Thursday, November 26, 2009

"The Thankful Receiver Bears a Plentiful Harvest" (William Blake)

Today on Thanksgiving, I give thanks to Homo Superior Curates the Web, JaySays, and LGBTLatest Science for irritating me into posting after a week of procrastination. Like Easter and Yule, the Thanksgiving season evidently depresses IQs and brings the mushbrained out of hibernation. (And if they see their shadows, we'll have six more weeks of winter.) Homo Superior linked to posts at the latter two sites, which I followed and read, till smoke began coming out of my ears.

"Common sense tells me that God did not put pen to paper," writes geekgirl at JaySays in her meditation on the Bible and love; this is what Homo Superior quoted. Oy! Common sense tells me that the earth is the center of the universe, and that God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. To see a scientist invoke common sense, which is rightly undermined by so much of science, makes my brain hurt. In any case, fundamentalist Christians don't believe that Yahweh "put pen to paper", they believe that he inspired the biblical writers to do so, and preserved them from error in some obscure way. There's an old rabbinic story, quoted by the philosopher Walter Kaufmann in one of his books, in which Moses encounters Yahweh fashioning little decorations for the letters in the Hebrew alphabet so that, centuries later, Rabbi Akiba could come up with interpretations of their use in the Torah. But the rabbis didn't take this story literally; it was a loving joke about a revered, martyred teacher.

Geekgirl begins by lamenting that "I can’t recall a year, in my adult life time, where religion has been used so much as a tool for discrimination and lies." Since she has been married for 32 years, she and I must be more or less of an age, so I suspect she simply hasn't been paying attention. During the struggle for African-American civil rights, for example, the Bible was used on all sides, for as geekgirl also writes, "The Bible can be used to support or dismiss almost any point of view." Opponents of racial equality appealed to biblical teaching to justify racial inequality and segregation, and of course many prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement were Christian ministers. Since then we've seen the religious campaign against abortion, and the 1980s saw a flood of polemics against "Secular Humanism."  Then there's the use of the Bible to support anti-Semitism, the displacement and elimination of aboriginal Americans, internecine quarrels among Christians themselves, and of course Crusades against both infidel and heretic. And need I mention the Religious Right campaign against gay people, which began 30 years ago with Anita Bryant?  (Who, like the Lord Jesus, is with us always.)  The Bible itself, both Testaments, contains plenty of material witnessing to (sometimes literally) bloodthirsty attacks by believers on outsiders.

Geekgirl continues:
The Bible is a collection of writings, mostly found through archaeological means, written in ancient languages such as Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, over centuries. It has undergone translation and censorship. It has been studied by many people intensely for years at academic institutions. Common sense tells me that God did not put pen to paper. ...
Those who've read much of this blog may notice echoes here of other foolish things that liberal Christians say about the Bible. This time I was struck by geekgirl's remark that the Bible is "mostly found through archaeological means." While ancient biblical manuscripts have been found by archaeologists among the Dead Sea Scrolls and some other finds, the Bible has been in continuous use by Christians and Jews for around 2500 years. The ancient copies are useful for the scholarly study of the Biblical text, but they're not necessary; the Bible would still be with us if none of them had ever been discovered. I can't imagine what geekgirl thought she was saying, but on its face it's absurdly false. Further, while Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic have been used since ancient times, all three of them are still in use as first languages today: they are every bit as modern as they are ancient. If geekgirl (who "believes in Buddhism and attends the United Church of Christ") wants to write about the Bible, she should set her common sense aside and do some studyin'.

Next geekgirl picks out one bit of the Bible that she likes, chapter 13 of Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, his celebrated celebration of love. "If one reads the writings of St. Paul in Corinthians, it’s almost as if he is bipolar. There are passages regarding slavery, women shaving their heads, not speaking in church, and the list goes on. Yet, we have a passage that has remarkable insight." Her reference to "Corinthians" as if it were a book is a minor but telling confirmation of her ignorance about the Bible. There are two epistles to the Corinthians, and scholars believe that there were more; some may have been lost, or perhaps parts of them were incorporated into the canonical versions you'll find in a Bible today.

Diagnosing the mental health of a person who's been dead for almost two thousand years is rarely a good idea. Why does geekgirl suggest that Paul was bipolar? Is it because he expresses views on "slavery, women shaving their heads [another indication that she hasn't read Paul with even minimal care], not speaking in church" that she disagrees with, while expressing other views with "remarkable insight"? It's not necessary to look at other ancient writers to find similar behavior -- indeed, today's gay Christians and their allies are capable of prattling about love and then switching to hateful stereotyping of other, less sanctified homosexuals. I wonder if "bipolar" is replacing "schizophrenic" as a pseudo-medical label for people with erratic personalities -- or who simply make other, "nice" people uncomfortable.

As for what Paul wrote on love, I don't find it particularly interesting. "Love" is a buzzword now, and reading the New Testament indicates that it also was in Biblical times. One of my favorite examples, aside from Paul or Jesus himself, are the epistles of John. The famous slogan "God is love" appears in one of these, 1 John 4:8 and 4:16. In the second epistle, the writer warns, "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (10-11, KJV). But in the third epistle, the writer complains that he has been treated as he treated others: "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church" (3 John 9-10, KJV). By geekgirl's criterion, John the Elder must also have been bipolar.

Next we move to geekgirl's own blog, LGBT Latest Science. In the post linked by Homo Superior, she takes on the argument against same-sex marriage that "Marriage is for procreation." She doesn't provide any links to people who actually say this, however; at most it is a shorthand for a more complex position, like "Marriage is about love." What I've seen in this regard is something slightly different, that the (or at least, one) marriage is to provide a stable environment for children to grow up in. Earlier today, for example, I saw an article at the Advocate online, quoting former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to the effect that "the basis of marriage is procreation; children ideally need a man and woman as parents he said." (Huckabee also brought up polygamy, inexplicably treating it as a bad thing instead of a return to traditional biblical values.)

On this point, however, Huckabee isn't that far from advocates of same-sex marriage, who also often claim that children need parents who are married to each other. In Beyond (Gay and Straight) Marriage (Beacon, 2008) Nancy Polikoff wrote:
The marriage movement uses one refrain to push its agenda: that marriage is good for children and that raising children outside marriage damages both them and society.

It’s especially troubling when marriage-equality advocates make similar assertions. The constitutional mandate and law reform of efforts of the late 1960s and 1970s reflected the understanding that children are not supposed to suffer harm as a result of having unmarried parents. The lifelong disabilities of “illegitimacy” have been erased. If a law discriminates between a child born to married parents and a child born to unmarried parents, it is subject to heightened scrutiny under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

… Some who urge marriage as the solution to children’s needs fail to distinguish between consequences of marriage and consequences of parenthood. For example, a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force publication refers to the lack of educational assistance for the children of deceased public safety officers “who lack legal recognition of the parent-child relationship due to the lack of marriage rights of their parents.” But a child does not need his parents to be married to get these rights; the child needs his parent to be legally recognized as his parent. The same is true for children of heterosexual parents.

…For those advantages linked to parenthood, marriage is not necessary for the children of either same-sex or different-sex couples. For those requiring marriage of a child’s parents, all children with unmarried parents suffer. All the costs to children of what the Human Rights Campaign Foundation calls “marriage inequality” would be eliminated by building on the changes started in the 1970s to eliminate the disadvantages that children of unmarried parents experience [pages 100-1].
Though geekgirl disavows the intention of getting into religion in this post, she can't quite stay away from it. "For years, conservative religions have encouraged abstinence. The Catholic Church went so far as to say that couples should have sex only when they want sex." (I think she meant to end that sentence, "... only when they want children." I don't think she disagrees that couples should have sex only when they want sex.) "Conservative religions" have indeed "encouraged abstinence" for years: the New Testament is at best ambivalent about marriage, with Jesus encouraging his followers to become eunuchs for the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12) and forbidding divorce, which his disciples took as discouraging marriage in the first place (Matthew 19:10). Paul discouraged marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, where he argued that although marriage provides a licit outlet for sexual desire, a married man cares about pleasing his wife while a single man cares about pleasing the Lord, so it's better to remain single if possible. This remained the ideal of the Christian churches for centuries afterward.

I have no quarrel with geekgirl's observation, quoted by Homo Superior, that "Our desire for sex is a desire for sex, not a desire for children," nor with the Darwinian framework in which she put it. I suspect that our desire for marriage is also a desire for an fairy-tale wedding, not a desire for children. But I do think that geekgirl needs to inform herself a little before engaging in debate as a GLBT ally. As I've said before, gay people and our allies shouldn't spread misinformation -- that's what bigots are paid to do.

And now, I'm going out for a walk. I hope it's not raining too hard.

(image credit; and thanks, seriously, to the teachers I had who inspired and encouraged me to be the reading, thinking person that I hope I turned out to be, even if not in the way they might have wished)