Queer Theologies

The Basics

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Chris Greenough
  • New York: 
    Routledge
    , October
     2019.
     174 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138604711.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Queer Theologies: The Basics by Chris Greenough is an introduction to queer theology as a field located at the nexus of many ongoing histories, locations, academic disciplines, and institutions, with many (sometimes divergent) interests. Greenough sets out to provide a text that is accessible without sacrificing complexity, a tricky task at which the book succeeds overall. The book is intended for “students, researchers, academics, clergy, laypeople or those with a general interest in the field” (1). All such readers will find something in it, aided by its fast but thorough surveys as well as the generous bibliographies and annotated further reading recommendations that follow each chapter.

In the introduction, Greenough asks what queer and theology mean, separately and together. He provides a broad starting place: “Queer theologies examine how Christianity has been constructed throughout history and ask questions about what voices and experiences have been excluded. This destabilizes the structures of power which have been tied up in the religion” (5). Though numerous, queer theologies can thus be said to take up a common interest; though plural (theologies), they can be made one subject of a shared predicate (or book!). However, Greenough provides an important caveat: “It is misleading to suggest that all queer theologians are talking about the same thing!” (4).

To navigate the complexities inherent in speaking of sundry queer theologies as inhabiting a shared field, Greenough proceeds with chapters that follow a relatively consistent pattern. Each chapter takes on a particular topic or cross-section of queer theologies (global queer theologies, queer biblical scholarship, autobiographical approaches, etc.). Within each chapter, Greenough organizes recognizable clusters of related texts by subheading. Depending on the chapter, the subheadings demarcate common themes, movements, identitarian approaches, or geographically defined regions. Finally, within these subheadings, Greenough introduces the reader to several writers and their relevant texts. This general approach allows the reader to navigate the text with ease.

For example, in the chapter titled “The Development of Queer Theologies,” subheadings include liberationist, feminist, lesbian, gay, and womanist thought traditions, appropriately intertwining with theoretical and theological texts. The chapter begins with a very brief nod to Friedrich Schleiermacher and Immanuel Kant before proceeding to the 1960s through the early 2000s. Readers new to queer theory will find a helpful introduction to it here, situated within a longer history of feminist and womanist work. Greenough introduces Adrienne Rich, Gayle Rubin, Monique Wittig, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, Michael Warner, Eve Sedgwick, and David Halperin under one subheading. By tracing queer theologies’ roots beyond the 1990s into earlier feminist and womanist conversations about sex, gender, and race, Greenough’s history helpfully complicates the commonly rehearsed and now commonly critiqued origin story of queer theory’s creatio ex nihilo from white academics in the 1990s. But the chapter’s account of queer theory does more or less end in the ’90s, perhaps because queer theological engagement with post-’90s queer theory is still relatively minimal. So, for readers interested in queer theory’s more recent interdisciplinary lives, further reading will be necessary. Happily, Greenough’s final recommendations for further reading are spot on in this regard.

An introduction teaches not only through its content but through its form. Greenough understands the limitations of the genre, acknowledging that the texts and traditions he describes are more interconnected than what a categorizing approach might let on. He frequently directs the reader to other chapters and other resources to prevent any one section from seeming exhaustive.

Readers may want to know how Greenough’s introduction compares to others currently available. Patrick Cheng’s is perhaps the most widely familiar (Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, Seabury Books, 2011). Like Cheng, Greenough offers his readers a framework to understand a vast expanse of scholarship. Those who make use of Cheng’s fabulous bibliographies will also appreciate Greenough’s book, which includes many queer theological texts published in the last decade. Unlike Cheng, whose introduction ties many aspects of queer theology to radical love, Greenough’s introduction offers no such overarching theologically constructive concept, which aids his adept guide work; however, at least two major threads run throughout Queer Theologies. One is contrastive: some queer theologies proliferate identities and advocate representation, while others critique identity as such. The other is unitive, taking the form of a common denominator: queer theologies disrupt Christian theology and tradition. This claim is first made alongside the observation that queer theologians “have re-examined theology and the history of Christian thought, beliefs and practices, and hold the view that it has, in some way, always been queer” (4).

The claims about disruption and essential queerness are both common, but they are not uncontroversial in the field, and the ways they are disputed are instructive. Linn Tonstad’s recent introduction to queer theology takes a different approach, a theologically constructive account of what queer theology has been and might be, and it offers counterpoints to these claims (Linn Marie Tonstad, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics, Cascade Books, 2018). Is Christianity inherently queer? Is it in need of constant queer disruption? Turning these claims, which would seem to be at odds, into questions provides a wonderful entrance to the rest of Queer Theologies and to some of the field’s most fascinating tensions. Together, they raise the uncomfortable possibility that queer theologies may sometimes bolster the structures of power Greenough rightly says they intend to disrupt. What might be obscured when we expect to find disruption? What follows disruption?

Readers new to the discourse will come away from Greenough’s Queer Theologies well-equipped and eager for further queer theological study. More familiar readers will also want to give it a cruise, finding in it new texts and conversation partners to enrich their work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Ernest is a doctoral student in theology and American religious history at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chris Greenough is senior lecturer in theology and religion, Edge Hill University, UK.