Monday, November 16, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (part 6): Andrew Marin interviews Phyllis Tickle

I'm holding off on the Romans 1 deconstruction for a bit longer and adding an extra part to this series with the below two videos (about 10 minutes long total between the two). Andrew Marin has written a great little book called "Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community" while Phyllis Tickle wrote one of my favorite books in the Emergent Christian movement called "The Great Emergence".

I thought these videos were quite interesting on the topic of GLBT issues. Take a look:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

PREVIEW: LGBT Persons and the Bible part 5 (Romans)

I'm hoping to have a post up this weekend for the final passage in Romans, but for now here is a preview of my approach. I am uncomfortable with the easy answers on this one, so I will offer a couple of views on this passage I think. The view I plan to present first does not so much explain away Paul's negative view of homosexuality as it contextualizes it and dismantles it of any relevance for Christians today. What Paul is not talking about in Romans 1 is The Fall (in other words, homosexuality did not enter the world through the sin of Adam), but it entered later through the invention of idolatry, which had divinely-inflicted consequences (of which homosexuality is one). If this sounds far fetched, stay with me. It is based on good scholarship analyzing apocryphal Jewish sources that contain this viewpoint, and Paul would have likely accepted it. Indeed, rereading Romans 1 with this in mind brings the pieces together quite nicely. While this view crushes the conservative viewpoint of homosexuality as just like any other sin, it unfortunately also leaves us in the position once again of having to part ways with Paul because of the logic he uses to support his ancient viewpoint. It is understandable for his context - and forgivable too. But it is unforgivable for us to maintain such a view today.

A quote from Dale Martin sums it up:

"What for Paul functioned as a sign of the boundary separating idolatrous civilization from monotheistic faith has become a symptom par excellence of what is wrong with 'all of us'. Homosexual desire now lurks somewhere within us all. The fear of its outbreak motivates the current interpretive politics of heterosexism."

Monday, November 9, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.4): Leviticus

This post will wrap up the Old Testament passages that are used to clobber the GLBT community. While the two passages in Leviticus that I will briefly discuss here are rarely used in a serious scholarly debate to defend a traditionalist view on homosexuality, biblically uninformed people regularly throw these passages into a conversation to defend a traditional view of homosexuality. In context, the passages are just not persuasive.

Here are the passages under consideration:

1)"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22)
2)"If a man lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)

Let's see what else Israel is held to under Levitical law: no sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24) - anyone in violation of this was to be "cut off from their people" ('kareth;, Lev. 18:29, a term referring either to execution by stoning, burning, or strangling, or else to flogging or perhaps expulsion). The penalty for cursing your parents or adultery is also death.  "Round" haircuts are not allowed, neither are cattle inbreeding, wearing garments made of two different kinds of materials, the sowing of fields with two kinds of seed, and on and on.

The reasons for these covenant laws are complex and will not be explored in detail here, but the context is generally threefold: cultural identity, protection of the group, and procreation. The Hebrews are to be distinguished from the Canaanites, whose land they are moving in to inhabit, and this required a strict moral/purity code.  The purpose of this code, then, is to create and preserve a uniquely called people from being absorbed into Canaanite culture and religion. The goal was to facilitate the building of the nation of Israel on Canaanite soil. Within the story of the Old Testament, if this plan were to be thwarted, it would spell disaster for God's covenantal relationship with Israel to carry out the divine purposes. God's chosen people must have land and peculiar identity.

I also want to consider two possibly competing views of these passages. Which one is the best explanation, I do not know. Either way, the point is clear - Levitical law cannot be used as our ethical norm for today. The first perspective of some scholars is that the word 'abomination' actually does not describe something intrinsically evil but is about ritual impurity. I tend to think the matter is more complex than this explanation. Walter Wink comments on the second scholarly perspective in "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith":

"The Hebrew prescientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space. Hence the spilling of semen for any non-procreative purpose - in coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation - was considered tantamount to abortion or murder. (Female homosexual acts were consequently not so seriously regarded, and are not mentioned at all in the Old Testament (but see Rom. 1:26). One can appreciate how a tribe struggling to populate a country in which its people were outnumbered would value procreation highly, but such values are rendered questionable in a world facing uncontrolled overpopulation.

In addition, when a man acted like a woman sexually, male dignity was compromised. It was a degradation, not only in regard to himself, but for every other male. The patriarchy of Hebrew culture shows its hand in the very formulation of the commandment, since no similar structure was formulated to forbid homosexual acts between females. And the repugnance felt toward homosexuality was not just that it was deemed unnatural but also that it was considered un-Jewish, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life. On top of that is the more universal repugnance heterosexuals tend to feel for acts and orientations foreign to them (left-handedness has evoked something of the same response in many cultures)."

I agree with Wink's view here, largely because it is also what I have encountered in my academic studies multiple times by other Hebrew Bible scholars. As far as I am concerned, I see no way to responsibly read the Leviticus passages as condemning homosexuality, especially as we understand it today. Not only do most of us no longer view the status of women in the Levitical way anymore, but nobody understands biology in such an ancient fashion, we are not a nation struggling to survive like the ancient Israelites, and no genuine Christian who follows the way of Jesus would ever argue for the death penalty for gay persons (and yes, I know that there are some truly insane 'Christians' who do hold this view, even today.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.3): Genesis

At this point in the series, we have gone over two big verses from the New Testament that almost certainly do not deal with homosexuality. Whatever Paul in 1 Corinthians, or the author of 1 Timothy thought about homosexuality, we find no evidence in those verses - only a difficult discovery of the normalcy of ancient sexism. We will now be covering the issues raised in the stories of Creation and the story of Sodom and Gomorra in this post (Genesis 1-2 and Genesis 19:1-9).

Some Christians have tried to use the Genesis creation story in various ways to prove the Bible is “clearly” against homosexuality. Even a respectable scholar like N.T. Wright uses his own (problematic) brand of narrative theology to link Genesis with Revelation's heterosexual imagery to supposedly prove God's intentions for humanity. Yes, Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. And yes, Revelation uses the metaphor of a heterosexual union of heaven and earth to imagine the healing of the world at the eschaton. But to refer to these culturally bound metaphors in order to prove the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexuality is a form of literalism that I find completely unsustainable for a thinking Christian today. It is quite a leap to suggest that just because the first and last books of the Bible happen to both use culturally relative heterosexual metaphors to explain two different events that the Bible is therefore against homosexuality. On the contrary, I do not believe that this means that heterosexuality is automatically the only acceptable form of sexuality. Again, we need to get away from that kind of textual literalism (which would frankly horrify the authors of Genesis and Revelation!) and cultural naivete.  This is about as thin and weak of an argument as I have heard. Unfortunately, Wright feels compelled to retain a traditional view on sexuality that I do not believe will remain the norm for much longer. Nor should it, biblically speaking. Harvard professor and pastor Peter Gomes comments on the Genesis story in his classic, "The Good Book":

"Heterosexuality may be the dominant form of sexuality, but it does not follow that it is the only form of appropriate sexuality. What the story does do is reflect the world experience of those human beings who wrote it. Of course they would privilege the only way available to perpetuate the race, and they would do so with the aid of their own cultural lenses...the authors of Genesis were intent upon answering the question 'Where do we come from?' Then, as now, the only plausible answer is from the union of a man and a woman...The creation story in Genesis does not pretend to be a history of anthropology or of every single social regard it as excluding everything it does not mention is to place too great a burden on the text and its writers, and too little responsibility upon the intelligence of the readers, and on the varieties of human experience."

I think Gomes is spot on in this quote, as the creation story does not mention singleness or celibacy - both of which describe Jesus and the apostle Paul. Additionally, the narrative was compiled at a time when women were subordinated to men, which did not remain the absolute norm in Christian history. We need to be very careful to understand the Creation story for what it is and what it is not.

Now we will look at the more popular "clobber" passage in Genesis. In a nutshell, Sodom and Gomorra is not a story about homosexuality but about the sins of inhospitality (Matthew 10:14-15, Luke 10:10-12) and pride (Ecclesiastes). The city was not destroyed because of the angry mob's supposed homosexual lustfulness at Lot's door - after all, the city was to be destroyed before the angels arrived in the city to warn Lot of impending doom. The men at Lot's door in the story are not there to have gay sex with angels, but to humiliate them through gang rape - a very common, obviously despicable practice in ancient times that we find in many ancient cultures (including on the battlefield for some of the Greeks). As Gomes writes,

"The attempted homosexual rape of the angels at Lot's door, while vivid and distasteful, is hardly the subject of the story or the cause of the punishment, and no one in scripture suggests that it was."

New Testament scholar Walter Wink agrees in his book "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith":

"That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them 'like women,' thus demasculinizing them. (This is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.) Their brutal behavior has nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting adults of the same sex is legitimate or not."

To conclude this post, I want to mention something about the curious etymology of the word "sodomite." It derives from this story of Sodom and has meant a variety of things over the centuries: ordinary heterosexual intercourse in any position other than missionary position, oral sexual contact with animals, excessive heterosexual sex, male homosexuality, male prostitutes, idol worshippers of pagan fertility cults – all of this before it was ever equated with homosexuality as such.

As an added note, I feel an urgency today about this blog series after witnessing a "God hates gays" sign holder who was condemning members of the large HSU queer community to hell on the quad for some three or four hours today. My religious studies class was tense as a number of my peers are gay and were reeling from the experience.  This kind of stuff is so destructive and sad, and most of it is perpetuated because of distorted uses and readings of the Bible.

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.2): Malakos

In this second post, we will move on to another controversial and misunderstood Greek word that appears in the New Testament letters: malakos.  I intend to show that this word probably means "effeminate" – as the Biblical translations from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century actually agreed upon. It is interesting, however, that just like the shift in translation preference with arsenokoites in the mid-20th century, malakos gets retranslated as male prostitute (occasionally), sodomite, and often collapsed with arsenokoites to denote "homosexual perversion" (but hopefully we all see this as a serious mistake after our previous analysis of arsenokoites). Although some reputable scholars still argue that malakos should be translated as "male prostitute”, I remain unconvinced.  Dale Martin has persuaded me that the word "effeminate" as a translation of malakos was right all along. Unfortunately, the mid-20th century translator's shift in sexual ideology provided them with a basis to usually retranslate the word as "homosexual perversion.” An abundance of ancient sources that used malakos (in contrast to the lack of sources for arsenokoites) make the meaning of this word perfectly clear.

As a word used in the context of moral condemnation, malakos always refers to the entire ancient complex of the devaluation of the feminine.  Martin's insight is helpful here:

"For the ancients, or at least for the men who produced almost all our ancient literature…women are weak, fearful, vulnerable, tender. They stay indoors and protect their soft skin and nature: their flesh is moister, more flaccid, and more porous than male flesh, which is why their bodies retain all that excess fluid that must be expelled every month. The female is quintessentially penetrable; their pores are looser than men's. One might even say that in the ancient male ideology women exist to be penetrated. It is their purpose...their 'softness' or 'porousness' is nature's way of inscribing on and within their bodies this reason for their existence. And so it was that a man who allowed himself to be penetrated - by either a man or a woman - could be labeled a malakos. But to say that malakos meant a man who was penetrated is simply wrong...a perfectly good word existed [for that]: kinaedos. Malakos, rather, referred to this entire complex of fact, malakos more often referred to men who prettied themselves up to further their heterosexual exploits. In Greco-Roman culture, it seems generally to have been assumed that both men and women would be attracted to a pretty boy."

These kinds of connotations for malakos are seen throughout ancient literature, and more than anything it simply reveals the horrible misogyny of the day.  It also reveals that this word was never meant to mean either "male prostitute" or "homosexual perversion.” Counter-intuitively for us today, a similar use of malakos came from Greek male homosexuals who used the word as an insult against male heterosexuals because they thought that penetrating a woman was absurdly feminine (sex with women, these gay Greek men contended, taints one with femininity - i.e., malakos).

So malakos is a sexist word from ancient times used in various ways to devalue the (stereotypically) feminine.  It seems clear that neither Paul in 1 Corinthians nor the author of 1 Timothy are referencing either homosexuality or male prostitution.  As such, how should we judge the mid-20th century biblical translators who wrongly translated malakos as having to do with homosexuality? Even contemporary scholars have disliked the idea of effeminacy as a moral category, while having no problem with homosexuality as one.  As Martin sarcastically comments,

"Today effeminacy may be perceived as a quaint or distasteful personal mannerism, but the prissy church musician or stereotyped interior designer is not, merely on the basis of a limp wrist, to be considered fuel for hell. For most English-speaking Christians in the 20th century, effeminacy may be unattractive, but it is not a sin. Their Bibles could not be allowed to condemn so vociferously something that was a mere embarrassment. So the obvious translation of malakos as 'effeminate' was jettisoned."

Clearly, we must critique an aspect of Paul's teaching here. For all of his genius in other areas and egalitarian ideals, this understanding of malakos makes Paul complicit in ancient sexism to some degree. As Martin comments,

"People who retain Paul's condemnation of effeminacy as ethical grounding for a condemnation of contemporary gay sex must face the fact that they thereby participate in the hatred of women inherent in the ancient use of the term."

Did Paul "hate" women? No. But he was certainly influenced by the negative Greco-Roman view of women in his use of malakos, even if he was indeed also advocating very progressive ideas in regards to women in church leadership.  Unfortunately, he was just not entirely consistent in his views.  However, is it realistic to expect an already radical apostle to be completely thorough and consistent on this deeply engrained cultural issue and prejudice? Not in my opinion.  Consider post-segregation 20th century America. Racism, the original sin of America, was so deeply rooted that even those who were for racial equality still struggled to shed their past prejudices. The power of the past is indeed strong, and structural sins like racism and sexism have deep roots.  All members of a society are unavoidably affected by such structural sins - including Paul, apparently.

Today, we must learn to read the Bible critically, becoming aware of our own and the biblical author's culturally relative biases.  We must also commit ourselves to read with St. Augustine's hermeneutic of love:

"Whoever, therefore, thinks that [s]he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all."

This will create tensions with in the text for us at times.  Not all parts can be harmonized as a perfect whole.  Sometimes we will find ourselves needing to critique the text on the very basis of biblical, Christ-like, kenotic-prophetic love.  And when it comes to the sexist term malakos, Paul must be criticized on the basis of his own principles of justice, love, and equality.

I conclude with a relevant quote from Samir Selmanovic in his book It's Really All About God:

"As in a relationship with a person we love, our relationship with the text would also involve disagreement and conflict and, at times, apparent disobedience to the text. To contradict and disobey specific texts on the basis of the entire relationship with the entire text can be a way to honor our texts." 

Sunday, November 1, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.1): Arsenokoites

With this post, I am beginning a blog series on homosexuality and the church where I will offer some historical-critical and theological insights into the so-called "clobber passages.”  There are essentially six key verses in the entire Bible that supposedly deal with homosexuality.  I intend to offer my view on each of them in five posts. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are the passages I will deal with in the next two posts.  I will then write two posts on the Old Testament verses, concluding with Romans 1:26.

While I agree with mainstream scholarship that sees 1 Timothy (along with the other pastorals, 2 Tim. and Titus) as definitely pseudo-Pauline, they are in our sacred text and must therefore be actively engaged regardless of authorship questions. 1 Corinthians, on the other hand, is widely affirmed to be authentic Pauline material. With these issues in mind, we will be considering the two passages in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim. in the following two posts.  The primary challenge in both passages revolves around two Greek words: malakos and arsenokoites.

Below are the two relevant verses (NRSV):

1) "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes [Greek: malakos], sodomites [Greek: arsenokoites], thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. 6:9-10)

2)"...the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites [Greek:
arsenokoites], slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me." (1 Tim. 1:9-11)

Let's start with the word arsenokoites, a somewhat mysterious word that has been translated differently throughout the 20th century. After centuries of being more particularly recognized as describing something distinctly male, biblical translators went broad in their interpretation. The word became variously translated as homosexuals, sodomites, sexual perverts, or homosexual offenders. In the case of the Corinthian passage, some translators even collapsed the two words malakos and aresnokoites into one phrase, defining it as homosexual perverts, homosexual perversion, or practicing homosexuals (an obvious attempt to separate sin from sinner...). Yale professor Dale Martin comments on this perplexing trend in his book Sex and the Single Savior (note his sarcasm):

"Between the end of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century therefore, the translation of arsenokoites shifted from being the reference to an action that any man might well perform, regardless of orientation or disorientation to refer to a "perversion," either an action or a propensity taken to be self evidently abnormal and diseased. The shift in translation, that is, reflected the invention of the category of "homosexuality" as an abnormal orientation, an invention that occurred in the nineteenth century but gained popular currency only gradually in the twentieth. Furthermore, whereas earlier translations had all taken the term (correctly) to refer to men, the newer translations broadened the reference to include people of either sex who could be diagnosed as suffering from the new, modern neurosis of homosexuality. Thorough historical or philological evidence was never adduced to support this shift in translation. The interpretations were prompted not by criteria of historical criticism but by shifts in modern sexual ideology."

In order to uncover this peculiar word's meaning, we must see it used in a wide variety of contexts – something we unfortunately do not have the luxury of.  Using the very few sources that we do have, including uses of the word in the non-canonical Acts of John and the Sibylline Oracle, it appears to be a word that refers to economic exploitation by means of sex, but not necessarily homosexual sex. Arsenokoites appears in lists of sins that group different kinds of sins together, and it is always tied to other economic sins in these texts. This can also be seen in our canonical texts in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim., as the word is always followed by economic sins.  However, matters are somewhat unclear in these passages since sexual sins precede the word in both cases - not so in Acts of John and Sibylline Oracle!  There, the word is clearly marked off as an economic sin. In the non-canonical texts, there are clearly separated lists of sexual sins where arsenokoites does not appear – it only appears within other lists of economic injustices. A similar situation is observed in a second century document written by Theophilus of Antioch. The word there is separated by three other words that specifically refer to economic injustices. It is used once more later in that text, but it is immediately preceded by sexual sins and immediately followed by economic sins (like in our two canonical passages above).

There are two other known sources which use arsenokoites.  These texts might imply that it is related to sexual activity. One is a Gnostic myth and the other is a letter from Eusebius in the 3rd century. Neither are clear in their meanings, but sexual activity - and not necessarily homosexual activity - could be inferred from these other two passages.

Still, scholars do not know for sure what is meant by this word.  Its meaning is permanently lost to us today, barring future archaeological discoveries of ancient texts that use the word in more helpful contexts. We have a small handful of ancient texts using it, and it seems very unlikely to refer to homosexuality more generally.  As we have seen, it probably refers to a kind of economic exploitation, perhaps of a sexual kind.  Even considering the ambiguity of the word, there is absolutely no defensible reason to translate arsenokoites as referring more broadly to homosexual sex, or in more narrow terms as sex between two men, as some earlier translators did.  Whatever the word meant, it has nothing to do with the kinds of same-sex relationships that are based on commitment, mutuality, and love between two responsible adults.