Monday, May 21, 2007

Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things!

I suppose my all-time favorite is the student who stood up in the audience during a dormitory forum on gays and Christianity, identified himself as a gay Christian who knew his Scriptures very well, and proceeded to denounce the "Saint James Version" of the Bible, much to the amusement of the fundamentalist students present. (It wasn't only the name of the translation that he got wrong.) But as a longtime educator on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues, I have an embarrassment of riches to choose from, not only from panel presentations before classes, but from Internet debates about homosexuality and the Bible.

Once again on a classroom panel this morning, a gay speaker emitted a spew of misinformation about Christianity and the Bible, warm with the glow of his superiority to ignorant Bible-thumpers. If I sound cranky as I write this -- and believe me, I don't just sound cranky -- it's because 1) on principle, I believe that we should have our facts correct; 2) pragmatically, our enemies will gladly point out and capitalize on our misstatements; 3) many of these mistakes are irrelevant (as you'll see) and waste time that could be spent on issues that really do matter. So without further preamble, let's sample a few of the Darned Things Gay Christians Say. (Several of these are also spread by Christians who aren't gay; but that doesn't excuse the gay people who pass them along.)

1. "The Bible has been translated so many times."
This doesn't really mean anything, and amounts to an announcement of the speaker's ignorance about the Bible. To the extent that it can be construed as true, it's a good thing. (I have to speculate here, because the people who say things like this are often parroting slogans whose meaning they don't know, and can't explain.) For example, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek around 200 BCE is used by modern scholars to help understand or restore parts of the Hebrew text that were lost or corrupted. Translators of any text will consult earlier versions to see what their forerunners made of this word or that phrase. The existence of numerous modern translations is also helpful to non-scholars who don't know Hebrew or Greek, so they can get an idea of what meanings may lie behind the English by comparing different versions. (Of course there's nothing to stop anyone who cares from learning biblical Hebrew and Greek, and reading the Bible in the original, without need for a translation.)

I believe, though, that when people talk about "so many" translations, they usually mean that recent translations are the latest links in a game of Telephone: that they were made by paraphrasing earlier English versions, which in turn were based solely on the King James Version, which was a loose rendering of a Lower Glycaemic translation of a Pig Latin version of a corrupt Artesian manuscript, and so on. This simply isn't so. All modern translations, since before the King James Version, begin with the Hebrew and Greek texts. The Catholic graduate student who was sure that the King James Version was a translation of the Latin Vulgate,and conservative evangelicals who suppose that modern translations merely update the KJV's archaic English, or that the Hebrew text is a"translation" of the Old Testament, are equally mistaken.

And yet the same people who say this will often quote their favorite saying of Jesus as the basis of their faith, with no evident concern that it might have been mistranslated. Why is it only the parts of the Bible they don't like that are unreliable?

2. "Hebrew doesn't have any vowels, it's only consonants."
Of course the Hebrew language has vowels. It's only the Hebrew alphabet which lacks them, or used to. But so what? Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters lack not only vowels, but consonants as well. Like some other ancient alphabets, such as the Phoenician from which it was descended, the biblical Hebrew alphabet began as a memory aid for people whose job was to know a text by heart, using the writing to prompt them as they went along (aloud, since silent reading was not an ideal in those days). Context eliminated most ambiguity. By about 100 BCE, some copyists were filling in gaps by letting some consonants double as vowels; we can see this in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Around 600 CE, the Masoretes -- Jewish scholars assigned to establish an accurate text for the Hebrew Bible -- developed a system of vowel "pointing", symbols which could be written around the traditional consonantal text without changing it.

The absence of vowels left uncertain the meaning of only some parts of the Hebrew text. (The early Greek translation mentioned before helps to resolve some of these.) More serious problems are caused by changes in the meaning of words over centuries; copying errors (before printing was invented, all books had to be copied by hand), and the lack of punctuation, spacing between words, or standardized spelling.

In any case, the lack of vowels applies only to the Hebrew Bible, the Christian "Old Testament." The New Testament was originally written in Greek, whose alphabet comes with an ample supply of vowels.

3. "The Church left so many books out of the Bible."
Again this is true only in a narrow and unhelpful sense: the Church also left the works of Plato, Shakespeare, and Danielle Steel out of the Bible. Some people who say this seem to wish the Church had left out even more, especially the letters of Paul.

In fact, the Church added books to the Bible. When New Testament writers mention "the Scriptures," with just one exception they mean the Hebrew Bible, the "Old Testament", whose exact contents had not yet been determined within Judaism. To this the Church added four Gospels and numerous other writings, the "New Testament." (And this process of addition wasn't completed for a long time: the famous story of the Woman Taken in Adultery, for example, with its punchline "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone", was added to the gospel of John in the 5th century.)

Not only that, the Christian "Old Testament" contained more books than the Bible of Judaism. When St. Jerome translated the entire Christian Bible into Latin in the late 4th century CE, he wanted to follow the Jewish canon (which had been settled by then), but the Church preferred a bigger, longer, and uncut Old Testament. To this day, the Catholic Bible is longer than the Protestant, which follows the Jewish canon.

That one exception? It's 2 Peter 3:15-16, which refers to Paul's letters as if they were "scriptures." No one knows for sure, but many scholars believe that Paul's letters were probably the first Christian writings to be collected and circulated as authoritative Scriptures. The gospels probably were not written until after Paul's death. The earliest listing of Christian Scriptures that we know of dates from about 200 CE. (This is controversial, like almost everything about Christianity before 150 CE, but that just means that no one knows for sure.)

It's true that the early churches didn't treat every document written by Christians as Scripture. We know very little about the process by which some books came to be considered Scripture and others did not. Many of the "excluded" books survive to this day, and scholars disagree whether any of them contain reliable information about Christianity before 150 CE, let alone authentic teachings of Jesus himself. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, was found in Egypt in 1945. Some scholars believe that it may include some genuine teachings of Jesus which are not preserved in the New Testament. But not even its strongest advocates believe that all of it was written by a follower of Jesus, let alone that its picture of Jesus is free of political or theological bias. It has, in short, the same limitations and problems as any book you will find in the Bible. Should it have been included in the official collection? There's no reason to believe it's older than the four gospels which were included. If they were written too long after Jesus' day to be reliable, then so was Thomas. If Thomas probably contains some authentic teachings of Jesus, so do they. If they are merely the writings of men, so is Thomas. If earlier is better, then Paul's letters are the best we have ... but if the Bible has been translated so many times and has no vowels and has been altered by the Church, then we don't really have anything.

But again,the same people who confidently assert the uselessness of the Bible because some things were left out, will often use it with equal confidence as a source for the teachings of Jesus they like.

4. "The Bible knows nothing of homosexuality, as we know it."

Oh, I suppose this one is true: the ancients knew nothing of rainbow flags, leather bars, toaster ovens, Bette Midler, k. d. lang, Al Parker videos, or the Michigan Women's Music Festival. (Indeed, recent scholarship has revealed that Leonardo da Vinci never owned a Madonna CD in his life. Nor was he at Judy's Carnegie Hall concert, a fact which has led some scholars to doubt he was really gay.)

Seriously, it is not clear what people mean by this argument.It's true, as some point out, that the word "homosexual" does not occur in the Bible, since it was not invented until the 1800s. Neither do the words "sex," "sexuality," or "gender" -- but few people, I think, would claim that the Bible has nothing to say about these topics. Thanks to misunderstandings of some abstruse historical theories (see my forthcoming article "Gay Foucauldians Say the Darnedest Things!") many people interpret this to mean either that there were no people who loved people of their own sex before the word was invented; or that in the 1800s someone invented an entirely new way of thinking about sex between people of the same sex, which bore no resemblance to anything known in Biblical times. (A few even believe that a new genetic mutation appeared around 1870, which spread around the world in a generation or two, creating a new "species" called "the homosexual.") As a result, apparently, gay people in the 20th century are as different from lovers of their own sex in the first century as a raven is unlike a writing desk, and the Bible's condemnations of sex between males have nothing to do with us.

The word "homosexual" was invented in Europe in the 1860s and borrowed by some adventurous doctors to refer to an imaginary being, the "invert" or "third sex." These doctors believed that while some people had sex with their own sex because they had no access to the other (as in prison) or from sheer contrariness, the invert was a mistake of Mother Nature, with the soul of a woman in the body of a man (or vice versa for lesbians), and therefore not to blame for his or her difference. The ancients had their own notions about this mythical creature, and their own words for it; they were also aware of other patterns of same-sex desire, love, and sexuality, and they had words for them too. Of course there isn't an exact correspondence between our words and those of people who lived in other cultures two thousand years ago, but there is enough overlap for us to understand what they were writing about. And even today, the word "homosexuality" is used in different ways and refers to different patterns of sexual desire and activity between people of the same sex, including patterns known to the Biblical writers.

5. "Homosexuality wasn't mentioned in the Bible before the King James version, because..."

a. "Homosexuality never appeared in the bible till King James had his scribes translate the Bible so he could understand it better. king James had an accute [sic] ...or well not so accute tendency towards young boys. His scribes felt this was worg [sic] so they added the homosexuality to the Bible as to deffer [sic] him from being with young boys."

b. "I've heard that the King James version was the first translation to actually declare homosexuallity [sic] a sin-all previous ones supposedly did no more than discourage it on the grounds that it did not lead to the growth (population-wise) of the human race. *ponders* Funny. King James was a transvestite AND a homosexual."

c. "This version has been modified by king james and he was not only a paranoid schizophrenic but also a homphobe [sic]. Even any other version of the bible has been translated loosley [sic], asit [sic] was not [sic] ever written in english. Along with this, the inerpretations [sic] are heavily tainted by shakespeare and James [sic] Milton's Paradise Lot [sic, sic, sic]."

The quotations above were cut-and-pasted from Internet postings of gay and lesbian Christians. As folklore they're fascinating; as statements about the Bible, or James I of England, they're ridiculous. They reveal an eagerness to vilify a person about whom their authors clearly know nothing, that I think is best described as "Christian."

First, prohibitions of sex between men were in the Biblical text long before the English version authorized by King James I for use in English churches. You can confirm this easily enough just by looking at other English translations, such as the Catholic Douay or Jerusalem versions, or the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh.

Second, while King James was probably homosexual (oh, I suppose he was a little bi -- he married dutifully and sired some children, but his great loves were male), he was neither a transvestite or a paranoid schizophrenic as far as I can tell, nor did he have even a "not so accute tendency towards young boys": his first love was 34 when they met (James, who initiated the relationship, was 13!); the second and third were both in their twenties. Of the third, George Villiers, James famously told Parliament, "Christ had his John and I have my George."

Finally, John (not James) Milton, the great Puritan poet, could not have had any influence on the King James Version, since Milton was only three years old when it was published in 1611. Many people have speculated that William Shakespeare might have worked on the style, but how this would "taint" it or have any influence on its translation of the passages dealing with homosexuality, I have no idea.

I could go on, but I'll stop here. (Did I mention the gay minister who was offended by a picture of Jesus brandishing a sword, and claimed not to know where this image came from? See "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword", Matthew 10:34. Or the gay graduate student who referred to "fire and brimstone" as "Old Testament doctrines"? This is not only false, it's a defamation of Judaism -- a popular pastime among gay Christians, by the way. Hellfire and damnation are a major theme of the New Testament, and especially of Jesus' teaching as recorded in the gospels; they do not appear in the Hebrew Bible. For a real "Old Testament doctrine", see Leviticus 19.18, "Love your neighbor as yourself.")

When I call people on mistakes like these, they defend themselves by protesting that not everybody has the time to become a Biblical scholar. They're right: it takes time and effort to inform yourself responsibly on any subject. The trouble is, these people begin by presenting themselves as knowledgeable, even authoritative, about the Bible when they haven't bothered to take that time or make that effort. They only disavow all knowledge when they get caught in an embarrassing error.

When I consider that the Bible is a rather important document in their tradition, I'm surprised by most Christians' unwillingness to educate themselves about the Bible. I'm not saying every Christian should be a Bible scholar; but their lack of interest goes beyond that. What does interest them, guessing from their behavior, is feeling superior to other Christians, a feeling as easy to achieve as it is unwarranted.

Ah well, I'm an atheist, so it's not my problem, is it? My problem is knowing that many GLBT and pro-GLBT Christians care so little about informing themselves about issues that are supposedly important to their lives, and happily spread misinformation to others. As an American humorist once pointed out, the trouble isn't that people are ignorant -- it's that they know so much that isn't so.