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.