Ungay Me, Lord, or The Bible as Bludgeon

Co-published with Literati Press.

Sally Kern has managed to land Oklahoma in national news once again for all the wrong reasons. Her legislation to protect practitioners of “conversion therapy” is meant to allow pastors, parents, and “ministries” like Oklahoma City-based First Stone to ungay teenagers. If adult persons decide they cannot endure their sexual selves and seek out conversion therapy, that is within their rights, however wrong-headed it may be. But to force teenagers to convert from gay to straight makes this a different sort of issue, one that opponents to conversion are calling “child abuse.”

The virtual and real-world conversations that have emerged remind me of one of my favorite scenes in a very under-appreciated movie, 2004’s Saved! The Jena Malone/Mandy Moore vehicle was writer-director Brian Dannelly’s jab at private Christian schools and “degayification” ministries. For people raised around fundamentalists and evangelicals, the characters in Saved! might have been drawn slightly larger than likely, but the spirit and dialogue ring very true.

At a crucial point in the movie, Mary (intentionally named, I’m sure) played by Malone has discovered that her uber-perfect Christian boyfriend Dean is likely gay. It is Dean, played by Chad Faust, who will be sent off to degayification therapy. Mary is approached by an overzealous girl who has long-resented the perfect Christian couple.

“Hey, Mary, sorry to hear about Dean’s faggotry,” Tia says without a hint of sympathy.

The scene highlights the social depths to which homosexuality has traditionally pushed Christians who happen to be gay and in communities where homosexuality is considered an affliction to be endured at best. The less charitable communities call it a choice or an abomination or some other Bible word they’ve been taught to use sans context.

Kern

As I am watching the conversation controversy unfold, I’m once again mystified that people on both sides do not know how to talk to each other. Full disclosure: I am opposed to conversion therapy, and I think Sally Kern is trying to solidify her legacy as a legislator by writing or championing fundamentalist-inspired legislation that she will use later to dress up her resume as a speaker and writer. She is in her final term due to Oklahoma’s term limit rule. Most of the legislation did not even make it out of committee, but it will preach well when she is addressing a room full of fundamentalists.

People who did not grow up in these communities or who have not bothered to try to understand what words mean in different contexts cannot begin to fathom why any Christians would support conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is based on a couple false assumptions:

1. Gayness is a sinful choice or an unfortunate affliction, but either way it must be resisted;

2. Our true identity is “hid with Christ in God,” which is to say we have all sorts of imperfections, but we need to understand who we are “in Christ” to truly know who we are. This entails being reminded that we are lovely, straight, whole, and made for holiness. That is the heart of conversion therapy.

Most evangelicals and fundamentalists believe some version of these assumptions, and many of them even hold non-toxic versions of these beliefs. Who, after all, doesn’t want to believe that a relationship with God can heal their hurts, or that God sees who they are deep down, or that religious friendship and Bible reading can give us strength to overcome the weaknesses with which we all are beset? The difference, of course, is what to do with human sexuality.

Unfortunately, the worst practitioners of conversion therapy will insist that childhood traumas–molestation, abuse, rape, abandonment–create aberrant sexuality. While this can certainly be true to an extent, they wrongly assume homosexuality is not a naturally occurring variation in human sexuality but a perversion of God’s intended design. At this point, young people are regularly subjected to counseling by unqualified persons who believe the Bible holds the key to mental health. Many are deeply distrustful of psychology and medicine, and while I can agree that we all ought occasionally to be distrustful of those things, a perfunctory reading of the Bible is enough to convince an honest reader that it has damn little to say about mental health–that being a category with which ancient people were largely unfamiliar.

The least toxic practitioners will tell people that God may not change their desires, but will give them strength to persevere as celibates. This is one of the more unintentionally perverse ideas in so-called Biblical counseling.

Please note that you are not gay but you will continue to have same-sex desires.

“So, God will change me?”

No. You’ll need to be celibate, but God and your church will be here for you.

“So I’ll remain gay?”

You’re not gay. You are a child of God who is healed and whole, but you have to grow into that reality.

“So when I do, I’ll be straight?”

Not necessarily. You may have these desires the rest of your life.

Why not just call it what it is? The person is gay. That admission would undermine the entire rubric by which these people read the Bible, though. How, after all, do you acknowledge that God got something so obviously wrong? (Never mind that they have moved on with the whole slavery thing…) They would be forced to admit that whoever wrote the text got it wrong, not God, which would lead to a brand new hermeneutic (the ways people interpret the Bible and other sacred texts), and one that does not support their deeply-held convictions.

The battles over the Bible and culture are not just about the issues over which the Sally Kerns of the world write legislation and make idiotic pronouncements. At a very fundamental level, the battles are about what to do with a very old book and what authority its believers have to describe how the world does and ought to function. All of us are guilty of wanting the world to be as we prefer it, and our assumptions and convictions about what it ought to look like must be defended with more than just a “Thus sayeth the Lord,” especially when the lord of this particular book is so clearly wrong.

 

America's not so Christian History, or Why Jesus Loves AP History

Co-published with Literati Press.

Oklahoma pastor and Republican state representative Dan Fisher introduced House Bill 1380 last week, a piece of legislation intended to defund AP History classes in order to protect the myth of American Exceptionalism. How a state representative who is so completely tone-deaf to truth manages even to get elected is not so easy to explain. Only 40.7 percent of registered voters in Oklahoma bothered to go to the polls in the last election, but to be fair, this is Oklahoma, so if 80 percent had gone, Fisher might still have been elected.

Fisher

Fisher, for those who aren’t familiar with his history, is the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon. It is a relatively large church considering its location in Oklahoma City’s westernmost major suburb, a place that has been a haven for the white flight demographic over the past few decades. Yukon’s high school mascot is a miller, an unapologetically happy cracker in overalls whose job is to mill grain. Yukon used to be an agricultural town before Oklahoma City’s growth found its way to Yukon. White-flighters love “small town values,” and Yukon has exploded with cookie-cutter starter homes arrayed like brick soldiers in neat grids on what used to be wheat or corn or alfalfa fields.

Fisher managed to collect many of these white folks flocking to Yukon and, over the years, he has managed to be both a successful pastor of a growing church and a voice of unreason, tapping into the fears of conservative Christians who see the end of days in nearly every cultural shift with which they are uncomfortable. When he finally partnered with two of Oklahoma’s most vocal theocratic pastors—Steve Kern[1] and Paul Blair—the partnership helped solidify Trinity as a very non-Southern Baptist church.

Along with Kern and Blair, Fisher participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday during President Obama’s first campaign for the presidency.[2] The three “pastors” defied IRS regulations concerning non-profits and political speech by endorsing John McCain over Barack Obama from their pulpits. They fancied themselves part of a historical fraternity of pastors known as the “Black Robe Regiment,” who spoke frankly about politics and helped shape the moral conscience of the young United States.

Whether or not this Black Robe Regiment managed to do much of anything other than pontificate from their pulpits is up for historical debate. Congregants rarely take their pastors very seriously when the pastors wander off the Biblical text into political speech. In fact, they rarely take them seriously any time the pastors say something with which the congregants disagree. Pastors are notoriously self-important when assessing how much their views shape the views of their congregants. People tend to join churches because they have friends in a congregation or for other complex reasons, not because their pastor speaks with moral or political authority. To believe otherwise is simply an exercise in ego masturbation on the part of the pastors.

Fisher parlayed his pastoral popularity into a run for state office. Whether or not that is something pastors ought to do is yet another area of potential dispute, but Fisher is not so much worried about spiritual care for a congregation as he is with helping dictate a “spiritual climate” of the state. He wrongly believes, as do many other conservative Christians, the false narrative of America as a Christian nation. That this concept actually means nothing outside a vague idea that Christians ought to be in charge is lost on Fisher and his tribe. Even among Christians of good conscience, it’s widely believed to an utter fiction. Real Christian scholars like Mark Noll and George Marsden have written about this myth of a Christian America, but it’s easier to believe a lie that prefers our tribe than accept a truth that offers equality to people outside the tribe. This is, of course, one of the great ironies of “Christian America” conservatives: a tribe ostensibly committed to the truth pursues a lie in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

This is the subtext to Fisher’s bill to ban AP History courses. He dislikes the College Board’s focus in the curriculum because it points out the country’s many, massive failings. How someone tells an honest history without mentioning the many ways in which the United States has failed is unimaginable. The problem for Fisher is that “Christian America” condoned slavery using the Bible; we marginalized minorities and women using the Bible; we justified the genocide of Native Americans using the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”; and we invaded countries, exploited the poor and the weak, seized territory from sovereign nations like Mexico, denied rights to all kinds of demographics, including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT citizens. To catalog all of America’s sins would take a document at least as long as the Bible. Rather than contend with this harsh and undeniable truth, Fisher would prefer that teachers not teach it. And why?

If America’s manifold sins are catalogued, most especially those sins for which the Bible was offered as justification, the Bible will be shown for what it is: a deeply schizophrenic set of narratives that can be molded to fit any context, and one that is singularly devoid of moral authority inasmuch as it has so often been used as an immoral authority. Secondly, America will be revealed to be what we actually are: an often great nation but also an often abusive and evil nation that relies not on the providence of the Christian God to lead us, but on our own base desires, prejudices, fears, and yes, sins to guide our actions—many of which found their justification in the Bible. Fisher’s Christian America falls apart in AP History class because it never existed, and that a man of faith pursues the establishment of a lie with such singular dishonesty while calling on God to witness his prophetic anointing speaks to the corruptive influence of religious narratives used to secure secular power.

 

[1] Kern is the husband of Sally Kern, a state legislator who is best known outside Oklahoma for insisting that “the gay agenda” is a greater threat to America than terrorism. Their marriage is the perfect union of paranoid and ignorant.

[2] They would do so again in his second campaign, and in spite of President Obama’s Christian confession, they chose the Mormon candidate Mitt Romney, ignoring a century of Baptist teaching that Mormons are a cult that preaches a false Christ. Political narratives are far more important that religious narratives for theocrats.


When is a Muslim not a Muslim, or Atheists Can be Dicks, Too

Co-published with Literati Press.

For those who prefer a particular narrative about what constitutes Islam, any reasonable words about the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be met with adamantine cynicism. For them, Islam is and has been a religion of violence. In spite of the widespread condemnation of the attack from Muslim leaders around the world, including the imam of the Great Mosque of Paris, they will aver that only a fool believes the claims of so-called peace-loving Muslims.

This group includes men and women who ought to know better, who have in fact spent much of their time fighting exactly the kind of irrationality generated by religious movements. Just one example among thousands ought to suffice. David Silverman, the president of American Atheists and (ironically) the chair of the Reason Rally, tweeted this amazing non sequitur today:

@MrAtheistPants: If you call yourself a Muslim, you legitimize all parts of Islam, including the terrorists.

Thinking like this would garner an F in nearly any logic class in the world, but in the superheated matrix of anger and confusion in the wake of the massacre, critical thinking is not considered a virtue. Simple counterexamples abound: If you call yourself a proud German, you legitimize all parts of German history, including the Holocaust. The form of the argument is so stupid, it is difficult to believe that an otherwise intelligent human adopted it, and that he did so with a hashtag #TrueStatement only compounds his unwillingness to think through what is actually being said.

The campaign against Islam from high profile celebrities like Bill Maher and Sam Harris has been all over the news recently, and even the brilliant and compelling Reza Aslan failed to crack Maher’s ignorance of the basic tenets of Islam. [1]  Maher, usually a champion of critical thinking, fails his own test of who should be able to speak about a subject: only the informed. He knows nothing of Islam beyond what is presented by violent factions of Islamists, and he seems not to know the difference between Islam and Islamism.

Isms are helpful when talking about religion because the suffix separates the actual religion from ideologies that use the religion to legitimize their agendas, as is the case with groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Ku Klux Klan, Church of the Creator, Boko Haram, and other racist, reactionary, nationalist, or political extremists. When teaching classes on religion, I insist students know the difference between what Islam teaches and what Islamism teaches, just as they should know the difference between a Christian and an abortion clinic bomber (Christianist).

This is not to say that there are no legitimate concerns with Islam’s global growth, particularly in the areas of free speech, treatment and education of women, separation of church and state, and several other issues, but Islam has a long tradition of talking about these things with frank openness. It was Islamic scholars, after all, who preserved the manuscripts of Greek philosophy while the Catholic Church was destroying them, most notably when Crusaders burned the library at Constantinople in 1204 c.e.[2] The number of cultural treasures lost in that orgy of violence is incalculable. There would have been no Plato for Ficino to translate were it not for Muslim scholars. In fact, the contributions of Averroes and Avicenna to Aristotelian and Neoplatonic studies helped shape Western philosophy.

Discussing the development of Islam as if Al Qaeda is the inevitable evolution of Islamic political theory and without a proper understanding of the history of Islamic thought shows a still-extant colonialist mentality among white Westerners. Bill Maher knows less about Islam than he does about Christianity (not much), but it does not stop him from discussing it from a position of “expertise.” If this isn’t intellectual colonialism, I don’t know what it is.

One of the issues that journalists are concerned about is the support for free speech in Islam, but here, too, there is a lack of understanding. Shi’a Islam has no history of iconoclasm. Images of the Prophet abound in the Shi’a tradition. Sunni Islam has not always been hostile to depictions of the Prophet and his Companions either. The traditions have changed, and they will likely change again. There is more than one Hadith tradition in modern Islam.[3]

Islam is more than 500 years younger than Christianity. Year one on the Islamic calendar is 622 c.e. on our calendar, the year of Muhammad’s flight to Medina, the Hijra (flight). Five hundred years ago, Catholics and Protestants were busy killing each other all over Europe, and the Inquisition was already hundreds of years old.

Additionally, Muslims are painfully aware of how some of the constraints imposed upon them by the Ulama (a group of scholars who interpret the Hadith and Sharia) have kept them in a premodern phase of development. This, too, is likely to change. Islam in America holds great promise for the modernization of Islam. Alan Wolfe, the brilliant professor of religion at Boston College, noted in his wonderful book “The Transformation of American Religion,” that no religion comes to our country without being fundamentally changed. The forces of individualism, materialism, and consumerism create a tremendous pressure to conform to what the market demands. Christianity has clearly gone down that road. Islam will follow. The tradition of free speech in this country and the idea that “everyone has a right to her own opinion” will ultimately transform any faith that seeks to impose in absolutist fashion demands contrary to what Americans truly want.

In the meantime, Muslims who truly practice what their founding Prophet envisioned will have to work hard to fight the tendency of outsiders to define the parameters of what constitutes Islam, and they will have to identify those in their midst who seek to create an -ism of their faith, especially those who would use violence. Allowing lunatics to self-identify[4] as Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, etc., will only allow extremists and murderers to borrow their justification for violence from ancient faiths that were founded by people who envisioned a better world. I don’t practice any faith, but I am averse to allowing ignorant people, be they theist or atheist, to define the world’s great religions in self-serving or politically motivated ways. I have friends in those faiths, and they do not look like the murderers who attacked the great tradition of freedom of the press yesterday.

[1] The first thing Americans ought to do is read Reza Aslan’s excellent, readable history of the development of Islam, “No God but God.”

[2] c.e. = Common Era and b.c.e. = Before Common Era. These are the new designations preferred by scholars of various and no faiths who wish to designate a date without reference to “the year of our Lord” or making claims about whether or not Jesus was the Christ.

[3] The Hadith was originally to be a collection of the deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad, but as Aslan has effectively shown, the various Hadiths morphed into complex layers of justification for teachings contrary to the Qur’an, including the prohibition against images of the Prophet. There is no sura (chapter) in the Qur’an that prescribes iconoclasm beyond the reiteration of no images of Allah, similar to the Hebrew prohibition in the First (Catholic) or Second (Protestant) Commandment.

[4] The tendency as Americans to let people self-identify is a terrible idea. That is for another column, though.

 

Jesus the Executioner, or How to Create a Home for Your Own Personal Jesus

With apologies to Depeche Mode...

The world is composed of words, and the words possess a multiplicity of meanings, leading to a multiplicity of worlds. Living in Oklahoma is its own special reward and punishment, and the week that just passed offered much of what it means to live in a different world than your neighbor. The execution of a child murderer in the state this week gave Oklahomans an opportunity to choose which world they inhabited, and many sided against their own god. But first, the opening statement deserves some parsing.

Paul-fryer-pieta-jesus-electric-chair

My experience of the world is shaped by the words offered me as I grow up in whatever corner of the world is my home.[1]This is not as axiomatic as you would think. People honestly believe they are growing up in a world that is shaped by an objective understanding of truth, largely because their parents, the first humans to offer them vocabulary, believe the same thing. One example should suffice.

If I grew up in Augusta, Ga., and my parents sent me off to church camp as a child or teen, the preparation for the event would already have occurred at the level of language. Likely I would have been raised in church, but even if I hadn’t, the preparation would have taken place. Religious experience for a young, white, middle class kid in the South would involve words like Jesus, church, sin, salvation, heaven, and hell. (I realize the world is changing, but the way we explain experience via words is lagging behind our experience of the world.) 

One night, in the middle of an altar call at this youth camp, I might respond to the throbbing guilt the speaker has created in my conscience. I move to the front where a “counselor” or volunteer is waiting for me. After a brief chat, I say the words I have been instructed to say: “Dear Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please forgive me of my sins. I want you to come live in my heart and be my Lord and Savior. Amen.” Some variation of that, which evangelicals and fundamentalists call the Sinner’s Prayer, would be the recommended response to the existential angst I am feeling. I would be declared “saved” at that moment, and if the counselor is conscientious, I’ll be told what to expect in the coming weeks.

Imagine that scenario playing out in India or Saudi Arabia or Tel Aviv or Bangkok. The words, the gods, the experience, the expectations—all would be different. My experience of the world would be shaped, not by a literal Jesus showing up to forgive my sins, but by an interpretation of what I’m feeling offered by people who believe they understand the world, both at the level of language and at the level of objective reality. This is, of course, a fiction; it’s merely a construct based on a preference or a tradition to which the participants subscribe. 

Place those understandings and lexicons side by side, and we arrive at the current state of our world: a multiplicity of worlds existing contiguously. Is there a “real” world that we are attempting to understand and that we can possibly come to experience? Science offers us some insight into that “real” world, but science, as poet Stephen Dunn reminds us, makes for a poor story at times: “You can’t say, ‘Evolution loves you,’ to your child.”[2] This is not to deny that science can be a remarkable story, but myth shapes us far more than science. Make of that whatever you wish: praise or lament.

So we arrive at the week past in Oklahoma. For the first time since the state botched an execution badly, an execution was scheduled. A very divided Supreme Court refused to halt the execution, and so it went forward. The Associated Press reported that Charles Warner said, “My body is on fire,” after the first of three drugs was administered. We should be clear. Warner raped and murdered an 11-month old child. An act that heinous defies our ability to imagine much worse, unless the crime was multiplied to include other children. By any standard of human behavior, Warner failed to even measure up to a minimal definition of human. I’ll side with Pico della Mirandola here, and say that our behavior has the potential to make us less than human. His frame of reference was the Great Chain of Being—an absurd idea—but his conclusion is solid. Warner was a beast in that choice, or worse than a beast, in fact. His actions are indefensible, and it is difficult to feel pity for him, even if his body did feel like it was on fire.

Still, the responses have been illustrative of the multiple worlds we inhabit. I watched with fascination as a friend attempted to be reasonable on Facebook as he called on the officials in our state to give up capital punishment. He referred to the circumstances surrounding the execution as shameful. No one, after all, should have to die in torment. One lovely woman offered that it would be a shame not to execute such a person, and, she continued, she hoped he was raped while in prison. This is such a common refrain in ethics class, I brace myself each semester for it. Good Christian students advocating proxy rape.

How does the crucified savior worshiped by Christians lead to Christians advocating execution and proxy rape? What world do they inhabit? Surely it isn’t the same as Jesus. He offered salvation to all, if the story is to be believed, so what causes people who allegedly believe the story to abandon hope for redemption and demand execution? If their understanding of the world is shaped by words like forgiveness, restoration, and redemption, how do they become cheerleaders for a system of execution? Should they not lobby for life in prison, hoping and praying that the offender comes to receive grace? 

It seems their world has been compartmentalized into areas of salvation and politics. The former is guaranteed them by virtue of their confession of being a sinner via the Sinner’s Prayer, but it is clearly not available to all, at least not pragmatically speaking. While heaven is open to all, according to the mythology, there seems to be a grammar of preference into who actually makes the cut. Salvation, it seems, is not free to all who ask. The political narrative is constructed to order their world according to their preference. Of course Jesus hates baby killers. He didn’t die for everyone, only the ones who sin within a comfortable set of parameters. The great irony is that they view outsiders as an enemy of the truth, but it is they who have reduced their Lord to one who can only save the practitioners of pedestrian sins. 

1 This is an idea that I’m pretty sure I got from reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of my philosophy heroes, but it’s possible I only inferred it from conversations in classes about Wittgenstein in grad school. Whatever the case, I’m convinced it describes our experience accurately. 

 2 At the Smithville Methodist Church, Stephen Dunn. New and Selected Poems (1974-1994) W.W. Norton

 

Co-published with Literati Press

The painting if from Paul Fryer

 

The Bible is True Cause It Says So, or Sacred Texts for a Secular World

Kurt Eichenwald, Pulitzer Prize nominee and Vanity Fair writer, created a bit of a shitstorm in fundamentalist and evangelical Christian circles last week with his Newsweek cover story “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” For anyone who has had more than one Bible class at a legitimate private or public university, what Eichenwald says is not new, even for those who disagree with Eichenwald’s conclusions. I read the whole piece and recognized material I learned as an undergrad. For grad school, our professors would have simply assumed we were familiar with the material. It is that underwhelming and not newsworthy. Except that it is.

The majority of the criticism was for Eichenwald’s portrayal of fundamentalists and some evangelicals as biblical illiterates (He is correct about that, except that it’s most Christians, period.) who treat the Bible like a cafeteria serving line where certain verses can be cherry-picked to support specific ideological positions, especially LGBT issues. Reading through his piece, it is difficult to find where what he writes misses the mark. He opens with this:

“They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.”

Bible

Bearing in mind that he never describes all Christians thus, where is the false note? Most of us have met the people he describes, especially those of us in Oklahoma. Until Satan inspired a motorist to smash into our Ten Commandments monument, we too had an idol on the capitol grounds. Ever driven by the “preachers” near Windsor Hills Baptist Church? Young men on street corners screaming condemnation for a “perverse and adulterous generation” were likely not what St. Francis of Assisi had in mind when he said to preach with words only when necessary. How long ago was it that Governor Perry of the great state of Texas spoke at a prayer rally in front of thousands? These people exist, numbering in the millions, and one need not tune into Fox News or Trinity Broadcasting to find them. They are in our stores, schools, little league teams, social clubs, and neighborhood associations.

Given that he fairly describes a subset of modern American Christendom—and that is without contradiction—what about his take on the Bible? His critique is very simple and widely accepted in most non-conservative Christian universities. The text that we see today is nothing like what the Bible, if it existed in an ideal form, would actually read like. There have been omissions, emendations, intentional additions, politicized interpretations, and all manner of shenanigans that ensure that the biblical text is anything but what it is believed to be by evangelicals and conservatives who fetishize it even as they don’t read it. It is a totem more than a sacred text for that demographic.

Albert Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken., and he regularly comments on social and political issues; the Eichenwald piece was no exception. Mohler’s primary complaint about the piece—other than it being a “hit piece”—is that Eichenwald does not interview Christians with a “traditional understanding of the Bible.” I assume that Mohler means Protestants in his own conservative Baptist tradition rather than Catholics, whose Bible is considerably longer with the addition of the Apocrypha, or even Jews—you know, the people from which the Old Testament (Tanakh) actually emerged. (Mohler seems to have no trouble treating the Jewish text as if it’s a Christian document, so apparently his critique of Eichenwald is a bit self-serving and possessed of a massive blind spot.)

The issue here is that Mohler sincerely believes that his tribe ought to be able to rightly interpret the Bible over against all other claimants, especially those he deems to be from the “far, far left” of biblical studies, which is to say, men and women who don’t typically hold to a supernatural understanding of the text. In other words, the great lengths that Eichenwald goes to in order to demonstrate that it is clearly not a supernatural text are lost on Mohler and other evangelicals and fundamentalists of his tribe because they have already decided that the text is supernatural, and so no amount of evidence can be mustered to undermine that position because all evidence must support, not refute, the position else it is false. This is the grandest case of theological confirmation bias and cherry-picking imaginable.

This is the same sort of thinking that led to the famous Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. A bunch of really smart people got together to declare the Bible inerrant and infallible in the “original autographs,” a fancy phrase for the original documents. The problem with that? There is no such thing as an original Tanakh. Much of it was oral tradition. When it was finally written down, the manuscripts were copied when they became worn, and the old copies were destroyed so as to avoid corruption of the text.
As for the New Testament, the original letters of Paul probably are real things, but we don’t have them, and the Gospels were cobbled together decades after the death of Jesus from oral tradition and alleged eyewitness accounts. So, because the group in Chicago believed the Bible was inerrant, they agreed that it was, but they can clearly see it is not in its present form, and so they created a document—original autographs—that none of them had seen because it doesn’t exist. This is called theological conservatism, I suppose. Professors would call it dishonest at best, but it passes for critical thinking in certain evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Again, what did Eichenwald get wrong?
Finally, the obsession with some liberals over redeeming the biblical text leads to a quixotic task. They are attempting to demonstrate to true believers that the warrant for their true belief is not something upon which the biblical “literalists” should base their belief, at least not in an absolutist sense. (Incidentally, they are correct. In theology, the proper object of faith is God, not the Bible, but bibliolatry is fashionable among the tribe Eichenwald targets.) The liberals expect people who believe that the text is supernaturally given to apply the lessons of literary criticism and anthropology and other utterly useful tools to a task—Bible interpretation—that is far easier when practiced as repeating what they have been told rather than doing the hard work of reading critically. They believe the Bible to be the “Word of God,” because they have been taught that it is and, quite frankly, they prefer to believe it, but they believe without bothering to parse what “Word of God” means.

This comes down to an issue of authority in the sense of “does the Bible possess any authority in my life, and more importantly, should it?” Can I or should I trust that the Bible explains or commands authoritatively, which is to say, is it worth listening to (Is it accurate?), and does it contain commands from God? I understand the desire among liberals to shore up their theology with reference to the Bible, but do we really expect to find solid sexual ethics, political ideologies, or social conventions in a text that dates to the Bronze and Iron Ages? Better to stop looking for signs of God’s blessing on gay marriage in a book not written by God. Better to stop arguing with people who fetishize the Bible without reading or understanding it about what percentage of an ancient text is trustworthy or authoritative. It serves to buttress their faith and their politics, not shape their practices; that much is clear. Old books are awesome when treated like old books. After all, nobody is killing anybody over Marcus Aurelius or Herodotus. Take what is good; reject what is bad. There is wisdom in that.


Who Would Jesus Shoot, or How to Kill Christianly

Pastor Tom Vineyard killed a 14-year-old intruder in his home in Oklahoma City on December 22. Vineyard is the senior pastor of Windsor Hills Baptist Church, probably the largest Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church in Oklahoma. The description is capitalized because it’s actually a loose affiliation of fundamentalist churches nationwide. Using the term “Baptist” to describe them is unfair, as any Southern Baptist or Freewill Baptist or any other Baptist will attest. IFBs are the Amish of Baptist life, which is to say, whereas the Amish stopped adapting to new technology in 1850, the IFBs stopped evolving with the larger world in 1950.

The church and a school that was added later were founded by Tom Vineyard’s father, Jim Vineyard, who is now listed as Pastor Emeritus on the church’s website. Tom Vineyard took over as senior pastor in 2007. It is more than fair to say that both have an unhealthy attachment to firearms and violence. Tom Vineyard has a concealed carry permit, and the church once famously offered a gun as a raffle at a youth camp.

Before getting to the details of the shooting and the ramifications of a pastor who has a concealed carry permit and who chooses to enter his house after a motion detector activated rather than call police, a brief explanation of what IFB actually means. Independent Baptist congregations separated from larger Baptist denominations over fear of creeping modernity, mainly in the early to middle 20th century. Yes, there are Baptists who thought that Southern Baptists–a group that did not apologize for their support of slavery until 1995–were too liberal to hang out with. The churches are known for political conservatism (obviously), hyper-masculinity, traditional gender roles, a “literal” reading of the King James Bible, and regressive social and sexual ethics.

Increasingly since the late 1960s, these churches have pushed for a patriotism that borders on idolatry, if one is to take seriously claims in the Jewish and Christian tradition that the role of the community of faith is to “speak truth to power.” These congregations are comfortable homes for military veterans and law enforcement, as they push a version of Christianity that makes of Jesus a “man’s man.” It’s far easier to discuss the cleansing of the temple or the Jesus of the Revelation than the Jesus who goes peacefully to his death or commands love of enemy. And there is the crux of the issue.

Tom Vineyard went armed into his own home–yes, it’s his right, obviously–after receiving notification that a motion detector had activated, and after allegedly being attacked by the 14-year old, he shot the child to death…in self-defense. It should be noted that Vineyard had apparently been burglarized previously, and so had posted signs around his property and on his home stating: “Nothing on this property is worth your life.” Clearly, though, they were worth taking the life of a teenager, an irony that should not be lost on anyone. Christians follow a Savior who commands love of enemy, turning the cheek, and giving away all that we own to the poor. Shooting someone, especially a child, over stealing stuff seems the most callous disregard of those ethical admonitions.

The narrative of Jesus that Rev. Vineyard believes makes Jesus a liar or a fool, which is to say, in the parlance of modern conservatism, a liberal. Silly Jesus expects people to be robbed without resistance, and the Bible in all of its foolishness commands believers not to love their lives unto death. In other words, you should be willing to die before resorting to violence. That is clearly a narrative that is lost on modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, both in America and abroad.

In the present case, it was not even necessary that Vineyard be a pacifist, a position that Jesus clearly favors, even if it’s difficult to explain some of his behavior in the biblical text. It is reasonable to say that Vineyard could simply have waited for police to arrive. He might have lost some stuff, but what kind of Christian ethic values property above human life? Windsor Hills Baptist is relentlessly pro-life according to the modern definition that actually means anti-abortion, but how can a pastor be pro-life and simultaneously place protection of property above sanctity of life?

Pro-gun non-theists will sympathize with Vineyard because he is defending the right to private property while exercising his Second Amendment right. He’s an American wet dream, complete with pistol, Bible, cross, crewcut, and bald eagle, but the narrative of the Bible is contra empire, and Vineyard is clearly a citizen of the wrong City, to borrow a phrase from St. Augustine’s City of God

The Bible is also greatly concerned with the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law, and while Vineyard may have survived the litmus test for adhering to the letter of the law–he was within his rights–he clearly failed the spirit of the law: a 14-year old is dead. Just dead. Yes, he was a burglar, but the Jesus who was crucified between thieves would surely have preferred to die before he took the life of a young man whose life was so tragically, and yes, criminally, off kilter. Only an American civil religion that borrows the vocabulary of Christianity to facilitate the propagation of a political and cultural conservatism could possibly use the Jesus who died at the hands of “the state” to justify the killing of a child at the hands (gun) of a “pastor.”

Co-published with Literati Press.


Pontius Pilate the Republican, or Why Mr. Obama Needs to Ignore the Bible

During his speech on immigration, President Obama referenced the Bible, and in doing so, he sounded like someone stammering through a foreign language with which he was only rudimentarily familiar. Always beware speeches that reference the King James text unless you are in a fundamentalist Baptist church. Speechwriters go for eloquence, and the KJV offers that in a Shakespearean sort of way, but it also gives away that the speaker is not familiar enough with the text to either paraphrase or use a modern version.

The verse the President cited was Exodus 23:9. He said, “Scripture tells us, we ‘shall not oppress a stranger, for [we] know the heart of a stranger.’ We were strangers once, too.” He paraphrased that last part. The text actually says, “…you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, the Jewish text reminds Israel to show empathy based on their own history; it does not articulate the underpinning of a public policy on immigration.

Just because a verse references something similar to what is at issue does not mean the text is meant to address that modern issue. In fact, it is far more likely that the text has nothing to do with the modern issue, as the Pentateuch, of which Exodus is a part, was likely finalized in the 6th century BCE. Even if that time frame is incorrect, theological conservatives argue that it was finalized much earlier, as if having a text written in the Bronze Age rather than the Iron Age makes it somehow more reliable for modern discussions of ethics and policy.

Briefly, the larger issue is why anyone needs to apply the Biblical text to political discussions in America today, since it can offer almost nothing substantive based on our current politics and context. It was written for different times and cultures, and however much conservatives may wish to believe it is timeless in its application, the text was not meant to apply to political issues in a 21st century democracy (of sorts). The issue of immigration needs to be resolved by a rational discussion of economics, human rights, and, as Obama mentioned in his speech, pragmatics.

Appeals to the Biblical text to solve this dispute are most often made by progressives, especially Jim Wallis of the evangelical-but-moderate organization Sojourners. The error, when made from the just left of center, is just as theoretically wrong-headed as when it is made from the far right of center. Absent a god who can be troubled to show up and tell us what He really thinks, we only take theists at their word about “thus sayeth the Lord”.

In fact, political conservatives likely want god out of this discussion, because most of the New Testament ethos is going to militate against the conservative position. It militates against almost all conservative positions, but conservatives only need Jesus to save them, not tell them how to live. They will likely cite Romans 13 about obeying the “law of the land,” but we should remember that they have supported deposing autocrats, torture, rendition, assassination, segregation, and the separation of families in the name of law and order, and in the case of wars, in direct violation of the laws of other lands we have invaded. Law, it seems, is more contextual than conservatives wish to admit.

In the case of immigration, they are ignoring Paul, who is normally the darling of the Right. I have no idea if Paul was the first to propound this idea, but his version is the best known: the spirit of the law matters far more than the letter of the law. It is possible to obey or enforce the letter of the law and miss the intent behind the law. Immigration provides a rich opportunity for conservatives to insist their more base emotions are really just respect for the law. They are not subtle (or overt) racists; they are law-abiding citizens. They are not xenophobes; they are Americans who want to protect the American way of life (whatever the hell that means). They are not beneficiaries of white privilege; they are champions of justice in the form of “get in line,” as if they ever stood in a seven, fifteen, or twenty-five year line.

More than anything else in this discussion, the ignorance of all sides about the causes of this crisis is distressing. Illegal immigration has not always been a problem on this scale. The Pew Center reported that illegal immigration was at about 130,000 per year throughout the 80′s, increasing to nearly half a million per year in the early 90s, and finally stabilizing at three-quarters of a million to one million per year following 1995. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, but that is surely just a coincidence. The crazy little Texan Ross Perot warned Americans that NAFTA would be bad for manufacturing, but nobody told Mexico and Latin America that, following decades of intentional destabilization by the U.S. (CIA, drug interdiction, support for fascists, assassinations, etc.), their countries’ economies would be eviscerated and their assets made available to greedy multinational corporations. That was just another unhappy side effect, and one that accelerated the rate of illegal immigration, or if you lived in those countries, necessary emigration in order to survive. I will be expanding into this failed immigration policy in a future post.

Americans, especially conservatives, wash their hands of the whole affair–and isn’t it odd how they increasingly take on the guise of all the Bible’s villains–and think the brown people just want to come to the “greatest country on earth.” I have often lamented the loss of Mr. Vonnegut. Were he here today, he could surely make of this a wonderful story line. After all, it’s rare that life parodies itself quite so effortlessly. Immigration reveals that all American politics has the form of satire, but the redemption normally provided by satire is absent, as is the self-awareness offered by the mirror held aloft by the humorist.

Co-published with Literati Press.


The Romance of Bigotry, or Judicial Adventures in Missing the Point

Right in the middle of my effusive joy about living in a country where my gay and lesbian friends can marry, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the worst aspects of democracy, rather than the Constitution, ought to dictate what seems to be a clear-cut Constitutional issue. Judge Jeffrey Sutton, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the 2-judge majority:

When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers.”


I’m not sure it’s possible to write a worse sentence when the civil rights of citizens are at stake. First, the idea that it’s a new social issue is laughably false. One need only read the Satyricon, a Roman satire about a gay former gladiator, which was written sometime in the first century CE (most likely), to know that same-sex relationships are not new social issues. Most egregiously, however, Sutton would have us believe that a war novel or hero’s journey is playing out in front of us rather than a real-life tragedy wherein a hegemony that is decreasing in power and influence expresses their fear of their own demise by being petty and bigoted to the very end. Aside from a preference for a particular strain of theism, there is simply no compelling reason left to resist same-sex marriage. All other avenues of argument are vacuous or bigoted. Sutton continues:

“Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories by meeting each other not as adversaries in a court system but as fellow citizens seeking to resolve a new social issue in a fair-minded way.”

More on that nonsense below, but first, in all fairness to the 6th Circuit, the dissenting opinion, written by Judge Daughtrey, begins with two of the most accurately scathing lines in the history of jurisprudence:

“The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED Talk or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

In short, “the people” ought not be allowed to vote for an unconstitutional law, and as gay marriage bans seem to violate the 14th Amendment, it matters little what “the people” think. The process of categorizing a law or provision of a law as constitutional or unconstitutional is the responsibility of the judiciary, not “the people.” Judge Sutton’s idiotic romanticism vis-a-vis citizens resolving social issues in a “fair-minded” way ignores the reality that citizens have regularly voted for and supported injustice with respect to social issues. Judge Sutton is apparently unaware of Jim Crow, poll taxesDred Scott, the Fugitive Slave Act, Japanese internment camps, sundown towns, and a whole host of other social issues in which the hegemony, even in the guise of SCOTUS, decided against the best interests of entire classes of citizens.

The conservative myth of “activist judges” has become a common trope, but it coheres poorly with reality, and the worst decision in recent memory was made by activist justices who allowed corporate money to affect elections against the best interests of “the people.” There are times when judges must decide the constitutionality of a law without reference to the will of the people. The will of the people is never sovereign in a culture committed to laws based on justice. It is axiomatic that the will of the people is often nothing more than tyranny and prejudice masquerading as righteousness or tradition or respect for the law. Laws based on injustice ought not to be obeyed. In the American experience, this is clearly the lesson we were supposed to learn from Thoreau, Anthony, Stanton, Chavez, King, and others.

Now the 6th Circuit has officially made this an issue SCOTUS must consider. Their reasoning is, in the words of Judge Daughtrey, an appeal to vox populi, or a wait-and-see approach. That needs to be unpacked a bit. The voice of the people (vox populi) can often decide that a situation is not so urgent that it must be addressed immediately. According to the conservative worldview, social change should not come quickly; rather, it should be deliberate and well thought out, such that it becomes a wait-and-see approach in the sense that time and talk will fix things. Dr. King addressed the wait-and-see approach in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Only those who are comfortable within the system can possibly think that “wait-and-see” is a good idea. Imagine telling the victims of slavery that we will wait until citizens work out this social issue in a fair-minded way. What if fair-minded ends up being the perpetuation of slavery?  Why would the slave not want to be free today? Is it not fair because a judge with good sense calls injustice by its name? Is it only fair if “the people” get to decide whether or not to support the Constitution? And if they do not, then are we compelled to call it Democracy or the rule of law, however loathsome it may be? It is certain that the Founding Fathers–and, oh, the capitalization there–did not envision that the will of the people should enshrine injustice, and unless someone can tell me why gays and lesbians ought not be able to marry in a culture where all adult citizens share equal rights, how is it aught but injustice?

At this point, many will interject objections based on the will of God, but it will be the god they prefer. They will not say “my God” or “the God of (X Faith).” Rather, they will simply assert that it is God who is offended, as if it is an axiom that there is only one god or that god can be offended. Even assuming the axioms to be correct, they will then insist that their singular deity is the deity of record, such that the monotheists of other tribes are heretics or fools, and only the children of the deity of record, according to their own reckoning, have a proper understanding of the way of God. It is a powerful delusion or an arrogant fiction, but they will not recognize it as such.

And even if we allow that their tribe possesses the truth and their tribal deity is the sovereign lord of the universe, they will not be able to explain why even intra-tribally they cannot agree as to the actual words of God, nor the proper interpretation of those words. It is a preference for the “world as they wish it to be” dressed up as Truth, and the arbiters of this version of the truth see it as absolute and feel no obligation to justify the truthiness of their words; rather, they accept their version as gospel and believe the rest of us are blinded by sin, in the grasp of the devil, in rebellion against God, or willfully ignorant to the truth that is so obvious to them. Even as they can’t agree amongst themselves.

Setting aside that brief excursus, the matter at hand is what will happen when SCOTUS is forced to decide. A 5-4 split is the most likely outcome with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote. The utter disaster will be a 5-4 decision against marriage as a fundamental right and a deferring to the states to decide who among law-abiding, tax-paying citizens may marry. This will lead to a balkanization of American states into affirming and non-affirming areas, and the very Constitution that is meant to guarantee equal treatment for citizens from state to state will be abrogated where it most matters: equal rights for all citizens.

The sane decision would be 9-0 in favor of the 14th Amendment and the dignity of all people, but Scalia, Thomas, and Alito have seldom been concerned about such lofty matters. Rather, they amuse themselves by upholding the letter of the law and ignoring its spirit. They strain out gnats and swallow camels in their zeal to show that they understand the meaning of words in the narrowest sense, but manage to ignore the “weightier matters of the law,” like love, justice, and mercy. Honestly, we live in a country where the most conservative imagine they live in a country dedicated to Christian principles, even as they don’t recognize obvious opportunities to implement Christian principles, and, it’s fair to argue, they don’t know which principles are actually Christian. They are practitioners of civil religion, and like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, they would not recognize their Lord were He to make an appearance in their day-to-day lives.

Finally, we must address one final argument against same-sex marriage, and it comes from those often self-identified “Libertarians” who assert that marriage is not the proper purview of government. While it is easy to agree that the government should not be involved in marriage, the simple fact is that the government is currently involved in marriage. The entanglements are manifold, including insurance, survivor benefits, hospital visitation, income taxes, etc. Unless and until all heterosexual couples are willing to divest themselves of the benefits attendant with marriage, including tax breaks, this is simply an argument of avoidance, which is to say, it avoids the larger questions in favor of a gigantic, convenient red herring.

--Co-published with Literati Press.


Interpreting the Bible Gayly, Part 2, or How to Righteously Ignore the Bible

In Part One, I mentioned the intransigence of fundamentalists and evangelicals in terms of how they interpret Scripture, especially in the context of same-sex marriage. The thesis of Part Two is that fundangelicals will use the Bible to oppose same-sex marriage, but their interpretive method (hermeneutic) is deeply flawed or deeply dishonest, and as I write that, it occurs to me that oblivious is an option, too.

The fundamental issue is that Christians, by and large, do not read the Bible, not in its entirety, and not to understand it. Much reading is devotional, wherein readers look for God to address them via the text. Imagine a person struggling with an issue and coming across a passage in Proverbs that says “Lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.” That likely feels like the words are written just for their particular situation: “I’m relying too much on my own judgment. I should trust God.”

Unfortunately, “Trust God” is often a shorthand way of saying, “I won’t make a decision.” Worse, it’s an opportunity to ask someone what “God’s Word” says. This is where things can really run off the rails. Interpreting the Bible is not simply a matter of reading the text and accepting the clear meaning, partly because the meaning is not always clear, and partly because the text was written or compiled somewhere between 1600 and 4000 years ago, depending on the passage. Even if the words are clear, it is possible that the text is obscure. There is a passage in the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, called Old Testament by Christians) about a man who must marry the woman he rapes. It’s a horrific thought for us, but in the economy of ancient Israel, a non-virginal, unmarried woman would have very limited options, like begging or prostitution, so if a rapist took her virginity (yes, I hate that phrase, too), he was financially responsible for her.

For hermeneutics, then, the context matters immensely, but that is not even the biggest problem with applying Biblical texts to contemporary issues. I feel very comfortable saying to women that they should ignore Biblical sexual ethics about virginity because the passages were written when girls married upon menstruation. Most folks can keep their virginity that long, and the issue was women as property, not sexual ethics. That much of the Bible was written for a different context, both culturally and developmentally, is clear, but fundangelicals insist that much of it still applies, including sexual ethics. Mind you, most would say that victims should not marry their rapists, nor should people own people, let alone have sex with slaves, but they are hard-pressed to let go of same-sex prohibitions. They cannot seem to recognize that interpretation is largely preferential, not exegetically consistent (the process of extracting meaning from a text). Once exegetical consistency is applied, the whole book falls apart if you insist on reading it as authoritative, but that is not a point that can be acknowledged if you wish to remain securely fundangelical.

For example, applying exegetical consistency to the issue of women in ministry yields a wide range of Biblical opinions, but fundangelicals of various tribes choose the verses they prefer to shape their church polity (church governance). The texts are in clear conflict, so only preference or appeal to a particular tradition can yield a path forward. This is not the same thing as “thus sayeth the Lord,” obviously. That all of them appeal to different and equally dubious or equally reasonable ways of understanding “God’s Word” is lost on them, because they sincerely believe they are understanding it properly (rightly dividing the word of truth, in the jargon of Scripture) while the other tribes are missing a key point.

Another example. On the issue of care for the poor, there are hundreds of verses that address care for the poor, so many in fact that it was possible for liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez to preach that God has a preference for the poor. The difficulty in using such texts to support government-provided welfare is related to the text’s silence about the responsibility of the government. The individual is clearly instructed to do so, as is the church, but nowhere is the care of the poor seen as a governmental responsibility. It’s possible to argue that God literally expects individuals to care for the poor, but an inference is required to say God expects the government to do the same. Alas, not all inferences are created equal.

On matters of interpretation related to the life of the individual, the fundangelical impulse has been toward a mixture of allegorical, literal, and metaphorical interpretation. When God promises Jeremiah that God knew him from the moment of his conception, the statement has often been appropriated by individuals to assert that God cares about and knows every individual intimately, and so the subsequent promise that God had a plan for Jeremiah’s life is then applied to the life of other individuals. The text nowhere says this, and so a literal promise to one person is applied via inference to all individuals. (It creeps into the abortion debate, too, as a way of buttressing arguments from “life begins at conception,” thereby attempting to use it politically.) Allegorically, Jeremiah is all of us, and so the inference is based on the most tenuous of interpretive models.

But what of verses that seem to indicate God’s law or rule about specific actions or beliefs? Those would seem to be less open to interpretation, and this is where the intransigence makes itself most obvious. The Bible nowhere addresses same-sex marriage, but it does address same-sex sex. The prohibition against same-sex sexual contact is then extended to cover same-sex marriage. As such, the extension of the principle is completely reasonable, by which I mean it is logically and exegetically consistent, even as it might be completely false. And here is the problem. It is not what the text actually says or even what it means; the issue is what believers choose to do with the text, including ignore it, as in the case of slavery, divorce, and killing people who use magic.

The intransigence is based on a willful denial of how the Bible has been handled in the past, especially in areas where it speaks clearly and forcefully about an issue. In Part One, the issue of slavery was used by way of illustration. It works here, too. Any honest reader of the Bible is forced to conclude that God either approves of or tolerates the practice of slavery. That the Mosaic law contains regulations about appropriate sex with a slave is a hideous reminder that we are dealing with a Bronze Age text, and not a book with modern sensibility woven into its words. How do fundamentalists and evangelicals deal with the question of slavery?

The most obnoxious of them insists that God is fine with slavery so long as it is not race-based. Quite frankly, this is a very, very small minority and it pains me to even call them “Christians." Most just say that the “old law” has passed away, and in doing so, they ignore that the Apostle Paul gave instructions to slaves and masters after the “resurrection” of Jesus, and so Paul treated slavery as an acceptable practice after that “old law” had passed away. This is not terribly helpful for fundangelicals who wish to pretend that God is horrified by slavery. So horrified that God gave instructions on when and under what circumstances you could bang your slave.

It is clear that the Bible approves of slavery and condemns divorce, and it’s equally clear that fundangelicals ignore both these realities and insist that the text is consistent and authoritative even as they condemn slavery and allow for divorce. I’ve now used 1300+ words to say what is obvious; interpretation is always based on cultural contexts and tribal preference, and very, very rarely on exegetical consistency. In other words, as the culture goes, so goes the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage…eventually.

 Co-published at Literati Press as Slavery, Divorce, and Same-Sex Marriage: Interpreting the Bible Gayly, Part 2


Interpreting the Bible Gayly, or The Holiness of Segregation

This is part one in a three-part series for Literati Press.

One of the most important pastoral decisions in the next year will be how a particular congregation or denomination will respond to same-sex marriage. Opponents of marriage equality have been right about exactly one thing; the granting of rights to lesbian and gay couples to marry has happened at a dizzying speed. It’s genuinely unparalleled in world history. Even if we begin at the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay marriage is now legal in the majority of the States within 45 years. Realistically, the energy behind the movement began less than twenty years ago, especially among the heterosexual population.

Only the most simplistic assessment of pop culture would locate the transitional moment inWill & Graceno TV program has that much transformational energy—but only the willfully oblivious could miss that Will & Grace was the most palatable and popular example of a cultural shift that had already begun to change the orientation of America toward LGBT persons, and by extension, same-sex marriage.

The demographics of opposition to same-sex marriage tell the whole story at this point: fundamentalists and evangelicals (fundangelicals) tend to be opposed, as do Muslims, political conservatives, and old people. Combine three categories to find the most resistant and largest demographic: fundamentalist or evangelical political conservatives over 50. It is demonstrably true that acceptance for same-sex marriage lags in traditionalist and ethnic demographics as well, and I use ethnic, not minority, because support for same-sex marriage is very low in Latin America and Africa, not just among Hispanic Americans and African-Americans. Nonetheless, the group with the most political clout in terms of this issue remains old and really old fundangelical Christians who also happen to be politically conservative.

Those demographics matter for pastors and denominational leadership, because older, more committed members tend to be the best givers and the most reliable members in the congregation in terms of attendance and volunteerism. Only the most bizarrely fortunate minister in America has not been in a conflict with an older member of the congregation over something heard, seen, or read on conservative talk radio, cable news, or the Internet. As same-sex marriage obtains legal status in all the States—a foregone conclusion now—pastoral decisions will affect membership status particularly in respect to older and younger members.

In thinking through potential pastoral responses, it has become very clear that the American Church is facing a period of hostile reorganization, due in large part to a lack of thoughtful dialogue and theologizing based on the speed at which same-sex marriage has become the law at the same time that it has become more widely accepted. Their intransigence about hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) on this issue has not helped either, but more on that next time. This is in part the fault of congregations and denominations who refused to believe the day would come, either because they trusted too much in the promises of fringe Right politicians or because they chose to be in willful denial about what was obviously coming. Clearly, there is another large group who believed that the Church would simply preach the message of “the Gospel” and let the consequences play out without having to reassess their view of the matrix of Scripture, Church, and Culture.

In other words, this latter group believed they could ignore how cultural shifts affect hermeneutics far more often than the interpretations shape culture. The most obvious examples are radical reconfigurations of church politics and preaching concerning slavery, and in my lifetime, the widespread cultural acceptance of divorce. For those younger than me (under 50), the idea that divorce ever caused widespread consternation in churches, except Catholic churches, is almost beyond belief, but there was a time when churches fought vigorously over the issue of what to do about divorced people, both in terms of membership and vocational ministry. In spite of Jesus’ stern words about adultery and divorce being deeply entwined, churches simply ignored Jesus and opted for a position of grace and restoration.

The pastoral response to same-sex marriage is likely to take the very same tack. Given that the demographics indicate that most opposition to same-sex marriage will be dead within 40 years, or less, churches that opt to resist the cultural shift will occupy increasingly less cultural space and will make of themselves a new species of fundamentalism. Just as any church that preached a gospel of segregation would be viewed with equal parts horror, contempt, and humor today, so too will these churches make of themselves a parody.

To borrow a Biblical metaphor, the coming storm will force pastors, congregations, and denominations to align themselves on one side or the other of this cultural shift. There will be those pastors and denominational leaders who will attempt to navigate a middle path through this, but within twenty years, that will make as much sense as a church in the current context attempting to navigate a middle path between Civil Rights and segregation. Those who opt for the middle path might just as well join the resistance, because like the churches that attempted to remain neutral during the Civil Rights struggle, they will simply be seen as the same sort of compromisers. Not taking a stand on issues of justice will always be seen as moral weakness once the dust clears, and followers of Jesus are trained to expect crucifixion, right?