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Linn Tonstad's Theology of the Dance Floor

A queer scholar of faith finds freedom in the rave.
Linn Tonstad, 2022.Photo: Emil Cohen.

Watching Linn Tonstad dance is like seeing her mind work in real time. She throws her weight in crossbody sweeps, swaying her shoulders along a metronomic two-step. “That’s how I build up power,” she told me. I watched her shake her left hand as if holding a rattle, gathering adrenaline. “My left hand is more powerful and more specific, but it turns out my right hand has a tempo at half speed, and I can do contrapuntal things.”

We were at the nightclub Nowadays in Ridgewood, Queens, with Tonstad’s partner, the painter Avery Z. Nelson. At parties here, techno heads who wear all black are as much a staple of the landscape as trucks and barbed wire. So when Tonstad and Nelson stepped onto the dance floor in white, they commanded attention. Under the dim and changing lights, Nelson would appear, for one moment, like a jock with a blonde crop, but then under a different light seem bird-like, even spritely. The two seemed to share a secret language—one of the body, but also through their eyes. Occasionally, Nelson would whisper something into Tonstad’s ear, to which she’d smile wryly.

Tonstad was wearing a white top, and blue sequined shorts. She likes wearing dandyish outfits—vibrant, layered textures with a touch of queer camp—and then surprising people by saying, “Oh, I’m a scholar of religion.” Tonstad, who is 44, is a professor of theology and sexuality at Yale Divinity School, where for the past several years she has taught the first course on queer theology offered in the school’s two-hundred-year history. In her class, she assigns seminal texts in queer theory, which can be difficult, like Leo Bersani’s elusive Is The Rectum a Grave?, and Lee Edelman’s frequently impenetrable No Future. Her seminar is “notoriously the hardest class at the Divinity School,” she told me. One former student described it to me as “a bumpy road.”

Born in California and raised in and around Oslo, Norway, Tonstad had by the age of nine read the Bible cover-to-cover, and did so many more times as a teen. Both of her parents were Seventh-day Adventists who enrolled her in Adventist schools from grade school through college, before she went to Yale to earn her PhD in Religious Studies. In 2016, after she completed her degree and began to teach, she published her first book, God and Difference. It synthesized her dissertation on Trinitarian theology—the Christian notion that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit make up a Triune God—with an energetic grappling with queer theory. In her introduction to the book, which Tonstad says she wrote while listening to a lot of Eminem, she described her project as “anti-inclusive, antinormative, and antiequality.” This predilection for queer transgression—for the principle that queer activism should not be about wanting or having what the straight world values—has caught the attention of queer artists like Carlos Motta and AA Bronson, with whom she has collaborated.

A black and white portrait of Tonstad
Linn Tonstad, 2022.Photo: Emil Cohen.

In 2018, she followed up with the more accessible Queer Theology, a rich and conversational survey of the cross traffic between theology and queer theory. Teachers and pastors have contacted her to say they’ve used the book in youth groups and classrooms to talk with young people about sexuality and Christ—remarkable, since sexual difference is the single most divisive issue in American Christianity today. Churches across denominations have broken up over disputes about women’s ordination, female bishops, abortion, and same-sex relationships. But Tonstad has chosen to make sexual difference the central inquiry of her scholarship.

Her works place her in a second generation of queer theologians, a small and tight-knit group whose field grows from the pathbreaking work, in the 1990s, of scholars like Marcella Althaus-Reid and Mark Jordan. Tonstad describes her scholarship as a “deliberate misreading” of past theologians—daring to hear from a professor, since one point of academia is to train scholars not to misread. To “queer” Christianity, she believes, is to “reframe reality,” a project which—if undertaken with care and rigor—can orient one’s life toward progress and social justice.

But if queer theology is the theory, the rave for Tonstad is the practice. “Dancing is utterly determined by what flesh can and can’t do, by how it moves or doesn’t, by the limitation and possibility that are constitutive of bodies made of dust,” she has written. “The rave is not only for life; dancing flesh knows it is grass, as the text says, grass that wilts, withers, and dies. The rave is what it feels like to be alive, and all that lives, dies.”

But if queer theology is the theory, the rave for Tonstad is the practice.

***

One afternoon last spring, I visited Tonstad and Nelson in their Bushwick loft. It’s an airy place that bespeaks their domestic intimacy but where they also often host parties, on Sunday mornings, after returning from raves at dawn. Several of Nelson’s paintings—dreamy, cerebral washes of dirty pastels with expressionistic contours—hang on the walls, along with other paintings by friends.

At their dining table, Tonstad and Nelson laughed as they recalled how they met on, of all places, OKCupid. When they first began dating in 2018, they spent most of their time on dance floors in New York. Tonstad said to Nelson, “I became a dancer through those months of dancing together, without taking our eyes off each other.” Nelson said to me, “We just fell madly in love in a way that I would not have believed if I hadn't experienced it.”

In her kitchen as in public, Tonstad appeared both at home in herself and a caricature of herself. She wears glasses with thick white frames, often with a bold red lip. She began experimenting with her appearance during her undergraduate years at La Sierra University, an Adventist college in Riverside, California. “A cross between a goth and a club kid” is how she described her style then. She wore red and black latex and dresses with cutouts, shaved off her eyebrows, and had piercings in her septum and nipples. Rennie B. Schoepflin, a beloved professor and mentor of Tonstad’s at La Sierra, described her to me as, on the one hand, “one of the three most brilliant students I've ever taught,” and, on the other, as “a rebel who dressed provocatively” and “broke all the rules of Adventism.”

One of the reasons “coming out of the closet” endures as a metaphor is that sexuality is so often expressed through clothes. As Tonstad was experimenting with style, she had come out as bisexual. (Today, she identifies as a “queer dyke… to the extent that we need words like that.”) As part of an exchange program, she took a philosophy class at the University of California, Riverside, that wasn’t offered at La Sierra. It was the first time Tonstad read Judith Butler. She was 19. There was a female student in the class—“exactly my type,” she said—who talked about how “all the oppressed people in the world need to get together and create this society without oppression. And I was like, Hello.” Soon, the two got together in a “somewhat tumultuous” relationship.

As a student, Tonstad saw no conflict whatsoever between queerness and Christianity. She’d come to this conviction not through argument, but by watching the 1994 movie Priest as a teenager. In the film, whose main character is a closeted gay priest, the priest is caught by the police having oral sex with a man in a car, and charged with indecency. When the priest’s church finds out, he tries to kill himself by swallowing 24 pills of paracetamol. Tonstad was moved. “I left that movie knowing that there was not an issue with being queer,” she said. “And my mind never wavered. I was lucky.”

A black and white portrait of Tonstad
Linn Tonstad, 2022.Photo: Emil Cohen.

When she came out as bisexual to her parents, her father, a pastor who has published several books on the New Testament, was devastated. He thought that if she was bisexual, she could choose to be gay or straight, and was choosing to be gay—an affront. “It was very bad,” she recalled, sitting across from me at her table. “There were things said that should not be said.”

Tonstad stopped speaking with her father. At Christmas, she declined to come home to Norway. Instead she went on a road trip with her girlfriend. By the time Tonstad did speak to Singve again, months later, he had changed his views. He told her that if she did choose to marry a woman, he would be willing to perform that ceremony. “That was huge,” she told me.

***

It is because of her coming-out experience that Tonstad believes Christians don’t change their minds about queerness by argument. “No, they change their mind because somebody they love is suffering,” she said.

This understanding has shaped her rejection of what’s known as queer apologetics: the school of Christian theology that reinterprets Biblical passages commonly read as condemning gay people and gay sex acts, for the purposes of LGBT inclusion. These approaches seek, for instance, to point out that Paul’s conceptions of gay sex acts were specific to his time, and are incompatible with today’s culture that sees sexuality as constitutive of identity. Or that the Book of Leviticus makes no hierarchical distinction in its edicts concerning sodomy and separating linen and wool—suggesting that modern Christians can disregard them. Tonstad dismisses such arguments as “the Bible says it’s okay to be gay” theology. This is what most people think of, she says, when they hear “queer theology”—a misconception she tries to correct. Tonstad’s queer theology is less about apologetics than aesthetics.

Tonstad’s God and Difference is a difficult work, hair-splittingly technical, even tedious when discussing gender, but its prose is propelled by the kind of grandiosity one only encounters in theology: “Divine freedom and bliss, revealed as love, show that absolute freedom involves self-surrender.” A second voice at work is recognizably transgressive, brimming with the brazen, punkish veneer of spike studs and leather: “If we move from dick-sucking to clit-licking in touching God’s transcendence,” she writes, “we will no longer gag on God’s fullness nor be forced to swallow an eternal emission.”

She criticizes the notion that the three entities of the trinity are competitive with each other. She contests, too, the idea that Christ needs to be humiliated so he can empty his own will to make room for God’s—a conception in which God is the top, and Jesus the bottom. Why this phallic insistence, she asks, on the active-passive dichotomy? Why does there always need to be a dick (God’s) demanding space to fuck? Tonstad proposes that we figure the trinity through models of lesbian sex—where partners play with each others’ clitorises, not in exchange of one’s pleasure for another’s pain or submission. They both get off simultaneously, they are both active: mutual intensification. Divine arousal, Tonstad argues, is abundant. It’s not a zero-sum game: one’s will for another’s humility.

A bedrock for Tonstad’s scholarship is the Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid, who was influenced by liberation theology and feminism as well as transgressive writers like Kathy Acker and George Bataille. In the 1990s, there was no term for queer theology, so Althaus-Reid called it “Indecent Theology.” She distinguished it from “T-Theology”—a normative, sycophantic theology that oppresses, excludes, and demands moral conformity. “The normative subject is a fiction, but it’s a destructive fiction that plays a role in the unjust distribution of social goods,” Tonstad explains in Queer Theology. When T-Theology defines decent Christians as belonging to heteronormative, nuclear families, it necessarily defines indecent Christians who are excluded, or denied rights, because they’re queer or trans. By contrast, Tonstad argues, echoing Jesus in the Beatitudes, the keys to the kingdom belong to the indecent: the outcasts, the rejects, the “least of these.”

Often in our conversations, she compares theology to an art—as a practice necessarily preoccupied with beauty. This is why a searching, poetic lyricism always seeps into even her most technical language.

Queerness, in Tonstad’s work, is a questioning of normativity: it “can only disturb an identity, rather than constitute one.” Queerness is undefinable. It cannot be captured, deciphered, mapped, or commodified for capital. It’s a vast, unknowable ocean. And these qualities, she argues, are deeply resonant with ancient Apophatic theology, which holds that “God is not continuous with our ordinary categories of knowing and valuing.” For Tonstad, “God is other, and a God who is other may surprise us, rather than confirming what we already know to be the case.” In this view, there may be something inherently queer about God.

Often in our conversations, she compares theology to an art—as a practice necessarily preoccupied with beauty. This is why a searching, poetic lyricism always seeps into even her most technical language.

“Trying to understand, in an open way, God, the world, and everything, when the fundamental theological commitment is that at the heart of this, there's a mystery that is perhaps nothingness—well, that's going to take some work, it’s going to be hard,” she told me once. “The infinite generosity of the nothingness that's at the heart of the universe—well, what does that mean? We come from nothing, we return to nothing and yet we are. That's reality.”

***

Tonstad met her collaborator Carlos Motta, a multi-disciplinary artist who was born in Bogotá and is now based in New York, in 2013. At the time, Motta was an artist-in-residence at the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at the Union Theological Seminary. As part of his residency at the Institute, which was founded by the venerable queer artist and publisher AA Bronson, Motta organized a symposium called “Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer.” He invited Tonstad to give a lecture—the first time she had spoken in front of an audience not made up of scholars, per se, but artists.

To demonstrate Christian notions of unconditional love, Tonstad spoke about the model of the glory hole: an icon of architectural brilliance in gay sex clubs that allows patrons to stick their dicks into a hole cut out of a wall, for any stranger on the other side to suck them off. It was a Tonstad signature, to pair the profane with the divine, the ridiculous with the reverent. For her, the glory hole embodies an economy of giving and loving freely: You suck off whoever comes along, no questions asked, and ask for nothing in return. The ethos fit snugly into the Kierkegaardian notion that “anyone that I encounter is someone I have a duty to love,” says Tonstad. “It was a little bit of a cheap trick, but in context, it worked quite well.”

Since their first collaboration, Tonstad has played an increasingly central role in Motta’s work. She has worked with him on several pieces, and is featured prominently in his three-channel video installation, “Requiem,” which premiered in 2016 at the MALBA museum in Buenos Aires. The installation included a video of Motta in a 16th century chapel, where two bondage artists tied him by the ankles with shibari rope and hung his blindfolded, nude body upside-down in reference to Caravaggio’s 1601 painting Crucifixion of Saint Peter. In Tonstad’s segment, she says, “God is a free giver.” God’s spiritual economy, she says, contradicts the logic of debt relations in the neoliberal regime, which she describes as ”the logic of nothing for free so nothing for grace.”

Motta told me, when I went to see him in his studio in Manhattan, that Tonstad has helped him see both Christianity and queerness as legitimate responses to the subjugations of late capitalism. As he praised his friend, his face, both leathery and puppy-like, seemed alternately distant and playful—an unsettling trait, because when I was expecting one vibe, I'd sometimes sense the other. “I thought she was the coolest person ever, because I had never met anyone who was doing that kind of work,” he said. Motta identifies as an atheist, but he explained to me that he has centered religion in his work because religion is central to political culture in the US and across Latin America, whether we like it or not. Traditionally, the Left has had a tendency to demote gender and sexuality beneath class struggle. Motta credits Tonstad with helping him find fresh ways, in his work, to redress this history. He considers her a “radical queer voice” who is, as he put it, “pushing the narrative much further than any of her peers.”

***

The weekend before I interviewed Motta, I ran into him and Tonstad at an underground techno party in a condemned warehouse that’s scheduled for demolition in Ridgewood. Tonstad was wearing a safety pin dangling from her septum. When I greeted Motta, who was trim and shirtless, he smiled and said, “I’m high.”

I laughed. “Me too.”

Motta and Tonstad started raving together around 2017, back when they shared a studio in Chinatown while she was at work on her second book. He remembers at the end of one party, the two of them emerged at eight in the morning. “I was just wanting to die of exhaustion and regret, and she says exactly the opposite. She tells us, ‘Guys, this rave was amazing. It really reaffirmed my value system and my beliefs.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’”

At the time, Tonstad was rediscovering nightlife, ending a hiatus that had lasted since her undergraduate days attending raves in California. Riverside only had one club, which had a goth night that she would frequent with her girlfriend, though she was more captivated by the rave scene in nearby Los Angeles. This was in the late nineties, back when she still had to hunt through clothing stores and coffee shops to find rave flyers that would list a phone number to call for the time and location. These raves were a revelation to her, where people licked lollipops made of liquid acid and saw visions of the universe revealed at 120 BPM.

A black and white portrait of Tonstad
Linn Tonstad, 2022.Photo: Emil Cohen.

When she moved east for grad school at Yale, she stopped raving because she was intent, she says, “on becoming an adult.” She threw dinner parties because that’s what adults did. She drank whiskey and played poker. This was “a very male-dominated field,” she pointed out. One of those men, she married. After seven years, she divorced him.

After she began teaching she had an experience, one morning in Manhattan, that profoundly affected her. She was cycling to Grand Central, to catch a train to New Haven. At the corner of First Avenue and 9th Street, she passed a white bike: a marker for where a cyclist had died. She looked up this one’s story. The cyclist had been killed by a truck and was 34, close to Tonstad’s age at the time. The cyclist could’ve easily been her on her daily commute. Something about that closeness to death shook her. She decided she needed to change her life. She went back to the rave.

One of the first parties she went to was at Elsewhere, a multi-floor megaclub in Bushwick. British DJ Steve Bicknell was playing. “The first part of the night had just been dudes bumping into me and spilling alcohol on me and hitting on me—it had been a nightmare,” she said. This went on for a while, until, after a certain point, the crowd changed. It was around 3:30, right before alcohol stops being served in New York. The crowd thinned out. Tonstad noticed a new group of people appear, seemingly out of nowhere. They were poised, composed, serious. “They were the ravers,” she said. She was immediately taken with them. They occupied the middle front of the dance floor, “dancing way harder and better, and more interestingly than anyone I'd seen around.” To occupy that position on the dance floor, you have to command your space by projecting confidence and physical mastery. She wanted to join the ravers, but knew she was not at their level. That night she stood on their periphery, protecting them from the drunks who threatened to stumble into them. “I did my little hand thing,” she said, and blocked others from getting to the middle, almost like a basketball player. “That day,” she recalled, “I learned something about how people move.”

This past winter at Nowadays, for the “Writing on Raving” reading series that I organize at the club, I commissioned a lecture performance from Tonstad about raving. In front of a packed crowd, Tonstad said,

“As I learned to dance, I learned to see as dancers do, which is to see how flesh moves together and apart, how flesh is oriented in space, how bodies move toward and away from each other, how a dance floor is created and coalesces, how dancers communicate openness, invitation, consent, or disengagement.”

Its prose is propelled by the kind of grandiosity one only encounters in theology. A second voice at work is recognizably transgressive, brimming with the brazen, punkish veneer of spike studs and leather.

Tonstad has developed a theory of the two sides of the dance floor, light and dark, which correlate to the open and antagonistic sides, respectively, of human relations. She craves both. The light side is made up of “spaces of connection, coming together, an openness at the edges that invites people in, even if they're not very experienced,” she told me. The epitome of the light side is the ethos at Nowadays, where each patron, new or returning, is subjected to what employees call “the speech” that outlines the club’s rules: no bigotry of any kind, no sexual harassment, and no phones on the dance floor.

“The darker side of the dance floor probably isn't open at the edges,” Tonstad went on. The archetype of the dark side is Berghain in Berlin, which has a notoriously selective door policy, and an unruly dance floor that caters to a queer BDSM set. The typical clientele includes fashion models, goths, muscle queens in harnesses, and techno freaks grinding their teeth. “The darker side has something to do with being in touch with the reality of a kind of irreducible conflict in human relations. Maybe even the reality that bodied existence always involves an edge of possible violence, as well as an edge of vulnerability, sometimes actual violence,” Tonstad said. “That's the darker side of the dance floor: sitting with antagonism, ambiguity, conflict. And that is also an irreducible part of flesh.”

It is perhaps the open sadomasochism on the dance floor at Berghain, amongst the leather and kink set, that gets at the problem of violence—why we sometimes crave it, from others and ourselves—that is one of the central questions of Christian theology. Only very late in our interviews did Tonstad casually tell me that, when was younger, she had a pattern of cutting herself. Once, at a faculty dinner, Tonstad was asked about the scars on her arm. “I deflected initially,” she recalled to me. “But it was just really noticeable.”

She describes that habit of self-harm, which she was able to cease not long after finishing college, as a “coping mechanism” whose curtailing, with work, didn’t signal that the pain she was coping with had gone away. “It helped a lot to decide,” she explained, that “if you still need to do this in the morning, you can, but tonight, just distract yourself real hard to fall asleep and then see. And over time, you learn that probably in the morning, you won't feel that same need. The thing you're coping with hasn’t gone away, but it means that you withstood your relation to it for a period of intensity.”

This “withstanding” of antagonism, it struck me, is central to Tonstad’s theology. It’s certainly key to her vision of a truly plural church, open to all. The theology required of such a church would necessarily reckon with antagonism—which can be violent or painful—in ways that don’t merely encourage confronting “the other,” but welcome confrontation as a kind of intimacy.

I asked her, “Do you see sadomasochism as a kind of methodology for approaching antagonism?”

“It can be,” she said carefully.

“What is the difference between antagonism and evil?”

She paused for a long time. “That question is central to my work and it's not one that is resolved for me at this time.”

***

One Sunday in June, I happened to be in Berlin and I met Tonstad and Nelson at her epitome of the dark side of the dance floor: Berghain. It was high noon. We came to see Juliana Huxtable, who was going to be DJ-ing a four-hour set at the club’s storied Klubnacht party for the first time. When we arrived, Tonstad commented sarcastically about some of the girls in the queue, who were wearing collars at the neck with a chain, an open coat or blazer, and exposed breasts underneath. “It’s the equivalent of wearing all-black to Berghain,” Tonstad said. “Why don’t you try being interesting?” As it happened, Nelson was looking pretty interesting: a black lace top, and large knitted trousers with the crotch cut out.

Tonstad describes her own dancing as “relational”: her body’s movements, she says, express shifting dynamics with others on the dance floor. It makes sense that her partner, and their relationship, have also changed her: a jovial, lithe aspect of Tonstad’s personality comes alive only when she is around Nelson. About Tonstad, Motta told me, “Meeting Avery has been really transformative for her.”

She’s a scholar whose contribution to theology is using queer sex as a model for the Trinity.

Tonstad and Nelson are now a staple in the New York rave scene. If you run into them at a party, you know you picked the right one. They participate in group chats on Signal and invite-only Discord channels, where ravers discuss which parties they’re going to, or otherwise share nightlife-related memes. At Nowadays, they are on the elusive “Friends and Family” list, which allows them and their guests to attend any party there for free. Gareth Solan, who runs Nowadays, described the couple to me as, “pure, infectious energy. Their appreciation for the finer details of dance floor dynamics is way beyond what most people are capable of.”

Tonstad has described herself to me as “self-conscious”—she doesn’t like posing for pictures, and her face goes stark flat when she receives compliments. But her self-awareness doesn’t inhibit her exhibitionist spirit, her willingness to perform. Even so, dancing is less a performance for Tonstad than a medium for intimacy—a way to generate it, to express it. There is a time and place, at the rave, for both antagonism and joy. Tonstad accepts the former with a kind of Zen resolve; she welcomes the latter with sheer joy when she and Nelson are locked in a flow state.

At Berghain, I found Tonstad and Nelson waiting in line for the bathroom and noticed that Tonstad had smeared lipstick all over Nelson’s mouth while they had been kissing on the dance floor. Tonstad laughed. The crow’s feet around her eyes crinkled happily as she wiped the traces of her affection from her lover’s face. She’s a scholar whose contribution to theology is using queer sex as a model for the Trinity. So it was hard not to see how her lived practice of queer love, through dance, demonstrates her most deeply held convictions—that the triumph of joy over violence is a matter of personal intimacy as much as eschatology.

When I followed the couple back onto the main floor, we rejoined the rave. Locked in dynamic movement, they would open up to me or others, negotiating the space between bodies like jellyfish in waves of air that ebb and flow to the beat. But after a certain point—always—they closed themselves off, and into the hermetic space that only they share, eyes locked, dancing. ♦

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