Reading our prejudices into the bible

The last time I wrote about same-sex relations, and in particular the C4M petition I tried to remain neutral in relation on attitudes to same-sex relations in general, for that post my views on the matter were irrelevant.

In this post I shall address more closely my feelings on the matter.  In fact…

I do not think same-sex relationships or practices are wrong.  I do not think that heterosexual relationships are the only way God intended for couples to exist.

Now I’ve gone on record with my opinion on the matter.  You can all hold me to it if you want.

One of the common objections I experience to my view is that “But, but … but, the bible says they are wrong”.  And it is to this that we now turn our attention.

Yes, there are a few verses, in both the Old and New Testament that come out against same-sex relationships/practices.  I could go through and explain how in each circumstance I do not think they categorically condemn anything, but I don’t want to get into that game of proof-text tag.  Instead I want to look at the wider issue of why it is that people use the defense “But the bible says so” and some inherent flaws with this.

Firstly, living our lives by the authority of the bible, I believe, is a good thing.  So trying to work out what the bible says is a good thing, and using it to justify our opinions, in principle is a good thing.  But it also leads us into tricky water.  The bible is not monolithic or straight-forward.  It is multifaceted and contains many different opinions, even on the same matter.  Rachel Held Evans has been blogging about this issue too, (why not check out her series) and often concludes that there is not “a biblical view” on a subject, but a range of them.  This is inevitable for a Canon that is a collection of texts that have been written over such a long period, by some many authors in different cultures.  What qualifies them as Canonical, and what gives them authority. however, is their inspiration by the Spirit.

Given this what defines our understanding of “what the bible says” must be us.  We all share the same scriptures but reach different conclusions, so the thing that determines that, has to be us.  We all read different things into the text.  I read liberal and Arminian   values into texts, others read conservative and charismatic messages into the text.
Why do some people think  the bible is against gays, bisexuals, etc?  Because they are against gays, bisexuals etc?  They read their own prejudices into the text.

And it isn’t just in how they interpret verses, because if it was some verses might be inescapable, it is how we deal with the scriptures as a whole.  We are all guilty of selective reading.  I tend not to mention verses that talk about God pre-destining people.  Those who use the bible to suggest homo-sexuality and/or bisexuality are wrong do exactly the same, they give greater priority to the “anti-gay” verses and claim it as a biblical mandate.

There are 5 instructions in the NT to greet one another with a kiss (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12,  1 Thes 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14) and yet those who tell me that my views on sexuality are unbiblical have never kissed me when we’ve met.

For the sake of ease, let us focus on one book to further illustrate this point.  1 Corinthians works well.  The following verses are all taken from this one letter, of Paul to the church in Corinth.

Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (4:5)
I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. (5:3)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (6:9-10)
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. (7:8)
Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,  (11:14)
All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (16:20)

A command against judging, but an admission the author judges, commands against homosexuality, a command against marrying, a condemnation of men with long hair and an instruction to kiss each other.

People often take objection to same-sex relations and trot out this verse in their support, very few people have sincerely objected to the length of my hair (which now sits just above my shoulders) based on that verse, no-one has told me that I should be celibate, but they have said my non-hetero friends should be and no-one has greeted me with a kiss. Their reading of even this one book (and don’t get me onto slaves elsewhere) is selective.  Because we all read selectively.

The question then must be “why?”.  It is necessary for us to consider what leads to this selective reading over any other.  A suggest a number of reasons.

Generational
A bit of me feels uncomfortable writing this blog-post, I know a number of people whom I love and respect deeply disagree with me on the matter.  I am wary of sounding too overly-critical, for example I have written, and then deleted the word homophobic a number of times [I stand by my decision that it is an unhelpful label in this particular branch of the discussion].  Many of the people I hold in high regard are older than me.  I think in some cases, the prejudice comes from their generation.  As they grew up opposition to LGBT was the norm, to some extent they are unaware of their prejudice and the hurt they cause, and it is that upbringing and societal influence that affects their readings of these texts.  It fits with everything else they have been told, so they accept it.

Faith Tradition
There are plenty of churches that actively preach against same sex relationship and preach ardently on the virtues of marriage, how it is a God-given ideal for society and family life.  There are, therefore members of those traditions who have been conditioned to read the passages condemning same-sex relationships favourably, without much thought to their own conscience.  They have seen no need to question the verse because their is a clear teaching on it from their church.
There are, of course, the majority of people who have read the passages and heard their church’s teaching on the matter and have knowingly accepted or rejected it.  Making our own decisions on these matters is always favourable.

Wider Society
Wider society is better now than it was before at accepting orientations that aren’t straight, as valid and normal, or as no different to straight orientations, but there is still a horrifically long way to go.  The stats in my previous blog highlight that in a very painful way.   This does not help, it possibly tips the reader towards thinking that condemnations of same-sex relationships are acceptable, or normal, and therefore limits the critical thought that goes into the texts.  Again, this is not always the case.

Upbringing
This merges all of the above, church, society, parental attitudes etc all affect our reading of the scriptures.  If we are brought up in homes where heterosexuality is favoured, or where same-sex relationships are seen as wrong this can affect our reading.

Personal Conviction
So far it may sound as if I believe that anyone who opposes same-sex relationships has been conned or hoodwinked into the position.  This is far from the case.  The majority of my adversaries in this matter, most of whom are very close friends hold their views because of a personal conviction in the validity of principle.  As much as I bitterly disagree with these people I cannot help but respect that they have reached a conclusion based on their weighing of the evidence and which sits well with their conscience, much as I have.

However, when we boil it down, personally I do not think the bible condemns same-sex relationships, and people will have to do better than “because the bible says so” as their reasoning.  By all means disagree with me, but have a better argument than a prejudiced selective reading of our authoritative scriptures.

Rev.

I have just watched Episode 6 of the BBC’s Rev.  For the time being it is available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b018jmkb/Rev._Series_2_Episode_6/.  For a general review of Rev. check out http://therecognitionscene.com/2011/12/17/what-rev-is-doing-right/ (cheers for @Sarah_Richards) for tweeting about it I love Rev, it is funny, so funny a laugh my way through most of it. It is also honest, those of us who’ve hung around churches long enough have been in most of the situations depicted.  I thought the series couldn’t do much better than Adam’s assembly at the end of Episode 5, until I saw episode 6! The Christmas Special was pretty good too!  Hopefully we’re now well enough past the airing date most who want to see it have done so, therefore I want to look at this lovely episode through a series of “snap shots”.

Alex leaves for the weekendAlex goes away for the weekend to reconsider her life with Adam

Alex, the Rev’s wife is desperate for kids with him, but time to make this happen is scarce; Adam is very busy!  As with all of us, he is also far from perfect; forgetting things she tells him, not spending enough quality time with her, focussing on the things he thinks he needs to do not the things she thinks he does, etc. etc. I am not married, nor am I ordained, nor am I an Anglican. But Adam is a London vicar in response to a call on his life, by God.  I believe each person has a calling that each person must respond to.  But that calling, my calling (whatever that/they might be) does not exist in a vacuum.  Being obedient to God in my life has an impact on the people around, the people who love me and the people whom I love.  We need to be aware of this and consider how our calling affects other people, and also, I would argue, those most affected should be included in the decision making process. Finally from this image, I would say that following our callings is not a valid excuse for neglecting those around us and other responsibilities we have.

CoffeeHaving a natter over coffee after the service

 The particular situations of this episode bring us a scene where everyone is chatting over coffee, aspirations to “greater things” and some juicy gossip seems to bring them together, but nevertheless I felt a real sense on camaraderie and “fellowship”.  A genuine bond between these people and interest in each others lives.  Churches should be so much more than a social club, but I do feel that sense of connectedness and of being in a loving community is vital, and it is something that I really love about the church I go to.  I felt the BBC captured it quite well.

Adam and Archdeacon Robert discuss gay bishops

Adam and Archdeacon Robert discuss gay bishops

 

This is a key scene in the episode, it confirms Archdeacon Robert’s supposed partner is his actual partner and succinctly highlights the Anglican position on homosexual bishops.  It also reveals Robert’s concerns about how sexuality and his private life might affect him being appointed a bishop and how it might be seen/used by elements of the church. All denominations have groupings of similarly-minded people in them.  Some people use the word “factions” but this seems a bit harsh to me, Methodism included.  I am sure I belong in some (I don’t like re-affirmation of baptism and I support the principle of allowing lay people to preside over communion far more freely to name two!).  It is sad, but inevitable that in uneasy ground people’s lives become case-studies and test points. This chat in the back of a cab is a reminder to always consider the humans affected by our deliberations and our decisions.

The heart-stopping momentThe heart stopping moment. The Archdeacon is asked is he is in an active gay relationship

Which leads to this.  Robert is before the panel interviewing him to decide whether he should be appointed as a Bishop.  The tension, aided by some glorious choral music (the music in this episode has been utterly delightful!) is almost palpable, and I felt nervous and sorry for him.  What a terrible position to be in.  Does he deny the truth about his partner, lying about a significant element of his life, allowing him to pursue the path he might believe God has put him on, or does he tell the truth about his relationship, being true to his feelings, his partner, his private life and deny himself the opportunity to become a bishop.  What a terrible situation to face.  One that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and that make me glad that the Methodist Church fully accepts practising gay ministers in all roles. It is also a situation that I doubt I will ever understand.  I have yet to have a long-term partner, and I have yet to fancy a guy but if heterosexual couples were asked these sorts of questions I am sure they would talk far greater offence at the situation than they do when their gay counterparts are put under this scrutiny.

Nigel rejected by the BAPNigel after he has been rejected to train for the priesthood by the Bishops Advisory Panel

Two “themes” stand out to me at this point, but the dialogue surrounding this still is worth writing out in full: A: Nigel? N: I got my letter. A: From the Bishops Advisory Panel? N: How can they say I wouldn’t be a good priest? How can they say that? they know!  How can they say that they know what God wants?  (sounding more hurt) how dare they pretend that? A: You won’t feel this now … but I bet in time you’ll feel relieved you haven’t been accepted for ordination because … God wants you to do other things. N: I want to be a priest; that is all I want!!  And those B*s*a*ds are telling me that’s not who I am.  But … that’s who I am. A: I’m sorry Nigel N: If I can’t do what I want to do, then what  do I do? A: Many are called, but few are chosen. N: sobs A: come on, may I buy you a drink. The first theme seems to be a recurring one for me, and that is the role of personal experience in discerning God’s call.  Nigel is convinced of his call to the priesthood.  He thinks he can do nothing else (despite being in invaluable assistant to Adam), it is his highest aim.  The line “How can they know what God wants” is very telling to me, the implication being that Nigel does know what God wants for himself.  Should we be as certain as Nigel about our callings?  One thing seems clear to me; there seemed to be an imbalance in Nigel’s attention between his own sense of call (vital) and allowing the final decision to be made by others (a part of the process I feel to be vital).  I do not believe that to acknowledge our calling may not be realised, in any way detracts the conviction that we hold as to what our calling is.  And ultimately it helps us deal with the process better.  It is easy to say from here, but had Nigel reminded himself the BAP might say no, the rejection would have been mildly easier to bear.  Expect a post at some point to elaborate on this! But essentially a personal sense of call is simply not enough! The second theme emerged out a conversation with Jessica of Liturgies and Jolliness fame.  She pointed out, quite correctly, that Nigel attaches too much importance to being a priest.  More generally we could say, it is possible to think that some callings are better than others.  A calling to Church Ministry is superior to a calling to secular work, a calling to be a Presbyter is better than a calling to be a local preacher, a calling to be a teacher is better than a calling to be a dustbin collector, etc etc.  We shouldn’t over-emphasise, or elevate some roles over others.  God calls different people to different things and the more we recognise this, the better the church and wider society will be. Finally (this is neither of the two themes) Adam’s offering of sympathy struck a chord with me.  “Many are called but few are chosen” he offers, as a form of sympathy.  Adam, Nigel and we know that this verse isn’t really talking about the process of a church choosing priests, and if I were Nigel I wouldn’t find any comfort in it.  Partly because I struggle to find single verses much use in situations and because, really, this verse is of no use anyway. Adam’s tone whilst offering this “nugget” is hard to read, but personally I interpreted it at resignation that none of his words at that time would be of much use to a heart-broken Nigel who has seen his life goal destroyed, but it does speak of Adam’s solidarity in the situation.  That he was there beside Nigel in the pain, not trying to work a theodicy out of it, or offer some perfect reasoning or comfort.  I find that far more loving in the situation than great words of wisdom. For me this really was a beautiful episode that showed the highs and lows of Church life, and very movingly too.  It also gave me lots to think about too, which is always nice.  Having looked at different still images I close with a youtube link.  To a beautiful song, worth listening to in full!