The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion, Sexuality and Gender
The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion, Sexuality, and Gender is a curated collection of previously published essays in the area of religion and sexuality packaged together at a relatively-affordable textbook price point. The editors, Carly Daniel-Hughes and Donald Boisvert, make clear from the outset that this volume is “not a comprehensive survey of religion and sexuality,” and that it is “designed for advanced [undergraduate, readers must assume] or graduate students” (8). The reader begins with a brief introductory essay by the editors, who classify the collected essays under three headings: “Bodies,” “Desires,” and “Performances.” Intended for use in “introductory-level lecture and seminar courses” (8), the volume includes summaries at the beginning of each essay to “frame” students’ engagement, discussion questions in each section designed to engender reflection, a glossary, and a thorough general index.
In their introduction, the editors contextualize this collection in what will be, to some readers, a familiar and cursory genealogy. Examinations at the intersection of religion and sexuality, they argue, gained traction in North America—especially the United States—in the 1970s and 1980s, alongside second-wave feminist and post-Stonewall gay rights movements. Herein feminist theologies and feminist studies of religion linked to advocacy and activism are positioned as precursors to the study of religion, gender, and sexuality as practiced now. Queer and gender theories, preceded in North America by the study of homosexual identities, came onto the scene with the increased popularity of Foucauldian analysis, which in the editors’ view has done much to bring gender, women’s experience, and sexuality together. Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality has been particularly influential, they argue, in deeper analyses and intersections. The editors note that sexuality is a persistent concern in religious traditions—across time and cultures—as bodily relations impact local and global human communities.
Essays in the first section, “Bodies,” accent how religions have articulated models of the body in gendered and sexualized terms. The editors warn that reducing religious attitudes to a simple “body-affirming” and “body-denying” dichotomy is misleading, opting instead for the term “ambivalence” as a common theme. The chapters in this section each concern issues related to gendered and sexualized bodies as manifest in diverse religious institutional configurations. Entries include selections from Kelly Brown Douglas, Lynne Gerber, Cimminnee Holt, Janet Gyatso, John Powers, Chava Weissler, Paula Sanders, and Robert Orsi. Readers will need to decide exactly how these essays betray ambivalence about bodies and religious identities.
In the second section, “Desire,” the editors highlight ambivalence at the crossroads of religion and eroticism, emphasizing that although religious traditions maintain “highly problematic” relationships with human desires and bodies, a nuanced view may characterize desire as multifaceted and even as that which lies at the core of religious devotion. Essays in this section range from “classic” entries from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Foucault to articulations of the relationship between divine desire and human erotic agency from Mark D. Jordan, Amy Hollywood, and Paul Gordon Schalow. Reading Michael Warner’s autobiographical meditation alongside Zeb Tortorici’s exploration of colonial sexuality and David Biale’s reading of rabbinic heteronormativity offers an opportunity to compare a range of bodily activities in the category “sexuality.” Readers will note that desire, as an organizing principle for this section, tends toward the polysemic, ranging in signification from a longing for the touch of forbidden bodies to a longing for the trappings of “religion” itself.
The final section, “Performances,” focuses on what the editors term “the entanglements of gender and sexuality in religious contexts” (183). This section begins with a selection from Judith Butler’s seminal Gender Trouble. The following essays center on unstable, performative identities in a variety of theological/religious settings. Entries by Carolyn Watson and Karen McCarthy Brown offer glimpses of performativity in Afro-diasporic traditions, while those by Gayatri Reddy and Vinay Lal focus on Indian contexts. Essays by Jakob Hero, Mayanthi Fernando, and Daniel A. Lehrman reflect on the connections between theory and bodily practices in various religious contexts. In this section, gender and sexuality are presented as thoroughly malleable, and religion tends to be articulated as that which controls and manages subjectivities.
Teaching an intersectionally-focused course such as “Religion, Sexuality, and Gender” poses challenges with regard to pedagogical frameworks, scaffolding, and audience. These challenges, at least in my experience, must be addressed alongside questions about content. That is, how, with whom, and to what ends we teach about religion, gender, and sexuality matters at least as much, if not more, than what we include in reading lists and whether such lists will ever, in the end, represent “maximum diversity.” To this end, I will note that while the editors have attempted to present diverse religious perspectives, and clearly hold complex views about how gender and sexuality function in different—institutional—religious contexts, methodologically speaking the category “religion” is undertheorized. That is, in this volume it appears to be the case that representing multiple religious perspectives and experiences, from insiders and outsiders, is a priority. It is fascinating to see such an array in one place. However, this organizational strategy is not the same as thinking through, for example, how religion is constructed and reified as a category of human definition, identification, and analysis in its own right—by practitioners, scholars, and other critics and sympathizers. Given that from a religious studies perspective, “religion” cannot be reduced to an identity marker, and is a designation as performative, unstable, and symptomatic of power relations as “gender” and “sexuality,” this lacuna will require pedagogical redress in classroom settings. That said, The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion, Sexuality, and Gender fairly represents assorted viewpoints, and will undoubtedly nurture some readers’ curiosity about “other” religious, gendered, and sexualized performances. Ultimately, the editors are to be commended for putting together a collection that should function to inspire students to further explore this robust area of inquiry.
Davina C. Lopez is professor of religious studies and core faculty in women's and gender studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
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