Reading Conor Friedersdorf’s piece from The Atlantic’s website a couple of days ago, I was reminded of a publishing dream I have. Here’s the idea: I would like to write a book for a mainstream press that tries to explain to a skeptical audience what it’s like to hold a traditional Christian sexual ethic. An insider’s report, so to speak, for traditional religion’s puzzled and interested observers. A longer version of the kind of thing Friedersdorf says Christians need to be doing.
What this book would not be is an apologetic. It wouldn’t necessarily try to persuade anyone to embrace that ethic for themselves. I mean, since I believe such an ethic is based on truth, I wouldn’t object if anyone wants to sign up! But getting people to do so just wouldn’t be the main aim of this particular project. The book wouldn’t be an evangelistic tract; it would be, I suppose, “pre-evangelistic.” In terms of posture, tone, and approach, I’d want it position it alongside Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, an honest address to those whom Schleiermacher called Christianity’s “cultured despisers.”
Recently, Wesley Hill posted some wonderful thoughts here about the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills. It is a captivating documentary about three Christians who either return or convert to Catholic Christianity, leaving behind active homosexual lifestyles. There are so many wonderful takeaways, many of which Wes highlights quite well. But I want to focus on one aspect of their stories that struck me as particularly powerful: sacrificial love.
It is no secret that the theological river where I happily find myself swimming believes in a traditional, Side B sexual ethic where all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. I have no qualms with the teaching. However, many times this strongly held belief can go too far, resulting in characterizations of gay people in monogamous relationships that are misinformed or worse (homophobic).
All the B Siders I talked to were eager to combat the widespread view of celibacy as necessarily leading to a life of unending loneliness and isolation. In fact, many of the discussions they have among themselves have moved past the question of whether and why to remain celibate and on to how one can do so and still live a fulfilling life. This more practical, positive focus is intended to address something they believe has long been lacking in the mostly negative messages that their faith communities have long presented to LGBTQ people.
I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!
With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.
Or consider the current debates regarding same-sex issues. The church is perceived as “losing” on that issue and a good number of leaders are exercised about it. I’m not making light of their concerns and I share much of it. But when well-meaning leaders fall prey to the subtle temptation to make state legislation granting same-sex marriage rights a report card on the church, strange things can happen. Like the pastor who ceases his ministry of regular exposition to do a series on homosexuality. The series isn’t so much an exposition of key texts or a sensitive approach to discipleship in this area, but a jeremiad against “the culture” and a desperate ringing of the church bell to alert everyone to the impending doom. Public policy figures prominently in the sermons and in after church discussions. The pastor gets exercised. The church gets politicized. People get ostracized–and not just those who may be addressing same-sex desires in the course of their Christian discipleship.
It’s a sad fact about the Internet that posts expressing criticism can easily go viral, while posts pointing out good thinking rarely get the same level of attention. Still, I want to do what I can to give credit where credit is due.
One year later, the commentary continues, with the most recent issue of Commonweal including responses to Bottum’s thesis from two high-profile Catholic journalists. Ross Douthat—a columnist for the New York Times—criticizes Bottum for going too far. Douthat argues that if Catholics “are to continue contending in the American public square,” then “there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be.” Jamie L. Manson, on the other hand, thinks that Bottum does not go far enough. She argues that gay couples should not only be allowed by the secular government to contract civil marriages, but that Catholic teaching should change to recognize “the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage.”
It probably goes without saying that the conversation on faith and sexual orientation is a hot topic at many Christian colleges these days. A growing number of students are talking about their own experiences as sexual minorities, and many people both gay and straight are asking questions about the doctrines they grew up with. Particularly in the evangelical world, I’ve seen some encouraging trends coming from the leadership of some of these colleges, but also some trends that cause me great concern. Campus leaders should not try to hide or suppress conversation about sexual ethics and sexual minorities, but instead should seek to help the campus think through these things openly.
At best, some Christian colleges facilitate conversations on sexual identity openly and show that, as one Calvin College staff member put it, “we love our students.” At worst, some colleges try to hide these conversations as much as possible, sometimes to the extent of practicing overt censorship. I will not name individual institutions, but I’m aware of at least two cases in which Christian colleges have exerted power to prevent students from accessing unofficial student publications that include stories of sexual minority students. In those cases, some of the students did advocate for changing Christian teaching, but a primary purpose of the publications was for students to tell their stories. I also know of at least one Christian college at which the administration has prevented the student newspaper from publishing articles about sexual minority students online. I know for a fact that several of those articles did not advocate such a change in teaching. Any of this censorship not only throws sexual minority students, faculty, and staff under the bus, but it actually pushes people away from the traditional sexual ethic.
My own beliefs about Biblical teaching on homosexual acts are relatively simple: the Jewish Law prohibited any sex between two men (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). Paul renewed that prohibition in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10) and taught that such acts are “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:27). The Church has always regarded homosexual acts as serious sins. Thus, for me, the primary questions are, “How do I obey this teaching?” or “How does this teaching harmonize with the importance of loving and being loved in the Gospel teaching more broadly?”
However, the range of possible controversies behind those relatively simple beliefs is vast. I wrote a little about this in my recent post on Pederasty and Arsenokoitai, and @ladenheart, a friend who knows the classics much better than I do, has written a thoughtful response. His post is rich, well worth reading, and raises too many questions for me to address here. I will make at least a partial response, however. Near the end of his post, he offers the following tentative conclusion:
My general sense – although I do admit, it is a work in progress – is that what the Judeo-Christian tradition is condemning when it speaks negatively of sexual acts between men are, demonstrable in most cases, acts that are based on exploitation, unequal status, or excess.
I agree with him that, if we really want to understand what the Apostle Paul and the subsequent Christian tradition were trying to say, we need to understand the cultural context that he was writing in. However, we also need to understand the mind with which he judged that world. My concern with @ladenheart’s post—and I raise this as a concern needing further discussion, not a conclusion—is that he focuses heavily on the historical details of ancient paganism, but then judges what he finds with largely 21st century eyes.
On April 13, Justin Lee and I did a joint presentation, Let’s Talk about [Homo]sexuality, at Seattle Pacific University. Like previous presentations at Pepperdine University and Gordon College, we shared a bit about our own stories, offered some practical tips for building bridges in the midst of disagreement. We also each presented a brief overview of our own beliefs about Christian sexual ethics, Justin arguing that Christians should bless same-sex marriage, and me arguing that they should not. Rachel Held Evans recently highlighted this as the “Best Dialogue” on sexual ethics.
As I was sitting at home on Monday night, I had every intention of watching some playoff hockey and then heading to bed. But a quick glance at my Twitter feed during a commercial break reminded me the ERLC Leadership Summit was happening, and that the panel on homosexuality was about to start. Intrigued, I decided to tune in. I kept my Twitter feed up to see what type of response this panel might receive from the broader internet community.
How can I describe what it was like to listen to the panel? As someone who comes from a conservative church background and counts many Southern Baptists as friends, I was both sympathetic and hopeful for the ERLC’s panel discussion. As someone who is deeply invested in LGBT issues and has seen the church fail routinely in this area, I was also nervous. They were, after all, in a sense talking about me. Continue reading →