Visions of Daniel
Oftentimes when I lecture on the Bible and homosexuality, people ask me how to respond to the Biblical Literalists. These true believers quote the Bible to prove that God condemns same-sex relationships. In the face of the Bible's stark words—"abomination," "be put to death," "degrading passions," "shameless acts," "exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural," "not inherit the kingdom of God "—what can one say?
Of course, there is a real answer. The main point is to insist that, as a baseline, the Scriptures mean what they meant to those who originally wrote them, not what they might happen to suggest to us who read them today. You allow that God inspired those sacred authors, so you also freely grant that this inspired word is inerrant (without error). Quibbling over these latter points would just distract from the real issue. So you insist that what those ancient authors meant to say, as best we can determine, is what God intended to convey to us through their inspired and inerrant writings. Limited to what the authors truly intended to say, the texts do seem inspired and on target.
Moreover, it turns out that what those biblical texts meant in their original languages and in their original situations has almost nothing to do with the questions we are asking about homosexuality today. The evidence to this effect is overwhelming. In text after text, with as much certainty as historical studies could ever achieve, the conclusion is the same. The Bible does not condemn homosexuality as we understand it, and the Bible was not even concerned about same-sex practices in its own day—except in one instance (male-male penetrative sex: "lying with a male the lyings of a women") for reasons of ritual purity that made sense in that ancient culture but have nothing to do with our current concerns.
This is the technical answer to Biblical Literalism. This answer attentively appeals to historical evidence. It intelligently makes coherent sense of the evidence and compares this sense with our contemporary understanding of sexual orientation. It reasonably concludes that the Bible's genuine teaching implies no condemnation of homosexuality in our day. And it therefore responsibly chooses to take God's word as it was written —not as we read it—and to stop condemning homosexual people on the basis of the Bible.
This is the answer, but its worth is mostly theoretical. It affords little practical advantage because Biblical Literalists would hardly ever buy such reasoning. The Literalists' worldview differs radically from what I just described. Their understanding of the Bible and their approach to determining its meaning are their own. Their approach is novel, an early twentieth-century development. It is not coherent. It picks and chooses among texts. It switches emphasis as is convenient—interpreting Revelation symbolically, for example. It is filled with blind spots. And it rests solely on faith, a sheer choice—driven by fear of hell—to believe simply because, it is insisted, this is what must be believed.
Indeed, this approach to the Bible is so distinctive that, I believe, it actually constitutes a new religion in our day. A distinguishing feature of Judaism and Christianity is the insistence that God encounters us in human history and that the Bible is an instructive account of those encounters in exemplary cases. But Biblical Literalism is unwilling to attend to the historical particularities through which God's biblical Word comes to us. The Literalists believe they can know God's Word without having to investigate that history and its cultures, audiences, spokespersons, issues, languages, and semantic nuances. As I argue in Sex and the Sacred, on an essential point this kind of religion departs from the mainline tradition and is no longer Christian at all.
Holding this opinion, I have looked for other names for this new religion. Biblical Fundamentalism is the obvious one, but the adherents—for political reasons, not wanting to own this name, which, in fact, accurately describes their position—prefer the softer Evangelicalism. But the strains of "Evangelicals" are many, and not all are strictly literalist—except, almost universally, when homosexuality is the question. In my mind, the terms Bible Religion and Biblicism possibly name this new religion, which completely revolves around The Good Book. Still, ahistorical literalism is the pivotal issue, so I will continue to speak of this movement as Biblical Literalism, understanding its main tenet to be the need to believe the Bible as it is reads, period.
Of course, all people of faith need to believe. No faith about God and the world-to-come is provable. But religion should at least be plausible; it should be reasonable. It should not be self-contradictory, and it should not contradict what is otherwise known to be so. One should not have to surrender one's God-given mind to be a faithful believer. But Biblical Literalism expects people to rest their beliefs on unthinking and unquestioning faith.
Accordingly, when asked about responding to the Biblical Literalists, I also propose a practical answer: do not argue or try to convince them of anything; their position is impervious to argument. Certainly, never discuss a particular topic or particular text. At best, limit discussion to the general topic of how one determines the meaning of biblical texts. This general topic opens onto that question about history, and it needs to be addressed before any talk of particular texts can be fruitful.
The starkness of this practical answer tends to shock people, but the shock is part of the needed lesson. You don't try to reason with irrational people. Appeal to evidence through logical argument will get you nowhere.
Along with sensing people's shock, I also hear their protests. These come from kind and good-willed people, who want to be respectful of others, and also from Bible-believers, who take offense: "How could you be so insensitive toward people's religious beliefs?!"
The answer to this latter question lies in the book before you—that is, it gives you all the information you need. Blessed to have this book, you can understand for yourself why I speak as I do. Trusting that you now have this information at your disposal, I feel totally free to make my point directly and forcefully. Indeed, someone has to start naming the elephant in the room. Someone has to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
In no way do I intend to say that Dr. Patrick Chapman is doing this distasteful deed of calling Biblical Literalism irrational. In no way is he offensive or disrespectful in what he writes here. On the contrary, he is a former Evangelical Christian; he is talking to and about his own people. His scientist's restraint and his Christian humility are exemplary. While his dispassionate presentation of the evidence serves to strengthen my point, in no way am I saying that this point is his.
Trained as an anthropologist, skilled in understanding and comparing cultures, armed with knowledge about widespread diversity among the peoples of the earth, comfortable with geology, biology, genetics, and evolutionary theory, schooled and re-schooled in the Bible, courageous in invoking his personal experience as a gay man, and dedicated to sharing his hard-won wisdom with sisters and brothers of the human family and the Christian churches, Dr. Chapman has presented a remarkable summary of current religious debate about homosexuality. Not only does he review the biblical evidence such as I presented in What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality; he goes beyond the Bible to consider the available evidence from the sciences. Moreover, from the inside, he gives us a feel for the mindset of Biblical Literalism. He also summarizes the Literalists' responses to the scientific evidence, points out the flaws in their thinking, exposes the bias in their sources, coherently rebuts their counter-arguments, and calls them on their seemingly deliberate misinformation campaign against lesbian and gay people.
Thus, in addition to religion, Dr. Chapman presents a thorough discussion also of gender roles, comparative cultures, geological science, evolutionary theory, misleading ethnocentrism, and the documented biological and putative psychosocial bases of sexual orientation. Thou Shalt Not Love would make an excellent, balanced text for any course on current cultural debates. This book is an easily accessible compendium of contemporary information about homosexuality and fundamentalist religion. Perforce, this book also serves as an exposé of the problem with using a literal Bible to condemn lesbian and gay sex and relationships.
Now my point comes back: Despite Dr. Chapman's stayed presentation, again and again, from a number of angles, on every consideration, unable to evade the truth, this book makes clear that conservative Evangelical Christianity maintains its negative teaching about homosexuality only by systematically ignoring all the counter-evidence. The Biblical Literalists' condemnation of same-sex love is not a reasonable or coherent position. It is a mistaken belief from a bygone age that refuses to die. It is an assertion of blind faith despite awesome contrary evidence.
If the Literalists would only admit some doubt—about the biblical teaching, about the cause of homosexuality, about the possibility of changing sexual orientation, about the happiness available to lesbian and gay people—their position would be reasonable. If they would only acknowledge that the exact meaning of the biblical texts has recently come under revealing scrutiny—if they would only acknowledge the facts, they would at least be crediting the evidence, at least be speaking with honesty. I am not suggesting that they do a complete turnabout and teach that homosexuality is morally acceptable, but only that they acknowledge—as is the fact—that the wrongness or sinfulness of homosexuality is now in question. If, in light of this question, they were to admit that, as a particular religion and for whatever reason, they still choose to continue opposing homosexual relationships, at least they would be telling the truth. But no such admission is forthcoming from the Biblical Literalists. They stand their ground and insist that God's own authority is behind their personal opinion. They continue to insist that the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality.
To justify their personal opinion "in the name of God," they rely solely on an ancient book, and they choose to read it in their peculiar way, which differs from anything in the Christian tradition. They glory in the claim that they live by "faith," and they have little regard for reason, research, science, or scholarly findings. Out of hand, they disregard anything that disagrees with their chosen opinion. In his book on Effective Biblical Counseling, Lawrence J. Crabb, for example, approvingly quotes yet another Evangelical, J. R. McQuilkin, and proclaims the rejection of reason in the starkest of terms: "'When the teaching of Scripture conflicts with any other idea, the teaching of Scripture will be accepted as truth and the other idea will not be accepted as truth.'…The other idea, regardless of its support from empirical research, will not be accepted as truth" (p. 49, emphasis in original).
You do not reason with the irrational. By its very nature irrationality is immune to reason. The pages of this book make clear, again and again, from chapter to chapter, that the Biblical Literalist position is bankrupt of reason, and this bankruptcy does not concern this religious movement in the least.
Consider my point from another angle. Dr. Janet Buckingham presents herself as a Bible-believing Christian and is a leading opponent of gay marriage in Canada. I heard her speak at a public forum on this topic. Relying on her faith and on some literal biblical texts, she insisted that God opposes homosexuality and asked for respect for her religious belief. Appealing—rather disingenuously, I believe—to her well-educated audience, she expressed the firm expectation that no one would say she was wrong.
Her supposition seems to be that, because certain people believe something, everybody else is supposed to grant its validity. Does a belief become right just because someone believes it? Is everybody necessarily supposed to acknowledge as correct any religious opinion—or, at least, the Biblical Literalists' religious opinion? Irrationally, Dr. Buckingham does not expect anyone to say she is wrong although the bulk of research evidence discredits her opinion on every front.
The Literalists think that their opinion on homosexuality is the truth and no one should call it wrong. They rest their claim on the Bible's literal words, read apart from any historical awareness. They insist they accept the Bible, God's word, for exactly what it says. Yet, the Literalists are inconsistent in their acceptance of the biblical word. They do not generally believe in slavery although the Bible repeatedly endorses it (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22 -4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:18 ). They do take interest on money and investments—"usury"—although the Bible repeatedly condemns it (Exodus 22:25 ; Deuteronomy 23:19 -20, 24:10-13; Psalm 15:15 ; Proverbs 28:8; Ezekiel 18: 13 , 17, 22:12 ). While insisting the world is only 6,000 years old because the Bible suggests as much, they do not believe the earth is flat, although the Bible presents it as such (Genesis 1:1-17; Psalm 24:1-2, 104:2-13). They often allow divorce although the literal words of Jesus strictly forbid it (Matthew 5:32 ; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18 ).
Recalling such discrepancies in the claim to rely strictly on a literal Bible, from the audience at that public forum on gay marriage, I pointed out another discrepancy to Dr. Janet Buckingham. According to 1 Corinthians 11:8-10 and 14:34-35, women are not to speak in public and, above all, Dr. Buckingham should not be lecturing to me because, according to 1 Timothy 2:12, no woman is "to teach or to have authority over a man." In response, Dr. Buckingham only lamented that, on account of her minority religious beliefs, I was "marginalizing" her.
Dr. Buckingham should consider that it is not I, but the literal biblical word, that requires she not speak in public. After all, is this not the Biblical Literalists' standard defense of condemnation of lesbians and gay men? Don't blame them for the condemnation, they say; it is not they, but the Bible, that condemns.
As for my supposed offense in denouncing Dr. Buckingham's condemnation of homosexuality, she should consider that, in so doing, in no way do I mean to disrespect her person, but only to reject her opinion as wrong. After all, is this attitude not that of "hating the sin but respecting the sinner," which Bible-believers incessantly quote against gay and lesbian people?
This state of affairs raises troubling questions about the place of religion in a pluralistic society. How do we determine what is true? How do we decide what is good? If the Literalists' position were accepted, what would "truth" or "good" mean? Are their beliefs all true, just because they believe them, and everybody else's beliefs, therefore, false? Or are everybody's opinions correct just because people believe them religiously? And what if the opinions conflict—like the conscientious beliefs of the Biblical Literalists and the conscientious beliefs of lesbian and gay Christians? How do we decide?
Any solution must be open to all people regardless of religion, culture, or nation. We will never achieve peace on our shrinking planet unless our peace is respectful of everybody. The only solution I can imagine is to rely on the relevant evidence in open-mindedness, honesty, and reasonableness. To this solution any person of good-will should be able to agree. I have spelled out this solution in Spirituality for Our Global Community. But Biblical Literalism and all forms of fundamentalism stand in direct opposition to this solution. The staunch Bible-believers seem to think that, because they hold something as true, it is true, period, and no one should dare call it wrong.
Am I mistaken, unfair, or unkind to say outright that such thinking is irrational? However you look at it, the Literalist claim to unquestionable truth in their selective use of the Bible is silly. It knows nothing of coherent reasoning or evidenced argument, and it wants to know nothing of it. How could one ever argue with such a position? The impossibility of any discussion evinces the irrationality of the Biblical Literalists' position.
I published my popular book on the Bible and homosexuality in 1994. I had hoped that the easy availability of solid scholarly information would have a softening effect on the Literalists' antigay agenda. The 2000 edition of the book reported even stronger, newly found evidence to the effect that the Bible has no concern whatsoever about homosexuality per se. Yet the voice of the Biblical Literalist minority is louder than ever. Its influence reaches from local neighborhoods and schools to the very halls of government, the boardrooms of business and industry, and the congresses of international affairs. In the extreme, apocalyptic belief—about the need for war in the Middle East to bring on the Second Coming of Christ—may even be undermining efforts to secure world peace and courts a nuclear holocaust. Such a belief is sheer insanity. Yet religious irrationality in biblical and other religions continues to spread while the fate of our world and of an egalitarian way of life teeters on the brink of catastrophe.
At this point in history, Dr. Patrick Chapman's book is most welcome. It should end the debate. It should cut through the darkness of Biblical Literalist irrationality. The scope of this book and the coherence of its presentation should finally stymie the Literalist juggernaut.
This book should effect all that, but, of course, like my book, it won't—precisely because the opposition is irrational while this book is a tour de force of evidence, reason, and cogent argument.
Nonetheless, all is not lost. This book will have a valuable effect if only it helps us to realize the extremes of the Biblical Literalist mindset. Then, no one would be shocked to hear my practical advice for responding to it. Despite respect for religion or the need for civil discourse, no one would hesitate to speak out against it.
In the private arena, on a person-to-person basis, there is also room for optimism. One person can have a healing effect on another by showing compassion, kindness, understanding, and good will. Among conservative Evangelicals there are many people of good will, some desperately searching for a way, in good conscience, to be more accepting of homosexual people, many totally unaware that their preachers and religious leaders have withheld and distorted information about the Bible and homosexuality. Honest and sincere one-on-one conversation with such genuine seekers can lead to a change of heart and mind. Authentic personal interchange affects people more than technical arguments ever could. Then the softened heart opens the mind to readmit reasonable thinking, to consider the technical arguments summarized in this book, and to choose responsible behavior.
I think especially of the Evangelical youth when I raise this hope. If they go to public schools and are allowed to watch TV or use the Internet at all, they are aware that their Biblical Literalist religion is out of step with much of the contemporary world. I would not suggest they should go with the world just to be in step. But confronted with this majority, they cannot help but wonder if their religion might not be mistaken. If the majority is, indeed, right, our youth ought to follow it. But is it right? This is the all-important question.
Well, this book should help any thinking young person come to a reasonable conclusion. If reasonableness matters at all for humanity and before God, I am certain this book will help many young people—and their torn parents—to come to a rational, sane, healthy, and, perforce, holy resolution of their quandary. Please, God, let's not have still another generation waste their lives and suppress their loves because of misplaced religious guilt.
In the public arena, however, in the anonymity of the mass media and amidst religious competition for souls—and money—the prognosis is less optimistic. Where a society allows the free expression of ideas, no easy way to silence foolishness exists. Yet we cannot allow foolishness to control our communities, nations, and globe. In the face of irrationality, most important is to recognize it for what it is. One must not hesitate to name it and, then, as with any public threat, restrain it, and try to contain it. One must publicly challenge it, use every honest means to discredit it, and stop its creeping hegemony over public opinion. One must recognize the danger and do all in one's power to minimize its destructive effects.
Only reluctantly do Christians and other people of good will adopt such an aggressive strategy of self-defense. Yet even Jesus, when slapped by the temple police, protested the injustice: "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?" (John 18:23). In some cases, to turn the other cheek is only to enable the forces of evil. In the present case, to refuse to take a stand—even for the noble motives of religious tolerance or holy charity—is to expose the structures of civilization to the onslaught of barbarian caprice.
The only thing that tolerance cannot tolerate is intolerance, for unleashed intolerance destroys any possibility of tolerance. If anything stands for intolerance, it is the Biblical Literalists' irrational claim of God-given authority. Like it or not, comfortable or not, genuine Christians and responsible citizens need to take defensive action.
Therefore, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Patrick Chapman. Through years of dedicated labor, he has crafted for us a book that lucidly defines the parameters of the current "culture wars." Later, when confronting demonic forces in daily life, if ever we are duped, if ever we begin to doubt our reality, we can again look up parts of this book—I certainly will—and recall the evidence to reconfirm our sane realization of Biblical Literalism's irrationality. In contrast to it, the "Word of God," Jesus' command to love, and responsible citizenship all coincide. Inevitably, they entail openness, honesty, humility, and good will.
Daniel A. Helminiak
September 29, 2006