Tuesday, May 30, 2006
The ministry I used to attend wasn't like most Exodus affiliates; the leaders never make any promises about orientation change, never knowingly use any of Paul Cameron's 'statistics,' never condemn those who choose to enter the 'gay lifestyle,' and stay out of the political arena entirely. But even so, many of them perpetuate (or leave unchallenged) many of the stereotypes that Christians continue to proclaim as 'truths': that Moberly's theory of the 'defensive detachment' explains the entire phenomenon of homosexuality (at least for those who weren't sexually abused); that same-sex attractions are curable for most; that gay relationships cannot and never do work; that any problems experienced by gay people are a direct byproduct of their homosexuality; and so on.
If approached individually, almost all of the leaders would acknowledge that the above statements were untrue (or at least overstated), but in group sessions and outside speaking opportunities, listeners are often given a very different impression. A teenager who worries that she doesn't want to end up as miserable as her lesbian teacher is left with the impression that all gay couples are miserable. Gay people who claim to have had a good relationship with their same-sex parent aren't necessarily portrayed as liars, but clearly they've forgotten or blocked out the event(s) that caused their defensive detachment. A movie or TV show with gay characters is only considered accurate to the extent that those characters are portrayed as being thoroughly dysfunctional and completely incapable of developing healthy relationships, no matter how three-dimensional their portrayal might otherwise be.
Knowing the individuals involved I recognize the tightrope they're trying to walk; burst too many bubbles and you'll quickly lose your evangelical audience, at which point you lose all future opportunities to insert a voice of moderation into a highly charged debate. (And, to be fair, I can think of one staff member who's willing to publicly acknowledge both sides of the story in any setting, if given the chance.)
At the same time, though, I have to wonder if reinforcing those stereotypes, even through silence, doesn't simply solidify their Christian audience's own sense of rightness (and self-righteousness) and make it that much more difficult in the long run to bring people to a place of being willing (and able) to engage in constructive dialogue.
And furthermore, what happens when a 'struggler' begins to discover that those stereotypes that the group has been reinforcing are in fact untrue? Perhaps he'll take a step back and agree that he was better off being left in the dark until he discovered the truth for himself, or perhaps disillusionment will set in and drive him away from the church entirely. Or maybe he'll just conclude that both sides in the culture war are equally full of crap and say as much where all the world can read it.
There may not be any perfect solution, given the heavy "all gays are evil" indoctrination that takes place in most conservative churches, but it still seems like a rather large gamble to make when human lives are on the line. And given the ministry's stated commitment to proclaiming truth, it gives the appearance of inconsistency.
Of course, if I had all the answers I'd most likely be a very wealthy man.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Doubt is also one of those things that I hate admitting to, since it potentially creates an opportunity for anyone who may view me as an adversary to leap in for the kill, like a lion on a wounded gazelle. And yet to deny that I experience doubt is to be dishonest and no better than anyone else who claims to have all the answers to everything.
About the only thing I feel pretty confident about is the existence of the God I claim to have a relationship with (though I do sometimes question my lack of questioning on that particular point). Everything else, from the nature of said God to my perceptions of Him to the reliability of the Bible to anything and everything the church has ever said, is subject to periodic reexamination.
And really, what need would we have for faith if absolute certainty were possible in this lifetime? The process of acknowledging those doubts and asking difficult questions (as often as needed) gives us the opportunity to make corrections to our beliefs when necessary, and to strengthen those convictions that deserve strengthening.
Some years ago in a Bible study, our group leader asked us how certain we were of God's existence. I answered 98% - and aside from the one relatively new Christian in the group, I was the only person there who didn't say 100%. Nobody made an issue of it at the time, but later on another group member approached me and asked why my confidence level was so low, as if being only 98% certain was tantamount to being agnostic. When did it become a bad thing for a Christian to admit to being fallible?
As counterintuitive as it may seem, I experience less anxiety and insecurity than I did back when I dutifully avoided rocking the boat and kept my questions to myself. There may be other factors that are more directly responsible for my current confidence level, but in any case admitting to doubt seems to be healthier than denying it.
And the questions never completely go away. What if life really is nothing more than a product of random chance? What if this whole journey that I find myself on is a trip in the wrong direction? What if God really will cast me into hell if my beliefs don't line up exactly with whichever denomination is lucky enough to have it all right? What if nobody really likes me and I'm just kidding myself when I claim to have friends?
Okay, that last one doesn't last long under even the most casual scrutiny, but even my sillier doubts can represent opportunities to press into God and ask (for the millionth time) what he thinks of them and what (if anything) I should be doing differently.
Not that I spend all (or even most) of my waking hours second-guessing myself, of course; there is a time for stepping out in faith, even though one can never be 100% certain of the outcome. But there's also a time for reflection and for refusing to take anything for granted, no matter who told you what, how strongly they believe it or how many biblical proof texts they can line up behind it.
Exodus would tell us to "question homosexuality." I agree, but don't stop there. Question Exodus, too (whether they want you to or not). And then question everything else you've ever been told. God is not fragile; he can handle our scrutiny. Any deity who can't tolerate the questions of his/her/its/their followers isn't worthy of devotion.
Monday, May 22, 2006
And this time Cameron's managed to obtain a facade of respectability by getting his work printed in an otherwise respectable publication, the Journal of Biosocial Science. Unfortunately, while this apparent endorsement provides Christian ideologues with a veneer of credibility, it doesn't change the fact that Cameron's methodology is as shoddy as ever.
Jim Burroway has already done a detailed analysis of Cameron's latest claims over at the Box Turtle Bulletin, so I'll just add an encouragement to those who parrot Cameron's 'facts' to take a closer look at the lies they've been fed.
In this case, Cameron's 'research' consisted of taking three books on children with gay parents that he found at Amazon.com and treating them like scientific studies, even though two of the three authors have no scientific credentials and none of the three claim to have gathered a sample that could be considered representative of the population as a whole.
It's true that there hasn't been a lot of professional research done on this particular topic, but that only underscores how reprehensible it is for Cameron to claim that he can draw any meaningful conclusions by reading a handful of books written from a human interest angle.
For those interested in doing their own fact checking, here are the three books that Cameron based his conclusions upon:
Families Like Mine : Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is, by Abigail Garner
Out of the Ordinary : Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Parents, edited by Noelle Howey and Ellen Samuels
Sons Talk About Their Gay Fathers: Life Curves, by Andrew R. Gottlieb
In short, Cameron has once again produced a 'study' that nothing meaningful can be gleaned from. Even so, its conclusions are already being trumpeted by conservative commentators who treat it as though it were fact. Interesting, isn't it, that the same people who believe the Seventh Commandment should be broadened in scope as widely as possible would be so willing to play fast and loose with the Ninth Commandment.
Monday, May 15, 2006
McLaren's focus in this book is on the meaning of a phrase that Jesus used repeatedly in his teachings: the Kingdom of God. The church, influenced by Greek philosophy, has traditionally spiritualized its meaning, but McLaren makes a strong case that Jesus' audience would have understood that the kingdom Jesus was describing was in the here and now (though still not a literal, political kingdom), and that his plan of redemption encompassed all of creation and not just preparations for the afterlife.
The idea that our primary purpose as Christians is to make the world around us a better place (and to invite others to do the same), as opposed to selling "fire insurance" or declaring war on those who disagree with our "family values," is a compelling and energizing one. It's also a very convicting message, since it reminds me of how little I actually do to improve the lives of those I come in contact with.
I may come back and revisit those thoughts at some point in the future, but right now I want to leave space for one of my favorite quotes from the book:
This is the scandal of the message of Jesus. The kingdom of God does fail. It is weak. It is crushed. When its message of love, peace, justice, and truth meets the principalities and powers of government and religion armed with spears and swords and crosses, they unleash their hate, force, manipulation, and propaganda. Like those defenseless students standing before tanks and machine guns in Tiananmen Square, the resistance movement known as the kingdom of God is crushed.
But what is the alternative? We really must consider this question. Could the kingdom of God come with bigger weapons, sharper swords, more clever political organizing? Could the kingdom of God be a matter of what is often called redemptive violence? Or would that methodology corrupt the kingdom of God so it would stop being "of God" at all and instead become just another earthly (and perhaps in some sense demonic) principality or power? Perhaps the kingdom could come with flawless, relentless, irresistible logic - a juggernaut of steamroller counterarguments to flatten every objection. Or would that mental conquest be as dominating as military conquest, reducing the kingdom of God to a kingdom of coercive stridency?
What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form - as a kingdom "not of this world" - is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms - so they, having been exposed, can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom? What if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?
Yes, what if?
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
The Law itself can be divided into two categories: the ritual law and the purity law. The ritual law is concerned primarily with sacrifices and the duties of the priests and Levites, and as such is clearly inapplicable to Christians. The purity law, which addresses all of the different ways the Jews were to conduct themselves so as to remain distinct from the pagan nations that surrounded them, is a bit trickier. On the one hand it contains all of the dietary laws, which the apostles specifically declared were non-binding to Gentile believers, but it also includes many commands that we would agree with today (don't defraud your neighbor, don't sleep with your mom, don't sacrifice your children to Molech, etc.).
As a result of this apparent dichotomy, conservative theologians created a third category: the moral law. While their rationale for doing so doesn't come completely out of thin air, their reasoning seemed somewhat arbitrary to me even in my days as a "don't rock the boat" student at a Christian college. Unlike the ritual law and the purity law, the moral law can only be discerned from the context of the Pentateuch if one limits it to the Ten Commandments.
And even the Ten Commandments aren't held to strictly, since many Christians believe that the New Testament releases them from all but the most figurative implications of the Fourth Commandment (keep the Sabbath). While the meaning of the word "adultery" in the Seventh Commandment is widened far beyond its usual meaning of dealing specifically with cheating on one's current wife, numerous exceptions are imagined for the Sixth Commandment (do not kill) and the Fourth Commandment is reduced to a purely spiritual and/or allegorical meaning.
Aside from the Nine and a Half Commandments, the "moral law" is largely the result of cherry picking those commands that still seem like good ones to follow, even when they're surrounded by other commands that we no longer pay any attention to. Some would contend that being quoted in the New Testament is sufficient grounds for being included in the moral law, possibly making some allowance for the context of how or why it's actually quoted, but that still leaves us with a pretty patchy list of verses and not all of the ones theologians like to include. So in short, the moral law is whatever a particular theologian says it is.
Not that this has stopped theologians from trying to create a more solid-sounding basis for defining what constitutes the "moral law." Professor James DeYoung, in his otherwise impenetrable book on the subject of homosexuality, makes the following rather breathtaking claim:
"Leviticus 18 and 20 condemn homosexuality, whether consensual or as rape. The contexts of chapters 18-20 are universal and transtemporal in nature. They apply to all peoples and for all times. If the exhortation to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is universally true, so is the prohibition of homosexuality." (page 61)
Few conservatives would argue with his first sentence, of course, but the remainder of his assertion is nothing short of jaw-dropping given what it places into the category of universal moral law (19:19-28):
-Don't plant two types of seed in the same field
-Don't wear clothing made from mixed fabrics
-Sleeping with a betrothed slave girl is less severe than other forms of adultery and only requires a sacrifice
-Don't harvest fruit from a new tree for the first three years; all fruit from the fourth year is to be given as a sacrifice
-Don't eat meat with blood in it
-Don't trim your beard or sideburns
-Never get a tattoo
While most of the other commands in Lev. 19 can arguably be said to be universal in scope, there's nothing in the context of the chapter to adequately separate the above commands from the others (which surround and intermix with them), and DeYoung doesn't even seem to notice that these are there. That a published Bible scholar with a Ph.D. and a teaching position at a seminary could make such an assertion doesn't do much for my faith in conservative Christian scholarship.
I suppose one could place parentheses around verses 19-28 and try to argue that it's an irrelevant tangent in the middle of the moral law (though doing so would require discarding a command against divination), but that only strengthens the case for considering chapters 18 and 20 separately from 19, given that chapters 18 and 20 both begin and end with commands not to emulate the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites, and that nearly all of the activities listed in those chapters are known to have occurred within the religious practices of those two cultures.
Without getting too far into the debate over exactly what Leviticus 18:22 prohibits (though that is a very interesting study), there simply isn't a solid textual case to be made for removing chapters 18 and 20 from the purity law and relabeling them as moral law. The best conservatives can argue in their defense is to assert that to fail to place those chapters within the moral law is to condone incest and bestiality, since those prohibitions are also found there (though, interestingly, nobody seems too concerned about the prohibition against sleeping with a woman during her period, even though it falls right in the middle of the chapter). On the other hand, if it's really that difficult to come up with strong reasons for opposing incest and bestiality apart from those verses, we've got bigger issues than how to categorize our ancient texts.
In the final analysis all of this picking and choosing seems, to me, to be no less disrespectful of the Old Testament than saying that it's completely inapplicable to modern life. Would the Jews that these books were written for have recognized this distinction? Hardly; whether or not they would have objected to the use of "ritual law" and "purity law" as descriptive labels, to them every last word, syllable and letter of the Law was part of the "moral" law, whether one was a Jew or a Gentile. So are we, or are we not, as Christians, still under the Law?
Friday, May 05, 2006
In nearly every case there was something problematic that gave Christians genuine cause for concern, but like a bull distracted by the matador's red cape, most believers inevitably lost their focus on those elements that first drew their attention as they launched a crusade against the larger institutions with no regard for their praiseworthy elements.
The crusade against rock music, which some staunch fundamentalists have yet to abandon, makes for an interesting case in point. Why did conservative Christians so vehemently denounce rock music? There are several major reasons:
-Its rhythms were similar to those found in African tribal music, much of which is used in pagan rituals.
-The "rock and roll lifestyle" was popularly associated with drug use, sexual promiscuity and a generally rebellious mindset.
-It just plain sounded icky to older listeners, not at all like the "godly" hymns that they had grown up with.
Sound similar to the reasons Christians object to the 'gay lifestyle'? Some Bible teachers like Bill Gothard even found verses that they could pull out of context to use as "proof" that rock music was inherently satanic. They also tied their argument into nature and the allegedly detrimental effects of rock music’s "unnatural" rhythms (bolstered by such urban legends as the houseplants that died from heavy exposure to rock & roll).
Granted, this is where our parallel weakens, since Christian tradition has generally condemned homosexual behavior since the days of the early church, whereas rock music has only been around for the last half a century. On the other hand the concept of a homosexual orientation has only been around for a little over a century, and the idea of monogamous same-sex couples building family units is extremely recent.
It's easy to understand how most Christians could assume without further thought that these contemporary situations are morally identical to the ones denounced in the Bible and in church tradition. Why spend time thinking about something that you find personally distasteful, when you have an apparent precedent for denouncing it as immoral? Unfortunately, even if conservatives ultimately prove to be right about what God does and does not approve of, the crusader mentality that they've carried into the debate over gay rights has proven to be every bit as counterproductive as it has been every other time it's been employed.
The Christians who have had the most impact on the rock and roll subculture are those who have entered it, identified its praiseworthy elements and employed them in the work of the church. By viewing the gay subculture - and gays themselves - as nothing more than an evil to be eradicated at any cost, the church has abandoned its role as a transformer of culture and cut itself off from whatever God might have wanted to do to transform the gay community from within.
God's plans will still be accomplished, of course; it's just a question of whether the church chooses to work with him or against him.
Monday, May 01, 2006
On the one hand it’s good to hear that the riders were welcomed and treated with kindness at this and several other schools. On the other hand I can’t shake the feeling that it was all a little bit... calculated. Students are being taught how to better engage with those that they disagree with, and that’s a good thing, but they’re also being "inoculated" by speakers who limit their instruction to a single perspective and tell them that anyone who disagrees in any way with every last bullet point is a tool of the devil who has nothing of significance to offer except error and eternal damnation.
Dialogue, then, has nothing to do with respecting or learning from others and everything to do with putting up a friendly facade for the sake of softening them up for the kill (as it were). I'd like to think that I'm being overly cynical with that description, but my experiences within evangelical circles suggest that it's all too close to the truth.
If we seriously believe that showing love to others is one of our highest duties as Christians, shouldn't kindness and mercy be ends in and of themselves rather than tools in the employ of some agenda, however noble we may think it? When gay individuals try to become active participants in their community and demonstrate that they're normal, productive human beings, it's nothing more than a devious ploy to advance the sinister "gay agenda." But when Christians do the same with the specific goal of converting and assimilating more people into the American evangelical subculture, how dare anyone be less than enamored by their thoroughly selfless efforts?
I'm hopeful that the next generation of Christian leaders will see through that double standard and rediscover the fact that the task of conversion has been given to the Holy Spirit. No amount of persuasion, manipulation or force on our part can accomplish that task. There's a time and a place for sharing the hope that lies within us, but neither the time nor the place is up to us. Our job is to love wholeheartedly, with no strings attached.