Book title: The Queer God
Author: Marcella Althaus-Reid
Church Times Bookshop ££49.50 and £17.10
THIS is a provocative, in-your-face, disturbing book, not least in these sensitive times of highly charged debates about sexuality in the Anglican Communion.
Marcella Althaus-Reid lectures in ethics and practical theology at Edinburgh University. As she was brought up in Argentina, and incorporates the perspectives of liberation theology, she aims to subvert traditional theology by offering a gay, feminist and anti-globalisation critique.
Traditional theology, she claims, in taking heterosexuality as its norm, is “the matrix of hierarchical thinking, discrimination, persecution and oppression”. It goes hand in hand with colonialism. Both are characterised by the suppression of the subversive, the disorderly, the free spirit.
The patriarchal God who ordains this edifice needs to be opposed by the God of the marginalised and oppressed, the dissidents and perverted: the “Queer God”, in fact. This term goes beyond gay sexualities, but definitely includes them.
The style of the book will alienate many. The first part, dealing with the nature of God, is written in that dense post-modernist style that makes no concession to the reader in its disdain for clear definitions and explanations.
On the other hand, it is replete with clearly articulated challenges to traditional ways of theological thinking (so-called “T-theology”): theologians must “pervert” traditional theology; they must eschew “mono-loving”; “theology takes place in the bedroom”; theology is about the “dissolute Messiah”.
The provocation is, of course, deliberate, grounded in the perception that a gay sensibility is by its nature playful and jokey. I could certainly laugh at this portrait of a trickster God.
The problem was to know how to take it seriously as a contribution to Christian theology. Even those Christians who are keen to stress the legitimacy of committed gay relations might baulk at the delight in promiscuity which seems to inform this view of God.
More serious is the apparent failure to engage with the view that South American Pentecostal Christianity gives dignity to ordinary people precisely by restoring to them “decency” and “traditional” family values, enabling women in particular to have a sense of control of their destiny and self-worth.
Despite my unease in, even distaste for, the early parts of the book, I have to admit that it grew on me. Her discussion of the biblical texts on Sodom, which uncovered layers of possible meanings — codes of hospitality, the town square as a forum for gay pickups, the questionableness of Lot’s attitudes to his daughters as legitimate objects of heterosexual rape — was genuinely insightful.
Her analysis of development issues and their relation to sexuality was also perceptive: the questioning of North American social and ethical theologians who hold up Japanese business orderliness as the way forward for Latin America was well placed; the scorn for Hans Küng’s bourgeois emphasis on “truthfulness”, when anyone who has lived under dictatorship knows that lying and deceit are essential, even noble, qualities (and ones that sexual nonconformists have had to cultivate throughout the ages).
In the end, I felt a basic sympathy for the purpose of the book. As in the great Brazilian film City of God
(also released in 2003), there is a tremendous energy, a delight, an exuberance; there is a keen sense of irony and of danger, and of the fact that life does not fit into neat categories, that it transcends morality.
It has something of the holy sinner, the pecca fortiter
, about it. As Nietzsche and Dostoevsky have shown, the Christian tradition ignores these qualities at its peril.
Dr Kevin Ward lectures in African Studies at the School of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds
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