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Monday, June 01, 2015

Gays and The Problem of a Flat Bible

One saying that circulates among the more conservative biblical interpreters is "Let Scripture interpret Scripture." This is codified in such statements as "verses must be in harmony with other verses on the same subject." It's based on certain assumptions that prove false, such as the notion that all the biblical writers mean the same thing when using the same terms. So that once a particular understanding is made, it is transported, intact, across the entire Bible. This has led some to describe this method as reading a flat Bible.

The reality is that there is much argument going on in the Bible. Job argues with Deuteronomy. 1 and 2 Chronicles argues with 1 and 2 Kings.  James argues with Paul. One topic that appears throughout the Bible is the nature of God. Is God a God of mercy or of vengeance? Many would say both, because the Bible depicts God as both. Yet it is clear that Jesus, by his life and death, rejected a God of vengeance. Yet the notion of a God of vengeance persists and is the staple of conservative Christianity. It's their basis for a fiery hell, legalistic judgment, and retributive justice.

This is not a new issue for Christians. The first attempt to deal with it was the radical proposal of Marcion (2nd century CE) who claimed that the father of Jesus Christ was not the God of the Old Testament, and excised it from his Bible. He was (of course) declared a heretic. Yet the notion of a god wholly other than that described in Jesus persists.

A new book from John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, offers a fresh answer. Briefly summarized, it is that God is a God of distributive justice whose egalitarian dream for the world gets co-opted by human greed, which turns the biblical story (often) into a god who justifies vengence in its name. Crossan's challenge is to help us distinguish how the story gets corrupted in human hands.

Here’s a quote from the book that puts much into perspective for me:
If the Bible were all good-cop enthusiasm from God, we would have to treat it like textual unreality or utopian fantasy. If it were all about bad-cop vengeance from God, we would not need to justify, say, our last century. But it contains both the assertion of God’s radical dream for our world and our world’s very successful attempt to replace the divine dream with a human nightmare.
What Crossan attempts is to separate out the dream from the nightmare, even though both are couched in the name of God. How successful he is awaits a critical assessment.

So, why is a blog dedicated to LGBT themes and issues dealing with this? Simply because (whether Crossan's approach is right or wrong) the reading of a "flat Bible" has proved harmful, over and over again, to LGBTs. So when certain texts that purport to condemn homosexuality are used to justify vengeful behavior, some believe they are acting with the approval of a vengeful god.

Once, Mel White, author of Stranger at the Gate, was being interviewed on the radio. A caller quoted Lev. 20 to him and stated that, since Mel is gay, he should be executed. Annie Dillard's quote is particularly apt: "You know you have created God in your own image when it turns out he hates the same people you do."

Although I am happy Crossan has tackled this subject with his usual scholarly detail, there is a simple way to cut to the chase. In my book, I'm Right and You're Wrong:Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it, I propose using a "canon within the Canon." Jesus basically reduced all of the Old Testament to two useful propositions we term the two Great Commandments. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. If we use this to judge the value of any biblical statement, story, or conclusion, we will never be wrong.

Jesus used it himself on several occasions. When a dispute arose over whether his disciples violated the Sabbath by working (harvesting corn for a meal), Jesus simply said, "The sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath." In other words, when a law, even as sacrosanct as the Sabbath, conflicted with human need or dignity, it need not be observed. Human rights trump any law that would subvert human need, whether it's in the Bible or not.

Today we are beginning to understand that same-sex love is no different in quality from opposite-sex love. And that those who are attracted to those of their own sex are incapable (for the most part) of any meaningful relationship with one from the opposite sex. To deny them the right to love the one of their own choosing is to deny them of their human dignity and need. It is to deny them of their humanity. I don't think Jesus would approve, nor would his Father, regardless of how much you may want the god of vengeance to prevail.

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