Book review by John Schofield
When I was a youth, the term queer had definite pejorative associations, which I thought I had long ago left behind. But coupling it with the word theology can still be startling and disturbing!
In one of the most accessible and interesting books I have read in a long time, Linn Marie Tonstad draws on her experience of teaching a queer theology module at Yale, to introduce us all to this fascinating branch of theology.
So what is queer? It stands for those against whom dominant social understandings of the normative develop. So we must see it as a broad sweep. It is a challenge to the binaries which we so often unthinkingly buy into, which are especially prevalent in Christianity and in which so often one of the binaries is more highly valued than the other.
Queer theology, it seems to me, encourages what elsewhere might be called a hermeneutic of suspicion. Tonstad is clear that it is not just about the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities, and that contemporary worries in these areas are a long way from what exercised the minds of biblical, especially New Testament, writers.
She argues that there has been a shift from the one-sex to the two sex-model of understanding humanity (for a long time, male was seen as the normal, and female was a defective version – and a lot of theology hasn’t caught up yet).
She sets out the various apologetic strategies which are often used to argue for the inclusion of queer people (of whatever particular variety) in the church. And even though she queries them and their effectiveness, it is profoundly helpful to have them so clearly articulated – and in the context of controversy and division in which we currently live, these are actually extremely useful.
There are many excellent discussions, too many to list here. For instance, how gender is not necessarily the expression of one’s core being, but an expression of the way we learn to behave; how heterenormativity is not the natural way it pretends to be; how gender identity and sexual orientation need to be firmly separated; and one, build round Justice Kennedy’s judgement which allowed equal marriage to be legalised in many states in the USA, about the extent to which equal marriage actually buys into heteronormativity.
There is a brilliant expose of the frailty of the argument that inclination and action are two different things, with inclination being ok so long as it is not acted on. As for the idea that the body of Christ is queer, simply because the body of Christ as it is now on earth encompasses every aspect of humanity – that is eye opening.
I don’t necessarily want to say amen to or identify with everything in this book; nor do I necessarily follow every line of argument. But it feels joyful, liberating, world-view changing (and I speak as someone who might be thought to represent heteronormativity in all sorts of ways). Some of my cherished ideas are challenged – as for instance the idea that there is a genetic predisposition in a small but significant proportion of the population to same sex attraction/relationships. However, like much in this fascinating book, this too can be contested. But I am challenged anew to recognise that there are many ways of being human and sexual in the world that God incorporates into God’s salvific action, and helped by the idea that queer is transgressive, just as Jesus is transgressive in his ministry in respect of the norms and assumptions of his day.
At the end of chapter 4, Tonstad writes about Queer Theology:
"It needs to take the messy realities and complexities of people’s lives seriously; it needs to stand against the distortive powers of capitalism and colonialism; it needs to express and honor human bodily being; it needs to get beyond the search for identity, fixity, and finality; and it needs to be about God’s presence in, identification with, and love for the body, the way God calls us to bring love, lust, and justice together."
If that is the essence of Queer Theology, then I am glad to align myself with it.