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