This post is supposed to be about the Bible, and it will get there by talking about what the Bible says about homosexuality. I find that when we talk about controversial subjects, it seems to be less about the subject itself and more about how we view and understand the Bible. First, I need to be honest about where I am coming from. I was raised in conservative Christian culture, and still find myself in those circles often. I am heterosexual, and so I acknowledge that I am trying to talk about something outside the realm of my experience. My goal is to be honoring and kind to all people regardless of background. This is not a comprehensive study of what the Bible says about homosexuality, nor do I think I can speak authoritatively on that. Rather, my aim to explore how we understand the Bible as evidenced by the way we speak about homosexuality.
One of the phrases I have seen come up when a Christian organization is talking about homosexuality (or evolution for that matter) is ‘Bible-based’. I suggest that this phrase is being used as elitist language to imply that anything other than a plain reading is being unfaithful to the text. I believe that this is both a way of misunderstanding what truth is and of weaponizing the text to protect one’s own security. It is a way of shutting down the possibility of further conversation because, ‘well, the text says what it says’, and that any other way of looking at things is using ‘extra-biblical’ sources, the most insidious of which being the mores of culture.
A literal reading of the Bible has been linked with believing the truth and authority of the Bible. These things are not the same thing and can be separated out. We are all selective literalists when it comes to reading the Bible. The Psalms, for example, speak of finding shelter in God’s wings. Does this mean that God literally has wings, or do we take this as a metaphor for God’s love and protection? What about Psalm 137:9? Are we to believe that this blessing still pertains to us? We all make choices about what to interpret literally. And we all make choices about which commands or guidelines are still in place for all people and which are contextual to a certain time and place. When we are honest and clear about the the processes and guidelines we use to determine what to take literally and what to consider as metaphor, what to follow and how literally to follow it, we show more integrity and consistency in our scholarship.
I am frustrated because I know the care that I put into research, study, and thought about homosexuality, as well as the Bible in general, and I feel as though, when we use phrases like ‘Bible-based’, my research and care are considered less than a plain, literal reading. The assumption is that my views have shifted because I want to match the cultural around me, I’m a sell out. The truth is, it is my study of the Bible itself that leads me away from the literal rendering. So I want to affirm a few things about the Bible:
- I affirm the Bible’s authority–I affirm the way the narrative of redemption and restoration unfolds, and I believe that pattern is what we, the church, are called to recreate.
- I affirm the truth, and even some historicity, of the Bible–I acknowledge that it is a text written in a time, place, and culture very different from my own, so it is necessary to look at historical and culture contexts and uses of words in order to understand the Bible’s truth.
- I affirm that the Bible is subversive –I believe that the Bible tells a story of power, sometimes used rightly, mostly used wrongly. Which means that as interpreters, we need to examine our own motives. What do I have to gain from my interpretation? From being affirming? What do I have to gain from not? Is my own desire for security oo power the motivation behind my chosen interpretation?
- I affirm that the Bible is inspired–I believe that the Bible shows me who Jesus is, and that, by seeing God, I am inspired to live in the pattern of recreation.
- I affirm the Bible is living and active–I believe that the Bible can be new each time I read it. In its pages I find deeply human people who help me see myself in new ways.
In any exchange of words, there’s a context that doesn’t get recorded. Spoken or written, there is much in conversation that goes unsaid. Without intuiting these unsaid parts, we can miss the context of what’s happening. Sarcasm is an example. Using sarcasm, one means something that is often the exact opposite of what one is saying. While sarcasm can be picked up by tone of voice and even by context, when the words are in writing, there are fewer context clues one can use to determine the correct reading. This is how language works–there is more to communication that just the words themselves.
Adding in a cultural layer to the case of homosexuality and the Bible, we are reading our Western understanding of (more or less, at least ideally) equal rights and consensual sex onto the text while ignoring the power dynamics involved in a sexual encounter because we have the privilege to do so, being on more or less equal footing with the people we want to have sex with, or–probably the case with some straight, white, male interpreters–we’re used to getting what we want because of our power that goes largely unexamined. Without understanding common sexual practice in ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures, we will miss some of what the text is saying. Which is just what it is. Without perfectly knowing the context, we cannot perfectly interpret, so we need to develop the humility when reading and interpreting the text to admit that ‘I could be wrong’. Instead of declaring with authority that we are ‘Bible-based’, we need to declare, ‘this is the best of our scholarship, and we could be wrong’. And then continue to study and learn. This is a position that I can respect. It is one that invites me into dialogue. If we took this approach, we could learn from each other and hopefully have more compassion for the people that we are talking about. What if we invited them to weigh in? What would we learn about love and community?
What if the text is versatile? I have a good friend who stays with a more literal reading because it provides reassurance and comfort. She is experiencing some of the most difficult moments of her life, and approaching the text from a mostly literal place comes from her story and her integrity to her story. She is courageous enough to own that story. She is intelligent, not intellectually lazy, and because I know her story, I have the utmost respect for the way she sees the text. She is also compassionate, willing to hear my perspective even when it’s different or even opposite, affirming that even when she doesn’t agree, where I am coming from makes sense. The Bible speaks to her and it speaks to me. Not in the same way, and maybe that’s ok. The text invites us into conversation.
When we have the courage to engage in that conversation, we learn more about others and ourselves and the text. We see how the text is both contextual and transcendent. Our understanding and our empathy expand even if we don’t ultimately change the conclusions we started with.