Sunday, December 20, 2009

The conversion experience: two books

A former writer of anti-gay commentary for the American Family Association publicly repents: a member of the growing list of ex-anti-gays due to actually studying their Bible. Jay Bakker, son of two (in)famous televangelists, also changes his mind: something that is happening more and more.

God is Not a Homophobe: An Unbiased Look at Homosexuality in the Bible by Philo Thelos (a nom de plume) is the product of such a changing of the mind: it is written by a retired Protestant minister (he does not mention his denomination, apart from the fact he changed it during his ministry, but I would guess Baptist) wrestling with the issue of homosexuality. It is basically a “how-to” text on interpreting Christian Scripture with homosexuality as the focus.

It is written in that somewhat breathless American style (lots of italicised words and long paragraphs but short chapters). But it is also very clearly written. (I suspect he was a successful preacher.)

The Introduction takes a brief tour of the oppressions through history justified by Scripture. Part I is an examination of how to read the Bible, organised under a series of questions (How Can I Know What the Bible Really Says?; What are the Authors Against, What are they For?; What is the True Meaning of the Original Words) etc. It is a lively and accessible how-to for Biblical exegesis, taking the reader through putting words and passages in their context, concluding with an exhortation to be willing to stand up for what one has come to believe is true, even if you have to stand alone.

Part II is an examination, using the techniques identified, of homosexuality and Scripture. After some preliminaries, particularly raising the issue of whether the reader is willing to change his or her mind as a result of genuine enquiry, Thelos goes through various key passages, starting with What is the Sin of Sodom? (pp25ff): as he finds it easy to show, not homosexuality. Even if what the men of Sodom where threatening the angels with was gang rape, that is a sin regardless of whether the rape is of other men or of women. None of the other references in the Old Testament (OT), nor Jesus’s references, to the punishment of Sodom state or imply that homosexual acts were the sin of Sodom. He also examines, as a revealing counterpoint, the story in Judges of the gang rape (to death) of the concubine of the Levite, having previously sexually threatened him. Once again, the sin is rape and violence.

Thelos then examines the use of the word ‘abomination’, arguing that its use in the OT is about idolatry. He moves on to examine Leviticus, pointing out that it is clearly an all-or-nothing set of prescriptions. Picking and choosing is not allowed. Moreover, it is explicitly for the Israelites, while the use of the term ‘abomination’ is once more connected to the worship of pagan gods.

Which demolishes, in what is increasingly the standard way, any OT support for condemning all homosexuality.
Having spent about 25 pages on the Old Testament, Thelos then sends 45 pages carefully going through the relevant New Testament passages, looking at the usage and meaning of key terms (particularly malakos and arsenokoites), the context in which the Scriptures were uttered and written. He concludes concerning the relevant Scriptural passages that:
… not one of them speaks uncategorically and unambiguously about homosexual practice. Each of them contains either textual problems or historic/cultural problems that make their application to modern “homosexuality” questionable. Thus we must examine the fundamental theology of Scripture to see if it gives us clarity about the validity of a homosexuality lifestyle (p.96).
Thelos then argues strongly that creation theology (arguing from the passage in Genesis about God creating men and women and commanding us to be fruitful and multiply) neither creates universal commands nor requires any particular sexual institution nor denies variation. Regarding covenant theology, Thelos holds that the NT testament explicitly supersedes the OT Covenant—as, for example, in the abandonment of circumcision. Regarding homosexuality and righteousness, Thelos points out that if Sodom condemns homosexuals then it follows that there is:
… divine approval for men to assure their own well-being by delivering women to abuse and death (p.101).
Thelos concludes that sin for homosexuals is the same as heterosexual sin—from its effect on others:
cultic prostitution as pagan/idolatrous worship, incest, rape, adultery, and sexual exploitation of the weak and vulnerable (p.102).
He points out that personal repugnance has no standing as a measure of sin and, in the last part of book, argues for a theological positive view of sex and sexual expression. In particular:
The NT Church was not very much concerned about homosexuality. Why must we be? (p.105).

Jack Rogers is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and author of Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. He is not gay, has no gay members of his family, homosexuality was an issue that he did not want to get involved in and he adhered to the traditional position. But he was pressured into going on a study group of the issue by a friend. The eventual result is this thoughtful and informative book.

Rogers comes to very similar conclusions about the meanings of the key Biblical texts as Philo Thelos, though, in a single chapter of 21 pages, he manages to discuss a slightly wider number of texts than Thelos does in rather more pages.

The virtue of the book—apart from Rogers having a very engaging authorial persona—is being able to very clearly put the debates in a wider theological context. Like Thelos, he is struck by how the debate on homosexual and homosexuality replicates previous debates on slavery and the status of women.

His first chapter is about approaching the issue of homosexuality for the first time, his second on the history of using Scripture to justify oppression (of women, of blacks, slavery). His third chapter, A Breakthrough in Understanding the Word of God, analyses how the Church came to change its mind on key issues. On the way through he provides a very enlightening discussion of theological and church history in the US.

Rogers then moves on to discussing the interpretation of the Bible in times of controversy. Rogers holds that the correct way to read the Bible is from the general to particular: with Christ-as-messenger taking precedence.

The traditional reading of God-Hates-Homosexuality rests on taking readings of very specific passages, ignoring complications elsewhere in the Bible. In particular, it has meant ignoring the silence of the Gospels, compared to the subsequent importance placed on homosexuality. It has extended to interpreting, even translating, Scriptural passages in quite anachronistic ways.

Rogers points out that, if one places those same passages in the wider Biblical, and particularly the Gospel, context, paying careful attention to the meaning of key terms at the time they were written, one gets a very different result. It is not hard to see which is a better approach to Biblical exegesis.

Which then puts contemporary exegesis against received tradition: awkward to say the least—hence the importance of examining the history of Church controversies.

Rogers moves on to the aforementioned chapter discussing the meaning of various relevant texts. This is both one of the most comprehensive, and clearest, discussions I have come across. His next chapter Real People and Real Marriage argues for the need to treat homosexuals as “just folks” rather than attributing all sorts of false failings and characteristics to them. If they are treated as fully human, then they have the same aspirations and needs as other folks, which are equally to be respected. He concludes with some recommendations for the Presbyterian Church in the USA.

For centuries, those oriented towards their own sex were every easy targets. Growing up isolated surrounded by family and friends who did not share their orientation, it was easy to deny them any standing. Indeed, to often make them co-conspirators in their own oppression, to engage in almost any level of brutality towards them. Modernity has meant that, through sheer numbers and increased ease of communications, they have hit a wider social “critical mass”, rather than merely in a few restricted bohemian urban milieus. It has become harder and harder to deny homosexuals standing.

And, having gained a social voice, reading the relevant sections of the Bible has become a much more contested exercise. The sort of truncated understandings one gets in milieus where an entire perspective is excluded—indeed damned—come under much more serious scrutiny and are found wanting. While the work of gay theologians and researchers have been very important, it is very heterosexual, very experienced ministers such as Thelos and Rogers changing their minds because they take their religion, and their Scriptures, seriously which is the real harbinger of things to come.

ADDENDA This post has been amended to clarify some points.

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