Un/Familiar Theology

Reconceiving Sex, Reproduction and Generatvity

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Susannah Cornwall
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567673251.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Theological conversations about marriage and family, especially those that are politically aligned with inclusion of LGBTQ peoples, are often crafted as antithetical: do away with marriage all together, or fight for inclusion in the current system; move beyond parenting as a (perceived or real) contribution to the future, or claim parenting as a disruptive form of reproduction. Regardless of the side taken in these debates, the antithetical approach reinforces normative, often oppressive institutions, and also reifies the nature/nurture or biological/cultural construction divide. In this book, Susannah Cornwall instead invites the reader to a mode of theological conversation that is un/familiar, explaining that the “unfamiliar is therefore both already a part of the tradition, and part of what the tradition might become” (15). Cornwall’s approach situates her argument between, and hopefully beyond, a conservative theologically-based creation or origins argument and queer critiques of reproductive futurity and anti-marriage/family activism.

Each chapter presents a juxtaposition between (generally conservative) theologically constructed apotheosizations (one of Cornwall’s go-to word choices) of marriage, family, or parenting and a queer theoretical or embodied counter example. The juxtaposition of patriarchal, heterosexual marriage and polyamory serves not only to disrupt the normative or (perceived) natural to replace it, but to do away with a singular norm altogether. Cornwall, for example, claims that polyamory and patriarchal heterosexual marriage are “special cases.” If one were to consider the many ways marriage is configured in reality, one would have to admit that there are only special cases, including others beyond these two. Cornwall concludes, “neither the continuities nor the discontinuities between historical and emerging forms of marriage and family are absolute, and that claims to any absolute or unchanging quality of these are likely to be disingenuous” (69).

Cornwall invites her readers to wonder with her “whether the rejection on theological grounds of un/familiar institutions [same-sex marriage, adoption, polyamory, non-biological reproduction, and so on] comes, at root, not from a fear that they are distortions of the real, rejections of the uniquely God-given, but, rather, from a fear that their very multiplicity and seeming pluripotence exposes the lack of an a priori version” (170). For Cornwall, the removal of an a priori version of any institution refocuses a theology from origins to eschatology, and queer from deconstructive non-normativity to ethically-aiming hope. In chapter 6, Cornwall notes how the approach to child/ren in the Quiverfull movement and Lee Edelman’s reproductive futurism similarly “shut down possibility” by assuming a fixed “transmission of culture” (134). Both the complete dismissal of the future or a claim to a specific future, for Cornwall, lack the reality of surprise, the historical truth of change, and the theological call to co-creation. Cornwall’s argument across chapters hinges on the acceptance of an historical and eschatological stance that affirms repetition and difference (121, 154), that does not deny or jettison, but refigures (161). It is not so much a both/and as an and/not.

There are times in the text when Cornwall’s attempt to create “in theological terms, space, openness for a kind of futurity which is not just repetition of what has come before” (165) and yet is in continuity with all that has come before, leads the reader through a meandering path of conversation partners from Edelman to Moltmann, Stockton to Arendt, Tonstad to Halberstam, through to the Church of England, Pope Francis, Judith Butler, Stanley Hauerwas, Jose Muñoz, Mark Jordan, and many, many others. For the reader, the cornucopia creates a rich dialogue, unpacking skilled theoretical constructions and theologically complex arguments. At times, it also left this reader wanting more of Cornwall’s own voice. The poetic and deeply real picture of the limitations and possibilities of marriage came through in a few brief paragraphs in chapter 3 and personal riffs related to parenting and childhood pop up in other chapters. The moments where Cornwall’s own eschatological glimpses show through were for me the most generative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kate Ott is associate professor of Christian social ethics at the Drew University Theological School in Madison, NJ.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Susannah Cornwall is advanced research fellow in theology and religion at the University of Exeter.

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