15 April 2008

Gay Bibliolatry 101 (Part One)

Gay Christian 101

In my essay titled "WMMs: Weapons Of Mass Misinformation, Part Two", I criticized Liberal-leaning Christians who feel the need to sanitize the Bible. These are people who accept the Fundamentalist creed that the Bible is the unadulterated word of God, but can’t accept the possibility that a Bible passage might have been written with racist, sexist or heterosexist intent. Therefore, they diligently re-interpret suspect passages to make the Bible safe for Liberals to read. Little did I know when I wrote that essay that a perfect example of this flawed mindset would arrive in my mailbox a few months later!

Evangelical pastor Rick Brentlinger has written a book called Gay Christian 101, which purports to be a Bible reference guide for LGBT people of faith. It's supposed to serve as our defense against the infamous “clobber passages” used to vilify Gay identity. The book has received a fair amount of praise, including a recommendation from my good friend Rev. Jerry Maneker. I was certainly looking forward to reading it; once I did, though, I was disappointed to find that it seldom lived up to my expectations. What's more, I found that it was something other than what it seemed to be.

Rev. Brentlinger sent me a complimentary copy of Gay Christian 101 and requested that I review it. It’s unfortunate that my review has to be unfavorable; however, I must express my feelings honestly! I’ve never soft-pedaled my opinions about Christian doctrine, and I’m not about to start now. I gave the Reverend a preview of this essay, and after reading what I had written, he wasn’t happy. No surprise there! I also gave him the opportunity to respond in advance, but he declined to do so; now, that was a surprise. How often does an evangelical minister lack for something to say, especially when his rhetoric is challenged? I know it’s unlikely that I could ever change his thinking in regard to the Bible, but I hope I at least provided him with some serious food for thought.

I disagree with a lot of things in his book, but on one matter, Rev. Brentlinger and I are in complete agreement: Scripture should be read and understood in its proper historical context! Toward that goal, he consults an exhaustive list of ancient sources: Plato, Homer, Philo, Aristotle, Cicero, Hippolytus, Josephus, the works of Clement of Alexandria and the Satyricon, just to name a few. Buttressing these historical texts are quotes from religious scholars like John Boswell, John Calvin, Peter Gomes, John J. McNeill, and even anti-Gay theologian Robert Gagnon. The Reverend's research is thorough, and his polemic is forceful; rhetorically speaking, he drives a point about as hard as it can be driven.

In his opening chapter, "Adam and Eve in Genesis 2", he examines the Creation narrative, and makes short work of the Fundamentalist argument that God disapproves of any marriage relationship other than one man and one woman. He discusses the many polygamous marriages found in Scripture, and recognizes the Covenant between David and Jonathan as a same-gender marriage. His citations are guaranteed to have Fundies frothing at the mouth, but his reasoning is (usually) sound. On page 20, the Reverend writes:

Reading into the text something the text does not say and then teaching as doctrine what the text does not say is called eisogesis. It is a false method of interpreting Scripture and (it) leads to false conclusions.

He's right, but unfortunately, he indulges in the very same kind of falsification later on! This fiery Baptist preacher also indulges in, of all things, understatement! Understatement makes him stumble while clarifying one of the easiest “clobber” passages to clarify: The Sodom and Gomorrah narrative from Genesis 19: 1-24. Compare the following two statements; the first is Rev. Brentlinger's summation of the story's traditional interpretation, and the second is his own interpretation:

Genesis 19 strongly condemns homosexuality and homosexual practice.
(p. 34)

(The men of Sodom) displayed gross inhospitality by their attempted rape.
(p. 60)

Which one sounds more absurd? Everybody knows the incident at Sodom involved an attempted gang rape. How could anyone say, with a straight face, that gang rape is wrong because it shows a lack of hospitality on the part of the rapists? Imagine a TV news anchor characterizing a serial killer's work as crimes of "gross unfriendliness". He or she would likely be laughed off the air!

I don't care if "inhospitality" is the correct translation for phrases ancient Israelites used to characterize the sin of Sodom, as Rev. Brentlinger claims. It's not the correct translation for today's understanding! The description of a crime must convey the horror of that crime, and "inhospitality" hardly conveys the horror of rape!

The Sodom incident cries out for interpretation in a modern context, because same-gender gang rape still happens. In the 21st century, it most often happens in a prison setting, and more often than not, Gay men, or men perceived to be Gay, are its victims! Now, as then, a reckless and predatory machismo motivates men to sexually abuse other men. It's evident in the Biblical narrative, in the belligerent words of the mob that surrounds Lot's house: Stand back (or) we will deal worse with you than with them (Genesis 19: 9). As I pointed out in my post titled "The Sin Of Sodom", angels are reputed to have a somewhat effeminate aspect, so just put two and two together here: The men of Sodom saw these effeminate-looking angels, perceived them to be eunuchs and, motivated by excessive machismo, they decided to violate, humiliate and possibly kill them. It sure sounds like the ancient equivalent of a f*g-bashing to me!

However, it isn’t necessary to reach that particular conclusion, logical though it may be. The only conclusion that should be reached is that rape of any kind, at any point in history, is sexual violence. Anybody with common sense can see that the Sodom narrative (as well as a similar rape narrative found in the 19th and 20th chapters of Judges) condemns sexual violence. Not homosexuality. Not "inhospitality". Sexual violence! That's all that really needs to be said and understood about this story. Any other argument embellishes the core facts, and amounts to ideological spin.

Rev. Brentlinger is on his firmest footing when he clarifies the application of Hebrew Law. If I could recommend his book on the basis of one chapter, it would be the one called "The Holiness Code". While his reasoning isn’t always straightforward (he veers off into extended discussions about temple prostitution and incest), he clearly establishes that:

1)The Code was meant for the ancient Israelites and no one else.

 2)Its prohibitions didn’t apply to anyone prior to the time Moses first communicated them.

 3)Its prohibitions never applied to Christians, since the arrival of Jesus Christ on Earth invalidated the Code for all who believed in Him.

The Reverend fails to make one important point, though: The incident where the Israelites worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 32: 1-6) is what motivated God to impose laws on them in addition to the Ten Commandments. The Holiness Code was a punishment! The Exodus narrative tells us God wanted to destroy the Israelites for their brazen act of idolatry, but Moses persuaded Him not to do so (Exodus 32: 7-14). Instead, He imposed the Code, and it apparently was the direct result of Moses’ plea that his people be allowed to atone for their sin (Exodus 32: 30). The absence of this understanding makes Rev. Brentlinger’s argument incomplete, but even so, he manages to drive a stake firmly through the heart of Vampire Leviticus! He methodically dismantles the myth that Christian doctrine criminalizes homosexual expression.

Such solid writing deserved better than being undermined in the next chapter, but unfortunately, that’s what happened! To drive home his point that Lesbian and Gay couples aren’t condemned by God, Rev. Brentlinger draws dubious “analogies” with well-known practitioners of incest and polygamy from Scripture like Abraham, Amram and Jacob. The implication is that if God was OK with these kinds of couplings, He surely must have been OK with homosexuality! Here is where eisogesis first distorts the author’s reasoning. He fails to make a convincing argument, but succeeds at unintentionally stigmatizing same-gender relationships, and giving Fundamentalists fresh justification to equate Gay identity with deviant sexual practice!

The desire for a same-gender lover is an expression of inborn androgyny, something that's certainly not true about the desire to marry multiple spouses or sleep with a sibling! LesBiGay love should never be likened to polygamy and incest, not for any reason! What was the Reverend thinking?

"Gay Bibliolatry 101" continues with Part Two.

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