As I said in the last post, I think, as Christians, we must frame the conversation about homosexuality in terms of the Gospel and solid exegesis; it’s futile to form intricate and immaculate theological justifications for whichever side if the text simply doesn’t support them. (Yes, this means I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and yes, that makes me rather conservative and no, I don’t feel like arguing about it right now.)
So for me, the questions have to be, What does the Bible say about homosexuality and how is that applicable to life today? Nothing new at all, and yet there has been a surge of interest in asking those questions in a more critical light and with a renewed vigor. Theologians, especially those identifying as side-A, are re-examining the traditional interpretations of the six or so “clobber passages” that have been so abused (and abusive) in the hands of “Christian” homophobes who treat gay men and women as plagues rather than people. These scholars bring a host of historical and cultural knowledge to bear on the text that help clarify what the biblical authors would have intended their words to communicate to the first century audience. For instance, would the perverse sexual practices condemned in Romans chapter 1 have any moral correlation with the loving, monogamous unions shared by numerous gay people today, if such a social reality did not exist in Paul’s time?
Many conservative evangelicals refuse to entertain such “obvious heresy,” casting those who would dare even suggest such an endeavor as pagan monsters that burn Bibles to fuel their pitchfork-making factories. Staunch defenders of a “literal” or “plain” reading of the text, they often summarily reject critical methodology of any kind, saying it only serves to confuse the faithful and give all the power to a few spindly, diabolical, ivory-tower academics.
But I would humbly (and, I think, rightly) suggest that, without critical methodology, without some brave (and slightly insane) men and women meticulously carrying out word-studies, historical analyses, and theological examinations, we would have absolutely no chance to arrive at anything that gets even close to a “literal” reading, mostly because it’s mighty hard for the average American to read Koine Greek. As a rapidly growing number of evangelical leaders will agree, our relationship with critical methodology should be one of cautious approval, evaluating each “critique” by its own merit and integrity for the benefit of all believers seeking a clearer understanding of the text.
In a recent video discussing how to interpret the endlessly contentious first chapter of Genesis, Dr. John Walton (who was one of many phenomenal professors of mine at Wheaton) said:
“We’re well aware that people have to translate the language for us. We forget that people have to translate the culture for us. And therefore if we want to get the best benefit from the communication we need to try to enter their world, hear it as the audience would have heard it, as the author would have meant it, and to read it in those terms.” That’s what it means to read the text “literally.”
Later in the video he reminds us that although the books of the Bible were certainly written for us, they were not written to us – we are neither the Galatian church nor the Israelites in exile. So we have a bit of work to do in order to extract the intended meaning from difficult passages, which Romans 1:26ff and others seem to be.
Rather than simply dismissing side-A scholars’ work as anti-Bible, I would love to see more conservative evangelicals willing to wrestle with the studies (some of which are more worthwhile than others) – evaluating the methods used, the motives of the scholar (or “scholar”), and the conclusions’ consonance with the whole witness of scripture. When we disdain historical/cultural inquiry on principle, we make ourselves hypocrites. Turn to John 5:4 in your Bibles to see but one tiny example. The fact that we can even read the book of John in English is the result of unbelievably painstaking research in multiple fields of study. This is important, and I think the Bible can hold up quite well under the scrutiny.
One final thing: should people read the disputed passages and interpret them as saying that “the gays” are all sinners who choose to be that way and are a threat to the church, the only thing I can say is that they are dead wrong. Even should it be proven that the Bible does not condone same-sex unions, an interpretation so devoid of love of one’s neighbor simply cannot be right.
In this ceaseless excavation for biblical truth, love of God and neighbor is the earth through which we dig, the gold from which the uncovered treasure is made, and the mysterious electromagnetic fields that lend it form and luster. Without love, not only is there no sparkling cache to be searched for, but there is no search to begin with! When I hear homophobic vitriol poured forth from pulpit or padded desk chair and labeled as “biblical truth,” I can only think that the person has, in this instance, actually forsaken the foundational purposes of the Bible, namely to know God and his love for all people. Instead of relentlessly digging into scripture with prayer and humility and discovering the vast wealth of God’s loving self-revelation, he or she is merely clutching a dry bone from the shallow dust while claiming to have plundered Solomon’s treasury.
I’m not saying that there is no meaningful disagreement between people adhering to either side-A or side-B (or whatever other sides there are). What I hope to communicate is that, given this disagreement, there is still much fruitful, Bible-affirming, Christ-centered wisdom to be gained from critical dialogue rooted in love and respect, and the all-too-common reluctance of conservative evangelicals to engage in that dialogue is one of my community’s greatest failures.
Thus for those whose interpretations are little more than thinly veiled justifications for their bitter fear, the Bible seems clear that “they have exchanged the truth about God for a lie” and have failed to unearth the most beautiful treasure in the text: deeper relationships with our awesome God and those he demands we love as neighbors.
I think we can do better.