Some Notes on the Possibilities of Bear Theology

What is a ‘Bear’?

In the introduction of her book Queer God, (2003), Marcella Althaus-Reid offers us an intriguing practice for rendering religiously invisible lives theologically vivid. Making ‘gay bars’ the primary field of her reflection Althaus-Reid asks: ‘Where is the salsa in Contextual Theology?’[1]Seeded within Althaus-Reid’s question is a summary of a ‘fleshy’ hermeneutic, in which the lives and passions of Queer people are lovingly meshed into the tasks of theology. In Althaus-Reid’s interpretation of the theological task there should be no spiritual separation between the Queer Salsa bar and the church- no heart ‘torn between love and rosaries’[2]– but a singular life which shares in a kind of sacramental wholeness between ‘sexuality’ and ‘soul’. Recognising the theological dimension in the erotic and the sanctity in the queer, Althaus-Reid seeks to uncover ‘the theologians’ of the gay bar, recognising that: ‘Bodies in love add many theological insights to the quest for God and truth’[3]. In this spirit of reconciling Christian theology and ‘Queer bodies’, this post will attempt to scale down Althaus-Reid’s original project by seeking to engage theologically with a single segment of the Queer community; the Bear sub-culture. I suggest that Bear communities offer Christian theology valuable trajectories for reaffirming the centrality of the body in the life of the Church and resist the commodification of human life.

Let’s begin by defining terms. What constitutes a Bear?  Stereotypically, he is a Queer man whose body, both symbolically, and spatially, stands out. He is frequently hairy, unkept, and fat. His clothes are chosen deliberately to be unpretentious. His presence, friskily and insistently, pushes against any asceticism that might restrict or sculpt his physicality. The Bear body, in all its bulk is a playful refusal of both athleticism and denial. As Peter Hennen has observed, Bear communities are rooted in an affirmation of ‘the wild’[4], ‘an erotization of the hairy male body’[5] and an emphasis upon ‘playful liberty.’[6]  At the core of these interlocking postures is an ‘ethic of care’[7] which encompasses larger, older, or otherwise unconventional bodies. Diverse images of masculinity may be included in this generous posture. The lumberjack, the trucker, the day labourer, are all possible subjects of erotic delight and models for self-affirmation. Underlying such images is an organizing myth of rustic life. By drawing on modes of rural simplicity and the restorative possibilities of the wild, Bears frequently valorise notions of the ‘natural man’. The act of simply being oneself is creatively borrowed from Radical currents of the Feminist tradition which have been highly critical, not only of Western’ society’s mainstream conceptions of ‘beauty’, but of its social consequences. As Les K. Wright notes,

Going “natural” is taken…directly from the feminist work of Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly and others.  It is a transformative action on the part of the oppressed to reject being dominated by the beauty myth, to direct our anger against our oppressors and not ourselves…. In this sense, bears address the issue of class structures based on look-ism and fat discrimination. Heavy, unattractive people, are discriminated against in our society, which often has direct economic consequences- being forced to take lower-end jobs, being shunned professionally and socially, being dismissed as asexual or unworthy of intimate affection.[8]

By finding depth and affirmation in the bodies we have, rather than fretting over the bodies we would like to have, Bears attempt to model their conception of a just community, where are bodily lives are things to be loved and enjoy, rather than being a technical project.

Bear Spirituality: Bodies and Idols

What might be the spiritual and theological significance of such postures? In his collection of autobiographical essays Binding the God (2010), Jeff Mann offers his readers a series of intriguing glimpses of the rich theological threads which anchor him within the American Bear Community. Reverent yet heterodox, Mann invites us to experience with him his personal folk religion of the Appalachian landscape which blends contemporary Wiccan practice[9] with a deeply Emersonian Christianity; a fusion which allows Mann to see Spirit as ever-present ‘flickering just beneath the surface of things.’[10]  Finding the blood of Christ in the red-bud of the Judas tree[11]  and divine beauty in a masculine bar-tender[12], Mann continually blurs the erotic and sacramental, to the effect of imbuing his experience with a kind of theological inclusiveness, which makes all of life (including erotic experience) vocational. In this fusion of the sacred and mundane Jesus is transformed into a sexualised man-god, who appears for Mann in the midst of lovemaking, blasphemously yet joyfully, combining his love of BDSM and rugged male beauty. Such a theological stance reflects the Bear community with which Mann travels. Bears are gay and bisexual men who are formed by the conviction that their bodies (whether hairy, overweight, elderly or bulky) should no-longer be subject to a homoerotic gaze which demeans and polices them. In counterbalance to a commercial cult of youthfulness and slimness, Bears seek to reclaim what Mann calls playfully ‘the Holy Trinity of Beards, Body Hair and Bulky Brawn’[13] with an accompanying idealization of food, rough sex and the joyful rooted-ness of (particularly North American) working-class life.

Such a way of seeing has radical implications for how Bears view the world, and how theology might be done in the context of Beardom. When Paul embarked on his journeys through Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor, the cities he encountered were brimming with a decidedly boisterous religiosity. Alongside the many exotic cults worshipped in private homes and smaller shrines, Paul would have witnessed the worship of numerous tutelary deities. These supernatural guardians were thought to foster opulence, preserve the city from invasion, and avert famine. A preeminent cult at the time of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica were the enigmatic Cabeiri[14], while Aphrodite[15] and Artemis[16] served as divine patrons of Roman Corinth and Ephesus respectively. Yet, as many reflective spectators realised, these cults were more than mere municipal talismans. The images of the gods, in imagination and marble, were production-points for forms of what Benedict Anderson has called ‘imagined community’. Much as a modern flag is intended to produce fellow-feeling in those who otherwise may feel themselves strangers, participation in civil cults attempted to impose forms of sacred-symbolic fraternity on potentially alienated urban spaces. In his keen excavation of the implicit symbolism which organized the structure of the ancient Greek polis, Henri Lefebvre observes:

The citizen and city-dweller, representational space and the representation of space, though they did not coincide, were harmonious and congruent. A unity was achieved here between the order of the world, the order of the city, and the order of the house- between the three levels of segments constituted by physical space, political space, (the city along with its domains), and urban space (i.e. within the city proper). This unity was not a simple or a homogeneous one, but rather a unity of composition and of proportion, a unity embracing and presupposing differences and hierarchy…. And time, the rhythm of days and feasts, accorded with the organisation of space- with household altars, with centres of collective activity, with the boule in the agora (a free and open citizens’ assembly), with temples and with stadia.[17]

Here, Lefebvre presents us with the beguiling image of the cityscape as a cosmos in miniature. Within its walls, the intermingling of public space and sacred rites constitute this world’s abiding regularities. In the artificial spaces of temple and agora (where nature is manifestly absent) custom takes on the status of natural law. In such a context, worship serves as a tacit act of submission to the ordered logics of the city, of which the gods are guarantors. For Paul, this mythic framework was nothing but a deception. The gods (daimones) at the centre of the urban micro-cosmos, were not merely the empty idols of Isaiah, but malevolent beings, intent on initiating human beings into pervasive modes of false worship. The cosmology of the pagan city was false because it excluded the God of Abraham and Jesus.  The crucified Jesus did not represent a god of confining brick and marble, but a wild nomadic God. While the city was based on containment, control, and conquest, the god of Christ freely gave and freely loved. The city did not affirm him, indeed, it put him to death. For the earliest Christians, the Power and Image of God was not rooted in mighty public buildings, the amassing of wealth, or the mechanisms of control, but a body that lived, embraced, and suffered. To belong to such a god made one profoundly estranged from the expectations of the city. To follow the Crucified One, was in a sense, to become savage and uncivilized.  This is doubtless why early Christians were accused of cannibalism. A people with such a tenuous link to the rule of the city, could not be other than savage beasts. To live outside the micro-cosmos was to be conceived of as a force of chaos. Paul in his own way, was affirming the possibilities of the wild.

This sense of Christians living outside the control of the city draws attention to a fascinating parallel. Despite the fact that Bears predominately live in highly urban areas, their imaginative appeals to a rustic existence allows them to develop a mode of estrangement, not dissimilar to that of early Christians. Bears, like Paul, can be in the city, but not of the city. What idols does the Bear perceive in the modern cityscape? The false gods are many, from the shallowness of gym culture, to commercial norms of gay male beauty. People sacrifice much to these ideals, crafting and sculpting their bodies in accord with the strictures of a demanding cult. In this economy of fleshly idolatry, embodied life is not a gift, but a product to be consumed. The body is not imbibed with any special aura, except its marketability in the flow of Sexual Capital. The suggestion that bodies in their unconfigured state, in fatness, in age, in frailty,  possess deep dignity, is as incomprehensible to the gods of the latter-day city (with its glossy billboards of bodily perfection), as Paul’s declaration to educated Greeks that God’s son had been crucified. In such a culture, the consuming body is glorified, but bodily imperfections are disowned. As the anthropologist Mark Graham has observed: ‘The cultural messages that bombard us daily are equally contradictory. Turn on the television and you are told to indulge yourself with fatty foods one minute and to diet and stay slim the next.’[18]

The rising medical and media panic concerning an ‘obesity epidemic’ coupled with the increasing number of people being diagnosed with eating-disorders is deeply illustrative of a Western culture torn between food as a source of pleasure and food as a source of guilt. Consequently we live in a society of increasing bodily surveillance; where the size, youthfulness, and shape of our bodies is a matter of constant medical, moral and psychological anxiety. Fat is commonly associated with excess, sloth, and a lack of self-control and thus is frequently deemed a sign of personal failure. This is reinforced by a dieting industry which demands physical perfection, from both men and women. Our micro-cosmos is one of constant body refusal and indulgence, cycles punctuated by muddled guilt and tentative desiring. The idols of contemporary consumer capitalism possess a capriciousness and unthinking cruelty that match the Olympians of old. This should draw us towards an important theological realization. Despite the contemporary turn towards an explicit reveling in ‘the flesh’ through cinema, magazines and the internet, our culture falls easily into destructive dualistic practices of self-hating. The language of the diet-book- ‘the battle of the bulge’ and ‘the quest for the perfect body’ denote the experience of a consciousness at war with the body.  The contemporary turn towards the surveillance of the body is not an affirmative, but profoundly negating move. The culture of beauty does not see the body as friend, but principally as the chief obstacle in the way of the pleasure-seeking calculating mind. This is Oscar Wilde’s great theological insight in his short story The Fisherman and his Soul. Destructive acts do not of themselves come from ‘sins of the flesh’ but from the longings of the distorted soul. How can such a culture hear the declaration of the Word ‘become flesh’ with any seriousness, when the flesh is treated with such contempt? In the midst of such a culture, Bears provide rich templates for gay and bisexual men, but also others, who seek ways of theologically reinvesting their bodies.

Being Called to the Table: Food, Fat, and Worship

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matt 11:19).

If we do not belong to the idol of the gym, the diet book, or the plastic surgeons’ knife, where do we belong? We belong to a God of bodies, a Father who affirms the completeness of divine revelation in flesh. By being drawn into the Messianic community of Jesus, all bodies become part of His body, thin, fat, young, old. To bolster such bodily inclusivity, Bears have traditionally engaged in a type of bodily literacy. The heft, hair, or muscle of a Bear’s body is not merely desirable but signifies an affirmation of life. The first visibly organised Bear groups crystallised at the height of the AIDs pandemic in the United States. In this context, a gay man who remained heavy signified his continuing health. Thus, early Bears understood their bodies as sites of resistance, not merely to fatal disease, but to life-denying logic. Their fat was a sign, not of excess, but of hope. How might the decidedly bodily hope experienced by Bears, help us break free of body-hating culture? Reading the Bible as a Bear may be a novel task, but rich resources are there for us to find. In contrast to the pangs of guilt that surround our culture’s dualistic attitudes to weight and food, the religious world of the Hebrew Bible (the literarily and symbolic landscape of which Jesus’ was part) was structured by consecrated cycles of eating and feasting, which mediated both Israelite conceptions of holiness and ethics.

Mirrored in these acts of consumption was the notion that divine blessing is expressed through signs of ‘abundance’.  Fat animals were a sign of ‘beauty’ and blessing (Gen 41:2), while faithful Israelites could be assured of being ‘satisfied’ (Deut 11:8-17) by living off ‘the fat of the land’ (Gen 45:18). The ‘fat body’, far from being a universal object of disgust, could be a thing of erotic beauty. We find this view expressed strongly in the Song of Songs where the female lover has a navel like a ‘rounded goblet’ (7:2) with breasts like ‘two fawns’ (4:5) leading Athalya Brenner to conclude that the woman of the Song is ‘far from slim.’[19]  If ‘fat’ can be erotic, it can also be morally positive. Inverting our contemporary association between fatness and greed, Hebrew Wisdom Literature frequently treats ‘becoming fat’ as a reward for generosity (Prov 11:25, 13:4) while Isaiah connects ‘fatness’ with strength (Is. 10:27).  This tradition continues in the Greek Scriptures, where Jesus is criticised as a glutton by his opponents (Matt 11:19). While such a judgement was doubtless mean-spirited, it expressed an important dimension of Jesus’ character. Apart from healing, so much of his ministry was concerned with table-fellowship. As the inaugurator of God’s kingdom, he declares the eternal feast begun on earth. The modern phenomenon of Christian dieting programmes appears highly dubious when compared with the gusto of Christ’s eating and drinking.

Those uncomfortable with the theology of the body being sketched here are liable to remind us of Paul’s admonishment towards those ‘whose god is their belly’ (Phil 3:19). But this is not generally true of Bears. The admonishment would be better directed at those who focus incessantly on what they eat, or do not eat, out of fear that their belly might protrude or expand. Such a person has allowed their life to be crowded with their belly and its dangers to such an extent, that they have left room for little else. Fat as obsession is its own special kind of idolatry. Bears, in all their shapes and sizes, have left space for care and hospitality.  Bears are not merely symbolised by their girth and hair, but the table, with food waiting to be shared. In the Bear affirmation of life, there is room for an explicitly Incarnational ethic of tenderness. The God of the Nomads is not like the gods of the city, who try to control everything from behind walls. There are no gyms or diet books in the wilderness frequented by the God of Israel. The God who raises bodies from the dead, does not regard them as sculptured statues, but fleshy, breathing, feeding, things: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38). Such a God desires love not slimness, generosity, not bodily perfection. The God of the Resurrection doesn’t mind if his people are fat. All he desires his that they are just and hospitable, that their joy does not dispossess others.

[1]Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 1

[2] Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, (London: Routledge, 2003), ibid

[3] Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, p. 2.

[4] Peter Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leather: Men in Community Queering Masculinity, (London: The University of Chicago, 2008), p. 101

[5] Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering Masculinity, (London: The University of Chicago, 2008), p.

[6] Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leathermen, p. 98

[7] Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leathermen, p. 98

[8] Les Wright, ‘Theoretical Bears’, in The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture, ed. Les Wright, (London: Hawworth Press, 1997), p. 13

[9]  Jeff Mann, ‘Beards, Body Hair and Brawn: Reflections of a Masculine Bear’, Binding The God: Ursine Essays From the Mountain South, (New London: Bear Bones Books, 2010), p. 20

[10] Mann, ‘Till the Ductile Anchor Hold’, Binding The God: Ursine Essays From the Mountain South, (New London: Bear Bones Books, 2010), p. 67

[11] Mann, ‘Till the Ductile Anchor Hold’, Binding The God: Ursine Essays From the Mountain South, (New London: Bear Bones Books, 2010), p.70

[12] Mann, ‘Valhalla in the Redwoods’, p. 32

[13] Mann, ‘Beards, Body Hair and Brawn: Reflections of a Masculine Bear’, p. 11

[14] Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), p.5

[15] Cavan W. Concannon, “When You Were Gentiles”: Specters of Ethnicity in Roman Corinth and Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence, (London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 94

[16] See Rick Strelan, Paul, Artemis, and the Jews in Ephesus, (New York: Walter de Gruyer, 1996), pp. 75-79.

[17] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1974: 1991), p. 247

[18] Mark Graham, ‘Chaos’, in Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, ed. Don Kulik & Ann Meneley (Penguin: New York, 2005), p. 183

[19] Athalya Brenner, ‘Come back, come back, Shulammite’, A feminist companion to the Song of Songs, ed.  Athalya Brenner, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 247

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