In his most recent book, From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ, the Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng offers a brilliant and accessible journey through the challenging subjects of sin and grace and suggests several alternative approaches to discussing sin within a Christian context. Cheng, an associate professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., is unapologetic in his writing, stating in the introduction that he writes from a “queer” perspective and that the intention of this book is to address western theology’s concepts of sin that have specifically damaged the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Cheng goes on the challenge western Christianity to move from a crime-and-acquittal model of sin and grace to one that is Christo-centric, based upon immaturity and becoming divine.
In the first half of From Sin to Amazing Grace, Cheng gives a brief but comprehensive summary of the systematic, biblical and historical models of sin and grace. He argues that the Augustinian model widely embraced in western culture, in which sins are seen as crimes against God, and that has done great harm, especially to the LGBT community, who have been indoctrinated with the idea that who they are is sinful and an offense against God. Cheng argues that it is this crime-and-acquittal model that has lead to centuries of violence toward the LGBT community and internalized homophobia among LGBT persons. It is within this discussion that he offers one of his most fascinating theories; Cheng suggests that much of the world’s homophobia is linked to the idea of communal punishment for the sins of the few as seen in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah when God destroyed an entire city because of the sins of some of its inhabitants. It is Cheng’s theory that human beings are so fearful of God’s wrath against humanity that they attempt to exterminate anything or anyone who might bring God’s punishment upon them, and that the only way to end this violence against the LGBT community would be to reject the idea of God’s punishment and embrace the notion of becoming divine.
Using theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Bonaventure and Karl Barth as a foundation, Cheng suggests that the church rethink its acceptance of the Augustinian model in favor of the eastern notion of theosis, in which sin is seen from the perspective of being immature and that life therefore is a journey to become more like God every day. We all stray from the path of becoming like God, and we never will be God, but we realize with God’s grace we can indeed strive to become divine beings.
In the second half of his book, Cheng introduces seven modes of Christ suggested by different queer theologians to further his discussion about the need to embrace a Christ-centered harmartiology. Within those seven modes, he proposes seven new deadly sins and seven new graces useful to the LGBT community as they embrace their own journey of divinization. For example, Cheng introduces the reader to the Out Christ, who, during his time on Earth, reveals himself fully as God’s own self; the sin associated with this particular mode, according to Cheng is “the closet” and the grace would be “coming out.” Other modes include the Erotic Christ, the Self-Loving Christ and the Hybrid Christ; each with a unique sin and grace that speaks directly to the LGBT community and allows readers to examine their own experiences and how they might engage the process of moving from immaturity to divinity.
Throughout From Sin to Amazing Grace Cheng writes about his own experiences with sin, and as a gay man of color, offers a voice that is often forgotten in queer studies. He offers the reader insight into his own struggles and shares how God’s grace has transformed him, his relationships and his relationship with God and the church. Cheng writes with the authority of his experience and academic achievement, however, he presents his arguments in a manner that readers with no theological background can fully understand. The inclusion of reflection questions at the end of each chapter allows for this book to be much more than just a piece of academic writing – it could very well spark transformation in the reader’s own journey.
Cheng is very clear that this book was written for the LGBT community, however, the message he delivers is universal and worth sharing with all God’s people. He uses many examples within the book that are unique to the LGBT experience and could be shocking to those who have little or no experience with queer theology; however, it is books such as this that can move the Christian community from an us-and-them mentality to one that unites us all as God’s children on the same journey.
(The Rev. Keith Voets is a recent graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City, and a transitional deacon from the Diocese of Connecticut. He will begin serving as assistant rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, Conn., this upcoming August. Keith and his husband, Jeff Greig, reside in Middletown, Conn.)