’Queer Theology’ Aims to Transform Christianity

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 12, 2011

Almost 11 years to the day that he was wed in the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, the Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng) was invited back to preach at June 26's Festive Choral Evensong for Gay Pride service. The church, located in the heart of New York's Greenwich Village, is one of the most venerable and historic in a city rich with ancient houses of worship.

The original ceremony was the first blessing of a same sex union in the entire church. Now, the theology professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., would be truly wed.

Located just a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn, those in the pews were keenly aware that were asserting their faith -- and sexuality - mere hours after New York's passage of marriage equality (with a provision to protect churches from legal challenges). In their way, they were celebrating as joyously as the throngs only a few blocks away.

Progressive even by Greenwich Village standards, Cheng's sermon that day contained observations from his book "Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology."

"Why is it," Cheng asked the congregation, "that certain religious leaders are so obsessed with condemning LGBT people? My hunch is that they themselves come from a place of deep shame about their bodies, their sexuality."

Cheng speculated that many lay and ordained people of faith "suffer deeply from the sin of shame and erotophobia, the fear of the erotic." He then made a case for the rejection of toxic pride, the erasure of toxic sin, and the virtues of "coming out" -- theologically, emotionally and sexually.

Examining Sexuality & Sexiness of Scripture & Divinity
Such notions represent merely the tip of his water-cooler conversation-friendly book. Now in its second printing, "Radical Love" has been praised by fellow queer thinkers -- and damned by believers reluctant to embrace Cheng's likening of God's attributes to a "divine drag show." He also cites theologian Roland Boer, who casts the God of the Hebrew Bible as a top engaged in a sadomasochistic relationship with humans.

Potentially heretical chapter headings such as "Holy Spirit as Gayday" and "Same-Sex Marriage as Sacrament?" have earned Cheng rebukes from both the Catholic League and Publisher's Weekly. But the mild-mannered author maintains it's all in the service of challenging church leaders and parishioners to equate the depths of queer love with God's limitless capacity for love.

"I believe that Christianity is, at its very core, queer," asserts Cheng, "and the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a deconstruction of basic binaries." To ignore what he calls the fundamentally radical nature of the Christian faith" and to make Christianity into a religion of laws and not grace is a gross distortion of Christianity, in his view: "That's why for some folks, Christianity is so hard to wrap their heads around, precisely because it blurs so many boundaries."

Equally difficult for many self-identified Christians to fathom is the notion of reconciling traditional doctrine with any form of progressive theology, whether feminist, queer or multicultural.

Jesus As 'Perverter' - In the Best Sense
Rev. Dr. Bob Shore-Goss, Senior Pastor/Theologian at North Hollywood, California's MCC in the Valley, flies rainbow, transgendered, leather and bear pride flags. Inside, the pastor notes, "We have LGBT and straight folks in our congregation.

"Thus, queer theology in a practical sense is the mission of my church, and that mission is 'radical inclusive love.' I have discovered this from an appropriation of the historical Jesus, who was turned over to the Romans with the charge 'he perverted the nation.' (Luke 23:2). As a queer theologian and pastor, I work hard to pervert Christianity to make it more authentic to its founder."

That perversion includes the hosting of a gay BDSM and a Druid/Wiccan group. Such activities have led Shore-Gross to wonder, "How many churches of queer theologians in affirming denominations can be as open and queer as my MCC church?"

Gerard Loughlin, Professor of Theology at Durham University in Great Britain, coedits the journal Theology & Sexuality. Queer theology is still an emerging (and therefore unstable) field whose greatest risk may be its core mission to disrupt, he believes.

"But like all such strategies," Loughlin cautions," it is in danger of becoming a body of doctrine in its own right, and so the theology of just one more interest group or groups. Queer theology hasn't been around long enough for people to quite know what it does, and that includes the people who are doing it!"

As a result, Loughlin maintains that, "As yet its effects are minimal. Of course it can have a large impact in academic circles, or for LGBT-friendly groups and parishes." For most mainstream Christian traditions, however, he sees it as having limited interest: "For many in those traditions it is, when discovered, an irritant."

For Loughlin, however, this crisis within the faith might ultimately yield the change in hearts and minds that LGBTQ parishioners seek. The challenge of traditional doctrine, Loughlin says, "can be a good thing, for they need to be challenged; and in responding to the challenge, some kind of interaction has been broached, and from there new things may develop."

Cheng believes that apart from discourse within the LGBT community of faith, "Non-LGBT folks can and must wrestle with queer theology. The challenge of the 21st century church is to continue to deconstruct binaries." Those binaries, he notes, are not simply limited to issues surrounding gender and sexuality.

Queer theology is, according to Cheng, a useful tool to challenge and reshape the relationship between lay and ordained; the sacred and profane. To do so, he emphasizes the progressive role of straight allies such as Susannah Cornwall: "She is a good example of what non-LGBT people can do with queer theology!"

Cornwall is associate research fellow in Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, England, and author of " Controversies in Queer Theology, and Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology." Cornwall stresses that some continue to debate the role and contributions of queer theology within mainstream faith.

"It's important to note that the term 'queer theology' is understood differently by different people," she notes. "For this reason, some people wonder about the usefulness of queer theology. Is it just an abstract, intellectual, theoretical phenomenon? If so, is it of any real use to people 'on the ground?' "

Discovering the Queer Christ
Cheng intends to address that potential disconnect in his next book. Scheduled for release in the spring of 2012, "From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ" seeks to link the worlds of queer theory and Orthodox Christian theology for the express purpose of recasting sin and grace as it applies to LGBTs.

"Rather than shy away from traditional doctrines," promises Cheng, "I am committed to addressing them head-on."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.

Comments on Facebook