Photo via Flickr User daameriva
Christianity is usually considered by non-Christians to be a static, unchanging collection of just-so stories and grasps for power by institutions. It’s no secret that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* people bear the brunt of the dark side of Christianity in the US and elsewhere. When queer people give Jesus a shout-out, it’s usually a joke (like, “Why do gays love Jesus? Because he’s hung like this!”). Now, LGBT- and queer-identified people are getting another shot at the Passion Play via queer theology.
Along with lip service from respected cultural critics like Slavoj Zizek and Terry Eagleton, and the increasing influence of the Emerging Church (a radically open and non-conservative worldwide theological movement), queer theology presents a new “reading” of classic scripture. It’s a movement that recognizes and explores the gendered and sexualized underpinnings of Christianity, as well as the opportunities for examining culture via queer religious thought.
Formerly confined to dry academic theorizing and adorned with the bad writing typical to big ideas, queer theology is now a practicable and devotional approach. This new approach was founded by Father “Shay” Shannon T.L. Kearns and Brian Murphy, and their many projects include a queer theology camp, mass at The House of Transfiguration, and a queer scriptural reading group.
Queer theology isn’t about pondering whether or not LGBT people can fit in with Christian communities. Instead, it’s about actively creating a new theology, one in which the Bible is interpreted through the lens of queer, trans*, and gay/lesbian experience. So when it comes to questions like, “Does Jesus love gay people?” Kearns told me, “Quite frankly, I’m over it. When people force us to continue having the same conversation, we can’t embrace our full identity.”
Father Shay was born in a female body and raised as a girl in an evangelical household, eventually coming to understand that his life would be enriched by assuming a male gender. “If I were born a cisgendered man (i.e. born in a male body identifying as male) I would’ve been an asshole,” he says, citing the evangelical church’s tendency to groom young white men for conservative-style missionary work.
Brian Murphy’s experiences as a queer-identified man sound a similar note. His story is a familiar one for queer people––first brushing up against his religious upbringing and, later, with on-campus Christian groups he tried to be a part of. Both Kearns and Murphy noticed they were different than other Christians, and worked to understand where their queer world and religious impulses met. Rather than walking away from religion, as many LGBT people do, they decided to recreate it.
But that raises the question: Why not just walk away and give up the Holy Ghost all together? Why God and the Bible at all, after the friction it’s caused for so many queer people?
“Christianity is the tradition I come from, and since it’s a place of oppression for LGBT people, I find it a place that it’s important to do work,” Murphy told me. “Christianity has a long history of being used for ill, but also being a source of inspiration and liberation. There’s a prophetic call for justice, setting slaves free, canceling debts... Jesus was anti-empire.” This is the same revolutionary aspect of Christianity that postmodern philosophers write about salvaging.
Unlike many atheists who get a hint of doubt and quit religion altogether, questioning and uncertainty led to Father Shay founding his parish. “Doubt has gotten me out of one place into the next,” he said. Whether it was with his body, renewing his faith, or his first realization that, contrary to the protest signs, God doesn’t actually hate fags. For him, doubt is a crucial component of the religious experience, not a simplistic, Dawkins-esque deal breaker.
It’s no surprise that the story of Doubting Thomas is one of Kearns’s favorite Biblical narratives and serves as a great example of a “queer reading.” Thomas, who touched Christ’s scars, echoes the surgery scars that many trans* people bear. “Thomas touched the scars, and Jesus’s response was so gentle and understanding. It’s a lesson to me to be patient and gentle with people who can’t understand the trans* experience.”
It’s the sort of understanding that the two explain in their queer reading group and at their queer theology retreat, Camp Osiris. All summer camps are kind of homoerotic, but the purpose of Camp Osiris is to work with activism- and sex positive-minded queer people through workshops and discussion about participants’ personal histories with religion. Being queer and religious can feel isolating, so the camp provides community, too. “Sometimes,” Father Shay said, “it feels like trying to fuse evangelical and liberal has put me at odds with everyone.”
This is exactly what makes queer theology so important. Bringing together seemingly incommensurable forces makes profound and powerful change possible. Usually this kind of cultural bridging is done with humor, so it’s not a surprise that many themes of queer theology are also found in jabs at the Bible. We laugh at the fact that the New Testament is about a guy that hung out with twelve dudes and a prostitute, or that the Old Testament opens with a naked woman eating fruit. With queer theology’s mindfulness of sex, the body, and openness, all that becomes not just humorous, but can take on new meaning.
“When I realized my faith didn’t have to be a reaction,” Murphy told me. “I realized that the question for queer Christians isn’t how they can fit in to Christianity, it’s what they have to offer Christianity, and the world?”