Thoughts on Outside the Lines

One of the few non-graphic books I decided to pick up last year is a relatively brief (only about two hundred pages) book on Christian theology from a queer theory perspective.  Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith by Mihee Kim-Kort, a Korean American Presbyterian pastor who is bisexual, falls in that category of pop theology that I used to consume with some regularity many years ago, but with the twist that this volume uses a progressive, non-proof text-y lens.  It’s taken as a given that the reader is comfortable with Christianity as a faith rooted in the advancement of social justice and that the exclusionary hermeneutics of the Christian Right don’t have traction.  From there, Kim-Kort launches into a series of personal essays exploring different social topics as experienced through Christianity and application of queer thought.

Cover of Outside the Lines. (Image credit: Fortress Press)

The thing that becomes immediately apparent when you start this book is that Kim-Kort has in mind for her audience a group of (probably mostly white) Christians who are totally down with a progressive agenda but need a lot of 101ing on how to approach things like gender and race in a way that’s not exclusionary or othering.  She shares extensive anecdotes from her own life about what it was like growing up as a child of Korean immigrants and her experiences discovering her bisexuality in the context of a community that always encouraged the heteronormative path of marriage and children for its members.  Many of these stories are exceptionally gentle in their delivery, giving the sense that either Kim-Kort was particularly fortunate in how the people around her responded to her self-discovery or that she’s eliding much of the tension that typically arises from openly assuming a queer identity with a community that’s heavily invested in heteronormativity (a significant exception comes from a brief passage in one chapter where she acknowledges that her husband was initially uncomfortable after she began incorporating elements of queerness into her identity).  As to why this particular rhetorical approach is adopted, I suspect that part of it is the very prickly nature of bringing an essentially conservative community (even progressive Christians tend to be a little weird about queerness and race as social dynamics) into a more empathetic understanding of a thing it’s historically ignored or derided.  From my place on the progressive spectrum, it can feel puzzling to see so much care taken to preserve the feelings of an audience that holds relatively high privilege in comparison to the difficulty of the author’s own lived experience.  I have to remember that it’s one of the irritating parts of education around social issues that there’s a disproportionate amount of emotional labor that the teacher has to do in comparison to their students.

Once I came to peace with the fact that the book’s target reader is someone much less immersed in intersectional feminist thought than me (and I write this knowing that there’s a lot that I still misunderstand and get wrong), I was able to settle in and appreciate the text for what it is.  The breadth of Kim-Kort’s topics is relatively wide as she discusses gender identity, promiscuity, the nature of bodies as an essential part of human experience, romance and friendship as competing idealized relationships, and the insidious nature of purity culture as a mode for patriarchal control of women, among other things.  There’s a relative lack of depth on these topics, but as introductions to the central problems of various cultural assumptions common in American Christianity, Kim-Kort’s writing does a serviceable job while keeping things framed in a context that should be familiar to her readers.  She occasionally steers into territory that might come across as slightly scandalous to her readers (she has an extended meditation on the queerness of priest’s robes as women’s dress in a profession that’s historically been available only to men), but it’s mostly a very gentle expansion of ideas.  Her chapter called “The Friend Zone” irritates me primarily in its failure to say unequivocally that the concept of the friend zone is used primarily to discourage men and women from finding satisfaction in platonic friendship with one another.  Generally, I find the whole volume to be a mixed bag of ideas that is a net positive for pushing progressive Christians to think more carefully about how they react to encounters with queerness.

If you’re someone with a history in the American church who’s looking for a book about how to better incorporate queer thought into your conception of the faith practice, this one isn’t the worst option.  As someone who tends to feel a bit of anxiety when I set foot in churches these days, I never felt particularly put off by Kim-Kort’s writing or ideas beyond a general disappointment that she doesn’t go farther in her arguments.  If you know someone who is just beginning to explore how they can become more inclusive and progressive in their faith, then this book might be a good read for them.

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