“Queer theory, gender theory and gender performance in early Christianity.”
When the baton passed to the professor, she kept it simple; her reputation, it seemed, preceded her. “I’m Karen King,” she said. “I teach this stuff. I like it.”
Harvard established its divinity school in 1816 as the first—and still one of the few—nonsectarian theological schools in the country, and its pioneering, sometimes iconoclastic scholarship has made it an object of suspicion among orthodox religious institutions. Students come from a raft of religious backgrounds, including some 30 different Christian denominations; the largest single constituency, King said, is Roman Catholic women, whose Church denies them the priesthood.
For King, being on the outside looking in is a familiar vantage. She grew up in Sheridan, Montana, a cattle ranching town of 700 people an hour’s drive southeast of Butte. Her father was the town pharmacist, who made house calls at all hours of the night. Her mother took care of the children—King is the second of four—taught home economics at the high school and raised horses.
For reasons she still doesn’t quite understand—perhaps it was the large birthmark on her face, perhaps her bookishness—King told me that she was picked on and bullied “from grade school on.” For many years, she went with her family to Sheridan’s Methodist Church. In high school, however, King switched, on her own, to the Episcopal Church, which she regarded as “more earnest.”
“The Methodists were doing ’70s things—Coca-Cola for the Eucharist,” she told me. “I was a good student. I liked reading and ideas. It wasn’t that I was terribly righteous. But I didn’t like drinking, I didn’t like driving around in cars, I was not particularly interested in boys. And intellectually, the Episcopal Church was where the ideas were.”
After high school, she enrolled for a year at Western College, a small onetime women’s seminary in Ohio, before transferring to the University of Montana, where she abandoned a pre-med track after her religion electives proved more stimulating. A turning point was a class on Gnosticism, taught by John D. Turner, an authority on the Nag Hammadi discoveries.
At Brown University, where she earned her PhD, she wrote her dissertation on a Nag Hammadi manuscript called Allogones, or The Stranger. (She met her husband, Norman Cluley, a structural engineer, on a jogging path in Providence.)
Over dinner, I asked what had first drawn her to these so-called “heretical” texts. “I’ve always had a sense of not fitting in,” she told me. “I thought, if I could figure out these texts, I could figure out what was wrong with me.”
Was she still a practicing Christian? Her faith, she said, had sustained her through a life-threatening, three-year bout with cancer that went into full remission in 2008, after radiation and seven surgeries. She told me that she attends services, irregularly, at an Episcopal Church down the block from her home, in Arlington, a town northwest of Cambridge. “Religion is absolutely central to who I am in every way,” she said. “I spend most of my time on it. It’s how I structure my interior life. I use its materials when I think about ethics and politics.”