I just listened to the “Unbelievable” discussion/debate on homosexuality and the Bible. If you haven’t listened to the show yet, you can do so here.
You can also check out the Facebook discussion for April 25th here: https://www.facebook.com/UnbelievableJB
Let me just say that after listening to this exchange I felt like sending our longsuffering moderator Justin Brierley a gift basket. After that exchange working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Palestine would be a piece of cake.
In defense of the church’s prohibition view we have Robert Gagnon, Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Gagnon may be the best known defender of the traditional prohibition view in the church today. You can visit him online at http://www.robgagnon.net/
And in the liberal/progressive/inclusive corner we have Jayne Ozanne. According to her website, Ms. Ozanne “currently heads up all the fundraising for Oxford University Hospitals Charitable Funds, whilst also being a voluntary Director of Accepting Evangelicals. She is part of the Anglican Coalition that brings together all groups keen to work towards an Inclusive Church for LGBT people.” You can visit her online at http://www.jayneozanne.com/
Now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, perhaps I can share some thoughts.
The Angry Fundamentalist
First up, the angry fundamentalist.
Gagnon was like a debating machine. He knew his material inside and out. He aimed his machine gun at Ozanne and started blasting every chance he got. This wasn’t a friendly dialogue, it was blitzkrieg. By the end of the program Gagnon had unloaded massive armaments resulting in scorched earth and smoking ruins.
So if it was merely about winning arguments, then Gagnon was the victor, hands down.
The problem is that it isn’t just about winning arguments. It’s also about winning your audience. Gagnon may have a high IQ, but his EQ is in the basement. Throughout the exchange he was unremittingly abrasive, acerbic, and aggressive. At one point Ozanne observed that Gagnon was doing a lot of finger wagging as he talked. At least his hands weren’t balled into fists.
Among the many lamentable moments in Gagnon’s angry tirade, one stands out as especially ignominious. Ozanne had just reiterated the suffering that she and other homosexual Christians have endured in trying to live either as heterosexual or as celibate and single. Gagnon responded not with a sympathetic acknowledgement, but rather by snapping that many other people, including the Apostle Paul, have suffered as well. And they didn’t use that as an excuse to sin.
Gagnon was correct, of course, that many people have suffered worse trials than Ozanne, and he is also correct that suffering doesn’t justify sin. But why not throw in a little pastoral compassion to recognize the pain that individuals like Ozanne suffer?
Consider this scenario. Your friend Dave just lost his wife in a tragic accident and you learn that Dave has begun drinking excessively to deal with the pain. You take Dave out for coffee and raise the topic of his excessive drinking. Dave replies, “It’s just so hard to deal with the loss of my wife.” If you’re Robert Gagnon, you would reply: “Many people have suffered great loss Dave. Many have suffered worse than you. That doesn’t justify your drinking!” Can you imagine such a tone-deaf response? Yet that is the essence of Gagnon’s nasty response to Ozanne.
The other day I wrote an article about blowback. Gagnon may be a debating machine, but that machine produces a lot of blowback, including retrenchment among his opponents. This is the phenomenon in which the more abrasive, acerbic, and aggressive you are in your denunciation of x, the more likely those who hold x are to deepen their commitment to x irrespective of the strength of your arguments, simply because they don’t like you. I suspect many people listening to Gagnon would have been so put off by his style that they would have retrenched into their original position.
The Hippy Dippy Liberal
The adjective “hippy dippy” refers to the rejection of “conventional practices or behaviour in a way perceived to be vague and unconsidered ….” (Oxford Dictionaries) That aptly describes Jayne Ozanne’s performance on “Unbelievable”.
Ozanne had one characteristic that Gagnon didn’t: likeability. Thinking in the terms of office coworkers, while you’d rather not run into Gagnon at the water cooler, you would be happy to have your office cubicle next to Jayne Ozanne. She seemed like a genuinely kind and friendly person.
The only problem was that she had been invited onto the program to defend a particular position, and on that score she was almost completely inept. She didn’t even try to counter Gagnon’s rapid fire arguments and analysis. Repeatedly she would instead invoke her own experience of how she had found the embrace of her homosexuality life-giving. It wasn’t that this was irrelevant. Rather, it was that she never did anything with this alleged datum.
Ozanne could have used that as an opportunity to develop an actual argument. For example, I explain how one could develop such an argument in “Apologist Michael Brown responds to Part 1 of my review of the Brown-Vines Debate” where I point out that the Bible contains teaching on corporal punishment which is actually harmful. This is a conclusion supported by experience and that experience in turn leads readers (even those who purport to endorse corporal punishment like Focus on the Family) to appropriate the biblical text differently than they would have without that empirical evidence. Ozanne could have reasoned from the alleged fruit produced by homosexual relationships to an analogous reassessment of particular biblical texts. But she didn’t even try to do that. Instead, she just reiterated her experience set against a vague, platitudinous presentation of scripture and Christian belief.
If Gagnon’s caustic dismissal of Ozanne’s suffering was his low-point, Ozanne’s nadir came when she responded to Gagnon’s barrage of arguments with a condescending quip about his need for certainty. Gagnon was right to point out that Ozanne was committing the ad hominem fallacy: after all, whether Gagnon has some need for certainty is completely irrelevant to the quality of his arguments. Moreover, Gagnon was also right to point out that the strength of an argument may be sufficiently overwhelming to warrant a deep conviction in its truth. In the Facebook debate that followed, Gagnon also rightly noted that Ozanne seems every bit as persuaded of the rightness of her position.
That’s the most frustrating aspect of this kind of hippy dippy liberalism: while it purports to be open and tentative, it is often every bit as closed and strident as the conservative opinions that it opposes. Ozanne was no less certain about the rightness of her position. But she was a whole lot more affable in her presentation of it.
Like two ships passing in the night, Gagnon and Ozanne may have had an abortive exchange that produced more heat than light. But that heat is valuable for illustrating the need both for rigorous argument and compassionate care, exacting exegesis and pastoral wisdom, historical study and practical experience. We would all do well to have some of Gagnon’s rigorous attention to detail and argument and Ozanne’s affable warmth and attention to lived experience.