Tag Archives: scripture

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?

Against the grain this week

 

Oh yay! I can choose between two readings from the book of kings to begin with this week. Serves me right for having a sort of week off (posting nothing but a poem) last week, when it was my all time favourite psalm (63) which I had been waiting for. Oh well, I will see what shreds of faith are left me after I deal honestly with the readings of the week.

These lovely readings from Kings exemplify for me what the whole book is about. The book is sort of a kyriarchal self-justification for an organised “church” (I realise this is an anachronistic word but I am being political in choosing it). The great Elijah and the great Elisha work on their succession plan. Elijah also anoints kings (that idea of church mandating state that caused so much trouble in later times- see e.g. Eco’s The Name of the Rose).

The whole book of Kings seems to me to be about “great” men (great meaning full of self-importance) and murderous men, some get the dubious honour of being both. If I ever start to feel warm and fuzzy about the church (and I was starting to) these two books are a great wake up call. We are grounded in patriarchy, militarism and colonial thinking. We still seem to extoll and admire what is legitimated by earthly power and politics and we still seem to silence nearly everyone, and most of all women.

The triumphalism of both psalm choices echoes the first readings. God is almighty, powerful, in control and we rejoice because we are chosen for privilege and ease. Give me a break! Against such a “god” I would side with the children and adults incarcerated on Manus for the “security” of this society and its supposedly Christian values. I would side with Penny Wong speaking out against homophobia and not with Scott Morrison who says he has been “persecuted” for his “Christian” beliefs (recently in Orlando there was a shooting of homosexual night-club goers. This is the “persecution” lgbt people want to counter, not just the “persecution” or people daring to sometimes disagree with them and their tepid religion). I would side with the single mums doing it even tougher by increments because apparently austerity is good for the economy, and with old people who have earned the right to be supported by society but may be forced to work later and later into what should be their years of doing what they like (and possibly doing good too). I side with exploited workers having even their measly penalty rates threatened, and principals facing funding cut that mean students are increasingly frustrated and some turn violent. I side with farmers wanting a decent price for the fruit of their labour, and wanting to keep the irreversible damage of fracking far from their livelihood. I side with the reef and the bight and the old growth forests.

Yes even against “god” because the god of patriarchy and unquestioned power and capitalism is no god at all, no matter how many candles we light and how many times we chant “Lord. Lord” (and didn’t Jesus have something to say about this?). So uneasy and defensive I move on to the second reading.

The first part of the second reading seems to be in the same head-space as me. It says to throw off all this slavery and be brave enough to demand that the consequence of faith is always liberation. Then the focus is on turning this agenda onto the good of others, not just selfishly seeking self-interest. My only uneasiness, is seeing the law of love “love your neighbour” made excessively personal, it is easy for elite and powerful people (and all of us in first-world countries) to have a sort of interpersonal ethic of kindness and “decency” to the people we mix with, the people like us. That’s not a bad thing of course, but it is not the full deal with “love your neighbour”. Because Jesus is always in the last and the least, not just in our good friends and loveable family. So where it says become “slaves to each other” I think that is a dangerous rhetoric open to at least two damaging sorts of interpretations.

“If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” seems to be a good caution against hypercapitalism and neoliberalism. It seems like the exact rebuttal of Thatcher’s claim that there is “no such thing as society, there is only the individual”. In the reign of God of course, the interests of the poorest and the weakest are the interests of God, and God’s interests become our interests through relationship. So there is “society” in the sense of relevant “other”, and relevant other is always broadened. Because God hates nothing she created.

But then the author of Galatians (I can’t remember which ones Paul actually wrote) goes down the predictable and silly path of individual behaviours. I am sure it is better to be sober and chaste and all the rest of it, but the church DOES waste a lot of time telling individuals how not to have a good time, instead of reminding us constantly that we are responsible for whoever is paying the price of our ease. So the point for me is less to avoid drunkenness and excess, and more justice. In a more just world, or in working for a more just world I will in fact have to curb the excesses of my appetite, in order to ensure a just distribution of work, leisure, resources and a light touch upon Mother Earth.

But Paul (if it is him) here is focusing on the symptom and ignoring the cause. Drunkenness and carousing are symptoms of spiritual emptiness, caused by selfishness, despair, desperation or blind privilege. Becoming austere patrician saints without changing the imbalances in the world is both very difficult and I think ultimately unhelpful. Instead I think Robert Herrick has it right when he talks about starving “sin not bin”. It’s not about curbing appetites per se, it is about refocusing on the source of the real hunger, the real deep desire. We are starved for justice and we lust for meaning. It is a sort of escapism, like playing computer games (which is one of my chief vices when very depressed). Drinking, eating too much and having an unhealthy attitude toward sex similarly are ways of trying to quiet the uneasy or roaring voices in hearts that do not want to face the true extent of their brokenness. In a world where we have too many whims catered to, we are profoundly disjointed from one another.

On some level I think even the people who think justice for refugees is “too hard”, “too expensive” [please note it is actually less expensive than the current practice of incarcerating them], or “too dangerous”, I think even those people’s hearts secretly yearn to think differently. We must dare it! As a society, as individuals we must begin to build values into how we live. And maybe that will mean less drunkenness and carousing. I stopped having time for drunkenness and carousing only when I found myself and was able to step into meaning and hope.
The gospel is puzzling, and wiser heads than mine have written a lot about it. There seems to be a level of otherworldliness about Jesus in this reading. He rises above the need for revenge, to me the clearest part of the reading, and then he speaks of the heavy price he has paid for his strong commitment to his vocation. He does not have a “home”. This is where I am puzzled. Does this really mean that we have to be unanchored in this life in some way? Do we always have to wonder through as a sort of an alien? And then when he does not even allow a would-be follower to look after his family responsibilities I frankly feel angry (look at how the Catholic church views both legitimate and illegitimate children of clergy for example!).

But I remember at uni learning about the symbolism of the plough. A plough represents power and mastery over the (feminine) earth, it can be equated with a rapacious relationship. So putting your hand to the plough could represent and overinvestment in the powers of this world. The minute you start to take what is not rightfully yours, to try to control and force your way into wealth and ease you have turned your back on the kingdom of God. But of course if no one plants a garden then we will all starve. Metaphors are limited that way.

The readings are little pericopes, dividing up the long and complicated series of texts that is our “Scripture” into bite-sized chunks. They are a gift to be used carefully and in context. Just as “the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath” so the scripture was made to help, challenge, enlighten or comfort us but not to rule us. Although I felt hostile and suspicious to these readings, they help me clarify what I think is wrong in the world and the church and to ally myself to the values I think God calls me to.

I don’t think it is arrogant to do that. I think it is irresponsible not to.

Forward in prayer and love.