Stephen 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.