The title of this book intrigued me from the moment I set eyes on it. I have to admit a major fault of mine, in all my seekings - was to only ever consider theology from my own perspective. Theology as a field of study has gone through many, many twists and turns over the almost two millennia since Christ died. i had yet to come across a book on feminist theology, but saw this book in a discard bin in Books-A-Million and bought it eagerly, looking for a new perspective on the subject.

I was familiar with some ideas about Christianity coming from a non-WASP perspective, having the benefit of two priests who are of color and therefore able to bring their own cultural and experience perspectives to our church. Themes such as liberation from bondage reverberate in a community that is still dealing with the aftermath of literal slavery - and the community's take on the suffering servant were illuminating. 

The ordination of women and sexual minorities is pretty much the last frontier in Christianity even though one of the first converts was a black eunuch: the Church of England has finally taken a cue from the Episcopal Church in the United States and allowed for the ordination of female bishops, leading to women having parity with men in the church. The ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, led not only to controversy across the entire Anglican communion, but the open defection of many dioceses from the communion whether they went with the new ACNA communion or took Benedict's invitation and joined the Roman Catholic church.

So I read Patrick Cheng's book with some interest. As the author is a queer theologian and a visible minority, I was hoping to read his book and have some kind of understanding of how someone could make a genuine case for the full participation of homosexual and transgender people and read some different takes on theology. This is not to say that I personally object to such things or that I don't see an argument for it at all, but many a parish or denomination will shut down dialog with either the "basher verses" in the case of homosexuality, or simply dismiss transgender and intergender with Genesis - male and female created he them, period, full stop, do not transgress against the natural order. I was eager to read uplifting, affirming ideas about gay participation in theology which would argue Scripturally and in the tradition for gay perspectives in the church.

What I found disappointed me.

This book was clearly, CLEARLY intended to preach to the choir. It led off by completely punting on the usual arguments against QUILTBAG and female participation in clergy, or even Christianity. And though I shouldn't be upset by this omission - after all, if anything, I should completely agree that this book should be about Queer Theology, not about why Queer Theology should exist in the first place... it seemed less a treatise on arguing what it was and simply getting the reader to emotively buy into it.

Having done quite a bit of theological reflection, both in my own prayer life and also in my coursework, I understand that people fundamentally have to sign on to their own theology and have to relate theology to their own reason and experiences. I can certainly see an argument, for example, in Cheng relating Jesus being God revealed to man in the same way a gay man or a gay woman would "come out" to society at large in terms of his or her orientation. And there are a lot of questions raised in this book that are intriguing. How can one, for example, judge someone for being transgender or intergender when God is technically genderless or multi-gendered (despite the patriarchal langauge used)?

Unfortunately the book doesn't quite make a strong case or a coherent set of arguments. In an attempt to reach an audience emotively on many levels, it loads a shotgun with a lot of ideas loosely held together with the idea of God being a "radical love", and therefore, etc.

The only attempt at setting up a structure is to lead off with three different definitions of queer theology (meaning that the reader has no idea which framework to use to understand the rest of the book), and then leads off with four "sources" of Queer Theology - Queer Scripture (queer rephrasing of Sodom and Gomorrha, creative reinterpretations of classic scriptures, etc.), Queer Tradition (traditions inside the church that were gay-affirming), and Queer Reason (the use of an individual QUILTBAG person's reason to arrive at theology), and Queer Experience (the use of an individual and corporate experience in determining theology)

He then leads into "four strands of Queer Theology" which amount to Apologetic Theology (in essence, being gay is okay and natural and therefore not to be condemned), Liberation Theology (the idea that God loves oppressed people "more", by his definition), Relational Theology (finding God in the erotic relationship with another person), and Queer Theology itself (e.g. the body of historical work on Queer Theology, including works by Michael Foucault and others). 

Cheng then starts to make arguments that don't quite flow from the brief explanations of the definitions, sources and strands. In essence, Cheng leads off with God's love is a radical love that transends human bigotries (Jesus admiring women and the Samaritan, etc.) and blurs the lines between the human and the divine (incarnation blurring the lines between God and Man, especially considering that Jesus, by definition, was his own father). That gets blurred to therefore a radical love means just about anything done in the name of love: and redefines sin therefore as SOLELY defined as "maintaining any sorts of boundaries". And therefore God is found in any erotic impulse, and God is in essence in "relational" (e.g. sexual) bonds between all things in creation. 

I am sorry to say that the book then loses me entirely, literally describing Israel as the "bottom" and YHWH as the "top" (author's note: quoting this terminology verbatim) noting that "bottoms" in leathersex frequently feel ecstatic as they're beeing fisted and flagellated and more, and that if you look at what happens in the Bible given its multiple stories of witchcraft, torture, war, death and so forth the experience of Israel and the church is something akin to an endorphin rush after some back room treatment by someone resembling a Tom of Finland cartoon. 

I also could not follow the notion of the Trinity being a polyamorous transgender "switch" three-way sexual experience either. As a throwaway Cheng introduces the idea that Jesus had Mary Magdalene and Lazarus as sex partners and therefore as a member of the Trinity God is a polysexual, polyamorous bisexual and therefore that's how human relationships could and should be envisaged as well. 

At the risk of sounding like I was turned off by the source material based on some deeply internalized homophobia, an example of an argument Cheng makes is as follows. Jesus Christ is bisexual. This is significant because it deconstructs the binary construct of sexuality. Having accepted that, oh, yes, sidebar here - this comes from a specific author's hypothesis that there was the possibility that Jesus was attracted to men and women, quoting Wilson "the most obvious way to see Jesus as a sexual being is to see him as bisexual in orientation, if not also in his actions". Cheng does not back this up with any Scriptural reference to Jesus and Lazarus being sexual partners at all, but expects us to accept that he was sexually intimate with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And that should be accepted because it "makes sense" that because God's love is a radical love, it would erase all boundaries.

And here is the crux of where the argument falls apart. The reader, this one included, can most certainly accept that God's love is infinte, and a radical one. God can and does love every human being regardless of circumstances, beyond human prejudices, and wishes communion with everyone. God loves the homosexual, the adulterer, the murderer, and so forth. What he then does is switches the meaning of "radical love" to mean the nature of the love itself as opposed to the depth and target, arguing that given God is radical love, namely a "transgressive sexual urge", the bisexual in the back of a bath-house servicing anything that moves is the purest expression of love and therefore in line with what God wants. He also makes an argument that since God's power is infinte anything is possible, but then claims Jesus is intersex because he was probably the result of parthogenesis, meaning no Y chromosome and simply presenting as male, giving the limitations of biology. 

It's an easy, easy book to rebut from the other side, which is why I curse these weaknesses. If one of your sources is one that you quote that cannot tell the difference between praying and having an anonymous back-alley sexual encounter, you're opening yourself up to mockery. If you context switch without a clutch to redefine the essence of a key term halfway through your argument, you're going to have a bad time. If you throw out the notion that Jesus was an intersex transvestite bisexual with no backup apart from "a noted queer author thinks so" your reasoning is going to appear lazy.

I will not stop here in reading on the subject, though. Cheng's book raises a few interesting questions, as previously noted. Are we trying to pigeon-hole God into a binary-sexuality, heterosexual, patriarchal model when the truth of the matter is that God is frankly beyond these human limitations and concerns? Most certainly. Can queer experience give us more insight into the nature of God just as how Hosea, having married a prostitute who cheats on him multiple times, deeply internalized and wrote poetic prophecy regarding a people who reject God over and over? Definitely. Are gay people full members of the church who should be given all the same dignities and sacraments we accord to all other people? Absolutely. Can we find inspiration about God in eroticism? Exhibit A, the Song of Solomon, your Honor.

And I'm reasonably sure that the extensive bibliography that Cheng has put in this book is worth its purchase price - there are some fascinating references alluded to such as how the Church was only really truly homophobic in the 12th and 19th centuries and in other centuries actually solemnized relationships between two men. There are tantalizing references to other books that might certainly contain some intersesting ideas about gay liberation theology. There are even some excellent references to sources, challenges and books about queer pastoral care

But a book that can't even decide at first on a single definition of theology but then winds everything up with "because God's love is radical and there's no difference between praying and banging some anonymous kid behind a sand dune, the more "transgressive" sex you have with more people, the more you resemble and understand the face of God" - I'm terribly sorry, but the book fails completely at doing anything but giving warm fuzzies to people who already feel this way. This is not to say that there isn't some truly interesting, well argued and thought provoking theology coming from the QUILTBAG community, but this book does not argue for it.

This is not to say that I won't read anything else written by Mr. Cheng, but I will take the time to peruse it in the bookstore first.

My copy will soon be for sale on Amazon.com.

 

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