The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships: When Theologies Collide

There were only 30 short minutes left in my Biblical Interpretation class when James, my fellow seminarian, began his presentation. It was his turn to summarize an assigned reading for our class. We had all been writing short essays and developing informal presentations using excerpts from Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary. James chose to develop a presentation based on the commentary designed for June 29– the day in Christian liturgy on which many churchgoers will celebrate a new feast: The Gifts of Sexuality and Gender.

James opened his presentation by reading directly from our liturgical manual:

“A gracious, liberating church will teach us to claim our right to a pleasurable and good eroticism… Contrary to many voices inside and outside the church, sex and desire are not necessarily dangerous, selfish, or self-indulgent. Rather, erotic power can be an indespensable spiritual resource for engaging joyfully in creating justice.”  (Marvin M. Ellison, pg. 300)

The level of oxygen in the room decreased dramatically. We were all visibly uncomfortable. We knew that we were suddenly listening to a very candid endorsement for… well… Sex. And not just any old run-of-the-mill sex. Our liturgical manual was advocating for great sex. And this book was asking us to tell parishioners to go home and enjoy a little (or a lot) for themselves.

James continued, this time from page 301:

“[This week’s] texts have chosen to aid us in thinking deeply about ‘gifts of sexuality and gender.’ Usually ‘gifts of human sexuality’ gets reduced to discussions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning/queer peoples, but rarely about heterosexual people. Such discussions uncover the biases and beliefs that heterosexuality is the only ‘normal’ way to be in the world?… When women, whatever their expressions of sexuality, are not valued simply because they lack a penis? When men who are not considered ‘manly’ are labeled ‘gay’ as a perjorative term? When gay men and lesbian women are considered some alien life form because they are not heterosexual… [but] sexualities are complicated…” (Bridgeman)

James closed his book and explained that he was attracted to those two texts because issues of human sexuality and the Christian religion have impacted his family in a very personal way. His daughter, a lesbian, came out of the closet five years ago. He had been a minister in a Southern church for several years when she dropped her bombshell. She was ostracized by their congregation and has never stepped foot inside any church since then. After his daughter’s experience, the issue for James was no longer about theology. It mattered very little what the Bible said about “those gays,” because suddenly, one of “those gays” was close to him… Instantly, it was about his child; someone he had known her entire life, and someone who –in his view– deserved love and happiness more than anyone in the world.

James stood up and walked to the front of the classroom to activate the overhead projector. He played a Youtube video of a child no older than five singing “Won’t Be No Homos In Heaven” to a cheering congregation. The video ended and James, my fellow seminarian from deep in the Bible Belt, asked emotionally: “What in the world are we doing, you guys? Is this love? Is this justice?”

Most of us were mortified by what we saw in the video. We openly voiced our frustration with the lack of acceptance for gays in Christian churches. And then another student spoke up:

“Listen, guys… I don’t want to be the one to take the more controversial side here, but I have to ask the all-important question… Is homosexuality a sin?”

Answers to his question echoed from various corners in the room… “No!” and “Yes!” … Lengthy historical arguments … Short, pithy dismissals. Suddenly, we were arguing. The tension in the room was nearly unbearable. Emotions were high. Some of us said too much. Others, too little.

I looked at the clock and discovered that James’ presentation had been going on for 40 minutes instead of a half hour. Class had technically ended– but no one was leaving the room. Our professor chimed in, hoping to stop the rapidly devolving discussion and restore peace to the group.

“Everyone,” he said, “let’s pray together…” We bowed our heads, overwhelmed… angry… frustrated… Calmly, my professor petitioned the Divine: “Holy Creator… Help us to remember that we are all a part of you…  And help us to see you in every human being we meet.”

I realized we were praying again, and that prayer can be an avoidance tool, and that I felt complicit in what seemed like a cowardly cop-out.

What happens when we know the truth, but are too afraid to tell others what we’ve seen?

I didn’t want to pray anymore. I was tired of praying.

I wanted the professor to stand up and tell us what I’m sure he knew: That the word “homosexual” didn’t appear in the Bible until the year 1958… that the Book of Leviticus is speaking of temple prostitution… that the words in the New Testament which have been translated to read “homosexual” mostly stem from a Greek word with no English equivalent… that Bible printers intentionally sell weak translations to the public because they fear backlash from conservative fundamentalists…

I wanted my professor to just tell us that our generation is doing it again… I wanted him to tell the class that Christianity is doing to gays what it has done to women and various “otherly” groups for centuries… That we haven’t learned much from past Bible-centered mistakes like the Crusades, or the trial of Galileo, or slavery…

But instead, we prayed.

I wondered if a day would ever come when we’d stop praying and do something… when we’d get real about the limitations of the Bible… when love would overcome fear… Thinking about all of it made me angry. I walked home and fought back my tears. I also fought the urge to pray.

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21 responses to “The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships: When Theologies Collide

  1. Great post as always, Crystal.

    You are so right: it’s time for usa to stop avoiding the sex issue with prayer and avoidance, and face it head on. Plus, sex is too much fun to push aside!

    Peace.

  2. You have such deep wisdom, and I agree with Meredith, I encourage you to have that conversation with the professor and your classmates. Plus, now I have another resource to add to my list!

  3. I learn so much from you, making me wish I could back to seminary and learn everything through the lens of confidence in an abundantly loving divine as I see through you, Crystal. Thank you for posting and awakening love in me.

  4. This is so amazing; the exact same thoughts pour into my head about the cycle of what has been done and what is being repeated today. The sad part is that only a short few that see the building lies; I just started a series that is to bring awareness and comfort to people going through the same issue; Gay Christians speaking up. (www.facebook.com/undertherugseries) Thank you so much for blogging this, many people need awareness!

  5. Trying to reconcile the faith with morality is a rather daunting challenge–I spent the better part of a decade trying to smooth out the moral absurdities from my religion. By the time I was done it scarcely even resembled the original; yet for all those mental gymnastics the basic facts of the matter–that the Biblical authors condemned blood pudding and women teaching while condoning genocide–remained unaltered.

    There was another great Biblical question–slavery. Yet for all the Abolitionist talk of ‘do unto others’, the slave-owners were dead right: the Bible *does* explicitly endorse slavery and *does* explicitly command slaves to obey their masters as they would Christ–even the perverse ones. While it does command masters to be kind to slaves, it does not for one moment even begin to hint that it is slavery–and not shrimp–which is an abomination. We have chosen, in a supreme act of collective doublethink, to ignore this.

    Liberals explain the Bible’s nastiness away–“oh, well, their slavery was different than ours; it was temple prostitution; the Greek word Paul uses doesn’t translate, and never-you-mind his evident disgust or the Amalekite children.” Conservatives revel in the bits that line up with their own nastiness and apparently have never read the rest–witness the internet-famous gentleman who got a tattoo of Leviticus 18:22.

    There’s an obvious answer for you, but it’s not one you’ll like. Before you dismiss it, however, consider what you just wrote: that in the 21st century, in a technological democracy, a heated argument broke out in an institute of higher learning as to whether or not homosexuals are to be treated as equals and given leave–as if they required it!–to enjoy the love to which their biology destines them. Further consider that this discussion took place not on the basis of mutual consent, risk mitigation, human rights, constitutional law, genetics, neuroscience or any other rational justification, but with a fearful eye towards a three-thousand-year-old legal code which condemns bacon and condones slavery.

    I commend you for struggling towards the right, but I do urge you to take the next step and consider, not that your opponents are wrong about the faith, but that the faith itself is wrong. It seems a dreadful thing to think, I know, but when you finally let go–when you watch that Sisyphean boulder of interpretation and justification roll away–you’ll see the world a brighter, freer place.

    • Hi Andrew. I would like to welcome you and thank you for your comment. I really appreciate your willingness to be so blunt, especially because I know that the liberal Christian blogosphere can be an echo chamber at times. I agree with quite a bit of what you wrote– there are a variety of things “wrong” with the way we’ve used the Bible, and Christianity is certainly behind the social curve on this issue, just as it has been on other issues.

      My attraction to Christianity is not based on a belief that the Bible offers an indisputable path to peace or social wholeness. Instead, my attraction is rooted in the enthralling discussion about humanness that’s in-between the Bible’s covers and in the works of the mystics that have lived prior to our generation. I think the Bible offers two (or more) perspectives on every issue, including slavery, etc…

      I respect that you no longer find meaning in Christianity, but I don’t think the religion is beyond redemption and I find a strong sense of purpose in “walking with Jesus” in a more liberal context. I guess, in short I’m saying that I don’t necessarily think the religion is wholly “wrong” (or useless) any more than others are wholly wrong. I do, however, believe we’ve done a horrible job of doing it justice.

      Karen Armstrong once compared religion to art. She said there’s good art and there’s very bad art, and that it doesn’t make sense to stop creating art just because others have done it unskillfully. In the same way, it doesn’t make sense (to some of us) to totally wash our hands of Christianity just because others have used it unskillfully. I respect those who no longer find meaning in Christianity (many of whom are my friends), but find it very fulfilling to stick around and “be a light” for people who are interested in understanding the message in another way.

      I hope this sort of explains where I’m coming from on this blog… Thanks again for your comment. Hope you come again. :)

      • I would never use bad art as an argument to stop trying for good art, but I’m (almost) always against making false truth claims. Twilight is awful; Lord of the Rings is sublime–but neither one actually happened. Art tells us something about ourselves and our experience without being factual–it’s capitol-t True. Religion flatly claims to be true in BOTH senses, and too often its defenders (including me, back in the day) use capitol-t True as a dodge for plain old, little-f false. Christianity is not just art: it makes concrete claims about the nature of our universe, and those claims are either true or they’re not. Either there is a god or there isn’t; either Jesus was his son or he wasn’t; either he rose from the dead or he didn’t–that sort of thing. Our emotions have nothing at all to do with the facts of the matter. (If they did, I’d worship this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wR96FzywLJ4&feature=related and you can bet I’d have the heads of the revisionist heretics who thought that he wore a suit.) I didn’t leave Christianity because I no longer found meaning there, but because I examined its truth-claims and concluded that they were false.

      • I think we find another point of agreement here. Those who are attracted to religion because they believe it answers life’s questions about history or science should look elsewhere. That’s what history and science books are for. However, those who are interested in transcendence, wonder, mystery, theosis, enlightenment and the like should look to religion… That’s what spiritual journeys are good for.

        I don’t think the originators of the scriptures initially intended to fool anyone. I think they were more interested in developing a sense of mythos that would help them understand their world and the power structures around us. (As someone once said, “A myth is something that never occurred, but is always happening…” I think this absolutely applies to the Bible.)

        Of course, there are people who insist that the Bible must be historically factual and scientifically accurate. That’s a symptom of intense religious illiteracy that I hope will change as time goes on.

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  7. He could have told the class those things, Crystal, but I wonder if he was allowing the tension to be the teacher. Rather than giving people information, maybe he was allowing the dialogue and debate to continue for a reason. I can remember leaving a New Testament class in which I can’t even remember what the prof said, but whatever it was, it propelled me go home and say to myself that I need to know what I believe. At other times, I’ve been involved in tense situations in which there was no resolution or none that was pleasing to me and it served as a catalyst for MY faith. I know it may have felt like a cop-out for him to pray at that moment. and maybe it was, but it might also have been him wanting the class to walk away with a reminder about unity. It’s so easy to walk away from those encounters seething mad and only see the other as an enemy. It’s an entirely different thing to pray with those that we might be prone to see as enemies–something we’re not prone to do in the Church and since the seminary is the training ground for many in the Church, what better way to model how to deal with those of differing opinions.

    • Thank you, Pat. I think you have a point. Today was the last official day of class and the tensions were still quite high. I’m glad the professor was concerned about keeping the peace… But still… it’s so hard for me to make peace with the fact that at an institution of higher theological learning, there’s no meaningful teaching about issues of sexuality in scripture. I have very mixed emotions… :(

      Always glad to see you drop by… See you around Facebook. :)

      • I received this post through a friend on fb and I am so glad I did. This has been a wonderful article and I thank you for your replies to the comments made. I am weighing in on the comments not because I have an interest personally in this issue, but because I have been enlightened on a deeper level of the Bible over the past year and a half and I must share what I have learned. I have been in the Church all my life and being from the south have been ingrained with a lot of “loving the sinner, while not accepting the sin”. My parents were loving people, yet very critical of people who were homosexual. We were never faced with the issue within our family or I feel like the issue might have been different. Over the past 5 years, I have been surrounded in some capacity by a great number of homosexuals and I have had to deal with my thoughts on this issue and where I stand. I remember about 20 years ago while working in a factory with a young man who had just finished his stint in the military. He knew that I was a very vocal Christian and one day he looked me in the eye and said, “what would you say if I told you I were gay?” I remember looking at him with little to know emotion and said, “what difference would that make?” I have now become friends with a gay couple that I love deeply. They are precious to me and I would defend them with my life. I also know that behind one of them is a deeply saddened story that involves an older man who molested her when she was a teenager alone at her church. Now, back to what I have learned over the past year. I, like many of the people commenting here, have learned the same things, but in January of 2011 I began taking a class in Hebrew. The teacher, a Lutheran minister who studied under an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, has been teaching us the Bible from a totally Jewish perspective and boy have we been taught things not quite right! We have sos misunderstood things. We have misunderstood the slavery issue, sex, women and Andrew I wish you really knew the truth. It is not what you think. They aren’t laws as we have been taught. And the image I have had of God throughout the Old Testament is nothing like what the Jews teach. There is also sooooo much more to the Torah than what we have been taught that I can not even begin to explain here. If you would like to learn more there is a wonderful website with lots of free info. It is an Orthodox Jewish website, so it will not refer to Jesus, but just keep that in mind and learn what you can from them and don’t be judgemental against them. http://www.chabad.org Enjoy!

  8. Beautiful post! To me Christianity is following Christ’s image. He wouldn’t judge others and their private lives, in my opinion, so I try to live the same way.

    It reminds me of this video I recently came across– it’s a cute little song about how Jesus and his followers actually Occupy Jerusalem.

    Anyways, here it is: http://youtu.be/a6akkb_afqs

    Which, it has a point.

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  11. Reblogged this on Lawless View and commented:
    This is a heart warming piece given from a religious point of. Iew that celebrates the choice of sexuality …….brilliant and wish her many happy years it is so refreshing to see someone other than atheist speak up against prejudice. Sexuality is not wrong…you know why religious fanatics view it as si flu? Because they are not infallible. They bring their own prejudice and versions of morals based on their fear and manifestations of what they don’t understand.

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