Monday, December 22, 2008

The Bible and Gay Marriage

This is the title of the collection of letters published in Newsweek in response to Lisa Miller's article in the Dec. 15 issue on her religious case for gay marriage (Our Mutual Joy). 40,000 readers responded, the vast majority arguing against Miller's case by claiming misinterpretations of the Bible. Here we go again with the scourge of black and white thinking and narrowly focused literalist reading of the Scriptures--mostly by religious conservatives, but also to a lesser degree, by Miller herself. Here's how I see various issues stand:

1 - Defining marriage - Miller is spot on. Conservatives define traditional marriage in a distorted way by conveniently overlooking the obvious acceptance in Scripture of polygamy, concubinage, and forms of open marriage. The list is long of heroes of the OT who practiced these including Abraham, the father of the Christian faith, whose wife gave him permission to sleep with her maidservant, and David, a man after God's own heart, who was rebuked for stealing another man's wife and murdering her husband, then told by God himself if he wanted more wives, God would have given him more if he had only asked. One man-one woman monogamy, as a law, was foreign to the traditional Jewish concept of marriage. Polygamy was not only allowed but encouraged by God through the Leverite law that commanded men to marry their brother's widow if the brother died without fathering children. Point Miller. Let's understand our definitions of terms per the Scriptures themselves. The Bible does not define marriage as explicitly between one man and one woman.

2 - Paul's attitude to marriage - Miller misses an important point. Paul did not regard marriage as an act of last resort, as she claims. Jewish tradition and Scripture encouraged heterosexual marriage as a given, inevitable outcome. In the NT, Paul was stating his view of marriage in light of "the eschalogical challenge," that is, the prevailing belief among the apostles that Jesus would return very soon and a time of intense hardship was at hand. In fact, it came in the late 60s to 70 AD with the terrible events and siege that led up to Jerusalem's destruction. Paul was telling unmarried men it was better not to have marriage as a distraction during such times, but if they couldn't control their desire that it was understandable that they marry. Point religious conservatives. Let's understand the context of a passage.

3 - The sin of homosexuality - Miller brings out several important points but misses several others. What exactly is Paul condemning in Romans and the other epistles? The context of Romans is idolatry. Idol worshipers end up doing things contrary to nature or more accurately, custom, and then become depraved. Is Paul condemning homosexuality across the board or only certain forms of it, such as shrine prostitution and humiliation and rape--common practices in the OT--and pederasty, a common practice among Greeks and Romans. Then there are the words in Paul's writings translated "homosexual" that are disputed by scholars who have no axe to grind. Paul's hearers no doubt did not think of our modern definition of homosexuals when they heard the original Greek words he used, and most definately did not think of lesbians. Point Paul. He was tough on idolatry and legalism and the obvious self-deluded and violent sins. He did not comment on loving same-sex relationships by those who believe in and love God.

4 - The love of Jesus - Miller alludes to it. Religious conservatives claim his love does not condone sin and making judgments about sin. But how did Jesus define sin? His most strident rebukes went to the Pharisees, the most religious zealots of the day who were notorious legalistic hair-splitters who could never find enough grace to make exceptions to the law, nor recognize the overriding principle that Christ taught--that love is the fullfilment of the law. He who loves his neighbor has met the law's demands. We are not longer under the law's supervision. Christ is the end of the law, as Paul taught. So, we no longer have to be fruitful and multiply, nor marry, if we choose not to. We no longer have to keep the ceremonial law, nor the sabbath, if we choose. Women no longer need be under a double standard, but are equal with men. But we do have to keep the law of love and let that be our guide--a guide that can override the letter of the law. Is it possible to love God and your neighbor and have a homosexual relationship? I believe it is. How can it be impossible? It may not produce children, but neither do single parents or those who choose celibacy. Point Jesus. Love trumps the letter of the law.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Take the Insider's Tour of Evangelicalism

I'm a former Baptist missionary, aid worker, and Senior Writer for World Vision. I want to take you on an insider tour of evangelicalism, one of the fastest growing religious movements in America today. If you’re tired of Bible thumping or were ever tempted to thump a Bible thumper, this tour could be your cure. Laced with wit and humor (I hope you think so too), my journey takes you from my conversion amidst the 1970s Jesus Movement to Muslim animistic Africa with plenty of church-experience stops along the way to expose the good, bad, and the ugly of the evangelical movement.

But I don't stop there. Often disillusioned with evangelical institutions and dogma, I venture into the realm of the radical Left and their response to the Christian Right, only to find that religious conservatives don’t have a monopoly on fundamentalist mindsets. With clowns to the Christian Right and jokers to the secular Left, what is the average Joe to do who believes in God, is weary of organized religion, enjoys sex, watches the Daily Show (OK, Comedy Central also works), and can’t turn down a good microbrew? Well, before you throw in the towel and affix the new nifty atheist symbol to your bumper, you might want to check out my proposed alternate way: recover a reasonable faith that takes the New Testament call for freedom from man-made religion seriously, rejects narrow literalism, and insists on going where the evidence leads.

In my unique iconoclastic style (again, I hope so), I explore the fundamentalist roots of the church, charismatic and mainstream evangelicalism, the new progressives, including the emergent church, and over reactions to the Christian Right such as the writings of Bishop Shelby Spong and Sam Harris. By weaving personal stories and anecdotes together with some of the most controversial hot-potato issues of our day, I ponder such thought-provoking questions as these while answering them with clear reasoning and meticulous references from scholars, historians, and scientists:

• How and why do some Christians abuse the Bible?
• Why is the traditional doctrine of hell based more on tradition than on what the Bible truly affirms?
• Why is the evangelical church wrong on the gay rights issue?
• What’s all this rigmarole about the end of the world and Jesus’ return?
• Why are Christians wrong when they claim someone like Gandhi isn’t “saved?”
• Is there a reasonable way to solve the religion vs. science debate?
• Is materialistic atheism really ruling the day intellectually?
• And the real stumper, Can we ever recover from the damage done by the Teletubbies?

If you want to learn how to squash fundamentalism wherever it rears its ugly head, on the Right or the Left, and yearn for some clarity in religious thought and the culture wars, my tour in the form of a new book called Confessions of a Bible Thumper, may be your ticket to an authentic and progressive spirituality independent of dogmatic trappings. What part of this tour are you fascinated with?