T.J. Hornsby and K. Stone, eds., Bible Trouble: Queer Readings at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Hornsby, Teresa J. and Ken Stone (eds.), Bible Trouble: Queer Readings at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship (Semeia Studies, 67; Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). Pp. xiv + 355. Paperback. US$46.95. ISBN 978-1-58983-552-8.

Bible Trouble: Queer Readings at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship consists of an introductory preface, fifteen essays, and a final response to the whole volume. All of these pieces are clear and engaging. Written from a wide range of approaches and analyzing different texts, the volume helpfully adds to the growing area of queer readings in the field of biblical studies. Repeatedly, issues of gender, sexuality, and challenging notions of “normativity” are brought to the forefront. Individual essays include a “works consulted” section at the conclusion. Each essay will be addressed below. Readers interested in the topic of queer readings of Scripture will find many useful essays and thought-provoking questions raised in this collection that deserves serious attention.

Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone (“Already Queer: A Preface,” pp. ix–xiv) briefly introduce the perspectives and content of the volume, emphasizing the shifts in meaning and interpretation that naturally flow from queer readings of Scripture.

Ellen T. Armour (“Queer Bibles, Queer Scriptures? An Introductory Response,” pp. 1–7) provides an overview response to the rest of the essays in the book, as she highlights the importance of these readings for challenging our oversimplifications and the tendency to idealize characters in the biblical narratives whether we possess a pro-LGBTQ perspective or not.

Deryn Guest (“From Gender Reversal to Genderfuck: Reading Jael through a Lesbian Lens,” pp. 9–43) moves from what has become a typical reading of “gender reversal” by scholars—especially feminists—on the Jael narrative and poem in Judg 4–5 to a lesbian reading that builds on this scholarship, yet challenges its own means of controlling meaning. Guest helpfully and thoughtfully explores both the benefits and costs of such a reading of this character, and how that reading should not too quickly be embraced without considering its effects on the reader, who may or may not identify as queer.

Erin Runions (“From Disgust to Humor: Rahab's Queer Affect,” pp. 45–74), in a reprinted article from 2008, explores the story of Rahab in Josh 2 as a tale originally contrasting and critiquing the imperial ideology that would arise in the later editorial production of the Deuteronomistic History. Here, Runions emphasizes how the identity of the Canaanites in many parts of the Hebrew Bible is “nonheteronormative” (p. 45), and how the figure of Rahab operates both to support and to reject the Israelite response of disgust to these individuals and groups labeled as “outsiders.” Runions contends that the story of Rahab, however, cannot present her as an unqualified heroine, but perhaps is best understood as a presentation of the trickster, who also serves to transgress boundaries through humor and subversion.

Ken Stone (“Queer Reading between Bible and Film: Paris is Burning and the ‘Legendary Houses’ of David and Saul,” pp. 75–98) builds on a recent book by Erin Runions.[1] Specifically, Stone draws on Runion's comparative analysis in one chapter between the prophet Micah and the documentary film Paris is Burning that discusses drag balls in New York City (released in 1991), and uses that same film in conversation with the biblical narratives of David and the family of Saul as contained in 1–2 Samuel. Stone explores how both this film and the biblical account engage the question of who will “win” or “be victorious” alongside presentations and critiques of gender norms. Rather than attempting to present a singular “queer reading” designed to promote or highlight LGBTQ concerns in the biblical text, Stone argues for queer readings (in the plural) that “take as their point of departure a critical interrogation, or active contestation, of the ways in which the Bible is read to support heteronormative and normalizing configurations of sexual and gender practices and sexual and gender identities” (p. 94). The reader is challenged to engage in this type of interpretation, whatever the method or approach to the text employed might be.

Heidi Epstein (“Penderecki's Iron Maiden: Intimacy and Other Anomalies in the Canticum canticorum Salomonis,” pp. 99–130) uses interpretative approaches from New Musicologists to investigate a queer reading of this twentieth-century musical composition based on the Song of Songs. The movements, sounds, and compositional techniques are explored in relation to the biblical text with particular attention to the elements of sexuality and intimacy that pervade the text. The interplay between text and music opens up new questions and new meanings for both the musical composition and the biblical composition.

S. Tamar Kamionkowski (“Queer Theory and Historical-Critical Exegesis: Queering Biblicists—A Response,” pp. 131–36) responds to the two essays by Stone and Guest, drawing from her own experience as a lesbian, Jewish, traditionally (that is, historically-critically) trained biblical scholar. She argues that queer readings are best and most effective when they probe new layers of meaning and appreciation of the Bible, reveling in its complexities and its multiple interpretations, just as rabbinic tradition (which she cites) has long advocated.

Teresa J. Hornsby (“Capitalism, Masochism, and Biblical Interpretation,” pp. 137–55) explores the interrelationships of capitalism, masochism, and portrayals of suffering and submission—particularly related to Jesus' death and to the depiction of women—in biblical interpretation. In this sobering essay, she concludes that while postmodernism has resulted in more acceptance of queer sexualities it has also produced another means of control over such sexualities and that illusions of liberation need to be challenged.

Jione Havea (“Lazarus Troubles,” pp. 157–73) reflects on the experience of reading and interpreting the story of Lazarus from John 11 with inmates from the Pacific Islands in Parklea Prison, New South Wales, Australia in 2007. This intriguing presentation reveals that concerns and connections made by these readers from an “atypical” (whatever this means) social location differ significantly from many “common” approaches and conclusions, thus, “queering” the passage and theological appropriations of it.

Sean D. Burke (“Queering Early Christian Discourse: The Ethiopian Eunuch,” pp. 175–89) explores the ambiguities present in the figure of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) in terms of gender, social status, ethnicity, and religious identity. Ancient contexts for understanding masculinity and those identified as eunuchs are helpfully summarized before reading this person, passage, and book as queer examples that subvert unambiguous categories and meanings.

Manuel Villalobos (“Bodies Del Otro Lado Finding Life and Hope in the Borderland: Gloria Anzaldúa, the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8:26–40, y Yo,” pp. 191–221) begins with a summary of the visionary work by Gloria Anzaldúa and her description of “crossing borders” into the next life and the alternative reality she witnessed. This construction is put into conversation with the multiple border-crossings identifiable in the narrative of the Ethiopian Eunuch and then finally with the personal experience of the author. The essay contributes an evocative commentary on issues of identity and hopeful expectation for another world beyond the confinements of our present.

Joseph A. Marchal (“The Corinthian Women Prophets and Trans Activism: Rethinking Canonical Gender Claims,” pp. 223–46) connects Paul's “dominant script” (p. 225) for authority and group construction in 1 Corinthians and the likely experience of the women prophets before and after entering the church at Corinth with the dominant script from our present psychological authorities (such as the DSM-IV) and the experiences of transgendered individuals. This comparative approach opens up new questions and recasts some of the dynamics observed in the biblical text, often simply moving from a static text with “flat” characters to dynamic individuals living out complicated lives under the auspices of external authorities attempting to define and control.

Gillian Townsley (“The Straight Mind in Corinth: Problematizing Categories and Ideologies of Gender in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” pp. 247–81) employs the approach advanced by feminist author Monique Wittig to read the stipulations and reasoning in Paul's discussion of head coverings in 1 Cor 11. With attention to both ancient and modern contexts, the construction of gender for men and women and what she terms “lesbianized men” (pp. 251–258) in 1 Corinthians is followed by a discussion of the hotly-debated term κεφαλἠ (“head”) and how that interpretation has been used to reinforce particular heteronormative frameworks.

Jay Twomey (“The Pastor and His Fops: Gender Indeterminacy in the Pastor and His Readers,” pp. 283–300) presents a “reception history” approach to the Pastoral Epistles emphasizing how issues of gender have been articulated or assumed over the centuries, including readers such as Augustine, Chrysostom, and the eighteenth-century commentator Philip Doddridge in his The Family Expositor.

Lynn R. Huber (“Gazing at the Whore: Reading Revelation Queerly,” pp. 301–20) advocates reading the book of Revelation through a queer-lesbian lens to engage perceptions of gender and its relationship to political and economic structures, a connection explicit in the construction of the Whore of Babylon in the book itself. Rather than arguing that this book has nothing to say for queer readers, Huber promises no easy answers, but a deeper appreciation of the complexities and the multiple layers of meaning evidenced by queer readings of jarring texts such as those found in this apocalyptic work.

Jeremy Punt (“Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and Biblical Interpretation: A Preliminary Exploration of Some Intersections,” pp. 321–41) provides a helpful theoretical essay on the nature of queer theory, especially as it is often associated with postcolonial readings, and how these play themselves out in the field of biblical studies, with limited examples from the Gospels and Pauline literature. As a basic introductory piece to establish the terrain of the field, the essay could be used in a classroom setting quite easily and effectively. In terms of structure of the volume, this essay could be read much earlier in the sequence of analyses, providing a clear and concise approach to some methodological questions surrounding queer theory—many of which are implicit or explicit in previous essays—rather than being situated at the end before the final response essay.

Michael Joseph Brown (“What Happens When Closets Open Up? A Response,” pp. 343–52) concludes with an essay emphasizing the wide range of approaches in the volume, with particular attention to the contributions by Hornsby, Havea, Burke, and Huber—all of which present a “similar cautionary note: Be careful” (p. 352). Those advocating for the potential of queer readings must be cognizant of political and social mechanisms that would attempt to control these approaches and their practitioners even while providing the illusion of agency.

Steven J. Schweitzer, Bethany Theological Seminary

[1] Erin Runions, How Hysterical: Identification and Resistance in the Bible and Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). reference