Beyond Brokeback Mountain: the church and rainbow sexuality


Christianity and LGBTStephen Hunt, Contemporary Christianity and LGBT sexualities, Burlington VT: Ashgate Publications 2009

Reviewed by Ted Witham

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Soon after its release, my wife Rae and I went to see the movie Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s brilliant adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story. We saw it as tragic story of bisexuality book-ended by an outraged protest against anti-gay violence. Many of our friends reacted negatively to it, and most preferred not even to see it.

For some, it is so difficult to deal with these issues, to name them clearly and to discuss them. Their attitude, I fear, may be expressed in the cliché: “My mind’s made up: don’t confuse me with facts!”
There are many challenging “facts” in Contemporary Christianity and LGBT sexualities, but this book is too good to be dismissed just because readers find its subject confronting. In effect, the different essayists go through the letters LGBT and Q and explore the interactions between the “non-heterosexual” population and the churches.

Fact 1: Many gay Anglican clergy cope with their homosexuality by putting up a false – or incomplete – picture of themselves to the world. They effectively censor their public face. What they play on “front stage”, is projected by energetic manipulations of the person’s “back stage”. Michael Keenan uses the image of a tapestry with its beautiful face and crazily-stitched back.

Of course it is a fact that clergy hide their homosexuality. Over the years I have been privileged to see some of my colleagues and their beautiful stitching. This essay alerts us to ways we can be more supportive of gay clergy. But it also reminds me that we all have a front and backstage; we all stitch the back so that the viewed side of our personality is what we would like it to be.

In her chapter, Kristin Aune asks what it is about non-heterosexuality that evangelical Christians don’t like. Fact 2: She concludes that their prime concern is not their genital activity. On the contrary, what worries evangelical is that gay men are defective in their masculinity. They are not “real men”.
I found this to be a helpful insight. I used to work for an inter-church agency, and remember meeting many “real men” among the younger Government school chaplains. I was really seduced by their confidence as men, as heads of family and leaders of women and men. I acquiesced to their world-view, and even presented myself as “one of them”. To my shame, I did not challenge this too neat understanding of masculinity. As Kristin Aune describes it, being real men in these ways implied a lesser role for women, as men’s hand-maids, not their help-mates (Genesis 2). This gender polarity needs challenging not encouraging.

Marta Trzebiatowski sets out to explore the disapproval Polish women experienced when some announced that they are called either to monastic life or others came out as lesbians: Fact 3: Trzebiatowski finds many similarities between the two groups: both groups of women have refused the social role of motherhood, and they have refused the “heteronormativity “of their culture.

Perhaps the Third Order can be advocates for Religious as well as others who choose not to follow social norms. As a Religious Order which includes both singles and mothers, our members know both the inner logic of celibacy and the validating power of motherhood.

I found myself most challenged by Alex Toft’s essay on “Bisexual Christians”.
Fact 4: There are, it seems, as many definitions of bisexuality as there are bisexual individuals. Should you define bisexuality as sexual attraction to both the opposite sex and the same sex? If the definition is not based on desire, then is bisexuality of variant of gender, not male, not female, not straight, not gay, but all or some of the above?

Does the fact that people who understand themselves as bisexual in fact void all definitions of gender and sexuality so that none is really meaningful? Or to follow another track, are we all in fact bisexuals? Was Jesus, “the ideal template for human existence”, himself bisexual?

Writing for the Church of England in 2004, Thatcher and Stuart concluded that:
… bisexuals undermine the whole sexual system, the neat classification of people into homo and hetero, the pathologizing of homosexuality as a heterosexual disorder, and so on. (p. 77)

This “dangerous” fluidity usually evokes only negative reactions from the church: Toft found that the church considered bisexual individuals to be “in a state of confusion” (p. 85), rejecting a God-given identity.
Unsurprisingly, bisexuals find it difficult to continue to relate to churches. Many bisexuals felt that the only way to continue as Christians was outside the official Christian community.

Those who do stay in the church, feel forced to separate their sexuality from their spirituality “and ‘act’ heterosexually within religious spheres”, creating “great inner conflict” for individuals (p. 85).

According to veteran researchers Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip and Michael Keenan, transgendered Christians throw up an even deeper challenge to the churches: Fact 4: To be transgendered is to experience oneself as in some way opposite in sexuality to what one “should be”. A transgendered person may feel trapped in the body of the wrong gender/sex, or may need to dress in clothes of the opposite sex, or may have physical markers of both sexes.

Again, the permutations defy clear definition. The way transgendered people come to a clear self-understanding is by paying attention to their bodies. Transgendered Christians recall the church to an embodied theology. Mainstream Christians too often devalue not only the body but matter in general. This leads them to wander into a docetic heresy, devaluing the incarnation, the embodiment of God in Jesus of Nazareth. Transgender brings us back to a more classical theology, reminding us that we cannot grow spiritually if we deny the body. “Transgenderism … is about spiritual growth as an embodied experience.” (p. 99)

Stephen Hunt untangles the different threads of the influence of gay Christians on policy in the church and in the community. Not surprisingly, he finds that they have been more effective in changing laws than challenging theology: Fact 5.

Richard O’Leary takes us to the very religious world of Northern Ireland where the difficulties gays experience are magnified by the culture: Fact 6.

Yvonne Aburrow asks “Is It Meaningful to Speak of ‘Queer Spirituality’?” Feminist theology has a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. Readers scour their reading for bias to find out whether the writer has smuggled patriarchal values into this text. Have assumptions of male superiority, distorted the meaning of the text? If so, the reader can then make appropriate adjustments.

Fact 7: Queer theology takes this hermeneutic of suspicion a step further, looking for any normative bias to any gender or sexual identity. For example, when we read Genesis 1:27,
(“God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”)
do we read these words through the eyes of heteronormativity? In particular, does the little word ‘and’ deceive us?

The Hebrew word for ‘and’ ranges in meaning, sometimes joining two terms very closely, and at other times describing a real difference between two things? Do we see the “and” in the phrase “male and female” in the latter sense, as disjunctive, emphasising the separateness of the genders? Could we not legitimately emphasise the conjunctive nature of the “and”? “Male and female” may highlight not a clear separation between the sexes, but that humanity is the totality of gender and sex, and that, astonishingly, this unpredictability reflects the truth about God, as humanity is created in God’s image. This is not a new reading of Genesis: Phyllis Trible reads Genesis 1:27 in this way.

Queer theology intends to be provocative, and, because of its radical assumption that no expression of gender identity is normative, will at some point end up offending every reader. This offence validates the approach.

In fact, queer theology might take us back to Saint Paul’s radical idea that “in Christ Jesus, there is no longer … male nor female.” (Galatians 3:28), Christ, Paul says, is gender-blind, just as he is colour-blind. We need transgendered people to remind us of this foundational Christian value.

Derek Jay then sketches “Trends in the Spiritual Direction of LGBT People.” Jay uses the three-stage schema of St John of the Cross and its purgative, illuminative and unitive stages of spiritual growth as a framework to explore the particular needs of LGBT people in direction. For example, the spiritual director needs to note when the church’s attempts to enforce celibacy on non-heterosexuals lead to promiscuity, and then help the person to find integrity in their life choices. LGBT people need to accept and celebrate their differentness. Fact 8: Directors can encourage LGBT people to model an alternative spirituality – a more embodied, more accepting, spirituality, with more integrity about sin – to the rest of the Church.

The book challenges me to action at several points. Firstly it takes me to tapestry; not for the purpose of picking apart the tapestries of others trying to identify the stitching hidden at the back of the face their owners present to the world. Rather it is to pay attention to one’s own front stage and backstage; to examine with honesty how we stitch and how we hide our true selves. The purpose of the self examination is to allow our compassion for others to grow as we see how we manage our own lives.

Secondly, this book challenges me when I acquiesce to the too simple views around me, whether they are a cheerful masculinity that puts women down, and either ignores or destroys the lives of those who do not conform to the heterosexual norm.

It also challenges me to speak up, when people disapprove the life choices of others. I will not always agree with people’s choice of marriage partner or their vows of celibacy or the partner they take up with, but it is not my role in life to judge. Rather I am called as a Christian to affirm the way others see God leading them.

New Communities, Monastic Memories


Ancient Faith coverGraham Cray and others, editors, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church, London: Canterbury Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Published in Anglican Messenger, May 2011

From the time of Jesus, some Christians have felt impelled to express their faith in community. The early Christians in Acts 2 “were together and had all things in common.”

In the 3rd Century, desert hermits began to share their lives. By the 6th Century, Saint Benedict founded stable communities in Italy to become exemplars of true Christian living. The 11th and 12th Centuries saw an explosion of lay penitential communities. The friars, both Franciscan and Dominican, took the Gospel on the road.

Monks and friars flourished in England until their violent suppression by Henry VIII. But the impulse to make community did not die: post-Reformation foundations in England include Little Gidding, and William Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect. The Oxford movement re-seeded the idea of religious Orders: Bishop Charles Gore founded the Community of the Resurrection in 1892; James Adderley founded the forerunner of today’s Society of St Francis at about the same time.

Communities have been tried in Perth too. In 1977, for example, Canon John Abraham and an intentional community planted the new parish of Leeming. A group of priests and lay people last year inaugurated the Community of the Beatitudes.

Ancient Faith, Future Mission makes the argument that community living is essential to Christian faith: an argument with bite in the 21st Century where our individualism makes us vulnerable to the twin evils of consumerism and militarism. Communities make us accountable to others and inspire us to express the Gospel more fully.

The chapters of this book introduce readers to a number of UK and US contemporary communities, particularly those who illustrate novel ways of being church. Thus 24/7 Prayer Rooms practise hospitality to marginal city-folk. The Archbishop of York’s The Order of Mission is both centred on a home-base and is also dispersed. Maintaining a rule of life and rhythms of common prayer are vital building blocks for these communities.

Ancient Faith, Future Mission is heavily coloured by its English context. The communities portrayed in it would need adaptation for our Australian idiom.

These new communities clearly have both similarities to, and differences from, the traditional religious orders of the Anglican community. The book assumed that readers know about the Orders and their place in Anglican life, and was in places dismissive of them. The book would have been richer had more of its writers seen the contemporary Society of the Sacred Mission, the Order of Saint Benedict and a dozen others as resources rather than in “terminal care”.

The memory of “old monasticism” provokes “fresh expressions” seeking to find better ways of being Christians in a world full of challenges to Gospel living.

The Nine Lives of India’s Religions


William Dalrymple, Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India, Knopf 2010.
Hardcover 304 pages. Approx. $27 posted from online stores.
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Published in REJA, the journal of the Australian Association for Religious Education, Volume 21, No. 2, 2010

I took my first tentative steps in teaching Indian religion 30 years ago. I still remember my confusion: I learned lists of Four Noble Truths and Eight Right Pathways; I rehearsed the story of Gautama’s enlightenment to tell in class; I read about Shiva and Ganesh. But I couldn’t sort out why some Buddhists are effectively atheists, while others worship the Buddha as a god. I didn’t understand how Hindus appeared to worship hundreds of gods while the text books said there was one, or perhaps three, gods in Hinduism.

No doubt I passed on my confusion to my students. I could have done with Dalrymple’s engaging book then.

Only many years later I learned that “Buddhism” and “Hinduism” were effectively the creation of 19th Century English and German scholars, who had only recently classified Islam and Judaism as “religions”. These scholars cast their eyes across the practices of the teeming shrines of South Asia looking for religious systems. Not surprisingly, they saw what they were looking for and used the suffix “-ism” to describe them.

As Dalrymple knows, the reality is much more complex, and much more interesting, than can be contained in the religion scholars’ enthusiasm for classification. William Dalrymple is a travel writer living in India. He has a particular interest in religious practice. These are the Nine Lives of nine exceptional holy women and men up and down the country.

This approach achieves three things: first, it personalises what might otherwise be abstract notions of religion. We meet articulate people who know what they believe. With his travel writer’s eye for detail, Dalrymple sets these extraordinary sages in their setting, and allows them to tell their stories. All have found that it has cost dearly to pursue the holy.

Second, it allows Dalrymple the opportunity to describe faith-worlds of the “lay” folk who still flock to the shrines and their holy people. The 2,500 year old practices of India are not dead. Who knows how many of their proverbial “nine lives” they have had?

Third, it helps the Western reader build a picture of the lived reality of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It shines a light on the difference between a Tamil Buddhist in India’s south and a Tibetan monk in Dharamsala. It lets us see practitioners in many shrines as they intertwine Islamic and Hindu practices and ideas. It describes particularly Indian Sufis, and it shows the pressure the Saudis are placing on them to conform to the austere Wahabbi interpretation of the Qur’an.

Teachers of religion will find this book to be a treasure. Some may use the nine sections of the book to structure a term’s work and allow students to experience the same discovery as the reader. Year 12 and university students could read each chapter in preparation for a class discussion. To use the book in this way for younger students would require more structuring.

Others will be enriched by the contemporary update of their understanding of Indian religions. Others, like me, will recognise how India is not a confusion of spiritualities, but a vibrant, and fascinating, profusion of faith and ritual.

*************
Ted Witham is the Immediate Past President of AARE. He taught religion in Anglican schools and at Murdoch University. Now retired, he lives in the south-west of Western Australia, where there appears to be minimal religious diversity.

Rollicking journey to Eternal Life


Eternal Life coverJohn Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven…, Harper One 2009, Hardcover 288 pages. (Under $20 on the internet.)

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Bishop Jack Spong takes his readers on a long journey to “Eternal Life“. His vision of eternal life is broad: it includes a plan for the church’s mission in the world, a plea for mysticism, and a vision of human beings transcending the limitations of the individual for a oneness with God and with others. Overall, I like his vision.

Eternal Life is a rollicking ride of the sort we have come to expect from Bishop Spong.

Jack Spong believes that religion has prevented us from seeing the grand vision by keeping us in unhealthy dependence, waiting on a father who knows best, and who in fact often manipulates us into even more dependency.

This paternalistic dynamic played out in the news as I was reading Eternal Life. It was sad to see the wonderful and feisty Sisters of St Joseph waiting on a Papa in Rome to declare that Mary McKillop was sufficiently saintly. The Sisters already consider McKillop a saint, and it appears demeaning for them to be forced to wait while a far-off authority decides whether post mortem miracles are valid or not.

Eternal Life is in part an engaging memoir. Spong traces his journey from an evangelical home in North Carolina through his teenage years in a more “catholic” Anglican parish. At each step of the way from deacon to priest, to pastoral work in parishes and to diocesan Bishop, Spong’s intellectual curiosity deepens. He is no longer content with the church’s easy answers. He liberates himself energetically from the literalist view of the Bible he inherited. More importantly, he discards the triple-decker universe of the Bible, and along with it, the concept of the transcendent God. For Spong, God is not beyond us; God is within us.

Bishop Spong describes the church’s journey as it moves from childhood to maturity and invites others to join this journey. I sense some impatience on his part with those who haven’t travelled his particular road, or who are perhaps embarked on a different journey. In interviews he often says that his intended audience are those who have left the church unable any longer to swallow the literalism and infantilism they have experienced in the church.

He criticises priests like me who understand his journey, but in order to avoid offence, sometimes cloak our language in ambiguity. I do understand the Spong dilemma, but I am trained as a pastor and educator: I try to communicate by taking people with me.

Spong is an iconoclast. He tears down superstition and pre-modern thought and clears the way for a Christianity with intellectual integrity in the modern world. Like all iconoclasts, the Bishop skirts the edge of orthodoxy. However, if a Panel of Triers in a diocese somewhere tried him for heresy, I have no doubt that he could show that all his theology accords with scripture and can “be proved thereby” and thus satisfy the canonical claims of the Anglican Articles of Religion. Iconoclast he may be, but not apostate.

I agree with Bishop Spong that the church stands on tiptoe at the edge of great changes. We need iconoclasts like him to undo our tight grip on inadequate concepts of the past, but we also need gracious guides who will inspire us and lead us confidently into that future. Spong is the first, but not, crucially, the latter.

Bishop Spong convinces me that all scripture is poetry, but fails to read scripture with the depth and sympathy that would make it sing anew.

He is keen to remind us that God is not “up there”, and demonstrates that we should instead look within to find God. This, as he says, is Mysticism 101. But he does not account for our need to reach outwards to find God. Even if the proper direction is not up, most of us feel impelled to look outwards to our fellow humans and the wondrous creation, and to listen there for God speaking to us.

He is enthusiastic to show us that faith and science are compatible, but ignores science’s scepticism for its own methodology and conclusions. Even the brashest scientists admit that science doesn’t have all the answers. Blind belief in science will not serve faith well.

Maybe all these expect too much of Bishop Spong. We should accept that his ministry is more to tear down our conceptual idols than to build up our spiritual future. We should read Spong and clear our minds, and we should also listen to our hearts and shape our own mature vision of God and God’s future. Of that, the Bishop would approve.

The Meaning of Pain



Melanie Thernstrom, The Pain Chronicles.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
EAN:978-0865476813
$22 approx. on line

Reviewed by Ted Witham

One purpose of religious faith is to make meaning. Christians especially find it difficult to make sense of chronic pain. As Melanie Thernstrom explains in her entertaining Pain Chronicles (yes, entertaining!), acute pain is an excellent response to injury. Acute pain protects us. Chronic pain, like cancer cells that don’t know how to stop, serves no such purpose. It afflicts at least one person in ten and resists most treatments.

Christians need a strong theodicy to incorporate pain into their understanding of a loving God. In his 1993 memoir missionary doctor Paul Brand, famous for his work with leprosy, tried to sell the idea that pain is “the gift nobody wants.” Brand saw the lepers’ infected cuts and burns, injuries caused because they could not feel pain, and argued that we should praise God for the protective properties of pain. For Christians with chronic pain, this is not persuasive. Chronic pain serves no good purpose. As a chronic illness it challenges God’s ability to heal.

The Pain Chronicles tells two inter-twined stories: it is a memoir of Melanie Thernstrom’s own journey from her futile searching for cause and cure, to a more productive attempt to make sense of a life with ongoing pain. Formerly a staff writer with the New York Times, Thernstrom shares this journey with a robust honesty, especially her initial belief that her pain was a punishment for an ill-advised love affair.

This leads Thernstrom to meditate on the historical connections between the word “pain” and the Latin word for punishment “poena”. This excursion into history and language takes the reader through changing theologies and attitudes, and is typical of the second story of The Pain Chronicles: its pleasure in intellectual curiosity. Thernstrom follows her forensic curiosity down many byways in the history of pain and medicine, analgesia and anaesthesia. We learn both how the ancients understood pain and how contemporary researchers peer into the brain’s response to pain with real-time brain-imaging.

The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from the 13th Century BC declares that “Magic is effective together with medicine. Medicine is effective together with magic.” “Although it would take millennia to understand why,” writes Thernstrom, “words in combination with physical treatment can alleviate pain in ways better than treatment alone.” (p. 35). She is clearly delighted to have affirmed that medications work better in a good healing relationship.

Some Christians believe that pain can lead one into the imitatio Christi. Elaine Scarry’s classic 1985 study The Body in Pain examines how the Bible understands pain, beginning with the pain of childbirth (“all those begats”) and following through the pain inflicted on God’s enemies in the Old Testament. Ultimately, claims Scarry, all this pain can only be understood through the lens of the Cross. Women’s pain, the pain of Israel’s enemies, and ultimately our pain should be viewed as a share in Christ’s Passion. After consideration, Thernstrom dismisses this idea as unhealthy: “I didn’t want to be in Pain. I didn’t want to want it. Pain is not a cross; it’s a Harrow.” (p. 76)

Ms Thernstrom cites studies that show “positive religious coping”. For some Christians, their faith does help them make sense of chronic pain by cognitive reframing the suffering or placing it in a wider context. For other Christians, however, pain leads to greater distress perhaps because they interpret their pain as punishment. (p. 206)

Hearing about the Hindu devotees who thread hooks through their flesh, Thernstrom heads to Kuala Lumpur to see whether they might have some insights into dealing with pain. Her journalist’s pen describes the festivals vividly, but they are of only marginal help on our journey. These pilgrims choose temporary pain to induce a spiritual high. This may lead to effective analgesia, but it is a practice worlds away from chronic pain: not choosing pain that never stops. No wonder the priest snorted when Thernstrom asked the god to take away the burden of her pain.

Thernstrom returns to science to make meaning of chronic pain. This malady is a disease of the brain, in fact, a disease of consciousness, that we cannot yet cure or treat effectively because brain science knows so little about consciousness.

She compares our current understanding of chronic pain to consumption in the 19th Century. Consumption was used as a metaphor for dying Romantic poets or operatic heroines. In 1882, a German physician identified mycobacterium tuberculosis. Although the cure, antibiotics, was half a century away, this scientific discovery reduced the illness from a metaphor to a disease. Chronic pain, Thernstrom concludes, currently evokes many metaphors, but until science unlocks its secrets, we will remain like pre-1882 sufferers of TB.

The Pain Chronicles cover much fascinating territory. Metaphors of pain and suffering are explored with elegance, intelligence and humanity. Melanie Thernstrom offers no theodicy of her own. She fears, I think, that to do so would belittle the experience of her fellow sufferers. What she does provide, though, is a fascinating sampling of others throughout history making meaning in chronic pain. While there may not yet be a cure for chronic pain, there is a lot of understanding here, and therefore comfort.

Losing Our Religion?


Losing My Religion

Tom Frame, Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009

337 pages, paperback.
RRP $34.95

Tom Frame is not afraid that Australia will “lose its religion”. Not really. But he is concerned that Australian Christians will pay a high price if they do not engage in a vital conversation about belief and unbelief.

Losing my Religion has won the 2010 Christian Book of the Year prize – and deservedly so. It is not only a heartfelt plea to Christians to put energy into thinking about faith and its place in a pluralist society, but it is also a comprehensive history of the interactions between religion and the Australian community.

Dr Frame is balanced in his description of the tensions surrounding religion in the convict days on the east coast and in the lead up to the framing of the Commonwealth constitution. But where the book shines, in my opinion, is when Tom Frame teases out the contemporary scene. He takes issue with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins for their lack of respect for their opponents, but he engages with the Australian unbelievers like Philip Adams. He demonstrates respect for their view but has no fear in putting forth his own.

Dr Frame is well qualified to explore belief and unbelief. As a former bishop to the Australian forces, he has ministered at an important interface between public life and the Church. Now Director of the St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, he writes lucidly on these complex issues. He draws on some of the same materials that he used in Evolution in the Antipodes (2009), but here with different intent.

Frame teases out the thread in atheism that claims it is not a belief and therefore a guarantor of reasoned tolerance. He shows this as specious reasoning both because atheism is a belief borne out of theism and also because atheism has no monopoly on reason. The presence of religious people in secular society is therefore more likely to bring tolerance and harmony than their absence, because they can take the beliefs of others into account.

Losing My Religion will make you agree and it will make you disagree. Frame knows that keeping your religion involves being confronted by a Christ who asserts his divinity; and for all of us, believers and non-believers, when we think seriously about it, that is controversial.