Queer Theory

The Influence of Postmodernism


Queer theory describes the school of thought that deals with sexual identity, human sexuality, and gender. English departments and many other disciplines have adopted the principles of queer theory and train their students to read through this lens. The effects of such thinking are readily seen in our Western culture, with homosexual, bisexual, and polyamorous behavior becoming more acceptable to Americans. But the most worrying trend is within the church: some Christian leaders and Bible scholars have adopted aspects of queer theory in the way they read and interpret God’s Word, which has led in some churches to the acceptance of sinful sexual behavior among professing Christians.


Certainly no study of postmodernism’s influence on Western culture would be complete without an examination of how it has affected the way many look at human sexuality. Sexuality is one of the driving subjects of our day, and—I would argue—homosexuality is one of the defining issues of this generation.

For years, sexual promiscuity and homosexual behavior have been at the forefront of the controversy over human sexuality. Gay rights activists have repackaged the homosexual agenda into something resembling a civil rights issue, claiming that by not allowing homosexuals to marry, society is somehow unfairly discriminating against them.1 And there is another subversive pattern of sexuality that is getting more attention as of late: polyamorous (“open”) relationships.

These relationships, common among gay men, have also been called “San Francisco relationships” or “monogamish” relationships. Essentially, those involved in these types of relationships agree that sexual activity with multiple partners is not only acceptable but encouraged. The idea is that the partners can remain emotionally intimate with each other but be free to pursue sexual relationships with anyone they wish—and it is considered a trust-building exercise. Of course, the idea of “monogamish” relationships causes problems for same-sex marriage advocates who still believe in marital fidelity. But as one gay man explained, “Having an open partnership is not incompatible with same-sex marriage . . . It’s a redefinition of marriage.”2

What has led to such marred views of sexuality? Ultimately, sin. But man’s sinful way of reasoning out these conclusions bears study and questioning. The phrase “queer theory” was coined by Teresa de Lauretis, professor emerita of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz and describes a school of thought that examines sexual identity, human sexuality, and gender. Founded on Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction (see Deconstruction) and Michel Foucault’s ideas about social control (see New Historicism), queer theorists look for examples of so-called homophobia and heterosexism in texts, history, and society. They often reject binary oppositions such as heterosexual/homosexual, because the affirmation and privileging of one leads to the disavowal of the other. This way of thinking is propagated in many disciplines, but most prominently in English departments, where some professors train their students to read literature through the lens of queer theory.

What makes this issue significant for the church is that some Christians have adopted a form of queer theory in the way they treat homosexual behavior. Professing Christians who hold to this way of thinking often make the case that Scripture’s emphasis is on a couple’s commitment and love for one another rather than any sexual misbehavior. Pro-homosexual Bible scholars have devised elaborate arguments and re-interpretations of Scripture in order to justify homosexual behavior. If their claims are accepted as true, they open the door to the acceptance of a variety of other biblically inappropriate forms of sexuality. Ultimately, the influence of queer theory on Christian academics, the church, and the culture in general has led to the further erosion of the authority of God’s Word in the area of human sexuality.

Regulatory Regimes and Transgression

Two major figures in queer theory are Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at University of California, Berkeley, and the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who spent the latter years of her life as distinguished professor at The City University of New York Graduate Center. Sedgwick was a scholar in gender studies and is considered one of the pioneers of queer theory.

Butler, who is known for her book Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990), argues that the creation of categories for people based on their sexuality is unhelpful, because “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes.”3 Similarly, Foucault argued that the institutions that wield power in a society will work to control the people, and one of the ways postmodern theorists claim this is done is through social constructs.

A social construct is said to be an idea that has developed over time but cannot be ascertained from nature. For example, the idea of heterosexuality, that men are sexually attracted to women and women to men, is considered normative in society. But the gender theorist sees heterosexuality as a social construct devised by a “regulatory regime” as an attempt to maintain power and even oppress its opposite: homosexuality. The binary would be represented as heterosexuality/homosexuality.

Indeed, Butler makes this very case:

Hence, if it were not for the notion of the homosexual as copy, there would be no construct of heterosexuality as origin. Heterosexuality here presupposes homosexuality. And if the homosexual as copy precedes the heterosexual as origin, then it seems only fair to concede that the copy comes before the origin, and that homosexuality is thus the origin, and heterosexuality the copy [emphases hers].4

While Butler acknowledges that the above argument is a flawed inversion, she attempts to rectify the situation with the claim that heterosexuality’s position as the original is “illusory.” For Butler, homosexuality and heterosexuality are both copies of something else. In the introduction to the book Bible Trouble, so named for Butler’s Gender Trouble, queer theorists Teresa Hornsby, associate professor of religious studies at Drury University, and Ken Stone, professor of Bible, culture, and hermeneutics at Chicago Theological Seminary, present Butler’s “copy” idea as an “ocean to wave” model, using imagery from Genesis 1:

Or perhaps, to draw out this relationship in a slightly different direction, a direction informed by the chaotic water imagery that informs biblical and many other ancient texts, queerness is to heterosexuality as the ocean is to a wave. The production of heterosexuality is from the deep, appears briefly as a precisely formed entity, but moves, shifts, takes on new forms, and dissipates, dissolving back into queerness. Heterosexuality, as a constructed category of modernity, is fleeting, and its permanence is illusory. It is but one of an infinite number of “sexualities.”5

While Butler ignored the Bible in her presentation, two Bible scholars have adopted biblical imagery to argue that heterosexuality is not the biblical standard—there are an “infinite number” of possible sexualities. Hornsby and Stone relate the idea of “queerness” to chaos and heterosexuality to creation, asking, “But is chaos entirely negative? More importantly, can it be avoided entirely? Should we even attempt to avoid it entirely?”6 They conclude that the association with chaos is actually a positive aspect of queer theory. The rest of the book is concerned with performing readings of Scripture from the lens of queer theory.

So, in light of Butler’s and others’ belief that there is no defined standard for appropriate sexual conduct, why are homosexual behavior, bisexual behavior, bestiality, and others considered taboo? Once again, Butler draws on the ideas of Michel Foucault and the Panopticon (see New Historicism), writing that people are forced to “perform” heterosexuality by the powers that be or face punishment:

It is a compulsory performance in the sense that acting out of line with heterosexual norms brings with it ostracism, punishment, and violence, not to mention the transgressive pleasures produced by those very prohibitions [emphasis hers].7

The “transgression” of sexual and gender norms is a theme that has carried through feminist, queer, and gender studies. What some queer theorists hope for is that enough transgressive acts will demonstrate what Butler concludes: there are supposedly no stable forms of sexuality, and any attempt to claim otherwise is a power play.

“Queering” the Text and the Search for Homoerotic Subtexts

Despite her affinity for queer theory and her radical views on sexuality, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick maintained a monogamous marriage to the same man most of her life. Sedgwick authored a number of well-known books in academia, the most prominent of which are perhaps Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

For Sedgwick, Western culture could not be understood properly until the “social constructs” of homosexuality and heterosexuality were deconstructed. She sought in her work to reveal homoerotic elements and subtexts in literature. One article on Sedgwick recounts:

Such subtexts, she said, are woven throughout literary texts, and the job of criticism is to ferret them out, especially the repressed themes of same-sex love. “It’s about trying to understand different kinds of sexual desire and how the culture defines them,” she told The New York Times in 1998, explaining the function of queer theory. “It’s about how you can’t understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.”8

Sedgwick accomplished the tracing of these supposed subtexts by sexualizing numerous words, phrases, images, and relationships that otherwise would not have been read sexually. (Many of the examples are too vulgar to examine here.) Essentially, she redefined words, leaving the plain meanings behind in favor of deeper, more symbolic meanings that supported the presuppositions of queer theory.

Along with this search for subtexts was the assumption that an author was homosexual. When I was a university student working on my degrees in English, my courses on Shakespeare almost always contained speculation on his sexuality. Certain sonnets were invariably at the center of the debate, with many professors and students speculating that Shakespeare wrote some of them for another man and was therefore bisexual (scholars know he married a woman named Anne Hathaway and had three children). For queer theorists, the reading of a text could change dramatically if there is an assumption that the author had stepped outside of heterosexual behavior.

But as Jonathan Weinberg, an art critic at the Yale School of Art, notes in “Things Are Queer,” the goal of the queer theorist goes beyond mere subtexts: “Queering the text is more than pointing to potentially gay and lesbian characters or insisting on the sexual identity of an author; it involves revealing the signs of what Adrienne Rich called ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’”9 Like Butler, Weinberg and other queer theorists are concerned with revealing “compulsory” performances of heterosexual norms.

But what does Weinberg mean by “queering” the text? This is actually the key to queer theory. As Weinberg writes, “Queering all works of art—that is, making them strange in order to destabilize our confidence in the relationship of representation to identity, authorship, and behavior is a potentially political act . . . ”10 Similarly, Butler argues, “In other words, the negative constructions of lesbianism as a fake or a bad copy can be occupied and reworked to call into question the claims of heterosexual priority. In a sense I hope to make clear in what follows, lesbian sexuality can be understood to redeploy its ‘derivativeness’ in the service of displacing hegemonic heterosexual norms.”11

In other words, queer theorists want to make heterosexuality seem “queer” or strange to those who believe it is the ideal in order to promote their own agenda of sexuality on a “continuum,” as Sedgwick would say. This idea of “queering” heterosexual norms is manifested in a variety of ways.

For example, one of my graduate school professors had on her office door a list of responses homosexuals could give to those who criticized their lifestyles. If a person were to say, for instance, that homosexual couples would raise homosexual children, the response was something like, “Of course, because straight parents only have straight children.” The criticisms and responses missed the point in most cases (the problems with the homosexual lifestyle extend beyond whether or not same-sex couples’ children will grow up to live a homosexual lifestyle), but they were intended to make those who hold to the biblical standard for sexuality uncomfortable enough with their own views that they might reconsider.12

As Americans both inside and outside the church continue to reconsider their views on homosexual behavior, the biblical definitions of marriage and family are losing their foothold in American culture. But if queer theorists can successfully challenge the biblical standard for sexuality both in the culture and in the church and replace it with the idea of the “ocean” of sexuality from which an infinite number of sexualities emerge, the biblical definitions of marriage and family will be forgotten entirely.

Queer Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics

Of course, the church has not been as receptive to the ideas of queer theory as the secular world has, but, as with feminism (see Feminism), queer theory has not been without its influence on Christianity. Homosexual behavior has been the sin issue that more and more Christians are struggling or refusing to call “sin.”

The biblical standard for sexuality goes back to Genesis 1:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Man in Genesis is explained as being created as “male and female.” These categories are not without purpose. God’s expectation for sex and marriage is set forth just one chapter later, in Genesis 2:24–25:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Clearly, God’s intention is that one man would marry one woman, and that they would share sexual intimacy only with one another, as the Bible’s repeated prohibitions against adultery and fornication would attest. And if there was any doubt about the veracity of these verses, Christ himself reaffirms the male and female division as well as God’s intention that marriage and therefore sex occur between one man and one woman:

But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. (Mark 10:6–8)

Despite these and other biblical evidences that God’s standard for sex is that it occur within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman, some Christian leaders and Bible scholars are having a hard time adhering to that view.

In a recent book titled Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, author Justin Lee walks readers through his own struggle with same-sex attraction. A professing Christian, Lee explains that he did not ask for or want to have a sexual attraction to other men—and he spent his teenage and beginning college years celibate and in counseling with pastors and ex-gay ministries, in the hope that the feelings would dissipate. They did not.

Sadly, instead of looking at what the Apostle Paul tells believers about the sin nature, that “if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13), Lee chooses to reinterpret Scripture in an attempt to justify homosexual behavior. The latter part of his book walks readers through a series of pro-homosexual arguments that attempt to refute passages condemning homosexual behavior as sin.13 Unwittingly or not, Lee reveals his own postmodern view of Scripture:

Because of Paul’s teachings on grace and sin, and because of the way Jesus read and applied Scripture, I could no longer justify condemning a loving, committed, Christ-centered relationship based solely on gender. . . . The standards Jesus and Paul applied—the same standards that allowed me to put aside culture-based biblical rules about food or hair length or head coverings—didn’t just allow me to do the same on this issue; they required it. To do otherwise was being inconsistent.14

Not only does Lee fall into the fallacy of claiming that a clear moral standard (i.e., the prohibition against homosexual behavior) is “culture-based,” he engages in “queering” heterosexual unions by claiming that a same-sex relationship can be just as loving and Christ-centered as a heterosexual one. While two people of the same sex certainly have the ability to demonstrate biblically appropriate commitment and love for one another (the Bible demonstrates the value of an intimate friendship in the account of David and Jonathan), engaging in a same-sex relationship together is neither loving nor Christ centered. But how many Christians have adopted Lee’s line of thinking, based on the faulty premise that there is an equivalent amount of love and Christ centeredness in same-sex relationships, and decided that there is nothing special about God’s design for men and women after all?

At this time, Lee is openly homosexual and runs an organization dedicated to helping Christians dealing with same-sex attraction to embrace celibacy or to enter a guilt-free, monogamous same-sex relationship.

In another example, which has appeared before in this series, John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church and a prolific author, assumes that the Apostle Paul was a homosexual and allowed that to inform his reading of the Pauline epistles:

Yes, I am convinced that Paul of Tarsus was a gay man, deeply repressed, self-loathing, rigid in denial, bound by the law that he hoped could keep this thing, that he judged to be so unacceptable, totally under control, a control so profound that even Paul did not have to face this fact about himself. But repression kills. It kills the repressed one and sometimes the defensive anger found in the repressed one also kills those who challenge, threaten or live out the thing that this repressed person so deeply fears.15

There is no evidence that Paul was a homosexual. But even if such a ludicrous claim were true, what Spong fails to recognize is that God has given us the grace to abstain from sinful behavior:

No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In other words, repressing sin is not an unhealthy act—it is healthy and expected of believers as part of the sanctification process.

Furthermore, Spong’s view reflects that of Butler’s and his technique that of Sedgwick’s: homosexual behavior was condemned by the law, which was overseen by the Pharisees and scribes; therefore, Paul was very likely homosexual himself but was engaged in a “compulsory performance” of heterosexual norms because he was being “watched” by the religious authorities. Spong seeks out subtexts in history and Scripture that are not there, in order to push his own agenda of justifying homosexual behavior.

Other desperate attempts have been made by pro-homosexual Bible scholars to demonstrate that there were homosexual elements to the relationships of certain Bible characters, such as Naomi and Ruth. To do this, they dismiss history and a plain reading of Scripture in order to push an agenda, not unlike secularists who have embraced postmodern ideas. Of these attempts, perhaps the most egregious example is the twisting by pro-gay exegetes of David and Jonathan’s friendship (1 Samuel 18–23; 2 Samuel 1) into a same-sex relationship.

In 1 Samuel, the friendship between Jonathan, who is the son of Saul, the first king of Israel, and David is described for the first time after David slays Goliath. David is brought before King Saul, and 1 Samuel 18:1 tells us, “Now when he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” The two men had developed an intimate friendship characterized by both emotional and political investment.

Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and one of the foremost experts on homosexuality and the Bible, explains David and Jonathan’s friendship this way:

Here Jonathan’s love of David is portrayed as part of a much larger love affair of the people of Israel with David, a love affair based on David’s zeal for Yahweh and his military prowess . . . Jonathan offered his complete loyalty to David. In making a covenant with David, he adopted David into the royal “house” or family . . . David and Jonathan had in effect become “kin,” with all the mutual privileges and obligations that such a relationship entails. The two now relate as brothers, not as a romantic couple (cf. 2 Sam. 1:26: “my brother Jonathan”).16

Gagnon’s explanation is corroborated with evidence that this sort of relationship would not have been regarded as inappropriate in ancient Israelite culture, nor would it have implied homosexual behavior.

An aspect of this friendship that pro-homosexual scholars use to press the assertion that it was in fact romantic is David and Jonathan’s physical interaction. Upon realizing that Saul means to kill David, Jonathan and David must say their farewell to one another, realizing that they may never see each other alive again:

As soon as the lad had gone, David arose from a place toward the south, fell on his face to the ground, and bowed down three times. And they kissed one another; and they wept together, but David more so (1 Samuel 20:41).

Martti Nissinen, professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Helsinki, admits that a modern reader is likely more prone to look for homoerotic subtexts in the story of David and Jonathan than an ancient reader. But in spite of this, Nissinen examines the account looking for indications of a same-sex relationship:

This love, which David calls more wonderful than the love of a woman, is expressed also physically. When David takes his tender farewell of Jonathan—unlike the parting of his wife—the men kiss each other as they shed tears. These considerations make it conceivable to interpret David’s and Jonathan’s relationship as homoerotic.17

From the perspective of a modern reader in Western culture, this sort of physical interaction between men would likely be categorized as homosexual. But does ancient history bear this conclusion out? It does not. Gagnon notes, “Of the 27 occurrences of the Hebrew verb ‘to kiss’ . . . 24 contain no erotic component.”18 There is no reason to assume that David and Jonathan’s kissing one another and weeping together has homosexual elements—their distress is great, and their departure is no different than it would be if they truly were brothers.

What’s more, there is absolutely no mention of a sexual relationship between Jonathan and David. Indeed, Scripture explicitly mentions that David had a strong attraction to women, having many wives and concubines. Jonathan too was married with children (1 Samuel 20:42; 2 Samuel 9). With all the evidence standing against a homosexual interpretation of this relationship, all of which Nissinen concedes, surely he and other pro-homosexual scholars would admit that the supposed homoerotic subtext simply is not present. Sadly, Nissinen does not, writing, “The text thus leaves the possible homoerotic associations to the reader’s imagination.”19 And that’s the only place those associations will be found—in the imaginations of liberal scholars.  

Sin and Identity

The effect of queer theory on some Christian leaders and Bible scholars has been to distort and mar the biblical definition of marriage, the biblical standards for sexuality, and pictures of biblical friendship and love. But those who subscribe to queer theory share the same problem as feminists, new historicists, and others—they are seeking an identity. For the believer, that identity is found in Christ, because “in Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7). The unbeliever’s identity lies outside of the family of God. His only hope is to believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and confess that He is Lord, at which point he will be saved (Romans 10:9).

But because of sin, people will try to find their identity in the world and in other people, which may include identifying as bisexual, homosexual, “monogamish,” or any number of labels. In the end, queer theorists make a good point about these labels: they are unhelpful. But rather than abandon labels for an “ocean” of sexualities, Christians should have only two categories for sexuality: biblical and sinful.

While the postmodern view of sexuality implies that man is at the mercy of his sexual desires and encourages him to pursue them, Scripture offers the standard for human sexuality. The biblical sanctions for sex require that it occur between one man and one woman within the confines of marriage. The requirements are no more and no less than that. Homosexual, bisexual, bestial, polyamorous, incestuous, and pedophilic behaviors all violate the biblical standard, so they are sin—and the Christian is to have nothing to do with these acts. That leaves two biblically viable options for the believer: either enter a biblically appropriate marriage or remain abstinent (1 Corinthians 7:7–9).

As we encounter unbelievers who have embraced these twisted ideas of sexuality, we as Christians have an obligation first to bring hope to the unbeliever by sharing the gospel, and then to teach him God’s design for sex and marriage.

Answers in Depth

2013 Volume 8


  1. For more on whether the issue of same-sex marriage is a civil right, see R. Albert Mohler, “Gay Marriage as a Civil Right—Are Wrongs Right?” Answers in Genesis, www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v8/n2/gay-marriage-civil-rights.
  2. Meredith May, “Many gay couples negotiate open relationships,” SFGate, www.sfgate.com/lgbt/article/Many-gay-couples-negotiate-open-relationships-3241624.php.
  3. Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993): 307–320.
  4. Ibid., p. 313.
  5. Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone, ed., Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2011), p. xii.
  6. Ibid., p. x.
  7. Butler, p. 314–315.
  8. William Grimes, “Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Pioneer of Gay Studies and a Literary Theorist, Dies at 58,” The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/arts/15sedgwick.html.
  9. Jonathan Weinberg, “Things Are Queer,” Art Journal (Winter 1996); available online at www.theory.org.uk/ctr-que7.htm.
  10. Jonathan Weinberg, “Things Are Queer,” Art Journal (Winter 1996); available online at www.theory.org.uk/ctr-que7.htm.
  11. Butler, p. 310.
  12. Obviously, it is a biological impossibility for same-sex couples to have their own children, barring adoption, surrogacy, or another means. God’s purpose and design in marriage was the procreation of children as a heritage. In Genesis, God commanded mankind to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), a command that can only be obeyed through the procreative act of a man and a woman. Short of subverting and tampering with the God-designed means of procreation, same-sex couples simply cannot fulfill this command.
  13. For a fuller examination and refutation of pro-gay theology, see Steve Golden, “Pro-Gay Theology: Does the Bible Approve of Homosexuality?” Answers in Genesis, answersingenesis.org/family/homosexuality/pro-gay-theology-does-the-bible-approve-of-homosexuality/.
  14. Justin Lee, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), p. 206.
  15. John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), p. 140.
  16. Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2001), p. 147.
  17. Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 55.
  18. Gagnon, p. 152.
  19. Nissinen, p. 56.


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