. Here’s the abstract:

Traditional historical-critical interpretations of Hosea 1–3 usually describe a heartbroken Hosea hurt by his cruel wife, and feminists have challenged the androcentrism of such interpretations and of the text itself. Critics in both camps, though, often view gender as a binary and assume heteronormativity, but I aim in this paper to deconstruct the gender structures of the prophecy, arguing in conversation with traditional, feminist, and queer criticism, while drawing on insights from queer theory. By employing a queer reading, I assert that gender in the marriage metaphor of these chapters is unstable and characters often destabilize themselves. I show the instability of gender by looking specifically at three personas in the metaphor: the men, the woman, and Yahweh. First, the depiction of Hosea’s male readership as a promiscuous woman is a method not only for revealing their apostasy from Yahweh worship to Baal worship, but also as a way to shame them by feminizing them. Using the trope of the promiscuous woman to describe them affronts their status as males, who should be naturally superior to women according to the thinking of the time. Second, Gomer as a character is in turn masculinized by her role as the representative of a body of males and thus is erased as she becomes the mere window through which the reader sees the accused males. The female’s voice, then, becomes indistinguishable from the male’s as he tries to exclude what has been a part of him all along. Finally, this marriage metaphor also challenges Yahweh’s masculinity, but the irony is that Hosea 1:2 reveals that it is Yahweh himself who initiates the metaphor, thus making Yahweh the challenger of his own masculinity.

It took me a year and a lot of reading to complete. There is still more I could say on the subject, and there’s always more to read, but I’m very satisfied with the project. It’s 78 pages, so if you have a long lunch break or something, take a look at it.

Foreword by Mary Ann Tolbert – Take Back the Word (1 of 23)

Take Back the Word book cover

Goss, Robert E., and Mona West, eds. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000). 
AZ | BN | WC

This post is part of a series of posts on the anthology Take Back the Word.

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Today I’m beginning a series of posts on Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, a 2000 anthology edited by Robert Goss and Mona West, both of whom also have their own chapters. We’ll see how quickly I can do this, but I’ll try to update regularly.

I have never read this book before, and this foreword (pp. vii–xii) called “What Word Shall We Take Back?” speaks to some of the worries I have going into this. The book’s title seems to imply that 1) the biblical texts constitute something that could be called God’s Word and 2) this is a Word that has been stolen from us. The first point is a confessional statement that many agree with to varying degrees, but the second point concerns me more. The assumption is that the Word was ours to begin with and then was taken from our possession and so must be returned to its rightful owners. The Bible has always been on our side until it was recently appropriated by those who are hostile to their LGBTQ neighbors, and now it is time to reappropriate it.

This narrative—a mere marketing decision though the title may be—is far too simplistic for me. To be sure, there are many passages in the Bible that are positive for LGBTQ and other people, but there are many other passages that are destructive, and reclaiming those as “ours” in some way seems simplistic. Tolbert recognizes this:

it is simply morally unacceptable to ignore the profound damage done to millions of people over hundreds of generations in the name of the Bible. (ix)

But even this division between positive and destructive is far too reductive. Some areas are simply grey, and destructive passages become so because of bad application or bad interpretation. Tolbert indicts some especially conservative readers who view the Bible as a transhistorical document unaffected by cultural particularities and idiosyncracies:

to ignore the degree to which every page of the Bible reflects the presence of its ancient context of production actually results in increasing the influence of that context on the final interpretation of the text. (viii)

The blanket condemnations of same-sex intimacies common in conservative circles today represent a negligence of cultural context. The fact that they deem cultural context irrelevant makes it all the more important if we want to avoid destructive readings.

Furthermore, Tolbert argues, many conservatives not only disregard cultural context but choose to read the grey as black and white. This produces final, official, and normative readings that ignore the complexity of the text:

The conservative Christians who use certain Bible passages to ‘clobber’ lesbians and gay men are deciding to clarify the ambiguities and gaps in those passages in ways that fit their pre-conceived notions concerning the sinfulness of homoeroticism or the normality of heterosexism. (x)

The danger in both ignoring culture and ignoring complexity is that it is both dishonest to the text and hurtful to people. These conservative tendencies normalize particular readings, and Tolbert warns against queer readers’ own possibility to create normalized readings. My worry regarding the title of the book is that it seems to suggest there is one correct reading that we are recovering in reading queerly, but Tolbert cautions us against any reading that claims to be correct. When we normalize, we hurt people, just like many of us have been hurt by others’ normalizations. Our readings need to be open-ended and flexible, not final and dogmatic. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes as our forebears.

Tolbert’s foreword is not a celebration of the book’s authors’ achievements or a call to action but a warning to remain ever queer, never fixed.

My Queer Purposes

This blog is an idea that has been bouncing around in my head for a while. I subscribe to many blogs about Christianity and biblical interpretation, and I also read a lot of blogs about queer theology and LGBTQ people in the church. What I haven’t found yet is a blog specifically about queer interpretation. Which is why I’m writing this today.

I want to begin with what makes this blog different. For me, queer interpretation (or hermeneutics, or criticism, or commentary—whichever you prefer) is a very separate field from queer theology, the two being divided along the (albeit unstable) binary of theology and biblical studies. Whereas queer theology focuses on the history of theological thoughts, queer interpretation would focus more on the history of theological writings. Whereas queer theology emphasizes new views of God for today’s Christians, queer interpretation is less concerned with what said in the pulpit. Queer theology is (obviously) theology, but queer interpretation falls under the auspices of biblical studies. This distinction is necessarily reductive and overgeneralizing, but some effort at distinguishing the two is helpful.

I want this blog to be different. Allow me to illustrate: Patrick Cheng has posted on the wonderful blog Jesus in Love, and he has a new book out in which he lays out his recent theological work in imagining Christ in different queer ways. I recognize this as valuable to Christianity, but I want look at the Bible more specifically and from a queer lens.

What is queer interpretation, then? To queer is to read a text from a particular viewpoint and using particular tools. For example, the historical critical method uses original languages, archaeology, history, and literature to piece together what the text meant to its original audience(s). Feminist criticism employs concepts and findings from feminist scholarship in today’s time to re-read the Bible. Queer criticism follows feminism’s postmodern trajectory by reading the Bible alongside writings from the realm of queer theory. Thus, for my purposes, Michel Foucault’s insights are just as important as those in the Anchor Bible Commentary. Judith Butler is just as important as Hermann Gunkel. Eve Sedgwick is just as important as the Journal of Biblical Literature.

This blog will be queer look at the Bible. I intend to write on books I read on queer subjects and on passages from the Bible that I find interesting. Lately, I have been inspired by my own research, especially with books like Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible and the Queer Bible Commentary, but there are many others that I find useful. Occasionally, I might drift into LGBTQ activist politics, but I’m going to attempt to stay pretty textual. I am interested in my own and others’ reading of biblical texts. Part of this effort is simply to keep myself engaged in scholarly material during the summer between school years, and part of it is to develop my own scholarship by expanding my horizons.

These are just the basics. Look for more about queer commentary later. I hope this blog can be an exciting addition to the discourse on religion in the blogosphere. We’ll see what happens. Please join my queer journey.