Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Pastor, What Do You Do About ..."

A few times now, gay or lesbian couples have come to my office to ask me what I do about those troublesome verses in the Bible that appear to condemn homosexuality. Not surprisingly, they often come from a variety of evangelical and/or fundamentalist traditions, and they are seeking assurances that what I am telling them is Biblical. Or maybe not. Maybe they just want to know that I've actually thought about it some.

In general, I'm not a big fan of "giving answers" to people. We here in the congregation I serve really are about the journey together and about wrestling with this stuff, not being spoon-fed answers. But, as it happens, I do have some thoughts about those troublesome verses. And here is what I've told the folks who come to my office:

1. All of us Christians are selective literalists. We are literalists in that we all have passages that we believe to be "literally and for-all-time true," and we are selective in that we prioritize certain passages over others. I am yet to meet a Christian who takes the whole of the Bible fully literally and lives faithfully by the commandments contained therein. Slavery? Stoning of children for disobedience? Levirate marriage? Didn't think so. Even the most fundamentalist Christians I have known talk about "cultural" laws that may have been for certain times (but not now), and "moral" laws that stand for all time. It's funny, however, that the commandments they consider "moral" are usually the ones that don't affect their lives in significant ways, while the "cultural" commandments might require some real sacrifice on their part. But I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Right?

The point is, all of us Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible we read literally. Some Christians pick out the nine or so verses that "deal" with "homosexuality" and make them the center of the Gospel message. (Curious, that, as Jesus never spoke of homosexuality, but I digress.) Some Christians pick out the hundreds-to-thousands of verses that speak to caring for the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the otherwise marginalized, and make them the center of the Gospel message. Some Christians pick out the hundreds or so verses that speak to creation care, and make them the center of the Gospel message. And so on.

I myself believe that when Jesus said, "Feed the hungry, visit the sick and those in prison, give clothing to the naked" and the like, that he literally meant for us to do those things. But hey, that's just me.

Maybe you noticed: this methodology I'm proposing does assume that we prioritize the message that we think is "literally" true. Is this a nod to the fundamentalists? Is it an acceptance of literal truth as having the highest priority for our faith? Hardly. It's an acknowledgment that for many of the people who come through the doors of the church I serve, literal truth is still very important to them. My job is about meeting people where they are, opening the door to some understandings and experiences of God that may be new for them, and helping them grow in faith. So if people start with the literalist interpretation of the Bible, that's where I start, too. But I don't stay there. There's a whole world of allegory, metaphor, parable/story, and loads of other ways to interpret the Bible that faithful people may utilize.

2. Now, that doesn't really answer the question. Those verses are still there. There may be only a few of them, but they are there. So what to do about them? I can exegete many of them away - the sin of Sodom, according to Ezekiel, was not the man-on-man action desired by the men of Sodom, but rather that "she and her sisters has pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (That's Ezekiel 16: 49 for all you sword-drill types.) By the Bible's own wording, it was Sodom's lack of care and hospitality that led to their downfall, not the fact that the men of the town wanted to rape the visitors to Lot's house (though I don't imagine God was overly pleased about rape, either....) That 2 Kings passage is about temple prostitution. And so forth. I sometimes also mention that in Biblical times, there weren't a lot of faithful examples of lifelong, committed same-sex couples (though you may want to read about Jonathan and David's relationship - even if it was not "sexual," it was surely far more intimate than any relationship David had with a woman), so the writers of the Bible had little to go on.

I myself have known many committed same-sex couples in whom the Holy Spirit was clearly at work. The fruits of the Spirit were alive in their relationship, their love radiated outward to others, and clearly they knew they were children of God. How can we deny that kind of evidence? We can't.

3. At our church, we take the Bible seriously but not always literally. I don't actually spend a lot of time on Biblical self-defense, mostly because it's simply not in my makeup. I grew up in the UCC, and while I hold the Bible in very high regard, I have always felt free to wrestle and argue with it. If the Bible can't withstand my questions.....well, it's not much of a holy text, then, is it? Furthermore, I don't feel the need to come up with "the right answer" to respond to a troublesome text, because there isn't a single right answer to counter troublesome texts. Sometimes they are just plain troublesome. It's a mark of faith to admit that.

I don't mean that I just throw out the stuff I disagree with. We must wrestle with challenging texts - that is how we grow and mature in our faith. And if, after a night of hard wrestling, we are unable to continue because of a hip joint that's come out of place.....well, there is blessing in that, too. We can be troubled by the texts of the Bible. It is good that they trouble us.

What I worry about is that we let the wrong passages trouble us. We should be more troubled by our casual acceptance of war and poverty in this nation than we are same-sex marriage. We should be more troubled that we are facing the judgment in Matthew 25 for not clothing the naking, feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, and caring for the sick and those in prison. Why don't such passages trouble us more?

4. The Bible should be thought of as a library of books, whose authors do NOT speak univocally regarding God's nature or activity in the world.  For a good example of this, just go read Job, then read Proverbs.  Do they sound like they agree with one another?  

5.  I usually conclude by mentioning that, oh by the way, I'm a Christian Universalist.  Meaning I believe that Jesus lived, died and rose for the salvation of all of humanity, and that in the fullness of time, all of humanity will be fully reconciled to God.  Look, either what Jesus did worked or it didn't.  If it worked, it worked for all of us.  And if it didn't work for all of us ... well, maybe we should reconsider calling Jesus the "Savior of the World."  And, fair warning: if you try to convince me that humanity's stubbornness can overcome or ultimately thwart the will of God, well, I will just point out that your God seems pretty weak, small and puny compared to the One who will persistently seek us - in all the ways God can imagine to reach us - and, in the end, redeem even the worst that we can do to each other.

And all God's people said "Amen!"


JCHFleetguy said...

I just find the word "literal" to be a pretty nonsensical word.

Assuming we trust the text (which I do), what does calling someone a literalist actually mean? Now, if they think that the love of Soloman's life had two baby deer glued to her chest - then I could get worried.

Frankly though, we all read pretty much any book the first time through at face value - the words are the words. Then, we try to understand what it says. Now, if what it says is that a woman had two baby deer glued to her chest - we have to figure out what it really means.

It really isn't that tough sorting through the parts of the Bible that are written as, and read as, reportage - as opposed to the poetry, allusion, etc. Probably the only book where this is difficult is Revelations. John says it is prophecy, but it reads as a dream sequence. While we are told to get some future events out of it, it is drenched in language which almost guarantees we will not recognize the events prophesied until they actually occur - and then maybe not.

So, typically when folks talk about taking the Bible "literally" they seem to really be referring to whether they need to pay attention to it - it is more the " . . . for-all-time-true" in

"literally and for-all-time true,"

they are worried about - not whether the passage is hard to understand on a literal level.

The freedom from the law that Paul espoused for Christians guided by God Himself rather than a set of rules makes Old Testament relatively irrelevant anyway. Which is, of course, why neither Christ nor Paul placed their understanding of marriage, divorce, or homosexuality in Mosaic Law - yep, not in Leviticus. They both referred to the original pre-fall created order - long before there were any laws - Mosaic or not. Which means, since the pre-fall created order was cracked and warped by the Fall, we do not live there - it is just what God wishes to restore.

Human beings tend to look at rules and laws as a guide not to what is moral and right, but as a guide to how much they can get away with - how far they can go before they "get in trouble". Typically, that is how Christians largely approach the Bible: can I find a reason this "rule" doesn't apply to me? If not, how far can I push it? Christ made it clear that this approach to God and His Created Order didn't cut it. God is not looking for half-hearted obedience - He is looking for wholehearted (mind, soul, strength) love of our Creator that leads us to desire what He desires. Not our will but His.

Our approach to "laws" is of course why Jesus came - to free us from the law and make us slaves to the Spirit of God. Literally.

Hannah said...

I've been saving this in Google Reader so I could read it when I had some time. Thank you for such a well thought out statement. I am sharing it with others because this really does sum up what I believe and find difficult to say clearly.

In my state a petition just went around for an initiative to take away domestic partnership rights that were just put in place by the legislature(it will be on the ballot this Fall). I wish I had been able to say some of the things in this post to the people behind the petition and those gathering signatures. My husband would let me talk to them because he was afaid I would kick their a$$es ;)