A Queer Garden of Eden

We know the story well. God created male and female in God’s image and likeness, but they ended up breaking the rules and cursing humanity until the end of time. But one film director with Catholic and Buddhist backgrounds is challenging the traditionally gendered Biblical creation story by creating a film of a dance interpretation with a queer twist.

First some background to set the context.

We are all pretty familiar with our friends Adam and Eve. We find them acting as major characters in the mythological account of the creation story in the book of Genesis. Perhaps the less well known fact about the creation account in Genesis is the two distinct authors who wrote it.

The story begins at Genesis 1:1 with the Priestly account, as Biblical scholars call it. The Priestly account follows this general format: God names what God will create; God creates it; God says it is good. God’s creation includes humankind, which God creates in God’s “image” and “likeness” (1:26). God created them “male and female.” Everything is good. End of Priestly account at Genesis 2:3.

At Genesis 2:4, we begin again with a new creation account by a different author called the Yahwist, more commonly known by Biblical scholars as the J Source. This is the account receives much more attention among Catholic lay people: the serpent tricks the woman into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; Eve convinces Adam to eat it too; the serpent, Adam, and Eve are all cursed; God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden.

But the J source is also where we find explicit references to the genders of our major characters beyond the “male and female” division of the Priestly source. God creates the woman from the rib of the man. In the Hebrew, ‘ishah (woman) is derived from ‘ish (man), “for out of Man this one was taken” (2:23).

Enter contemporary Biblical interpretations. The creation story (more specifically, the J account of the creation story) is used in a variety of Catholic spaces to justify gender essentialism, male dominance, and subordination of women. (One of the earliest feminist Biblical scholars to write about this is Phyllis Trible). It is also used to justify heterosexism and homophobia. After all, thed anti-gay forces often say God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

Dancers in ‘What If?’

But what happens when the gendered account of the J source become troubled? Director Winnie Cheung, a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, created an artistic interpretation of this familiar creation story that challenged the defined gender barriers at work in current interpretations of Genesis. In the short dance film What If, Cheung and choreographer Elena Vazintaris formed a queer interpretation of the world in the garden that stars, not Adam and Eve, but three characters from the tarot deck: the Fool, the Magician, and the Star. Cheung explained to The Advocate:

“With What If, I set out to craft three characters that fell somewhere between the gender spectrum. I wanted to make sure that our creators were not defined by gender, but by their movement and personality. We were particularly drawn to the Magician, the Fool, and the Star. Each card embodied various blends of masculinity and femininity.”

In the ethereal dance piece, the three characters embody genderqueer personas. They dance individually at first, but at many points, the characters touch and move together, as if they are all moving as one body. The erotic joining of three bodies together suggests not only the beauty of community, but it also reflects the Trinity, the quintessence of communal love.

But this Trinity of characters is specifically meant to be relatable to us. Their eyes evoke confusion, desire, discovery, jealousy, and love that we experience in our own lives. Cheung’s vision was to make these characters relatable to an audience that may feel outcast by traditional creation stories. She said:

“When does a story become a myth? Is it just the matter of time? As an Asian-American immigrant growing up in a mixed Catholic and Buddhist household, I was bombarded by stories about the birth of the universe, the birth of Jesus Christ, the birth of America — but they were all just stories to me. None of them ever fit me. Just like popular culture, if you don’t see characters and themes reflected in yourself, you can’t connect. But unlike books, magazines, or films, you can’t create another creation myth. Or can you?”

She did. And she produced an interpretation overflowing with fluidity and complexity, giving queer audiences the opportunity to connect, even if they feel that the creation stories from their own traditions do not recognize the goodness of their bodies.

As Cheung sums it up: “It’s a utopian dream and the ultimate ‘what if’ for those identifying outside the gender binary norm.”

To view Cheung’s video, click here.

–Lizzie Sextro, New Ways Ministry, September 18, 2018







2 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    This narrative is probably a bit “out there” and esoteric for some of us…it certainly is for me…but I’m sure it’s built upon good intentions. How did our other readers relate to it, either personally or intellectually?


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