Wednesday, May 28, 2008

You Gotta Tell Us You Love Us So We Won't Be Alone

I'm drawing a complete blank on what to write about today, so I'm going to post this review that I wrote for Gay Community News, but which never got published. There has been a flood of gay Christian material published since 1988, but whether it's put out by a small house, like the book below, or by a major publisher like Beacon or Harper, it almost always takes the same crypto-fundamentalist approach: if you interpret the Bible the right way, it will say what you want it to say. Disdain for non-Christian gays, or for gays who don't share Christian-Right values, is also common. So, twenty years old though it may be, this piece is still timely.

Things They Never Told You in Sunday School: a Primer for the Christian Homosexual

by David Day
P.O. Box
, Austin TX, 78763: Liberty Press Inc., 1987
170 pp.
$7.95 pp.

When I think about gay and lesbian Christians I'm sometimes reminded of Mark 6:34, where Jesus pities the crowds who come to hear him, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. I don't believe that human beings ought to be sheep: sheep always seem to end up getting fleeced. (I prefer to be a goat: omnivorous, cantankerous, horny...but I digress.) But I can't help noticing that gay and lesbian Christians seem always to be milling anxiously around, looking for someone to tell them that they have a right to exist. And now as in Jesus' day, there's always someone who's more than happy to take up his crook and lead the flock off for clipping.

David Day is Pastor (from the Old French pastor, meaning shepherd) of Metropolitan Community Church of Austin, Texas. He has written a book called Things They Never Told You in Sunday School: a Primer for the Christian Homosexual. It's a good title, but misleading, for the book contains exactly the kind of things they taught you in Sunday school -- sloppy or outdated scholarship, semi-inspiring platitudes, (barely) unconscious bigotry -- turned to gay/lesbian Christian ends.

Day begins by warning against proof-texting, "the use of a single scripture that seems to pertain to a certain topic as proof of God's opinion concerning that topic" (31). People who proof-text ignore "the cultural setting of the original scripture . . . the original meaning of the language . . . [and] the overall messages that surround it and appear throughout the Bible" (31f.). This, of course, is what you are likely to be told at the beginning of any Bible class. As Day admits, "Even the most rigid Bible-pounding conservative preacher uses this approach to some extent" (35).

Day then proceeds to violate the principle he has just endorsed. He accepts the consensus of modern Biblical scholarship that the Torah was written in several stages long after Moses, and that the framework of Leviticus, in which Yahweh dictates his laws to Moses from the tabernacle, is a legend intended by its authors to lend divine authority to their prescriptions for Israelite life and worship. The Levitical laws, which include a prohibition of sexual acts between men, were written by "the priests of Israel . . . to guard their traditions against heathen intrusion", notably "the sexual practices of the Canaanites . . . [which] were deeply interwoven with idol worship. Their gods were sexual and were worshiped in sexual rites" (72). (This sounds like my kind of religion, but Day, like the Levitical priests, disapproves.) Day also believes that Leviticus emerged partly as an expression of what he imagines as the ancient Israelites' shock, while in exile in Babylon, at discovering "large-scale homosexual prostitution" there. "The male-male sexual activity that the Hebrews would have seen prominently displayed in Babylon would have been in the form of prostitution -- cult prostitution honoring a Babylonian God" (75).

Why this should have bothered the Hebrews is not clear, since Day thinks that male-male sexual activity had long been common among them (65). On Day's own assumptions, they would also have seen male-female ritual copulation "prominently displayed" in Babylon; why didn't this make them reject heterosexual activity as well? According to Day, ritual copulation had been practiced in the Jerusalem temple for around 300 years before the exile, so seeing the practice should have made the exiles more homesick than disgusted. And what is so intolerably nasty about ritual copulation anyhow? It was, Day says (like most gay apologists for Christianity), a common practice in heathen religions, as if this explained everything. But Israelite religion practiced rites which were practiced by the followers of other gods, such as animal sacrifice and circumcision; why not ritual copulation, especially in a culture which regarded itself as the bride of its God?

It's true that one way a group may define itself is by projecting evil onto other groups. Ancient Romans, for instance, prided themselves on not practicing ritual cannibalism or incestuous orgies, as the sect known as Christians did. Medieval Christians defined themselves by contrast with lustful Musselmans, or avaricious Jews who murdered Christian babies to use their blood for Passover matzohs. Modern Christians may define themselves against hypocritical Pharisees, bigoted fundamentalists, or amoral secular humanists.

These examples are meant to remind my readers that we need not, must not take seriously all of the charges a group levels against outsiders. Recently, a Biblical scholar named Robert Oden Jr. has shown that we don't know that ritual prostitution was common in ancient Middle Eastern paganism. See his The Bible Without Theology, (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. Oddly, thanks to stories in I Kings and the complaints of some of the prophets, we are fairly sure that it was practiced in Israel -- if, that is, the Hebrew word qadesh actually does mean "sacred prostitute."

However, there isn't any reference to "cult prostitution" in Leviticus, certainly not in chapter 18. The prohibition of males lying with males in verse 22 does not occur in the context of prohibitions of ritual activities: it is surrounded by prohibitions of certain kinds of sexual activity, including incest (very broadly construed, vv. 6-18), sex with a menstruating woman (v. 19), adultery (v. 20), and bestiality (v. 23). The sole exception is verse 21, which forbids dedicating (sacrificing?) one's children to Molech "by fire". So the explaining away of Leviticus 18:22 as a condemnation of ritual copulation involves lifting the verse out of context and explaining it in terms of a practice discussed only in a different part of the Bible.

Then Day turns to the New Testament. Against Leviticus, he cites the story of Simon Peter's vision from Acts (10:9ff.) in which Yahweh declares all foods acceptable to eat, thus repealing the dietary restrictions found in the Law of Moses. Does Day recognize that this story too is a legend, invented to legitimate the early Christians' abolition of parts of the Mosaic Law? He does not: he takes it at face value. For Day, the clean/unclean distinctions in Torah are "outdated concepts" which reflect "the ancient Jewish understanding of the ideal creation" (81); while the early Christians' rejection of Torah does not reflect the early Christians' concept of the ideal creation, but God's.

Day applies the same double standard to ancient Judaism's sexual norms: they are the result of "biological ignorance" and "ungodly sexism" (68), while the teachings of the apostle Paul contain "the word of God brought to us. . . . [O]ut of them eternal truths can be discerned" (102). And what makes David Day so sure that he knows an eternal truth when he sees one? How is he less bound by history and culture than Paul and the Levitical priests?

Day's discussion of New Testament passages relating to male homosexuality takes the same tack. "The same-sex activity would have encountered during his missionary visits [to Corinth] would have been associated with idolatry, pederasty, or prostitution, or sometimes all of the above. . . . Here, also, sex was glorified and nude statues of Apollo in various poses of virility 'fired his male worshippers to physical displays of devotion with the god's beautiful boys.' The society in Corinth was one in which sexual activity was routinely a part of worship. . . . In a city whose very name was synonymous with prostitution it is reasonable to think that Paul might address the issue of male cult prostitution" (108-9). The reference here to "physical displays of devotion with the god's beautiful boys" comes from something called The Apostle by John Pollock, published by a fundamentalist house in Wheaton, Illinois; not the most scholarly source. It sounds more like the prurient fantasy of a homophobe than an accurate account of Corinthian worship, though I must say that it sounds a lot more inspiring than most Christian services. Remember too that it's not certain, or even likely, that ritual copulation was actually practiced on this scale.

In Romans 1:18-22, the infamous passage denouncing men who burn with lust for other men, "Paul was talking about those who were involved in idolatry and thereby had the ownership of their lives given over to their passions" (125). This is bigotry. There is no reason why people who worshipped gods other than Yahweh should have been ruled by their passions any more than Jews or Christians were, and we have plenty of evidence of loving relationships, heterosexual and homosexual, from the Greco-Roman world. We also know of pagan writers who were disturbed by the exploitativeness of some male-male relationships -- and so does David Day, since he has read Robin Scroggs' The New Testament and Homosexuality, which quotes such writers.

If, as Day believes, Paul was so concerned about the ethical failings of male homosexual relations in the Hellenistic world, why didn't he do as he did with heterosexual relations -- encourage mutuality and love between the partners -- instead of condemning them outright? Since Day acknowledges that "It would be senseless to argue that Paul would not have considered same-sex activities between males unnnatural. ... Affection between men or male coupling was not the issue" (126), I don't understand why he bothers trying to defend Paul in the first place.

Day also cannot resist indulging in a little standard Christian theological Jew-baiting: "The Pharisees of Jesus' time believed that they were justified in looking down their noses at persons around them because they didn't abide by the rigid laws with which the Pharisees defined their own righteousness. ... God was not as impressed as they thought" (141). "Jesus came along," says Day, "and condensed all of the moral teachings of the ages into three little words, 'Love one another'" (141). Forget for the moment that the Pharisaic rabbis of Jesus' time had done the very same, or that like Jesus they found the command "Love your neighbor as yourself" in (of all places!) Leviticus. (Chapter 19, verse 18.) Forget that Jesus promised eternal torment to everyone who did not observe every jot and tittle of the Mosaic Law (Matthew 5.19, 7.21), as interpreted by the Pharisees (Matthew 23.3). I just wonder if God is as impressed as Day thinks by this unintentionally hilarious passage: "Those who criticize and hate homosexuals are contrary to nature themselves. God has made it clear that it should go against our spiritual nature to judge others. Bigotry is an unnatural act!" (98). Just who is being judgmental here? Or bigoted?

Reading Things They Never Told You in Sunday School did make me feel a bit sorry for gay and lesbian Christians. The more they strike at the Church the more hopelessly they stick in its dishonesty and hypocrisy. They will never be able to free themselves until they let go of their belief that if they can just interpret the Bible correctly, it will endorse homosexuality. It ill becomes them to denounce other Christians for selective Biblical interpretation as long as they are doing it themselves; though ironically enough, it is precisely this picking and choosing from the Bible that they have in common with other Christians.

There's a strong and unappetizing streak of self-pity among gay Christians. Their feelings are hurt, I guess, because no one else seems to agree that they're as wonderful as they think they are. They consider themselves superior to Christians who won't buy their particular distortion of the Bible, whom they regard as hypocrites, and of course they consider themselves superior to non-religious gays, whom they routinely characterize as loveless, promiscuous sluts. In a way, I suppose, it is unfair: other Christians get away with twisting scripture for their own purposes, so why shouldn't they? And why shouldn't gay Christians be allowed to claim moral leadership of the gay movement despite their self-righteousness and hypocrisy? The success of the Religious Right has set a very bad example for gay Christians, I'm afraid: what with religious nuts like Falwell and Robertson being taken seriously as political figures in this country, it's no wonder that gay Christians are babbling about spiritual renewal and thinking of themselves as the vanguard of homosexuality for the 1990s. The trouble with Things They Never Told You in Sunday School is not that it's unrepresentative of gay and lesbian Christianity; unfortunately, it's all too typical.