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.
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
Countryman, L.William: Dirt, 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, Deryn, Mona West, Robert 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.