Friday, February 22, 2013

The Christian Cases for Gay Marriage

This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

Wedding bells are ringin' in the chapel,
I hear the children laughing out with glee.
At home alone I hang my head in sorrow,
Wedding bells will never ring for me.

—"Wedding Bells," Lissie

(Before I get to my main purpose this week, I want to point out that it is now the Christian season of Lent, about which I have written a few things. I'm not going to reflect on the season again this year, but I do think that this guy has a particularly interesting perspective on the matter. [I'm a big fan of the sardonic someecards message at the top of the post.])


The other day, former Utah governor John Huntsman came out for gay marriage, in an op-ed called "Marriage Equality Is a Conservative Cause." Huntsman is a conservative I find easy to respect and admire, even as I disagree with him on many issues, so it was nice to find myself on the same side as him in an important ideological divide. But in his piece, Huntsman eschewed a case from the perspective of his faith, Mormonism, which is not by any means completely unthinkable. While I've written without much detail on the subject before, reading Huntsman's op-ed made me feel it was time to lay out why I think Christians should embrace gay marriage.

As in any protracted and difficult argument, there are actually a number of different cases for gay marriage and gay relationships within Christianity. I'm going to briefly outline the ones I think are most central. 

1. The Bible does not condemn homosexuality
An important starting point is addressing whether or not the Christian Bible condemns consensual homosexual relationships. There are a number of scholars and exegetes who argue that, in fact, it does not do so. There are a limited number of places throughout the Bible that appear to condemn homosexual practice, but there are strong arguments to be made in each case that something else is being condemned—a failure to practice hospitality, sexual slavery, cultic prostitution, etc. Here is a pretty readable argument taking on the passages in question, and here is a ludicrously detailed one for those who want to really dive into the subject.

(There is another approach to the subject, which is a bit more appealing to me, but more troubling for people with a strong belief in Biblical inerrancy, as it requires you to accept that there are some things in the Bible that are wrong. [Because I recognize that the Bible has historical and scientific inaccuracies, I abandoned this idea some time ago, but there are a number of Christians who have not.] The argument for gay marriage here goes like this: there are parts of the Bible that approve of practices that modern Christians and most people in general find abhorrent, e.g., slavery, but these attitudes are a reflection of ancient cultural norms, not of God's will for human life. Instead of pointing to the few passages that condemn homosexual practice, we should recognize that they are the result of cultural prejudice, and seek to understand homosexuality as a legitimate part of God's creation. This argument is expressed much more eloquently here.)

2. Relating science, Christianity, and homosexuality
Another case can be made by asserting that Christianity (or Religion in general) is not, as is often assumed, contradictory to or mutually exclusive with Science, but that the two are complementary, and should inform each other. Thus, one can look for scientific evidence to inform Christian thought on the matter: whether homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon, whether homosexual relationships can be psychologically healthy and stable, and whether being raised in a family headed by people in a homosexual relationship is harmful to children. The research I've encountered on the subject has been favorable to the conclusion that homosexuality and homosexual relationships are a positive part of God's created order. Here is a link that includes scientific evidence among a range of Christian arguments in favor of gay relationships.

3. Jesus
The last case I want to mention is the simplest to articulate, though defending it is a little more complex. (I won't go into detail here). It goes like this: an incredibly key message of Jesus' ministry was to welcome and include people who had been cast out by his society. By rejecting and condemning homosexuals, making them into outcasts in the Christian community, Christians also reject the message of Christ. Here is a pretty readable argument from this perspective.

There are tons of other cases to be made in favor of gay marriage, but I think most of the specifically Christian ones fall into these three categories. I think together these Christian cases for gay marriage are pretty doggone convincing.

That said, unlike some folks on both sides of this line, I can respect people who hold the opposing view. The only caveat I make is that I can't respect well, hate, and if it's not clear that someone's opposition to gay marriage comes from a place of love for the people involved, then I tend to lose that respect pretty quickly.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

You May Not Know It, But the Puritans Were Rad

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

Climb the fence and in through the side door,
Past the sarcophagi laid down on the dirt floor.
I'm in your church at night,
Singing hallelujah at the top of my lungs.
—"I'm in Your Church at Night," Active Child

The other day as I browsed Facebook, I came across an item in my news feed, shared by several and liked by many, called "Puritan Valentine's Day Cards." They were, in themselves nothing terribly offensive, and they were even a little funny. But the sight of them made me angry, in a way I am still struggling to put into words. It has to do with false assumptions, smug superiority, and the loss of once-treasured ideas and values. More basically, it has to do with my defensiveness about the Puritans.

Before I try to put all of that into words, I want to take a moment and explain what's wrong with the cards themselves. I went to the source and selected two illustrative examples.

First, what do we all know about the Puritans? Right, they were totally sexually repressed; that's what "puritanical" means, after all. As demonstrated in this sexually repressive valentine, if the Puritans thought sex was for anything, it could only have been procreation.

In a word: no. The Puritans were all about sex. They thought sex was totally amazing and sweet, and that you should be doing it all the time, that you should engage in it "with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully." They just thought you had to be married to do it, which, if you think about it, so did the whole rest of Western society back in the day.

In point of fact, Puritan sexual thought was a rejection of Catholic thought at the time, which said that it was better to be a virgin than to have sex, and that you should only get married and have sex if you really, really needed to. But if you did, you were less okay than people who stayed celibate their whole lives. Puritans had the more balanced, realistic, and generally positive view of sex. If you don't believe me, check out this engaging blog post and this classic article on the subject.

The second most obvious fact about the Puritans is that they hated witches, and would do pretty much anything to be rid of them, even put people on trial and kill them in spite of them probably not being witches. Right?

This one's a little tougher to answer with a straight "no," but not much. Have you checked out what was going on in Europe in the 16th-18th centuries? Witch hunts and trials were a regular feature of cultural life for hundreds of years. What would be remarkable is if you had a group that managed to keep it down to say, one witch hunt in its existence. Which is basically what the Salem witch trials were: American Puritans' one witch hunt. In Marilynne Robinson's words: "For Europeans, our Puritans showed remarkably little tendency to hunt witches, yet one lapse, repented of by those who had a part in it, has stigmatized them as uniquely inclined to this practice." Sarah Vowell puts it even more pointedly,  moving the comparison from the Puritans' fellow 17th-century dwellers to our own time: "Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago."


My dad always said that the conclusion of an essay should answer the question: so what? The more specific questions in this case are: so what if we make fun of the Puritans for being witch-crazy and sexually repressed? (They're dead, after all, and it's fun!) Why ruin a little Valentine's Day humor with a diatribe about irrelevant facts?

Because when we ignore the Puritans, or make fun of them and dismiss them, when we use "puritanical" to refer to sexual or general repressiveness, we "make ourselves ignorant and contemptuous of the first two or three hundred years of one major strain of our civilization," in Robinson's words. The Puritans in America were strange, yes; they were very different from us, and some of the things they did were pretty abhorrent (their treatment of Native Americans, for example). But many of the legitimate problems we have with the Puritans are problems we have with people from the era they came from in general; we should "keep in mind that these are more or less medieval people who are chronologically closer to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales than to The Wire" (Vowell).

The Puritans "established great universities and institutions and an enlightened political order," they "encouraged simplicity in dress and manner and an aesthetic interest in the functional which became bone and marrow of what we consider modern," and, most remarkably, they "quickly achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity, and mass prosperity, or happiness as it was called in those days" (all quotes from Robinson). They were totally rad in a lot of ways, in other words, and if we make ourselves ignorant of how cool they were, we lose the attendant lessons we might teach ourselves, and the inspiration we might find, from their example.

My advice, in short, is this: by all means make fun of historical figures and societies. They had things that were eccentric or just plain wrong with them. But, if you're going to do that, make sure you know what you're talking about. And don't forget to look for the good, noble, and inspiring things in those figures and societies. In fact, do that first.

First quote is from William Gouge, "an English minister whose guide to domestic relations was read by  New Englanders" (Sexual revolution in Early America, by Richard Godbeer).
Other quotes are from The Death of Adam, by Marylinne Robinson, pgs. 150-152, and The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell, pg. 20 and pg. 57, respectively. I highly and heartily recommend both of these books.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Reading the Whole Bible—Update

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible.

We should shine a light on
A light on...
And the book of right-on's right on—
It was right on.

—"The Book of Right-On," Joanna Newsom

So, I'm reading the Bible cover to cover (currently on page 317 out of 2089—starting the book of Joshua). It's going a little slower than I thought it would, but I'm content to blame that on having much less free time at work than usual these last few weeks.

The fact that I'm in Joshua means that I'm finished with the first five books, an important segment of the Bible that Christians and many scholars often call the Pentateuch (from the Greek penta "five" + teuch "books at the beginning of the Bible"*) and that Jews and other cool people call the Torah (Hebrew for "teaching" or "instruction"). For Jews, the first five books are the most important part of the Bible, as they contain the story of their ancestors and origins as a people (in the first book, Genesis), the story of the beginning of their relationship to God (in the second book, Exodus), and all the commandments that they are to follow (in Exodus and the other three books, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)—though different groups disagree on whether to obey all of the commandments in the Torah, including things like not mixing different kinds of fibers in your clothes, or just the ones about morality, like honoring one's parents. For Christians, they are important because they describe things like God's creation of the world (Genesis 1), humanity's fall from a state of innocence (Genesis 2), the beginning of God's relationship with human beings (Genesis), and the moral code that forms the foundation of proper living (the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20).

A friend asked recently if I had achieved any big insights so far in my reading. My honest first reaction was, "Well, no. Not really." And I didn't decide to do this in order to discover things or change my worldview; I'm doing it because it's interesting, and because I think it's important for a Christian to do it if he or she can.

But my honest first reaction was also an unconsidered one. I have had a couple insights.

First, on the down side: since I've never read these books whole, nor in a sustained fashion, this is the first time I've ever been directly exposed to the way they depict God for an extended period. And while I've always known that the God of the Hebrew Bible, and these books in particular, is often brutal and capricious, knowing that is different than seeing it, over and over in some places.  This hasn't led to any big epiphanies, but it does confirm my belief that the Bible cannot be an infallible record or be wholly relied upon. I feel strongly that God's capriciousness and brutality in these books cannot be reconciled with God's being a loving parent, concerned with the well-being of God's creation. I believe that the authors of these books confused the history of their ancestors' often violent activity with the will of the God that they worshiped. It has also led me to sympathize, though not agree, with various heretical groups who have tried to reconcile the problem in even more drastic ways, like claiming that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a separate, lower deity than the God of the Christian New Testament (AKA Marcionism).

On the up side, though, my reading so far has yielded lots of little insights, small details to ponder over and wonder at. And I have enjoyed these immensely. I particularly enjoy trying to connect what I'm reading with what I already know about later parts of the Bible. For example: when I read in Leviticus about things that caused ritual impurity or "unclean"-ness, I came across a passage (Leviticus 15:25-27) describing what happens if someone has a constant hemorrhage that never goes away (they are "unclean," as is anyone who touches them and everything they sit or lie on, which is pretty intense) and I realized that the life of the woman with this problem in the gospels (Mark 5:25-34, Matthew 9:20-23, Luke 8:43-48) was way tougher and lonelier than I had previously understood. You basically couldn't be with her and be an acceptable part of society. I also wondered if there's a connection between the ceremony for refusing to perform levirate marriage (the woman takes the man out in public, takes off his sandal, and spits on him [Deuteronomy 25:5-10]) to the ceremony performed by Boaz when he wants to marry his relative's widow, Ruth (Boaz asks Ruth's less-distant relative if he will marry her, and then takes his sandal as confirmation that he doesn't want to [Ruth 4]). There's tons of this stuff, and I love thinking about it and trying to make connections. 

The other big up side is that, like I talked about a little last week, much of this book is undeniably beautiful. And even the parts that are not have started to seem lovely, or at least familiar and interesting. By the time I hit Deuteronomy, I had gotten so into the rhythm of reading Biblical laws that I was actually enjoying reading the law parts of Deuteronomy, which are not only interesting in themselves, but are in fact often a revision or updating of laws earlier in the Bible. Deuteronomy changes the laws in a couple of ways, but the coolest way is that it makes an explicit place in the law for widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners, with a thoroughness that is totally unlike law codes in other Biblical books. 

So the project proceeds apace, for good or for ill. Mostly, it's been good.

*Okay, not really; it's from Πεντατευχος (penta + teuchos), the Greek word for five plus the word for tool, vessel, or book.

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