Tag Archives: queer scripture

Queering the Song of Songs

Gay men and women could be excused for feeling more than a little ambivalent about the Song of Songs as recommended reading.  On the one hand, it is very emphatically and clearly a frankly erotic love song between two unmarried lovers. It is a celebration of physical love, and an important counter to the common religious view that sexual expression must be confined to procreation. The Song is the strongest possible proof that Scripture does not support that view (there are others, too.)

On the other, it is equally clearly an expression of heterosexual love -at least as known and commonly published today.( There is an out of print book which argues that the earliest texts described two men, and that one set of pronouns was altered by later editors. For an account of this, see the Wild Reed on “The Bible’s Gay Love Poem“. However, I have not seen authoritative support for this view elsewhere, and for today I shall stick with the better known version. )

So how is a lesbian or gay male reader to respond to this text? 

One simple remedy is simply to use it as a starting point, and ignore the details of gender, as I have done myself in the past – but this is not entirely satisfactory.

Christopher King, writing in “Take Back the Word”, has another approach, which strikes me as instructive and useful. (“A Love as Fierce as Death: Reclaiming the Song of Songs for Queer Lovers”). The starting point for his reading, which sets it apart from others and makes it come alive for me, is that he recognises in the Song much more than just  the expression of love, but its fuller story.

He reminds us that the text stresses that the woman, whom he calls the Shulamite, is both Black and an outsider. As such, this is not just about love, but about forbidden love – love survives and conquers resistance.

“I am black and  beautiful,
O daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5)

The Shulamite recognizes that because of her relationship to the Beloved, she has become the subject of a discourse that intensifies her experience of marginality. Having become merely an outsider, she has become a taboo person.

King also describes how the “official” church interpretation of the Song has changed dramatically over the centuries: in the Classical period, for instance, her blackness was taken to represent sin.  That view has changed.

Not only is the Shulamite an “outsider”, she has suffered for it. She is hounded by the law, as represented by “the sentinels”, an beaten up for it.

“Making their rounds in the city,
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle
those sentinels of the walls
(5:7)

The very men who ought to protect the Shulamite have savagely attacked her. Not only have they thrashed , bruised and perhaps raped her, they have also stolen her outer garment, exposing her body to the physical elements, and more seriously, unveiling her shame to the elemental forces of public scorn.

It really doesn’t take a great deal of imagination here to make the obvious parallel with the violence and persecution that sexual outsiders  have suffered, just like the Shulamite foreigner, and often similarly at the hands of those who should be protecting the weak – the church and the police.

But – she’s a survivor, and love conquers.

A further important point, worth carefully stressing, is not just the joy of their love, but also it’s absolute equality and reciprocity.

My beloved is mine and I am his
he pastures his flock among he lilies (2:16)

I am my beloved’s and he is mine
he pastures his flock among he lilies. (6.3) 

This mutuality and equality within a relationship is commonplace in queer relationships, but less so (probably rare, to this degree), in conventional marriage.

And so, although the relationship that is celebrated in the Song of Songs is not a same-sex one, it is indeed a queer one. The biological sexes are different, but at this level of equality, gender and gender roles fade into insignificance. “Queer” is more than a descriptor of same-sex attraction, but also includes all manner of sexual outsiders. An outsider the Shulamite most certainly is, and like us, has suffered for it.

But still, she can celebrate her love for her beloved, as he celebrates his for her.   Most important of all for me, is that this has been quite literally celebrated in the most public way possible – written down in a book of Scripture, read by those who followed over the following thousands of years.

No secret closet for their love, then.

Source:

King, Christopher:  “A Love as Fierce as Death”, in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, edited Robert Goss.

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Homosexuality and the Bible: Bishop Gene Robinson

Queer Catholics often have a tortured relationship with the Bible.  As Catholics, scripture has usually been less prominent in our faith formation than for other denominations. As lesbians, gay men or other sexual minorities, we are always conscious of the abuse of Scripture used as a weapon against us. Fortunately, there are others, including some who should be important role models, who see things rather differently.

A year ago at this time, I was developing my ideas for what became my blog, “Queering the Church”,  prepared during Advent, and launched during the Christmas season. In this current season Advent season, I am naturally reflecting on what I have and have not achieved. One of the more important failures has been around Scripture. Right from the start, I planned to share with my readers some of the Good News of Scripture – good news that applies specifically to us as gay men and lesbians, but also the more important Bible messages of hope and joy that are relevant to us all.  It is far too easy to hit the roadblock of the clobber passages, and either turn back, or to spend endless time and energy trying to climb over them.  It is important to remove the blockage, but sometimes it is also important to simply walk around, and to enjoy the rest of the biblical landscape.  I have been seeing a lot of useful insights recently, form John McNeill and others, which shed useful insight into the situation of queer Catholics, but which also have a lot to say to the wider church about the nature of authority and the workings of the Holy Spirit.  I have a further commentary on John McNeil which should be ready for posting later today, but in the meantime, as a useful corrective to the common queer Catholic wariness of Scripture, I thought it could be useful to share with you some thoughts of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, renowned as the first openly gay man to be ordained as bishop in the Anglican Communion.

(These are extracts from his book “In the Eye of the Storm”)

I LOVE THE BIBLE”

I love the Bible. With no reservations, no holding back.

I grew up in a Bible-believing congregation of the Disciples of Christ Church. Every Sunday morning, from ten to eleven, every member of the church, young and old, went to Sunday School, and the study was always about Scripture. From eleven to twelve, we worshipped God, always from the perspective of scripture.

But the experience I had as a child that sealed my love for the bible was this: I heard God’s voice coming through those scriptures.  I’d already begun to wonder about my “difference” and the thought scared me to death. My church was using the words of scripture to say that people who were attracted to others of the same sex were despicable, an “abomination” in the eyes of God.  And yet – and here’s the miracle – I heard God saying to me the words God said to Jesus at his baptism:  “You are my son, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased. [“Luke 3:22”]

I have professed at each of my three ordinations, “I solemnly declare that I do believe the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of god, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”    But what do I mean when I say it?

First, let’s remember that the real, actual “Word” of God is Jesus, the Christ. As the Gospel of John so beautifully says, “in the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God.  And the Word was God.”  That “Word” proceeding from the mouth of God, and existing concurrently with God since before time is Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is the only perfect revelation of God.

All too often we forget that the holy scriptures, while the Word of God, are not the words of God, dictated from on high. The words of scripture are a snapshot spanning fifteen hundred years of humankind’s encounter with the living God. The Hebrew scriptures describe the movement of God in calling God’s people to do things in God’s behalf. The Gospels give three accounts of the life of Jesus, plus one theological reflection on those events and that holy life. The rest of the New Testament contain the story of how the community came o believe that Jesus was still alive, still guiding them.

The Bible is a collection of many accounts of what it is like to encounter the living God.  They are dramatic stories about what happens when God cares enough about creation to be actively engaged in it.  They area faithful accounts of the indescribable, they are words used to recount that for which there are no words:  the mystery of God.

Are those words holy?  Absolutely.  Are they inspired?  I believe they are. But are they inerrant? I don’t believe so. The people who authored those accounts were not inerrant. They were faithful people describing – and testifying to – the meaning of God’s actions on our lives.

That is “all” the Bible is. It’s a compelling, useful and primary source of our knowledge of how God works in the lives of human beings. For countless generations it ahs been the foundation of our faith and a witness to God’s love for us.  But what of “tradition” and “reason”?

“Tradition” is the history of how the church has come to understand, interpret and use those testimonies in the life of the church and the lives of the faithful.  Is the “tradition” inerrant?  Of course not. We don’t have to look far for evidence: the Crusades and the Inquisition are obvious examples of how misguided Christians can be when it comes to putting biblical values into action. Later, we can also not see how far we have strayed from the Revelation of God in Christ? Could the Church’s accumulation of wealth, which continues to this day, have been what Jesus longed for when he cautioned against the corrosive power of possessions?  Could the disregard and ill-treatment of the poor be the sort of thing Jesus had in mind?

Still, the “tradition” is important for several reasons. The tradition is a check on our all too easy self-confidence. We need to learn what our forebears have thought. The history of the church, though I has its share of regrettable actions, is also replete with holy and courageous people of staggering faith, people who risked life and limb to be the loving arms of God in the world. Countless people of faith have written theology, poetry, prayers and reflections that dwarf our own meagre efforts at spirituality and are worthy of our study and thoughtful consideration. There is much to be commended as worthy of our careful and prayerful attention.

Today, in the midst of a struggle between those who suggest that we change the “tradition” of a particular understanding of scripture and those who resist such a revision, it’s instructive to note how many times within our two-thousand-year tradition – always with confusion and pain – the church has changed its understandings.  Just a couple of examples:

Marriage, for most of the first millennium, was seen as a legal arrangement, blessed by the church, to provide for the proper , peaceful and orderly transfer of property:  of the woman from one man to another, the husband; and the transfer of land and property to those who deserved them by virtue of marriage and legitimacy. Since such concerns were relevant only to those who owned any property to be transferred, marriage was regarded as unnecessary for ordinary people. That changed in the Middle Ages and a fuller understanding of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony developed; today marriage is understood as a sacrament open to and recommended to all.  And the notion of marriage –for- love is a concept that developed only in modern times.

Slavery, commonplace in the scripture, continued to exist into the nineteenth century, when the abolitionists began to argue against it.  Both sides in that debate quoted scripture to bolster their arguments.  In the end, slavery was abolished and the church changed its position which it had held for nearly nineteen hundred years.

For nearly two thousand years, the church accepted St Paul’s notion that it was inappropriate for women assume leadership positions in the life of the church Then, following several other Protestant churches, the Episcopal Church changed to permit the ordination of women in 1976.

For countless centuries, anyone divorced and then remarried was unwelcome at Communion; subsequent marriages could not be presided over or blessed by Episcopal clergy. But the church began to realise that we were denying Communion to members when they were most in need of it. Over time, we began to ask, “Might our understanding of what God wants be too severe, too unpastoral, too unresponsive to God’s less-than-perfect children?”.  Over time, accompanied by controversy, the Episcopal Church changed its mind.  Now, the solace and sustenance of the Holy Communion is offered to those who have been divorced, and with appropriate counselling, subsequent marriages may be solemnized or blessed in the church. A very strong tradition was changed.

There’s a much neglected and seldom quoted passage of scripture in St John’s Gospel that reports Jesus’ words to his disciples on the night before he died:  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot listen to them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you to the truth”. (John 16:12-13a).  Jesus is saying, “You are not ready to hear everything I have to teach you – things you cannot culturally comprehend right now.  So I will send the Holy Spirit to guide you and teach, over time, those things which you need to understand.”

The changes we’ve seen in the understanding of Scripture in the nineteen centuries since it was written have happened through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  God hasn’t changed God’s mind, but our ability to apprehend and comprehend the mind of God is limited and sometimes faulty.  The things that seemed simply “the way if the world” – like slavery, polygamy and he lower status of women – in retrospect were examples of humankind’s flawed understanding of God’s will.  Our ability to better discern God’s will has improved with time, prayer and reflection.

God didn’t stop revealing Godself with the closing of the canon of scripture.  God is still actively engaged in ongoing revelation over time, even in our own day.  God didn’t just “inspire” the Scriptures and then walk away, wishing us well in our attempts to understand those words. God’s Holy Spirit continues to lead us into all the truth, as Jesus promised on the night before he was betrayed.

This gives us a whole new way to understand our beloved Anglican Communion’s three-legged stool of authority. Scripture is the inspired accounts of encounters with the divine, written by people who knew the Jahweh of the Hebrew scriptures and the Christ of the Christian scriptures, and set down, in the best words they could conjure, what they learned about God in these encounters. Tradition is the two-thousand –year history of the church as Christians have grappled with those scriptural accounts, seeking to understand them and apply them in their own lives  – and changing former understandings through their own encounters with the Living God through the Holy Spirit.

Finally, reason is the authority that presents itself in our own lives. We not only experience life in our own day and time, but we experience God in the midst of our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who continues to lead us into truth.  Sometimes that leading prompts us to change understandings we may have held for centuries.  The good news in all this is that we worship a God who isn’t locked up in scripture, but a God who is alive and well and active in our midst, continuing to lead us forward in our understanding of God’s unchanging truth.

To learn about God, we always begin with scripture, which, after the full and perfect revelation of the Word, Jesus the Christ, is our primary source.  Then we look at how the church has understood those words of scripture over time.  And then we use our experience and reason to ask what all this might mean for us today. Because we are always prone to shaping everything, including God’s will to our own ends, we must be careful as we apply “reason” in this triad of authorities.  No one person can decide that our former understandings are faulty; changes that veer from long-held understandings must always be made in community. Many minds and hearts, working prayerfully together, must be employed in this discernment of God’s will. But this is a task we must not neglect, for to do so is to reject the leading of the Holy Spirit that has been promised to us.

The Queer Bible: Beyond Family Values

Under the heading,  “A Way Back Behind Christian Homophobia”, Adam Kotsko writes at the blog “An und fur sich” about a trilogy of books by Ted Jennings: Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives in the New Testament, and the third in the set, Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia:

“The strategy here is clear, aggressive, and absolutely necessary: he absolutely abandons the defensive stance -of “explaining away” the supposedly “obvious” homophobic elements in the Bible that “everyone knows” about and instead presents us with a scriptural account that is deeply homophilic, even to the point of presenting us with a possible male lover for Christ himself.”

Setting aside the weapons of hate

Even discounting the possibility that Jesus had a male lover (there are at least two candidates:  John, the “apostle Jesus loved”, and Lazarus), this is an approach I love.  Given the way in which queers have for centuries experienced Scripture as a weapon of hate, it is understandable that after one has overcome a natural antipathy to dealing with Scripture at all, the first enquiry from lesbigay people is to  find ways to respond to the infamous clobber texts, to learn to set aside the weapons of hate.  This is technically relatively easy – the actual texts are few, out of 30 000 verse in a Bible written against a cultural background where homoeroticism was commonplace, and many scholars have shown how they have either been misinterpreted, or are of limited relevance to modern gay relationships.

More difficult is dealing with the residual emotional baggage: this is where books pointing to positive interpretations of Scripture are so valuable. Again, this should be easy – the fundamental message of the Gospels has nothing to do with hatred against anybody, but stresses love and inclusion for everybody – most especially social outsiders and the otherwise afflicted and oppressed.  Still, for people with a homophile orientation, we can go well beyond the simple message of generic inclusion. Writers on Scripture have pointed to specifically queer values in Scripture, while historians have shown that the roots of popular hostility did not lie in Scripture at all:  the Church followed popular prejudice, not the other way around.

I do not yet have personal knowledge of Jennings’ books (but will explore further). There are other writers though who have covered much the same ground, with whose work I am more familiar.

Setting aside family values

Chris Glaser, in his excellent book, “Coming Out as Sacrament”, has a chapter on “Coming out in the Bible”, in which he reads several well known Scripture stories, from Adam & Eve in Genesis to Pentecost in Acts,  as coming out tales.  Among these, he presents the story of Jesus Himself as “Coming out of Family Values”.  The evidence he produces in support of this argument is that:

  • “his mother Mary was told that Jesus’ own coming out would mean “that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword shall pass through your own soul too (Luke 2:35)”;
  • At twelve years of age,  Jesus ignored his family’s departure from Jerusalem to sit  in the temple, his “Father’s house” (Luke 2:49);
  • He left His family and as far as we know, never married and never “begat” children;
  • He called his disciples away from their families (9:59:62), told them he had no home (9:57) ,, and claimed that His gospelk would “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” (Mathew 10:35-36);
  • When His family came to see  Him, He declared, “Whoever does the will of god is my brother and sister and mother”(Mark 3:35);
  • Members of the new faith community addressed each other as brother and sister;
  • Jesus’ own family of choice were three unmarried people – Martha, Mary and Lazarus;
  • In the New Testament, the biological, polygamous, prolifically procreative family of the Old Testament was superseded by the more vital, eternal and extended family of faith, a family to be expanded by evangelism and inclusivity rather than mere procreation;
  • Jesus had a special word of defence for the eunuch, who was an outcast in Israel because his body was mutilated, but more importantly because he could not procreate. “

I don’t know about you, but to me, but none of this, neither Old Testament nor New, sounds particularly like the “traditional family values” that the fundies claim to be protecting because they believe them to be at the heart of Christianity.

Urban gay men as role models

Going beyond queer values in the Gospels to queer lives today, the American theologian Kathy Rudy argues that this Scriptural denial of modern “family values” implies that modern urban gay culture is more in tune with the Gospel message than the biological family which Christ’s teaching rejected

“The church needs the model of gay sexual sexual communities because Christians have forgaotten how to think about social and sexual life outside the family”.

Writing about Rudy’s work, Elisabeth Stuart notes that

“The church has forgotten how to be a community, how to be the body of Christ and perhaps gay men have the grave task of teaching it to be a community wider than a family.”

Wow!

How far have we come?  Instead of simply sitting back and accepting the knee jerk, unfounded  accusations of “Sodomy”, we find that there are serious, credible Scripture scholars and theologians who have first, shown that the traditional use of the clobber texts to atack us is at best inappropriate, or possibly totally unfounded; that there are positive role models in Scripture, in both the Old Testmament and the New;  that far from encouraging traditional family values, the Gospel message opposes themwith what are quite frankly queer values, and that far from the fundies being in a position to lecture us on how to behave, we should be teaching them a thing or two about the Gospels and how to move beyond an unChristian “Focus on the Family” to a wider “Focus on Community”!

Beyond gender.

Rudy continues, says Stuart, to “construct a sexual ethic which is communal in nature and queer in its politics.”  Because in recent centuries there has been so much emphasis on first reproduction and then on complementarity as the sole purposes of sex, the result is that “celibacy, singleness and communal life, which have been valued for so long in Christian history, no longer have a place in Christian life.”

In a neat inversion of the story of Sodom, “for Rudy the story of Sodom teaches us that what is ultimately pleasing to God about sexuality is the quality of its hospitality.  This is not to say that every stranger must be offered sex, but that sex must cultivate an openness  and warmth to strangers, it must open our hearts, break down our boundaries, and push us beyond ourselves.  Hospitality is procreative, it expands and widens the community.  When we open our homes to outsiders, the private space of the home becomes the public space of the Church, and so not only is gender collapsed but so is the dualism between private and public. The cult of domesticity is destroyed and replaced by an ethic which subverts worldy concepts of gender and understands sex in the context of building up the body of Christ.”

How far from James Dobson is that?

See also:
Queering the Church:
Books:
Althaus-Reid, Marcella: Indecent Theology
Horner, James: Johnathan Loved David
 
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey:  Omnigender
Rudy, Kathy: Sex and the Church
Stuart, Elisabeth: Gay & Lesbian Theologies

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Good News for Queer Catholics

The first time (as a young student) that I came across the title “Good News for Modern Man”, I did not realise it was an unconventional name for a new Bible translation. Later I made the connection, but could not see the relevance. “For Modern Man” I could understand, but in what sense “Good News”? After drifting away from the Church as a young adult, and later facing my sexuality, the description of the Bible as “good” news seemed even less appropriate. After all, ‘everybody’ knew how it was riddled with condemnations of any touch of sexual impropriety, most especially of the shameful sin of ‘sodomy’. There were a sprinkling of liberal churchmen, I knew, who took a more enlightened and tolerant view, but the Catholic Church in which I had grown up was implacable and instransigent. Like birth control, homosexuals were just not acceptable. So, like so many sexual minorities, I stayed outside the Church where I knew I was not welcome.

CB024386

Today, after some years’ journey of rediscovery of my faith, I find that the Bible is indeed “Good News”, including and especially for sexual outsiders; The Catholic Church really is the universal, welcoming community implied by that little word ‘catholic’ and LGBT people have an important part to play in it.

As I write, I can picture the jaws of my readers dropping in disbelief. In my experience, there are few people who believe that openly gay people can be accommodated in the Christian family: those of firm religious views reject out of hand the sinful ‘gay lifestyle’ (whatever that is), while people who have worked through the difficulties of coming out, have no desire to collaborate in ‘our oppression’ by religion. But around the world, more and more gay, lesbian and transgendered people are indeed finding that truth, as always, is more subtle and nuanced than the superficial perception, that they can after all find a welcome in a Catholic church, and that they do not have to renounce or compromise their sexual psyche to find it.

Naturally, we have some disagreements, even tensions, with the Vatican and some of our churchmen. The church and church people have inflicted great evils on our community in the past, and some smaller iniquities continue to this day. Likewise, Scripture contains some uncomfortable ‘clobber texts’ we have to come to terms with. But I submit that these texts are not as intimidating as we might fear, and in any case represent just a tiny fraction of the total Bible message. The Church, too, is greater than the clergy, the clergy greater than the Papacy and its attendant Vatican bureaucrats, and the Papacy far greater than its peculiar and disordered pronouncements on ‘homosexuals’.

If you remain sceptical, as I suspect many of you will be, I ask that you suspend your scepticism a little longer, as I share with you some of the experiences and insights that have led me to my transformed view of faith. I hope also to bring to your attention relevant topical news, information and comment.

But I do not wish to do this alone. The catholic church, after all, is above all about community. I have invited several of my associates too, to share their views, news and beliefs. Who knows? You may even find yourself stung into posting a comment or longer contribution.

I hope you do.

Terence.

 

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