Category Archives: Books and other resources

“God and the Gay Christian”: WHY Religious Conservatives Are Running Scared.

In my previous post, I noted the furious and frenzied response by some conservative Christians to Matthew Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian”, suggested that the reason for the extraordinary strength of this reaction was that they are “running scared”.  I had barely published that piece, when my speculation was confirmed, by the reactionaries themselves, in the book they have rushed out to counter Vines’ argument:

God and the Gay Christian, response to Vines

Right up front, on the first page of the first chapter of the book, they concede directly that they (the anti – gay defenders of prejudice) are the last outpost of anti-gay religious discrimination and prejudice (except that naturally enough, they don’t call it anti- gay prejudice, preferring to claim that theirs is adherence to biblical truth). R Albert Mohler Jnr. writes:

Evangelical Christians in the United States now face an inevitable moment of decision. While Christians in other movements and in other nations face similar questions, the question of homosexuality now presents evangelicals in the United States with a decision that cannot be avoided. Within a very short time, we will know where everyone stands on this question. There will be no place to hide, and there will be no way to remain silent. To be silent will answer the question. The question is whether evangelicals will remain true to the teachings of Scripture and the unbroken teaching of the Christian church for over 2,000 years on the morality of same-sex acts and the institution of marriage.

They have good reason to be worried. There is now abundant evidence from social surveys that in Europe and the America’s, the tide is turning rapidly in favour of gay marriage, especially among the young. In many countries of the world, Pew Research has found that a majority do not believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable – and that includes many Christians.

Several denominations no longer exclude gay men or lesbians from ministry, others permit either church weddings or church blessings for same – sex couples. Vines’ critics argue that this is diluting or ignoring biblical truth to accommodate Western liberal, secular values, but what this ignores, is that in every denomination which has changed its regulations, the change has been preceded by extensive study, prayer, listening and discussion among members of the church. This question of study is important. Writing about the conservative response to Vines, Owen Strachan noted that unlike his critics, Vines is not a scholar – but immediately gives away the weakness in his own scholarship. In attempting to refute Vines’ observation that neither homosexual practice nor what could be called homosexual “orientation” is approved of or legitimated in biblical doctrine, Strachan quotes from his chapter on the historical perspective, in which he refers to the fourth century writings of Ambrose and John Chrysostom.

These, however, are commentaries on scripture, their interpretations of the biblical words, and not found in the Good Book itself. Vines claim is absolutely accurate. Strachan’s references to Ambrose and John Chrysostom are telling: his need to quote from fourth century writers, because there are no biblical texts to support him, reveals a fundamental weakness in their entire case. It is simply not true that there exists, as they claim. an “unbroken teaching of the Christian church for over 2,000 years on the morality of same-sex acts and the institution of marriage”.

As a scholar claiming to know something of the history of church teaching on the subject, Strachan should know, as Renato Lings, Theodore Jennings and others have shown, that the fourth century iinterpretations by Ambrose and Chrysostom differed from those of the first century when the texts were written, heavily influenced by non-Christian writers. Similarly, it is now well – established that the familiar identification of the modern word “sodomy” with the original “sin of Sodom” was a medieval invention, and the many changes in Christian understandings of marriage are too numerous to go into here.

The fact is, that the conservatives arguing against full LGBT inclusion in church rest their case on shaky ground, and they know it. Just as David Cameron declared his support for gay marriage not in spite of being a Conservative, but because he is a Conservative, many Christians are now declaring their support for full LGBT inclusion in church not in spite of being Christian – but because, as Christians, they believe that their faith demands it.

This applies also among Evangelicals, In the USA, there is now a majority of Evangelical millenials in support of full marriage equality, and additional support of legal recognition for civil unions.without the name of marriage. They know, from deep within their hearts or from the experience of their peers, and from the findings of science, that a same – sex affectional orientation is entirely natural, God-given and non-pathological. They also know from experience, their own or their friends’, that attempting to deny this basic truth in accordance with traditional church teaching and regulations gives rise to immense psychological, emotional and spiritual harm, seeming to contradict what they also know of God’s unconditional love for all.

One of the most useful passages in God and the Gay Christian is Vines reflection on the biblical verse, “by their fruits you shall know them”. In his own life, and that of others he was able to observe, he noted that for naturally gay and lesbian people, the fruits of acknowledging honestly the truth of their natural orientation was positive, leading to what in natural law is termed “human flourishing” – and the fruits of denial, for example in the attempts of ex-gay organisations at conversion therapy, were frequently downright tragic.  (Jeremy Marks, who once led an ex-gay ministry in the United Kingdom, aptly described this with another apt biblical phrase, “Exchanging God’s Truth for a Lie”).

Before the publication of this book, Vines had already attracted substantial public attention with his widely viewed Youtube video on the subject, which forms the heart of the book’s content. With the launch of his follow – up Reformation Project, he has an extensive, established base of followers to promote the book, and its ideas.

 

Recommended Books

Countryman, L.WilliamDirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today .

Glaser, Chris: The Word Is Out: Daily Reflections on the Bible for Lesbians and Gay Men

Goss, Robert: Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Guest, DerynMona WestRobert E. Goss, and Thomas Bohache, (eds)The Queer Bible Commentary

Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality

Jennings, Theodore: Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia

Jordan, Mark: The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology

Lings, Renato: Love Lost in Translation: Homosexuality and the Bible

Marks, Jeremy: Exchanging the Truth of God for a Lie

Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

Rogers, Jack Bartlett. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Sharpe, Keith. The Gay Gospels: Good News for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People.

 

“God and the Gay Christian”: Religious Conservatives Are Running Scared.

Within days of its publication, Matthew Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian” has evoked a flurry of angry denunciation from a wide range of Christian bloggers and scholars, with news headlines like “Pro-gay book ‘exceedingly dangerous’”, “Pro-gay book departs from Christian tradition”, “Should Christians Use the Term “Gay Christian”?” (the writer thinks not), “Haven’t You Read? Answering a modern-day Pharisee”, “Some Honest Questions for Professing ‘Gay Christians’”, “A shameful day in evangelical Christian publishing” and“Deception: Christian publisher sells soul for mammon”

God and the Gay Christian

The extent of this reaction is remarkable. “God and the Gay Christian” is hardly the first book to challenge conservative Christian conventional wisdom on the subject, and not even the first from a conservative, Evangelical perspective. The Anglican Canon Derrek Sherwen Bailey began the reassessment of the biblical evidence almost sixty years ago, and has since been followed by a wide range of scholars and other writers, from the full range of Christian faith traditions, including Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and more.

Nor is it necessarily the best, by any standard – certainly not in terms of scholarship. One of the interesting responses to the book is a newly published e-book by faculty from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,  “God and the Gay Christian? a response to Matthew Vines. Writing about this at Patheos, Owen Strachan notes

Vines’s book is not dense in terms of scholarship. Hamilton and Burk catch numerous exegetical flaws and errors in his argumentation that their facility with their original languages allows. Indeed, one sees the strength of a program of scholarship in comparing the two books. Vines is a smart person, but he has no formal theological credentials. Hamilton and Burk are able to offer numerous critiques that Vines’s book cannot treat.

– “Thoughtlife”, Patheos blogs

In my own review, I found that although the book has much to recommend it, I had some quibbles of my own: there is some arrogance in seeing himself as a unique trailblazer, and an uncomfortable blending of form: biblical commentary bookended by the story of his personal journey of discovery.

If it’s not the first, or the best, of its kind – why has it provoked such a strong response from his critics?

The answer, I suspect, is that they are running scared. Public assessments of same – sex relationships is changing rapidly, even among evangelical Christians, and the defenders of continued discrimination and exclusion know it.

Quite why (in my view) these conservatives should be “running scared”, I leave for my next post.

Recommended Books

Vines, Matthew: God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships

Countryman, L.WilliamDirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today .

Glaser, Chris: The Word Is Out: Daily Reflections on the Bible for Lesbians and Gay Men

Goss, Robert: Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Guest, DerynMona WestRobert E. Goss, and Thomas Bohache, (eds)The Queer Bible Commentary

Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality

Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

Rogers, Jack Bartlett. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Sharpe, Keith. The Gay Gospels: Good News for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People.

 “God and the Gay Christian” (Matthew Vines)

For over half a century, since the pioneering work of Canon Sherwen Derrek Bailey, bible scholars have been reassessing what was one a commonly accepted view that the bible strongly and obviously condemned homosexuality. By the twenty first century, what was once a trickle of revisionist books on the subject has become a torrent: a book search on Amazon with the terms “bible” and “homosexuality” will turn up many more titles which either reject the traditional biblical view, or accept that there is room for disagreement, than those still insisting that the biblical view is hostile.

These reassessments, applying particularly to the six “clobber texts” take many different forms, varying from scholar to scholar and from verse to verse.  Some follow Bailey in pointing to internal Biblical evidence that contradicts the idea that the destruction of Sodom was because of same – sex practices. Others, notably William Countryman, show that the Levitical prohibition was part of the Jewish purity code, and so is not applicable to Christians, just as compulsory male circumcision and kosher dietary laws are not. Boswell and others deal with Paul’s complaint in Romans about men who act “against nature” with other males, by reminding us that for those with an inherently same – sex orientation, it is heterosexual, intercourse that is truly unnatural – and so the apparent prohibition does not apply. Still others have examined problems of translation and mistranslation or argued that the problem lies not in understanding or interpreting the texts, but in applying them to modern conditions and understandings of sexuality.

God and the Gay Christian

Some of these new books becoming available are aimed at the general reader, summarizing and presenting the range of scholarly material in more accessible forms, others present fresh, independent scholarship for an academic or specialist audience. I’ve been reading two very different new books, one from each of these perspectives. Each offers something new to what is already available, and each can be recommended, for its own intended market. I begin with Matthew Vines “God and the Gay Christian”, firmly in the former category and easily accessible by an interested general reader. I will get to the scholarly work of Renato Lings tomorrow.

If “Love Lost in Translation” is an academic work of scholarship, possibly intimidating to non – specialists, then Matthew Vines “God and the Gay Christian” is the reverse – primarily a summary account of familiar, existing work on the half dozen most notorious clobber texts. Those coming to the subject for the first time will find the book valuable for its clarity of exposition. Vines has shown previously (on – tube) that he is a gifted communicator in speech, and he shows similar skill in managing text. Those who are already familiar with the extensive corpus already published by trailblazing scholars and other popularizers may find the treatment of these key bible verses useful as clear summary, but with little new to offer.

What made the book particularly interesting to me though, was not these central chapters, but the opening and closing chapters which book – end it, and justify its sub-title, “The Biblical Case in Support of Same – Sex Relationships”.  Vines is a young man from a conservative Protestant background, raised by deeply religious parents who, together with the rest of their Presbyterian congregation in Kansas, shared in the traditional views that Christianity were bitterly unhappy when the majority of their denomination took decisions that led to the ordination of openly gay, partnered  clergy. They shared the traditional view, that is, until Vines began to realise that he too was gay, and the day that he came out to his father was described as the “worst day of my dad’s life”. In the opening chapters, which I found to be the most absorbing part of the book, he discusses his personal journey of biblical exploration and discovery. Unable either to reject the Bible or to renounce his sexual orientation, he took a year out of college for intensive study of the Biblical sources, and other relevant material. I found that these opening chapters left me with some notable and useful new insights, especially some extracts he quotes from Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body.  These assure us that celibacy is difficult and a gift, not a command, and so is not required of all. Those for who have not been given the gift of voluntary celibacy, says John Paul, should marry. Noting that for inherently gay people, heterosexual marriage is not an option, Vines’ conclusion is that this necessarily means same – sex marriage. I cannot fault the logic, but never expected to find an endorsement of gay marriage, even indirectly, from Pope John Paul!

He returns to this subject in the closing chapters, putting the case for same – sex marriage, including blessing and affirmation of same – sex covenanted relationships in church. Finally, he closes with a chapter called “Seeds of a Modern Reformation”, seemingly a reference to his fascinating program for evangelising LGBT inclusion in church, “The Reformation Project”. In fact, he gives not too much about his own project, but does profile three other notable activists for LGBT inclusion, Kathy Baldock (renowned for her work as a straight ally, and her “straight apologies” at Pride parades), Justin Lee (founder of the Gay Christian Network website and conferences and author ofTorn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate), and Dr James Brownson, father of a gay son and author of Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships

I have some quibbles. I was left with an uneasy feeling that this should really have been two books, one on defences against textual abuse of the Bible, and another combining his opening and closing chapters – covering more of his personal journey, the affirmative texts he presents, and how the biblical case for affirming our relationships, and the development and plans for his Reformation Project.

Although his presentation of the defensive chapters is clearly presented, generally reliable and backed by extensive reading, there are weaknesses. His discussion of Sodom and Genesis 19 accepts without question the standard translation of the key verse, “Let them come out, so that we can have sex with them” – even though his own analysis of all the other Biblical references to Sodom make it clear that there is no sexual association at all (not even as male rape).

Much of his argument is based on the contrast in understanding of sexuality between classical times, when there was no conception of homosexual people, or orientation, and modern understanding, in which people are understood to be either heterosexual or homosexual, with no possibility of a change in orientation. He’s right, but the treatment is simplistic: he completely ignores the possibility of bisexuality, for instance, and oversimplifies the Roman position.

I was also somewhat irritated by what comes across at times as a degree of youthful arrogance. He presents his “third way” in reconciling biblical authority with sexual integrity by reinterpreting the texts for modern conditions, as something new and original, which it is not. Others have been doing it for decades, as he well knows (he has drawn heavily on their work). In celebrating his allies on the Reformation Project, he completely ignores the extensive similar work that others have been doing since before he was born, including many in his own denomination.

But these are quibbles. Anyone coming to the subject for the first time, will find a readable, clearly presented response to the half dozen problematic texts, and those already familiar with those will find a moving story of a young man confronting the challenge of being both gay and Evangelical Christian, and supported by his father, finding a way to reconcile both, with integrity

Recommended Books

Countryman, L.WilliamDirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today .

Glaser, Chris: The Word Is Out: Daily Reflections on the Bible for Lesbians and Gay Men

Goss, Robert: Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Guest, DerynMona WestRobert E. Goss, and Thomas Bohache, (eds)The Queer Bible Commentary

Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality

Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

Rogers, Jack Bartlett. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Sharpe, Keith. The Gay Gospels: Good News for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered People.

The Distorted Christian Tradition of the Sodomy Myth (2)

The remarkable thing about the Christian tradition that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was because of the sin of homoerotic sex, is that this was never part of the Jewish tradition: not in the Hebrew Bible (First, or Old Testament), not in the Apocrypha, not in the Pseudepigrapha, and not in the Rabbinic tradition that followed. The obvious question that follows, is quite how did the Christian theologians get it so wrong, using a strong condemnation against oppression, injustice and lack of hospitality to strangers, to justify their own persecution, oppression, and explicit refusal of hospitality in Church to sexual and gender minorities?

sodom

In tracing the historical development of what is clearly a distorted tradition, Renato Lings draws on the commentaries of the story from each historical tradition – and simultaneously describes how changes in language over those centuries meant that later commentators, up to the medieval scholastics, were depending on texts which had been through multiple translations, losing some of the subtlety and nuance of the original, and also had suffered corruption from copying errors.

A long church tradition may have led to errors of misinterpretation end errors of translation, some of which continue to affect todays versions of the Bible. Since the issues addresses by the Hebrew prophets are idolatry, pride, social injustice and oppression, it is indeed remarkable that today’s scholarly consensus emphasizes sexual violence.

Continue reading The Distorted Christian Tradition of the Sodomy Myth (2)

Joseph Gentilini – Hounded by Heaven

I first came across the phrase, “The Hound of Heaven” when it was used by my religion teacher, an O.M.I. priest, at secondary school in Johannesburg, many years ago. At first I had difficulty understanding the concept, unable to grasp the idea of God as a dog. But then, I did not yet appreciate the difference in sense between “dog”, as any canine (in my experience, always a household pet), and “hound” – as a working dog, chasing down the object of its pursuit. Once I did finally get the point, it became a vivid metaphor that has never left me.  An explanation at the Neumann Book of Verse, quoted on Wikipedia, conveys the sense of the metaphor:

 The name is strange. It startles one at first. It is so bold, so new, so fearless. It does not attract, rather the reverse. But when one reads the poem this strangeness disappears. The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.

The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988[2]

Hound of Heaven

Joseph Gentilini, whom I referred to earlier this week for his long ministry of writing to the American bishops about matters of gay inclusion in church, has used the image in the title of a forthcoming autobiography, “Hounded by God”. This image is entirely appropriate, as a description of how for years he felt tormented by a perceived conflict between what he knew to be his natural affectional and sexual orientation, and the formal, proclaimed sexual doctrines of the church  – conflict which led nightly, to thoughts of suicide. Many Catholic gay men and lesbians will have no difficulty recognising this experience, as one that they too have endured.

In Hounded by God, the author writes about his struggle to integrate his homosexuality with his personality and his Catholic-Christian spirituality. He grew up in the late ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s when homosexuality was considered either a mental illness or a major sin. In 1968, he had his first homosexual experience. Feeling shame and trying to repress his feelings, he spent over six years in therapy.

Raised a strict Roman Catholic, Joseph confessed his many “sins” to a priest and attended Mass daily. He felt hopeless in accepting his homosexuality and living happily as a gay man, repeating nightly, “If it gets too bad, I can always kill myself.” By 1974, he knew that therapy was not changing his sexual orientation and felt desperate.

Some older Catholic, but perhaps rather fewer younger people will also recognize the resolution of the conflict – that while the institutional church may appear to reject us, that is never true of God, who like a hound will follow us relentlessly, as God did in pursuit of Joseph, until we are able to recognize and accept God’s unconditional love for us all – no exceptions.

Joseph experienced God as hounding him to accept his gay identity and to believe that God loves him as he is. His autobiographical journal reveals his gradual awakening to live his vocation, not only as a gay man in relationship with his partner and with God, but also as someone willing to share his journey with those who struggle with their homosexuality and their faith.

The two passages quoted above are from a summary of the book that I received yesterday by email, together with  two reviews, in advance of publication later this year.  These gay Catholic biographies are important. Dugan McGinley  has written an entire critical analysis of the  genre “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love”, which he has  sub-titled “Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts”. To call them “sacred” texts may appear to many to be a step too far, but I think the description is entirely appropriate. These stories, if they are honest and sufficiently reflective on the writer’s life of struggle and resolution, can help us all in a similar predicament to find illumination and support in our own search for reconciliation, with God and the Church.

This could be particularly true of this book. Whether we know it yet or not, it will certainly be true that whatever our response to the Church, whatever our perceptions of its doctrines or pastoral practice, whatever our decision or strategies in our lives so far, to deal with and attempt to reconcile the conflicts that we, like Joseph, probably felt or perhaps still feel about our sexuality and our faith – God is constantly chasing us down, hound – like.

I look forward to reading this book once it has been published. I hope you will look out for it, too. Meanwhile, to whet your appetites, I include two short reviews, but theologian John  McNeill, and by Mark Matson, a former president of Dignity USA,

St. Augustine put it beautifully into words: “You made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our- hearts will never rest until they rest in you.” Most of us go through life covering over that yearning at the heart of every human, distracting ourselves with the desires of this world. Not so Joseph Gentilini. God gave Joseph an extraordinary awareness of that call to union with God.

In his autobiographical journal, Joe spells out his painful journey as an active gay man, from revolt against that voice of God to final acceptance with God’s grace of his gay identity given to him by God—a remarkable journey which brings hope to all of us that God’s call to union is to the authentic self. God dwells within us, and the only way to union with that God is through the authentic self.

John McNeill, theologian, former Jesuit priest and author

and

Anyone who has had their sexuality shamed by their religious tradition should relate to Joe’s story of staying connected to his Catholicism while rejecting the teaching of Catholic Bishops on homosexuality and replacing it with a truly authentic spiritual connection with his Creator. He give the reader access to his most intimate thoughts, fears, and experiences—all of which provide the fuel for a seminal work in LGBT spirituality.

Mark Matson, former president of Dignity USA

Books

John McNeill:

The Church and the HomosexualTaking a Chance on God;

Freedom, Glorious Freedom;

and My Spiritual Journey: Both Feet Planted In Midair

Sex as God Intended

The Gay Closet as a Place of Sin

My colleague Advocatus Diaboli sent me a link some days ago to a post at Jesus in Love, about a new book (“Dark Knowledge“, by Kenneth Low) which argues that Jesus was homosexual and sexually active, but closeted – and that was the reason for his trial and execution. AD asked me for my opinion. Before getting to my response, I share some key extracts from Kittredge’s post:

Dark Knowledge” by Kenneth Low uses rational arguments to disprove much of the conventional wisdom about Christ. According to Low, Jesus was not heterosexual, not celibate, and not happy with his own identity.

Low presents evidence that Jesus must have been homosexual because he was an unmarried man who surrounded himself with men, including John, his beloved male disciple and sexual partner.

-Jesus in Love

Kittredge quotes from Low directly:

In His childhood, Jesus Christ came into His awareness of being the Son of God. His magical authority and other attributes were given to Him as His birthright. As He came into sexual awareness, He discovered Himself to be a homosexual. His awareness of being the Son of God precluded any possibility of denying His sexuality out of some external concern and He began to be sexually active. He was evidently discovered to be a homosexual by people in His hometown and He must have been sharply rebuked and ostracized. He left Galilee and wandered on an endless soulful sojourn seeking a reconciliation of His divinity with His homosexuality. (p. 276)

-Jesus in Love

Toby Johnson, the author of Gay Spirituality and Gay Perspective and a former editor of the “White Crane” journal of gay spirituality, has also written about Dark Knowledge. He summarizes the thesis proposed by Dark Knowledge:

When Low considers Jesus as homosexual, it is as secretive, shamed and closeted, what a homosexual would have thought of himself in an intensely and threateningly homophobic and misogynistic society. His townsfolk would have ignored his teachings because they knew too much about him. He’d have been an embarrassment to his family. The Apostles would have been reluctant to admit they knew him if this fact came out. In this reading of the story, Jesus’s homosexuality isn’t an item of pride, but rather the source of a spiritual crisis that forces him to develop an interpretation of virtue and goodness that isn’t just conformity with Jewish Law, since he himself can’t conform.

(In his review, Johnson praises the originality of the presentation and the  manner  in which Low re-imagines the life of Christ. He concludes by noting that he is sceptical of Low’s conclusion, but finds the book stimulating, and a good read nevertheless).

I stress that I have not read the book, and will not even attempt an assessment. However, I was interested in my own strong reaction to the book’s conclusion as presented in Kittredge’s review, and where that response led me. That reaction was  to the whole concept, that Jesus might have been actively “homosexual” – but closeted. We have virtually no real evidence on Christ’s orientation or sexual practice. There are reasonable arguments that he may have been (in modern terms) homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual or asexual in orientation, and it is possible to believe that he was sexually active, or celibate. We may speculate, but we just don’t know. I’m comfortable with any of the possibilities – homosexual and sexually active, heterosexual and sexually active – or entirely celibate. I don’t believe that it really matters. But the one possibility that I have not considered before, and immediately rejected out of hand in an instinctive, visceral reaction, is the one presented by Low: that Jesus was both homosexually active, closeted and ashamed. Why did I react so instinctively?

Somewhat surprised by the intensity of my response, I tried to dissect it. My conclusion came fairly rapidly: Low’s idea flatly contradicts a core belief of standard Christology, that although fully human, Jesus Christ was without sin. If he was without sin, what could he have to be ashamed of?

And that was where assessing my own response became really interesting to me. In going from a standard, conventional belief, that Jesus was without sin, to my conclusion, that this makes it impossible for him to have been a closeted, sexually active gay man, I had made an automatic assumption, that I was previously unaware of. That assumption, was that to be closeted and sexually active, is inherently sinful. But where is the sin? I have made it clear in numerous posts that I do not believe that homosexuality in itself is inherently sinful ( but some forms of inappropriate use of it may be). So if there is sin implied by the assumption, it must lie in the proposition that Jesus was closeted, and ashamed.

Is that a sound assumption? My short answer, which I present before the full reasoning, is yes – the closet is a place of sin (but with an important qualification, which I will get to later).

Before getting to a full consideration of just why I felt so strongly that the closet is a place of sin, I first reflected a little more on the nature of Christ. I have shared before, how my Religious Education classes at school included a lengthy period locating and memorizing Biblical texts on the theme of “God is….” (examples being “God is love”, “God is mercy”, “God is justice”, “God is light”, “God is life”, and more). A key one here, was “God is truth”.  If God is truth, and the closet is (by definition) a lie, then God/ Jesus in the closet is a logical impossibility. That doesn’t necessarily imply that there is sin in the closet, but the idea prepared the way for more, after some thought on the nature of sin.

My understanding of sin, is it is that which turns us away from God, keeps us from being the best that we can be. As John McNeill regularly reminds us in his books, St Ireneaus taught that “The glory of God is humans fully alive” – and by extension, I see sin as that which keeps us (or by our agency, others) from that glory, of being fully alive.  There is abundant evidence from academic literature, from anecdotal evidence, and from my own experience, that coming out is a process of growth, of becoming more fully alive . Remaining in the closet obstructs that growth, denying that process of growth. The closet keeps us from that – hiding us from that full glory of God.

If God / Jesus is truth, the closet is a lie. By hiding our own truth, we are denying the example of Christ.

God is love. Where is the love in the closet? “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the familiar text, but that implies that we must, indeed, love ourselves. Can we truly love ourselves, accept ourselves in all that we are, while denying an important part of who we are?

God is justice. Is there justice in the closet? Is there justice, in a situation where the 80 or 90% of adults are able to rejoice publicly in their loves, and invite friends, family and parishioners to celebrate an affirmation of those loves in church weddings – and some of us feel constrained to hide our loves, or even to avoid love altogether, out of fear?

I could go on, but you get the idea. As I explored my understanding of God, and of sin, it seemed to me clear that the closet restricts our approach to God, in these various aspects. Impeding our access to God, the closet is a place of sin.

But this was a troubling thought. I have often argued for the value of coming out, in church and in the world, but with an important qualification. This must always be only as far as we are able.  Sometimes, for personal reasons or by reason of external circumstances, we may not be able.  If the closet is a place of sin, as I concluded, what does this say of those who, for whatever reason, find that they are not able to come out?

That led me to some further thoughts on the nature of sin.

First, we must consider the particular circumstances and motivations of someone who is closeted. To take an extreme example, for most Catholic priests, coming out would be reckless, endangering their careers and ministry as priests. In such circumstances, staying within the closet in pursuit of a greater good is morally acceptable, and not sinful.

Next, we must consider that there exists both personal and social sin. If it is true that the closet is a place of sin, that does not necessarily imply that a closeted person is in a state of sin – the sin could lie in the social circumstances (of church doctrine and law, for instance, or the possibility of real and severe penalties). In that case, the sin could be social, not personal.

Now,  a little disclosure. The trigger that led to all of the above was in an email from AD, which by chance I read at 3 am one morning (no, that’s not my usual time for correspondence). The thoughts I have shared above, were buzzing around in my head for some hours later. They are based on perceptions, and half – remembered school lessons, not any deep knowledge or training in the relevant theology. The argument needs further testing and thought, but I have shared the ideas simply because they have substantially shaken me up. I am certain there will be flaws, in either the assumptions, or reasoning. I welcome responses from any one willing to pick holes in my thesis.

“Practising Safer Texts”: The Bible and Sexuality, Homosexuality

As gay men, we all know about the importance of practicing safe sex. When it comes to the Bible and sexuality, especially homosexuality, Ken Stone says we must practice safe texts, too. I regret that I have not yet had a chance to read this book and cannot comment personally on its quality, but the advice in the title is sound. We must read and respond to isolated Bible verses with extreme care. Failure to do so can be dangerous to our mental, emotional and spiritual health. “Everybody” knows that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality as an abomination, goes the popular wisdom, which in turns fuels the opposition to LGBT equality and gay marriage, and at worst encourages prejudice, discrimination, bullying – and even murder. The popular wisdom is wrong.

At Newsweek, Lisa Miller introduces her discussion of two new books by Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan with an important reminder: the Bible devotes an entire book to a clear celebration of human sexuality, without any consideration of procreation or even permanent commitment and fidelity:

The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsession is mutual, carnal, complete. The man lingers over his lover’s eyes and hair, on her teeth, lips, temples, neck, and breasts, until he arrives at “the mount of myrrh.” He rhapsodizes. “All of you is beautiful, my love,” he says. “There is no flaw in you.”

The girl returns his lust with lust. “My lover thrust his hand through the hole,” she says, “and my insides groaned because of him.”

This frank Biblical erotica has too often been overshadowed in religious discussion of biblical sexuality by the modern puritanical perceptions of biblical sexual ethics.  These modern perceptions are a severe distortion. Miller writes:

What does the Bible really say about sex? Two new books written by university scholars for a popular audience try to answer this question. Infuriated by the dominance in the public sphere of conservative Christians who insist that the Bible incontrovertibly supports sex within the constraints of “traditional marriage,” these authors attempt to prove otherwise. Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan mine the Bible for its earthiest and most inexplicable tales about sex—Jephthah, who sacrifices his virgin daughter to God; Naomi and Ruth, who vow to love one another until death—to show that the Bible’s teachings on sex are not as coherent as the religious right would have people believe. In Knust’s reading, the Song of Solomon is a paean to unmarried sex, outside the conventions of family and community. “I’m tired,” writes Knust in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, “of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce its stories and teachings to slogans.” Her book comes out this month. Coogan’s book God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says was released last fall.

Some conservative commentators are outraged. “You cannot selectively twist the Bible to suit your purpose” is a common response – which completely overlooks the fact that this is precisely what the defenders of “traditional marriage, as found in the Bible” are doing all the time. The popular conception of “traditional marriage” is a relatively modern invention, very far removed from sexual ethics of the bible – as found in the actual text, and not in some befuddled pseudo-religious imaginations.

To really get to grips with biblical views on sexuality, “practicing safer texts”, requires proper study and reflection. Scholars who have done this have been reconsidering the traditional presentation for decades. Jennifer Knust (a professor of religion and an ordained Baptist pastor) and Michael Coogan (who trained as a Jesuit priest) have taken what is now common parlance among some academics, and made it more accessible to a wider audience.

For those who have followed the re-evaluation of  the bible’s supposed pronouncements on homosexuality in particular, it is easy to recount the counters to the half-dozen or so clobber texts, or “texts of terror”, on Robert Goss’s phrase. What I like about the accounts of these books, is that they move beyond the arguments around specific verses, and on to a more holistic view of Scripture as a whole, and approaches to its overriding message – strictly in accordance with the Pontifical Bible Commission guidance on biblical interpretation, with its emphasis on context – of the passage and the entire bible, as well as the historical conditions, the modern context, and with a careful eye to linguistic accuracy and literary conventions :

The Bible contains a “pervasive patriarchal bias,” Coogan writes. Better to elide the specifics and read the Bible for its teachings on love, compassion, and forgiveness. Taken as a whole, “the Bible can be understood as the record of the beginning of a continuous movement toward the goal of full freedom and equality for all persons.”

It is a discussion of the literary conventions that produces the greatest surprise for me: Coogan’s claim that Biblical language may use the term “foot” as a euphemism for genitals. This recognition leads to some completely novel and surprising perspectives on familiar passages:

When biblical authors wanted to talk about genitals, they sometimes talked about “hands,” as in the Song of Solomon, and sometimes about “feet.” Coogan cites one passage in which a baby is born “between a mother’s feet”; and another, in which the prophet Isaiah promises that a punitive God will shave the hair from the Israelites’ heads, chins, and “feet.” When, in the Old Testament, Ruth anoints herself and lies down after dark next to Boaz—the man she hopes to make her husband—she “uncovers his feet.” A startled Boaz awakes. “Who are you?” he asks. Ruth identifies herself and spends the night “at his feet.”

However, it can also lead to some dangerous traps for the unwary:

When he is teaching to college students, he writes, someone inevitably asks about the scene in Luke, in which a woman kisses and washes Jesus’ feet—and then dries them with her hair. Is that author speaking about “feet”? Or feet? “As both modern and ancient elaborations suggest,” Coogan writes, “sexual innuendo may be present.” Scholars agree that in this case, a foot was probably just a foot.

Newsweek, What the Bible Really Says About Sex

We all know that “The Bible” is widely used as a cover to oppose legal protections for LGBT equality, or for full inclusion in church. Too often, as Candace Chellew Hodge points out, these arguments are made by people who have not actually read the bible, or if they have, they have, they have made not attempt to understand it with due consideration of its meaning, in the full scriptural, literary and historical context.

Over at Focus on the Family’s Citizen Link, blogger Jenny Tyree isn’t surprised at Ms. Bush and Ms. McCain’s support for marriage equality. “It’s rather easy for 20-somethings—or millennials—to jump on the very tidy-looking ‘rights’ bandwagon that proponents of same-sex marriage have made marriage to be,’ she writes, rightly observing that the majority of people aged 18-29 support marriage equality.

What these darn kids are missing, Tyree says, is a real appreciation of biblical marriage. Instead, they’ve grown up “breathing air thick with a cultural disregard for marriage. Experiencing the personal benefit of having a married mom and dad doesn’t change what they witnessed—willful divorces and the suffering of the children of divorce. The result is a generational embrace of sex as a right and marriage as one of many lifestyles, rather than as the best family structure for children and a stabilizing force for society.”

-Candace Chellew-Hodge, Religion Dispatches

Chellew-Hodge goes on to point out (quite correctly )that what these people are proposing is emphatically not the supposed destruction of marriage and family, but its strengthening – by extending its protection and coverage to all families.

She also goes on to report on a Knust’s book, saying that it beautifully counters the tired argument that same-sex marriage undermines “biblical marriage”. Marriage in the Bible takes many forms. Which variety, exactly, are the defenders of “traditional” marriage thinking of?

When one actually reads the Bible (something a majority of “traditional marriage” supporters have obviously not done), one finds a myriad of models for marriage—most of them involving one man and many women—and all of those women are property of the man they are married to. Women were subservient to men in every way and had no voice or rights of their own. By the time we arrive at the Christian scriptures, we find Jesus openly discouraging marriage for his followers, requiring them to leave their families and follow him exclusively.

“From Jesus’ perspective, then,” Knust writes, “the family is made up of fellow believers, not kin with formal ties outsiders might recognize.”

Saying that one supports “biblical marriage” then is to say that one supports polygamy, or owning women, or leaving one’s family altogether and dedicating one’s life exclusively to following Christ. What millennials like Ms. Bush and Ms. McCain understand is that the tradition of marriage has evolved into a more inclusive institution encompassing mixed race marriages, and non-procreative marriages. Marriage today is not a matter of familial arrangements to enlarge land holdings or status. Marriage today is about the love and commitment between two people—as well as the government perks bestowed on the couple. Adding gays and lesbians to the mix does nothing to weaken marriage—it’s simply another evolution away from “biblical marriage” that was more about property rights than love.

Biblical marriage, according to Knust, looked like this: “women belong to men; male honor is tied, in part, to how well men supervise the women in their care; and men demonstrate their wealth and success by the number of legitimate wives and children they are able to acquire.”

Actually, given religious right preaching about how men are the head of the household and women are subject to the rule of the man, perhaps the religious right does believe in “Biblical marriage” after all.

At CNN, Jennifer Knust herself elaborates on the bible and homosexuality in particular, rebutting a key argument against gay marriage – that God created two distinct sexes. In fact, she points out, in the earliest versions of the creation story, it was accepted that the original human was androgynous:

We often hears that Christians have no choice but to regard homosexuality as a sin– that Scripture simply demands it.

As a Bible scholar and pastor myself, I say that Scripture does no such thing.

“I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them” is a poor excuse that attempts to avoid accountability by wrapping a very particular and narrow interpretation of a few biblical passages in a cloak of divinely inspired respectability.

Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways. And biblical writers held a much more complicated view of human sexuality than contemporary debates have acknowledged.

In Genesis, for example, it would seem that God’s original intention for humanity was androgyny, not sexual differentiation and heterosexuality.

Genesis includes two versions of the story of God’s creation of the human person. First, God creates humanity male and female and then God forms the human person again, this time in the Garden of Eden. The second human person is given the name Adam and the female is formed from his rib.

Ancient Christians and Jews explained this two-step creation by imagining that the first human person possessed the genitalia of both sexes. Then, when the androgynous, dually-sexed person was placed in the garden, s/he was divided in two.

According to this account, the man “clings to the woman” in an attempt to regain half his flesh, which God took from him once he was placed in Eden. As third century Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman explained, when God created the first man, God created him with two faces. “Then he split the androgyne and made two bodies, one on each side, and turned them about.”

When the apostle Paul envisioned the bodies that would be given to humanity at the end of time, he imagined that they would be androgynous, “not male and female.” The third-century non-canonical Gospel of Philip, meanwhile, lamented that sexual difference had been created at all: “If the female had not separated from the male, she and the male would not die. That being’s separation became the source of death.”

From these perspectives, God’s original plan was sexual unity in one body, not two. The Genesis creation stories can support the notion that sexual intercourse is designed to reunite male and female into one body, but they can also suggest that God’s blessing was first placed on an undifferentiated body that didn’t have sex at all.

Jennifer Knust, CNN Religion Blogs

I do not propose that my readers should simply adopt the views expressed above simply on the strength of some third-hand reports of books that I have not yet had the opportunity to read myself. Biblical exegesis is a tricky matter for those of us without proper training. As the critics of these books are quick to point out, we do need to be guided in our interpretations of the texts by reliable scholarship. What the critics overlook though, is that scholarship itself is no longer supporting the traditional interpretations.

Ever since the early pioneers like Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey, scholars who have re examined the evidence with an open mind have found that the traditional assumptions about the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality are unfounded. Bayley was followed by the historian John Boswell, with a chapter on scripture in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, and the detailed analysis by the Episcopal theologian William Countryman. This early trickle of works demonstrating the flaws in the traditional misinterpretations has become a flood, so that those denominations which have set up formal study programs have agreed that there is at the very least substantial room for disagreement. This is why we are now seeing a strong movement towards accepting even the ordination of openly gay or lesbian clergy, and even same sex weddings, in the US Mainline Protestant and European Lutheran churches. This re-evaluation by scholars and religious professionals, however, has not yet reached the popular mainstream, not in any significant numbers.

These latest additions to the range of available titles are welcome, and deserve to be widely read and reflected on.

 

Books:

Bailey. Derrick Sherwin: Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Coogan, Michael: God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says

Countryman, William L: Dirt, Greed and Sex

Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Knust, Jennifer WrightUnprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire

Rogers, Jack :Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Stone, KenPracticing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective

Thelos, Phil: Divine Sex: Liberating Sex from Religious Tradition

 

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