Queering the Bible: Changing the Conversation Around Religion

In December 2017, Fox News published a story rebuking a religion course being offered at Swarthmore next semester: Queering the Bible. This sparked minimal discussion on campus, and the news story quickly faded as students went home for winter break. However, on Monday, January 29th, 2018 a group of protesters stood outside of Ben West parking lot to voice their opposition to the upcoming course. Their posters included statements like “STOP attacking God” and “Defamation IS NOT free speech.” Though the protest was peaceful, the protesters’ clear determination and opposition to the class revealed a need for broader, more open conversation on the intersections of religion, queerness, and academia.

The current controversy over queerness and religious identity is not new. As Joyce Tompkins, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life wrote in an email, “within Christianity, there have been diverse approaches and interpretations from the very beginning . Debates have emerged over sexuality, gender roles, slavery, food practices and many other topics over the centuries.”

The Swarthmore religion department has long-promoted the critical study of all religions, not just Christianity. When Professor Yvonne Chireau first arrived on the Swarthmore campus 25 years ago, she found the religion department a welcoming place where students were encouraged to discuss anything and everything. However, the largest problem the department faces with the wider public, and even Swarthmore students unfamiliar with the department, is a basic understanding of what exactly students study in its classes.

Throughout the years and up to this day, Chireau continues to assert its mission in teaching students “to be global citizens and translating these really, really important issues.” To her, this includes looking deeper into religious texts and questioning the mainstream readings of these texts.

“The perception is that we are teaching how to be religious, and how to do certain religious things,” quipped Chireau. “It’s not like we’re up here praying, and teaching students how to be pious.”

Though far from the teachings of Sunday school, the classes offered can still touch sensitive and generally private topics for students. For some, like the protesters, studying religion in a secular setting feel like defamation, or even an attack on something they hold dear. The Bible, as Professor Mark Wallace sees it, is like “God’s love letter to human beings. How do you critically analyze that?”

Wallace described the reservations shared by his students in his first year seminar, Apocalypse: Hope and Despair in the Last Days and their concerns about analyzing their own beliefs and how they see the Bible. But, as Chireau described, religion courses use theory in order to study a field of discipline, like an English course uses feminist theory to analyze a set of works. Rather than evaluating personal beliefs, students are encouraged to take up different lenses to look at religious texts more critically.

These nuances between reading using theory and reading to generalize a set of people are not always best communicated without thorough discussion. Classes with titles such as “Queering God” and spring 2017’s class “Is God a White Supremacist?,” while thought-provoking, can also provoke more inflammatory reactions without the understanding of the context in which the class is being taught.

John Woodliff-Stanley ‘21 was able to speak with the protesters on Monday to get a sense of why they were protesting. “My understanding is that they believe the course to be an attack on their beliefs about the Bible,” he said.  “I pointed out that it seemed premature to make such claims based only on the course description.”

Wallace also spoke with two women who attended the protests, noting that they seemed to be most concerned about the sexual practices they related to the title of the course. He explained that “queer theory is central to the academy.” With it, students can break down of the gender binary and read ideals that are gender nonconforming behaviors and identities, challenging ideals of masculinity and femininity.

Furthermore, concerns over these courses boiled down to a general sense of a direct attack on Christianity and the Bible. Both Chireau and Wallace stressed the diversity of classes and religions being taught every semester. Chireau discussed her studies on African religions, while Wallace recalled sacred stories on gender nonconforming people in all religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and more.

Tompkins also noted the lasting disagreements even between Christians. “There are Christians who claim ‘sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone); Christians who read Scripture through the lens of  tradition and human reason; Christians who believe in the continuing revelation of the divine through science and human progress,” she wrote.

Though the discussions and disagreements on how to read religious texts and where it is appropriate to do so have been long ongoing, recent increased tensions have created more radical responses to certain classes taught on religion. Chireau and Wallace both fear that the most recent protests will not be the last.

“Religion has become a weapon that people use to attack other people,” Wallace lamented. He, and the rest of his colleagues in the department are “trying to bring religion out of the closet and into the clear light of the open air.”

Wallace stressed the need to talk openly and critically about religion. “We’re committed to critical studies of religion. So we’ll continue to study race theory and queer theory...for more insight and understanding of the traditional religions. And we’re not going to stop studying religion.”

As Chireau said, “Understanding erases fear. What we learn is transformative, and I think it’s empowering.”