Undoing Theology

Life Stories from Non-Normative Christians

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Chris Greenough
SCM Research Series
  • London, England: 
    Hymns Ancient and Modern
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Every so often, I read a book that challenges my presumptions about what a monograph can or should accomplish. What if we presented our case studies with minimal analysis? What if scholars muted our own voices to protest the historical subjugation of our field subjects? And what if we eschewed definitive arguments in favor of delicately quilting a conversation with the theorists who have most inspired us? These are among the many questions provoked, deliberately and playfully, by Chris Greenough in Undoing Theology: Life Stories from Non-normative Christians.

Greenough proposes that “storytelling needs to play a more pivotal role in grounding sexual theology” (3), because “sexual stories provide more than a contribution to queer theology; they are part of a process by which theology is being revealed as having always been sexual” (7). In Greenough’s analysis, sexual storytelling opens space for alternative theologies while simultaneously laying bare Christianity’s hetero-patriarchal foundations. Building on the work of prior scholars, he argues that these alternative stories are the responsibility of all theologians, not merely queer theorists. “The task for theology is to undo the dominant repetitions of the Christian tradition in relation to gender, sexuality, and sex in order to make it more inclusive” (158).

The book revolves around Greenough’s three field subjects—Alyce, Caddyman, and Cath (all pseudonyms)—who are, respectively, the focus of chapters 3, 4, and 5. Greenough sketches his interlocutors at the beginning of each chapter, and those snapshots offer a glimpse of the “sexual migrants” whom he seeks to recenter in the study of Christian theology. Alyce is an intersex American Catholic who “inhabits the body of a 62-year-old presenting male, Jerry, who is heterosexual, married and has two adult daughters” (66). Caddyman, who was also raised Catholic, converted to the “fundamentalist, U.S.-based Christian Love in Action,” where he served for twenty years as “director of the program which sought conversion to heterosexuality for homosexual Christians” (98). Cath is “a practicing Christian, heterosexual-identifying female who engages in BDSM practices” and lives in the United Kingdom (129).

While literature reviews are sprinkled throughout the book’s six chapters, Greenough devotes chapters 1, 2, and 6 exclusively to contextualizing his ideas within the conversations of prior scholars. Among the many theorists whom he quilts together, Greenough draws most heavily on Judith Butler and Marcella Althaus-Reid, whom he credits with inspiring his methodology and his focus, respectively.

The book’s title echoes Butler’s Undoing Gender (Routledge, 2004). Greenough understands Butler’s “undoing” as a queer methodology that unmasks and disrupts heteronormative paradigms. The undoing approach seeks to pervert and trouble the canon without necessarily replacing it. To undo is to be creative without being dominant, to privilege stories and lived experiences over analytical judgements and normative proscriptions, and to be vulnerable both to our subject and our readers. Greenough suggests that “queer theology itself must provide a liminal space where the messiness of life and the sanctity of religion can coexist” (32).

Just as Greenough modeled his methodology around Butler’s notion of undoing, his focus on storytelling is inspired by Althaus-Reid’s call, in The Queer God (Routledge, 2003), for scholars to document “the biographies of sexual migrants, testimonies of real lives in rebellions made of love, pleasure, and suffering” (3, 12, 158). As Greenough notes, the term “sexual migrants” was coined by Gayle Rubin to describe individuals who are driven away from their families and homes—or in this case, their faith—because of their non-normative sexual practices. An extended summary of Althaus-Reid’s injunction to do theology without underwear (Indecent Theology, Routledge, 2000) provides Greenough with ample ammunition for one of his boldest claims: “Practical theology needs perverting” (37).

Part of the messiness of “undoing” theology is its inherently reflexive nature. Just as Alyce, Caddyman, and Cath are undone by “desiring God and desire for engaging in non-normative sexual practices” (61), Greenough is himself unmade by his empathy for them, and by his “passionate but broken relationship with Catholicism” (55). Towards the end of the text, Greenough even mischievously experiments with “undoing” his own arguments, by emphasizing that the book is based on just three individuals, and that “experience itself can be unstable, fragile, temporal” (161).

While this approach might sound unwieldy to readers unfamiliar with queer theory, Greenough is refreshingly candid about the disjunction between Undoing Theology and the normative expectations of scholarly analysis. He argues that queering theology requires scholars to shift their focus from research outcomes to relational processes. As Greenough writes, “There cannot be claims to ‘do’ theology in this way, as it requires to be undone” (63).

On this issue, he sides with J. Halberstam’s argument in The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, 2011), namely that undoing requires a level of exploratory risk-taking that might at first appear to have little direct value. Fortunately for readers, Greenough nevertheless foregrounds some of the insights he gained from following Alyce, Caddyman, and Cath on their sexual migrations, including “the healing achieved through prayer during meditation and bondage” and BDSM’s potential to free its practitioners “from traditional gender politics” (151). Such clear conclusions are few and hard-earned in Undoing Theology, as one might expect in a book that aims to unravel theories without necessarily replacing them.

We need many more case studies of religion and sexuality, especially books that, like Undoing Theology, combine critical theory with ethnographic empathy in order to illuminate the queerness of our own assumptions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian J. Clites is Associate Director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and Instructor of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chris Greenough is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. His work explores the intersections of sexuality, gender, biography, living experiences and faith.


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