Start with the person: Why I affirm same-sex marriage

Richards_Ceri THE SUPPER AT EMMAUS

Ceri Richards, The Supper at Emmaus, gouache, 1958. Image used with permission of the trustees of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, UK

On that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Luke 21.13-24, 28-31

Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.

Deuteronomy 21.23

About twelve years ago I attended one of the most memorable parties of my life. It was a Christmas party at a fellow parishioner’s house. Everyone was in just the right mood and the fellowship lifted us all a bit higher.

In the midst of the jollity I sat down next to Mark, a minister friend. Somehow we got on the subject of homosexuality and the church. He was in favor of an open and principled acceptance of homosexuals — practicing or not — into all aspects of church life. But to me an actively gay life seemed incompatible with Christian faith and practice. I asked him about the biblical laws, the admonitions of the Apostle, and the principles of design and reproduction in nature, etc. My questions were sincere and he was kind but firm with me. When I rested my case, Mark, the consummate pastor, looked at me and said with considerable urgency in his voice:

“Paul, you’re coming at this from the wrong end. You must start with the person.”

When I heard those words, coming as they did from a trusted spiritual mentor, I experienced a small but significant shift to the left. Maybe it was the party, maybe it was the look in his eyes, but I actually felt it. I didn’t change my mind that night, but over the next few years I did.

Start with the person. What does that mean? I’ll tell you, starting with a person. I will call him Brad.

Brad is one of a number of homosexual men and women who are active in my church. My family and I have worshiped with Brad and his partner — I’ll call him Sean — for about 5 years now. Looking back over my life, I can report that I have not known anyone who radiates joy more consistently and more infectiously than Brad. He loves people; he loves the church; he loves God; he loves Sean. He is confident in his identity as a gay man, as a Christ follower, and as a human being. Normally I keep my visions to myself, but today I say: whenever I see Brad there seems to be a dove perched on his shoulder, or hovering just over his head, or flying out in front of him. When I see Brad I see Christ himself.

When Brad figures out it’s him I’m talking about, because he is who he is, he will feel terribly embarrassed. I’m a human being just like everyone else, he will say. Which is true, and him saying so will only encourage my opinion. Stop it, he will say. But I won’t stop it. Brad brings the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to the world. And, as the Apostle said, there is no law against these.

But there are laws and admonitions — some of them found in the Bible — against Brad’s expression of his love for Sean. To say otherwise is disingenuous. So why shouldn’t he just follow our tradition, accept that he is not free to express his particular love for Sean, and love everyone (including Sean) but not romantically? Like a celibate priest? His love is of God and it will find its target, right?

I’m not so sure. The revelation that greets me in the person of Brad is not merely that he’s a gay Christ-follower who’s happy in his identity, but that his relationship with Sean is essential to his joy, his peace, his patience, his self-control, etc. 

Marriage is a laboratory of love that fits the majority of people, myself included; few are they who are called to love in celibacy. For most of us, loving the world is best learned by paying attention to and caring for a single person. Brad is clearly one of these. The marriage model is for him. His life is grounded in God, but he loves the world through loving Sean. Anyone who knows Brad knows this.

So Brad loves Sean and joy and peace and patience overflow from that. Meanwhile there sit Biblical passages that condemn Brad’s expression of his love. Take, for example, Leviticus 20.13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” There are plenty of others but they all come down to the same thing: one must not overtly express homosexual love.

What to do? How to think about this?

Perhaps looking to the roots of Christianity will provide a clue.

While in seminary I had the pleasure of taking Luke Timothy Johnson’s New Testament course. One of the things I remember best is his description of the severe cognitive dissonance that must have been suffered by those to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection. By this he didn’t mean the incongruity of seeing Jesus alive post-burial or the strangeness of seeing someone vanish from sight. What he referred to was their intellectual struggle with their own tradition — Judaism — that unambiguously told them crucifixion was a sign of God’s curse.

The earliest Christians were forced, in light of the revelation of a crucified Messiah, to look back over the Law and the Prophets and resolve this problem. They probably started with individual passages but found themselves recasting their tradition entirely to make sense of what was revealed to them in the person of Jesus. Even then, they weren’t trying to start a new religion; they were faithful Jews trying hard to square this new information with their old beliefs. In the end the ramifications proved serious enough that Christianity was born. For those who knew him, the person of Jesus Christ proved too compelling for any other response.

In other words, the face-to-face encounter with the person forced a reformulation (not a wholesale rejection) of old ideas. The earliest Christians started with the person and worked outwards, keeping their tradition ever in mind.

Brad is not Jesus and, though our church is trending against tradition (at least in this area), we will not have to recast our faith whole. Coming face-to-face with Brad will not force us to found a new religion, but it must make us think and reconsider and pray.

In any case, it seems relevant to me that Christianity itself was born out of a group of the faithful struggling to make sense of a revelation, and doing so in light of a tradition that rejected the very person through whom the truth was revealed. It may be that my encounter with Christ in Brad is just a fresh echo of that old story.

That’s how I think about it, anyway. I’m not a heavy lifter when it comes to biblical studies or Christian ethics, and I thank those like Johnson and David Gushee who do the hard work of sorting out the details post-revelation.

Here’s to a happy week for all Alert Readers.

On creationism and gay marriage

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden Cassandra Davis

Cassandra Davis, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 2013. Photograph taken at the Creation Museum. Davis is a Chicago artist working in photography and installation. She is interested in our deepest desire for the spiritual and her latest body of work “Holy Ground” examines her charismatic pentecostal roots. You can see more of her work at www.questionsfromthesoil.com. Click image for a high-resolution version

One day a few years ago I lost my glasses. I searched all over: kitchen, bedside table, bathroom. I didn’t find them but I did find Elizabeth. “E,” I said, “Have you seen my glasses? I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find them.” She smiled quizzically, then laughed aloud when she saw I wasn’t kidding.

They were on my face. I had been looking through them the whole time. My forward focus had missed them even as they floated at the periphery of vision.

On Saturday it happened again: Something I could until then see only peripherally, something I had been looking for, materialized before my eyes. It was pretty awesome.

It has to do with young Earth creationism. This is the belief that the cosmos and the Earth in it were formed over six 24-hour periods about 6,000 years ago. This number is arrived at using the biblical account alone — its historical markers and begats — to calculate the year of creation. Different methods yield different calendar dates for Day One, but to a single significant figure all round to 4,000 BC.

I think about creationism a lot, and when it enters the scope of my mind’s eye I see science. I see the tsunami of unambiguous evidence that forces us to believe in a 14-billion-year-old cosmos; in a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth; and in the long slow evolution of creatures, Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful.” And I see the sad caricature of science championed by young Earth creationists in their effort to prop up their historical reading of Genesis. I see their arguments about the Deluge, the Grand Canyon, the receding Moon, and I see exactly why they are wrong. I see all of this and I ask myself, How can the Creation Museum (and the forthcoming Ark Park) even be possible in such a cosmos? Why can’t people see the evidence and change their minds?

This is naive, I know. And I would have admitted as much even before I picked up the October issue of the Atlantic on Saturday. But before I read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article about his visit to Ken Ham‘s Creation Museum, the truth about creationism lurked faintly and furtively at the outer edge of my vision. By the time I put the magazine down, however, my naivete had become a large solid thing standing directly in front of me. I could finally see it in all its obviousness.

The Creation Museum offers up plenty of fun — zip lines, a planetarium, a food court, a petting zoo — but these are so many electrons swirling around a stable and serious nucleus: a series of scenes from the so-called “primeval history” of Genesis 1-11. Up front and central is God’s establishment of Adam and Eve in the bright luxury of Eden. The First Couple radiates contentment (in a mannequin-y kind of way). They are white, healthy, and unfazed by not only their own nakedness, but by a horde of large animals and (yes) dinosaurs.

They are also, per scripture, oppositely sexed. There is no subtlety in the presentation of this fact: “buff Adams and sexpot Eves,” Goldberg writes of the mannequins, “plastic breasts covered by waterfalls of extremely healthy hair.” Male and female God created them; very male and very female Ken Ham presents them.

For me this is a sign pointing to the truth about creationism, which is: Creationism is not about the dinosaurs in the ark, it’s not about the weird chronology, it’s not about the tortured explanations of geology and biology. Creationism, in short, is not about science at all.

What creationism is about, is gay marriage.

Goldberg writes,

Sitting with Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson, a historian of geology and a theologian on staff, I asked why it is so important to convince their visitors — more than 2 million since the museum opened seven years ago — that Genesis is a book of history. “There’s a slippery slope in regard to authority,” Ham replied. “If you say that the history in Genesis is not true… why shouldn’t you just reinterpret what marriage means?”

Mortenson stayed on the subject. “The homosexual issue flows from this. Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man. If other parts of Genesis aren’t true, then how could this idea of marriage be true? If there were no Adam and Eve and we’re all evolved from apelike ancestors and there’s homosexuality in the animal world and if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want.”

Other issues are important to Ham and his fellow creationists: teen pregnancy, pornography, abortion, euthanasia. But gay marriage, it seems, is representative of the lot. It is central. It is, as friend and fellow parishioner David Gushee writes, our generation’s hot button issue.

And because creationism is about gay marriage and not about science, science doesn’t matter to creationists. Back in February bow-tied science advocate Bill Nye debated Ham on the question of human origins. He did an admirable job representing real science. But Nye can calmly and rationally present the facts of science to Ken Ham until the Sun turns to coal but it won’t make a difference because the facts of science have nothing to do with it at all. All the scientific posturing of Ham and his team is there to effect a single and manifestly non-scientific end: the protection of a traditional social order, starting with one man and one woman.

This is why creationists can deny science while accepting its technological bounty; this is why they make up their own science as they go; this is why they stand and face science’s great wall of facts — and even comprehend it — and don’t budge a micron from their long-fixed position.

Creationism is not about science. This is so painfully obvious to me now, I’m embarrassed to reveal how blind I’ve been. I may even be more embarrassed than when Elizabeth witnessed me losing my glasses while they were perched on my face.

There are of course plenty of creationists who are not true believers like Ham, who might yet be persuaded by the facts of science. Therefore the work of science apologists like Nye is important. And not all who oppose gay marriage have a view of science even remotely resembling young Earth creationism. But there seems to be a parallel between Nye’s work and that of Gushee, for example, who is in the midst of developing a Christian argument in favor of gay marriage (among other things). Both work to convince not the entrenched but those at the boundaries, where all the good stuff seems to happen.

So this Muslim walks into a Baptist church

aslan

Reza Aslan

Living in Decatur, Georgia is interesting. You’ve heard of Decatur, of course; Atlanta is just one of its many suburbs. It is home to many wonderful eating and drinking establishments. It is walkable. It is family friendly. It has decent schools. And it’s a great place for book nerds to live; the annual Decatur Book Festival is one of the largest such events in the country and bigshot writers visit year round.

Decatur has a motto. It is: “A city of homes, schools, and places of worship.”

It was different when I was a boy. Then it was: “A city of homes, schools, and churches.” This was and still is completely accurate, but I guess someone thought it insufficiently trendy. And Decatur needs itself to be trendy, so it was changed.

Which is fine.

But like I said, the old motto is still accurate. As far as I know — and I moved back here almost 7 years ago — there are no synagogues, temples, or mosques in Decatur proper. So when those bigshot writers come to town, the only places large enough for the crowds are the churches.

This is how it came to pass that Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, walked into Decatur’s First Baptist Church last week. I was not there but many of my fellow parishioners were (I and much of my extended family are members of FBCD). By all accounts the event went off splendidly. Aslan is apparently a gifted speaker and a thoroughgoing gentleman.

Which is not to say there were no, how shall I put this, raised eyebrows. Julie Pennington-Russell, our pastor, mentioned that the word “heretical” — or some variant thereof — had been thrown about by some outside the church. And some inside the church wondered aloud why we were so quick to support Aslan.

One fellow, a smart, well-educated, non-reactionary guy who knows a thing or two about his faith — I’ll call him John — expressed his opinion to me a few days ago. He said we should maybe not have allowed it to happen.

The problem? Aslan is a Muslim, which alone is not cause for concern. A little closer to the bone was that Aslan’s a Muslim who came to talk about Jesus.

Now Jesus is a subject of considerable interest to Jesus followers, and Aslan’s thesis — that Jesus should be understood merely as a political revolutionary — is new for many in the church. Perhaps it was new for John, I don’t know. But an obvious corollary of this thesis is the fundamental wrongness of all orthodox Christian understandings of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. The latter, for example, simply did not happen.

This is hardly a radical move for a Muslim, but can be a little hard for some Jesus followers to hear in their very place of worship.

Aslan may be a Muslim but he works as a writer and a scholar. And like many scholars — Christian and otherwise — he approaches Jesus with what is sometimes called the “historical-critical” method. This approach draws directly on the wild successes of the Scientific Revolution. It is a standard post-Enlightment-Thomas-Jefferson way of doing things.

What this means for us is that Aslan (who is not a historian) is doing history in the sense of trying to find out what literally actually happened back then. The historical-critical approach asks questions like, What was the exact cultural milieu? And, in this context, which gospel stories could have really happened? Which account of Jesus’ birth-baptism-acts-words, if any, are reliable? If someone had followed Jesus around with a camera phone, what exactly would it reveal?

For example: In Zealot, Aslan says there is no way Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem. His arguments, having to do with logistics and the lack of any record of any event in which people were required to return to their hometowns, are no different than what I heard in seminary. He also makes the claim, also commonplace in seminaries, that this detail was added by Jesus-following Jews retroactively because, after all, the prophets had predicted that the City of David would be the Messiah’s birthplace.

Without any correcting influences, this higher criticism goes on and on, leaving intact virtually none of the traditional Jesus narrative. It denies Jesus’ miracles, shelves his claims to divinity, and discounts the entire Gospel of John. The Jesus that survives it is a sad anemic character. He seems hardly worthy of  adoration.

The overall effect is unsettling, especially to those who have never heard anything like it, who have always taken the Gospels — more or less — as history. To them it seems to border on plain old suspicion and even skepticism (in the worst sense). These new facts, after all, seem to speak for themselves.

As I said, it is common to hear this kind of thing trotted out in seminary, and some students kind of freak out over it too. But there it’s different, because the historical-critical is presented explicitly as one of perhaps a half dozen approaches to scripture. More importantly, the very professor who claimed Jesus could not possibly have been born in Bethlehem, said a prayer in Jesus’ name to open the class. She then served communion at worship the next day. You begin to get the idea — in a whole new and real way — that there is more to the Christian life than the facts, whatever they might be exactly.

In the case of Aslan at First Baptist, the scene’s very different. Here is someone who does not share your faith tradition, who is speaking with authority on the central figure of your belief, who does not explicitly define his method or mention others, who is denying nearly everything you’ve ever thought about Jesus, who is doing this in your sanctuary, who will leave in an hour and never come back, who is nonetheless a perfect gentleman.

A strange confluence, we say.

We don’t think it was a mistake to have Aslan visit First Baptist. We’ve made a commitment to hospitality and this is what that looks like. It’s hard sometimes. FBCD welcomes writers from all walks of life, most of whom bring no religious message at all. Moreover, Aslan makes it clear that he writes and speaks as a scholar and not as a Muslim.

But you must admit, his visit to First Baptist made for a very odd combination.