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Dorothy’s friends

06 February 2015

Malcolm Johnson on a 'queer' theologian and, yes, that film

Peculiar Faith: Queer theology for Christian witness
Jay Emerson Johnson
Seabury Books £16
Church Times Bookshop special price £5 (until 27 February) 

JAY EMERSON JOHNSON teaches at the Pacific School of Religion and Graduate Theological Union, and this book is aimed at a North Atlantic readership; so its language is not easily accessible to us, but it is worth persevering. "Queer" is not a pleasing word, but recently political activists have reclaimed it, so that it is no longer an insult, but is used as shorthand for the many topics and concerns of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

In his early twenties, Johnson moved from an Evangelical church in the Midwest to Berkeley, California, and came out as a gay man; so his book is partly autobiographical. Can the Christian churches welcome LGBT people? He now believes "that only a robust theology of sexual intimacy will break the ecclesial stalemate created by that debate". He develops a queer theology for Christian witness, and those engaging in "conversations" at the bidding of the Pilling report might find this a useful resource.

Humour is scarce here, but I enjoyed his meditation on The Wizard of Oz. With her three friends, Dorothy moves from the monochrome dreariness of Kansas to the colourful and accepting Land of Oz. When shown to gays, the film is transformed into a rite celebrating acceptance and community over the rainbow for the "friends of Dorothy"; no wonder the song was used at so many AIDS/HIV funerals.

The recent meeting of bishops in Rome issued a report referring to LGBT men and women as "these people" as if they were not already in the Church. Well, we have now escaped from the shadows, and have found our place in the household of faith, our true home. This queer, peculiar faith will bring social transformation for the common good. Johnson considers that the insights gained by LGBT people over the past few years carry the potential to transform and revitalise Christian witness and ministry in a world that faces poverty, racism, climate change, etc. St Luke tells us that the disciples did not remain at Emmaus and erect a shrine to Jesus, but, filled with his Spirit, they immediately took to the road, eager to share life-changing news and views.

Residing at the intersection of constructive theology and critical social theory, this book provides a resource to help both students and clergy reinterpret Christian theology and reimagine Christian faith in the 21st century. It is an important contribution to the still-emerging field of queer theology, translating the rigours of scholarly research into transforming proposals for faith communities.

Two quibbles: there is no index, and the bibliography has only one English book, by the admirable Liz Stuart.

The Revd Dr Malcolm Johnson was formerly Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, London.

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