Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Afternoon Mashup

The comments under this meme slobbering over two celebrity scientists are about what you'd expect.  I wrote sourly that if elected they'd probably put the entire federal budget into the space program and other high-tech industry, while abolishing social services for mere humans.  The earth is already destroyed!  Who cares?  We're going to the stars! ... Well, not all of us.  Just the rational elites.

I don't really know anything about their politics in general; one commenter complained that Nye has spoken negatively about home schooling, so maybe he's a socialist.  But I know that Tyson fantasizes about a return to the Cold War space program, which indicates a willed historical ignorance that would suit a Republican very well.  I commented to that effect, and another person who'd already endorsed the ticket ("Merica would be fixed in like two minutes!") replied, "Exactly!"  I'd like to think he being sarcastic too, but after reading the other comments I'll take nothing for granted.

Though I'm also taking time out for daily reflection with Skeletor Is Love.  The Culture of Therapy loves you.  And finally, for no particular reason:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jews at War

I just finished re-reading Marge Piercy's historical novel of World War II, Gone to Soldiers (Summit Books, 1987).  I'd put it off for a few months because of its length, 700 pages (and she says in the afterword that it would have been a third longer if she'd gotten a grant to do research in the Soviet Union), which stopped my project of rereading all her work in chronological order.  Once I got going, it was a pleasure and toward the end I couldn't put it down -- though of course I knew how it turned out: what I wanted to know was how her characters would fare.

I haven't read much fiction set during World War II, and far from enough nonfiction about it, so I can't really compare Gone to Soldiers to anything except Sherri L. Smith's Flygirl (Putnam, 2009), about a young African American woman who passed as white to become a WASP.  I started to read Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead a couple of years ago but only did a couple of chapters; maybe it's time to go back to it.  And I really should read From Here to Eternity and other of James Jones's works.  Piercy's characters are mostly Jewish, both in the Europe and in the US, and often lower-middle class, and as always her perspective is feminist, anti-racist, and pro-labor, so she covers the anti-Semitism that American Jews faced at home as well as what European Jews faced at the hands of the Third Reich and its collaborators.  She describes the harassment that women faced in the factories, and that the women fliers of the WASPS had to deal with.  Her account of the Detroit race riots of 1943 is chilling. White racists were using the same folklore they use today:
The buses and trolleys were overloaded with people jammed into each other, after waiting half an hour or longer. The whites said the colored belonged to bump clubs and sought opportunities to jostle whites [275].
Today it's called the "knockout game," and though according to this article the Justice Department says "there have been similar incidents dating as far back as 1992", Piercy's research turned up the same basic idea from fifty years earlier.  (She declares in the afterword that the novel is fiction, she wanted everything in it to have really happened to someone.)

Another striking bit: the Nazis "opened the sea war by sinking an unarmed passenger liner, the Athenia, and then claimed the British had blown it up themselves for propaganda" (109).  That's familiar too.  Very familiar.  (Ironically, the best-documented case I know of where something like this actually happened was when US Special Forces soldiers killed three Afghan women -- two of them pregnant -- and dug the bullets out of their bodies, trying to make it look like an honor killing.)

Gone to Soldiers isn't a novel I'll reread often, because of its length and because much of it is so emotionally painful, but I'm glad I reread it this time.

I can't say the same for Veronica Roth's Divergent (Katherine Tegen, 2011), now a major motion picture but even more of a drag, as far as I'm concerned, than Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.  Partly because it's longer: the first volume is 500 pages long.  I picked up Divergent at the library a couple of days ago and am now about halfway through it.  For awhile I wasn't sure I'd read it all, but I think I can finish it in two days so I might as well.  The writing is adequate (she at least uses the verb "diffuse" correctly, which is more than I can say about many pop writers these days) but thin.  I don't think she's built her world very well, and her characters are cardboard. Roth's imagined dystopian future just doesn't make much sense to me.  Maybe I'm just too old for it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Stupid Is Strong in This One

The Stupid is strong in this one, liked today on Facebook by a friend who ... well, probably I can't expect him to know any better.  My answer, which I posted as a comment, is that I'm fine with displaying the Ten Commandments in public, as long as it's the work of churches, synagogues, and private citizens.  Governments are another matter.  And people who try to confuse the issue, as many would-be theocrats do, are another matter as well.  I have to admit, though, that many of them don't know they're confusing the issue.  They clearly can't grasp the principles involved.  Even more dispiriting, neither can many of those who would oppose the public display of the Decalogue, or other public displays of piety by private citizens.  How to implement freedom of religion and the separation of church and state would be messy enough with the best will in the world, and unfortunately, many of the loudest kibitzers don't have the best will in the world.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Way, Which Is God's Way

The other day I had one of the more unpleasant cinematic experiences I've had in years: I saw Evan Leong's documentary Linsanity, about Jeremy Lin, the Chinese-American pro basketball player who exploded like a supernova into fame a couple of years ago.  Because Leong began working on the film before Lin became famous (while he was playing for Harvard, if memory serves), I hoped it would be intelligent, serious, thoughtful.  It turned out to be the sort of thing you'd expect to see on ESPN, a hagiography about a young American of humble origins, seeking and finding his dream.  The main difference, I think (I don't watch enough TV to say for sure), was Linsanity's stress on Lin's Christian faith. That wasn't news to me, of course, but it quickly became obnoxious, combining fundamentalism with Culture of Therapy and Sports Cult jargon for a truly toxic mix.  It culminated in a sequence of Lin making a shot on CGI water, which ought to be blasphemous (JL = JC?); it was followed by Lin himself saying that with enough faith he could walk on water.

Leong and Lin both had to grapple with the inconvenient fact that God had made Lin's career pretty rocky.  When he broke his ankle before his senior year of high school, which stopped his team's progress toward the state championship, he explained that as divine chastisement for his pride and ego; couldn't it have been a stumbling-block put in his way by Satan to frustrate God's plan and keep Jeremy from his messianic destiny?  In any case Lin remained sure that God was watching his every move, and had a plan for him, but it didn't necessarily involve a successful career in basketball, however much Lin tried to convince himself it did.   At one point he said that he wanted to play basketball "my way -- which is God's way."  Funny how often believers tend to confuse the two.  "God's way" apparently turns out to be a return to obscurity, as the New York Knicks gave him up to the Houston Rockets, where his performances was less than stellar.

After Lin began his hot streak, there was another Satanic moment, when his opponent Kobe Bryant of the Lakers was asked by reporters what he thought of Lin.  Bryant replied that he had no idea who Lin was.  So the game was framed as a one-on-one between the two titans, and after the Knicks' victory, a reporter asked Lin what he had to say to Bryant.  Lin tells Leong that he'd thought about what he would say, and considered something like "Has he heard of me now?" but then asked himself what Jesus would do, and decided to go with something milder.  ("You'll have to ask him," or words to that effect.)  This made me giggle.  Jesus, according to the gospels, loved snarky comebacks to his opponents when he didn't merely threaten them with hellfire.  One of my favorites is Luke 13:31-33: 
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’
If Lin were really serious about his faith, he'd ask himself whether Jesus would play professional basketball; I think it's a safe bet he wouldn't.

And hey -- isn't Kobe Bryant a Christian too?  Turns out he's Catholic.  I imagine most professional athletes in the US are at least nominally Christian, even if they don't all flaunt their religiosity as publicly as Tim Tebow.  And that's why I find the story of Lin's faith so obnoxious: in order for him to achieve his dream, someone else has to fail, to lose, to be defeated.  Lin's god takes sides in the vast corporate multibillion dollar world of professional sport, and that's not a god I'd want to encourage.  Nor do I think much of those who worship such a god.

The university cinema was almost full that day, mostly with Asian and Asian-American students and families.  That saddened me.  Sure, in one narrow sense it's good that Lin broke through to professional basketball.  Every stereotype should be broken, and watching the movie boggled my mind all over again at the racism of American sport, which found it surprising that a Chinese-American kid could play basketball at the highest level.  (To say nothing of Chinese in general.  It occurred to me as I watched Linsanity that Yao Ming had already broken that stereotype, and to my surprise, Leong actually interviewed Yao for the film.)  If I'd thought about it before, I'd have guessed that Asian Americans had better things to do with their time and energy, but it never would have occurred to me that they couldn't play well if they worked at it.  But Lin's rise to notoriety shocked the sports world, and typically, many Asians celebrated Lin's success as their own.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Higgledy Piggledy, Oral Tradition

Last week I read a new book by Rafael Rodríguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (Bloomsbury, 2014), which I'd found when it was recommended and discussed by a blogger I found when I was writing about Morton Smith a few years ago.  From time to time I look in to see what she's writing about, and this new book sounded worth following up.  The university library had just gotten it in, and it turned out to be interesting and useful.  It brought me up to date on a topic I hadn't looked at much lately, and pointed me to some other books I'll want to read.  (Just what I need.)  It's concise, under 150 including references, and readable.  I can recommend it to anyone who's interested in this subject, especially if they've read about it or heard about it before.  But, of course, I have a quibble.

Here's the context.  It's virtually a cliche in New Testament scholarship that before the gospels were written, information about Jesus and his teachings was preserved by "oral tradition."  How this oral tradition worked, what forms it took, has always been disputed, though.  Before the historical study of the Bible began at the end of the eighteenth century, though, the (more or less) official position of the church was that the gospels were written either by Jesus' original followers (Matthew and John) or by people who'd worked with them (Mark, supposedly written by an associate of Simon Peter) or by an associate of Paul (Luke and Acts), though Paul didn't become a Christian until a few years after Jesus' death.  Since the authors of the gospels were either eyewitnesses or had accesses to eyewitnesses, they didn't really need "oral tradition": they worked from memory or from the reported memories of the apostles.  I hope to write more about this before long, so I won't go into too much detail here.

In the twentieth century, scholars came to agree that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, indeed not by the men who traditionally had been claimed as their authors.  For a while in the 1800s, very late dates for the gospels became fashionable in some circles, though the fashion reversed itself in the 1900s.  So how was the gospel material preserved and transmitted from those who'd known Jesus until it was eventually written down?  "Oral tradition" was the answer.  After the 1920s, the dominant approach in European and American scholarship was form criticism, developed by German scholars and widely adopted by their colleagues.  Form criticism attempted to understand how stories and sayings were affected by transmission -- how they changed, how they stayed the same -- and how they were used by the early churches.  Naturally there were many scholars who rejected this approach, because they saw no reason to abandon longstanding church tradition, but others were skeptical of the method itself.  When I was reading a lot of New Testament scholarship in the 1980s, I read some of the classics of form criticism and some of the later attacks on defenses on it.  Some of the opponents seemed to believe that if they could demolish form criticism, the field could return to traditional approaches, but that's like believing that if you can demolish Darwinism, the creation myths of Genesis will be vindicated.  One reason form criticism was invented was that traditional understandings of the gospels had failed: few scholars believed, for reasons having nothing to do with form criticism, that the gospels were direct eyewitness accounts of Jesus' career by his followers and their converts.  Yet "form criticism" remains a bugbear of biblical reactionaries to this day, a sort of symbol of everything they reject in modern approaches to the study of the Bible.

When I read Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2008) a few years ago, it was the first serious scholarly book I'd read on this subject in quite a while.  Reading Bauckham's critique, it occurred to me that form criticism would have been based on outdated and largely discredited anthropological theories of pre-literate cultures anyway, and that it could surely be criticized because of that.  But although Bauckham made some valid points, he still accepted most of the historical-critical approach to the Bible, including many of its conclusions.  I wondered if some of the people who'd welcomed his book noticed, for example, that he didn't think the gospel of Matthew was written by an eyewitness. Whatever the failings of form criticism, abandoning it would not be much help to a conservative-fundamentalist case for the validity or reliability of the gospels.

So Rodríguez' book looked like a good way to begin bringing myself up to speed on whatever advances had been made in the study of oral tradition since the 1980s, and it is that.  I plan to read some of the writings he cites.  But the main advance seems to have been the development of what Rodríguez calls "media criticism" of the New Testament writings, which appears to have more to do with the use of those writings for worship and devotion rather than a better understanding of their history and composition.  As Rodríguez says, we have no access to the oral tradition that predated the writing of the gospels: attempts to reconstruct it as a source have not worked.  Scholars can do a bit more with written sources, but not very much since those written sources are mostly lost; the only exception is the gospel of Mark, which most New Testament scholars believe was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke, who rewrote it, cut, and added to it to produce their gospels.  Mark still exists as a separate work; other hypothetical sources like Q do not.

All this goes, I hope, to set the stage for the following passage from Oral Tradition and the New Testament, which baffles me for reasons I'll explain shortly.
A logical place to begin the history of contemporary media criticism is with Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson.  His dissertation, Memory and Manuscript (1961), was published at the zenith of form criticism’s influence, when the academic community was not ready to take seriously Gerhardsson’s critical challenges to form criticism.  Gerhardsson’s work would not be granted adequate consideration for at least two decades, and perhaps closer to four.  Perhaps most (in)famously, Morton Smith wrote an influential and dismissive review essay that described Gerhardsson’s thesis as a whole as “impossible to conceive” (1963: 176). Two decades later, Werner Kelber (1983) would take Gerhardsson seriously, and 15 years after that, in 1998, Gerhardsson’s book would be republished, along with his follow-up essay, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1964), and a penitent foreword by no less than esteemed Rabbinics scholar (and Morton Smith’s former student) Jacob Neusner.  Finally, in 2009, an edited volume of interdisciplinary essays would reassess the original significance of Gerhardsson’s work (Kelber and Byrskog 2009).  Today, Gerhardsson is widely recognized as a seminal figure in the history of research in early Christian oral tradition, a man literally decades ahead of his time [34].
I never got around to reading Memory and Manuscript, though I think I remember looking at Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity to see Gerhardsson's reply to Smith's criticism.  If I remember right, it was not an effective rebuttal, so I didn't feel it important to follow up by reading the entire books.  I did hear about Neusner's recantation in the wake of the controversy over Smith and the longer gospel of Mark, and the blogger who alerted me to Rodríguez mentioned the republication of Gerhardsson's book and Neusner's "penitent foreword."  I did some digging and learned about the messy, bitter break between Neusner and Smith, which led to Neusner's repudiating most of his own earlier work along with his teacher's.

What I didn't find was any refutation of Smith's critical review of Memory and Manuscript.  It originally appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature, volume 82 (1963), 169-176, and was reprinted in a posthumous collection of Smith's articles.  It doesn't seem to be readily available online unless you have access to an academic library's resources.  Maybe there's something in the edited volume of interdisciplinary essays on Gerhardsson that Rodríguez mentions; it's in the university library here, but it's checked out so it may be a while before I can look at it.

I also recall seeing Gerhardsson's work cited favorably by numerous conservative academics and apologists I read, so I'm not sure how seriously to take Rodríguez' suggestion that Smith's "(in)famous" and "influential" review shut down consideration of Gerhardsson's thesis.  Maybe the review was influential because it made valid criticisms?  I'm especially inclined to think so because of what Rodríguez himself has to say about Gerhardsson's work.

Briefly, Smith argued that Gerhardsson based his argument on dubious assumptions: that Jesus made his disciples memorize his teachings as any rabbi of his day would have done according to the Talmud, and that the early church functioned like a rabbinical school.  Smith countered that the New Testament writings do not look anything like the rabbinical material, and that there is no evidence in the New Testament or early Christian history of such methods of preservation and transmission among the early Christians.
Even if we were to suppose the apostles witnesses to Jesus' legal teaching, there is no evidence of a class of memorizers to preserve their witness as the professional "repeaters" of rabbinic Judaism preserved the oral Torah.  And there is no appeal to chains of tradition.  Paul never says "Peter says that Jesus said," nor "I heard from James who heard from John who heard from Jesus."  Indeed, Paul is notorious for the rarity with which he even refers to Jesus' teaching [175].
Remember Rodríguez' claim that Smith "described Gerhardsson’s thesis as a whole as 'impossible to conceive'"?   It's in the final sentence of the review.  Here's the context:
In one of the few places where Paul does appeal to tradition, he lists, as the evidence on which his gospel was based, six stories of resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15.3ff).  One of these was Christ's appearance to him, the other five he seems to say he had "received."  Presumably they constituted the evidence for the primitive Christian kerygma as he knew it -- one might say, the most important part of the earliest known preaching of Christianity.  Yet of these five appearances, two or three have disappeared from the canonical tradition, except for passing references.  A second example, and even less explicable by Gerhardsson's postulates, is the loss of any reliable record of Jesus' attitude toward the Law.  How a careful, rabbinic tradition should have produced, about this central rabbinical concern, the mess of contradictory scraps of evidence which the gospels preserve, it is impossible to conceive [176].
It seems to me that Rodríguez misrepresented Smith's statement.  It was not Gerhardsson's "thesis as a whole," that he called "impossible to conceive," but the failure of early Christian tradition to preserve a "reliable record of Jesus' attitude toward the Law."

Even more significant, Rodríguez himself is quite critical of Gerhardsson's thesis.  For example:
However, Gerhardsson goes too far when he argues, on the basis of both the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters, that the disciples -- specifically, The Twelve – formed a collegium, or authoritative school, that was responsible for forming, preserving, and transmitting the Jesus tradition (1961:244, 245-61)...

All of this rests on a highly speculative reading of a handful of texts, especially Acts 15 (see 249-61).  For example, he calls Acts 15.5ff “a description of a regular early Christian general session” (251, emphasis added), though nothing in Acts 15 (or elsewhere) suggests that it describes a regular or recurring kind of meeting.  Instead, Acts 15 seems to describe a special, ad hoc gathering of the Jerusalem church to settle a significant, persistent problem that was not typical for the early Christians.  Moreover, Paul’s letters provide authoritative doctrinal and pragmatic pronouncements to their audiences from Paul himself and not from Jerusalem.  This fact alone suggests that authority among the earliest Christians was not concentrated in a small group located in Jerusalem...

Gerhardsson’s conception of the oral Jesus tradition, then, is too rigid and inflexible, especially in that he assumes a fixed oral tradition that was more stable and unchanging than even the written Jesus tradition!  To be sure, Gerhardsson leaves room for the adaptation and creative application of the fixed Jesus tradition in earliest Christianity.  But the Jesus tradition as Gerhardsson has imagined it is nevertheless unreasonably and impractically stable, fixed, and memorized [35-6].
This is pretty close to Smith's critique, though it's framed differently.  It's easy to imagine a Gerhardsson partisan (Neusner, say) attacking Rodríguez for an infamous dismissal of the great scholar's work.  That wouldn't be entirely unfair, since it does reject his "thesis as a whole," which assumes Jesus' early followers as a rabbinical academy.  Given Rodríguez' careless reading -- to put it as charitably as I can -- of Smith's conclusion, and the lack of any real refutation of Smith's criticisms, I'd say that Smith's review still has to be answered, or even seriously confronted.  (Smith's remarks about the resurrection tradition in 1 Corinthians were especially "influential" for me, and deserve more attention than they have received; if any serious scholar is in danger of being undervalued in New Testament studies, it's Morton Smith.)

This is not to dismiss the whole of Oral Tradition and the New Testament: there's a lot in it that seems good to me.  But the part I've discussed here is seriously weak, and casts a shadow over the rest.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another Lifestyle Choice

I heard the soundtrack from this Coast Guard recruiting commercial on the radio as I was driving north today.

At least, I think it was the same commercial: I could swear I heard the narrator say "I was born this way" at one point, but it's not in this video version.  Probably I misheard.  But "born ready" is just about as funny.  Especially from a narrator who runs into traffic, endangering herself and others, just to show how tough and independent she is.  (There's also a male version, a shot-for-shot duplicate except for the sex of the narrator, and a Spanish-language version featuring the female actor.)  I'm not sure I'd trust someone who wasn't born to look both ways before crossing the street to defend my country.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sorting It Out

I think I've finally figured out how to express a point I've been fussing about for some time, namely the definition of "homosexuality."  For example, the anthropologist Sabine Lang wrote that "In Western culture, a homosexual relationship is defined as being between ... two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender."  There are many things wrong with that definition, which I've spelled out before, but I think I've now pinned down my key objection.

Similarly, Serena Nanda wrote of "a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  I've spelled out some of the many things wrong with this formulation too, but I don't think I quite got at the core of it until now.

Likewise, Graeme Reid wrote: "In the classic contemporary Western model of homosexuality both partners in a same-sex relationship would automatically be classified as homosexual, based on sexual object choice."  Would they really?  Wouldn't it be necessary to make at least a dutiful nod to sexual fluidity and the Kinsey continuum before automatically classifying both partners as homosexual?

So: A more accurate account of a Western definition of "a homosexual relationship" (or more likely, "a homosexual act") is that it involves two individuals of the same sex, whether or not they are of the same gender or sexual orientation.  The difficulty here, I think, is the risk Lang, Nanda, and I all run of ignoring who is doing the defining.  I recognize that many or most people who use these terms assume an inversion / gender variant model of homosexuality, which is also "Western" but assumes that any sexual act or relationship must be gendered: you have your queer and your real man, or your bulldyke and your femme, and only the gender variant in the pair is "the homosexual."

I'm skeptical, in fact, about claims that this or that researcher said that both partners in a homosexual act are homosexual, because most researchers in the twentieth century have used the inversion model.  I suspect that in most if not all cases, they referred to "homosexual activity" and some piece of trade's delicate sense of manhood was outraged, even though the researcher had not said or meant that both men in the encounter were inverts.

Sorting this out is complicated by the fact that even Alfred Kinsey and others who tried to avoid thinking in essentialist terms found it difficult not to speak of homosexual persons.  But even a homosexual person can be viewed (as Kinsey would have done) as someone who interacts erotically with persons of his or her own sex, without assuming that he or she is an invert.  By analogy, the language one speaks doesn't tell us anything about one's nature, though historically people have often believed otherwise: I speak English because I grew up in an English-speaking environment, and learned other languages by choice, not because I was a Spanish-speaking or French-speaking soul trapped in the body of an Anglophone.  It has often occurred to me, when I looked at statements about homosexuality from the Kinsey team, that they were overlooking questions of gender, copulatory role, and the like -- but that was exactly the idea; the trouble was that when Kinsey reported (say) that 37 percent of his male sample had at least one experience with another male to orgasm between the ages of 16 and 55, most readers jumped to the assumption that they were all inverts, homosexuals, etc.  This is interesting when I consider that many if not most Americans in those days surely subscribed to a version of the queer/trade model, in which the penetrator ("trade") officially was Not Homosexual.  But that might explain it: given that assumption, what else could they think when they heard that 37 percent of males had "homosexual" experience, but that all those men were queers?

Remember the young Dominican woman I've quoted before, who, when she learned that her boyfriend was being kept by maricón, accused him of being a maricón himself, to his great indignation.  "And she said 'What do you mean you’re not a maricón, if you live with a man?!' And I said they weren’t the same thing. 'What do you mean?' And I said, 'No, because he’s the one who receives, and I’m the one who gives.'"  Even in a society where the trade/queer model is dominant, not everyone goes along with it, and with reason.  As Annick Prieur (one of the few writers who is able to think about these matters with some clarity) put it in Mema's House (Chicago, 1998), "Gender is a question of discourses, of signs, of presentations and representations, of gestures, speech, garments and clothes, but it is also a question of naked bodies.  And when two persons with the same male sexual organs are naked, the construction of one of the partners as a not-homosexual man and of the other one as a not-male person is difficult to upkeep" (274).  It takes a lot of sociocultural work to maintain the trade/queer distinction.

What I propose, then, is that in discussing a homosexual act or relationship, there is no need to make assumptions about the gender or the sexual orientation of either partner.  A homosexual act involves two people with the same genitalia, regardless of their sexual identity or orientation or gender -- or their religion or political affiliation or height or weight or eye color.  This all seems so obvious as I write it, but from what I've read on the subject over the past few years I have to conclude that it's not obvious to many people at all.  Indeed the evidence is that it's really very difficult for many or most people to grasp.

Many people who cite the Kinsey continuum misunderstand it, and it's instructive to consider why that is.  It was supposed to help people visualize a non-essentialist model of homosexuality (though Kinsey wouldn't have used the word "essentialist," which wasn't in vogue then), by pointing out that many people have varying amounts of homosexual and heterosexual experience during their adult lives.  Yet many people, including academic and clinical thinkers, take the scale as a metric of "sexual orientation."  Arguably you can use it however you wish, as long as you're aware you're not using it as it was meant to be used, but it doesn't appear that such people are aware.  They equate sexual behavior with sexual orientation and even identity (though they also tend to confuse sexual orientation with sexual identity), even as they appeal to a device that was meant to uncouple the two, at least analytically.

One might ask at what point on the scale a person becomes "homosexual" or "heterosexual."  The answer would depend largely on what is meant by "a homosexual person."  It can mean a person with a homosexual essence, which stays the same whether a person has any overt sexual experience a at all, and even when "a homosexual person" has considerable quantities of heterosexual experience (and vice versa).  Or it can mean that a person has considerable homosexual experience and decides to label oneself on that basis.  It needn't imply anything about one's biological (or spirit)* nature.  As the writer Marge Piercy put it, "There's no reason I shouldn't be a lesbian if I fell in love with a woman again" -- a lesbian, in this quite reasonable and idiomatic sense, is a woman who's "in love" with a woman at the moment, regardless of her experience with men at other times.  By contrast, the writer Kelley Eskridge wrote that "I don't even call myself a lesbian," despite her relationship of twenty-plus years with the writer Nicola Griffith.  But those who want to stress the "fluidity" of sexuality, to reject "binaries," and to trumpet their rejection of essentialism, should recognize that a label like "homosexual" or even "gay" doesn't tell us anything about a person's nature.

*I mention "spirit" here because the two-spirit model, for example, is thoroughly essentialist: it assumes that there are precultural male and female natures that drive people's behavior, but they are spiritual (whatever that means) rather than biological (whatever that means).  It seems to me that there's no real difference between "spirit" and "biology" in these conceptions.  In both cases, an inner woman is postulated though not defined or explained, who drives the male body she inhabits to seek penetration by other males.  This kind of idea is generally dismissed by scientists as 'mysticism' when the inner woman is a spirit, but not when she's a biological essence -- a concept that is no more rational as far as I can tell.