Gays, God(s), and Gretchen, or, How not to Read the Bible

There is no Gretchen in this post. It's a funny name, and I needed an alliterative word. It worked. Many years ago when the hhdw and I were doing Sock Monkey Magazine, I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Knapp. She was in between projects, and at the time, was pretty sure she didn't want to make another "Christian" project. She was always one of my favorites, and I always believed labeling her CCM was a disservice to her vocal ability, songwriting, and musicianship. She excels in all three. I tried to get her to open up about what may be her best piece of songwriting, Martyrs and Thieves, but she deflected the questions. The song struck me because it was one of the more honest meditations on the struggle with "sin" that I'd seen. Here's an excerpt:

There are ghosts from my past who've owned more of my soul Than I thought I had given away
They linger in closets and under my bed
And in pictures less proudly displayed
A great fool in my life I have been
Have squandered till pallid and thin
Hung my head in shame and refused to take blame
For the darkness I know I've let win

She does a phenomenal job of capturing the pervasive sense of guilt that afflicts Christians of all traditions. The hhdw and I were still struggling to put to death the shame and guilt that followed our ignominious exit from the church I pastored. The song was poignant at the time, primarily because Jennifer clearly articulated the idea that we often are to blame for letting the darkness win, something that was decidedly true in my own life.

Also at that time, the rumor mill was grinding mercilessly with insistence that Jennifer was a lesbian, and I suspected some of the lyrics reflected that struggle. She made big news (for a Christian artist) last year when she made it official; she's a lesbian and has a partner. She was interviewed by Christianity Today and Larry King as a result. Christians reacted with surprising anger and grace, depending upon their assumptions. The best interview I've seen yet ran last month in Religion Dispatches, an online journal that everyone who takes religion seriously should read regularly. In response to the question about being "born gay," Jennifer gives one of the best responses I've ever heard:

I don’t think it’s the right question. It starts with a premise that I don’t necessarily agree with or feel that I can follow through on. If there isn’t some kind of scientific reason we can nail down to explain why people are gay, then it stands in logic that we shouldn’t accept LGBT people. I have difficulty with shaping my acceptance of any human being based on whether or not I think it’s scientifically provable that they’re worthy of acceptance.

What she doesn't say is that even if scientists could find a gay marker in that damn helix or if they could find definitive evidence of differences in pre-behavioral brain function/formation, it wouldn't change fundangelical minds. (One only need to witness their behavior vis-a-vis evolution: Ark Parks and Creation Museums and Aussie "scientists" who are crazier than any character in Road Warrior blathering on about "scientific reasons to believe every word in the Bible.") That's because of the way the Bible shapes fundangelical thought. More on that below.

I recently interviewed Dr. Cynthia Rigby, W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Seminary, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA). You'll recall they recently approved a change to their ordination standards (10-A) that now allows for the ordination of sexually active LGBT candidates. (I did a story on it for the Oklahoma Gazette.) It seems apparent to me that the entire debate about homosexuality is rooted in hermeneutics, so I asked Rigby, who is a Barth scholar, to comment on the state of hermeneutics, particularly in the PCUSA. I started by saying that conservative Presbyterians, as well as the neo-Reformed movement, read the Bible as if Barth never lived or wrote. They have no concept of the Word within the Word, although everyone I've ever known reads, preaches, and lives with personal mini-canons. On the absence of good Barth theology in the debate, Rigby said, "I think these folks know Barth pretty well. They apply a right-leaning hermeneutic, and then apply it to Barth." In other words, they pull quotes from Church Dogmatics that buttress their positions and ignore the larger project (and they do the same damn thing with atonement, much the way the neo-Reformed crib from Augustine).

In all fairness, and Rigby admitted this, the right could accuse left-leaning theologians of doing the same thing, and they'd be partially right. Except it's impossible to read Barth, take him seriously, and remain a literalist. Rigby points out rightly that the same group is not extracting verses about women's ordination similar in tone to the "clobber passages" and applying the literalist hermeneutic. Things have changed on that front. Rigby again: "The Word meets us ever anew. It is unchanging in its capacity to meet us anew in different contexts." The PCUSA heard the Word about women's ordination 40 years ago. Those who believed differently left, some to form the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and some later to form the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Hermeneutics post-Barth is done with the understanding that the Bible is tertiary revelation at best. It is not primary. Jesus is primary revelation. The kol YHWH is primary revelation. The testimony of disciples and apostles is secondary. Their written testimony, tertiary. This is consistent, and based on the understanding that every phase of the transmission moves farther from the actual kol YHWH. Barth believed the Word of God was an event, among other things. Post-Barth hermeneutics rightly allows the Word of God event to speak the will of God into a circumstance or context. Because there are no "inerrant original autographs," and because Scripture is a compilation of known and unknown authors, Council decisions, and cultural biases, it makes sense that the Word of God event will occasionally bring correction: slavery, ordination of women, divorce, etc. As contexts, cultures, technology, and understanding change, it is reasonable to believe that instruction/ethics change. We don't allow 35 year old men to marry 14 year old girls anymore, nor do we demand rapists marry their victims.

Rigby talked about how the different views in the Adam/Eve relationship have shaped the debate as well. "God calls us to live in differentiated relationships, looking at each other, loving each other, even the utterly different. Those opposed to 10-A want to make the male/female differentiation the essential one, but why? Bone of bone is parabolic, not paradigmatic, but they see the Adam/Eve encounter as paradigmatic, as if the image of God is only reflected in the Adam/Eve relationship, and not in relationship to others."

There is much to love in what she has to say. I am indifferent to the argument to a large degree. I've long since stopped trying to make an old book make much sense in this millenium. Fortunately, I'm not in a profession where I must agree with that book, at least superficially, to maintain my position. Nor am I forced to explain the inexplicable—why God gives two shits about gay sex. I decided the Bible has no authority, except that of accumulated wisdom on occasion, but Rigby (via Barth) offers LGBT believers another option of what to do with the Bible. Barth was opposed to homosexuality, it's fair to say, but he too saw the m/f relationship as paradigmatic. It would be far easier just to put the book down, but that's not likely to happen, so I can hope for the sake of Ms. Knapp and LGBT friends, that Barth will make a comeback in fundangelical hermeneutics.

Tweedy on Wilco

The British newspaper The Independent has published an interview with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, as well as some thoughts on one of my favorite albums of '09, Wilco (the album). It's a short, personal piece, but it provided some insight into why I love Sunken Treasure way more than the band's adaptation of those songs. Hearing Tweedy perform them with simplicity in very small venues helped the music make sense for me. It was only after I heard those renditions that I was able to go back and appreciate YHF and some of the live numbers in which it seems the band is trying unsuccessfully to merge music with a steel smelter.

The Message (apologies to Eugene Peterson)

If you're not following the hip part of the Christian blogosphere (I hate that word.), the part that includes coffee-drinking, bescarved, Toms-wearing, kinder, young evangelicals, then you may be unaware that Derek Webb has pissed off the fundies and the socially backward again. Derek Webb, once upon a time a member of Christian soft rock/pseudo-folk band Caedmon's Call, has a new song and video called What Matters More. You can see the video and read the "explicit" lyrics here. The song is very much a post-Radiohead, electronic mix, with some guy channeling Jonny Greenwood, and it is perhaps the best thing Webb has done, at least sonically. Then there are the lyrics.

Webb tries to comisserate with non-Christians in the song's first stanza, taking Christians to task for not following the Golden Rule and caricaturing gays and other opponents. The stanza that has some parts of the church angry includes this line: "Meanwhile we sit just like we don't give a shit About 50,000 people who are dyin'today." Now, aside from the fact that he simply stole the idea from Tony Campolo, who worked this schtick at least 20 years ago, the lyrics are just goofy. Webb has always had a penchant for bizarre turns of phrase, a habit that makes his music too self-serious, as if Webb is well aware that thousands of young Christian beatniks think of him as a musical prophet. To his credit, Webb has used the prophet's mantle to rail against the people of God, not the sinners who have yet to call out for our salvation. But it's a game that has grown too tired and too cliche.

Message music is okay in small doses. This is why "secular" music will always consistently outsell Christian music and why Christian music will find it nearly impossible to find wide acceptance on non-Christian radio. (I don't think it's an issue of mediocrity. If it was, Miley Cyrus wouldn't be a star.) With rare exceptions, non-Christian artists don't think of their role as a ministry or a calling. They don't weigh their lyrics down with messages about who ought to do what or believe what. Green Day managed a few message songs on American Idiot, and that is consistent with the role of punk music. But Green Day didn't become the biggest punk band in the world singing about politics all the time: they managed the occasional hymn to masturbation and teen angst as well. Music is expressive and only occasionally proscriptive. Webb should keep that in mind.

Secondary to that, Webb had to know his song was going to provoke a controversy because of his use of "shit." Now, I don't give a shit about profanity. Doesn't trouble me in the least. I'm even pretty sure that all the prohibitions in the Bible about corrupt communication have to do with things like gossip, slander, lying, and caricaturing, not profanity. Webb laments that the church is ignoring people who are starving because they are chasing after the wind in the form of petty grievances. And to show how angry he is about it, he creates one of these teapot tempests. And that is supposed to help how? Any Christian artist who has been around the business more than an hour knows you can't use profanity in Christian music. There simply is no pay-off. Whatever cause you hoped to advance will be lost in the shitstorm of vanguard traditionalists arguing with the terminally hip counterculturalists about whether or not to use sin to draw attention to the cause de jour. Webb knows his song will increase interest in his music, but unless he's the dumbest musician on earth, he also had to know it wouldn't help his cause. Congratulations, Derek. Self-promoting, wild-eyed, faux righteousness just murdered one of your best pieces of work.