Thursday, February 07, 2013

sojourn part 3

Sadly I have to say that figuring out what I believed about gays wasn't a pressing issue for me after college.  I was getting married and I had my first "real" job and (as far as I know) no one I was hanging out with during my post-college years was gay.  There was no burning need for me to figure out how to resolve the conflict between my experience (gay people are just fine as they are) and what the religion of my youth said (homosexuality is a sin). 

But that disconnect was part of my growing overall discomfort with Evangelicalism--which grew out of a number of issues besides those posed by the Bible's teachings on homosexuality.  I could branch off here into a long discussion of why I left Evangelicalism, but I've already done that in previous posts, so I'll try to stay on topic.  But it's impossible to describe how I resolved the LGBT issue in my own mind without touching on the larger issue of how to interpret scripture.

The first thing that happened was that I started attending an Episcopal church.  It was the first time in my life that I met Christians who were at least as dedicated to their faith as I was (in some cases, far more dedicated), and yet they didn't read the Bible as if every single word was God's message directly to their individual lives.  They read the Bible as a historical document, the founding document of their faith, but not one that applied to them in the same way that it applied to the people to whom it was written. They took it very seriously, but they didn't have a problem with re-interpreting it in light of their own experience and our present day situation.

This was profoundly, jaw-droppingly, utterly astonishing to me.  It was like living under an anvil, and suddenly having someone lift it off.  I was raised to believe that the Bible was the inerrant, universally applicable Word of God.  Every word of it, I had been taught, applied to me just as if it had been written expressly for me.  Somewhere around 1984 I heard a preacher at a Bible church give a sermon on what it means to be an Evangelical, and the first item on his list was believing that the Bible was completely, unalterably, capital-T True.

Evangelicals don't want to budge on this issue for the same reason conservatives don't want to budge on any issue.  If you start to compromise, the reasoning goes, you're starting the downhill slide.  Before you know it, disaster will occur--and the biblical proportions of disaster (Armageddon, anyone?) can get pretty harrowing.  A highly educated, highly intelligent Christian woman whom I dearly love told me once, "If you start to question that creation happened in seven days, you can question anything.  Who knows where you'll end up."  Which is a whole 'nother issue, obviously, but you get the idea.

In my experience of more than 25 years of having left that kind of thinking behind, they're panicking for no reason. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and a wide variety of other Christians may have changed their traditions to allow the ordination of women and members of the LGBT community, but their core beliefs are solid and their ministry to their community is vital.  Evangelicals see these changes as being wishy-washy, a sign of moral weakness.  I see it as a courageous willingness to take on the complexities of faith, to dive in and re-interpret scripture the way that every generation has re-interpreted scripture.

Jesus spent hours arguing with the Pharisees and Sadducees (Jewish religious leaders).  There was no New Testament then.  The Old Testament was the Bible.  The Pharisees could  quote scriptures to Jesus in the same way that fundamentalists quote scripture now.  The Torah says this, and now you are telling us that's not true? they would argue with Jesus.  Their faith was based on the words of the scriptures in the same way that mine was before I left Evangelicalism.  And Jesus didn't hesitate to dive in and disagree.  The scriptures may say an eye for an eye, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, but I say to you, if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to them as well. 

Of course, in Christian theology, Jesus is God, and He can interpret the Torah however he wants.  But I still think there's a point to be made here.  The Pharisees were often arguing directly from Jewish law.  When they argued with Jesus about the Sabbath, they were right.  Jewish law did say that Jesus's disciples were violating the Sabbath.  They could point to the verses in their sacred texts. But they were still wrong in a broader sense, in the sense of knowing how to apply their knowledge of God's love and God's purpose in the world.  Their blind devotion to ink on a page sometimes sounds awfully similar to an Evangelical saying "but the Bible says right here on this page that homosexuality is a sin" while stabbing their finger at a verse.

There are plenty of other ways to approach this issue of interpreting the Bible, and some of them I've written about before (try this post or this one).  Another approach is to closely study the actual words to see if they mean what we've interpreted them to mean (and/or translated them, as Julie pointed out in the comments yesterday).  For example- word studies have been done trying to prove that the word translated as "homosexuality" really means something different than committed, monogamous LGBT couples, and actually means male prostitution.

Or I could point out (going back to the second half of this post) that it's hypocritical to get up on a moral high horse about certain verses in the Bible, while other verses that you don't hear about so much get ignored or dismissed.  For example, hardly any men "lift holy hands" during worship as the writer of 1 Timothy instructs them to do, and plenty of women wear gold, pearls, and expensive clothes to church, which he tells them not to do (1 Timothy 2.8-10).  But the problem with that approach is that when those inconsistencies are pointed out, instead of seeing that "oh! you're right, we already ignore certain verses of scripture, so we maybe we can ignore the ones about homosexuality, too!" conservatives are more likely to start requiring all men to lift their hands in worship and women to strip off their jewelry as proof that they really do interpret scripture literally.

Or I could bring up historical studies that show that in a culture with high infant mortality rates, non-procreative sex was sinful for a different reason than what we think.  Since our problem today is more likely to be over-population, non-procreative sex is no longer a problem.  So we can see the bible's teaching on homosexuality in a cultural context that no longer applies.

Or I could say-- as Nell said when she previewed this post for me-- well, no matter what they believe about homosexuality, they don't have the right to force their religious beliefs on anyone else.  But for me, I don't want to mess with splitting hairs about interpretation and who meant what when.  It sounds defensive and desperate.  I'm OK with just saying: the Bible says homosexuality is a sin and I disagree.

After all these years, I still have a functional inner Evangelical who asks insidiously how I will feel about this "when I stand before God's throne on judgment day" (those old phrases still reel right off my tongue), and I think my response is, if I'm going to risk being wrong, I'm going to be wrong boldly for reasons of respect and compassion, rather than standing on some theoretical moral "Right" that is based on a rigid interpretation of words on a page.

So.  I think that's all I have to say about this, although of course we can discuss further in the comments if you'd like. Although I just remembered that I neglected to address the whole Roman Empire argument, which inevitably comes up when you hear this discussed among Evangelicals, even though what they're describing has virtually no correspondence to --for example-- a couple we know and love in Seattle who have been together longer than Dean and I have been. (This article probably refutes it better than I could anyway, if you're interested.) Whatever.  I'm done.


  1. VERY well-written, Barb. Your penultimate paragraph is where I end up. I'd rather be judged for being too compassionate than be judged for being too judgmental.
    Another blog I follow had an interesting discussion regarding things banned in Leviticus, of which homosexuality is one, that you might like to read: Unlike many, the comments are mostly well-written and thoughtful responses.

    1. thanks, Karen! that is a great post.

  2. OT – nominated you (along with 10 others) for The Versatile Blogger award. See my blog for details.

    I don't think there is an actual winner but it made for a fun blogpost.

    1. Thanks, Judy! Between you and Delia, most of the blogs I read are already nominated, so I don't have anybody to pass it on to, dang it. I will check it out, though. I took an internet vacation this weekend so I've got a bit of catching up to do this week. :-)

  3. Beauty! Just perfect.

    I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it, you do this so well!

  4. Enjoyed both posts. :-) I went to an Evangelical church in my latter teens, so it was all about the "love the sinner" thing. Like many other things I learned there, it never sat quite right with me, and when the church liberalized it was one of the beliefs I dumped. I started saying: What are the ideas in the Bible about which there is NO dispute, that you CANNOT misinterpret, and that are not ahistorical? I'm willing to follow those. Out goes teachings on the after life, other religions, women, gays, what to eat... you're pretty much left with "God is love."