Tag Archives: closet

Playing in the closet of Scripture

I have been thinking lately about my habit of writing what I sometimes refer to as “fanfic” for the bible – imaginative retellings of bible events or parables where I add feminist or queer concerns into the mix. Of course they are not “right” (as in objective, factual or historically likely) but I feel it is a valid way to “speak back” to our friend, Scripture, who frankly sometimes seems to drunk-text us odd things at inopportune moments and therefore is not the sort of friend we ought to blindly follow.

I think about how as a little teen-aged undergrad back in the 90s, when I started the Heretics Society (I was one of the founding members and possibly the most loud and irritating one…at times more than likely the only member) it seemed so funny to make jokes about, for example “the disciple Jesus loved” as if to put homosexuality in the same sentence as “Jesus” was hilarious and daring. And then later…a lot later came queer theory and suddenly you couldn’t just blindly accept the “common sense” that Jesus was heterosexual and celibate because anything else is BAD. But that idea of the queerness within God and within salvation history is in the closet- anything that would unsettle church-goers exists in a vast closet of all the unspoken things in scripture, or the hints (such as Wisdom being so clearly female in the old testament and then embodied as male in the new…God’s own trans experience).

I learned happily that there is a really old tradition of people elaborating on what the text actually says with imaginative pieces of what might have happened and homiletic stories. I began to do my own creative writing and re-interpreting of the dark places around scripture (the unspoken things, the possibilities lurking in the shadows) and initially I worried a lot about getting it “right” and trying to find some sort of “truth” (this was before I read Foucault and all those post-structuralists and I only had my gut feeling beginning to tell me that any “truth” is always partial, partisan and constructed.

Because if we are going to re-imagine a liberative possibility sometimes I am torn between rejecting the (unbiblical) idea of Mary’s virginity to give her and the lovely-seeming Joseph a healthy, happy relationship of equals with sensuous joyfulness together; or on the other hand upholding her “virginity” as an anti-patriarchal possibility (endorsed by God) where a woman can be a mother without being penetrated by a male and without her primary relationship being with a male- also where people can co-parent without being sexually connected. The first celebrates the rightness and beauty of human love expressed in a bodily way and the second reifies all the families that don’t fit the heterosexual matrix in some ways and also honors non-biological parents.

Another example goes back to how we interpret “the disciple Jesus loved”. I have seen the disciple assumed to be the “beloved” disciple in an erotic sense or in a non-erotic sense. They are carefully not named which to me implies that Scripture itself wants us to try out various possibilities and finally put ourselves in the story. But sometimes people like to assume the “beloved disciple” was Mary Magdalene- the advantage of which is it puts a woman back in the centre of the story, always in the action and words and thinking of the gospel…the disadvantage of which is that in most interpretations she is then seen as just the “love interest” for the real hero Jesus. Then other people do run with the idea of the “beloved” disciple being John (as we were told as kids) or theorise it is Lazarus (for example)…this can then be read in a homoerotic way which breaks down the presumed homophobia of the text (and needs to be done) but then again all the characters are male (let’s face it, the bible barely passes the Bechdel test). But then the traditionally non-erotic interpretations of “the one Jesus loved” also to me are interesting. So many asexual and demisexual people find themselves marginalised in a world were sex and love are read as synonyms. So many faithful and committed relationships (between friends, between mentors and students, between the people we parent or look up to for no biological reason and ourselves) are not made visible or celebrated in any way because they fit outside that old heterosexual matrix more so than simple homo-normative dyads. When I say I “love” my best friend (who I have celebrated, nurtured, been nurtured by and quarrelled with for 30 years now) people assume I want to sleep with her unless I add “like a sister”, so I like Jesus having all these love relationships (lots of them if you read the text carefully) that may or may not have to do with sex but quite likely not in all cases.

I am talking about sex more than I intended to, probably because the idea of “closet” gives us ways of being that redefine and challenge simple rules about sexuality. But “closet” to me is also synonymous with “wardrobe” a word that calls to mind two images that I find very helpful in my attempt to relate to scripture.

Firstly (here is my amateur theatre experience coming through) there is the idea of “wardrobe” as the place where all the costumes are. I think it can mean just boring old fashion, but to me I prefer costumes so I like to think that my imagination invites me into the closet/wardrobe of scripture to play among glittering ballgowns and shining chain-mail and unicorn onesies and fairy-wings and wicked witch long noses and goodness knows what other fantastical creations that might not always be practical in the real world, and the glitter of which may well be paint, the iron of which may well be plastic. We find meaning in theatre not by some sort of narrow claim to “truth” and “accuracy” in what happens on the stage (and anyone who has ever spent much time in theatre knows that the dramas in the dressing rooms and wings are usually even more compelling than someone’s latest interpretation of a well-known story). We find meaning in theatre through the way we rub up against people (Why am I in the audience? For whom or with whom did I come to see the show? What is my role on the stage…or behind the scenes? Who makes this worthwhile for me and who challenges me and the way I fulfil my role? Who is the performance ultimately for? Whose role in it is most important? What do we do when we disagree with the director? How do I write up my critical piece gently?). The meaning of theatre is not in assuming that the armor or makeup is REAL it is in recognising that the people and humanness is the real and energising part of it.

So when I rummage through the wardrobe department (closet) of scripture and find some outlandish possibilities in there, I am performing to find my humanness and to evoke the humanness in anyone who chooses to collaborate, or receive (passively or critically) my performance. Scripture like an aging drag-queen at times may be pathetic or grotesque but then rallies and is magnificent one more time after all…ever in the limelight and never silenced or still.

The other image I play with when I think “wardrobe” (I bet everyone has leapt to it already) is the idea of Narnia. Scripture’s closet/wardrobe is more than a row of coats and the wooden back; it is row, after row, after row of costumes which slowly become trees, and a whole world of possibility, threat, and temptation.

I lay awake thinking of the temptations in Narnia. I first thought I suffer from the temptation of Lucy- to lose myself in Narnia/scripture and make it my escapist haven from the real world so that fauns/metaphors and suchlike are more real to me than ordinary old things like doing the dishes or paying my bills. But then people who criticise a feminist, queer, or ecological reading of scripture suffer from the temptation of Edmund, especially when they go along with the idea of exploring the text to some degree and turn around and stab people in the back. This all seemed clearer at 3am, and I hope the thought comes back because it was detailed and meant something then. I will come back to this some time (I hope).

Susan is a complicated character, certainly with temptations but she is portrayed by CS Lewis in such a misogynist way that I would want to spend more than a couple of sentences on her (I don’t think all things femme are automatically to be dismissed and trivialised). But the temptation of Peter (portrayed very sympathetically by Lewis) is the temptation to rule and lead and always “know better” than the others, for all that he magnificently apologises to Lucy when proven wrong (which the actual church ought to learn from) he then blames and ostracises Edmund thus contributing to the betrayal. The temptation of Peter is to ignore how toxic and dangerous hierarchies are (even when the person at the top is well-meaning and caring). Instead imagine if the Peters of the world and church listened to the Lucys and acknowledged the flow of power that led Edmund to want to ingratiate himself with Peter at the cost of Lucy. To come back to my point about entering into scripture’s wardrobe (and the worlds behind what we know in there) we need to stop controlling how other people experience the wardrobe/phantasy that is faith, although we can debate respectfully to try to reach understanding.

I enjoy a good theatre experience. I love to enter into a fantasy world and suspend disbelief in order to reach deeper meanings. I don’t think any of that is disloyal to the idea of faith (for me faith means not a place I can stay or a set of rigid beliefs constraining or reassuring me but the wild-chase in pursuit of Wisdom and a lot of scraped knees and bumped elbows as I trip and clamber along the way).

Why are we subjective beings after all? Why did God give us capacity (and overwhelming desire) to weave and reweave stories?

Actively being saved, the resurrection and putting in the hard yards

Wow what rich readings this week. It’s hard to put it all together and say anything new, I can tell this week is going to be a wrestling match. When looking at the first reading I got to the description of Jonathan as a “brother” whose love “surpassing the love of women” seems to call for my queer lens.

But I felt ambivalent about on the one hand an obvious possibility for a queer reading, on the other hand with Sedgwick’s Epistomology of the Closet still ringing in my (metaphorical ears) I wondered if I should respect David enough to leave him in his closet. I also felt ambivalent about whether this possible, closetted, open secret was in fact liberating from a female reader’s perspective in light of Sedgewick’s scholarship about the role of the (male) closet in keeping women out of the centre even of the heterosexual relationships that supposedly define them. David did have an awful lot of wives and concubines after all.

But if you are interested in the idea of David and Jonathan being lovers, here is a fairly clear laying out of the argument for, and here is a perfect example of a circular argument against the idea that David could possibly be a dirty queer in God’s sacred text (the bible does not contain dirty queers because dirty queers are not anywhere in the bible because they are dirty unlike God’s clean bible that doesn’t contain dirty queers). The bible of course is nothing more or less than the handbook of how to be a good fundamentalist.

What strikes me a lot more than the possible queerness, is the waste of human life. These kings generate war, war equals death and tears are the result (I have this conversation with my kindergarteners about unkind-play and stick-play almost every day: some of them – unlike some powerful adults- are starting to understand the cause and effect). David here mourns the deaths of such close friends, and yet the next time we see him I am sure he will be off “slaying” someone again or putting a loyal friend in the frontline so that he can get with his wife perhaps (I still don’t understand how the possible respectful gay relationship we could speculate about David having had is a greater moral problem than his dealing with Bathsheba and Uriah).

But staying with David’s genuine grief and emotional pain for the time being, the psalm says it all. Out of the depths we do cry. We do want God to come along and redeem our nation from all its iniquities. We want David in the story to find a better way forward. We yearn for that utopian dream that some of us may call the “kingdom of God”. I relate to the cold, bored and yet burdened with massive responsibility watchman longing to go off shift. Yes God hurry up…but this is where my agnosticism sets in. I don’t frankly believe that just waiting around for some sort of salvific act as reliable as the passing of time itself (unless we mean the extinction of our species– which frankly I am not waiting for so eagerly) is a morally defensible strategy in the depths of the despair of a plundered, besieged, unjust, neoliberal world. Stay with me though, I am about to do something uncharacteristic and agree with a Pope!

I wasn’t really seeing much to work with in the second reading until I read this (note the author saying that Paul echoes Pope Francis’ sentiments, while I loved the article in general this expression made me give a shout of laughter which almost got me kicked out of the library). I won’t paraphrase Anderson’s excellent argument, or Pope Francis’ clear thinking on the topic of the environment but if we do read the second reading as arguing for radical redistribution (including the Christ-like courage to become poor to enrich others and restore a “fair balance”) then this seems to show a much more real and urgent way “out of the depths” than passively waiting. There’s resurrection thinking here, a way modelled by Jesus but like all real resurrection thinking it demands we put in the hard yards (What did you think resurrection meant? A fairy godmother waving a wand? If only!)

Is this how God redeems us from all our iniquities? It’s inadequate when you consider that the more powerful have the choice not to be transformed by this word and this teaching. The little people are going to have to do more than count on the generosity of the ruling class. But we are also not the smallest of the little people. We do need to use our relative power and privilege to achieve this redistribution “for the relief of others”.

Let’s take those readings as baggage and stow them aboard ready to cross over again to the other side with Jesus (cf last week) into this week’s gospel. This week’s gospel suggests to me both an obvious feminist reading (about the interruption of the invisible, unacceptable woman in the middle and Jesus’ deliberate action in making her visible) and troubles me with its portrayal of Jesus as the male savior of helpless, inferior women. I can read the hemorrhaging woman as active in her own healing, and I like the way this calls into question Jesus’ performance of his gender. But the consent-nazi in me is still troubled when we reconceive Jesus (almost as a trans man) as the next installment in the character of the once female Wisdom, who is kind of like a sexy exotic dancer “asking for it” (Yes Jesus affirms the women grasping at him and Wisdom constantly invited everyone to visit, seek and pursue her but…troubling). Also if we begin to reconceive Jesus’ healing in a different way, saving as an erotic game-play (I am indebted for this idea to a speech I heard ages ago by a lesbian theology scholar who claimed she doesn’t want to be “saved” by anyone at all…then she added in a more playful voice that maybe a woman in a white horse could save her. I always felt a bit uncomfortable with the gender dynamics and implication of power in the idea of being “saved” so this idea stayed with me) even then there is a problem because Jairus’ daughter is both underage and too unconscious to agree to be in the game.

So I am uncomfortable with the gender and power discourses I can take out of here. I am uncomfortable with queerying the gender and turning the “saving” into erotic play. I know the function of the bible isn’t to make me feel cosy, but this is too uncomfortable. What if I latch onto the word “daughter”? If I see Jesus’ relationship to the two women as parental, then I am still a bit troubled by “his” gender (in terms of theirs), but I can see him in a feminised role, similar to my role as a mother and a preschool teacher constantly getting interrupted and called for and jostled and grabbed at. And now immediately (to borrow Mark’s hyper-activity) I am drawn into the text as Jesus (very appropriate in terms of what Paul says about Jesus’ action becoming the model for our action).

And if I am called to be Jesus, not called to be saved by Jesus then I don’t need to unpack the gender roles so much but just follow Mark’s immediacy (see how many times Mark uses “immediately or actions rapidly following and interrupting each other) and get on with the job. Jesus has too much to do, he is called from every side and his never shrinking to-do list is complicated by immediacies where even his cloak is pulled at. The temptation must be to ignore the interruption and continue, or to growl at the woman who drained something from the already stretched Jesus. He stops, publically notes and affirms her action and then calmly continues onto the next healing. The next healing is occurring in the home of already privileged people and he asks for secrecy. I feel I am once more detecting Magnificat movement where the private and marginalised are publically affirmed, and the popular and central are refocused on the domestic (feeding their daughter) instead of given more celebrity status. Jesus here again is concerned with fair balance.

Here finally I run into a real brick wall, because I am neither as energetic as the Markan Jesus, nor as serene in the face of so many people wanting or needing a piece of me. Here the “good news” is more daunting than empowering. Am I really supposed to be constantly poured out for the good of others? Am I really called to act powerfully to address imbalances with a kind and healing word for everyone and anyone? No wonder the guy died in his mid 30s.

This gospel makes me want to be Jonah and throw myself into the belly of a big fish to escape my impossible vocation (but isn’t that pretty much what I have already wasted my life doing?) This gospel makes me cry with grief, guilt and frustration and look for a loophole. Because by myself I AM NOT JESUS. I am not all this. I am not a whole body of Christ within myself. The body of Christ is always and eternally supposed to be community. There is supposed to be a church around me, empowering, supporting and informing my potential for ministry. And there bloody well isn’t!

But before I let anger, guilt and grief turn into self-pity and self-pity hurl me back into the endless abyss of depression let me try to refocus myself on the cracks in the cement of the patriarchal women-hating (no that is not too strong an expression) church. I am not the only “other”, there are other “others” with their vocations twisted or wasted (I moved a church that technically ordains women but like many others found the language and practice still oppressively patriarchal). Some have learned to survive/thrive and nurture others, to channel away the toxins of their own feelings of betrayal and bitterness- referring to the truth of their pain only in ways that heal the “others” like me, who have failed to overcome their sense of alienation and find a place.

The church has failed me, but God knew that would happen and called me anyway. I do realize that I have failed God. Like David I am caught up in the system that causes my deep grief and I am not an innocent, but like the watchman perhaps there is a shift change coming. There are others who have even less privilege than me, and they must be my focus for fair balance- not myself and my self-pity.  There is still a Jesus who crosses to my side, who tells me to come out of the crowd and touch and be acknowledged and healed, who calls me to sit up and eat, who is the one I must become, not just the one I can be passively saved by.

I have often felt that my vocation and even my faith was dead “why trouble the teacher further”? But Jesus keeps insisting stubbornly that it is only sleeping. How then do I awake?