Outing the Bible 

The new queer theologians don't need your approval.

One thing is clear: 2003 was without a doubt the Year of the Queer. In a mere twelve months, the United States Supreme Court cast aside antisodomy laws in Texas, the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on gay marriage, and Democratic presidential candidates from Dean to Kerry endorsed the idea of civil unions. On the pop culture front, a fashion- forward quintet captivated the country, metrosexualizing hopeless breeders on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Britney Spears briefly reanimated her career when she tongued that queen of reinvention, Madonna. Even our paragon of hetero hottieness J. Lo veered toward the Sapphic in Gigli. Bride magazine offered up its first story on same-sex weddings. Family-friendly Wal-Mart expanded its antidiscrimination policies to protect homosexuals. Even army generals came out of the closet.

But the gay parade didn't stop there. The year's crowning moment came on November 2, when the Episcopal Church ordained Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop. Of course, Robinson's ordination has come at quite a price. Both at home and abroad, there are calls for Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold to step down. The conservative American Anglican Council is hoping to capitalize on the controversy, and is vying to replace the Episcopal Church of the United States as North America's main representative body within the Anglican Communion. Several African provinces have denounced Robinson's ordination, and the Anglican Church in Uganda formally severed its relationship with the US Episcopal Church, writing, "You officially ... installed as candidate for bishop someone the Bible clearly shows to be in an unsuitable lifestyle."

For years the Episcopal, Catholic, and Methodist churches have tolerated a sort of ecclesial "don't ask, don't tell" policy. And to hear conservative members of the Episcopal Church tell it, everything was fine until Griswold, Robinson, and their supporters decided to pull what amounted to an ecumenical fast one. "What we've got is a small group of intellectual elites ... that have decided to do something the rest of the convention won't support," said Donald Armstrong, executive director of the Anglican Communion Institute, a conservative think tank. "Here is a group that's saying we want to normalize our sin, and say it's okay. You can't do that. It's sin. It's one of many sins, and nobody was paying much attention to it until [they] brought it up."

But this religious crisis didn't appear out of thin air. Its intellectual and physical roots have been growing just beneath the surface for years. In seminaries across the country, at both the parish level and within whole dioceses, homosexuals have been preaching, studying, and remaining sexually active as they worship Christ. "What's the difference between a Jesuit rec room and a gay bar?" asked former Jesuit Robert Goss, who said his sexual experiences at bathhouses mirrored his early days at Harvard Divinity School. "Only the location."

It's not what usually comes to mind when you think of Christianity -- but Christianity is changing. And nowhere is this change more apparent than at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. In 1996 one of the union's member seminaries, the multidenominational Pacific School of Religion, established the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. The center's mission is to advance the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in communities of faith. It offers a certificate in sexuality and religion, and has recently launched a book series devoted to the issue. "There were three places where it could have happened," said Mary Tolbert, the center's executive director. "Berkeley was one; Cambridge, Massachusetts, was another; and Chicago was the third." But the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies remains unique in the country, and since its inception it has become a focal point for a renegade band of self-described "queer theologians."

Far from the apologetics many gay theologians engaged in during the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, these new theologians aren't asking for the church's acceptance. They're neither asking to be integrated into its social life, nor to have their "sin" overlooked. Rather, they're engaging the church where it matters most: using the Bible to argue that not only is Scripture neutral toward homosexuality, but that it is actually a sort of queer genealogical tree.

"Christianity in its roots is a very queer religion," said Jay Johnson, programming and development director for the center and a rising star among queer theologians. "We're talking about an itinerant preacher who was unmarried in a society that was built on family relations, who hung out with all the weirdos and the freaks, who said they have a much better chance of getting into the kingdom of God than the religious leaders do, who was tortured and killed by the state, and whose resurrection was reported by a bunch of hysterical women. This is really queer stuff. Right?"

Still, to call this disparate and intellectually combative group of queer Christians an intellectual bloc suggests a unity of purpose that does not exist. Some are questioning the church's bedrock assumptions about marriage and monogamous commitment. Others are trying to reinfuse the church with an erotic understanding of spirituality. Still others are questioning the traditional meanings behind some of our best-known Bible stories. On the outer fringe lies a small group of transgender people arguing that they, too, have a place in the church. And some are taking their cues from the gay rights movement, using their position to effectively out the likes of David, Jonathan, Lazarus -- and maybe even Jesus himself.

"What some of the queer theologians are starting to do has the potential to radically transform what we mean by practicing Christian faith," said Johnson, who is cochair of the American Academy of Religion's gay men's task force. "Straight people are right to worry about what queer people are going to do to the church."

The case for allowing homosexuals to worship has raged for decades. But for queer Christians like Johnson, a tall, amiable man with an open face, blue wire-rimmed glasses, and only the slightest dusting of a goatee, the dispute was settled long ago. "For people who have done some thinking about this and done some reflection on it and have had some intelligent, careful education on biblical matters ... the question about openly gay and lesbian clergy is just a no-brainer," he said. "Of course, our critics haven't gotten past that. ... It's the arguments we've heard ad nauseam for decades and decades and decades -- as if none of those arguments had before been refuted."

He'd just stepped into a rough-hewn stone building off the Pacific School of Religion's rectangular quad. Pine trees can be seen through the seminary's paned windows, and the building's somber wood doors, crucifixes, and stone-tiled hallways confer a certain gravitas on the pronouncements of anyone so august as to have an office there.

Still, the Bible is pretty straightforward about homosexuality, isn't it? Take Leviticus: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." That always seemed pretty clear.


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