Every year Queer Theology invites LGBTQ+ folks to blog about a topic on the same day. I’ve been a frequent flyer of this program since it launched in 2011. This year’s theme is:
What does your queerness or transness call you to do and be in the world?”
Much like encountering Christ can be cause for “returning a different way” so too can being queer. How has your queerness affected how you go through life, how you navigate your faith, and what you are called to do and be?
I’m a sucker for tomb stories, so I wrote a piece for Meetinghouse.xyz about a bizarre tale where Jesus encounters a man who lives in the tombs. This person is isolated and troubled. Jesus relieves the man’s sufferings by hurling a bunch of demons into a herd of pigs. What is extraordinary about the Matthew version is that narrates the story of two men living in the tombs together. This raises so many questions for me.
Is their violent behavior just a ruse to keep prying eyes away from their life together? Did they recently rehab a tomb, making it warm and cozy, and there they chat and drink tea until they are interrupted by nosey, intolerant townspeople? How did they meet? Were these men pretending all the time just so they could live together? Were they two troubled people who found comfort in each other in a world that did not know how to help them or accept them? We will never know. Tombs are places of mysteries. What happens in the tomb, stays in the tomb.
You can read the rest over at Meetinghouse.xyz
And check out this year’s entries for other writers:
(Original featured art at the Clifford Still Museum by Christine Bakke)
In an interview with Erika Funke on NPR WIVA’s ArtScene program, we talked about theology. Most importantly we highlighted how theology is not simply a means of understanding ancient texts in their time, but theology and Bible scholarship can help us better frame our own values and concerns for our modern time. In the interview Erika weaves in music from the film The Ten Commandments and begins the segment with a series of excellent quotes about appropriation and when it is appropriate.
Film, theology, midrash work well together to help us better understand ourselves. We spoke about the new film, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible and the need for such a work in the world today. The full interview is below. Definitely listen to the first part as Erika shares the quotes about Bible interpretation and film.
I remember falling in love with Jesus my junior year of high school. God received me, embraced me, didn’t ask questions. God loved me.
And then I started getting to know Christians.
While Hye longed for community, it was connected to a set of beliefs that were hard to believe. Writing about the End Time teachings of Mike Bickle, Hye continues:
But there was this one moment. I looked around the room. Nobody had their eyes open. They were concentrating on Bickle, trying to soak up every word. It dawned on me that they really believed the end times were approaching, that the day was near. I didn’t know if I believed that.
I felt bad.
Bickle talked about riots, literal battles between the righteous and unrighteous. It didn’t remind me of Jesus.
This brought me back to Times Square Church in NYC with Pastor David Wilkerson thundering on about the End Times (his vision always included gangs of homosexuals going all Sodom on everyone.)
Weird how these End Times teachings come in and out of fashion in some American Christian Churches. But then apocalypse is a popular and stirring message for lots of groups, not just religious.
In response to Hye’s post I wrote:
Hye, I can relate to your experience. My own conversion and then emersion into Evangelical/Pentecostal community sounds similar to your own. What complicated it for me was the lack of trust I had in myself to find the right way forward.
One of the earliest lessons my pastor taught me was, “the heart is deceitful above all things. Who can know it?” He and others after him taught me that I must not look inward. I must not trust myself. I will always lead myself astray because of the three-pronged influence of “the flesh, the devil, and the world.”
These teachings actually led me away from Jesus and the simple yet profound personal connection I made in my room alone in prayer when I was a teen. It took years to find my way back. The path is littered with theological debris that sometimes block the way.
Something else stands out for me in your piece above. The Evangelical depiction of the End Times sounds eerily similar to some of the warnings environmentalists tell us about in regards to climate change–civil unrest, a breakdown of law and order, drought, flood–dreadful days that are coming.
The fear of End Times–be it by Evangelicals or environmentalists–are designed to stir up action and deepen commitment to the cause. The trouble is that fear is only a helpful short term motivator. One cannot live and thrive in a constant state of terror. In fact, some recent studies demonstrate that when someone is exposed to a fear inspiring climate message, they tend to actually move away from the issue. I see this working with the fear-driven Evangelical message.
So, what does a message of love look like in regards to the future? Is such a message more effective in keeping people engaged and in community? I know it does for me.
Check out Hye Sung’s piece, Waiting for Us to Notice on Meetinghouse.xyz.
As an actor, I look at the Bible differently from the ways pastors and traditional Bible scholars see it. In addition to usinglanguage, historical context, and previous commentary, I also embody the text. I become the people in the Bible stories. Through playful and serious performance, often done alone in my own study at home, I discover so much that is hidden from our minds. These findings are usually well supported in the text.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is how my view of the encounter between the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Apostle Phillip radically changed once I used my imagination to step into the body of the eunuch. I published a piece about this over at MeetHouse XYZ.
The Ethiopian Eunuch is:
• a foreigner
• an African
• a eunuch (castrated male)
• a rich person
• a member of a royal court
• a literate person (most people in those days did not read including most of Jesus’ disciples)
• a person of faith
I have often stood, imagining the Temple in Jerusalem with the crush of people, the many courtyards and fountains, the buzz of activity. It was a highly gendered space. Men and young men to one side, and women and children on the other. There was an area designated for foreigners and for gentiles. Everyone in their place.
I stood imagining the different designated areas. I saw all the families and wondered, “As a eunuch, where do I go?” and “How do I feel being in this space where family is so central?” It felt familiar.
And if you want to hear more stories about eunuchs in the Bible, check out my new film, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. Available at Barclay Press.
You know when you want something really bad and it takes forever to happen and then when it finally happens, you realize, “This happened at the perfect time!” Yeah, that is how I am feeling about Transfigurations, the movie. For years I had been saying I wanted to make a film, but I wanted it to be really really good. High quality. Gorgeously shot. Intimate. Compelling.
Thanks to a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, this project is off the ground. See the beautiful trailer by director, Samuel Neff.
The DVD is now available through MeetingHouse.xyz, an imprint of Barclay Press. You can order your copy here. I will also sell the DVD on the road along with my other project, a comic book. You can see my full performance schedule here. I will have both DVDs and comic books to sell and sign (while supplies last.)
I have MANY people to thank for all their help with this project. When you watch the film, you will see the credits roll and the many people who have made this possible.
I understand what seems everyday for me is downright bizarre to other people. I almost felt bad for Blake Chastain, the host of Exvangelical podcast. In a recent interview I shared the sordid details of my ex-gay past and the many ways I tried to de-gay myself. This included a wild exorcism that got broken up by the police.
— Blake Chastain? (@brchastain) March 13, 2017
He is a great interviewer and got me to open up in ways that I have not in most interviews. He also asked me to share some of my Bible scholarship. Again what has become a normal reading of Acts 8 and the story of the Ethiopian eunuch stunned him and silenced him for a moment. No worries since I can talk.
I share this story and more in my performance lecture, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. I retired this performance lecture in August, and recorded it in a studio with the brilliant film direction, Samuel Neff. It has been a labor of love, and it is ready to watch. Well nearly. It is just getting duplicated. You can now pre-order the DVD and it will ship by April. Find it over at Barclay Press.
Speaking of Bible scholarship, today I gave a reading of my new comic book–The Amazing Adventures of the Afterbirth of Jesus. I created this book with Joey Hartmann Dow. Starting this weekend I will sell it on the road. You can buy your own copy of it over on Etsy.
I have been thinking of writing a blog post all week, but between other work and feeling unready and uninspired, I have delayed. It has been an odd week with some high points and serious lows. It has been filled with placentas, contracts, and a sudden death that has me still reeling.
The bad news first.
You may have worked with Jane in setting up bookings for me back in 2014 and 2015. I do not have many more words to share about Jane at this point. Her death is still too sudden and I am too raw. We did know how to make each other laugh, and together we did some funny stuff including writing The Lost Gospel of Thaddeus and a series of outrageous tweets in which we covered Holy Fashion Week (a mash-up of Fashion Week and Holy Week.)
The high points of my week are bittersweet. The DVD for Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible is nearly at the end of production and will ship out next week. Jane loved this play. It was the first of my works she saw back in 2008 soon after I premiered it. Coming from an oppressive religious past, these new readings of the text moved her greatly. In part that is why she wanted to serve as booking manager. She put Transfigurations out into the world. She also helped me with costumes. I couldn’t wait to send her a copy.
Another development with Transfigurations is that I have an official distributor. Very Very soon people can begin to order it through a new imprint of Barclay Press. MeetinghouseXYZ will distribute the DVD. They are based out in Oregon and will sell it both retail and wholesale. It will also appear on Amazon and other platforms. I will also have it with me on the road starting next month.
Also, arriving TODAY are 1000 copies of The Amazing Adventures of the Afterbirth of Jesus, the bizarre and beautiful comic book I created with Joey Hartmann-Dow. I have yet to figure out how I want to distribute it. It is still in its infancy, and I feel I must carry it around with me and not let it out of my hands yet.
Tonight I will head to the Campus Theater in nearby Lewisburg, PA to watch the silent film classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc. There will be a live orchestra and chorus accompanying the film. The final cut of the film was thought to be lost forever until the 1980s when it was found in the closet of an asylum in Denmark. So glad Joan has come out of the closet.
This passionate Joan, hounded by religious zealots, is played by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, a stage actress who the director of the film first saw cast in a comic play. She portrays the pain and conflict of Joan deeply and tenderly. Falconetti decided to never do another film again after this one. It was only her second film. She preferred the stage, perhaps because she could use her voice and be in contact with the audience.
I am certain this production tonight is something my friend Jane would love to see with all of the pomp and circumstance of the orchestra in the old refurbished theater. Joan, who feels called by God, not only to fight the English, but to do it dressed as a man, refuses to wear women’s clothing all the way up to the dramatic fiery end. Jane, an out, proud lesbian, and a fierce supporter of gender non-binary and transgender youth, would approve of Joan’s passion.
As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible, I can appreciate the diversity it presents. For one it is not a single book. The Bible is a collection of books ranging in number depending if you read a Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant bible. The writings range in type: letters, historical accounts, poetry, law, prophecy, even erotica.
The settings of these writings are diverse–Africa, the Middle East, Europe–as are the languages in which they were written. The writers and people who appear in the texts are also diverse. And gender in the Bible is diverse. There are not simply male and female characters. For instance, there are angels, who although are sometimes presented as male, are also described as not really having a gender.
Then there are the eunuchs of the Bible–so many eunuchs. We must remember that in ancient times, eunuchs stood out. They typically had their testicles removed before puberty, sometimes with their consent, but usually not. As a result, they did not develop secondary sex characteristics that come during puberty. They retained high voices. They did not develop the body hair or the facial hair like men of their time. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them.
Eunuchs could not produce offspring. While some did partner, most did not. They were often single and childless unless they adopted. In a world where everyone seemed to be part of a family unit of some sort, they stood out as loners.
As an actor, I have taken time to explore the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8. This is not the only Ethiopian eunuch in scripture. I have written about eunuchs before and spoken about the Ethiopian Eunuch, Ebed Melech, who appears in Jeremiah 38,39 (see video below.)
What is extraordinary about the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 is that the author of Acts goes out of the way to signal to the reader the many intersecting identities of this one person. In fact, besides Jesus himself, no other character in the Christian Bible is so fully described.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. (Acts 8:27b-28)
To someone of the time hearing this description, they are struck with diverse identities in one person. The Ethiopian Eunuch is:
As an actor, I have often stood, imagining the Temple in Jerusalem with the crush of people, the many courtyards and fountains, the buzz of activity. It was a highly gendered space. Men and young men to one side, and women and children on the other. There was an area designated for foreigners and for gentiles. Embodying as much as I can of the Ethiopian Eunuch, I stand looking at the different designated areas. I see all the families. I wonder, “Where do I go?” I also wonder how I might feel being in a space where family is so central; for me as a eunuch that is just not in the cards.
On the return trip home to Ethiopia, this surgically altered, gender variant, rich civil servant who is a person of faith reads aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. Likely it is an expensive scroll. Probably written in Hebrew. No doubt this eunuch is a polyglot, able to converse in Ethiopian, Greek, Hebrew, and who knows what else. The eunuch reads aloud because that is how people typically read in the ancient world.
The Eunuch reads a very particular passage that comes from Isaiah 53.
Attending white Evangelical churches much of my life, whenever this passage was preached, and it was preached often, the minister either pointed to Jesus or to the Apostle Phillip. Never to the eunuch. For most ministers I heard, the passage served as a delivery system to remind Christians that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. They take a Hebrew Bible passage and import Jesus into it saying this is a prophecy about Jesus. That reading of it, or like Phillip, we too should go around and share the good news.
There are multiple ways of reading this text, but to me the most interesting is to consider it from the perspective of the eunuch. Likely as a child this one was taken from home and parents. This one was physically held down, likely without giving consent, and was operated on. Through a painful procedure with the real risk of infection and more pain, testicles were removed.
This one grew up but never went through puberty. As boys matured and changed, this one did not change in the same ways. This one was assigned a position in a royal court. This one could not start a family. This one was both respected and mocked, sometimes at the same time because of an elevated status in the palace and what was seen as a social deformity. This one may well have felt isolated, rejected, and even experienced physical challenges and disabilities because of the lack of testosterone in the system.
This one then is puzzling over a passage of scripture about a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. This one is curious about the identity of the person being described. This one asks question, “Is the prophet speaking of himself or of someone else?”
Reading he passage through the eyes of this eunuch, I wonder what this one sees and feels. Does this one look at the text and see a mirror, someone similar, and feels drawn and validated? This one reads:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, but he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and was as a sheep silent before her shearers, and he opened not his mouth.
He was taken from oppression and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living…
In my imaginations about this Ethiopian Eunuch I feel the weight of these words. Some translations say, “Justice was denied him.” It speaks of his humiliation. It asks, “Who can speak of his offspring?”
On that chariot ride we have no idea if this unnamed eunuch and Phillip continued reading and came to what has since been labelled Isaiah chapter 56. But if they did, they would have read an extraordinary promise from God to both foreigners and eunuchs.
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from His people.”
Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)
There is a great deal we do not know about this Ethiopian Eunuch and will never know. This one appears as the first baptism of the early church and is often credited with being the founder of the church in Ethiopia. What is most telling to me is that an early disciple of Jesus felt compelled by the Spirit to sit and talk and build community with this person who is so radically different in every way from Phillip. This is not simply a “queer” Bible character, but like many people, this one possesses in one body a host of socio-economic, political, national, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities.
I often tell audiences that ultimately I am not interested in the identities of the people in the Bible way back then. Rather I am concerned about our multiple identities today and how they intersect with varying degrees of access to power, privilege, and justice. I consider how in some spaces people can feel they must check something at the door in order to enter. I urge myself and others to consider the challenges and the rewards of fostering spaces where people can bring their whole selves.
Many Christians have questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues and the Bible. We may think we heard everything there is about these issues. Hidden right before my eyes, I have discovered people in the Bible whose stories might surprise you.
(Many thanks to Dr. Janet Everhart for her dissertation: Hidden Eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible: uncovering an alternate gender.)
“Who Am I?” by Brandon L. Beck
The Queer Virtue Take On Identity (video) by Rev. Liz Edman
“Identity.” by Laura Jesson
“Would I be considered a Gay Apostle” (video) by TheKSource
“Identity Politics Is How I Survive” by Fr. Shannon Kearns
“Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” by Fr. Rick Lopez
On The Changing Of Your Name by River Cook Needham
This has been an exciting summer. Last month I was in Ontario at the Skylight Festival where I performed the final public performance of my piece, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. In it I explore the stories of gender non-conforming Bible characters. In a few days I head to Portland, OR to film the play so it is available as a DVD and download.
I premiered the piece in November 2007 and have taken it far and wide to universities, churches, Quaker meetings, drag bars, Sunday schools, and conferences including Gender Odyssey, Transcending Boundaries, the European Forum of Gay and Lesbian Christians, and Creating Change. I performed the piece in the United States, Canada, Malta, United Kingdom, Sweden, and Norway. I presented it at various LGBTQ conferences and faith conferences. I was honored to have been invited to present it at transgender conferences and retreats multiple times.
But the time has come to lay it down. So much has changed since I premiered it. There are so many trans people who have gone through seminary since and are doing great theology work. New ideas and approaches are out there. And I need to pursue my leading to use comedy and storytelling to explore climate change as a justice issues.
For over the past two years when people have contacted me to do Transfigurations often I have referred them to other LGBTQ speakers, particularly trans speakers. I got a request recently to present at a Transgender Day of Remembrance. Since my work is well received by trans people of faith, they have invited me in the past to present as part of a TDOR event.
This week it was a non-trans organization in Pennsylvania that invited me to speak. I responded:
Hi there. Lovely to hear from you. I have retired my transfigurations play and next week head to Portland OR to turn it into a high quality film. I suggest you chat with someone at TransFaith. They are based out of PA I believe. They can connect you to Trans speakers who will be a great fit for your TDOR event.
I have a list of folks I suggest in different parts of the US and the world. I would love to make the list bigger. Do you have suggestions about who you recommend as a trans or genderqueer speaker? Leave a message in the comments or contact me through the contact above.
And if you would like to get on my mailing list so that you can hear about when the Transfigurations film is ready, just signup for my newsletter.
(featured art by Mila and Jayna Ponder)