Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The God That Dare Not Speak His Name

It's time for another of my book reviews for Gay Community News, published December 1, 1984. This one is still as relevant as it was twenty-three years ago. (In My Hubristic Opinion, of course.) Scroggs's book is still in print, and is still cited in writings on homosexuality and Christianity. There's still no good book on the subject, though the second edition of Daniel Helminiak's What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality is one of the best of a bad lot, and an improvement on the first edition. (Helminiak's pastoral Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth, on the other hand, is dreadful. Maybe I'll write about it here another day.)

One of the great pleasures for me in writing this review was finally getting to use the phrase "admitted heterosexual." I should do that more often.


Homosexuality and the Catholic Church
edited by Jeannine Gramick
Thomas More Press, $8.95 paperback
176 pp.

Hot Under the Collar: Self-portrait of a Gay Pastor
by Johannes W. DiMaria-Kuiper
Mercury Press, $7.95 paperback
177 pp.

Sex and the Bible
by Gerald Larue
Prometheus Books, $17.95 cloth, $8.95 paperback
173 pp.

The New Testament and Homosexuality
by Robin Scroggs
Fortress Press, $14.95 cloth
160 pp.

Back in the first post-Stonewall years, we who identified with the Gay Liberation movement commonly supposed that one of the main things we were going to liberate ourselves from was Christianity. If you had told us in the early 1970s that ten years later, perhaps the most vital segment of the gay movement would be gay churches and religious groups, you would not have been believed. We took for granted that the churches were a major source of anti-gay ideology and were therefore to be opposed implacably. As we waxed, they would wane.

It is easy now to see what we overlooked. First, but not least: most people simply don’t see religion as a bad thing, unless it is someone else’s religion. If gay liberation depended on religion’s withering away, then gay liberation would be doomed. Liberation movements come and go, achieving varying degrees of success, but religion is part of the warp and woof of most people’s lives. This doesn’t mean religion shouldn’t be attacked, only that we should not expect to destroy it; any small success is enough.

Second, we forgot the Jekyll-Hyde nature of religion. Christianity has been both constructive and destructive, liberating and oppressive. (The same can be said of liberation movements.) The anti-slavery abolitionists were led by ministers, while on the other side ministers busily justified slavery from the Bible. The Moral Majority extols war, some other Christian groups are pacifist. Many Jews have been notably active in the civil-rights movement and other causes, others are cuddling up to the Moral Majority. Islam, the religion of the holy war, brought civilization to Western Europe. This contradiction goes to the heart of religion, and is often embodied in individuals: Santa Teresa de Avila did works of charity and boosted the Inquisition; many gay Catholic men oppose the ordination of women.

Third, the Trojan-Horse potential of gay Christians within the churches. As a divisive tactic, the rise of gay religious groups could not have been more effective if the gay movement had planned it. I doubt there is a major Christian denomination which is not painfully deliberating the status of its gay members. The fact is that most religious believers are basically decent, and the humanity of much of the Bible has always been something of an embarrassment to many Christians. This was true for the anti-slavery movement, since the Bible not only has nothing to say against slavery, it often positively endorses it. In the New Testament slavery even becomes a paradigm for the relation between the believer and Christ. The same goes for homosexuality, for regardless how much Yahweh abominates buggery, he never gives a good reason for his loathing; and many modern believers are letting good sense override piety. So it should have been obvious that (1) the respectability of religion could be used to our advantage, if only to divide the churches; and (2) it really didn’t matter what the Bible or any other sacred text says about homosexuality, since the history of any religion is partly the history of the ways it has sidestepped the strictures of its sacred text or tradition.

The influence of ordinary human decency is evident through most of Homosexuality and the Catholic Church, a collection of papers delivered at the First National Symposium on Homosexuality and the Catholic Church, held in Washington, D.C., November 20-22, 1981. More interesting to me than the personal and ecclesiastical perspectives in the first half of the book – which will be useful as background to non-gays but old hat to gays – are the pastoral and ecclesiastical concerns of the second half. Robert Nugent’s “Homosexuality, Celibacy, Religious Life and Ordination” addresses some intelligent questions to “a church that prizes celibacy and an all-male clergy and rejects all homosexual behavior,” for example: “Does the introduction of a married clergy or women priests threaten in any way the male collaborative structure and the homosocial world of both heterosexual and homosexual clergy?” (p. 117). Nugent surveys the treatment of mainly gay male clergy in seminaries and monastic communities, arguing that the Church “ought to be as deeply concerned about obvious violations of poverty and simplicity of life style and about the abuse of power in the church that can cause as much, if not more, ‘scandal’ than violations of a celibate commitment” (p. 99f). Theresa Kane’s “Civil Rights in a Church of Compassion” and Cornelius Hubbuch’s “Gay Men and Women and the Vowed Life” are encouragingly humane responses to Nugent; Kenneth McGuire’s “Shifting Attitudes Toward Homosexuality” radiates common sense. It is a pity that the current head of the church is a man who cannot bear direct dealings with people who disagree with him, as shown by his reprehensible conduct in Latin America last year or, earlier, his refusal even to meet with American nuns – Theresa Kane among them – who favor the ordination of women. I doubt if many of the questions raised in this book would even make sense to him. Yet in the lower levels of the Church hierarchy there are, as this book shows, many men and women who put the Pope to shame.

Also encouraging is the increasing positiveness, even militance, evident in the Symposium contributions by lesbians and gay men. Jon DiMaria-Kuiper’s Hot Under the Collar also exhibits this improved self-image, while depicting the struggle necessary to produce it.

Kuiper was born in the Netherlands in 1943. At eighteen he emigrated to Canada, where he began to discover and explore his homosexuality. But one night he was raped in Toronto’s Queen’s Park, and after floundering aimlessly for a while, he retreated to the shelter of the Dutch Reformed Church in which he’d been raised. After seven years of seminary in Iowa (where he married) and New Jersey, he and his wife Chris settled into the pastorate of a church in upstate New York. There he began unwillingly to confront once more his sexuality. His marriage fell apart (he is commendably honest in recognizing the strain his slow coming-out put on his wife); he adopted a son; he lost his pastorate and nearly lost custody of his son; he helped found a Metropolitan Community Church in Albany, New York; he participated in a 168-mile MCC trek through Florida. He is an impressive man, and like many of us he has come a long way. As a writer he leaves something to be desired: his book is written in a mix of Mellowspeak (“share” having replaced “rap” and “grok with” for the Eighties), the kind of uncomfortably hip slang and profanity (“Holy shit!”) affected by clergy who want to break down the barriers raised by a clerical collar without taking the collar off (see the back-cover photo), and far too many exclamation points. Some words are unaccountably, given the general slanginess, set off in quotes: “a real ‘pro’” (p. 4), “having to ‘perform’ my husbandly duty” (p. 55), etc. But when Kuiper warms to his story, he can be remarkably evocative: his memories of Christmas with his family in North Holland, his dealings with his son Alden (an impressive person in his own right), his story of the Trek from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, are the best parts of the book. His theology “sucks,” but theology has little relevance to his effectiveness as a minister, which is plainly considerable, though he chooses to tell little of his day-to-day work (but see pp. 75-77). I often wished that his editor at Mercury Press (a promising new gay press in Missouri, whose first publication this is) had intervened more visibly in matters of style, but perhaps it was best to let Kuiper speak in his own voice. I finished Hot Under the Collar with the impression of a man generous, honest, and courageous – the kind of pastor who gives Christianity a good name.

Whether Christianity deserves a good name is another matter, and depends on what constitutes Christianity in one’s eyes. Jon DiMaria-Kupier’s idea of Christianity derives as much from a selective and biased reading of the Bible as Jerry Falwell’s but it must never be forgotten that the Bible not only permits selective reading, it demands it. The Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. The Old Testament) blends together the tribal codes of marauding city-hating nomads, the rituals of worldly citified priests, and the “reforms” of laymen (like Nehemiah) nostalgic for the simpler days of their fanatical bucolic ancestors. The New Testament is just as confusing: what began as a mystical cult, probably antinomian, almost certainly millenarian (i.e., anticipating the near end of the world), rapidly proliferated in several different directions – some even more scandalous than the cult’s beginnings, others eager for something like middle-class respectability, but all leaving traces in the New Testament. All efforts to extract a systematic theology, let alone ethics, from this mess are doomed to failure unless they are selective. But when we are looking at what Biblical writers had to say about homosexuality, we must also look at their attitudes towards other aspects of sexuality. How much do we really care, for example, whether homosexuality has the approval of a deity who could tolerate polygamy, the treatment of women as property, brother-sister marriage (see Genesis 20:12), concubinage – not to mention slavery, human sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40), genocide (e.g., I Samuel 15), and trial by magical ordeal for suspected adulteresses (Numbers 5.11-31)?

Gerald Larue, professor emeritus of archaeology and biblical studies at USC-Los Angeles, has written a book surveying biblical teaching on sex. A good modern work on this subject is needed, preferably by someone who understands both the Bible and human sexuality, but Sex and the Bible isn’t it. I’m not sure what went wrong. Larue has read the literature, but seems not to have assimilated it. The book rambles, and some of his biblical citations make no sense at all. On page 139 he speculates, for example, that John the Baptist may have been gay, quoting a saying of Jesus’: “What did you go out to see? … a man [effeminate man: malaka] clothed in soft raiment?” First, while this appears to be Matthew 11:8, malaka (which means “soft”) in the Greek text does not refer to the man (anthropon) but to his clothing; second, Jesus’ question is rhetorical, not to say sarcastic, and he answers it himself: “Lo, those who wear soft clothing are in the houses of kings” – and John, as everyone knew, lived in the wilderness and wore a hair shirt. Whatever kind of sex life the Baptist may have had, Matthew 11:8 gives us no evidence about it.

What Larue has to say about sex is often no better than his scriptural exegesis. The discussion is peppered with case histories à la David Reuben, commercials for Ethical Culture, and family-counseling platitudes (“But what is most important in any relationship is the quality of the relationship, including tenderness and tolerance, showing and expressing love and concern,” etc.) Larue is also defensive (“Nor can the humanist movement be singled out as a contributing factor” to “the rise in abortions or the increase in promiscuous sex” (p. 23) – and this defensiveness sends him off onto wild tangents. He is insistent on the necessity of accurate and complete sex education for children, but seems to hope that such education will deter adolescents – girls, anyway – from experimentation, with “the initiation into sex taking place at a later age and with fewer premarital partners” (p. 24). Then he finds the real culprit, the one to blame for all this teenage messing-around: “Where the fourteen- to sixteen-year-old daughter’s socio-emotional needs were met by maternal support and communication, there was less likelihood of the daughter seeking intimate relationships as a means to fulfill or meet socio-emotional needs. Nonvirgins were found [by whom?] to have poorer communication with their mothers than virgins have. The mother’s past and current marital and nonmarital sexual activities were also found to provide role models for their teenage daughters” (ibid.). When I read this passage I had an eerie feeling of having passed through a time warp into the 1950s, when psychiatrists were giddily discovering that everything – homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, Down’s syndrome, overweight, you name it – was Mom’s fault. And far too much of Sex and the Bible could have been written in the Fifties.

On homosexuality Larue is a good nonjudgmental liberal: “Fortunately, there are within the Western world devout Christians and Jews who place greater emphasis on love and justice and freedom than upon the authority of the handful of biblical passages denigrating [sic] homosexuality (p. 136). He seems to think that sexual preference is at least partially genetically determined, to judge by a passing reference on page 137 to a 1953 book by F. J. Kallman. Though he refers at one point to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (p. 139, note 1), when he discusses the controversial Greek word arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10, discussed by Boswell in his Appendix One) he ignores Boswell completely, claiming that arsenokoitai in “the Christian scriptures … is used to refer to sodomites [? a word not found in the Bible] … and means “those who enter the buttocks’ and generally is used with reference to a homosexual act” (p. 138). His translation is completely wrong (it means roughly “male fucker” [P.S. 2008: literally, “male bed”] – but, says Boswell on his page 342, “it is not clear whether ‘male’ designates the object or the gender of the second half”) and, since the term occurs in lists of vices without other context, it is impossible to say what it “generally is used with reference to”; Larue’s interpretation is precisely what Boswell questioned. This should at least have been acknowledged in a note. In sum, then, Sex and the Bible must be used with caution. Larue’s heart is generally in the right place, but his head tends to wander. Not recommended.

With Robin Scroggs’s The New Testament and Homosexuality we reach the level of serious Biblical scholarship. Scroggs, an admitted heterosexual, is professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary and has achieved some standing in his field. He decided to write this book, he says, after hearing a discussion concerning the church and gay civil rights in which he “heard the Bible being invoked in ways that were wholly inappropriate to any canons of Biblical scholarship” (page v). The result is in some respects an improvement over just about everything else I have read on the subject, with the exception of Boswell’s book. Particularly interesting is his proposed solution to the origin of that controversial word arsenokoitai, which Boswell had to leave unaccounted for: Scroggs suggests that it is a literal Greek translation of a Hebrew term used by the rabbis of Paul’s day to refer to sex between males (pages 107-109). This would explain why later Christian writers seldom used the word: it came from a milieu – Greek-speaking Judaism outside Palestine – foreign to them.

Unfortunately the book is seriously marred by Scrogg’s evident extreme discomfort with male homosexuality, which causes him to make some silly mistakes. For example, he cites from Plato’s Phaedrus a passage in which Socrates, “speaking of the feelings of the beloved in the midst of pederastic intercourse” (Scroggs, p. 37), says (Phaedrus 240DE; Loeb Classical Library translation):

But what consolation or what pleasure can he [the lover] give the beloved? Must not this protracted intercourse bring him to the uttermost disgust, as he looks at the old, unlovely face, and about other things to match, which it is not pleasant even to hear about, to say nothing of being compelled to come into contact with them?

Scroggs likes this passage so much that he quotes it twice (pp. 37f. and 51; “cited previously but worth repeating”). Now, besides expressing what Scroggs himself doubtless feels about the idea of some hairy, wrinkly old man panting away atop him, it may be that Socrates here expressed the feelings of many people in antiquity. But it isn’t what Socrates (or rather Plato’s Socrates) felt; the passage in question is Socrates’ parody of a speech by one Lysias, who had argued that boys ought to come across sexually for men who don’t love them, rather than for men who do, since love is madness. Having delivered this speech, Socrates promptly declares it silly and blasphemous, and delivers another in which he declares that under the influence of true love, the beloved shares his lover’s desire

to see his friend, to touch him, to kiss him, and lie down by him; and naturally these things are soon brought about [255E].

Socrates claims that the philosophically-inclined lover will decline whatever sexual favors his beloved might wish to grant him, and as a result will live in love forever, and after death be immortal. But even if, after drinking perhaps, they do “accomplish that which is by the many accounted blissful” (256C), they may yet “receive their wings” (256D). Of course this speech is idealistic, but coming from a writer as ambivalent about sex and the body as Plato, it is significant. Scroggs never cites it, but he does make much of the only passage he can find in an ancient writer, Plutarch, which suggests, in Scroggs’s words, that “even women can be human and provide a mutuality of companionship that makes the heterosexual relationship more than sexual”; yet Scroggs admits that even Plutarch “sounds a bit unconvinced by his own arguments” (p. 61)! Generally in discussing the ancient debates over the relative merits of homosexuality and heterosexuality, he tends to accept uncritically the anti-homosexual, pro-heterosexual arguments and does his best to minimize the pro-homosexual, anti-heterosexual ones. Boswell of course tends to the reverse bias, but without Scroggs’s evident revulsion for the other side – a point worth mentioning because Scroggs’s evident distaste causes him to misread the texts.

Having established to his own satisfaction the general yuckiness of male homosexuality in the ancient world, Scroggs has no difficulty explaining why the apostle Paul disapproved of it: it lacked reciprocity and mutuality, was impermanent, and was humiliating to the junior partner. Besides,

What he [Paul] “knew” probably originated rather from the rumor mills of the day, particularly perhaps from Jewish suspicions about Gentile activities. Since rumors are often larger than life, it may well be that what Paul “knew” were stories and claims of the more sensationalistic sort. … Thus, it is not hard to imagine that Paul’s basic attitude toward pederasty could have been seriously influenced by passing a few coiffured and perfumed call-boys in the marketplace [p. 43].

Scroggs sees Paul’s disapproval as an ethical reaction “against the image of homosexuality as pederasty and primarily here its more sordid and humanizing dimensions. One would regret it if somebody in the New Testament had not opposed such dehumanization” (p. 126). Since no right-thinking modern would disagree that mutuality is a sine qua non of a good relationship, Paul turns out to be a good guy after all, the New Testament turns out to be on the side of the angels, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief while scorning those who misread and misuse the Bible for their own purposes.

Not quite. First, Scroggs adduces plenty of evidence which indicates that ancient anti-gay writers loathed most the passive partners in pederasty, whether these latter were free or slave. The Alexandrian Jewish writer Philo’s “greatest scorn is poured out on the effeminate male, the call-boy, attacking the coiffuring of hair, the use of cosmetics and perfume, the general attempt to turn his male nature into the female” (p. 88). Similarly the third-century Christian father Clement of Alexandria’s tirade against those who “wear their hair in a disreputable fashion that savors of the brothel” (Paidagogos III.3, quoted by Scroggs, p. 55) betrays no ethical concern for the effeminate, only loathing of their wickedness. The only writers Scroggs quotes who express any sympathy for effeminate call-boys as victims are pagans, not Christians or Jews: Plutarch and Seneca. Even Plutarch expresses contempt for those who unman themselves (Erotikos 768E; Scroggs’s translation, p. 41): “Therefore placing those enjoying the passive role into the worst category of evil, we do not dispense [to them] any share of belief, respect, or friendship”; and no one, including Scroggs, expresses any sympathy for youths driven by poverty to prostitute themselves – it is always assumed that they did so out of licentiousness and greed. Scroggs’s exegesis of the catalog of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is instructive here: he translates the words pornoi, arsenokoitai, andrapadistai to mean “male prostitutes, males who lie [with them], and slave-dealers [who procure them].” But if the author of 1 Timothy were motivated by an ethical concern for young men coerced by slave-dealers into serving the lusts of arsenokoitai, why did he include the pornoi in his list of sinners? Apparently he considers the victims as culpable as the exploiters – or rather, he does not consider them to be victims at all. Scroggs is reading his own ethical concerns into a text which does not share those concerns.

Second, we may question the ethical concerns of the New Testament on other grounds. Paul did not condemn either heterosexual marriage or slavery – two ancient institutions involving relationships not based on mutuality – he merely argued that master and slave, husband and wife, should be considerate of one another. Slavery was somehow all right if master and slave loved each other as fellow-Christians – but Christian slaves were not to run away from pagan masters. If Scroggs is right that Paul judged pederasty by its “more sordid and dehumanizing dimensions,” that constitutes an indictment of Paul’s ethical judgment. Scroggs, who certainly does judge pederasty by its most sordid aspects, should have asked himself what the conclusion would be if heterosexual marriage even in the modern world were judged by such criteria. Limited space forbids a detailed critique of Scroggs’s discussion with its shallow psychologizing and barely contained homophobia, but this should suffice.

Scroggs never discusses Jesus’ attitudes towards sex, and gay Christians will be quick to seize on the fact that Jesus is not reported to have ever said anything about homosexuality. True, but we are in no position to draw any conclusions from this. The doctrine of Christian freedom from the Mosaic law, so important for the gay Christian position, is at best implicit in the gospels; it is explicit only in the writings of Paul, who did not extend this freedom to sexual matters. Worse, the gospels report that on some occasions, Jesus endorsed the continuing, even eternal, authority of the Mosaic law (Matthew 7:17-30; 23:1-3, 23; Luke 16:17); if so, he would have condemned homosexuality as vehemently as Paul did. The gospels are so inconsistent about Jesus’ attitudes toward the Law, however, that nothing certain can be said, but it is certainly ironic that gay Christians (convinced, like most Christians, that Jesus would be on their side) like to see Jesus as a good guy and Paul as a villain, when it is quite possible that on this issue there might be nothing to choose between the two. It is also ironic, given the delight with which Christians have scorned the alleged legalism of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, to see gay Christians and their straight friends resorting to strained interpretations of the New Testament which would make any Pharisee blush.

Which brings us back to the relation of the gay movement to gay Christians. The position of the churches regarding homosexuality depends on numerous factors, of which the teachings of the New Testament may well be among the least important. When times change, the churches will adjust to fit the times as they always have, and the relevant biblical passages will be reinterpreted or ignored, whichever is easier. (Compare the issue of slavery: no modern Christian would condone slavery, and most probably believe that somewhere in the gospels Jesus must surely say “Thou shalt not commit slavery” or some such. It is often difficult to convince them that he didn’t.) Meanwhile, the churches must be kept from obstructing the cultural changes which will ultimately force the churches to change their positions. The churches are not going to go away, so it will be the task of gay Christians and their straight allies to bring about the necessary internal changes, and it is in the interest of the non-religious gay movement to encourage this. I’m sure I sound overly cynical here, but that’s too bad. Books like Scroggs's only show, despite their efforts to prove the contrary, that the New Testament is pervaded by a deep disgust for the body and for sex, and that this disgust is in no way ethically based. The value of Scroggs’s book, thanks to its quotations from ancient non-Christian writings, is that it shows that this disgust was not unique to Christianity. If Christianity were to disappear tomorrow, people would find some other vehicle to express their ambivalence about the flesh. One of the weaknesses of the gay movement has been its tendency to underestimate how widespread this ambivalence is, and it has been a profound mistake to suppose that the basis for its Christian forms is purely theological. We need to ask: how did a religion which made such a fetish out of hatred for the body become so popular and powerful? The question is not academic. If we don’t come up with some good answers, we will not be able to combat effectively the same tendencies in society and religion today.