The gay guide to God's word

The Queer Bible Commentary

April 6, 2007

Reading this book, I was reminded of John Bowker's thought-provoking words in A Year To Live : "The consequences of treating the scripture as though history and personality made no difference to the words and content... have been, in Christian history, horrendous. By lifting a text from its content and treating it as a timeless truth, Christians claimed scriptural warrant for their murder of Jews (Matthew :25); Ifor burning women whom they regarded as witches (Exodus 22:18); Ijustified slavery and apartheid (Genesis 9:25); Ifound justification for executing homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13)..."

This volume, like the increasing corpus of transgressive theology by feminist, black, postcolonial and liberationist scholars, attempts to undo the harm that Bowker refers to, perpetrated and sustained by traditional theology that for a long time was accepted as the exclusive truth about the Bible, Christianity and humanity. Such transgressive theology argues that theology, far from being objective and universal, is gendered, racialised, classed and "sexualised" (privileges heterosexual experiences) - an ideological construct infused with power. There is no denying that the flourishing of such theology has given a voice to Christians whose lived experiences and viewpoints were traditionally excluded.

Written from a queer standpoint, this much welcome commentary achieves its transgressive agenda with passion and rigour. It offers illuminating contributions from a team of internationally renowned theologians, biblical scholars and religious practitioners covering every book/text in the Bible.

In spite of the necessary engagement with technical terminology and concepts, the contributors generally balance well academic rigour and accessibility.

Contributors generally adopt two approaches: dissecting the entire text thematically and offering reflections based on selective passages of the text. Both approaches have their strengths and shortcomings, but there is no denying that the contributors share the political commitment to promote a "paradigm shift" in the reading of the Bible - one that transgresses the imperialism of heteronormativity and patriarchy.

As Robin Hawley Gorsline declares in his commentary on 1 and 2 Peter, "Iif we do not bring our experience to the texts that others used to oppress us, we and they will never be free".

By queering the Bible, this volume attempts to first destigmatise lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) sexuality - particularly male-to-male sexual acts - by casting new light on problematic passages and emphasising the importance of socio-cultural and historical context. For instance, passages that are used conventionally to censure male homosexuality, such as the story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) and the injunctions about sexual purity (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), are given a new interpretation. Thus, the contributors argue that what brought about divine retribution on the two cities was not man-to-man genital acts that could have occurred, but sexual violence and inhospitality towards strangers, which have no bearing on same-sex love and intimacy today.

Similarly, the Levitical injunctions are subjected to re-examination with specific reference to the socio-cultural contexts within which such codes were constructed, exposing significant differences in the sexual landscape between now and then.

A similar hermeneutic approach is applied to the Apostle Paul's seemingly anti-gay rhetoric in Romans 1. 24-32; 1 Corinthians 6.9; and 1 Timothy 1.10 and 18.32, which are often used to buttress homophobic reading of the Old Testament. This effort of what Ronald E. Long calls in the volume's introduction "disarming biblically based gay-bashing" is not new.

Nevertheless, given the lack of progress in this area within the religious sphere, compared to many secular spheres, this engagement remains necessary.

What I find more satisfying is the contributors' creative attempts to uncover queer sensibilities and subjectivities in each text. This involves lifting the veil on hitherto silenced voices of homoeroticism and same-sex intimacy and care (for example, the devotion between Ruth and Naomi in Ruth; and David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel), as well as casting queer-friendly light on passages that are on the surface not relevant to LGBT experiences. It is hard not to be moved by the thought of an LGBT Christian declaring with pride, confidence and honesty that, "God, you fashioned me in my mother's womb... For I am awesomely and wondrously made"

(Psalms 139: 13-14).

As S. Tamar Kamionkowski reminds us in her analysis of Psalms, appropriating verses such as these turns them into an empowering statement of faith and ontology, underpinned by the unshakeable certainty that one's sexuality - no matter how despised and persecuted - is not just a choice or random genetic predisposition but divinely willed and planned.

Similarly, in her thematic analysis of Exodus, Rebecca Alpert likens the Israelites' experience of Passover to LGBT Christians' and Jews'

celebration of liberation from oppression. Through the same lens, Christ's washing of his disciples' feet is much more than an exemplary act of humility. It is also a political act that transgresses the rigid gender code of the time.

More broadly, this volume tackles the construction of gender and sexuality, transgendered voices of the prophets, the reification of heterosexuality, lesbian and gay ancestry within the Bible, and the use of the Bible in contemporary political and socio-cultural spheres. A publication such as this is heart-warming evidence that, for LGBT Christians at least, there is burgeoning theological capital that not only serves to destigmatise their sexualities but also to instil pride, comfort and confidence. Such works are not only spiritually nourishing but also transformative on the personal and socio-political levels. It reminds LGBT Christians - and others - that far from being incompatible, spirituality and sexuality could be harmoniously incorporated and provide a wealth of resources for meaningful living.

Nevertheless, basing the interpretation of the Bible on a particular standpoint - queer in this case - has its limitations. One could go too far in using personal experience to interpret the Bible, without being sufficiently aware of one's own personal and structural limitations and ideological underpinnings.

There is also the temptation to overstate one's experience of being oppressed and be desensitised to one's potential to oppress. Essentialising the dichotomy of the oppressed and the oppressor and rigidifying the boundary between them does not, in my view, accurately present the fluid and contextual nature of power relations.

In his reading of Galatians from a queer Asian perspective, Patrick S. Cheng cautions against racism and other forms of oppressive practices such as imposition of white-centric values within the LGBT community at large. I recommend this illuminating volume to academic and non-academic readers who are interested in LGBT issues specifically, as well as gender and sexuality in relation to Christianity, textual analysis and hermeneutical approaches in general.

Andrew K. T. Yip is reader in sociology, Nottingham Trent University. He is the author of Gay Male Christian Couples: Life Stories .

The Queer Bible Commentary

Editor - Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache
Publisher - SCM Press
Pages - 859
Price - £64.99
ISBN - 0334040217

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