Mar 18, 2016
Meet The Brooklyn Poet Who Is Making The Bible Queer
Faith isn’t something that’s easy to tackle, and it can be hard to remain religious if you don’t feel like you belong. Everyone has an opinion on religion, whether you’re devout or agnostic, religious-ish or conservative, it’s a hot button topic. Therein lies the motivation behind Brooklyn poet, Robert Whitehead’s writing project, The Queer Bible.
“There were moments I didn’t think I would make it out of my adolescence,” he said. “I think a lot of queer people can relate to that feeling.”
Whitehead, 27, grew up in a strict Catholic New Jersey home, where religion impacted every part of his life–his family even prayed on car rides to school. Coming out as queer in a pious family made belief even more complicated. Stories that our culture has learned, understood and passed on throughout generations, often seemed alienating. For him, this project isn’t about editing the Bible, it’s about reinterpreting it and seeing how it can live as an inclusive literary work.
Two weeks ago, Whitehead created a Kickstarter for this huge undertaking, and he’ll be heading up to Vermont to work on it for a month beginning at the end of March to get started. The concept was fully-funded in under two days, which is astonishing even for Kickstarter’s easy accessibility. So we talked with Whitehead about how he helps to change the world with his textual reinterpretation, religious isolation and his status as a “fallen Catholic”
How did you come up with the idea for The Queer Bible?
It started maybe three or four years ago, and it wasn’t exactly me who came up with it. I had written a poem in response to Job 1:20, which is a wild, wild book of the Bible. The story is that Job, one of God’s favorites, gets tested in his devotion by the most extreme measures imaginable. God gives Satan free reign to come in and swipe all of Job’s cattle, take his camels away, burn up his sheep with the “fire of God,” kill his servants, and bring in a wind around that powerful that his son’s house collapses and all of his children are killed. All for a lousy wager between God and Satan to see if Job would still be devoted if all his blessings are gone. It’s basically the plot to Trading Places and Job is Dan Aykroyd.
I shared that poem with my friend & supreme poet Niel Rosenthalis, who casually suggested that I translate each book of the Bible. I have no real knowledge of ancient Greek or Hebrew, and only a passing familiarity with Latin, so I thought a translation would be impossible if I were to do it the traditional route. I wasn’t capable of making a translation where I picked up the meaning of one language and place it down into another. I finally reconsidered my idea of translation. Rather than locating the language as the unit of translation–making an English version which corresponds to the ancient Greek or Hebrew–I decided to translate the aesthetic of the language (altering the rhetorical devices, the narrative construction, the poetry). So I could be informed by the ancient manuscript, but mostly I work with the English translations, not unlike Mary Jo Bang’s spectacular translations of Dante’s Inferno.
I am taking what has been a very static presentation of Biblical stories for a very long time in English and infusing the language with a new aesthetic. I figured this aesthetic should be in service to something more than just my aesthetics, or more than just the contemporary voice. Using the lens of queer theory and queer subjectivity, I can focus my aesthetic choices on those moments in the Bible that queerness might question. Moments where masculinity is privileged, or where femininity is domesticated, where the stranger is marginalized, and where power relations are formed in disservice to any non-normative behavior or characterization. It’s a distinctly queer compassion that I try to illustrate with my literary style. I’ll be working on the project soon as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center for a month, which is such a gift for a project of this magnitude. I don’t think I could have believed this project possible right now without that support.
What parts of the Bible will require the most heavy editing? What sections are you focusing change on the most?
“Editing” is not exactly how I think of it. To “edit” would, for me, suggest that I’m updating the Bible, fixing it. And while perhaps that is a consequence of the work I’m doing, I don’t consider it my primary responsibility to fix the Bible. The Bible can be exactly what it is to the many, many people who treasure and value it. I don’t want to take that away. Rather, I’m making something new, based on the old text. The Queer Bible is linked to the traditional Bible, but it’s so radically different that it becomes its own text in a way. It’s not an edit but a new work.
What was your background like growing up, how were you affected by the religion?
I grew up Roman Catholic. And not like the Protestant-ized, secularist kinda Roman Catholic where you maybe go to church when a holy day rolls around. We were praying in the car on the way to school, which was for a portion of my youth a Catholic school. We were threading beads onto string after school to make rosaries, likely for some colonizing missionary charity group. We went to church every Sunday, dressed in our best. We had priests eating dinner with us. I was in a Catholic youth organization, I was an altar boy. I used to play a game sometimes with new visitors to my childhood home–guess how many crucifixes are in this house. It was not a fun game, but it was a lot of crucifixes. I was IN IT.
My sense of self-worth depended on my participation in this religion, which was, by extension, participation in my family structure. In order to be seen as a part of my family, I believed I had to play a certain part, which I was very game to play for a very long time. But inevitably, who I deeply am became harder and harder to diminish. I have worked hard to be more openly myself with my family, but that’s still something I’m constantly navigating. I think religion had a part in that distance I sometimes feel with my family, but in that distance I learned a lot about myself, which I’m particularly grateful for.
Growing up in a more repressive religious community made the work of understanding myself harder to do, and admittedly I didn’t do so well all the time. There were moments I didn’t think I would make it out of my adolescence. I think a lot of queer people can relate to that feeling. But being a part of my family, feeling excluded and alone, it actually ended up providing me with the greatest portion of my strength and independence. I had to learn how I was queer alone. I didn’t have the guidance of my family structure to inform my personal identity. Being queer is an identity as much as any other, but it’s one of the few that isn’t automatically inherited from the family system. And while I think so many queer people would benefit from having that guidance as young people, I am thankful that I was capable of doing that work alone–learning the codes of queerness, the style, reading the texts, understanding the history.
How have your views of religion changed as a queer adult?
I think I’m more ambivalent about religion these days. I’m not religious myself anymore, I don’t have an organized spiritual practice, don’t believe in a supernatural higher power. But sometimes when I go home around Catholic holidays, I go to church and there is a lot of beauty; so much great community, beautiful architecture, inspiring music, fabulous art and decoration. I don’t only have a negative outlook on religion. I can see the reasons why it holds allure for people. But I’m not compelled myself to participate. I don’t take communion, I don’t say the prayers. I call myself a “fallen Catholic” because I think a part of me will always be informed by my early years in the Church, I can’t just wipe that influence away. But I’m not in a place anymore where being religious means something to me.
What bothers you the most about the way that the Bible functions now?
I’m not bothered by the Bible so much as I’m bothered at the way the Bible is used. There’s so much possibility for hate in the use of the Bible and it’s a shame when religious, political, or cultural leaders subscribe to that hate. But there’s also a great store of love and beauty in the Bible. I’d like to, with my project, make a book that cannot be used against the queer body, that can’t be used to negate or diminish our human experience.
How accessible will The Queer Bible be to others? How do you see people using it?
My goal with The Queer Bible is to make it accessible at every stage of development. I want to share my research, I want people to share their research. I want to send drafts out into the world, I want people reacting and responding to those drafts. I want people to write me their stories, to possibly get some other translators in the work, too. I’m hoping to do interviews, or write essays, or tell stories that will be published alongside the translations. This is definitely going to be a very hybrid text, and I think the extent of its hybridity can be determined by whoever wants a stake in this project. I want it to feel like everything is possible because I associate that sense liberation with how it feels to be queer. Everything is possible. I only hope other people will use it exactly as they want to. I don’t have any preconceived notions of how this text will work, what its use will be. I hope it’s capable of many uses — as a representational text, providing a literary representation of queerness in a document with a particularly hostile relationship to queerness; as a critique, illuminating the ways the Bible and its religions have denied the queer body the right to exist; as a political statement, part of a larger mobilization of queer voices and queer rights; as symbol, as healing, as celebration.
How’d you decide on Kickstarter to fund the idea?
Kickstarter is an excellent platform for building visibility–even beyond just donations. I’ve gotten so much positive response from social media, press, from people I don’t even know. Kickstarter has a built-in platform that I wanted to leverage as a way to get in touch with people, and make it clear that this is a public project in many ways. Donations are great, obviously, but I’m far more interested in someone sending me an email with a research suggestion, or asking to be a part of it somehow, or telling me how much the project means to them, or how much they hate it! I’m so much more interested in people using their voices to support this project–I want to hear everyone, and I want this project to represent the thousands of variations in queerness that can exist. So I depend on people reaching out, too! I know my subject position limits my perspective, and I know I am in a place of privilege that limits my knowledge of certain types of queer struggle. I can’t possibly be the one person in this project defining what queerness is–that would be completely antithetical to the project’s interest in radical inclusivity. So I’m depending on the viewers and supporters from Kickstarter to work with me, as partners, in shaping this project’s limits, testing those limits, and expanding beyond them.
To support The Queer Bible go to the Kickstarter page.
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