Texts of Terror, Texts of Hope: Teaching the Bible as Literature in a Gay-Friendly Context

Since 1994, I have served as a teaching assistant, and later as a teaching fellow, at the University of Pittsburgh. These appointments have enabled me to teach a variety of courses in the English Department while completing my Master’s degree and beginning work on my PhD in the field.

In these days of intense debate over multiculturalism, “political correctness,” and canon formation, teaching any kind of literature or composition course involves navigating minefields of controversy. I tackled my most explosive minefield when I requested a position as grader, and later as sole instructor, for the department’s “Bible as Literature” course.

As someone with a longstanding commitment both to lesbian and gay rights in the civil sphere and to lesbian and gay studies in the academic sphere, I decided to address such issues in the context of this assignment. I felt that this was appropriate — and indeed, necessary — for two main reasons. First, the fundamentalist religious right has been vigorous in its attempts to use the Bible as a tool with which to oppose lesbian and gay civil rights. I felt that it would be impossible to ignore this current cultural phenomenon in the context of the Bible as literature. Secondly, my research had led me to realize that some of the most provocative and insightful work in contemporary biblical scholarship has been produced by openly gay, or gay-friendly, writers. Scholars and activists such as Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Tom Horner, Nancy Wilson, Peter Gomes, Rebecca Alpert, and Gary David Comstock have produced a wealth of compelling perspectives on the Bible; to ignore this rich branch of scholarship seemed to me to be cheating my students.

In this paper I will review both the strategies I used and the lessons I learned over the course of my three semesters teaching “Bible as Literature.” First, I will describe the “three worlds of the Bible” concept which provided a framework for my gay-positive approach. Next, I will discuss how theories of difference, privilege, and marginalization informed my presentation of both the Bible and the secondary texts which I shared with my students. I will then explain my interrogation of the hermeneutics of those who have historically sought to use the Bible as a tool of oppression. Next, I will discuss my presentation of those “tribal texts” within the Bible that have played a role in the cultural lives of marginalized groups. In the next section of the paper I will consider some of the alternative ways of reading the Bible which have been employed by members of oppressed communities. Following this, I will explain how the readings of various marginalized groups are often suppressed or ignored by those privileged groups who often control the production of knowledge about the Bible. Next, I will consider both student responses to my approach and the lessons which I learned over the course of three semesters. Finally, I will explain how two brutal murders moved me to renew my commitment to progressive biblical studies.

In so reflecting upon my experiences as a teacher, I am very much indebted to the insights made by biblical scholar Phyllis Trible in her classic 1984 study Texts of Terror. In that work, Trible focused on four “texts of terror” in which women suffered rape, torture, and even death at the hands of patriarchal males.1 [Please note: Clicking on footnotes will open another page so you can keep the notes handy as you read Of these brutal stories Trible observes, “To tell and hear tales of terror is to wrestle with demons in the night. . . . We struggle mightily, only to be wounded. But yet we hold on seeking a blessing: the healing of wounds, and the restoration of health” (4, 5). For me as a teacher, that quest for healing and restoration entails dealing honestly and unflinchingly with biblical texts of terror such as those which Trible confronts. But I found that terror was only one aspect of the Bible; in that vast anthology of writings, I also sought out texts of hope. This essay details that journey along the paths of both terror and hope which I undertook with my fellow instructors and my students.

Three Worlds of the Bible

Although I was eager to share gay and lesbian critical perspectives on the Bible with my students, I realized I needed to place this material in a meaningful scholarly context. Furthermore, I was determined not to let the course mutate from “The Bible as Literature” into “Gay and Lesbian Perspectives on the Bible.” Although such a course would be valuable, it was not the course which the students had registered for. Furthermore, I did not want to teach a course on the Bible with so narrow a focus; I wanted to address a wide variety of scholarly and political issues relevant to biblical studies. “Lesbian and Gay Perspectives on the Bible” may beckon me to teach it in the future, but for the 1997-98 academic cycle I was working within different intellectual parameters.

The approach I ultimately took to teaching the Bible was one I called “the three worlds of the Bible.” Inspired by the work of the Bible and Culture Collective, this approach looked at three areas of inquiry. The first of the three worlds of the Bible is the world behind the Bible. This I defined on the final version of my syllabus as being “made up of the various writers, editors, institutions, and communities which have contributed towards shaping the texts as we have them today.” It was under this rubric that I discussed such topics as theories about biblical authorship, the histories of the communities that produced the texts, and the relationship of such pre-biblical texts as the Gilgamesh Epic to the Bible. The second “world” was the world inside the Bible, by which I referred to the “characters, themes, rhetorical devices, poetic structures, and examples of figurative language” that my students would encounter in the process of reading the text. In this context the class considered such phenomena as plot, dialogue, and character development within biblical narratives. Understanding these two worlds of the Bible helped prepare my students to explore the third world of the Bible — the world in front of the Bible.

In my final syllabus I described this world in front of the Bible thus:

This is the history of the texts after they are “completed.” When we look at the world in front of the Bible, we consider how various individuals, institutions, and communities have read, responded to, and used the texts over the span of millennia. This area of inquiry is the world of poets like John Milton, whose works retell biblical narratives; it is the world of the Qu’ran, the Book of Mormon, and other “post-biblical” holy books that respond to and re-imagine the Bible; it is the world of political and intellectual controversies over issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage, Darwinian evolution, and gay rights — controversies in which opposing sides use the Bible to support their case.

This was the rubric under which I dealt with much of the gay-positive biblical scholars mentioned above. Implicit in my approach was the acknowledgment of a lesbian and gay culture, or cultures. Those scholars and activists who have reclaimed the Bible from the right, and have re-imagined it as a vital sourcebook for lesbian and gay culture and spirituality, are part of the diverse world in front of the Bible.

Difference, Marginalization, and Dominance

A core idea undergirding my gay-friendly approach to the Bible was an exploration of concepts of difference, marginalization, and dominance. Each time I taught the Bible as Literature I raised these issues on the first day of class. Drawing on the work of political theorists such as Audre Lorde and Iris Marion Young, I explained to my students that in situations where some form of difference — differences in gender, ethnicity, sexuality, national origin, religious background, etc. — exist between two or more groups, that difference can be turned into a tool by which one group is privileged over others. The privileged, or dominant group, may enjoy numerical superiority, access to greater weapons technology, economic power, or greater political prestige; these or other factors may enable them to maintain a position of dominance. Those groups which are “pushed to the margins” — denied political rights, stripped of their land, or even targeted for mass murder — are often defined as inferior or deviant by the ideologues of the dominant group. As I discussed these concepts with my students, I invited them to name some concrete examples of this process in action. Such examples discussed included the attempted genocide against Jews under the Nazi regime, the Apartheid system of South Africa, American slavery, and the fight against women’s suffrage in the United States.

Concepts such as difference, privilege, and marginalization were, I asserted, integral to understanding a key aspect of the world in front of the Bible. In my research for the course, I discovered that the Bible has been used as a tool to augment numerous systems of dominant and oppression. In fact, virtually every such system in the Western world for the last two thousand years has, at some point, had the Bible wedded to it. American anti-Catholic bigotry, South African Apartheid, genocidal wars against Native Americans, American racial segregation, attacks on the Equal Rights Amendment, anti-Semitism, the fight against lesbian and gay rights — all these and other causes have enjoyed the services of biblical interpreters.2

While acknowledging the power of biblical interpretation to support systems of domination, I also noted that the Bible has been reclaimed by many marginalized communities as a powerful tool with which to overcome oppression. The Bible has always been such a double-edged sword in struggles between dominant and marginalized groups; during the course I frequently shared with my students examples of the biblical rhetoric of both sides.

Selective Literalism and the “Dangerous Bible”

From an ethical standpoint, I did not feel it was enough merely to inform my students that the Bible has been used to establish systems of domination; I felt I needed to dissect the method by which the ideologues of domination read and used the texts. Essentially, the method used by slave masters, segregationists, gay bashers, and all other oppressive interpreters is selective literalism. Each of these ideological camps posits their particular version of the Bible as the authoritative, infallible Word of God; they virtually ignore the presence of the human element — including human prejudice and other cultural baggage — in the writing and editing of the texts. Claiming to take this authoritative, divine word absolutely literally, each group selectively chooses the prooftexts which further a particular course. Of course, this method of selective literalism entails ignoring, or creatively reinterpreting, those scriptures which may seem to contradict a given ideology.

A striking example of selective literalism which I shared with each of my classes on our first meetings involved the underground snake-handling sects of Appalachia. Elliot Wigginton’s excellent study, “The People Who Take Up Serpents,” was my primary source for this material. Although, to be fair, the snake-handlers are not apparently employing the Bible to attack a particular marginalized group — in fact, one could look at them as a persecuted minority within American society — their method of reading the Bible nonetheless echoes that of various hegemonic groups.

The snake-handling churches base their unique style of worship on two verses from the New Testament: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. . .” (Mark 16: 17, 18). Their literal reading of this pronouncement leads the members of these underground, rural congregations to handle various species of venomous snakes during their worship services. Although this activity may be seen as extreme by outsiders, to members of these fellowships this ritual is an integral part of their Christian identity. As one snake-handling preacher declared, “I can’t understand why th’people can’t see it. Right there it is in th’Bible” (Wigginton 373).

These snake-handlers literally risk their lives for their hermeneutics; in that sense the Bible is dangerous to them. However, even more serious is the use of the Bible by privileged groups to either suppress knowledge or to oppress marginalized communities. A prime example of this phenomenon is the Vatican response to the work of Galileo Galilei. Galileo was convicted of heresy in 1633 for advocating a heliocentric model of the solar system: a model which depicted the earth revolving around the sun. This theory brought Galileo into conflict with those selective literalists who advocated geocentrism: the model which placed the earth at the center of the universe. Geocentrists based their argument on such passages as Joshua 10: 12-13, in which Joshua commands the sun and moon to temporarily halt their revolution around the earth. They also cited such verses as Psalm 93:1 — “[The world also is established, that it cannot be moved.” Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who was Galileo’s chief accuser, commented thus on these and other passages: “If [you want to read not only the Holy Fathers, but also the modern commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will find all agreeing in the literal interpretation that the sun is in heaven and turns around the earth with great speed, and that the earth is very far from heaven and sits at the center of the world [system” (Fantoli 175). As do the snake-handlers today, Cardinal Bellarmine relied on a literal reading of selected biblical verses.3

Galileo found himself facing the wrath of biblical literalists because of his challenge to orthodox doctrine. In contrast, members of various marginalized groups have, throughout Christian history, been victimized by biblical literalists because of their very identities. An example of such abuse which I shared with my classes was the appropriation of the Bible as a tool to support the institution of American slavery. Biblical literalists cited verses such as Leviticus 25:44 — “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids” — and Ephesians 6:5 — “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh” — in order to argue that the Bible both authorized the institution of slavery and condemned those who resisted the institution. Indeed, a literal interpretation and application of such passages led W.G. Brownlow, in his debate with abolitionist Abram Pryne, to declare, “American slavery is not only not sinful, but especially commanded by God through Moses, and approved through the Apostles by Christ” (91).

I made clear to my students that the use of the Bible as such a tool of dominance and oppression has had tragic results throughout Christian history. To make my point, I shared with them an excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass, a nineteenth-century African-American man who escaped from slavery and eventually wrote a series of important autobiographies, graphically reported the results of this pro-slavery biblical interpretation. Regarding one master who “found religious sanction for his cruelty,” Douglass wrote the following: “I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of scripture — ‘He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes'” — a paraphrase of Luke 12:47 (98, 99). By sharing Douglass’ record of this sickening image — a privileged white Christian male violently abusing a disabled Black slave woman — I hoped to offer my students a concrete example of my concept of the “dangerous Bible.”

“Outing the Tribal Texts”

One of the greatest pleasures I derived from teaching the Bible as literature was pointing out to my students those biblical texts which have inspired and strengthened oppressed communities. Nancy Wilson, a minister with the Metropolitan Community Church, calls such texts of the Lesbian and Gay community “tribal texts.” I reflected with my students not only on the tribal texts of lesbians and gay men, but also on those texts that have been particularly important in the history of other “tribes,” such as women and African-Americans.

One early “tribal text” involved Dina, daughter of Jacob. One of the Bible’s first rape survivors, she was the inspiration for the title of a pioneering Jewish feminist anthology, The Tribe of Dina, edited by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz. While lecturing on her story I read to my class the moving preface to that anthology:

Dina, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, the sister of the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. And she went out of her father’s house seeking other women. What did she want? What did she want to give? Did she ever reach them before Shechem the Hivite took her? Did he seduce her? Attract her? Did he rape her? Did her soul cleave unto him? And when the brothers found out, what did she feel?

The editors of The Tribe of Dina raise questions left unanswered by the patriarchal text; they note that these verses narrate “[only what the men thought and felt.” Nevertheless, they continue their search for redemptive meaning when confronted by this narrative: “And Dina: Did she want something away from the father, away from the brothers? Did she need her mother? Did she long for sisters, for daughters to gather a Tribe of Dina?” The example of Dina helped me to drive home an important lesson to my students: members of marginalized communities seeking liberation will often see aspects of the Bible which those allied with systems of dominance overlook. For those invested in patriarchy, Dina is merely a voiceless catalyst for conflict between male characters; it is the male progeny of Jacob who are truly important. But for those seeking to understand and oppose the oppression of women, Dina becomes a far more significant figure.

Despite my careful construction of an intellectual framework for the discovery of various tribal texts, some students felt uncomfortable with gay and lesbian perspectives on such relationships as that between David and Jonathan, or between Ruth and Naomi. To help ease them into this new way of reading the Bible, I approached this material with the following attitude: I was not trying to convince my students that the historical figures on whom these characters may have been based were gay. Neither was I trying to convince them that the biblical authors intended for the reader to interpret these characters as gay. Indeed, I pointed out that “gay” and “lesbian” were fairly modern concepts. My essential point about these and other lesbian and gay tribal texts was this: These characters have played, and continue to play, important roles in modern lesbian and gay cultural history. Just as nineteenth century African-Americans saw in the figure of Moses a character who inflamed their imaginations and embodied their dreams of freedom, so to have gay men and lesbians claimed a number of biblical figures as part of their heritage. This approach helped keep the class discussion from degenerating into a debate as to whether or not David and Jonathan were “gay.”

I made sure to do my own homework before I discussed lesbian and gay tribal texts with my students. I pointed out that Raphael Patai (171-72) had pointed out the homoerotic nature of the story of David and Jonathan in 1959, and that Jeannette Foster (22-23) had placed the book of Ruth in a lesbian literary context as early as 1956. I wanted my students to understand that lesbian and gay perspectives on biblical texts were not something that I was making up off the top of my head; this type of scholarship has, rather, been going on for decades.

Resistant Readings and the Heterogeneous Bible

One of my goals in teaching the Bible as Literature was to expose my students to different ways of reading the Bible. In doing so, I realized that I would be demonstrating hermeneutical methods that radically differ from those used in most churches and Sunday schools. This traditional, uncritical hermeneutic generally assumes that a given version of the Bible is an internally consistent, monovocal source of propositional truths to which the reader is obliged to defer. Knowing that many — if not most — of my students had been exposed to this hermeneutic at some point, I shared with them the work of critics who engaged in alternative hermeneutics. One such strategy was that of resistant reading, whereby a reader challenges authorial assumptions and ideology; a second strategy looks for discordant voices at work within the biblical texts. It is significant that whereas the uncritical hermeneutic is often used to support ideologies of domination, these alternative hermeneutics are frequently employed by members of marginalized groups as part of a liberationist strategy.

A good example of resistant reading is offered by Native American journalist Robert Allen Warrior. His work was crucial to my lectures on the books of Numbers through Joshua. In these narratives, the Israelites invade the “promised land.” Finding other nations already present, they proceed to either enslave or commit acts of genocide against the indigenous peoples. Consider, for example, the fate of the king of Bashan and his people:

And the Lord said unto Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon.

So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left alive: and they possessed his land. (Numbers 21:34, 35)

An uncritical reading of stories such as this one assumes that the Israelites were justified in their actions against these idolatrous, unclean peoples. Indeed, such readings by Christians of European heritage have played a tragic role in the Native American experience. Puritan writer Increase Mather, for example, saw in these narratives of conquest and genocide a biblical model for the encounter between European colonists and the indigenous peoples of the New World. In his 1676 book A Brief History of the Warr with the Indians in Newe-England, Mather declared, “That the Heathen People amongst whom we live, and whose land the Lord God of our Fathers hath given to us for a rightful Possession, have at sundry times been plotting mischievous devices against that part of the English Israel which is seated in these goings down of the sun, no man. . . can be ignorant” (86). As Israel was apparently justified in slaughtering the Canaanites and confiscating their land, so too did Mather believe that he and his fellow Christian colonists — “the English Israel” — were justified in their genocidal campaign against the first inhabitants of the New World.

Robert Allen Warrior offers a contemporary Native American response to the deadly hermeneutics of Increase Mather. In a rebuke to liberation theologians and others who insist upon a noncritical reading of these problematic biblical passages, Warrior writes:

The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus story with Canaanite eyes. And, it is the Canaanite side of the story that has been overlooked by those seeking to articulate theories of liberation. Especially ignored are those parts of the story that describe Yahweh’s command to mercilessly annihilate the indigenous population. (289)

His reading was a powerful classroom example of my teacherly suggestion that sometimes a resistant reading of a given text is both intellectually and morally valid. Moreover, Warrior’s comments served as a good introduction to resistant readings from a variety of perspectives — Jewish, feminist, African-American, lesbian and gay, and others.

Another alternative hermeneutic involved an active search for ideological conflicts between various biblical authors. By so highlighting the polyvocality of the Bible, this alternative hermeneutic challenges the authoritarian assertion that the Bible “speaks” with a single, unambiguous voice. And like the practice of resistant reading, the search for biblical polyvocality is a way of reading historically favored by those against whom biblical texts have been deployed as rhetorical agents of oppression.

Consider the classic nineteenth century text The Woman’s Bible. Co-written by a collective of women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible was an anthology of biblical passages juxtaposed with biting commentary by these female critics. Writing in an era during which opponents of women’s suffrage turned to the Bible for intellectual ammunition, Stanton’s project boldly explored the polyvocality of this text. For example, Stanton herself uses biblical precedent to undercut the Pauline commands regarding wifely submission:

We have some grand types of women presented for our admiration in the Bible. Deborah for her courage and military prowess; Huldah for her learning, prophetic insight and statesmanship, seated in the college in Jerusalem, where Josiah the king sent his cabinet ministers to consult her as to the policy of his government; Esther, who ruled as well as reigned; and Vashti, who scorned the Apostle’s command, “Wives, obey your husbands.” She refused the king’s orders to grace with her presence his revelling court. (2:86, 87)

Stanton thus privileges several authorial voices over that of Paul in Ephesians 5:22.

This attention to the polyvocality of the Bible figured prominently in my lesson on the Book of Ruth. In this narrative, the author not only presents Ruth, a non-Israelite character, in a positive light, but also writes approvingly of her interethnic marriage with the Israelite Boaz. For an illuminating comparison, I read to my class some excerpts from the Book of Ezra: “And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel. . . said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land. . . . Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them” (Ezra 10:2, 3). In contrast with the Book of Ruth, the Book of Ezra maintains an inflexibly negative attitude towards interethnic marriage.[4 These juxtaposed readings demonstrated the polyvocality of the Bible; the contrasting views of one author often form a counterpoint to those of another. As I told my students, for every violent, dehumanizing, or divisive passage in the Bible, one can find at least one liberating, humane, and inclusive countertext; we as moral beings have to choose which texts we will privilege.

Marginalized Communities and Suppressed Readings

An important theme of my class was that any and all readings of the Bible are politically motivated. This observation is particularly true with regard to the conflict of interpretation between marginalized and dominant reading communities. Whereas the marginalized readers often highlight biblical characters and motifs which can augment their liberationist agenda, conservative readers of the dominant group often either ignore or actively suppress such readings of those same passages. A complex example of this hermeneutical tension involves the eunuch of the Ethiopian Candace (Acts 8:26-40). This character, a gentile student of the Hebrew Bible, is baptized by the apostle Philip. Of this eunuch the editors of The Original African Heritage Study Bible declare:

This is the longest passage in the New Testament that explicitly and unambiguously deals with Black Africa in relation to the Holy Land. In some ways it has been a thorn in the flesh of those interpreters who have harbored a definite racial bias against Blacks. Some of them have refused to accept the fact that Ethiopians are to be considered Black people and have gone as far as locating biblical Ethiopia in Mesopotamia. . . . In short one can only stand in utter amazement at the lengths to which alleged Christian scholars and religious leaders have gone to vent their own narrow racial understanding through this text. (1587 n. 11)

I found this condemnation of Eurocentric white scholarship to be quite compelling. Out of curiosity, I looked at this same passage in The New Scofield Reference Bible, a Eurocentric study Bible. Amazingly, the editors, despite voluminous footnotes on other passages and topics, completely ignore this character. Racially insensitive “scholarship” essentially suppresses a Black Liberationist reading of this story.

The Eunuch is a figure of interest not only to all people of African heritage, but also to lesbians and gay men of all ethnic groups. Many scholars have noted his significance as a “sexual minority” in the Biblical text. Indeed, this character is the culmination of a series of biblical passages about eunuchs that encompass both the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament. From their initial exclusion from the Mosaic covenant, the eunuchs ultimately, in the person of this Ethiopian pilgrim, are welcomed into a new community of faith.5 As Nancy Wilson observes, however, status quo scholarship ignores the significance of the Ethiopian Eunuch for lesbian and gay liberation much as it ignores his significance in the cultural heritage of people of African descent. Noting her dismay at the fact that the editors of “mainstream” (i.e. heterosexist) biblical commentaries regularly fail to cross-reference passages about biblical eunuchs, Wilson observes, “These are the politics of biblical interpretation at their most subtle and at their worst. Such gross omission and silence obscure the possible relationship of these passages” (128).

Both the racist and heterosexist readings of the story of the Ethiopian eunuch exemplify what Iris Marion Young calls cultural imperialism: “the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm” (59). Because white heterosexuals have traditionally controlled the institutions which produce and disseminate biblical scholarship, much of this material has either ignored or marginalized the readings of people of other sexual and racial categories. Despite this cultural hegemony, progressive biblical scholars such as David Tracy have emphasized the value of marginalized communities’ readings of the Bible. Tracy declares, “[The readings of the oppressed — however different and even uncivil by some tired standards of what can count as civil discourse — must be heard, and preferably heard first. . . . Through their interpretations and actions, we can finally read these texts with new eyes” (104). Indeed, encouraging my students to read the Bible with such “new eyes” was one of the main goals of my overall approach.

Student Response

Many of the ideas I discussed during my Bible as Literature class were disturbing, and even shocking, to some students. Late in the term during my second semester teaching the course, one young women tried to explain her frustration with my choice of material during the class discussion period. Claiming that I was “beating a dead horse” with my emphasis on the role of the Bible in the lives of marginalized communities, she declared, “There’s more to studying the Bible than this.” Her complaint was valid in that an overemphasis on this material is too narrow a focus in a broadly defined “Bible as Literature” class; her comments led me to further refine my “three worlds of the Bible” approach. However, I do believe that addressing issues of difference and privilege is essential to any class on the Bible as literature, and I stressed this point to the dissenting student.

Other students responded to my approach much more positively. One young women even “came out” to me and introduced me to her girlfriend. Other students wrote with great insight and sensitivity about issues of difference, privilege, and marginality in their optional papers and in the essays from the comprehensive final examination. One of the most rewarding examples of student response, however, occurred during my final semester teaching the course. The week before we discussed the letter to the Ephesians, the Southern Baptist Convention issued its controversial edict on wifely submission to husbands within marriage6 — an edict largely inspired by Ephesians 5:22. My students eagerly tackled this very current controversy, noting that this same biblical book contained passages which past generations had used to justify slavery. My students’ ability to see the connections between these issues truly excited me as a teacher.

Lessons learned

My decision to teach the Bible as literature in an explicitly gay-positive context proved to be as educational for me as it was for my students. First and foremost, I realized that the challenge of raising lesbian and gay issues in courses like this one is well worth the risk. I’ll never forget my mixed feelings during the first recitation period in which I raised these issues during my first semester with the course: I was nervous and unsure of the effectiveness of my presentation. Over the course of three semesters, however, I grew quite comfortable — and, hopefully, more skillful — with handling lesbian and gay issues in the classroom.

I also came to appreciate the value of looking at lesbian and gay issues — political liberation, cultural autonomy, and other issues — in a broader context. This broader context took into account many interlocking axes of difference, privilege, and marginalization. Over the course of the semester I shared with my class perspectives on the Bible from a wide range of marginalized perspectives. Rather than isolating these approaches from each other, I tried to show both their contrasts and their common ground. I have come to believe that lesbian and gay theologians and religious activists must, in order to fully participate in a truly universal struggle for human liberation, also educate themselves regarding these other revolutionary, liberationist traditions of biblical hermeneutics. Feminist hermeneutics, Jewish approaches to the New Testament, African-American hermeneutics, Korean minjung theology — an understanding of these and other approaches to the Bible can equip each scholar to better resist those ideologies which seek to use the Bible as a tool of oppression.

Conclusion: A Renewed Commitment

Towards the end of my last semester teaching “The Bible as Literature,” a brutal murder occurred in Texas. James Byrd, an African-American man, was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death by three white men. What struck me in particular about this crime was the fact that all three men were reported to have had ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations — two of America’s most notorious white supremacist groups. I knew from my own research that both of these groups used biblical verses to justify their sick racial theology.7 Indeed, the murder of James Byrd represented a logical extension of the racist theology pioneered be white slave owners in preceding centuries. I reproduced Carrie Hedges’ article on the tragedy for my class, and together we discussed the significance of this murder to our own work for the course.

James’ murder reinforced an already held belief of mine: biblical interpretation is not merely a matter of scholarship; rather, it is a matter of life and death for marginalized persons in predominantly Judeo-Christian cultures. A second reminder of this fact came more recently, with the murder of Matthew Shepherd. Matthew, a student at the University of Wyoming, was lured from a bar by two men who savagely beat him and tied him to a fence, leaving him to die. Matthew slipped into a coma; after being discovered, he was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Like the murder of James Byrd, the murder of Matthew Shepard can be linked to the ugly heritage of hatreds justified by selective use of the Bible. Consider the observations of Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes. Mr. Potok noted that, in a society in which gay men and lesbians are routinely condemned from the pulpit, “it’s not surprising that a certain percentage of people feel like it’s all right to physically attack gays and lesbians.” He added, “I think mainstream leaders, religious and political, have to bear some responsibility for these types of crimes” (Jones 2A). It is no coincidence that Matthew’s funeral was picketed by nominal “Christians” who held up signs with messages like “No Fags in Heaven” and “No Tears for Queers” (Kenworthy); even in death, the forces that helped to kill Matthew continued to cruelly attack him and his loved ones.

Against prejudice, against discrimination, against bias-related violence — against these and other evils must progressive people of faith fight. As I try to contribute to this ongoing struggle, I am both challenged and inspired by the words of the late Audre Lorde. An African-American lesbian feminist, poet, and political activist, Lorde knew what it meant to be marginalized along many interlocking axes of difference. She also testified that language is a potentially powerful force both in the oppression and liberation of marginalized peoples:

Each of us is here now because in one way or another we share a commitment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us. In that transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to recognize her role as vital in that transformation. (43)

A key element in our struggle against injustice — whether we struggle as pastors, as academics, as political activists, or as private individuals in our daily lives — must be a revolutionary, liberatory approach to the scriptures of our particular faith traditions. Indeed, these scriptures constitute a significant manifestation of that powerful, double-edged language of which Audre Lorde wrote. In so reclaiming these texts — these texts of both terror and hope — we accept the challenge to be agents of positive societal transformation. Teaching the Bible as literature in a gay-positive context has been one aspect of my own personal struggle against the powers of marginalization, domination, and hatred in our world. As I reflect upon the lives and deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, I renew my own commitment to the struggle.

Note: All biblical citations are taken from the King James Version.

  1. The women characters on which Trible reflects are Hagar, the abused slave woman of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16:1-16; 21:9-21); Jephthah’s unnamed daughter, who is killed by her own father as a human sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40), the unnamed concubine who suffers gang-rape and murder by the men of Benjamin (Judges 19:1-30), and Tamar, a rape survivor (2 Samuel 13:1-22).
  2. These and similar uses of the Bible have been well documented in such books as Robert Fuller’s Naming the Antichrist and Jim Hill and Rand Cheadle’s The Bible Tells Me So.
  3. Amazingly, there is today an active network of Christian geocentrists who continue to maintain the same doctrines preached by Cardinal Bellarmine over three centuries ago. Chief among these contemporary geocentrists is Marshall Hall of Georgia; his 1991 book, The Earth Is Not Moving, went into a second printing in 1994. The cover blurb of Hall’s magnum opus boldly declares, “Over 400 years of deception exposed! The Bible told the truth all along.” Relying, like Galileo’s seventeenth-century opponents, on a literal reading of selected biblical passages, Hall denounces the heliocentric model of the solar system as “a Satanic counterfeit” (20). Hall also maintains a directory of other contemporary geocentrists, such as Gerardus D. Bouw and R.G. Elmendorf, on his website.
  4. Everett Tilson noted “the use by Christians of Ezra’s demand as a biblical precedent for the practice of segregation” in his 1958 study, The Bible and Segregation (38). With both the Ezra passage and Tilson’s commentary in mind, it is sobering to note that interracial marriages were illegal in some parts of the United States until 1967, when Loving v. Virginia was settled by the Supreme Court (Eskridge 76-77).
  5. Nancy Wilson (120-34) has written one of the most insightful and comprehensive studies relating biblical eunuchs to contemporary sexual minorities; also worthy of note is James D. Anderson’s article on the same subject which recently appeared in Gay Theological Journal.
  6. Cathy Lynn Grossman’s article on the Baptist controversy was helpful to me as I prepared my lesson for the class on Ephesians; also illuminating was A.N. Wilson’s New York Times editorial on the controversy.
  7. The Aryan Nations, for example, cite a host of biblical verses on their Internet site in order to “prove” that only the white peoples of northern Europe are true descendants of Adam. Also, Jim Hill and Rand Cheadle have documented the Ku Klux Klan’s appropriation of the Bible in order to further a racist agenda (10-12). An essential scholarly study of the Aryan Nations, the Klan, and similar groups is Michael Barkun’s Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement.
Works Cited
  • Alpert, Rebecca. “Finding Our Past: A Lesbian Interpretation of the Book of Ruth.” Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story. Ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer. New York: Ballantine, 1994. 91-96.
  • Anderson, James D. “Eunuchs: Outcasts of Biblical Times.” Gay Theological Journal 1.3 (May/August 1998): 53.
  • Aryan Nations home page. Online. Internet. 20 May 1996. Available http://www.anwhq.com.
  • Barkun, Michael. Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill and London: U of North Carolina P, 1997.
  • The Bible and Culture Collective. The Postmodern Bible. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1995.
  • Brownlow, W.G., and A[bram Pryne. Ought American Slavery to be Perpetuated? A Debate between Rev. W.G. Brownlow and Rev. A. Pryne. Held at Philadelphia, September, 1858. 1858. Miami, FL: Mnemosyne, 1969.
  • Comstock, Gary David. Gay Theology Without Apology. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 1993.
  • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: Penguin, 1996.
  • Eskridge, William N., Jr. The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment. New York: Free Press, 1996.
  • Fantoli, Annibale. Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church. Trans. George V. Coyne. Vatican City: Vatican Observatory Publications, 1994.
  • Foster, Jeannette Howard. Sex Variant Women in Literature. 1956. Baltimore: Diana Press, 1975.
  • Fuller, Robert. Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Gomes, Peter. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. New York: William Morrow, 1996.
  • Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Baptists’ wife edict fires up feelings.” USA Today 11 June 1998: 6D.
  • Hall, Marshall. The Earth Is Not Moving. 1991. 2nd printing. Cornelia, GA: Fair Education Foundation, 1994.
  • ___. “Other Contemporary Geocentrists.” Online. Internet. 14 Septemer 1998. Available: http://www.fixedearth.com/other.htm.
  • Hedges, Carrie. “Hate crime charges urged after man is dragged to death.” USA Today 10 June 1998: 3A.
  • Hill, Jim, and Rand Cheadle. The Bible Tells Me So: Uses and Abuses of Holy Scripture. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1996.
  • Horner, Tom. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978.
  • Jones, Charisse. “Gay student’s brutal death stokes hate crime debate.” USA Today 13 October 1998: 1A, 2A
  • Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie, and Irena Klepfisz, ed. The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology. Montpelier, VT: Sinister Wisdom Books, 1986.
  • Kenworthy, Tom. “Hundreds mourn murdered gay man.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 17 October 1998: A-6
  • Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984.
  • Mather, Increase. A Brief History of the Warr with the Indians in New-England. 1676. So Dreadfull a Judgment: Puritan Responses to King Philip’s War, 1676-1677. Ed. Richard Slotkin and James K. Folsom. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1978. 79-163.
  • The New Scofield Reference Bible. Ed. C.I. Scofield. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.
  • The Original African Heritage Study Bible. King James Version. Gen. ed. Cain Hope Felder. Nashville: James C. Winston, 1993.
  • Patai, Raphael. Sex and Family Life in the Bible and the Middle East. Garden City, NY: Dolphin-Doubleday, 1959.
  • Scanzoni, Letha Dawson, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response. Rev. ed. New York:HarperSanFrancisco-HarperCollins, 1994.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, et. al. The Woman’s Bible. 2 vols. 1895-98. Forew. Maureen Fitzgerald. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.
  • Tilson, Everett. Segregation and the Bible. New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1958.
  • Tracy, David. Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1994.
  • Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.
  • Warrior, Robert Allen. “A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians.” Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World. Ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah. London: SPCK, 1991. 287-95.
  • Wigginton, Elliot. “The People Who Take Up Serpents.” Foxfire 7. Ed. Paul F. Gillespie. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1982. 370-428.
  • Wilson, Nancy. Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible. New York: HarperSanFrancsco, 1995.
  • Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990.