In her contribution to this diverse collection of essays, Marcella Althaus-Reid extends the landmark, loving critique of liberation theology that readers find in her book The Queer God (Routledge, 2003) by elaborating the place of desire. In her words, “the place of desire in theology” has been too often treated as though it is “strategically non-viable.” Further, “[i]t is as if only the domestication of desire can produce actions of solidarity and spirituality conducive of social transformation.” (Althaus-Reid in Isherwood ed. 2007:130).
It is this attention to desire that allows Althaus-Reid to draw upon feminist, queer and postcolonial theory and pull these threads through into a richly liberatory theology for the twenty-first century. A theology that seeks to interrupt and recast this God of power must take account of embodied desire if it is to continue its project of liberation; it must explore its sexuality. In Althaus-Reid’s words, “our question concerning Liberation Theology and sexuality becomes a crucial one when we observe that the liberation of one people (the Israelites) is structurally linked to the oppression of another (the Canaanites), and that the meaning of imperialism is linked to the (sexual) immorality of the Other.” (130). Indeed, the God who is spoken of by the colonial masters is a God of love and desire, “… a God who keeps reproducing Godself in similar affectionate, cultural and economic exchanges. This is the love/logic of imperialism.” (137).
In such a way, this collection introduces what might variously be called liberation, queer, body, postcolonial and/or feminist theologies to the contemporary student. It has a spiritual and theoretical breadth for which the editor, Lisa Isherwood (author of many important titles in this field, such as The Fat Jesus, 2007 and The Power of Erotic Celibacy, 2006, Continuum), must take credit along with the late Asphodel Long (In a Chariot Drawn by Lions: the Search for the Female in Deity (The Women’s Press, London 1992; Crossing Press, Freedom CA 1993), in whose memory the essays have been compiled.
As a whole the essays take us beyond the essentialism that some Goddess feminisms may perpetuate (highlighted, for example, in Audre Lorde’s well-known, generous and pointed reading of Mary Daly in Sister Outsider, 1984) by kaleidoscoping queer and postcolonial readings of the Judeo-Christian story in the geopolitical west.
To begin with, the alchemical re-tellings of Judaeo-Christian story to reveal the Goddess by Asphodel Long and Carol P. Christ (entitled ‘Asherah, the Tree of Life and the Menorah: Continuity of the Goddess Symbol in Judaism?’ and ‘The Road Not Taken: Goddesses in Judaism and Christianity’ respectively) unfold onto Ruth Mantin’s assessment of the affective logic of monotheism in her ‘Dealing with a Jealous God: Letting go of Monotheism and ‘Doing Sacrality’. This leads the reader into an extended reckoning with the multiplicity of the divine. Dominique Olnay draws upon the diversity emphasised in feminist philosophy to map a re-imagined divine, recast from the monadic, hierarchical patriarch. Her genealogical essay, ‘The ‘Torafaction’ of Ben Sira’ is both a robust argument for living beyond binaries and a challenge to the depiction (in the discourses of agents from Richard Dawkins to Pope Benedict) of those who practice Christianity as necessarily blind followers of a male God-King who commands from an imaginary realm above.
In ‘Sarah: Villain or Patriarchal Pawn?’, Sarah Rogers attempts to re-read the story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar through the lenses of race and class, which is complemented by the project of contextualisation, localisation and re-visioning that we see enacted in Graham Harvey’s ‘Huldah’s Scroll: A Pagan Reading’. In his ‘You Seduced Me, You Overpowered Me, and You Prevailed’: Religious Experience and Homoerotic Sadomasochism in Jeremiah’, Ken Stone, following Mark Jordan (The Ethics of Sex, 2002, Blackwell), seeks “to reconsider biblical sexual rhetoric” including “to rethink sadomasochism in relation to religious experience”. Indeed, in his essay Stone “want[s] to ask…whether biblical sexual rhetoric itself sometimes takes the form of language about God that sounds very much like sadomasochism”. (102). Stone makes an important point here about the care we can take in doing this kind of theoretical work. He notes that “[t]o raise this sort of question may, however, involve us in a risky enterprise. For we have to ask ourselves whether there actually exists a single phenomenon, ‘sadomasochism’ which reappears across time and space.” (102). This essay evaluates “the various elements that get linked under the sign, ‘sadomasochism’” (102) in order to “make the critical questions [in this case, discerning a difference between homoeroticism and misogyny in the story of Jeremiah’s intercourse with God] distinct” (109) rather than “essentializing and homogenizing phenomena that should instead be historicized, contextualized and differentiated.” (102). Stone’s treatment of Jeremiah is exemplary in this sense.
More myths are overturned in Janet Wootton’s ‘The Monstrosity of David’, where she poses the story of King David and its repetitions in western culture as an allegory for patriarchal sovereignty. Wootton’s essay creates space for Marcella Althaus-Reid to expound her postcolonial reading of Rahab’s life on the geographical and sexual frontera in ‘Searching for a Queer Sophia-Wisdom: The Post-Colonial Rahab’. Althaus-Reid’s use of the poesis of Gloria Anzaldúa and Eduardo Lázaro Covaldo is particularly apt, as it gives way to Daniel E. Cohen’s ‘Taste and See: A Midrash on Genesis 3:6 and 3:12’ in which he uses a poetic technique to re-imagine male responsibility in the classically misogynist tale of Adam and Eve.
Lisa Isherwood’s lush reading of the Song of Songs (‘Eat, Friends, Be Drunk with Love’ [Song of Songs 5:2] – A Reflection’): poses “a body positive woman”, asserting the beauty of her black skin, shaking off her brother’s insults about her breasts (155) and refusing to be owned by husband, father or brother (156). That this is the basis for Christian doctrine on celibacy extends Isherwood’s queer and postcolonial reflection on embodied desire into territory traditionally sectioned off from talk of sexuality and the body. The dominant voice of the woman in Song of Songs is that of one who “places herself outside of the system of economic exchange that has for so long rested on the bodies of women through labour and marital exchange and the production of the next generation of workers” (156). This very system is interrogated in Thalia Gur-Klein’s anthropology of sexual hospitality and its relationships to rituals of fertility, diversity and community, entitled ‘Sexual Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible: Patriarchal Lineage or Matriarchal Rebellion?’. The collection ends with K. Renato Lings sensitive cultural analysis of the Sodom narrative in ‘Culture Clash in Sodom: Patriarchal Tales of Heroes, Villains and Manipulation’.
One small quibble from this reviewer is perhaps more to be directed at the field that is marshalled by Isherwood’s collection more than the book itself. Whilst it extends the boundaries of Judeo-Christian hermeneutics and western cultural ontology, and particularises and liberates the currents running through it, the essays may still remain closed to readers from other religious or cultural traditions. It is surely a postcolonial move to be more aware of this address and to delineate and/or extend it accordingly within an understanding of multiple theologies, ontologies, faithways and lifeways. Indeed, if the recent Parliament of the World’s Religions is to be believed, overcoming colonialism, domination and oppression across the globe is contingent upon the capacity for folks to imagine the justice in and of belief systems other than their own.