Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review - "From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ" by Patrick S. Cheng

From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ is Patrick S. Cheng’s latest book. It was published at the end of 2012 by Seabury Books. It can be purchased in paperback for $16.93. ISBN: 978-1-59627-238-5

This book has merits and demerits. That much could be said about any book, but this particular book makes the difference between these two extremes vast. What is good is superb; what is not so good is grating.

The book begins in familiar theological territory by examining the traditional doctrine of sin vis-à-vis the Augustinian model. Cheng insists that this way of understanding sin is important to understanding the new model he proposes.* In some ways, he seems his attempt at objectivity, however, is thwarted by what appears to be an outright disdain for the traditional model. He writes: “The traditional crime-based model of sin and grace has developed into a sadistic paradigm in which our first parents fell from a state of perfection into eternal damnation, and all subsequent human beings have suffered the consequences of their crime”—hardly the verbiage of an objective excursus.

Cheng is right to point out the shortcomings of the crime-based Augustinian approach to understanding sin. He also sets the development of this harmatology—i.e. the study of sin—within its historical context in an effort to elucidate why in fact Augustine proposed such radical depravity for all humanity. Without this foray into history, however, the criticisms would appear to just hang their on their own without any real reason why they matter.

In light of his subject area, Cheng points out how the crime-based model of sin has led people to read the bible, theology, and church history through a lens that condemns LGBT folks as malefactors against God. Insofar he is right; but the danger here is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Sin is not one-dimensional reality, and it can’t be reduced to our crime against God anymore than it can be reduced to “spiritual immaturity,” as Cheng would propose as a more appropriate alternative to the crime-based model. All people—whether straight, black, atheist, wealthy, poor, Christian, white, gay, etc.—have sinned against God and neighbor in the traditional Augustinian sense. To propose a model of sin that doesn’t account for human failing, conniving, and scheming is to remain silent about a very real part of the human experience. It’s foolhardy and myopic at best, and damning and murderous to souls at worst.

The Christ-centered model of sin and grace, however, that Cheng proposes has promise. Understanding our sin in relation to Christ’s sinlessness provides us good ground to go forward. Likewise, the list of new “seven deadly sins,” as well its corresponding “seven amazing graces,” offers fruitful food for thought as theologians struggle to speak of sin within the 21st-century postmodern reality. His lists, while focused primarily on the LGBT experience, are broad enough to address the realities of people who might not number themselves among the queer community. This reconceptualization of sin and its application within the contemporary context is the book’s most promising feature.

In addressing each of the seven sins and their corresponding amazing graces, Cheng systematically delineates seven different models for Christ for LGBT folks and others to consider when seeking to live faithfully to God and to themselves. In these models, he is routinely critical of the longstanding traditional modes of speaking of sin in a sweeping fashion. There seems to be no consideration for circumstance that might preclude particular individuals from living into the amazing graces he proposes (cf. the sins of “conformity” or “the closet”), and his amazing graces are offered up as unequivocal in and of themselves (cf. the amazing graces of “activism” or “coming out”). A bit more nuanced view—one that isn’t so categorically anti-tradition or so wholeheartedly pro-novelty—would be more reflective of the realities people find themselves in.

Take for instance his first Christological model: the Erotic Christ. Here Cheng makes the erotic about more than mere sexuality. It is about meaningful interaction with others and all creation in a way that touches—not merely metaphorically, but also directly and physically—the rest of the cosmos. In this model, Cheng proposes sin as exploitation—where we fail to recognize the unique humanity of others or the exquisite vitality of creation and seek only to bend “it” to our own will for own benefit. His proposed amazing grace in this model is mutuality—where we look others around us and see “thou” instead of “it.”

This is all well and good, but especially as it comes to bear on his understanding of sin as exploitation and again on his understanding of grace as mutuality, the model seems to fall short because of its extremity. He makes sweeping pronouncements about the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as an example of the sin of exploitation at work, and goes on to extol the grace of “the Erotic Christ during an anonymous sexual encounter in a Hong Kong sauna with another gay Asian man.”
Patrick S. Cheng is a professor of systematic theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also an ordained minister in the Metropolitan Community Church and a lawyer. He is the author of Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology.
One might argue that the former belies a lack of understanding or appreciation for long held traditions, while the other makes out of the gospel a license to do whatever we want in the moment. Is there no role for hierarchy whatsoever? Is sex with a nameless man I’ll never see again really the way God wants me to engage others? As St. Paul writes: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.” It is important to keep a critical eye toward not only our neighbor, but also and more importantly toward ourselves when proposing criticism.

The book challenges traditional views on sin and grace and offers up its own alternatives. It sparks a conversation, and an important one at that. In some areas, the criticisms leveled at the enduring Augustinian view of sin as crime against God are justified. We can’t simply look at sin through that lens. Looking at both sin and grace through Jesus Christ offers another way of seeing the situation. We must be careful, however, not to forego one for the other. In that way, we’d fall victim to the sixth deadly sin Cheng proposes: isolation. Instead, we should hold each of these models in tension—the crime-based model and the grace-centered model—and live in what Cheng calls the amazing grace of interdependence. For indeed—our understanding of our sin and of God’s grace is dependent on the prayerful wrestling of countless faithful people, and even then they’re only partial. Only through the exchange of ideas between interdependent models, theories, and ideas can we arrive at a fuller understanding of the reality that we find ourselves in and then speak more clearly, directly, and faithfully about the God who loves us abandon.


*His model is hardly “new.” He rightly notes that it’s based on the Eastern Irenaean concept of sin and grace. He simply calls it new because it’s a new way of thinking for many from the tradition of Western Christianity.

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