Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

In preparation for our conference upcoming next month - more urgently, for the teaser for the conference I'm giving in five days - I've been reading up on "queer theology." It's a pretty heady thing, especially if you pass from the genial digest in Patrick Cheng's Radical Love (2011) to the brain-zapping anthology edited by Gerald Loughlin, Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body (2007). Loughlin starts his introduction with the image above, from the 15th-century Upper-Rhine Libellus for John the Evangelist now in the university library in Basel. It's the wedding at Cana. But who's getting married? The gospel doesn't say, and after rehearsing some suggestions interpreters have made over the years, Loughlin finds that here it is John, and he's marrying - Jesus!

Loughlin's point in starting here is that non-heteronormative thinking isn't something new (let alone modern or postmodern!), but something close to the heart of traditional Christianity. And should you think "marriage equality" is the issue of the day, that's not the half of it! Loughlin wants to show that once you start looking, you'll see nuptial imagery all over the early and medieval church - but not much of it is about marriages between human women and men. As Loughlin tells the story, heterosexual unions are belatedly granted a sacramental status in the Church only by a kind of courtesy, by a metaphorical extension from spiritual bonds which are rarely between one man and one woman.

Loughlin and many of his co-writers are working from the theological movement called "radical orthodoxy," and in its challenge to modernity and secular thought "radical orthodoxy" doesn't do retail; it's a wholesale turning of the tables they're after. Everything you thought you knew about Christianity and sexuality is false, they insist, everything! They want your soul, and your body too. Cheng's "radical love" is a teddybear's picnic by comparison.

Happily I don't have to discuss this on Thursday - it's a round-table on "lived religion," and I'll focus on the lives of queer icons by Franciscan Robert Lentz - but chances are good issues like those raised by Loughlin et al will come up in the conference in March. Excitement ahead!

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