Editor’s Commentary: Since long before I done into politics and culture, I’ve said that the true enemy of the church was within the church itself. Atheists, Muslims, and those who are opposed to Christianity will not be our downfall. It’s the lukewarm, oftentimes heretical teachings from within various churches themselves that will lead believers astray.
This extremely comprehensive investigative journalism by John Murawski will hopefully work as an eyeopener for those who still think most American churches are on the right track. There are good teachers and bad teachers, and a growing number of pastors in America and across the globe are leaning bad. Here’s John’s article…
Vignettes from progressive Christianity today:
- A Presbyterian church goes viral online for marking the Transgender Day of Visibility with a public prayer to the “God of Pronouns.” The congregants of the church, First Presbyterian of Iowa City, pay obeisance to “the God of Trans Being,” giving due glory to “the Great They/Them.”
- The United Methodist Church boasts the first drag queen in the world to become a certified candidate for ordination. This traveling minister, who describes drag ministry as a “divine duty,” is lauded by a Florida pastor as “an angel in heels” after appearing in that church in a sequin dress to deliver a children’s sermon and denounce the privilege of Whiteness and cis-ness.
- At Duke University’s Methodist-affiliated divinity school, pastors-in-training and future religious leaders conduct a Pride worship service in which they glorify the Great Queer One, Fluid and Ever-Becoming One. The service leads off with a prayer honoring God as queerness incarnate: “You are drag queen and transman and genderfluid, incapable of limiting your vast expression of beauty.”
- And the Presbyterian News Service offers online educational series such as “Queering the Bible” (2022) and “Queering the Prophets” (2023) during Pride Month. A commentary in the former refers to Jesus as “this eccentric ass freak” who challenged first-century gender norms.
These examples from this year and last are just a few illustrating how progressive churches are moving beyond gay rights, even beyond transgender acceptance, and venturing into the realm of “queer theology.” Rather than merely settling for the acceptance of gender-nonconforming people within existing marital norms and social expectations, queer theology questions heterosexual assumptions and binary gender norms as limiting, oppressive and anti-biblical, and centers queerness as the redemptive message of Christianity.
In this form of worship, “queering” encourages the faithful to problematize, disrupt, and destabilize the assumptions behind heteronormativity and related social structures such as monogamy, marriage, and capitalism. These provocative theologians and ministers assert that queerness is not only natural and healthy but biblically celebrated. They assert that God is not the patron deity of the respectable, the privileged, and the comfortable, but rather God has a “preferential option” for the promiscuous, the outcast, the excluded and the impure.
Thus it is in the presence of the sexually marginalized – such as in a gay bathhouse or bondage dungeon – where we find the presence of Jesus. In the language of queer theology, queerness is a sign of God’s love because “queer flesh is sacramental flesh,” and authentic “Christian theology is a fundamentally queer enterprise,” whereas traditional Christianity has been corrupted into “a systematic calumny against hedonist love.”
Such claims may seem outrageous and offensive to the uninitiated, as do the antics of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the group of provocative drag queen nun impersonators scheduled to be honored at a Los Angeles Dodgers’ “Pride Night” on June 16 — this coming Friday.
But queer theology is a mature, established theological subject of scholarship now in its third decade and armed with well-honed arguments that queerness is grounded in biblical texts and classic commentaries. Most newly minted ministers coming out of mainline divinity schools today have some exposure to queer theology, either through taking a queer course, reading queer authors in other courses, or through conversations with queer students and queer professors, said Ellen Armour, chair of feminist theology and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality at the Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Courses on queer theology are offered at the leading progressive divinity schools, such as Harvard Divinity School, whose spring 2023 catalog lists “Queering Congregations: Contextual Approaches for Dismantling Heteronormativity.” The class trains ministers and educators in “subverting the heterosexist paradigms and binary assumptions that perpetuate oppression in American ecclesial spaces.”
Wake Forest University’s divinity program offers a course called “Readings in Queer Theology” and another course, “Queer Theologies.” The latter course’s catalog description shows how the field has proliferated and branched out into its own subspecialties: LGBTQ+ inclusive theologies, intersectional queer of color critiques, queer sexual ethics and activism, and queer ecotheologies.
Back in 2018, Duke divinity students walked out in protest during the divinity dean’s State of the School speech to demand a queer theology course. Today Duke Divinity School offers a certificate in Gender, Sexuality, Theology, and Ministry, “where we privilege questions of gender and sexuality in the academic study and practices of theology, ministry, and lived religion.”
Queer theology is punctuated by a penchant for the outrageous and the scandalous, deploying graphic, carnal – and at times pornographic – imagery for shock value and dramatic effect, but its core religious claims are dead serious.
“Critics will say that a ‘Queer Jesus’ is a perverse or blasphemous fiction, invented by queer folks for reasons of self-justification, or accuse me and other LGBTQI Christians of being deviant,” queer minister and author Robert E. Shore-Goss wrote in 2021.
Shore-Goss is an ordained Catholic Jesuit priest who fell in love with another Jesuit, resigned from the Society of Jesus, and worked as a pastor in the MCC United Church of Christ in the Valley, in North Hollywood, Calif. MCC stands for the Metropolitan Community Church, reputedly the world’s most queer-affirming denomination that includes churches that perform polyamory nuptial rites to marry multiple partners.
“Jesus has been hijacked by ecclesial and political powers since the time of Constantine and right up to the present,” Shore-Goss wrote. “Jesus’s empowered companionship or God’s reign is radically queer in its inclusivity attracting queer outsiders. … Jesus is out of place with heteronormativity; he subverts the prevailing heteropatriarchal, cis-gender ideologies, welcoming outsiders.”
Perverse, blasphemous, narcissistic, heathenish, heretical and cultish are the ways in which queer theology will appear to traditional Christians and to many nonreligious people with a conventional notion of religion. Robert Gagnon, a professor of New Testament theology at Houston Baptist Seminary, described the movement as a form of Gnosticism, referring to a heresy that has surfaced in various periods of church history. Followers of Gnostic cults claimed they possessed esoteric or mystical knowledge that is not accessible to the uninitiated and the impure, Gagnon said, a belief that often leads to obsessive or outlandish sexual practices, like radical abstinence and purity, or libertinism and licentiousness.
Beneath the theological posturing about disrupting power, he said, is an insatiable will to accumulate power.
“They’re only for subversion until they’re in power,” Gagnon said. “And then they’re adamantly opposed to subversion.”
Shore-Goss initially agreed to a phone interview for this article, then canceled with a rushed email: “Wait a second I searched Real Clear Investigations and it is a GOP organization, and I will not help you in the GOP cultural genocide of LGBTQ+ people. They are full of grace and healthy spirituality.” Isaac Simmons, the Methodist drag queen known as Penny Cost, also initially agreed to an interview, excited to hear that this reporter had read six queer theology books, sections of other books, along with other materials: “Just about all of those books are on my bookshelf!! You are definitely hitting the nail on the head!” But Simmons/Cost never responded to follow-up emails to set up a phone call. Other queer theology experts either declined comment or did not respond. One, based in England, requested a “consultation fee.”
Encountering the established scholarly oeuvre of queer theology is an introduction to titles like “Radical Love,” “Rethinking the Western Body,” “Indecent Theology,” “The Queer God,” and “The Queer Bible Commentary,” a tome co-edited by Shore-Goss that “queers” every book in the Old Testament and New Testament, exceeding 1,000 pages. Queer theologians invite readers to see God as a sodomite, Jesus as a pervert, the disciples as gay, the Trinity as an orgy, and Christian unconditional love as a “glory hole.”
By “queering” holy writ and “cruising” the scriptures – two of the ways in which queer theologians use gay slang to describe their hermeneutical strategy – God’s revelation is “coming out” (of the closet), and those who opt to transition their gender experience the power of Christ’s resurrection. In the apocalyptic proclamation of the pioneering queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid: “The kenosis [self-emptying] of omnisexuality in God is a truly genderfucking process worthy of being explored.”
Queer theology presents itself as an apocalyptic, revival movement, rendering queer people as angels and saints who are a living foretaste of what’s to come, when all binaries and man-made social constructs fall away as remnants of heterosexual oppression and European colonialism. There is a sense in which to be queer is to be the chosen people, those favored by God to spread the good news.
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“Thus queer theology is a call to return to a more fully realized anticipation of the Kingdom,” states a 2007 overview, “Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body.” The queer theology movement has been likened to a “a rehearsal for the end times,” and a “new Pentecost” that allows the Holy Spirit to “blow where it chooses,” according to “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theory,” a 2011 book.
Linn Marie Tonstad, professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School who for the past decade has taught the nonsectarian divinity school’s first queer theology class, has no patience for conventional, outmoded assumptions about sex and gender.
“Like, if you think that, I’m fine with you doing your thing and calling that Christianity,” Tonstad said on a podcast. “You are allowed to live your life in a way that I think is deeply misguided and incredibly sad.”
For Tonstad, queer people and queer culture are where the future lies.
“I think if you’re lucky enough to be queer – Wow! Yes!” Tonstad said on the podcast. “I understand that there are some poor cis-straight people, and I sympathize with their plight in life. Like, that must be so boring. It must be awful. … I wish them all the best.”
Queer theology is an outgrowth of academic queer theory and Latin American Liberation Theology, a Marxist movement advocating for peasants, indigenous groups, and other oppressed classes, and builds on earlier social justice movements, such as radical feminism and gay rights. LGBTQ-friendly churches are typically at the forefront of progressive causes seen as united in “shared struggle,” such as immigration, climate change, and Black Lives Matter, said Heather White, an assistant professor of religious studies and gender and sexuality studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.
“It is very anti-establishment because it is the establishment that produces the marginalization,” White said. “And it especially works to identify and deconstruct how societies define what is normal and not normal.”
Bill Heming, a pastor in Washington state, recalls his first exposure to queer theology in conversations with fellow students at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he began his divinity studies in 2004 and first heard the word “queer” a few years later used not as an antigay slur but in the positive activist sense common today. This was during a time debate was heating up among Presbyterians over homosexual ordination.
“Queer theology says: We’re queer, we have something unique to offer to the church, so we should be received as prophets,” Heming said.
To the young Heming, queer advocacy looked less like theology and more like the next skirmish in a never-ending social revolution. He asked activist students what the end point of their justice advocacy would be, when they would be satisfied, and the best answer he could get was “when everyone is free to be themselves.”
“At their core, they believe there must be this continual unfolding of liberation – which really is libertinism,” Heming said in a phone interview. “There always has to be another horizon, another battle, and you always have to go looking for it.”
Heming, who left the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination and joined the more traditional Evangelical Presbyterian Church, is now a pastor at Parkway Presbyterian Church, in Tacoma, Wash.
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Academic practitioners are prone to spin verbal confections around queerness being “an identity without an essence,” unstable and ever-transitioning, defined by opposition to normativity, in defiance of power hierarchies – thus always on the right side of Eternity.
New language produces new genders, creating new worlds: “The rapidly evolving languages of trans groups encourage new imaginings of gender through dazzling blurs, ironic negations, or wild escapes into brave new worlds,” Harvard theologian Mark Jordan effused a few years ago in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
Still, in a society where queerness is rapidly becoming a personal status symbol and Pride a marketing slogan for many corporations, queer theologians are beginning to ask how queer theology can maintain its relevance at a time when drag queens, nonbinary pronouns, and gender fluidity are no longer outré.
In the Harvard Divinity Bulletin piece, Jordan remarked, “I once complained at a national meeting that we had written the same book dozens of times.” Now the time is opportune for queer theologians to seize the moment and push the envelope further so that queer identities are not merely accepted but revered – “I await the moment when genders and sexes beyond norms are accepted as sites of divine revelation.”
Tonstad, one of the leading figures of the movement today, said in a podcast that queer theology will need to exist only as long as the world is organized to marginalize and stigmatize “unimpeachable bodily practices.” Thus a task for queer theology is to validate these amatory practices by offering a vision of “what church would become if it was going to be a place where you could live like this.”
One emerging area that shows promise for queer theologians is polyamory, which refers to non-monogamous relationships involving three or more people. It’s already an emerging legal and moral issue and a potential culture war, now that some municipalities and states are beginning to pass anti-discrimination laws that expand parenting rights and housing rights to multi-partner unions. Within queer theology circles, God is sometimes described as polyamorous and polyamory is seen as consistent with the Bible. The Metropolitan Community Church denomination, formed in 1968 and ministering to queer congregants, offers itself as a “spiritual home” to polyamorous unions.
But even as the Lutherans elected a transgender bishop two years ago, it’s an open question whether progressive Protestants who adore drag queens and kneel to the Great They/Them will ever be ready to ordain a poly pastor or marry off their kids in polycules.
Within queer theology, the tyranny of sex and gender is often the organizing principle of colonialist, heterosexist global domination. If this reporter’s month-long immersion in the books, writings, commentaries, and podcasts of this movement makes anything clear, it’s that queer theology scholarship is an affirmation of all things sensual, sexual, lusty, and intemperate, a literature accentuated with allusions to anonymous hookups, communal sex, leather clubs, and sadomasochistic practices.
This wouldn’t be the first time that religious zeal scoffed at sexual norms as obstacles to holiness – the history of free-love communes and orgiastic rites offers plenty of case studies. Early Christians believed that grace and faith freed believers from observing the strictures of Jewish law, an idea called “antinomianism.” This idea historically reappears in extreme forms to make the controversial claim that breaking the earthly bonds of sin and death requires obliterating sexual taboos.
The late Marcella Althaus-Reid, an Argentine who taught theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, raised that point in her 2003 work, “The Queer God,” which stated that queer theology embraces sadomasochists, leather folk, genderfuckers, and transvestitism in an apocalyptic birth pang every bit as libertine as Marquis de Sade. “Genderfucking” is the culture of challenging, or fucking with, conventional gender norms.
“Holiness is a Queer path of disruption made by curious amatory practices,” she wrote. “We may say that there is no possibility of justice in love unless law is transgressed. … Disruption then, fulfills the law.”
The ultimate authority for these claims is not in secular or empirical knowledge, but in the very nature of God, whom Althaus-Reid described as a Sodomite, polyamorous, omnisexual, a divinized orgy. “Queerness is something that belongs to God,” and “people are divinely Queer by grace,” she wrote.
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Tonstad amplified these theological insights in her 2018 book, “Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics,” which stated that “Christ’s body is symbolically multigendered.”
“Christianity, rightly understood, is about the transgression of boundaries,” Tonstad wrote. “Christians believe in a God whose love undoes every binary.”
As goes the binary, so does the law.
“All the laws are negated, including the law of contractual sexuality, that is, marriage,” Tonstad wrote.
Tonstad is a living embodiment of her faith. In a 2022 online magazine profile that features photos of Tonstad resembling the flamboyant Elton John of the 1970s, Tonstad describes her scholarship as a “deliberate misreading” of past theologians. “To ‘queer’ Christianity, she believes, is to ‘reframe reality,’ a project which — if undertaken with care and rigor — can orient one’s life toward progress and social justice.”
The daughter of a minister and New Testament scholar, Tonstad was brought up by Seventh Day Adventists, read the Bible cover-to-cover at age 9, and at least as of last year identified as a “queer dyke.” She is “now a staple of the New York rave scene,” the online profile states, describing Tonstad at her absolute queerest: “wearing a safety pin dangling from her septum,” pulling all-nighters in dance clubs, comparing God’s infinite love to impersonal oral sex through a “glory hole,” and writing exuberantly of “divine freedom and bliss.”
In Tonstad’s theology, sexuality and politics and divinity converge. Her first book evokes phallic and clitoral imagery to illustrate that the Trinity has been misgendered and that queering the error points to an “abortion of the church.” It is a dense and cryptic work that scholars giddily praised as “brilliant, angry, and iconoclastic,” “fearsomely rigorous,” “an exhilarating read,” and “remarkably arousing.”
“If we move from dick-sucking to clit-licking in touching God’s transcendence — if we no longer arrange ourselves kneeling around God’s Son-phallus or the priest-theologian’s asymptotic possession of it — we will no longer gag on God’s fullness nor be forced to swallow an eternal emission,” Tonstad wrote. “Instead we may find there already the differences of pleasures ‘outside the law.’”
The point is not merely to titillate, but to use language to break down social structures. She explained her ambitions in a 2017 online discussion with other religion scholars.
“Destroying the modern liberal-Enlightenment subject remains the project of much of the theoretical material I employ,” Tonstad wrote in an online discussion of her book. “That liberal-Enlightenment subject typically has its genesis, and thereby the genesis of the problems of (post)modernity (including racism, colonialism, capitalism and possessive individualism), assigned to Christianity.” Possessive individualism can be understood as selfishness and greed that thrives in heteronormative capitalist systems.
Queer theology traces its origins back to at least 1955 when an Anglican priest, Derrick Sherwin Bailey, published the pioneering historical study, “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition,” but Tonstad identifies Marcella Althaus-Reid as “the theologian without whom the term ‘queer theology’ would have little content or meaning.”
Althaus-Reid’s breakthrough book, “Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics,” published in 2000, opens synesthetically, awakening all five senses: “Should a woman keep her pants on in the streets or not? Shall she remove them, say, at the moment of going to church, for a more intimate reminder of her sexuality in relation to God? What difference does it make if that woman is a lemon vendor and sells you lemons in the streets without using underwear? Moreover, what difference would it make if she sits down to write theology without underwear?”
Althaus-Reid contends that heterosexuality is founded on a “denial of reality,” and works by creating a Christian culture of secrecy. At every turn, she mocks Catholic purity ideals about Jesus and Mary that she encountered in her native Argentina: “Was Mary’s sexual encounter with God committed love, or a one-night stand with the unknown? Did He or Mary have someone else in their lives at that time? Did she give God a blow job?”
She rejects this colonialist version of Christianity as a European imposition and perversion: “Purity is, like the Western whiteness which represents it, a single-frequency thought.”
Many other queer theologians have developed these themes, as described chronologically in “Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology,” published in 2011 by Patrick Cheng, an Episcopal priest, theologian, and lawyer in New York City. Cheng describes one theorist’s “queer theology of sexuality” that focuses on the gift of “promiscuous” or “bodily hospitality” that many gay, lesbian, bi, and trans people exhibit. Another theologian has suggested that “nonmonogamous sex acts — including anonymous and communal sex — can be viewed in terms of a progressive ethic of hospitality,” one of the highest Christian virtues.
According to Cheng, we sin when we hew to sex essentialism and the gender binary, thereby rejecting God’s radical love, which essentially amounts to turning sinfulness into a rejection of queer theology. Cheng says that he is not endorsing total lawlessness – nonconsensual behavior like rape and sexual exploitation fall outside of radical love – but the reality is that those prohibitions are not defined, and thus, according to the precepts of queer theory, definitions are necessarily unstable, ultimately unknowable, open to new possibilities, and always subject to being queered at a moment’s notice.
For Tonstad, the most compelling queer testimony comes not from dispassionate, rational argumentation, but from the heart and body. She is committed to dazzling the world – on the dance floor, in the classroom, and on the printed page – with “a different reality that will have its own seductive power.”
“In a certain sense, to show that there could be another way of being in the world, and that way is better,” she said in a podcast appearance. “It’s more attractive, it’s more beautiful, it’s more interesting, it’s much more challenging, it’s much more dangerous.”
Article cross-posted from RealClearInvestigations.