Christian Mysticism's Queer Flame

Spirituality in the Lives of Contemporary Gay Men

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Michael Bernard Kelly
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , August
     2018.
     280 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138562127.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Michael Bernard Kelly’s new book, Christian Mysticism’s Queer Flame: Spirituality in the Lives of Contemporary Gay Men, expertly parallels the spiritual journeys of eight men from the United States with the complex stages of Christian mysticism. As such, he argues that the (frequently) conflict-ridden negotiations of sexuality and spirituality give birth to, and fuel, the lives and faith journeys of gay men who refuse to relinquish either their sexual identities or sense of God.

The monograph is divided into three major sections. Section 1, “Setting the Interpretative Context,” comprises four chapters that provide a rich overview of Christian mysticism. In chapter 2, Kelly describes cataphatic and apophatic dimensions of mysticism as trajectories “towards inner transformation and union with God” (33). In simple terms, the relationship between the human and the divine is forged through what can, and cannot, be humanly known about God. Chapter 3 explains Evelyn Underhill’s five stages of mysticism—namely awakening, purification, illumination, darkness and union—in detail. Chapter 4 investigates contemporary developments in theories and studies on faith and spirituality involving queer people. Chapter 5 is a dedicated segment on hermeneutical and methodological frameworks. This chapter sits rather awkwardly and disruptively within the section and may have been better situated in the appendices. On a whole, this section is invaluable in providing a background to Christian mysticism for the uninitiated reader.

Section 2, “Stories of Faith and Patterns of Growth: The Eight Interviews,” constitutes the heftiest portion of this book, and systematically chronicles the vicissitudes and spiritual developments of gay men as derived from Kelly’s research findings. He arranges the chapters in this section according to key life moments which can be interpreted as rites of passage for gay men. Chapter 6 stresses the issues of family and coming out, while chapter 7 traces the processes towards integrating gay identities and Christianity. This section truly pays tribute and does justice to the lives of the eight gay men, as it showcases their narratives in a very detailed, respectful, and careful manner. 

Kelly’s privileging of gay men’s voices is an extremely significant theopolitical strategy that acts as a counterforce to the ongoing invisibility and silencing of gay men—and by extension, other queer and trans people—in many socio-political and religious circles in the United States and around the globe. Although I salute the author for a purposeful and elegant capturing of these men’s often agonising encounters with sexuality and spirituality within these two chapters, I believe that this section could have been strengthened through a more robust analysis that could transform it from an admittedly fascinating storytelling to a critical theorization, rather than leaving the latter to section 3.

Building on section 2, Kelly works “Towards a Gay Mystical Theology” (165 – 233) in section 3. To this end, he first discusses spirituality and spiritual awakenings in the lives of gay men. Then, he examines these men’s diverse experiences of coming out as pathways to a union with God, which he organizes according to the stories of the individual men. I was very moved by Kelly’s research-based insight that “sexual awakening [and] religious awakenings … must also be recognized as holy, as the movement of grace, as the work of the divine love … drawing these young men towards … graced, embodied maturity in Christ” (174). Growing up in largely conservative Malaysia, my initial journey as a gay man of faith was marked by a religiously driven condemnation of sexuality before I embarked on embracing a life-giving sexuality-spirituality nexus in my own life. The experiences of these men resonate with mine on multiple levels, despite our disparate geographical locations. Consequently, I had hoped for a more rigorous section in terms of a generously fleshed-out and well-developed gay mystical theology, rather than additional biographies of these eight men that continued to be interpreted through the multiple phases of Christian mysticism as outlined by Underhill.

Furthermore, Christian Mysticism’s Queer Flame could have benefitted from the intellectual richness of scholars outside South America, North America, and the United Kingdom (9; 33 fn 40). The omission of diverse Asian scholarship in queer Christian studies—given the geographical proximity of the author to Asia and its theological wealth—is noteworthy. In addition, over the years Asian Christian writers have been particularly attentive to, and incorporated, the mystical wisdom and practice of other faith traditions into their theological projects. I would have been interested to see how Kelly might have drawn from such resources, in addition to Australian theological works—perhaps even the traditions of indigenous Australians—and woven them into his work.

Kelly’s latest offering joins a larger corpus of academic work that prioritizes the confluence of queer sexualities and Christianity. What is remarkable about this book is its use of Christian mysticism as an analytical framework for interpreting the journeys of gay men of faith. The seamless marriage of the mystical and the ethnographic in one elegant volume truly sets it apart as a valuable resource with abiding relevance for readers interested in progressive theologies, Christian mysticism, gay spirituality, and queer studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph N. Goh is Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at Monash University Malaysia.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Kelly is Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University’s Centre for Religious Studies, Australia. Over the past twenty years he has led retreats, spoken at conferences, lectured at universities and published essays and papers in Australia, the UK and the USA. He is the author/presenter of The Erotic Contemplative video-lecture series and his book, Seduced by Grace (2011), is held and used in a number of universities.

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