Queer Christianities

Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms

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Editor(s): 
Kathleen Talvacchia, Mark Larrimore, and Michael F. Pettinger
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , November
     2014.
     256 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479896028.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is no longer revolutionary or even particularly edgy to say that there is something queer about Christianity. In the last two decades, scholars, activists, and anyone with Internet access and an opinion have attempted to queer Christianity and to theologize queerness. Although the pushback from religious conservatives has been consistent (jeremiads about gay marriage bringing the demise of religious liberty abound), a simple Google Books search will reveal that the idea of queer Christianity has occupied the imagination of many and resonates with quite a few. But what, exactly, is “queer” about Christianity? In what ways might religion be “queered”? And to what end?

The edited volume Queer Christianities provides a variety of answers to these questions. Eighteen contributors, including academics, ministers, seminarians, theologians, and a queer nun, analyze the problems and possibilities of queer Christianities. The plural is not accidental. The volume is self-consciously resistant to “temptations to uniformity,” to normalizing any aspect of the varieties of Christian experiences (4). As the introduction suggests, the same promiscuity is applied to defining “queer”: no two contributors bring the same definition to their essays, but all are committed to conceptualizing queerness as distrustful of anything that appears normal, natural, or inevitable.

To that end, the volume is concerned with transgressive forms of religious lives, whether it be spiritual sex, celibate queerness, or BDSM dungeon scenes that evoke Calvary. The essays are grouped into four sections: on celibacies, matrimonies, promiscuities, and future directions. Two “church interludes,” or short ministerial reflections, provide pastoral perspectives on queer Christian practice. One commendable feature of the volume’s organization is that several of the essays build on each other, their authors engaging in conversation about what might count as “queer,” and what that might mean for religious practice more generally.

In the first section, for instance, several contributors contest the relationship between queerness and celibacy. In the opening essay, David G. Hunter argues that early Christian celibacy deserves to be understood as “queer” because it radically transformed established customs and norms of marriage and enabled new forms of community. Lynne Gerber follows a similar logic and applies a modified version of queerness to ex-gay celibacy (Gerber uses the word “queerish” instead of “queer,” since the latter, she explains, does not fully apply to the movement). Anthony M. Petro, in response, questions whether celibacy can properly be called “queer” and argues that while Christian celibacy falls outside of queer politics, it is nonetheless a useful tool for questioning the limits and boundaries of queerness itself. Finally, Sister Carol Bernice shares her story of becoming a celibate Christian nun while remaining a sexual being: “Celibate, for me, is mighty queer,” she concludes (52). Although not every section is quite as coherent as the first, the grouping works well as contributors wrestle with their analyses of lived religions and queer practices.

Deep anxiety about the term “queer,” its use (or overuse), its appropriateness, and its function is palpable throughout the volume. And for good reason: if everything is queer, is anything really queer? Kathryn Lofton’s closing essay takes up this question and offers a productive response by nominating a few things that are decidedly not queer: “living a life without fear,” for example, or “imagining that sex is not awkward, is not lonely, is not always a challenge of the highest epistemological, theological, and experiential order” (203). Her provocative essay echoes the desire of the volume’s editors to eschew the seductive prospect of domesticating queerness. Whatever else it is, “queer” is not comfortable, not complacent, not safe.

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the intrinsic anxiety over what counts as “queer” or as “Christian” emanating from every page of the volume, Queer Christianities will make a fine teaching tool for colleges and seminaries. I can imagine structuring an entire course in religion and sexuality around the themes and problems that the book examines. And if the language, definitional imprecision, or the subject matter of the essays disturb the readers’ sense of certainty on the subject, then we will know that Queer Christianities has, indeed, done its job.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Suzanna Krivulskaya is a PhD student at University of Notre Dame specializing in U.S. history, religion, and gender.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathleen T. Talvacchia is Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science.

Keywords: 

Comments

Kathryn Reklis

Krivulskaya's review is spot on, capturing the many strengths of this excellent volume, especially its capacity to generate meaningful classroom conversations in the undergraduate or seminary classroom. 

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