Friday, December 12, 2008

The Newsweek Kerfluffle

I haven't commented yet on the recent cover-story Newsweek article that is causing so much stir among those who blog and write about religion. Over at Beliefnet, Tony Jones provides a good rundown of the varied responses. The Newsweek article by Lisa Miller signals a changing focus for Newsweek, as it moves intentionally to become more of a partisan opinion magazine. Hence, article is italicized since Miller's piece isn't really reporting; it's commentary.

This change is signaled by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham who essentially says in his defense of Miller: "bring it on." I guess time will tell whether this strategy will work for Newsweek. It certainly has lit up the blogosphere.

I was intrigued by the response of Darrell Bock to Meacham's piece. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Bock tells us in his blog post that he wants to tackle the substance of this comment by Meacham:
Briefly put, the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person's makeup as skin color. The analogy with race is apt, for Christians in particular long cited scriptural authority to justify and perpetuate slavery with the same certitude that some now use to point to certain passages in the Bible to condemn homosexuality and to deny the sacrament of marriage to homosexuals. This argument from Scripture is difficult to take seriously—though many, many people do—since the passages in question are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts. The Devil, as Shakespeare once noted, can cite Scripture for his purpose, and the texts have been ready sources for those seeking to promote anti-Semitism and limit the human rights of women, among other things that few people in the first decade of the 21st century would think reasonable.
Bock responds:
By lumping the issue of slavery, sexuality and gender into parallels with race and gender, not to mention hair cuts, he suggests that just reading the Bible at the surface is not good enough. This linkage is not new and evangelicals have noted the hermeneutical questions tied to it for some time. In 2001, William Webb wrote Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals with an eye directly on this supposed equation (and overgeneralization). He argued that these three issues are not handled nor are they to be read as being hermeneutically equivalent because of the manner each issue is handled within Scripture. Yes, some have handled them the same, but a careful reading shows that the grounding for slavery did not appeal to the same types of arguments as discussions did on the role of women and homosexuality. Even more, by far the strongest arguments and statements are made about homosexuality in comparison to the topics of either slavery or women.
I haven't read Webb's book so I can't comment on it. But to Bock's statement that the strongest arguments and statements are made about homosexuality, I would simply respond that this may be true and they may still be wrong. Shouting louder or holding the strongest convictions does not make one right. It remains the case the Biblical writers did not know what we know about sexual orientation. "Exchanging natural relations for unnatural" implies a choice. Homosexual orientation is not a choice.

It is worth noting that Bock does not directly address his views on the issue of sexual orientation here. In fact, it appears that Bock doesn't want to go down this road at all. He seems to say that sexual orientation as we understand it is not even addressed in the Bible:
I am not sure if Meacham’s starting point reflects a Judeo-Christian religious case beginning point or a modern starting point. Where is the case that from a Judeo-Christian perspective sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person’s makeup? Where is the religious text that says this?
The Bible, Bock says, addresses the issue of sexuality in terms of its functional role in a divinely ordered society where male and female are created in order to make a family. The biblical writers are concerned with survival of the species. What is the best environment for raising children?
The desire to pursue a virtuous society, which I think is a goal all good people should have, should not play favorites in dealing with questions where virtue may be distorted or lacking. And that is precisely the debate that needs to take place in our treatment of this issue. We should be concerned not merely with what makes for freedom, but what societal structures make for a more healthy society, and for a beneficial environment for our children.

Is the starting point for this discussion one that simply says that sexual orientation is a given for all who welcome this route for sexual orientation, or is this discussion far more complex, with this appeal being too facile. Why not suggest another starting point? That the divinely created world is filled with the intended diversity of male and female, which in combination makes up humanity in the image of God. So this cooperation is part of what God intended by marriage, since the core marriage text of Scripture does speak of a man and a woman being brought together. Surely if God exists and speaks (something that is a given within the Judeo-Christian tradition), he could have made it more clear that gender does not matter when it comes to marriage—and there is no such text anywhere...
Regarding the goal of creating a healthy society for adults and children I couldn't agree more. That is what we all want. So, show me the evidence that gay marriage is unhealthy for society or that raising children in homes where there are two fathers or two mothers harms the children. David Brooks has made this argument more than once. If the goal is to provide a healthy social fabric for adults and for children, then we should be embracing, in fact, insisting on gay marriage.

Regarding Bock's comment that surely God "could have been more clear" if gender didn't matter in marriage, the obvious response would seem to be that surely God could also have been more clear if God didn't think slavery was such a hot idea. Why did it take Christians nearly two thousand years to figure out that slavery and racial discrimination is not part of God's intent for the way we treat one another? Was God unsure? Were we still in an experimental phase when the Bible was written? Was God playing favorites then? No slavery for the Israelites but it wasn't such a big deal in the rest of society? Surely God could have been more clear about this rather important human issue if slavery is the great moral evil we all know it to be today.

Bock makes it clear, like many evangelicals, that he doesn't appreciate the link liberals often make between biblical writings on slavery and on homosexuality. So, why is it that liberal Christians like me always want to link the slavery issue with homosexuality when we talk about Bible texts? Because everyone agrees today that slavery is immoral. There is no debate. But there is also no debating the fact that the Bible isn't very good on the issue of slavery. There is no blanket condemnation of slavery; in one form or another it was part of the fabric of life in the ancient world. And slavery is one issue where the New Testament doesn't correct the Old Testament. Jesus doesn't speak to it and Paul accepts it as a continuing reality in Roman society.

The Bible writers, including Paul, were wrong on the issue of slavery. It is perfectly clear to us today that slavery is not part of God's will for us. It is perfectly clear that on this great moral issue the Biblical writers were caught in their historical context. To understand the Bible on the issue of slavery you have to read it in its historical context. You can say that God's intent was clear. In fact it was signaled very early in the story of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. "Let my people go." But the biblical writers were never able to clearly see and say that when God said this God meant all of God's people.

So learning to read the Bible on slavery is a non-threatening (for us) object lesson on the skills we need to bring to bear when we engage in biblical interpretation. But once you go down this road with a moral issue like slavery, you realize that you also need to go down the same road with moral issues like homosexuality and the status of women in church and society. If the biblical writers could be wrong about slavery, and it took Christians so long to figure it out, could they also have been wrong about homosexuality? About women? The answer is yes.


Drew Tatusko said...

I read the bible in a three stage synthesis: what does it say, why was it written, is it good to live it today.

Those who follow Bock's line of reasoning are founding everything on an assumption of natural law (here he calls it "cooperation"). In so doing, they skip over the second part of why these texts were written. the point is that we have to make choices about how we live what Scripture says. We all do. That is the essence of faith - that we made the best choice.

The pairing of natural law comes with the notion that men having sex is gross. The more I read, discuss, etc. with people who have the view that I was held with fervor, the more this seems to be the simplest explanation for it. It's never, that's what the bible says. It's how I choose to read the bible and live what is in it that counts. That decision making process is not in the bible, but bound with your own cultural assumptions. The fine point: rejecting or accepting people who prefer the same gender is a social issue, not a religious one. It is as much as the fact that neither my wife nor myself is the head of the household. We function as a team because we know that our mutual nurture is what will make a better family. That would be the same case if she happened to be a man. Cooperation is not bound to gender, it's bound to nurture. That's what Bock and others just shut themselves down to.

liberal pastor said...

So are you equating natural law with whatever cultural assumptions the reader brings to the bible? I must confess that I get a bit confused with all the language of natural law bandied about around this issue. Are we talking about what everyone "ought to understand" as natural and right - and hence homosexuality is wrong because it is icky and unnatural, or are we talking about some more philosophical conception grounded in Aquinas or Locke or someone or something else?