Beyond Possibility: Review of Taylor Driggers’ Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: Fantastic Incarnations and the Deconstruction of Theology
Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: Fantastic Incarnations and the Deconstruction of Theology. Taylor Driggers. Bloomsbury Academic, February 2022.
The last week of February 2022 brought with it a crushing blow against trans people in Texas—the Attorney General issued a statement casting gender affirmation for trans children as child abuse, and the state is now making ready to remove trans children from their caregivers and families. Jules Gill-Peterson argues in a prescient article from April 2021 that such state action and legislation spins on an axis of Christian hegemony, the underpinnings of which enshrine the state’s ability to exclude trans people from public life. Liberal rights-based claims, Gill-Peterson writes, have failed us; what’s needed is a broader vision of life and community that can combat these attacks, one that’s rooted in a total transformation of society.
Enter Taylor Driggers’ Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: Fantastic Incarnations and the Deconstruction of Theology. Released this year, Driggers’ book identifies reimagining theology as an urgent endeavor for all those marginalized under Christian hegemony for reasons of gender and sexuality, as Christo-fascist regimes continue to take hold worldwide. While not perhaps the expected secular response to Gill-Peterson’s call, Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature makes good on French feminist Luce Irigaray’s desire for a theological project built on sexual embodiment and gendered specificity with the potential to transform society, doing so through the lens of fantasy literature.
A queer, feminist restructuring of theology necessitates the subversion of the absolute truth-claims and exclusive access to divinity wielded by patriarchal religious traditions—and, as Driggers demonstrates, fantasy literature can facilitate within us an openness to encountering the other and imagining new ways of being and relating. Driggers rejects a politics of representation and inclusion, focusing instead on the need for transformation pointed at by Gill-Peterson. For Driggers, simply affirming LGBTQ identities without engaging directly with Christian tradition is far from enough.
Like any good academic, Driggers also situates his project in the context of his own field of study, articulating the significance and import of his work. An assumption that he tackles early on in the book is one that remains predominantly unchallenged in the nexus of fantasy literature and theology: that fantasy and theology share a fundamentally dogmatic purpose, that of conversion. To counter this assumption, Driggers highlights the ways in which fantasy gestures towards different ways of being and living that go against dominant understandings of reality, which he notes also serves as a theological impulse. While there have been many politically radical readings of fantasy (Driggers points to Lucie Armitt’s Theorising the Fantastic, James Gifford’s A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic and Jack Zipes’ Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales), this book differs in its theological focus, but Driggers doesn’t merely draw an easy parallel between fantasy creatures and otherness or radicality. Instead, he focuses on the device of the secondary world as a contingency that can denaturalize our own understandings of reality.
Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature is composed of four chapters, the first of which gives an account of Jacques Derrida’s project of deconstruction and its relation to Driggers’ own aims. The second and third chapters articulate and deconstruct the role of the feminine in theological and fantastic discourses, and the fourth chapter compares fantasy literature to a practice of theological drag, highlighting Driggers’ queer theoretical intervention.
Driggers focuses on the function of what Derrida terms différance to articulate meaning through the simultaneous deferment and difference enacted therein, separating signs in time and space (thus producing signification) while at the same time emphasizing the polyphonic openness of that signification (enabling deconstruction). Derrida’s project is one that emphasizes a fundamental concern for the radical other, informed by the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and this, for Driggers, makes possible the envisioning of a theology without domination. Driggers defines fantasy for this purpose as any definitive textual departure from consensus reality, articulating that it’s the manner in which fantasy goes beyond possibility that renders it generative from a deconstructive standpoint.
This deconstructive standpoint is attuned to the contingent nature of theology, its construction, and the ways in which it’s co-constitutive with ideology. If this all feels rather difficult to grasp, Driggers’ discussion of his case study texts is instrumental in demonstrating the significance of his claims, and his first chapter’s attention to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is particularly helpful in that regard. For Driggers, Le Guin’s portrayal of the Handdara religion as one dedicated to disrupting binary logics and recognizing the interdependence of light and darkness stands in contrast to her depiction of the Yomesh religion’s fixation on the singularity of law and light, and the ways this manifests in the form of a surveillance state. Driggers builds on this portrayal to articulate the importance of a culture of faith being one of radical doubt against sovereignty and certainty, which feels particularly significant in light of current events.
The book’s third and fourth chapters focus on the ways in which Hélène Cixous and Irigaray, respectively, critique language as an endeavor founded upon the subjugation of women. Driggers’ attention to Cixous and, subsequently, Irigaray is mediated by the context wherein femininity has long been associated with unholiness and disorderly difference (see especially Catherine Keller, The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming for more on this). This careful attention is somewhat frustrated by Driggers’ reading of Irigaray, which holds to the long-prominent understanding of her work as fundamentally essentialist, ignoring more recent work such as Lynn Huffer’s 2013 book Are the Lips a Grave: A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex that argues just the contrary.
A second frustration with Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature regards the book’s treatment of trans studies. Predominantly relegated to the last chapter along with a theorization of fantasy literature as theological drag, this placement risks unconsciously conflating trans identity with drag. While Driggers is careful to separate the two, arguing that queer and trans cannot be collapsed into each other, one wonders why a trans analysis has not been brought to bear more thoroughly across the prior chapters, which focus particularly on femininity. Driggers’ writing on monstrous femininity, for instance, could have been enriched with attention to Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage”, one of the founding essays of trans studies. With the understanding that Driggers situates himself predominantly in queer rather than trans theory, however, further theological study might begin to articulate the possibilities and prohibitions of transfeminine embodiments of divinity, among other potentialities. A final issue with the book lies in its surface attention to race. Even as both racialization and trans identity are implicated as vectors of analysis by Driggers’ deconstruction, it’s also clear that Driggers lets deconstruction do some of the work that could have been accomplished with a deeper level of analysis.
Despite these issues, Driggers’ book is a generative queer theological text for those who desire to restructure dominant strains of Christian theology in order to facilitate societal transformation—which is just about all of us, at this point. Those searching for a complementary text from a Jewish perspective may wish to read Nathaniel Berman’s Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar: The “Other Side” of Kabbalah, which addresses similar issues of deconstruction and difference. For his part, Driggers leaves us with the taste of a more liberated world, if we can just find our way there through fantastical terrain.
Ryn Silverstein is a writer, Kohenet Hebrew priestess, and facilitator with a creative living practice that’s embodied, queer, and ancestrally-rooted. They cultivate longing as devotional practice, creating space in the everyday for dreaming and enchantment. Ryn has an MA in Cultural Studies from Stony Brook University and a BA in Film Studies from Muhlenberg College. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned by an email pitch to the ARB editors in December 2021; the author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. A review copy was procured by ARB from Bloomsbury Academic.