What Happens When Queer Theory is Applied to Scripture?
A talk given on March 21, 2018 at the Anglican Parish of St. George the Martyr, Cadboro Bay, in the Municipal District of Saanich, a suburb within Greater Victoria, BC, as part of a series on Gender Diversity. This text is based on my notes and compared with what I also said, with some additions and hypertext links.
Good morning! Many of you know me. I am Bruce Bryant-Scott, a 55 year old heterosexual male, born and raised in 1960s and 1970s Anglophone culture in Shawinigan, Quebec, which was as binary as all get out. I started as a child in the United Church of Canada but was confirmed in both the United Church and the Anglican Church in 1975, just before the great Plan of Union finally fell apart. I think you’ll notice that one of those confirmations really took. I have been ordained thirty years in June. I studied at the Toronto School of Divinity, on the campus of the University of Toronto, in Trinity College, and at Harvard University. As mentioned, I am now undertaking a PhD in theology at the University of London, in England, and I hope to defend my dissertation “Unsettling Theology” this Fall. In Toronto I learned just enough Greek and Hebrew to know that all translations are problematic. Thus when people say that they rely on the Bible, I have to ask which translation they are using, because the translations always inscribe the biases of their translators.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that we have gathered on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen speaking peoples of the Coast Salish First Nations of Songhees, Esquimalt, and W̱SÁNEĆ. For me these are not rote words. My dissertation is on the theological legacy of the Indian Residential Schools – what kind of theologies got us into that mess, and what kind of theologies might help us avoid something like that now. I like to think that I work from a post-modern, post-colonial perspective.
I was raised in a highly colonized context on the lands of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the people who gave us words such as Canada and Quebec. They lived along the St. Lawrence River when Jacques Cartier came in the 1530s, but had disappeared by the time Champlain was establishing L’Habitation in Quebec. The land was subsequently settled and used by the Haudenosaunee from the south, the Abenaki from the East, and the Innu from the North. My understanding is that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians were probably wiped out by disease, and their survivors were taken in by these neighbouring peoples who subsequently became the land’s indigenous peoples.
Now, I am not the most likely person to give this talk. I was raised to think of same-sex attraction as a kind of psychological perversion. I still find myself struggling and reacting around trans people, at least thinking thoughts that I take care not to express, because they emerge out of that boy from the 1970s, not the man I am now. I am not an expert on Queer Theory and gender issues.
So why am I here? Well, as in many things, we can blame the Bishop. When Elizabeth approached Bishop Logan about who might speak about this, he said, “Hmm, how about Bruce Bryant-Scott?” I think it’s because he heard me speak at General Synod in Richmond Hill two years ago. I did speak to the issue of gender fluidity in scripture during the debate on the amendment to the marriage canon. I referred people to the passage in Genesis 1.27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Now, you’ve heard of the passage in Revelation 22.13 where Jesus describes himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” The terms here signify not just beginnings and endings, but every thing in between as well. It is a claim that all of creation and its purpose is oriented to Jesus. Now, when we see these kinds of binary opposites, I suggested that in Genesis 1 we might read it not simply as those opposites, but as everything along the spectrum of sexuality and identity. It was not a particularly good argument, but I thought that this was something we might consider. The Bishop heard this, of course, which is why I think he suggested I might be a good speaker.
Now, you started two weeks ago with Kingsley Strudwick from Ambit Gender Diversity. Some of the things that emerged as he and you talked were:
- It’s complex.
- “Infinite possibilities.”
- “It’s in the brain as opposed to between the legs.”
- We learn about gender from our families.
He also talked about some important distinctions.
- When we talk about the “sex” of someone we are generally referring to the range from how chromosomes, hormones, child-bearing and so forth are involved and are identified as characteristically male, female, or something else.
- When we talk about “gender” we are discussing the categories of being male, female, trans, nonbinary, intersex, or queer. It’s about how one identifies oneself.
- When we talk”sexual orientation” we are talking about same-sex attraction, different-sex attraction, bisexual, monosexual, or asexual. .
- Then there are the cultural aspects, such as what it means to be masculine and feminine. We all have a sense of what a tom-boy is, or what it means when someone says they want to feel “girly”. There are subcultures, such as clones, bears, lipstick lesbians, butch, queer, etc.
But while all of this can be confusing, it is important that we are talking, and that’s good!
Last week you had Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy, a professor at the University of Victoria. Her points, among others were:
- Territory is important. Place is sacred. The original peoples were deeply invested in their relationships with their traditional territories, and all the creatures within them. They learned from them and their traditional law was grounded in the land and its creatures.
- Gender was socially constructed in different ways among the many diverse peopl
- Colonization was gendered. The Indian Act is highly gendered, with different rules for women and men. It involved the erasure of what we now call two-spirited people, and replaced it with a normative binary. .
- She said, “I’m learning, too. The young people are teaching us.”
- Let’s talk about Queer Theory. According to some, it initially emerged in 1990 and by 1994 was all the rage in the Humanities, although I was sort of aware of it already in the mid-1980s. Newish, but not new. The church and seminary, of course, got there later than everybody else, but by 2000 or so scholars were being appointed to major positions who were well acquainted with it.
- Queer Theory might sound like a systematic approach to issues, but it’s, well, you know, queer, so it eschews systems and privileges perspectives, especially around gender, sexuality, and identity.
- It’s cross disciplinary, drawing among other things, not only on psychology and biology but also philosophy, literature, critical theory, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and, most importantly, the lived experience of people who do not fit our cis-het binary structures.
- It is thus inherently destabilizing, unsettling, and frequently mischievous, satirically, and outrageous.
- It’s not for the faint of heart.
Brief Studies: The Names of God
First, let’s think about God, and God as Trinity – you know, the Holy Trinity. In the Hebrew original God has many names: El, or God, which is masculine in grammatical gender; Elohim, the plural form of the word El, but which takes verbs in the singular male; YHWH, a name considered so sacred by Jesus’s time that it is not pronounced but is replaced with Adonai, Lord. In orthodox Christian thought God is a trinity, three hypostases in one ousia, usually translated as persons and substance. Forget the usual problems, and consider the gender. In Greek Father is Pater, and is masculine; the Son, the Word that was made flesh, is masculine; but the Holy Spirit, Hagia Pneuma, is neuter. In Hebrew it’s even more interesting. Both Av and Ben, Father and Son, are masculine, but the Holy Spirit is Ruach, and it is feminine. As well, the Logos or Word is considered by most orthodox theologians to be the equivalent of Holy Wisdom or Hochma Kadosh. A Cathedral in Constantinople was dedicated to Christ as Holy Wisdom – the Hagia Sophia in Greek, which is also feminine. So, when thinking of God. And considering grammatical gender, we have not only masculine, but feminine and neuter. So right from the get go in ancient orthodox Christian dogma we have a God who transcends and incorporates genders, and is far from binary. If humanity is made in God’s image, arguably we are just as far from binary as well.
To me, it all seems a little odd – queer almost, eh?
Brief Studies: The Song of Songs
Second, Stephen D. Moore, an Irishman and a New Testament scholar at Drew University in New Jersey, has written a great book called “God’s Beauty Parlor and Other Queer Spaces In and Around the Bible”. It’s basically four essays, well worth reading. The first looks at The Song of Songs, or The Song of Solomon. Listen to this.
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come.
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Now, who is singing here? As it turns out, this is a woman recounting her lovers words to her. Who is the woman? Who is the man? Tradition says Solomon and one of his seven hundred wives or three hundred concubines, but that’s probably a later attribution. In the text the two, a male and female, are unnamed. This is one of the tamer passages – it becomes much more explicit later on. Now, the interesting thing is that the book does not mention God anywhere. It is clearly Israelite or Jewish, as it refers to Jerusalem and the Tower of David, but it does not read as a sacred text. What is erotic love poetry doing in the Bible? .
Throughout history, both Rabbis and Christian theologians have interpreted this allegorically. Jews understood it as relating to God and Israel, while Christians say it as an image of Christ and the Church. It was a favourite text through the ages, with many, many commentaries, including the Puritans, Augustine, The Venerable Bede, Gregory the Great, Bonaventure, etc.
So here’s the Queer aspect. As a male hearing this, and along with saints and mystics like St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Origen, we are in the place of the woman being called. Who’s the woman in this scenario? It is us, we who are the brides of Christ. The overtly sexual descriptions of the woman describes an eroticized female-gender church. Mull that over.
Brief Studies: Insights and Social Constructions in Paul
Let’s jump to a brief study in the New Testament, specifically, the writings of Paul. In First Corinthians 6.12 Paul writes:
All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything.
Paul appears to have written a previous letter to the Corinthians in which he wrote things like “‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman” (7.1) and “All things are lawful”. This led to confusion and a letter back to Paul, in which they appear to have asked, “Are you serious?” On the one hand they were hearing Paul describe a radical freedom in Christ, and on the other they heard him prescribing celibacy. Well, yes, Paul was serious, because he felt that in Christ Gentiles were saved, and they did not have to become Jews in order to be part of that salvation. Thus they had a radical freedom, as they were not under the Torah. But this did not mean they could do anything. He suggests that the new criterion for ethics will be whether it builds up, if it is useful and good. So, no, not anything goes. Regarding marriage, Paul seems to have been remarkably asexual, which he saw as a good thing in his evangelism, especially as he believed that the second coming of Jesus, as the Son of Man in judgment, was imminent. However, he knew that other apostles travelled with their spouses, and he also was real enough to know that most Christians wanted to marry and have sex. So he said that it was better to marry than to burn.
Still, it’s a heck of a principle on which to build an ethical system.
Paul comes out with some remarkably narrow statements and then very radical ones. From Galatians 3. 16 we read
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Paul is challenging the categories of the world that appear to most people to have been there since time immemorial, part of the created order. However, in the new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ this changes. Paul is not saying that there are no differences – the Jews still have the Torah and the Greeks will still speak Greek, and Paul does not dream of a time when there is no slavery – but he does have an ideal of what the new creation looks like, and it is not like this broken, fragmented, sinful world. We can still be a diverse collection of people with ethnicities, genders, and sexed bodies, but in the light of the resurrection they are not as important or God-given as some might think. Arguably, they all becomes a little fluid, to coin a term.
But then there are times when he says something else, as we read in First Corinthians 11.13-16:
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
Neither we nor many ages over the past two-thousand years have paid that much attention to the necessity for women to cover their head or men to cut their hair. Indeed, Jesus and the apostles are usually portrayed in art as long-haired freaks. Paul seems to think that somehow uncovered hair will corrupt angels, but nowadays we do not usually worry about such things. Again, this is probably a class thing – barbarians, slaves, and subject peoples did not probably cut their hair on a regular basis, whereas proper Romans and Greeks and those with money probably did. The issue with head coverings can also be read as patriarchal. Women’s hair – which Paul sees as their glory – was to be reserved for the immediate family only, preferably her husband. In the end most of us today would see this less as a faith issue as one of aesthetics.
Now, Paul also wrote the following, in Romans 1.26-27.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
This is the passage that is invariably used to suggest that same-sex sexual relations are forbidden and degrading, contrary to God’s law. However, as Stephen Moore points out, the passage comes in the context that sees same-sex desire and same-sex sexual acts as the result of people having abandoned God for idols. Earlier in the chapter Paul describes an early history that is not commonly understood. After the Fall of Adam and Eve they and their first descendants continued to call upon God and sacrifice to the true divine. Only after some time had passed did they begin to make idols out of animals and human figures and combinations of humans and animals. These idols were an abomination to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Israelites were forbidden to worship them. Because the non-Israelites and non-Jews persisted in this, God punished them by having them develop same-sex desires. In the strongly patriarchal societies of the Middle East and the Roman Empire real sex for men was understood to be sexual penetration. Among Gentile Romans it was irrelevant whether the subject of the penetration was male or female, or how exactly it was done, just that it was degrading to be on the receiving end. Thus, because women were on the “passive” side of penetration, they were not of as high status as men. Slaves and lower classes were suitable subjects of higher class sexual penetration. Sex was not only gendered, it was an act of power, class, and “dignitas”. This is why same-sex relations between women was so depraved – it undermined the status of phallo-centric men and the proper relation of men and women, citizen and subject, free and slave.
Needless to say, most people in the modern era are completely unaware of this. We miss the gender and power issues that were part and parcel of the ancient understanding of sex. We do not buy into the ancient history that Paul describes (unless we are Creationists) and we do not accept the hierarchies of power that depend upon fundamental inequalities.
So, what happens when we have otherwise faithful Christians (and Jews) who have same-sex desires and relations? Are they idolators? Apparently not. Paul was never asked the question, so he never dealt with it. Do we base our sexual morality on these ancient constructions, or do we say that Paul was culturally conditioned, and in this passage maybe he wasn’t inspired. After all, if we find that Christians in committed same-sex relations work to build up love and faithfulness, is that not beneficial and helpful?
I’ve circled around the Bible but I have not yet and will not be applying anything of Queer Theory as such to the person of Jesus Christ – time is up!. But here is a final query before we break: as we move into Holy Week, what is the significance that the Jesus who was crucified was male? What if Jesus had been female? Does it make a difference?