For now we see in a mirror, queerly

Level Ground Theological Advisor, Brian Robinson, recently presented this paper at the 3rd annual Ways of Knowing Conference (WOK) hosted by Harvard Divinity School.  It is on: Queer Theory as a Metaframework for Biblical Scholarship and Maybe Everything Else.


As any well-trained evangelical scholar is taught, I'll begin with the Bible. My reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has the apostle trying to hold together a community which is dividing itself with little hope of reconciliation. The divisions concern the origin and pedigree of certain members in the community (1 Cor 1), hierarchies of social standing (1 Cor 6, 11), and the use and priority of modes of accessing and utilizing God’s authority (1 Cor 12-14). In significant ways the Corinthian church reflects the contemporary state of biblical studies. To correct the Corinthians, Paul, in each case, undermines human claims to primacy and reorients the Corinthians’ focus toward caring for others. Paul’s description of human knowledge as a blurred, or as I adopt it, queer, image is of particular interest because of the role it plays in Paul’s argument.

This paper will leverage the socially constructed and precarious nature of a person’s identity in relation to how that identity functions in the meaning making process in order to present a queered use of historical criticism which accounts for the reader’s influence and attempts to generate more ethically responsible readings.


For the last 300 or so years, biblical studies has devoted itself to projects which can broadly be categorized under the heading of historical criticism. Despite their diversity, studies on philology, archeology, and historical reconstruction have all been in the service of finding the original meaning of the biblical texts. This focus has continued even as other branches of the humanities shifted their focus following the development of post-structualist theory. Rather than appropriating the post-structuralist critiques concerning the stability and foundations of meaning and then allowing this critique to reorient the task of biblical studies, the guild (as a whole) staggers along with interpretation as usual.

The current state of affairs in biblical studies is particularly striking because, since at least the 1970s with the rise of feminist criticism, there has been a growing dis-ease with historical criticism’s assumed objectivity and the types of projects and oppression this objectivity inspires and perpetuates. But why has there been so much resistance to perspectival readings since they have helped identify instances where supposedly objective readings miss something in the text and perpetuate ethically problematic readings? The typical answer is that perspectival approaches cannot hope to arrive at what the text reallymeans. The problem is that no approach provides dispassionate, objective access to what a text means. Not only that, but these supposedly objective hermeneutical approaches perpetuate marginalizing ideologies by allowing the reader’s perspective to surreptitiously influence the reading of the text. The reader reinforces her own ideologies while claiming that she is just listening to what the text says. Dale Martin refers to such a dynamic as “the myth of textual agency.” And it is a myth which we need to stop perpetuating.

Biblical studies’ delayed confrontation with the loss of objectivity means there is a significant body of work from other branches of the sciences and humanities on which to draw. Feminist standpoint theory, for example, views the entire meaning making endeavor as influenced by perspectives which are varied, limited, and socially constructed. These perspectives form the matrices used in identifying, analyzing, and adjudicating knowledge claims. Differences between perspectives can be traced to particular ideologies which operate in the context from which a perspective develops. As a result perspectives often serve the interests of certain groups while subordinating others based on socially determined criteria. Standpoint theory does not just focus on how assumptions operate at a foundational level but, rather, the pervasive influence assumptions have through the entire meaning making process.

Standpoint theory also offer a system for evaluating a perspective, particularly a dominant perspective, through privileging the voice of people who occupy positions which the dominant perspective marginalizes. Marginalized positions, then, become critical tools for evaluating dominant perspectives because of the way people who occupy them are forced to navigate life within the dominant perspective. Nancy Daukas offers an example of an African American man interviewing for a job in a workplace and community that is primarily white. The man must navigate any differences between how he is automatically perceived and the ideal or normal - read white - candidate. He becomes aware of these differences by taking on the dominant perspective in order to imagine how he is perceived so that he is able to conform to the expectations of the dominant perspective. This can result in adapting everything from dress, mannerisms, and speech patterns to editing the content of a resume. It can also result in taking on or avoiding certain roles simply because of the dominant perspective’s assumptions about him.

This ability to reflect critically from a perspective different than one’s own is known as a double consciousness. A candidate, however, who by birth and chance already occupies the “ideal” position does not have to close the gap between how he is perceived and the ideal candidate and so does not engage in the same evaluative process and does not develop a double consciousness. Indeed, he is often not aware that such discrepancies exist.

It is important to note that privileging marginalized perspectives not only provides standpoint theory a liberating orientation but also an avenue for identifying and evaluating discourses which operate within the dominant perspective. In the above example, we might identify different assumptions about race and gender which determine how the two candidates are evaluated even before the interview begins. Once these assumptions are identified they can then be evaluated in order to determine whose interests they serve and what grounding they have in various social structures, not to mention how they apply or fail to apply in other perspectives.

The trouble, however, is that dominant perspectives tend to avoid conversations about their deployment of discourses as a means of manipulating boundaries and promoting marginalization. How, then, do you encourage people to evaluate their assumptions which often operate at a subconscious level? Daukas proposes that virtue epistemology offers a possible solution. The trouble, however, is that virtue epistemology requires virtuous agents who are already self-reflective and aware of the limits of their own perspective and knowledge. Considering the role human finitude and ineptitude play in many religions, it is surprising that we cannot assume this standpoint in the interpretation of religious texts.

Here is where Judith Butler’s work in Bodies that Matter and Giving an Account of Oneself can help facilitate the process of allowing the insights of standpoint theory and a double consciousness to begin affecting positive change in the dominant perspectives. In Bodies that Matter, Butler attempts to cut the Gordian knot of the constructivism vs. essentialism debate by arguing that the corporeal does indeed exist prior to language but, also, gains meaning through language. She balances the existence of physical differences with the way those differences are then coded and given meaning through language and citation. Bodies do, in fact matter, but how they matter happens through discourse. Some of the effects of this coding are obvious, such as when a baby is called a boy. This coding includes the idea that he is not a girl and, from that moment, certain assumptions are made about the child’s life: what toys he will like and what type of person he will marry. Some effects are not as obvious. For example, when the birth certificate is filled out and the baby’s residence is given, one can - from that one piece of information - predict with a high degree of accuracy the child’s chances of going to college and life expectancy.

In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler seeks to understand moral accountability in a world where discourses, which exist beyond our control and self-awareness, describe our bodies and constitute our identities. Moral accountability, she argues, is possible as a person gives an account of his actions, specifically how his actions affect another. As a result answering this call to account requires a person to articulate why she acted or failed to act and, in the process, begins to reveal the discourses which shaped her actions. The narration of the action or inaction reveals these discourses not just to the other but also to the one giving the account.

However, since these discourses exist beyond the control of the one giving an account, the account retains an opaque tinge which clings to our ability to understand our own actions, forces us to confront the fact that we cannot fully make our identity known and, therefore, we cannot fully know why we act in a particular way or why we think of others as different from ourselves. But where is ethical accountability if actions are directed by forces beyond a person’s control?

Ethical accountability emerges as a person becomes aware of her complicity in actions which affect others as well as understanding the arbitrary nature of the labels which allow such actions. Incorporating Daukas’ insights regarding the importance of a double consciousness strengthens Butler’s notion of giving an account since a true account often requires the guidance and confrontation of others to reveal to us discourses which perpetuate the subordination and marginalization of those who exist outside the boundaries we use to define our identity. In the example of the African American man seeking a job, the interviewer may simply think she is finding the best candidate, unaware of how her context has taught her to seek out a normal, white candidate and how these pressures affect candidates who do not appear to fit that description.

But what if Butler’s proposal concerning the power and the opaqueness of language is extended to include the very constitution of identity? I wish to pause and emphasize that while I do include sexualized bodies which fall outside the legitimated social discourses on sexuality, my use of queer theory in this paper is broader, applying to categories of race, gender, and class, etc. This requires utilizing queer theory’s ability to problematize, or queer, the normal and the assumed by showing the incongruities and arbitrary decisions which inhere within any discourse.

For example, discourses which promote a racial hierarchy are queered by showing that constructions of race have been around for millennia yet rarely do these theories of race analyze the same aspects of a person and even when they do analyze the same data they reach different conclusions. Also, theories on race typically serve to reinforce the authority of the group in power while failing to account for the reality and diversity of the group it attempts to describe. Modern conceptions of race can be queered by demonstrating their inappropriate reliance on evolutionary models and defunct scientific assumptions which together posit the white male as the most developed or the most pure example of humanity. At one level, then, the modern construction of race can be queered by showing that nonwhite, non-male bodies are just as physically and cognitively developed as the white, male body and also that white, male bodies are not always as physically and cognitively developed as one might hope. (I offer myself as evidence to this effect.)

The same process used to queer sexuality, gender, and class, can be pushed further in order to queer historical criticism. Like modern constructs of race, gender, and class, the development of historical criticism coincided with the emergence of assumptions about the neutrality of the scientific method and the objectivity of the well-trained mind. The result was that similar assumptions about evolution and hierarchy which are seen in theories of race, sexuality, gender, and class also reside in the way historical criticism defines the normal as the enlightened and objective scholar, typically an educated European male, dispelling the primitive, subjective readings in order to arrive at the text’s original meaning. But historical criticism does not live up to its own standards of objectivity since it produces readings which reveal just as much, if not more, about the interpreter than they do about the text. If our goal and ideal is objective analysis then historical criticism is queer and, therefore, not intrinsically better or worse than any other method.

So is historical criticism worth using if it cannot fulfill its promise to produce objective readings but instead reflects the interests of the reader? I propose it is useful precisely because of its potential to illuminate the discourses which guide the reader’s identification and organization of textual and historical data. Incorporating the insights of feminist standpoint theory and Butler provides a groundwork for understanding which outside perspectives might be the most helpful as well as how to structure the encounter between perspectives. The use of a double consciousness, which is only produced when a person of marginalized identity develops the ability to critically asses themselves from the dominant perspective, is the key to identifying and critiquing discourses which establish some and exclude others.

It is the presence of these excluded others and their call to accountability which provides the possibility to queer identity categories. The fact that we are able to queer categories which are critical aspects of how we conceive of identity indicates that these categories, and the discourses which support them, are not essential aspects of an identity but ideas that coalesce around assumptions. Furthermore, the fact that these discourses and the categories they produce can be critiqued and renegotiated means that the perspectives which marshal them, as well the interpretations those perspectives produce, are also open for renegotiation. So by applying queer theory as a meta-framework historical criticism’s liabilities resulting from the influence of the reader’s perspective are not only utilized in order to identify distorting assumptions but, also, open the possibility that the reader’s identity can adapt to these critiques. In other words, queer theory might not only produce more just readings but more just readers.

The idea that our interpretations perpetually exist under the possibility of renegotiation means that we must adjust what we, and the guild which produces them ad naseum, hope to accomplish with them. Here I think the Apostle Paul’s thoughts about partial knowledge and a focus on love can offer significant guidance as we incorporate the ideas offered above into how we think about the goal of biblical studies. Paul expresses human limitation by comparing human knowledge in the present age to a blurred reflection in a mirror as opposed to the next age when we will see ourselves clearly as if we were looking face to face, as if we saw ourselves from the vantage point of an other.


The blurred reflection in Paul’s ancient mirror corresponds to the real yet fleeting nature of an identity which has been set within queer theory. As the boundaries which distinguish and separate us from others become soft and permeable not only do we become capable of seeing ourselves differently but we lose the ability to clearly demarcate where I end and the other begins.

Paul includes this shift toward others more broadly with the idea of a common good (συμφέρω) (6:12, 10:23) and clarifies it with, “Do not seek for yourself but for the other” (10:24). But the idea of a common good receives its most detailed treatment in Paul’s use of love which comes in the context of discussing spiritual gifts. These gifts are strategically given by God and meant to work in concert for the purpose of building up the community. Yet the goal of exercising the gifts is not a more complete expression of the gift or a more complete knowledge of God, understood in the abstract, but, rather, the goal is a more complete embodiment of the type of self-giving love which seeks the best for the other, keeps no account of wrong, and for Paul is most fully expressed in the self-offering act of Jesus.

While it might be inappropriate to expect the guild of biblical studies to simply turn their eyes upon Jesus, what would happen if biblical studies reoriented its focus away from what the text meant and toward ways of reading which more fully and justly account for the perspectives and experiences, or as Paul might say the gifts, of others?

As we enter into conversations and partnerships which expose our limitation and manipulation of texts we may find new, more expansive, more compassionate ways of reading our texts and shaping the communities which hold them as Scripture. This is exactly what has taken place in discussions of the equality of women, the relationship between Jew and Gentile, and of sexuality. In fact an important shift in reading for the equality of women has occurred in 1 Corinthians. By confronting patriarchy’s distorting influence on the use of textual and historical data, new paradigms have emerged for understanding the silencing of women in 1 Cor 14:34 and gender throughout the letter. What is often overlooked is how these new readings do not just serve the need of women seeking a seat at the table, but also transform the perspectives of men who can adopt a more expansive understanding of the glory and work of God in identities beyond their own.

In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, the point of allowing others to integrate their own, authentic identities into a society is not to:

“Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

The goal is social transformation which leaves the world a more just place than it was before. If we were willing to embrace this dynamic more broadly and invite more perspectives which are marginalized by historic and contemporary interpretations of biblical texts into conversation we may find that our perspectives and interpretations are expanded in ways we could not have predicted. We might also find that our communities are transformed into more just and loving places, not just for others, but for ourselves as well.