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Jul 10 2012

Well Meaning but Tortuous Gay Biblical Apologetics

By Frederick Sparks

 

Matthew Vines is a gay Harvard student reared in a “loving Christian home” and church community in Kansas. After finally reconciling himself to his sexual orientation, Vines took a two-year leave of absence to research what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. In March of this year, Vines gave a speech at a Kansas United Methodist Church, giving an overview of the verses that have been traditionally viewed as condemning of homosexuality. Gay columnist Dan Savage has referred to the video of the speech as “brilliant”.

 
Vines is clearly a bright, thoughtful young man who values his faith and who cares deeply about the experiences of LGBT Christians in their church communities. The most compelling portion of the video comes at the end when Vines speaks directly to straight Christians about their interactions with their gay brothers and sisters. However, I did not find Vines arguments particularly unique or consistently persuasive. At one time I was a gay Christian trying to reconcile my sexual orientation with a belief that the Bible was a “good” book that expresses God’s love, and most of the alternative explanations here I’d heard (and said) before. And like the arguments often heard from African-American Christians about how the slavery seemingly endorsed in the bible wasn’t REALLY slavery, what I see here is a person making indefensible apologetics for oppressive dictates in order to hold on to a belief system that provides emotional sustenance in other ways.

 
Vines best arguments concern the prohibition against homosexuality associated with the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He convincingly demonstrates that taking this story as a general condemnation against homosexuality is unsubstantiated…both by looking at the context of the story itself and from other scriptural references that refer to Sodom’s chief sin as one of “discourtesy” to visitors (who also happen to be emissaries of the almighty). He as well makes easy work of the clumsy and presumptive translations of arsenokoites (abusers of themselves with mankind) and malokos (effeminate) which appear in 1 Corinthians. Vines rightfully dismisses later translations using “homosexual” as completely unsubstantiated, particularly given the ambiguity around the meaning of the greek words.

 

But he loses me in his disposition of the Leviticus injunction against “lying with mankind as with womankind’. Vines makes the standard Christian argument when dismissing the most odious of the Old Testaments moral precepts: this does not apply to the new covenant and is therefore inapplicable to Christians. This argument not only ignores the inconsistent statements regarding the continued applicability of OT laws, but also has the unintended consequence of maintaining the death penalty for gay Jews. And, Vines of course never addresses the morality of a god who would make gay sex a death penalty offense under ANY ‘covenants’ or circumstances.

 
The handling of the odd-even-by-biblical standards section of Romans also falls flat. Vines points out that the verses are rendered in a way to describe idolatrous believers being given over to desires, including same-sex behavior. He then inconsistently argues that this verse describes behavior that was against a “naturally heterosexual’ person’s normal orientation while at the same time asserting (correctly) that the ancients had no concept of sexual orientation. He also puts forth a rather binary viewpoint of sexuality as either heterosexual or homosexual. Does he agree that a primarily heterosexual person who has homosexual activity deserves to be condemned or criticized for that as a matter of course? Again the defensibility of condemning the sexual behavior even under those circumstances isn’t questioned.

 
More generally, throughout the talk Vines makes the common and cloying distinction between “loving, committed same sex relationships” and the type of licentious sexual relationships which he believes the relevant verses condemn. This implies that the writers would have made a similar distinction, which is an unsubstantiated assumption.

 
And as a secularist, my overall critique is against the impulse to reconcile homosexuality to a barbaric book of mythology. Of course my viewpoint is “who gives a damn what the bible says one way or another?” I also think the approach of changing minds about the morality of homosexuality by offering alternative biblical explanations gets the process backwards. As much as some claim that their morality comes from the bible, what seems to be the case to me is that changes in moral viewpoints of believers result more from cultural, political, and temporal factors and the degree to which relationships and identities are modeled in works of popular culture. The position is then “retrofitted” in a new look or take on scripture, so that the illusion that moral judgments come from the bible can be maintained.

 

But as a secularist interested in social justice issues, including the experiences of LGBT Christians, I have sympathy towards those working no matter how incrementally to push for progressive change within religious communities. At the same time I still see pointing out the fallacy of using this ancient text as a moral guideline as the more sensible and defensible approach.

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  1. 1
    mynameischeese

    I can’t figure out why people look for new (or in this case, recycled) interpretations of religious texts in order to try and figure out what a religion is about. Religion is more than the texts. There are interpretations of texts, there are oral traditions, customs, etc. And there can be a variety of conflicting interpretations of all of these things.

    If we were going to ask, in honesty, “Is Christianity homophobic?” I think we’d have to find out what people do in practice and not in principle. And as there would always be some Christians who do one thing and others who do another thing, we’d have to figure out if there was a prevailing attitude about homosexuality in the religion or if identification with the religion correlated with homophobia.

    I feel a similar frustration to your own whenever “feminist” theologians try to tell me that whatever patriarchal relion isn’t really sexist based on whichever verse of whatever book. If a religion is part of a patriarchal culture, it’s a patriarchal religion. It doesn’t matter if the original writer of the tract was woman-friendly (usually this isn’t the case anyway as it’s mostly wishful thinking on the part of the theologian). All cultures evolve. Even if a religion was formed as completely woman-friendly in a woman-friendly place/time, if it has now evolved to bolster patriarchy, it’s no longer feminist to support it.

    1. 1.1
      alkaloid

      @mynameischeese, #1

      Perhaps part of the reason is the fear of social ostracism for just abandoning the whole institution/religion. In my case that didn’t really deter me because once I reached the point where I was ready to leave Christianity, it was more or less clear to me that no matter what I did people were going to hate me either way so it was pointless to care about their opinions at all.

  2. 2
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    It is odd, on the whole, the way in which some Christians claim that the old covenant does not apply while using it and its attendant stories to prop up the new covenant and its stories. What, exactly, had changed on god’s end and why?

    Whatever, I’m always just a bit troubled when less privileged (or outright disenfranchised) persons cling to and apologize for religion or other systems which helped in defining their social status. It’s downright creepy when what some such people actively perceive as their religion is currently and directly doing this to them. (I do suppose the psychology of abuse and that of authoritarianism would be factors to be considered in that case, though.)

    I do hope Vine’s message can reach people who are religiously committed but capable of being swayed from homophobia.

  3. 3
    jamessweet

    Tellingly, I had a very similar reaction to the (very similar) apologetics in For the Bible Tells Me So: I found the reinterpretation of Sodom and Gommorrah compelling, but Leviticus and Romans… not so much.

    Still, if this stuff means the difference between someone being accepted by their family and peers vs. being shunned, I guess I’m all for it. I guess…

  4. 4
    Ray Moscow

    Good post.

    The Bible’s condemnation of gays, and the easy recourse of religious homophobes to biblical passages that (not just seemingly) condemn gays, are partly why I gave up on Christianity and the Bible. If the Bible can so easily be used to bash gays (and women), just how good could the ‘good book’ be?

    The ‘not believing in god anymore’ thing had something to do with me leaving, too.

  5. 5
    A 'Nym Too

    I tried being a gay Christian, saying “We’re not all bad!”.

    Yeah, lasted about six months. Six months of being more religious, six months of mental torture and guilt.

    After that I broke. It’s all patently false, purely to benefit the privileged as they climb over the bleeding backs of the oppressed.

  6. 6
    Coragyps

    “a two-year leave of absence to research what the Bible has to say about homosexuality.”

    I would say he over-researched it by at least 103 weeks.

  7. 7
    derrickbillings

    even if we grant *all* the homophobic passages in the bible as written (and really, I don’t think they all do anyway) it still wouldn’t justify the level of disgust and vitriol that right wing christianity indulges in. It’s a mountain out of a molehill and the bible has a lot more to say on many more subjects than that.

    1. 7.1
      usingreason

      The vitriol is mostly coming from middle-aged white males that have repressed a lot of their own feelings.

      1. F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

        And have failed to develop some other emotions. And other brain functions.

  8. 8
    Rabidtreeweasel

    I find it fascinating that Christians can look at the Bible and say something to the effect of, “That seems immoral. I’d better research it.” They then bend over backwards and rearrange things until their Good Book matches their moral standards. Without the Bible you can skip all that hand wringing and go straight to doing what you know is right!

    1. 8.1
      blackskeptics

      Well put! It’s all schizoid, Exorcist head turning, ad infinitum cherry picking for them anyway.

      1. fredericksparks

        Not to mention, even if you are able to explain away the homophobia..there is still the misogyny, genocide, slavery…

  9. 9
    Samantha Vimes, Chalkboard Monitor

    Actually, a lot of Judaism is gay-tolerant, and I’ve heard it explained like this:
    Verses are written according to what applies to the majority of the audience. For instance, the constant references to the right hand as the good hand– they aren’t meant to make left-handed people unacceptable, inferior, or have to learn to work right-handed. So when the verse talks about not lying with a man as with a woman it means, “Hey, heterosexuals. Don’t try ‘experimenting’ with what doesn’t come naturally to you, to try to be like the Greeks of whatever.” And just as a left-handed person should take actions with their left hand, a gay person should read about not lying with a man as with a woman and turn that around: “Lying with men is what is natural to me. Lying with women isn’t. So it is sinful, untrue to my nature, to try to fake being straight.” I guess the ambidextrous and bisexual people can keep their options open. :)

    Just so you know, Conservative and Reform Judaism tend to rule-lawyer their own books to make them fit the times just as much, or more than, Christians do.

    1. 9.1
      Steve

      That’s why I actually have some respect for those strains of Judaism, while I have zero respect for Christianity. You can tell there is a clear effort to make rules somewhat more practical and to care for the people instead of blindly following an ancient book at all costs.

  10. 10
    had3

    He said “reared.”

  11. 11
    Kevin DeVries

    What bugs me the most is that even if you reinterpret the Bible in favour of homosexuality (which I think is a stretch to begin with), this does nothing to address the issues of sexual and gender binaries (i.e. gay or straight, male or female, man or woman) and continues to marginalize people who identify as trans, genderqueer, bisexual, asexual, gender neutral etc. Not to mention that these apologetic gay Christians promote monogamy as the only viable option, also excluding people who identify as polyamorous, nonmonogamous, or those who just all around like to have sex with more than one person in their life. None of these things are wrong, and gay apologetics do nothing more than fight for breadcrumbs from the table of the privileged, when what we should be doing is overturning that table and sharing the food equally with everyone.

  1. 12
    The Bible Does Not Affirm Homosexual Sex or Homosexual Marriage « stasis online

    [...] EG13, EG14, EG15, EG16, EG17, EG18, EG19, EG20, EG21, EG22, EG23, EG24, EG25, EG26, EG27). Even one or two secularist have joined the critics, as has at least one guy who is same-sex attracted. One [...]

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