Outing the Bible 

The new queer theologians don't need your approval.

Page 4 of 8

From the early Gnostic cults to the mystics, erotic relations to the divine have existed on the margins of Christian experience for centuries. And today's queer theologians look to these early Christians as their spiritual ancestors. They consider themselves firmly in the tradition of an embodied faith, in which Christian love, erotic or otherwise, is manifest through the body.

But while queer Christians may have an uphill battle convincing us the New Testament is an erotically rich document, the Old Testament is another matter. Sex and death, love and plague, avarice and vice: The books of the Old Testament at times read like a gussied-up Anne Rice thriller. But even there, queer thinkers argue, the church is blind to the Old Testament's homoeroticism -- and its impact on how we view commitment and marriage.

Take Jonathan and David. Fresh from decapitating Goliath, David enters into a covenant with Jonathan, son of Saul. "Jonathan loved him as his own soul," is how the author of the first Book of Samuel describes it. David, you see, has been chosen by God to replace Saul as the king of Israel. In an effort to kill David, the increasingly jealous Saul puts a host of military challenges before him. But whether it's killing Philistines, cutting off their foreskins, or dodging spears, David handily meets each of the challenges. Meanwhile, Saul tries to bring his son Jonathan in on his murderous schemes. But Jonathan refuses.

"Basically, Jonathan is choosing David over his father and mother," said Tolbert, who, like Johnson, is a professor at the Pacific School of Religion. "There's a reference Saul makes about Jonathan dishonoring his mother, which sounds like an accusation of some kind of sexual misbehavior."

The actual line reads: "Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness?" As the story unfolds, Jonathan and David spend a lot of quality time together in a field. At one point, the passage from Samuel reads, "they kissed each other and wept with each other."

"There's really some erotic language hidden in that text that actually makes you think it's more than just a friendship," said Tolbert, noting how the passage mirrors the story of Adam and Eve. "Isn't that what the Genesis text says? That man will leave his father and mother and be bound with his wife? So you have that really strong sense of love, of loyalty, and that loyalty is not to your family where it should be, but this loyalty is to this man you love."

Queer thinkers such as Tolbert and Johnson argue that the implications of such stories are tremendous. Not only do they dislodge many of the heterosexual assumptions about the Bible, but they force us to rethink some of the church's bedrock beliefs regarding monogamy and marriage.

"What does the ... modern institution of marriage have to do with Christ theology and faith?" Johnson asked. "Historically, hardly anything! Not a thing, in fact. What the institutional church decided to get involved with was not any kind of biblical model of the family. It was this other thing that evolved in Western society called marriage, that had mostly to do with ensuring that property got passed on to one's rightful -- I should say father's -- rightful heirs."

So what does the Bible really say about marriage? Well, if we look to the Old Testament, the basic model is polygamy. With only a handful of exceptions, the men of the Old Testament placed little value on the sanctity of monogamous unions. Marital rites don't fare much better in the New Testament. Jesus was unmarried and childless. Paul, the other main figure of the New Testament, views marriage as a sort of stopgap against carnal lust. For Paul, the life of the flesh distracts from God. "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried," he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians. "But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion."

"This is not a ringing endorsement from the pages of Christian scripture," Johnson said. "What some of these queer Christian thinkers are saying is pay attention to your own orthodoxy. ... We don't have to depart from traditional Christian theologies to be really queer and radical."


The Mudd building at the Pacific School of Religion looks desperately out of place. Its sterile, modernist lines distinctly call to mind bureaucracy, not theology. Nevertheless, this is where many of tomorrow's queer ministers receive their training.

It was here that Johnson, who earned his own doctorate at the school, recently led his students in a sort of if-then intellectual exercise: If queers were fully accepted in the church, what would Christian faith then look like? Could we still call it Christianity? Or are Christian traditions so shot through with homophobia and misogyny as to be irredeemable for queers?

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