• Archive for July, 2015

    Review: Torn/God and the Gay Christian

    July 20, 2015 // No Comments »

    god-and-the-gay-christianI’m finally getting around to writing a review of Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. The short and sweet is that Vines does a fine job walking the reader through all the Bible passages dealing with same-sex behavior, as have other authors before him. What’s new here, and what I enjoyed most about the book, is how well Vines presents the dilemma the church faces if it chooses to reject all gay relationships and prescribe celibacy for all non-heterosexual church members.

    For most of the church’s two thousand years, celibacy has been understood as a free choice in response to a gift from God. Jesus emphasized this, as well as the difficulty of living out that gift, when he said, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given … He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matt. 19, emphasis mine). Apparently, Jesus saw celibacy as a gift that not everyone had and that not everyone was able to accept.

    The Apostle Paul seemed to love the gift of celibacy that he had, and wished everyone else had it too, but he somewhat regretfully acknowledged that they did not. “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that” (1 Cor. 7:7, emphasis mine).

    The so-called church fathers affirmed this understanding of celibacy, as a free choice in response to God’s gift. The Reformers were adamant about it as they objected to mandated priestly celibacy, and indeed in our own time we can see the problems of forced celibacy in the sex scandals of the Catholic Church. But even here, it’s important to note, the Catholic Church asserts that celibacy is a gift from God that the priest freely accepts upon entering the ministry. Celibacy is not a sentence, therefore; it is a grace received and entered into by an act of one’s own volition.

    Until the late 1800s, when the concept of sexual orientation developed, it was assumed that everyone was capable of heterosexual desire and that homosexual desire was the result of lusts out of control. The prescription was not celibacy, but reigning in those desires and channeling them in a “normal” (i.e., heterosexual) manner. Even after the 1800s, once it was clear that some people simply are not wired for intimacy with the opposite sex, the assumption was that a rewiring was possible. Homosexuality was a disorder, something that went wrong in childhood, and with the right therapy and a good dose of determination, the homosexual person could develop their heterosexual potential. This was called reparative therapy. Different versions of it sprouted and gained popularity throughout the twentieth century, and wild claims of change and healing were purported. Only in 2012 did the last major so-called ex-gay ministry shut its doors, announcing what the psychological community had said for decades, that reparative therapy doesn’t work. In the last few years, most of the church has accepted this. But that’s put the church in a place it hasn’t been before: what to do with people who don’t have a “heterosexual potential” but also don’t have a gift of celibacy? One of two things has to change, and Matthew Vines does a good job illustrating the choice the church has.

    We can embrace gay relationships and maintain a traditional view of celibacy, or we can change our understanding of celibacy and keep a traditional view of gay relationships. But we cannot do both. Christians who hold, as I do, to a high view of Scripture must decide which tradition to modify.

    From there, Vines walks the reader through a historical understanding of the six Bible passages referencing same-sex behavior and demonstrating why these verses should not be understood as condemning the type of mutual, covenantal gay relationships we see today. A lot depends on whether you buy his interpretation, but again, the question is not if tradition must change, but which tradition must change.

    All in all God and the Gay Christian is a wonderful introduction to the gay debate within Christendom. It’s concise—just 224 pages—but fairly comprehensive, and with an accessible style that doesn’t require you be a Bible scholar to follow along. Having just released last year, it’s also one of the most current books on the topic.

    For those Christians who worry that altering our tradition regarding gay relationships means overturning the fundamentals of the faith, Vines offers a spirited defense of the traditional understanding of the Gospel and illustrates how it is perfectly consistent with embracing covenanted, lifelong gay relationships.

    If I were to quibble with anything in this book, it would be that sometimes Vines writes as though his conclusions are obviousTorn-book once we simply read the Bible with an understanding of its historical context. But many readers, even after understanding what Paul was likely addressing regarding same-sex practices in his time, may feel uncertain what conclusion to reach regarding gay relationships in our own time. This was true for Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. Lee writes,

    After going through all the passages, I felt like I was back where I had started, confused and frustrated. Once more, I reviewed the evidence.

    I was torn.

    On one hand, yes, there was a potential explanation for each of these passages that meant it wouldn’t apply to a modern-day committed gay relationship.

    On the other hand, every explicit mention of homosexuality in the Bible was negative.

    How to resolve the tension? At the risk of sounding like clickbait, in chapter 12 of Torn, Lee takes us through the famous Bible passages dealing with same-sex practices, but what he does in chapter 13 is one of the most brilliant things I’ve read in my twenty-plus years as a Christian. And it’s so simple that you’ll wonder how you’ve missed it for so long. I won’t give it away. You really ought to read it for yourself. I’ve recommended Torn before, and it remains my favorite book on the topic as a good introductory volume. Read Torn alongside God and the Gay Christian, and you’ll have a good foundation for making a decision regarding gay relationships in the church.

    Some critics of these books have objected to the authors’ ages (Lee is 37 and Vines is 25). How can they know so much when they’re so young? “How can we trust these youngins?” I’ve never understood this concern. Honestly, it sounds like jealous snobbery to me on the part of those who wonder how these young whippersnappers could know something the aged don’t. But Jesus died at 33. Do we discount his ministry because it didn’t happen in his 60s? Mozart, likewise, was a genius who died at 35. Should we look askance at his powerful Requiem because he composed it at 35, not 65? Sheer jealous snobbery, I tell ya. Read these books. They’re good. The value of a book’s contents has nothing to do with its author’s age.


    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    Book Review: The God Delusion

    July 7, 2015 // No Comments »

    god delusionI’m glad I waited to read this book till at a point in my life where I wasn’t doing so just to disprove it for myself and other good Christian people. Having watched a nearly intolerable degree of religious irrationality splashed across news sites for the past few years as the country has addressed gay marriage, my frustration with most things church-related was at an all time high when I cracked The God Delusion. I was primed for Dawkins’ attacks on faith. In the end, I found the ardent atheist’s conclusions to be a mixed bag.

    Does God exist? Dawkins is insistent repeatedly that he does not, even though his reasons would seem to require at least an incredulous agnosticism. One chapter is titled, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” Even if I bought Dawkins’ arguments that followed, that pesky word “almost” would demand I hold out at least the unlikely possibility of God’s existence. Dawkins does not and will not. He says, “… We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

    For Dawkins, evolution by natural selection rules out the possibility of a complex supernatural creator. The fact that everything moves from its simplest state to a progressively more complex form renders as nearly inconceivable the possible existence of an unfathomably more complex Creator at the start of it all. I see his point and understand how he got there, but in the end he’s making an argument from the absence of evidence, every bit as much as the religious man or woman is. Perhaps predictably (and tragically, to Dawkins mind, I’m sure), I just couldn’t get where he was. Too much of a leap.

    Dawkins is more successful making his case against religious expression than he is against God’s existence. He takes to task fundamentalists of the world’s three major Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–by simply reading to them their own sordid history of oppression and willful ignorance. It really is a devastating case he presents. “The will of God” has given men and women throughout time all the license they felt they needed to commit horrific crimes with absolute certainty of divine blessing.

    Yes, Dawkins overreaches at times, as when he says, “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” That may be true of more fundamentalist believers, but I know plenty of very thoughtful Christians who are happy to add to their knowledge of the universe and will trade a literal understanding of Scripture for a metaphorical one if evidence demands it, as in the case of the creation accounts in Genesis. These people of faith do not see science and the Bible in conflict, and they don’t reflexively defend their scriptural interpretation when science objects. Dawkins is working off a caricature of believers when he suggests otherwise.

    And Dawkins fails to convince that the world without religion would be markedly kinder or gentler than the world with religion. As Dawkins admits, two of the twentieth century’s greatest villains, Hitler and Stalin, were unmotivated by religion (Stalin was even an Atheist).

    Still, I kept thinking as I read, I wish I could put a copy of this book in every Christian’s hands and know that they would read it seriously, not simply in an effort to find the holes. The holes are there, but they are in nearly every book on every subject. Put aside the holes, I would say, and take to heart the lessons we can learn from Dawkins, the lessons that we need to learn. We need not agree with the author on the matter of God’s existence to reap good things from his book. Consider the terrible trail of misery the major world religions have left behind–Christianity very much included. Absorb the author’s extensive retelling of the sometimes-outrageous stories in Scripture, and the inconsistencies within the Bible, and honestly ask, “What do I do with these things? How do I interpret these stories? How do I derive a set of moral values from them?” (For what it’s worth, there’s a wonderful chapter in The God Delusion that makes the argument that none of us, not even the fundamentalist, derives his or her values from the Bible.)

    Much has been made by the author’s friends and foes alike that Dawkins is something of a bully in his writing, that he’s rude toward and dismissive of anyone who disagrees. I have to say, I was rather surprised by the degree of civility he maintained. I know from experience how hard that is to do when you are convinced of someone else’s stupidity. Yes, Dawkins gets sassy. Yes, he’s more terse and condescending at times than he should be, and I suppose that will hurt his credibility in some minds, but I didn’t think he was harsh. He very deeply believes that religion is damaging, and his tone bears that out. I can’t fault him for that.

    The God Delusion is neither the first nor last word on atheism, and perhaps not even the best, but as a book of its genre and subject, it holds up well, and is worth the reading, whatever you think of its conclusions.

    Posted in Book Reviews, General