Two thumbs way down

May 16, 2012

I like arguing. One formative influence on my early life was watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Sneak Previews, their original PBS movie-review show (unspoiled by the intrusive commercial breaks of their later syndicated show). Like most people, I enjoyed when these two film critics, who worked for rival Chicago newspapers, disagreed about a movie. This happened frequently.

Although their burgeoning friendship took the edge off of their arguments long before Siskel died of cancer in the ’90s, in the late-’70s and early-’80s, it seemed as if they didn’t like or respect each other all that much. And their disagreements had heat and passion.

Passion… That’s what appealed to me most about Siskel and Ebert. When I was 11 or 12, they taught me that it’s O.K. to be passionate about something you care about—so much so that it’s worth having a knock-down, drag-out argument, if necessary. (And of course, although they didn’t always demonstrate this, you can argue in a respectful and loving way.)

I like arguing, but my arguing about what happened (or didn’t happen) two weeks ago at General Conference regarding “the gay issue” has officially worn me out. I am painfully aware that my stance in support of our Book of Discipline, about which—go figure—I feel passionate, puts me at odds with many of my outspoken clergy colleagues on Facebook, Twitter, and various Methodist blogs.

Last week, in the wake of General Conference, I discovered that I was made part of a secret, by-invitation-only Facebook group called (something like) “Vaguely Progressive United Methodists.” Sorry for the passive tense (“was made part of”), but I wasn’t aware that I did anything to join the group. Suddenly, I was a member, getting updates from Facebook friends who were posting.

I suppose the group’s purpose was to give theologically moderate-to-liberal Methodist clergy a safe place to vent their frustrations regarding General Conference. Since I wasn’t frustrated by General Conference, nor am I even vaguely “progressive” on the issue of homosexuality, I dropped out of the group.

The fact that I actually talk about the issue sometimes—openly, not hiding behind secretive online forums—also puts me at odds with colleagues in the famous “Methodist middle” who support the church’s position but would rather avoid the issue, hoping it will go away.

It won’t go away.

Yesterday, a friend who disagrees with me lent me a book called What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality by a Catholic priest named Daniel Helminiak. It’s not a scholarly book. (I knew I was in trouble when the book’s cover read, “Foreward by John S. Spong.”) There are no footnotes or endnotes. There is no way to check the author’s sources. So I read it as quickly as it deserved to be read. It takes issue with all the famous homosexuality-related passages in scripture—Sodom and Gomorrah, Leviticus, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7, and other passages.

The author’s point is that everything we think we know about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality is wrong. Indeed—here was a novel argument—Paul himself is not even opposed to homosexual behavior. I’m used to the argument that Paul’s understanding of homosexuality is culturally relative, and that we can apply his underlying message against idolatry without prohibiting lifelong, same-sex, monogamous relationships. If Paul could only have conceived of such a thing in his day, he wouldn’t be opposed.

I disagree with that point of view, as I’ve said before, but at least it attempts to deal with the Bible that we have, not the Bible we wish we had. Indeed, if Helminiak is correct, we have no idea what kind of Bible we have—because the Bible is so hopelessly obscure that none of us unschooled in the nuances of Hebrew and Greek can begin to decipher it! Words no longer mean what we think they mean—despite what a broad consensus of Bible scholars and translators have told us for 2,000 years.

Fine… We don’t know what Paul means by “unnatural” (Greek: para physin) in Romans 1:26. Why stop there? How do we really know what “love” means in John 3:16?

Plus, the Bible says all kinds of things that aren’t actually in the text. Did you know, for instance, that the Roman centurion’s young servant (literally “my boy”) in Matthew 8:5-13 wasn’t merely a servant or even a slave. He was most likely a sex slave, because of course these sorts of relationships were so common back then. Moreover, Jesus knew the soldier had a sex slave, yet he still commended the man for his faith without a word of judgment about the relationship. I promise you I’m not being unfair to the the author’s words. Take this paragraph:

It was common that Roman householders would use their slaves for sex. It was also common for soldiers far from home to have a male sexual companion with them. The centurion and the slave boy were probably sexual partners. In this particular case, as often happened, the centurion probably fell in love with the young man. The most likely explanation of the centurion’s behavior is that the young slave was the centurion’s lover.[†]

Even if this highly, highly speculative and fanciful theory were true, what exactly are we to take from the author’s words? That Jesus means to tell us that pederasty is O.K.? That sex with a slave could ever be construed as consensual or loving? That Jesus endorses not merely homosexual relationships but homosexual relationships between adults and children?

It boggles the mind…

Be that as it may, the author would have us believe that, left to our own devices, apart from a complete mastery of the historical-critical method, we are hopelessly lost before God’s Word.

What a convenient perspective for a Catholic priest, whose flock won’t have to actually read the Bible anyway! (Although it’s not clear what Pope Benedict’s problem is. Does he not know about the historical-critical method? Is he unfamiliar the original Hebrew and Greek? If only Father Helminiak could give him a lesson or two!)

I’ve spent enough time on this book. You get my point. And you sense my passion. Sorry… As I said, I like to argue.

Here’s what I want to know: Could people on the pro-gay side convince themselves that the Bible says anything on the subject of homosexuality that would change their mind? Even hypothetically?

I realize this is a two-edged sword. Am I open to a fresh, honest reading of scripture regarding homosexuality that could change my mind? I hope so, but the people on the pro-gay side will have to do better than this.

Daniel Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, Millennium Ed. (Tajique, NM: Alamo Square Press, 2000), 129.

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