Wednesday, 18 May 2016

#bookreview: Queer Virtue by Elizabeth Edman

This... will be an interesting book review.
I picked this up from Edelweiss for review because... well, because it looked interesting. Then I kind of forgot about it until it came up in my queue. And then, I was all, now, what did I get myself into?

Well, at any rate, here are my thoughts. For better or worse.

Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize ChristianityQueer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity by Elizabeth M. Edman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an inherently difficult book to review. Whatever I say, for or against, will probably upset someone in either camp. And I use"camp" instead of a mere divide, because this is an intensely polarising issue with people who would want to build trenches and throw bombs and sing fighting songs and the like. Whatever I rate it will also be a problem, so that remains squarely in the middle, a 2.5, because there are many things she says that I agree with, but there are also many vague areas - either due to my lack of ability to understand, or her lack of clarity in writing - which shall remain question marks.

So, on to the content.

As a professing lesbian and ordained Episcopal priest, Edman comes from the viewpoint that being queer is simply who she is. She argues that the binaries that we adhere to (male/female; right/wrong; good/bad) are overly simplistic, especially when defined in relation to current cultural norms, i.e. you're Christian, therefore you're good. You're not Christian, therefore you're bad. You're LGBT, therefore you're bad. You're heterosexual, therefore normal, therefore good. You're white - good; you're not, no good, and so on.
Throughout the book, she posits that being Christian is to be "queer" - which makes it terribly easy to dismiss the book offhand and declare her a heretic, unless you understand how she understands the term, which is:
something that has at its centre an impulse to disrupt any and all efforts to reduce into simplistic dualisms our experience of life, of God.
This spoke to me because at the core of my experience, my Christianity, is the need to continually break the barriers of the sacred and secular divide, being able to live a life that is whole, no matter who is watching or what I'm doing. She also quotes, early on, Paul's passage on neither male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free - mainly to say that these are false, temporary binaries, both then and now.

If you expect her to continue quoting scripture to explain why it's Biblically justified to be LGBT+ (or queer, the umbrella term she uses), you'll be sorely disappointed. Instead, she uses her life and her experience, the reality of her lived life as a Christian and as a lesbian, to point and say that this is who I am, this is my identity, and God loves me. Which is true. You cannot deny that.

She also redefines "Pride," acknowledging the traditional Christian definition of pride as a destructive sin, an excessive self-esteem and self-sufficiency, but using instead the queer definition, which is about "healthy relationship with Self, Other... and transcendent reality," and involves "a reciprocal dynamic in which one's sense of self-worth feeds and is fed by relationships with others." In many ways, what Edman does in this book is translate basic Biblical theology and knowledge into queer terms, most of which are usually misunderstood because we are not part of that community, drawing parallels between progressive Christianity and queer community experiences.

Edman doesn't go into specifics of how a queer should live as a Christian - frustratingly and admirably - because, in the end, Christianity is a path - a pilgrimage, if you will - into the arms of God. Urging her to do so would feel rather voyeuristic, and falls into the trap of defining people only via their sexual expression. It comes back to that problematic system we have made of grading sins, as if one were worse than the other. The reader can guess, though - her casual references to sex and partners, her celebration of casual grinding, her final story of breaking up a community due to her own failure and affair - that she is much more on the liberal end of things; I am much more conservative in these matters so I would disagree on this point. And yet, as I said, she does not give any firm answer on these questions (pressing questions to the heterosexual, I suppose, rather than to the queer community) so I cannot catch her out in any explicit fallacy or heresy, if I were so inclined.

But I am not.

I am no stranger to self-hatred, and if the gradual opening of the Church to accept queers into their communities to tell them that they are loved is a help, I am all for that. In Chapter 5 - Scandal, Edman says this:
Pointing to that cross wasn't an accident, or an odd literary choice. [Paul] was telling his audiences, the people in his churches, that it was impossible to ignore the cross - and very specifically the scandal of the cross - and fully understand what Jesus was up to.
Again and again, she comes back to that central point that most of us have forgotten, in our comfortable Christianity and our simplistic, dualistic view of the world: the cross itself, in its day, was a scandal, not a pretty bling-bling or badge of honourable membership. This draws me back to what Craig Greenfield says in Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World, that:
Jesus Himself was a friend of the broken... not just an occasional visitor.
Whether queerness is something you're born with, whether it is a genetic aberration, a mental disorder, or just a quirk of nature - we don't know. I don't know if we'll ever know. It's not our place to judge. Throughout this book, Edman is calling us - Christians - to remember the scandal of the cross and the Jesus of the Bible who ate with the sinners and who did not throw the first stone. She opens up a doorway, a bridge, into understanding the lives of the people we've branded as queer, as abnormal, showing us that they are just like us. Human. Fallible. Broken. Desperately wanting love. She ends by inviting authenticity and hospitality, asking us once again to ponder what it truly means to do justice.

Our mission in life is not to maintain the status quo. It's not to protect the sanctity of Us the Church from the evil of Them the Other. It's to stand in the gap for those on the outside and to help them reach sanctuary. It's
From a list of laws
seeing all our flaws
To the blind, the lame,
we are all the same
Our High Priest has come
to make us all as one in Him
- 6 - Inside His Presence; Question Mark; Neal Morse
You may ultimately disagree with her stance. I don't know. I think that I do not want to definitively decide one way or another because I would rather have someone come to God because of the existence of this community - the ability to find like-minded people who will fight the fight of faith with him/her/hir - than to turn them away "until they repent". Because if God had done that to us, none of us would be saved.

I'll just leave you with this last quote:
Be the priest, who simply by standing in a place of vulnerability, invites someone else to enter the sacred.

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