Billy Graham is opposed to gay marriage. Raise your hands if you're shocked. The man who did more to redefine "gospel" as an empty signifier is now 93, and not surprisingly, like most nonagenarians, he doesn't want gay people in North Carolina to be able to marry or have a civil union. He laments that we are having to define marriage when it's so clearly defined in the Bible (except that it's not). He encourages Christians to vote in favor of NC's anti-gay marriage amendment. He's not as bad as this guy (sorry, Baptist friends), but Graham probably still has enough influence left to influence the votes in his state. In reading through his comments and the comments following the story on some news sites, I was reminded of my recent conversation with retired Bishop John Shelby Spong.
For those of you who don't know, Spong is the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, NJ. He's been a longtime supporter of gay rights, as well as a prolific author. I interviewed him in conjunction with an appearance at a UCC church in Norman, OK, a few weeks ago. I'm going to type up my interview notes, focus on the issue of sexuality, and then comment at the end.
"What do you consider your primary task as a speaker and a writer?
What I try to do all the time is help people get past the explanations of antiquity for what is an internal experience. The Bible uses first century language and concepts to explain the Jesus event. This is a people who also believed in demons, terracentrism, and knew nothing about how diseases were caused. I'm trying to help people separate the explanation from the experience, to translate the experience into the language of the 21st century.
How do you do this?
Education has created problems for people when it comes to the Bible. We can't literalize the text and explain it to people who are educated. They don't believe it. The text has to be explained outside of the model of the three-tiered universe. I'm sure people here in Oklahoma are used to a Sooner football player pointing upward to God after scoring against Texas. The idea is that God is up there. That doesn't work in a post-Copernican age. It also relies on a model of God, call it the manipulative God, that is very popular with people. We try to define God, which is very arrogant. I think we need to define our experience of God, not God, and that requires I admit I might be delusional. I don't know the experience is objectively real. I'm trying to understand the experience outside the context of the tribal deities of the past.
The God who sends plagues, stops the sun to allow his people to kill even more people, and who orders genocide cannot be identical with the god who said, "Love your enemy." In all fairness, it was the prophets of the Hebrew tradition who helped change the perspective on God. People have to be given a way to view the experience with an understanding that our perception causes us to view the world in different ways. We need to talk about God in terms of today's perception of reality.
How do we talk about it in those terms?
Even the language we speak causes us to frame the experience differently. Desmond Tutu pointed out that English assumes male and whiteness. It makes it very difficult to write inclusively, because, as Tutu said, as a black man, he can neve be "tickled pink." All god talk is highly subjective, and we have to admit that up front. It's hard to get people who believe there is an external, objective, revealed standard of ethics to listen, though. I've been to Oklahoma a few times. It's hard to find Christians there who aren't fundamentalist or influenced by fundamentalism. It's very difficult to talk to someone who begins with truth as this fixed, external reality.***
There is more, but I'll post is later. As you can see, most raw interviews rely on comments that are all over the place. When you got 10 minutes and a focused story, there is little time to fill in ancillary gaps. I asked him about the Catholic Church and the birth control/insurance debate that was raging at the time. A poll indicated that the overwhelming majority of American Catholics ignore the Church on this point of doctrine. His response: "I'm not surprised by the numbers. The disparity has been there for a long time. What strikes me is that the Roman Catholic Church is attempting to get the federal government to get their parishioners to follow the doctrines of the RCC."
That's money, folks. And now back to Graham and all the other people of faith (yeah, you Mormons, too) who are trying to do the exact same thing. It's insufficient for these folks to have their own faith-based beliefs about marriage and the freedom to marry as they choose. No, they need the government to help them codify into law their religious belief about marriage, denying fellow citizens the right to marry based on a religious assumption. The North Carolina bill is the worst yet, because it attacks the idea of civil unions, thereby revealing that this is not about religion at all. It's about political power, more specifically the desire of ideologues to shape the nation's politics in ways which comport with their preferences about what America should look like. If you don't believe their religious assumptions, these freedom-loving, American Christians will use the ballot box to enforce adherence, if not actual belief.