Outing the Bible 

The new queer theologians don't need your approval.

Page 2 of 8

"You know, this 'unchanging' bullshit." Johnson said, rubbing his eyes as if going over simple math with some lumpen pupil. "You'll be in church study with a bunch of clergy talking about what the Bible supposedly says about homoeroticism, and they're standing there in clergy shirts that are cotton-polyester blends. And Leviticus is very clear about blended fabric: It is forbidden. Yet there they stand. Clergy! People of God! Religious leaders breaking the Levitical law by wearing blended-fabric shirts, brazenly! I cannot believe in the 21st century that intelligent people still have these arguments."

His point was well-taken. Leviticus, which contains two of the passages often used by Scripture-quoting Christians to clobber homosexuals, was originally written as a holiness code for priests. While some ultraorthodox Jews still try to live by the Levitical code, most Christians have seen their way past the book's cryptic prohibitions against planting different seeds in the same field, touching menstruating women, or wearing blended-fabric clothing. So why is it, theologians such as Johnson ask, that the church arbitrarily chooses to follow the code when it comes to sex?

It was a question worth putting to Donald Armstrong of the Anglican Communion Institute. "It's not really a matter of academic debate; it's a matter of revealed truth," said Armstrong, who also is rector at Grace & St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "The church represents the tradition. ... If all of a sudden you come up with an interpretation that's contrary to two thousand previous years' worth of interpretation, then you've got to question whether you're right or not."

No doubt Armstrong has Johnson on one point: The institutional church does and always has looked askance at homosexuality. But it's Armstrong's theory about how that "revealed truth" has been interpreted by the church that is at issue. For years now, gay Christians have been attending Bible self-defense classes where they learn to parry the handful of passages that speak explicitly about homosexuality. The Sodom and Gomorrah story? It's not about anal sex; it's about gross inhospitality, xenophobia, and humiliation. Leviticus? Arbitrary and antiquated. And anyhow, what we moderns think of as homosexuality is not at all what the authors of the Good Book had in mind.

Any queer thinker worth his salt will tell you that the term "homosexual" is a 19th-century European invention. Prior to that, people who had gay sex were not identified as a distinct class. In the ancient world, queer theologians argue, sexuality was not only much more fluid than it is today, but sex itself was highly political: It involved power, class, and social rank. It was not necessarily tied to love; rather, it was a way of codifying the social order.

Even so, the bulk of biblical references to same-gender sex occur in the Old Testament. Homosexuality is mentioned explicitly only a few times in the New Testament. And even then, it is Paul, not Jesus, who weighs in on the matter. While inveighing against the Gentile idolaters in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: "God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another." Later, in his letters to both Timothy and the Corinthians, Paul mentions the people of Sodom while rattling off a list of miscreants who won't be attending the afterlife.

Paul's meaning may be fairly clear to conservative members of the church, but queer theologians argue that he had something else in mind. "One of the problems that those people run into and that they try to ignore is the very first part of the verse, where it says: And they 'exchanged natural relations for unnatural,'" said Tolbert of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, describing an argument commonly put forth by queer Christians. "The 'exchanged' indicates that they had some other options. ... The only people Paul was talking about were heterosexuals who became involved in homosexual relationships."

Sound like a stretch? It certainly does to mainstream theologians and pastors such as Armstrong. "Most of these people have been widely discredited," he said, referring to Tolbert and her peers. "There's really nobody credible."

But ultimately, mounting defenses against conservatives is not a burning priority for many queer theologians. Rather, they are interested in creating a new theology that will speak directly to queer congregants -- and anyone else who cares to listen. In their view, the Bible is not a rulebook. It is laden with contradictions, atavistic practices, and obscure rituals rendered meaningless in the modern era.

"It's very disingenuous to say that the Bible is clear on these issues," said Tolbert, who was raised Baptist but now attends the gay-friendly United Church of Christ. "I'd like to think that two thousand years of Christianity might have led us to a slightly better moral sense about the world than the authors of the Bible had. I think that's the case. Just like I think slavery is absolutely barbarous and Paul didn't think so. I think I'm right, and he's wrong."

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley is a quaint little building. Its many windows are ornamented with simple stained glass. A damp, woody smell permeates the place, and a tiny pipe organ in need of some $60,000 in repairs occupies the rear. At the head of the careworn pews sit two Lilliputian tables outfitted with crayons and crepe paper. Throughout the service, children scamper about, grapple their way into their parents' laps, and ask questions of the clergy. Outside, the church is all pastel greens, browns, and yellows. It has a peaked bell tower, and a small flower garden that blooms with rosemary and lilies. As an ordained Episcopal priest, Jay Johnson is a member of Good Shepherd's clergy. It is a progressive, ever-so-Berkeley congregation.

On a recent Sunday, the church celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord -- January 11, the first Sunday after Epiphany -- when the congregation puts up new members for baptism and renews its own baptismal vows. There's something distinctly campy, even sensual, about Episcopal ritual: the robes, the incense, the scepters, the music. As the service progressed, Johnson moved toward the church's rear. It was late morning, and a white and yellow light refracted through the window and onto the marble baptismal basin. Dressed in a white frock trimmed with thin rectangles of purple, teal, green, and blue, Johnson raised a plastic beer pitcher full of holy water above his head. He let the water splash down in a streaming arc into the basin. He then took a sprig of rosemary and walked down the aisle, anointing members of the parish as they renewed their baptismal vows.


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