Because I am in a male-female relationship, you’re probably wondering what’s going on with the title of this post. Possibly even Shannon, my friend who called me to this synchroblog on queer theology, might being wondering where I’m going with this. I’ll get there: just hang around, k?
Back to Shannon, aka the Anarchist Reverend. In response to the frustration he’s been feeling about having the same tired conversations on queerness with Christians,
I am calling for a synchroblog on Wednesday August 10, 2011. On that day I want people to blog about what queer theology means to them. I want you to share your story of how reading the Bible queerly has changed your life. I want you to talk about how your sexuality or your gender identity has brought you deeper into relationship with God. If you’re straight and interested in solidarity I want you to share how being in relationship with queer people has deepened your faith and spiritual practice. [Emphasis mine.]
In my typical “better late than never” fashion, I’m hopping on the bandwagon just slightly late, writing this post ON rather than BEFORE August 10, but hopefully within enough time to still be on time. So with no further delay, I give you my thoughts on queer theology, on being bodily and gendered people, and maybe even throwing God into that whole mess.
In seminary, I related more to queer theology than any other. Growing up in a Lutheran church that ignored sexuality more than anything else, and then attending an evangelical high school which treated sexuality as best only when it was heteronormative and non-existant pre-marriage, by the time I arrived in college I was thoroughly confused. Hook, line, and sinker, I believed I would go to hell if I had sex before I was married. Forget caring for the least of these, following Jesus was about purity, and purity was about (the lack of) sex.
In college I had the sense to realize that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I didn’t have access to many (really, any) resources that helped me to reconstruct what a faithful sexuality might look like. Enter Seminary. And into my life traipsed all kinds of amazing, amazingly queer theologians who didn’t apologize for being gay; who exegeted the Bible in interesting, innovative, and honest ways; who helped me to understand that my sexuality as a source of strength, beauty, and love.
It may sound strange to some, but I was able to accept myself as a sexual (and therefore whole) person only because I found solidarity in the struggle represented in the writings of queer theologians.
God is not only gender-neutral; God is amply and ambiguously gendered. It is still in vogue for liberal congregations to remove any gendered reference to God in their liturgies and litanies. This is all well and good, and it is true that God is neither male nor female. What is MORE interesting to me, MORE liberating, are all the multiplicities of ways that God is portrayed in the bible as being masculine, feminine, or quixotically neutered.
In seminary my concentration was in the exegesis (interpretation) of biblical texts, and so I want to share with you the many-gendered ways in which theologians uncovered God behaving in the bible.
God is portrayed in that protective, fatherly, strong-shouldered fortress mentality in which his masculinity seems inevitable. God is a bulwark. We all need a little more bulwark in our lives, and we will all at one point or another be called to be a bulwark to a neighbor in need. God is also a wise woman in proverbs, portrayed as instrumental in creating the world at the beginning of time, and nurturing her children into health and well-being. God is our mother as well as our father.
And God is also neuter. One of my favorite stories in the bible is the Annunciation story. You know the text–in the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her how the Holy Spirit will overshadow and impregnate her. You can’t tell in English, but interestingly enough, the pronoun for Holy Spirit in Koine (biblical) Greek is neuter. Meaning, not only is God impregnating Mary with Jesus, but God does it completely devoid of God’s masculine identity. That Jesus is the result of a queer pairing certainly opened me up to the opportunities and joys we might all experience if only we embraced whatever queer plans God has for us and for the world.
My queer friends taught me how to be an ally by not being one. I’m going to go ahead and wait while you click through that link and listen to Shannon explain why the term “ally” is simply not that helpful. (While you’re at it, check out his list of resources for allies, too.)
The number one thing I have learned from queer theologians and from my queer friends is that while we’re not all the same, we’re not all that different, either. My experience of sex, sexuality, privilege, etc., is of course different from Shannon’s, Kim’s, Lissa’s, Erik’s, Justin’s, Abby’s, Jane’s, Maggie’s, or any host of “straight” people’s experiences. But my sense of the erotic, as defined by Audre Lorde, is wildly, radically similar to theirs: in the awe-some discomfort of entwining one’s soul with another’s; in the banality of long-term relationships; in the power of love to pull each of us outside of our selves and to work for justice.
We are all quite different from one another, and that is how we are the same. No one’s sexuality is the same as anyone else’s. We’re all queer. And because of our shared queerness (one might say “our shared humanity”), we will work for justice together.
I know that this is not necessarily a statement that will be all-around well-received, and I’m okay with that. Labels and names are good and useful, and I understand their function and even their necessity. I will listen and understand your reasons for using them (or not), and then I will employ them happily and with gusto. But when it comes down to it, I will work for justice because you and I? We’re different, and thus we are the same.
It took me three years to complete my Master’s degree in Divinity. Of those three years in seminary, I attended a Sunday morning church service perhaps five times. It wasn’t a lack of interest, and I certainly wasn’t trying to abandon organized religion. Despite a commitment to my faith community at seminary, and a deep regard for faith-based justice work, something was lacking to compel me to attend a local community church every week.
Today, I usually grumble to myself while getting up on Sunday mornings for church. The community is great, and I adore the ministers. But at the risk of sounding wholly un-pious, I sometimes skip the service for no other reason than that I’d like to sip my coffee in peace, listen to Speaking of Faith on NPR, and do a crossword puzzle.
In “the Church” (that is, the often mainstream and Protestant church) these days, there seems to be a lot of panic around the topic of young people: Where are they? How can we get them to come here? Why aren’t they interested in Sunday morning worship? Don’t they care about faith; values; community?
I certainly consider myself as a person who cares about community, faith, ethics, social justice, and even The Church. But sometimes—and I say this as someone with a degree specializing in parish ministry—the Sunday morning worship experience seems too creedal, too suffocating; trying to claim me too much as its own. In the midst of the grand pillars, the soft candlelight, the hymnody, my ancestral tradition, the question remains: what if I want to change my mind?
Rather than courting me as one more young-person’s-body in the pews on Sunday morning (as the Church sometimes does), I’d like to be appreciated as an individual whose identity sometimes transgresses traditional religious boundaries. I’m Christian, but I’m definitely not all that concerned with other people’s spiritual salvation. And although I belong to a congregation, my faith life doesn’t abide in a church alone.
One of the most spiritual experiences I had in seminary was outside the seminary walls, on the floor of a yoga studio in New York City. It was in savasana, after a particularly compelling practice, that I realized my seminary education was changing my religious life in an entirely irreversible way. Never again would I approach the Bible with the same sense of awe, assuming that hidden beneath the Hebrew and Greek was a Truth yet to be revealed. The Church became the church. The Bible became the bible. God even took on god’s own flaws – overtly masculine, strangely hierarchical, at times wrathful. As I, a Christian seminarian, opened my heart to a Buddhist practice, I found a space to mourn and accept the changes in my faith.
Instead of believing in something explicit, I now just have faith that there is something to believe in. My faith is that Good exists, and that good is what I call God. It is not that I am not reflective, or that I don’t care, or that I am not committed to what I believe. It is that there are very few religious institutions that are flexible enough to allow me to be constantly changing my own definitions of belief, ethics, social justice, and truth.
It is my experience that many fellow young people I meet also have conflicting feelings about the creedal necessities of religion. Despite caring deeply about theological concepts and ideas, it is sometimes asking too much to identify too closely with hard and fast beliefs. In a world of crossing boundaries, flexible identities, and intermingling concepts, mainstream Protestant churches have unfortunately become institutional fundamentalists. Too afraid to lose their own identities, they have begun to claw and grasp at the last hope for tomorrow: young bodies in the pews. Too busy gnashing their teeth at the absence of young people in their midst, they are not listening to our voices as we say we’re here. We care. We matter.
Change the infrastructure. Give us a voice. Let the institutions fall.
It is the classic story. We all know and love the well-worn features of the beautiful Christmas narrative: the angels, the shepherds, the journey to Bethlehem, the star shining brightly, and the miraculous event of the virgin birth. Transcending all else, this is a paradox of child birthing child, of holy producing holy. It boggles our minds. What can we do but walk away perplexed—much as Mary herself was?
When I was about 13 years old – Mary’s age, at the birth of Jesus – my pastor preached on this text. If I were to be honest with myself, it was probably one of the first times I felt that nebulous “Call”, a moment in which a person feels inspired to serve outside herself, perhaps in honor of something bigger than herself, something divine.
Pastor Judith spoke of Mary’s youth, and she talked about what an incredible feat it was for a girl so young to be ‘chosen by God’ to perform this amazing task of bearing and birthing God’s own child. I remember feeling empowered. I also was only 13, but if God chose Mary to do something that important, surely I could be capable of something wonderful, too.
Some time later, in college, I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador. Nestled in the armpit of a smoking volcano, Quito is a city of nearly 2 million people. In the center of the city is a surprising hill, jutting up as quickly as it falls, on the top of which stands a statue of – who else? – the Virgin Mary. In this version, Mary is a winged goddess, standing on a serpent and reaching up toward the heavens. From anywhere in Quito, even from miles away, you can see her looking down over the valley. It’s hard to tell whether the Virgin or the volcano casts a greater shadow over the city.
I asked my new Ecuadorian friends what they felt growing up under that Virgin Mother. Despite their devotion, these young women admitted the difficulty posed by using her as a role model. How, they asked, is a human woman to be expected to both remain a ‘virgin,’ and yet also become a mother? What is the value in placing such societal importance on virginity? And why, when she herself is so powerful, does the figure of the Virgin Mary stand as the ultimate model of female submissiveness?
These are questions crucial to the way we understand the Christmas story. Have you ever stopped to wonder why it was necessary for Mary to be a virgin? Would it have been any different if God had caused the pregnancy of an already-married woman? To answer that, the reader must begin by understanding that the author of Luke was not writing in a vacuum. His words and thoughts, like ours, were influenced by the culture in which he wrote. And during his day, there were no DNA tests.
It may seem a strange point to make. But in a world in which there was no way to prove paternity, the virginity of a woman was everything: it assured new husbands that the child his wife just birthed was actually his own! This is why in the gospel of Matthew, we see Joseph struggling over whether or not to wed Mary after she becomes pregnant: Matthew is showing us that Joseph knows the child is not his. So Mary’s virginity in Luke is present as an agent to assure us that Jesus is God’s child.
The Gospel of Luke was also written for gentiles. Within the Roman Empire, virgin goddesses like the Greek hunter Artemis, or the Egyptian mother Isis, dominated the civic/religious scene, and this Christian movement was fashioned and defined by its new converts. So temples previously dedicated to Artemis were transferred to Mary. The feasts and festivals in honor of Isis, which celebrated all the fertility and promise that virginity symbolized, instead came to honor the Virgin Mary.
The tradition of Mary’s virginity when it first emerged thus meant something very different than what it means for many today: instead of an avoidance of sexuality, it rejoiced in the possibility of the new life that would emerge from her body. If anything, virginity in the ancient world was a promise of what was to come, not a preservation of purity, of things as they once were.
The Annunciation text describes how Mary became pregnant by God. At that time, it sounded to the gentile listeners a lot like Greco-Roman myths in which Zeus or Apollo descended to earth to mate with a beautiful mortal woman. Even in Genesis, we find a story in which divine beings—the nephilim—came down to impregnate human women. The idea of a god sleeping with a woman was not a new concept in the ancient world, and so this Annunciation was not nearly so sterile a story as we consider it today.
In fact, the Annunciation tells of a very charged encounter between Mary and the Holy Spirit. As the angel detailed, Mary was to be overshadowed (Gk: episkiazo) by God’s presence, an experience which ancient authorities such as Philo tell us was a union of a human’s soul with the divine, struck through with sexual connotations. Some ancient Egyptian texts even go so far as to speak of the seminal emission of the shadow of a divinity, so powerful that it could engender a woman’s pregnancy.
Have we really been missing, over the past 2,000 years, such blatant allusions to eroticism in the supposedly PG Christmas story?
What is fascinating to me about reading the text in this way is that it allows us to approach it in a way that contemporary American life rarely does: through the fusion of the spiritual with the sexual. So many representations of sexuality today only allow us to see it with our bodies: gyrations, appendages, flesh, and nothing more. Similarly, so many representations of spirituality today only allow us to experience it completely devoid of our bodies: emotions, logic, heart, and with restrictions on how we may use our bodies, and in what ways. Must the two be so separate?
Consider the sensation of reading a moving piece of prose, solving an elegant mathematical formula, hearing a piece music that transports you elsewhere. Is it really so different from the sensation of a good run, the warmth of sun upon skin, or the pleasure of clasping lover to breast? Listen to these words: wholeness, reverence, relationship, meaning, safety, transcendence, trust. Do they describe spirituality to you, or sexuality? Must they represent only one at a time?
So when I read Luke’s Annunciation text, I think he is playing with the boundaries between spirit and body, allowing the two to puddle together and intermingle. His logic might have been: if Mary encountered God and became pregnant, surely it was a spiritual experience, and also, inevitably, a sexual one.
This, then, is no story of a chaste and quiet virgin, the one whom we have always been told Mary must be.
Instead, this is a story of a brave young woman whose passionate, erotic encounter with God began a movement so powerful that it changed the world.
Rather than representing timidity and submission, Mary encourages us to step boldly into new possibilities, to live into our full selves, and to give birth to love and compassion wherever we go.
The world still thinks of Mary as perpetually a virgin, although the gospels themselves tell us Jesus had brothers and sisters. It still considers her asexual, as if this text were not imbued with eroticism and sensuality. And we make Mary’s role in the Christmas story about her virginity without even considering the text, or its implications for women and men in our world.
But the Christmas story is not and should not be about virginity. It is about that spiritual and bodily act of giving birth to the promise of life, and of love, for everyone.
Graduation. It’s on friday. And I don’t wanna!
Today was the last academic outpost of my seminary career. I’ve turned in all my papers, written my thesis, and today, i took my last final. Damn it. I’ve been bitchy all day since… but probably the scant two hours of sleep i got last night didn’t help, either.
So I turned to the music of my fellow seminarian Jenn Lindsay, a folk musician with wry, honest lyrics. Her song ‘no foul, no harm’ (what she called her ‘systematic theology in seven verses’) reminded me why I’m so sad: I am terrified of leaving the first community that has encouraged me to be a creative theologian, and also a creative person in general. New York is where I’ve overcome a fear of so many ‘scary’ foods, understood pieces of art without self-consciousness, grown into my talents and my brain, and listened to the voices of people from places in life I’d never previously imagined. All of these experiences, they have shaped not only me, but also the way that I seek out and interact with the divine — the way that I think about individuality, language, my body, history — the epistemology of it all.
Jenn’s song isn’t about what I’m going through right now. But it is about searching for something I’ve searched for. And ultimately, I think it is that thirst for searching that I fear losing.
Listen for my favorite lyrics (they come later in the song):
I don’t like how you are different from Brooklyn to midtown
I don’t like it when people capitalize your male pronoun
I don’t like televangelists that yell from the screen
I don’t like folks with dogs or kids who use you to be mean
But then again I don’t like it when people say you’re dead
The Dawkins/Hitchens/Dennet crowd and their whole line of dread
Cuz in quiet moments, darker days, and confusion
I know there’s something bigger than me and it’s no delusion