Contemporary Theological Approaches to Sexuality

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Lisa Isherwood, Dirk von der Horst
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     358 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Contemporary Theological Approaches to Sexuality, an international group of editors and authors seek to provide a critical overview of current theological scholarship on sexuality and gender in twenty-three chapters. The volume privileges the critical discourse known as queer theology over and against theological approaches that might be described as “conservative” or “traditional.” The book’s structure follows queer theology’s standard form, starting with the body and experience, moving through structural oppression of sexual and gender minorities, and ending with discourse about God. In short, the book seeks to show what it is about queer bodies and oppression that can illuminate something new about God.

 “Normativity and Transgression,” an introductory chapter by editors Lisa Isherwood and Dirk von der Horst, sets the scene for the following chapters. Isherwood and von der Horst highlight the debate about the value of normativity—whether it is inherently unfavorable or something to aspire to. They also consider the importance and limitations of social constructionism, of appeals to the natural sciences, and question how many “bodies” humans have (e.g., the social body, the political body, the divine body).

The second section, “Bodies,” contains multiple chapters that consider bodies as they have been construed “queerly” throughout history and in different contexts. One of the stronger chapters of this section is “Gender” by Adrian Thatcher. Building off his previous work analyzing theology, gender, and classical metaphysics, Thatcher expands on his assertion that “there are now good reasons for concluding that the [sexual dimorphic] model should be completely abandoned, along with its counterparts essentialism/constructionism and nature/nurture” (25). Thatcher’s reliable command of classical metaphysics and historical theology gives the chapter much of its fecundity.

The third section, “Economies and Violence,” explores the intersection of economy and structures of systemic violence with the construction, experience, and theologizing of sexuality and gender. One of the stronger chapters in this section is Robert E. Shore-Goss’s chapter, “AIDS: Deviancy, Stigma, and Grace: Counter-theology from the Genitals of the Body of Christ.” Shore-Goss discusses the various responses that churches had to the AIDS epidemic in the United States, outlining a tragic trend of silence and stigma, but also including encouraging exceptions of care and grace.In the final section of the book, “Divinity,” the authors consider theology in light of the insights of the previous sections, seeking, variously, to reinterpret Christian orthodoxy as something “inherently queer,” or to abandon the enterprise altogether. Gianluigi Gugliermetto’s chapter, “Love and Desire,” is an attempt to reunite love and desire—agape and eros—after they had been separated both in the classical tradition and by modern theologians. Beginning with a discussion of Paul Tillich’s approach to the subject, Gugliermetto provides a brief overview and critique of “erotic theology”: “Christian erotic theologians are engaging a variety of avenues, sometimes at odd with each other, and the deep queer exploration of the Christian tradition is producing an array of new possibilities on how to approach desire and love, but societal transformation is not always in the center” (265).

Contemporary Theological Approaches to Sexuality is a faithful representative of queer theology as a sub-discipline of theology at present, accompanied by all its weaknesses and strengths. Among the book’s weaknesses are its ideological isolation, the choosing of easy targets (if not blatant strawmen selected from traditional theologies), the erasure and marginalization of celibate people (yielding confirmation bias in chapter 7), and improbable interpretations of scripture. For instance, Sharon A. Bong asserts that the virgin birth was biologically possible because Mary was allegedly intersex (44-45)—a claim that contemporary biology has serious trouble corroborating (Giuseppe Benagiano and Bruno Dallapiccola. “Can Modern Biology Interpret the Mystery of the Birth of Christ?” The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine 28: 2 [2015]: 240-44). Additionally, Lisa Isherwood claims, without citation or explanation, that the virgin birth narrative was taken from ancient Near East mythologies, such as those of Horus and Krishna (324). This is a claim that has been widely rejected by biblical scholars and Egyptologists (see, for example, Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth [HarperOne, 2013]). Readers should not take these examples to be representative of a contemporary consensus in biblical studies or human biology, but rather interpretations made in queer theology.

The book’s strengths include its careful considerations of gender and sexuality in their historical milieus (chapters 1 and 4), some critical engagements with contemporary science (chapter 5), fair considerations of the HIV/AIDS crisis (chapter 16) and the crisis of Catholic clerical sexual abuse of minors (chapter 14), and fresh looks at “erotic theology” (chapter 18). It will be interesting to see what queer theologians do with Adrian Thatcher’s turn to sex similarity as opposed to sex difference; in my evaluation, queer theologians would benefit from following Thatcher’s lead on that point.

Contemporary Theological Approaches to Sexuality is worth reading to gain a single-volume appraisal of the state of queer theologies at present. The authors present some important points of contention that will likely be sites of future discourse, especially within queer theology. It does not, however, represent more conservative theological perspectives on sexuality and is therefore limited to a generally progressive/radical left ethos. It should be read with this ethos in mind, noting that there are other theological ways to approach sexuality that are equally as rigorous as queer theologians claim to be and yet are irreducible to cheap comparisons with fundamentalist American evangelicalism, including those contemporary approaches of Anglican theologians (e.g., Wesley Hill), Catholic theologians (e.g., Jean-Luc Marion), and Eastern Orthodox theologians (e.g., Giacomo Sanfilippo).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katherine Apostolacus is a graduate student in women's studies in religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lisa Isherwood is professor of feminist liberation theologies and director of the Institute for Theological Partnerships at the University of Winchester.

Dirk von der Horst is instructor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary's University, Los Angeles.


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