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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Thank God for the Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng…or damn him to Hell? Well, that pretty much depends on which side of the fence you come down on when it comes to the politics of gays and religion.
Cheng’s ready-or-not injection of queer theory into the heart of Christian theology has, to say the least, livened up the water cooler conversation in many a church basement lately. “Even liberal Christians might be alarmed at some of the explicit images Cheng connects with God and spiritual matters,” chided the cautious culture vultures at Publishers Weekly — and that’s one of the nicer skeptical observations. Less generous assessments abound in the “Hate Mail” section of Cheng’s website (he won’t be playing Bingo with The Catholic League any time soon, that’s for sure).
What a downright unChristian way to treat this sweet-tempered, monogamous Asian guy whose Facebook postings are peppered with shout-outs to fellow queer thinkers, 10th anniversary wishes for husband Michael and domestic musings on the joys of his new Black & Decker lawn trimmer.
‘Even liberal Christians might be alarmed at some of the explicit images Cheng connects with God and spiritual matters,’ chided the cautious culture vultures at Publishers Weekly. And that’s one of the nicer skeptical observations.
Ten years ago, I sat in The Church of St. Luke in the Fields to witness Patrick S. Cheng and my old college roommate Michael J. Boothryod get “married” (in quotes because at press time, New York still hasn’t made it legal). Back then — even by Village people standards — the sight of two dudes having their union blessed was, well, pretty damn queer. No matter. The pomp and validation that came with their big church wedding brought this defensive homoagnostic to tears. That, and the fact that I didn’t burst into flames the moment I walked through the doorway, made me at least momentarily contemplate the ramifications of a God who doesn’t punish or judge — who exists as pure (and, therefore, Cheng argues), radical love.
How gay is that, right? Making a connection between the depth of LGBTQ love and the boundless love of God is at the heart of Cheng’s simple, elegant (and divisive) premise. But does it hold water?
Atheists will surely scoff at the tome — but they’re a largely humorless lot who won’t take a leap of faith on the queer stuff because it’s still cloaked in the veil of belief. Non-Christians will find ample food for thought here — but if your religion doesn’t embrace communion, all the Jesus and Mary and Holy Ghost stuff just isn’t applicable. That’s okay, though. This book wasn’t meant for atheists and non-Christians. Neither was it meant, it seems, as a means to win over the hearts and minds of Biblical literalists. Cheng spends some time clarifying the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as inhospitality rather than buggery, but refuses to dignify that “shall not lie with a man, as with a woman” argumentation with all the standard rebuttals. That seems a curiously defiant omission for a man who makes such a meticulous case for the marriage of queerness and faith.
No matter. The book has already found an enthusiastic audience within the world of progressive religious thinkers — and, of course, among Christian queers searching for inclusion, context and validation. Out in print for just a few months, “Radical Love” is already being used by church teachers and study groups in Canada and the Netherlands. Maybe it’s even being taught in the Bible Belt — although nobody’s admitted to that yet. One can imagine the implications of “Radical Love” being discussed (thanks to helpful Study Questions at the end of each chapter) in hushed tones within the context of living room study groups — far from officially sanctioned church meeting rooms.
And for good reason. Those folks at Publisher’s Weekly, bless them, were on to something when they chafed at the book’s use of imagery. Cheng peppers his text with springboard discussion zingers such as, “Thus, like gender, God’s divine attributes are simply a matter of divine performance — a parody or divine drag show — as opposed to characteristics that are ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ for God.” Headers titled “Same-Sex Marriage as Sacrament?” and “Parodying God as Divine Top” and “Holy Spirit as Gaydar” are sure to get tongues — and fingers — wagging. But as shocking as this may be to the mainstream, Cheng’s potentially heretical analysis is done with an appropriate tone of reverence and, well, radical love. Love is the four-letter word in the room throughout — whether the topic is resurrection or eternal damnation. Skeptics who make it to the final chapter will have little success retaining the notion that doors, and hearts, should remain closed.
The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng, Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teaches courses on early and medieval church history, Christology and queer theology. He will be preaching at the Festive Choral Evensong for Gay Pride at St. Luke in the Fields — 487 Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village — on Sunday, June 26, from 6:30-9pm. You don’t have to be LGBTQ to attend (but it wouldn’t hurt).
RADICAL LOVE: AN INTRODUCTION TO QUEER THEOLOGY
Written by Patrick S. Cheng
Published by Seabury Books
Visit patrickcheng.net and churchpublishing.org