April 17, 2012 7 Comments
Reblogged from NonProphet Status. Since it’s Bible-y, I thought you all might enjoy it. I promise more actual Bible content is coming tomorrow! Next week is my last week of college classes EVER, so – with likely intermittent absences due to those pesky final papers – you can start getting excited for all the catching up I’ll be doing here once I don’t have a trillion pages of reading to do every night. In the meantime, enjoy the interview below!
About this time two years ago, as the residents of my dorm were beginning to pack up for the summer, one was preparing for a much longer break. My friend Matthew, who was a sophomore like me, had decided not to return to school in the fall. I have never been as happy anywhere in my life as I have at Harvard, so I couldn’t understand why anybody would voluntarily go anywhere else. He kept saying he needed time to study some things on his own, and he promised all of us that he was going to do something big before he came back. Sure you are, I thought. This was one of the first instances of what has now become something of a pattern: Matthew makes a big claim, I am skeptical, and then he follows through and blows me away.
Matthew recently delivered a speech called “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality” at a church in Wichita, Kansas. (Here is a transcript if you are short on time, though I recommend the video if you happen to have one hour, seven minutes, and nineteen seconds free, since Matthew is a very persuasive speaker.) In this speech – which is the result of the extensive independent research he has performed over the last two years – Matthew analyzes six key Bible verses and turns their traditional anti-LGBTQ interpretations on their heads. Again, I went into the video skeptical, expecting it to be another instance of people twisting words to mean what they want them to mean. But by the end, I was sold. I’m no theologian, but as a person with an interest in the Bible and a general academic background, I found it extremely compelling.
To be clear, I obviously disagree with Matthew on some key premises here. Most importantly, I don’t think the Bible is the word of God, so I don’t think its contents should actually have any bearing at all on how we evaluate the moral status of different types of human relationships. Matthew, as a Christian, clearly feels differently. But I think what he has to say is important for even non-Christians to hear, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Matthew’s main purpose here is combating anti-LGBTQ bigotry among Christians, which is a goal pretty much anybody reading this blog is probably on board with. If Christianity is here to stay – which I’m pretty sure it is, at least for the foreseeable future – then we might as well do our best to make it as harmless as possible, and ending or reducing Bible-based homophobia would be a huge victory. People of all beliefs can use the arguments Matthew presents to help have productive conversations about this topic with their Christian friends. We can also help by sharing the video widely in order to get it into the hands of as many Christians as possible, so it can help LGBTQ Christians feel less alone, arm them with talking points for difficult conversations with family and friends, give similar tools to LGBTQ allies within the Christian community, and maybe even change the minds of some of the more conservative Christians who watch it.
Since I was so intrigued and excited by Matthew’s project, I was delighted when he took the time to answer a few of my questions about it. I had been planning on editing my questions and his answers into a more synthetic form, but he is so thorough and eloquent in his responses that I thought it would be a shame to mangle them. So, in its raw majesty, I give you a conversation with Matthew Vines, Christian Gay Rights Activist Extraordinaire.
Chelsea Link: Can you tell me more about the path that led you from college to giving this speech?
Matthew Vines: Long story short: I was raised in a conservative evangelical church in Kansas, so I suppressed awareness of my sexual orientation growing up. But Harvard was a very different atmosphere, and by my sophomore fall, I’d come to terms with being gay. And though I might’ve liked simply to have come out and moved on, I couldn’t do that without losing or fracturing many relationships, so I took a leave of absence to study—among other things—the Bible and homosexuality. The traditional interpretation of these six verses in the Bible is the main sticking point on this subject for a lot of Christians, and the grounds on which gay Christians can expect to be rejected by straight Christians if and when that happens. And unfortunately, that still happens far too frequently, so gay Christians really have to take the time to learn their theology if they want to be well-prepared.
But obviously, I didn’t just want to learn the theology in a personally satisfying way, but also in a way that would equip me for substantive dialogue and engagement with Christians who disagree. There’s a real wealth of literature out there on this subject by now, as it’s been a hot topic in the Christian world for a good three decades, but it can seem quite unwieldy and intimidating at first. There are almost too many books and too many resources, so that it isn’t at all clear where one should start. And most of the best scholarship is written at a pretty high level, which makes it difficult for your average lay Christian to access and absorb easily. Consequently, gay Christians in conservative communities remain without the resources that they need to stand up for themselves and challenge the prejudices within their own communities. That was my driving motivation in doing this research: to produce a clear, comprehensive, and cogent argument that gay Christians in unfriendly places will find directly instructive and helpful.
To that end, I bought dozens of books on the subject from all viewpoints and tried to delve as deeply as possible into every nook and cranny of the theological debate as I could. That meant finding the best articles and essays on every aspect of the debate, and then finding the best rejoinders to those articles—on and on until I felt like I had seen all of the best material from both sides on every point and could then make an informed judgment. And there are many more levels to this debate than just these six verses; there are a plethora of ways of framing the issue biblically, historically, and theologically, and those must be carefully considered as well. All the while that I was doing this solitary study, I was also meeting and dialoguing with other Christians about the subject on a regular basis—mainly those who disagreed with me, so that they could challenge my thinking and force me to reconsider any questionable arguments I was making. In total, I probably spent somewhere in the vicinity of three to four thousand hours studying this since 2010, and of course, I could easily invest another three to four thousand and learn even more. But after having read at least fifty books on the subject (and probably even more journal articles), watched or listened to countless debates and interviews, and had many dozens of drawn-out conversations about it with other Christians, I felt ready and prepared to make a formal presentation about it.
CL: What do you hope to accomplish with this work, short-term and long-term?
MV: My short-term goal is to continue to build traffic for the video, with the hope of reaching LGBT people in conservative Christian communities in particular. That way, even if they aren’t ready to come out yet, they could still share the video with friends and family and start a dialogue about the subject in a less personal way. Hopefully, that could get at least some of their friends to start thinking about the issue more critically while also allowing LGBT people to find out who their allies are. Another core group to reach in the short-term are straight Christians in conservative communities who may already quietly support LGBT people but need better resources to nudge others in a similar direction.
In the long term, my goal is to help to permanently reform Christianity so that homophobia is a thing of the past. Homophobia meets all of the biblical criteria for sin in a way that homosexuality never could, and I and many others will not let up until that is recognized across the board in church teaching.
CL: How has it been received so far by your fellow Christians?
MV: So far, the responses from other Christians have been quite positive. Most people who’ve contacted me have expressed agreement and appreciation. One woman who came to my presentation let me know a few days later that she found it sufficiently compelling that she was changing her position because of it. And she hasn’t been alone among the more traditional Christians who’ve watched the video. That’s not to say that everyone agrees, because they don’t, but of the negative responses I’ve received so far, few of them have offered well thought-out counterarguments to the arguments that I put forward. I am hopeful that that will change, and that those who disagree will begin to engage more deeply with my scriptural arguments, but many of those who hold negative views about this have never had their views challenged before biblically, so they may not be prepared to engage in this dialogue yet.
CL: Part of your argument rests on the fact that certain rules in Leviticus only applied to Jews, and should not constrain the behavior of Christians today. But what were gay Jews supposed to do? Do you think God did want them to be alone in life? Or that God wouldn’t make any Jews gay? Or is there an alternative explanation?
MV: First of all, no one is identified as a gay Jew in the Old Testament. Our entire discussion about sexual orientation is very recent and doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. So it’s fairly speculative to be talking about God’s will for a group of people that are never even mentioned in the text.
That said, however, there are indeed alternative explanations of the Levitical prohibitions of male same-sex intercourse. I didn’t discuss these in my talk because my basic point—that the prohibitions are inapplicable to Christians—is the most important one for a Christian audience. But the precise meaning of the verses remains very important for Orthodox Jews today, so they are worth studying more carefully. Modern scholarship (cf. Daniel Boyarin, Saul Olyan, et al.) has convincingly demonstrated philologically that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 specifically prohibit male anal sex, but only that act. And it’s on those grounds that some in Orthodox Judaism are moving toward accepting sexual relationships for gay Jews so long as that particular act is avoided. But even beyond that, it’s important to consider the meaning of the word “abomination” (toevah in the Hebrew). This word is almost always tied to issues of idolatry and cultic ritual in the Old Testament, not intrinsic wrong (although those categories can overlap as well). And Leviticus 18 and 20 specifically state that the reason that these various behaviors are prohibited is because they were practiced by the Egyptians and the Canaanites, who were in the land before the Israelites. So there is an argument to be made that male anal sex was specifically prohibited because of its associations with idolatrous pagan practices rather than due to the act itself, and therefore, that the Torah’s prohibition even on male anal sex should not be understood as binding on Orthodox Jews in loving, monogamous relationships today.
CL: You mention yourself that, although the Bible does not seem to actually condemn same-sex relationships, there are no positive representations of same-sex relationships in the Bible as there are of opposite-sex relationships. Why do you think that is?
MV: Well, had I had more time to discuss this, I would’ve said that there is not absolutely conclusive proof of any same-sex relationships in the Bible. However, there may be three positive examples of gay relationships in Scripture, but because our understanding of them hinges largely on speculation, I didn’t include them in my argument. The first and most famous potentially gay relationship in the Bible is that between David and Jonathan in the Old Testament. The second is Ruth and Naomi, and the third is the account of the Roman centurion and his slave in Matthew 8. (The Greek term used for slave or servant in that passage—pais—was also used to denote a same-sex romantic partner at the time, and the centurion does express unusually strong, personal interest in healing his slave.)
The problem with these cases, as I said, is that they rely on speculation, and it’s possible that that speculation is mistaken. So the more conservative argument is that the Bible is silent on the subject of loving gay relationships and that it does not condemn them, the latter point of which is undoubtedly true regardless of what people believe about the aforementioned relationships. And in general, when operating on the premise that the Bible doesn’t contain explicit positive statements about same-sex relationships, we need to pay more attention to the historical context before casting a judgment about what that might or might not mean. Specifically, the most well-known and widely discussed model of same-sex behavior in the biblical world was pederasty, a very disturbing practice involving an adult man and an adolescent boy. (We would simply call this pedophilia and/or child abuse.) That’s not to say that loving same-sex unions between adults didn’t also exist, but they were far less visible than pederastic relationships. So in some ways, it’s somewhat surprising that there is not greater condemnation of same-sex relationships in the Bible – with the focus specifically being on pederasty.
CL: You make a pretty convincing case, in my opinion at least, for why the Bible might actually support homosexuality and same-sex relationships. But I’m curious what you think the Bible can tell us about other types of alternative sexualities and gender identities. What, if anything, can the Bible tells us about bisexuality? And what, if anything, can it tell us about intersex and transgendered people? I’m curious about these topics because your argument seems to rest largely on the idea that God created people with certain desires and orientations on purpose, and that everybody should be true to their natural orientation – whether a man is attracted to men or to women, he should find a partner of his preferred gender. Can somebody be naturally oriented toward both genders? And what if somebody feels that they have been born with the wrong gender in the first place? Are they meant to stick with the body they were given because God gave them that body on purpose, or are they meant to switch to the gender they feel like they are because God gave them that impulse on purpose?
MV: First, the Bible tells us nothing directly about sexual orientation and gender identity. Our modern discourse about these subjects is worlds apart from the biblical canon. So my view that sexual orientation is created is something gleaned from general revelation; it’s of a piece with Christians’ views now about things like the solar system and the universe. The Bible doesn’t teach the specifics of our modern astronomical understandings, but those of us who believe in a creator also believe that the creator designed the universe in that way, even if Scripture doesn’t spell it out precisely. It’s the same with sexual orientation and gender identity. We can’t know for sure that God created people with different sexualities on purpose, but the Bible offers no reason to think otherwise, and so that would be the natural conclusion to reach.
As for your specific questions: Of course people can be naturally oriented toward both genders; that’s what it means to be bisexual. Now, from a Christian standpoint, we would expect bisexual people who pursue relationships to enter into a monogamous marriage just like everyone else; they simply have a wider pool of potential partners for that marriage. There exists an ongoing misperception that being bi means being disposed toward promiscuity or polyamory in a way that gay/straight people are not. But this isn’t true, so really, bisexual orientation raises no issues theologically that gay orientation doesn’t already.
And as for transgender people, of course they are part of creation as well. It’s hardly my or anyone else’s place to tell trans people that their gender identity is broken simply because it is different from my own experience and identity. Being trans can be an incredibly rich and rewarding experience, and non-trans people need to learn and preach acceptance more than anything—and certainly not think that we should be in the position of pronouncing other people’s gender identities inferior to our own just because they’re different. God’s design is beautifully diverse and multifaceted, and basic Christian humility and compassion should compel us to accept all LGBT people (including the B and the T) and to learn from them rather than pretend we already understand everything there is to know about them.
CL: Any closing thoughts?
The fundamental purpose of the video is to empower LGBT Christians who are being mistreated because of who they are and who they love, so anything people can do to share it would be helpful. There is nothing Christian about the status quo on this issue. Homophobia is un-Christian—and yes, it’s unbiblical, too.
So there you have it. If you think Matthew is onto something potentially good for the world, like I do, then you can help him spread his message! Read his HuffPo article! Share the video! Followhim on Twitter! And keep your eye on him. Whatever he does next, I’m sure it’s going to be big.