How Queer Theology Restored My Love of Scripture
My favorite Bible growing up was my rainbow study Bible. It had a hard cherry cover and the pages inside were color-coded with content designations, thus creating the “rainbow.” Sin was gray, God was purple, love was green, etc., etc.
This Bible was read and scribbled in so often that the cover quickly wore down at the edges, and the pages I read most (Psalms, the gospels, Romans) started to fall out. I truly loved that Bible, and can still remember the excitement I’d feel every time I’d open it.
My feelings over scripture changed substantially around 2007, when I picked up Shane Clairborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution. It was the first book I’d ever read that opened me up to the fact that, while the Bible itself may be inerrant, man’s interpretation of it isn’t.
Before this, I’d believed that to be Christian meant to not question anything related to the Bible in any way – even if that question was, “is my current reading of the Word truly honoring God?”
The seven years since I read Clairborne’s book have been a blur of questions. Some of them I haven’t found answers to, until now. The main question being, “how can I get that love for my Bible back?”
What made my love of scripture wane wasn’t the words within the covers. It was the way I saw these words being used by those around me. The Bible stopped being the book that encouraged love and grace for all, and instead became something I saw used to draw lines of division. In my youth, I read the Bible in order to know Jesus more and grow closer to Him. I assumed that’s what everyone did. But in my adulthood I saw the Bible used less as a personal study tool, and more as a weapon lobbed against the people I cared deeply about. I struggled to reconcile these two experiences of scripture.
There was another reason my love of scripture faded, the older I got. At first I thought it was because, by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had read the Bible cover-to-cover multiple times. Nothing was truly “new.” Every verse preached on Sunday was one I was familiar with. But this wasn’t it.
Looking back on my faith, I see that what always spoke to me in Christianity is who Christ chose to surround himself with, and who He constantly extols as virtuous. Christ came for the losers. As a chubby nerdy kid who never truly fit in, I latched onto this message of the Gospel. The Bible was for me. When I thrived in my faith was when I saw the Bible being used to reach out to the misfits, the downtrodden, and the lowly and despised. Jesus didn’t care about being accepted by society, He cared about loving others, and encouraging His followers to do the same.
It was this turning on the head of “wisdom” in order to love, that drew me to the Christian faith. For me, the message of the Gospel will forever be tied with the message that everyone – all in God’s creation – are welcome.
I also saw something else. Christianity – a minority religion held by a few radicals in it’s conception – had morphed into the dominant cultural force of America. Christianity had become so ubiquitous in the country that not only did 3/4 of American citizens identify as Christian, but nearly all of the government as well. The culture was inextricably tied to Christianity. Maybe not “true” Christianity, some would argue, but Jesus name was invoked by more regular Americans and politicians than ever before. Talking about the Bible was no longer something that ostracized you – it was something that could help you gain approval.
Theology then, became not something for “the misfits” but something for popular culture. Even if the culture valued things that Christians would argue against – sex, wealth, greed – the people consuming and influencing the culture were the ones sitting in pews every Sunday. I mean, when the cast of a highly-rated reality show releases a “branded” Bible, it’s hard to argue that Christianity hasn’t been “mainstreamed.”
Loving scripture then became an even harder struggle, because I always felt that Christianity was never supposed to be mainstream, let alone commercial. It was supposed to be something risky, challenging, and hard. I felt myself slipping away from the church, and the Bible. I had a hard time reading scripture because of the constant misuse. It was hard for me to read a book I used to love, like Romans, without being reminded of the dozens of times people had thrown its verses at me (as if I didn’t know them) as proof I was wrong to support equality. While I never felt myself drawing away from God, and spent time with Him frequently, it was Her word with which I struggled to make peace.
Recently though I stumbled upon something that reminded me why I fell in love with scripture in the first place – queer theology.
What this means to each person can differ – but for me, queer theology is a way of reading the Bible that makes it accessible for all. Fr. Shannon Kearns puts it this way in his post on whether straight people can participate in queer theology,
“…this idea of reading queerly is about giving people permission to bring whoever they are to the text and to figure out who they are in relation to the story. I think of the way that Jesus told his audience parables and one of the ways he used them was to get the audience to figure out who they were in the story. So in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus for example: are you the Rich Man? Lazarus? The scribes and teachers listening? Who you are shifts how you hear the story. Often that is uncomfortable because we want to be the hero of the story but sometimes the reality is that we’re the goat!
But there is also a second way of reading queerly and that takes into account this understanding of queerness by Patrick Cheng from his book “Radical Love”. He says, “The second meaning of “queer” is a self-conscious embrace of all that is transgressive of societal norms, particularly in the context of sexuality and gender identity. In fact, this term is best understood as a verb or an action. That is, to “queer” something is to engage with a methodology that challenges and disrupts the status quo. Like the function of the court jester or the subversive traditions of Mardi Gras, to “queer” something is to turn convention and authority on its head. It is about seeing things in a different light and reclaiming voices and sources that previously had been ignored, silenced, or discarded.” (From “Radical Love” Seabury Books 2011)”
Reclaiming voices that previously had been ignored is what the Gospel means to me. It’s what first drew me to Christianity, and it’s what’s bringing me back again now.
There is something that speaks to my heart so deeply in this way of looking at the Bible. It’s not about manipulating verses to see what you want, or twisting scripture. Rather, it’s allowing yourself to be who the Bible was written for. It’s saying that, maybe we don’t have to let the thousands of years of interpretation by white men of authority be the only “correct” interpretation we value.
It hit me soon after discovering queer theology that, once again, scripture could be new to me. It was while reading the beautiful analogy of sand and sea from this piece by Sarah Moon, on why scripture doesn’t support a binary way of thinking, that I felt that stirring again which spoke to me. I felt God’s presence re-affirming that, the Gospel is for you. What’s wonderful about queer theology is that it also re-affirms that the Gospel is undoubtedly for my Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer friends as well.
A criticism that has been lobbed against me is that, by aligning myself so closely with the LGBTQ community, I’ve not been able to see the church fully. I’ve become blindsided by my love for these friends, and it’s unfairly biased me. Queer theology has helped me see that this is simply untrue – my faith has always been biased towards looking at things from the outside. What drew me to scripture initially – it’s subversiveness – is the same thing that draws me to a queer reading of it now. I want to read scripture through the eyes of those on the outside Jesus treated with worth, not through the eyes of the religious readers He chastised.
When I think about how I first fell in love with scripture, I think of that rainbow study Bible of my youth. How beautiful it was every time I opened its pages and saw the spectrum of color. The greens and browns and reds all helped me see that the Bible was not homogeneous, but diverse. The beauty was in the variation of what was being said, to whom, and how. That was always there in scripture, of course, but the rainbow brought it out and made it clear. Adding color didn’t take anything away or change the meaning of scripture, it simply gave me a new way of looking at it. The diversity is what made me fall in love.
The diversity is what’s keeping me in love with scripture now. For that, I have queer theology to thank.