Laurel C. Schneider and Thelathia Young’s Queer Soul and Queer Theology: Ethics and Redemption in Real Life argues for the reformulation of the traditional Christian notion of redemption based on the life experiences of queer Christians. The book’s co-authors bring different academic expertise and life experience to the project: Schneider is a professor of theology at Vanderbilt University and identifies as white; Young teaches ethics and gender studies at Bucknell University and identifies as African American. Both draw explicitly and extensively on their personal stories, reflecting on them through a sophisticated theological lens. Despite these differences, both authors are academics at private, wealthy, institutions of higher education That is not a criticism, but it makes me wonder how redemption might look to queer Christians in different social locations with different resources. I take this book to be a serious invitation for others to reflect on their own lives. I hope that individuals of all races, classes, and orientations will accept that invitation.
The book argues convincingly for understanding redemption as a “re-valuing of the racialized sexual, erotic, and fully embodied dimensions of life” (8), rather than as an escape from harm. While queer lives are oppressed, they also exhibit the “grit of surviving and the grace of thriving” (8) . This reality can lead to the formation and practice of virtue, lived in circles of relationship and support that are outside the biological family or legal relations traditionally discussed in Christian accounts of flourishing. Being queer presents a “norm-critical epistemic position attendant to and emerging from same-sex desires that challenge sex and gender binaries and their effects on social and political life,” and accordingly “queer theoretical interventions propose liberative possibilities and modes of thought and expression” (25). Living life outside of legal and sometimes ecclesiastical sanction leads individuals on a moral adventure that “require and inspire alternative cartographies of life lived under the pressures of (and in spite of) unrelenting oppression.” (21).
Following the Book of Exodus, Schneider and Young’s volume depicts God as a force that leads individuals from bondage to freedom, rather than as a feudal master needing appeasement, a notion crucial to some forms of atonement theory. Despite pointing out white supremacy, the book did not make connections between the use of Exodus as a liberative text in African American Churches and their own efforts. The authors also discuss the importance of conversation and community between queers people in learning to survive and thrive in socially marginalized spaces. This can be difficult to do, but queer individuals often find each other, or relocate to find larger communities.
According to the authors, a thriving queer life, often maintained without social or familial support, requires constant creativity. In the process of coming out, they see parallels to the Christian idea that the once “dead” are “now alive.” Queers who publicly live their understanding of who God created them to be are more alive than someone living What is refreshing about this book is that the authors take seriously the importance of theologically reflecting on one’s self-understanding, than seeing one’s identity as something that must be measured against a “truer” biblical witness that prescribes the “right rules” of living. They write that queer life requires “an openness to uncharted futures with an eye toward what can constitute a good life.” (42). Some people who identify as queer remain within religious traditions, while others create new traditions that speak to queer life, such as the Radical Faeries or Black Leather Wings. Importantly, the authors recognize and celebrate the spiritual components of queer lives, needs often creatively addressed outside religious communities.
The book argues that queer theology provides an account of the body’s goodness, challenging theologies of the body that mainly see the body as a site of sinful temptation. If the body is integral to redemption, rather than an impediment to redemption, then touch, sexuality, and the relationality of bodies, even outside of heteronormative structures, become goods. They write that queer bodies, especially trans bodies, are often subject to violence. Flourishing in their account requires living in the goodness of the body, allowing it to enable love, connection, pleasure, and community. Hence, queertheology affirms bodily experience, in contrast to much of Christian tradition, which is hostile to the body, and distrustful of bodily experience. As the book also contends, touch, especially between men who are socialized to be stoic, are revolutionary declarations of care.
This book exhibits the sort of theological reflection that occurs when actual Christian lives, rather than abstract theological or philosophical concepts, are central to the project. In addition to being theologically sophisticated, the book contains beautiful, theologically rigorous writing. Traditional Christian theology often describes queer life as an abomination, and this is based on a false or limited understanding of it. Young and Schneider share their own stories of queer struggles and queer joy—inviting others to find God’s presence in their own lives. As such, the book offers a brilliant rethinking of Christian doctrine and a moving testimony of queer Christian creativity, persistence, and faith.
Aaron Klink is chaplain of Pruitt Health Hospice of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
Date Of Review:
September 19, 2022
Laurel C. Schneider is professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, USA. She is the author of Re-Imagining the Divine (1999), Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity (2007), and co-editor of Polydoxy: Theologies of Multiplicity and Relation (2010) and Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology (2016).
Thelathia Nikki Young is associate professor of women’s and gender studies and religion at Bucknell University, USA. She is the author Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination (2016) and co-author of In Tongues of Mortals and Angels (2018).
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