Brooklyn poet Robert Whitehead is attempting to create a new ‘queer’ version of the holy book
The Bible is getting misused a lot in the world right now. Despite being written thousands of years ago (and receiving countless tweaks, redrafts, and edits in that time), many people still believe that it should be taken as verbatim. Unfortunately, that includes all those awkward, bigoted bits – which can be interpreted as divisive, homophobic, and misogynistic.
One country getting swept up in this mess is America. With anti-gay scaremongering on the rise (see: Michigan) and the right-wing rhetoric of Donald Trump gaining popularity, it can feel like this whole ‘Christian’ thing is getting a bit twisted. This is where Robert Whitehead comes in. Tired of seeing the Bible get referenced by small-minded dogmatists, the Brooklyn-based poet has decided to make a change – giving the whole thing a redraft, and taking on the job himself. “I want to make an inclusive, celebratory space within the text that undoes the implicit sexism, misogyny, heterosexism, hierarchical oppression, slut-shaming, etc. and reconstitutes the feminine, the queer, the outcast, the strange,” he explains on his Kickstarter page. “I am making a radical translation that is radically inclusive.” So how is he actually planning on doing this? And is he prepared for the backlash? We caught up with him to find out.
Hi Robert, thanks for agreeing to talk. First thing’s first: what made you decide to do this?
Robert Whitehead: I read Mary Jo Bang's stunning translations of Dante's Inferno, which was such a radical publication in the translation game because Bang isn't exactly a scholar of 14th century Italian, she's a poet. And then there was Paul Legault's Sonnets, which featured English-to-English translations of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets. These two books, among many others, shifted for me the unit of translation out of mere linguistic terms and into conceptual terms. I'm glad that I've come to feel capable of this project at a time when it seems especially relevant to our country's cultural and political atmosphere.
“Hopefully The Queer Bible can provide a way out of that hate for some people, but I imagine it can also be a point around which people will radicalise even more”
Are you religious at all? How do you identify?
Robert Whitehead: I am not. And I don't necessarily see this project as primarily a religious endeavor. The Bible is, of course, a foundational text to many religions, but it's also a mythology, it's literature, and, to me, it constitutes a very important moment in the history of queer people. The Bible, however, denies the possibility of queer expression. And it does so on moral grounds. My hope is to reconstitute what, for queer people like myself, more closely resembles our truth. And to make the literature of the Bible correspond to my experience of being queer. I also hope to involve other queer thinkers, writers, and artists in this project, because I know I can't be the only one defining what it means to be queer. Plurality of expression is key to the concept of this project, and as a queer person I want to ensure that my entire community is represented in all our many shades and varieties.
Have you, or anyone you know, been affected by religious prejudice before? What happened?
Robert Whitehead: I grew up in a religious household, but I was very lucky to have parents who are supportive and understanding of me. So my story isn't exactly one of religious prejudice, but of growing up in a religious system that didn't make a space for me as a queer person. I wasn't thrown out of my house, like many queer people are, and I wasn't forced into any kind of conversion therapy. But I grew up often not being comfortable in my own family, which to this day is still something I have to work on.
What key parts of the bible are particularly problematic to you? And how would you go about changing them?
Robert Whitehead: The Bible is a beautiful text, but unfortunately it has been used in support of the eradication or oppression of queer people for centuries. Just as the Bible has been used to justify colonisation, or used to defend slavery. The use of the Bible is the issue, for me, not the Bible itself necessarily. When religious, political, or cultural leaders use the Bible to what, in my view, appears to be unjust cause, that's when I think the Bible fails us. The key changes that need to be made are the ones that will subvert the possibility of the Bible being used as weapon. So obviously Leviticus has some stand-out verses that are exceptionally violent to the queer body, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah typically associates queerness with the destruction of that society (even though that's not explicit in the text). But there are also some queer moments in the Bible, such as the relationship between David and Jonathan in the Books of Samuel or the relationship between Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth – those can be made much more explicitly queer and show the possibility of a Biblical queerness.
The bible is being seriously misused in the US at the moment. Do you have concerns for how this might develop?
Robert Whitehead: I think the real problem is not how the text is being misused. I think it's about how religion is being misused. That religious radicalism is still so intertwined with conservative politics. The purpose, as I see it, of religion is to make sense and meaning out of the confusing and chaotic human experience. Often in an effort to consolidate religious meaning into something clear and definable, religion depends on a tactic of exclusion – saying, for instance, this is the "right way" to live and this is the ‘wrong way.’ When, to my mind, all ways of living are right if the individual is making that life in a way that is healthy, productive, and sustainable for themselves. That's the promise of queerness – radical inclusivity and acceptance. So I am concerned that this isn't always the promise of religion, that exclusion and oppression are often the choices of religious conservatives. And I'm concerned that this exclusion often predominantly effects queer people, places us in danger, threatens our existence. That is terrifying to me. But I don't think that's necessarily the Bible's fault. It's a contributing factor of course, and this project can help to challenge the Bible's potential to be used against queer people. But people will always enact their fears and anxieties in unfair ways, people will always find a way toward bigotry or hatred if they can. Liberating oneself from a place of deep hate is difficult work. Hopefully, The Queer Bible can provide a way out of that hate for some people, but I imagine it can also be a point around which people will radicalize even more.
Learn more about Robert’s The Queer Bible, or get involved with the project, on his Kickstarter page here