Posted on Sunday, June 12th, 2011 at 3:20 am
Author: GlobalComment Editor
Gc contributor: Emily Manuel
Lisa Isherwood and Mark Jordan, Dancing Theology in Fetish Boots: Essays in Honour of Marcella Althaus-Reid, SCM Press, 2010.
Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid was a pioneer in the field of queer theology. In her books Indecent Theology and The Queer God (both on Routledge), she insistently queried the sexual and gender suppositions of Christianity and theology. In particular, she relentlessly pushed the liberation theology of Latin America, demanding that its vision of social justice for the poor expand to include–even centre–women and GLBT people and the multiplicity of desires and practices involved in sexual subcultures. In the striking introduction to Indecent Theology, she asked if theology had space for female vendors on the streets of Buenos Aires, who sell lemons without wearing underwear. Theologians, she suggests, must remember their own bodies, their own desires: “The Argentinian theologian would then like to take off her underwear to write theology with feminist honestly, not forgetting what it is to be a woman when dealing with theological and political categories.”
Sadly, Althaus-Reid died of breast cancer in 2009, leaving behind not only those two important books, but writing and editing numerous innovative books on feminist, body, liberation, queer and transgender theologies in partnership with Lisa Isherwood on SCM. Fittingly then, Isherwood has, with Harvard theologian Mark Jordan, assembled a collection entitled Dancing Theology in Fetish Boots on that press that not only pays homage to Althaus-Reid’s legacy, but extends it.
Many of the contributors slip out of academic distance to talk about their own relationships with Althaus-Reid, and her influence on their own thought. A fascinating portrait of a complex theologian emerges. Isherwood describes “a Quaker who carried more than one rosary on her person at all times and when, in London, often visited the British Museum to offer a gift to Bast, the cat goddess of the night [. . .] she distrusted Marionology but had medals of Mary and saints around her neck along with a medal of Frida Kahlo.”
Althaus-Reid’s struggle as a queer woman in the masculinist liberation theology world appears a number of times, with anecdotes about her being snubbed at conferences and churches by men, as well as her own generosity in encouraging other Latin American queer theologians in their work. Andre Musskopf recounts her telling him as a PhD student “you see, I keep telling people there is gay theology in Latin America and people keep telling me it is something in my head. Send me your materials to publish” and then striding off. Other contributors remember her distinctive fetish boots and striking presence in conservative theology departments.
Stand-out chapters include Kwok Pui Lan’s take on postcolonial theology, where she discusses the Orientalist legacy of colonial sexuality in China, and Kathleen Sands’ chapter on the fight for civil unions and respectability in Hawai’i. Athaus-Reid’s work was something of a polemic against decency, and it’s interesting to see Sands balancing that urge as a white mainlander with the homonormative pro-gay marriage and sometimes homophobic de-colonial discourses in the Hawai’ian islands. And Susannah Cornwall’s “Stranger in Our Midst” shows the true strangeness of Althaus-Reid’s writing, the encouragement to see the multiplicity of the divine, to see its entirety without airbrushing out the less acceptable parts of humanity.
There’s a palpable spirit of generosity in the writers’ usage of Althaus-Reid’s work, with her thought pushed into new and occasionally unexpected situations. Mary Hunt reads Althaus-Reid as a kind of surrealist artist mixing genres and influences, albeit one grounded in the vision of a better world for the most marginal of identities excluded from the purview of what Althaus-Reid called “vanilla theology.” Mark Jordan takes a similar route in seeing Althaus-Reid’s as a kind of camp theology, one interested in a kitsch, queer God that unsettles orthodoxies. In perhaps the most intriguing piece, Lisa Isherwood’s chapter takes Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues as a way of talking as a woman, imagining what her vagina would say if it could talk. Like Althaus-Reid’s underwear-free lemon vendors, this is a wild and provocative way of doing theology.
In the midst of this, Graham Ward’s chapter is something of an anomaly, with Ward critiquing Althaus-Reid’s work for being fuzzily post-Kantian on epistemology and ignoring the currently fashionable Hegelianism of theology. While this is usually par for the course for academic writing, in the context of a book that is essentially an academic eulogy, this comes across as unnecessary one-up-manship, perhaps even mean-spirited.
Still, Dancing Theology in Fetish Boots is, as the striking title suggests, an intriguing collection of mismatched elements that sheds new light on sexuality, gender and race in religious locations. It is clear that the contributors felt that Althaus-Reid’s work set a challenge to them to produce speculative, even inspiring, theological, and in the main part, they have succeeded well. A wonderful tribute to a wonderful thinker.
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