Interview: Samuel Ernest

School/Institution:

Yale University

Areas of Interest/Research:

Theology, gay literature, queer theory, HIV/AIDS

What is it about your field that you love researching?

I’m in a part of the academy in which working with gay and queer texts in a theological context makes sense or is obvious, even, but historically, it’s an unlikely thing. The work I’m doing has been made possible by scholars who have at least in part worked on more “canonical” figures and doctrinal loci and who have made queer inquiry thinkable in theology. A gay/queer theologian trained by gay/queer theologians is still a relatively new possibility, so the whole thing feels like the blossoming of something latent and unlikely.

Many of the texts I have worked on or would like to work on I’ve found by browsing bookshops, scouring the shelves for texts that may have complicated relationships to sexuality and Christianity. The circulation of gay and queer books have played an important role in forming gay and queer identities, so it’s not only a fun and fairly mundane process but one that’s relevant to what I study. What started as a hunt for texts that I might find personally useful in a devotional sense has turned into an effort to find and name the often overlooked or vastly oversimplified religious peculiarities of gay writers and queer theorists and to ask how they might speak to Christian theology.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I’m still fairly early on in my doctoral studies—midway through my second year of coursework, with exams, teaching, and dissertation on the horizon. So, a few of these questions will have to be answered with an ellipsis. It isn’t necessarily a “big idea,” but something more like an impulse that has been carrying me this year is that, agreeing with Linn Tonstad’s critiques of apologetic queer theology and queer desire for inclusion, there is yet more to be said about the varieties of relationships queer people have to the church (itself a tricky body) and more to be said about what sorts of relationships to the church are generative for theology.

What is your current research about?

In recent papers, I have been looking at HIV/AIDS, theology, and poetry, which is the constellation of topics I would likely write my dissertation on. Some of the questions are: What have theologians from various locations said about HIV/AIDS? What sort of ecclesiology is present in such work and how might it compare to queer theorizations of collective bodies in relationship to HIV/AIDS? In working with various sorts of texts, I’d hope to get at some questions about the scope and work of theology and about how HIV/AIDS has been thought in literature, theology, and theory. I am also interested in prophylaxis as an epistemological technology and fantasies of invulnerability, which might make an appearance as well.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

Besides the faculty in my own department, which does include some of my heroes, Mark D. Jordan is a scholar whose work has been foundational for me. He has published widely (from Aquinas to sexual ethics to queer theology as such) but his corpus is coherent. When I first started writing papers for my master’s degree in religion and literature at Yale Divinity School, no matter the topic—gay marriage rites, sodomy and Sodom, recent Christian discourse on homosexuality, the disciplinary contours of queer theology—I found that Jordan had written a relevant and illuminating book or chapter on it. He is also a beautiful writer and a remarkably generous person. 

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

While working on my undergraduate honors thesis, I found the essay “The Challenge of Christianity for Gay and Lesbian Criticism—And Vice Versa” by Norman W. Jones, and it blew my mind. The essay rehearses some of the arguments from his book Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. At the time, the way Jones drew together interlocutors from various fields was utterly novel to me and broke open what I thought writing an essay could do, making possible many of the questions I’ve since been asking. I owe a lot to that essay, and this is a good reminder that I should return to his work, years later, and see what strikes me now.

In a class called Religion and Eros, Kathryn Tanner assigns Richard Rambuss’s Closet Devotions, which I love. There is an anger and a joy that propels the book, which is an argument against Christian demonization of gay sexuality through reading the homoerotic themes of the English devotional poets. He argues that for them, sexual language heightened religious affect, while in today’s gay cultural productions, religious language heightens sexual affect. I see the book as opening up room for further projects more so than the last word on the subject, which is why it sent me with new energy into contemporary gay and queer poetry while providing a general frame to read them through and against. It reads so much like a gay male text from the 1990s (which it is) in a way that makes me want to throw myself into my work with all of my own gay anger and joy.

A lot of my current thinking on the boundaries of the church and how to engage with sources across those boundaries is influenced by Tanner’s Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, particularly the second half, in which she speaks of such boundaries as meeting places rather than stark divisions that preserve some sort of ecclesial purity from an outside world. Doing work across disciplines, I have tended to feel insecure about my own methodology and how to define it, but Tanner’s writing on the task of theology and on the odd ways Christians borrow language and break it or inflect it with new meaning gets at the heart of it for me. And I’ll close with Linn Marie Tonstad’s Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics. Many of the book’s arguments have become sort of axiomatic to me, but I include this book as a stand in for the many ways Prof. Tonstad is trying to open theology to new questions and new forms of inquiry, as well as finding the places where theology may have resources for other fields. My professors (and peers) have encouraged me to follow my idiosyncrasies and to do so in a field that I wasn’t sure would allow it.

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

I have yet to publish in a journal or book! There is an article I have resubmitted after a revise/resubmit response, so I’m hopeful about that. Its topic is John Rechy’s appropriation of the Sodom story in his novels City of Night and Numbers. I read the books and their portrayals of a certain kind of gay subjectivity in a few contexts: Catherine Keller and Heather Love on how history structures contemporary experience; stories told about gay and queer literature and Chicanx, specifically Chicano, literature; and antihomophobic/apologetic queer Christian discourses.

I also have an essay on theology and the Body of Christ under review with an online magazine. The essay stems from the annual theology doctoral seminar, which was led by Prof. Eboni Marshall Turman.

Where can we follow you online?

On Twitter, I am at @samuel_ernest. My personal website is samuelernest.com, and I recently started a new website called homodoxy.com.

If we ran into you at SBL/AAR and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

I usually try to turn a look at conferences, so apparel can be an easy conversation starter. Also, your field! Mutual friends/experiences?

Other than your thesis, what research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

Homodoxy.com is one place where I’ll be thinking more about method, sodomitical theology, theology against the church (“against” means many things), etc. I’ve been warned by many a professor not to blog my “big ideas,” so I’m trying to find a sweet spot between tweeting every waking thought and saying nothing about what I work on until I publish.

The next article I hope to work up is a sequel to the John Rechy article on recent literature on gay dating/hook-up apps, particularly their juxtaposition of relationality, obsession, and loneliness. Together, the articles will make a case for continuity in gay subjectivities and sexual experiences across the chasms between now and then as often constructed by the crises of the death of the gay bar, the onset of The Apps, and perhaps HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 90s.

>> Thank you so much, Samuel, for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.


Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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