Michael L. Brown. Can You Be Gay and Christian? Responding with Love & Truth to Questions about Homosexuality. Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine, 2014, 286 pp.
According to what I call the Strong Harmony Thesis (SHT), the Bible includes teaching explicitly supportive of homosexual relationships. Michael Brown focuses most of his energy on rebutting the SHT, and he does so ably. He is especially adept at lampooning exegetical and theological attempts to find pro-gay passages in the Bible.
However, there is a second pro-gay position one might take which I will call the Weak Harmony Thesis (WHT). Advocates of the WHT would concede that the Bible offers no direct support for homosexuality. But, they would argue, this is because the Bible has no conception of homosexual identity as we understand it. Thus, understood within its time and place, the Bible offers no explicit condemnation of homosexuality as we understand it. In this, the third (and penultimate) entry in my series-review of Can You Be Gay and Christian?, we are going to consider the WHT and Brown’s fleeting treatment of it.
Introducing the Weak Harmony Thesis
Many pro-gay Christians concede Brown’s point that the Bible is a heterosexual book. Thus, they do not accept the fanciful assumptions that drive the SHT. Nonetheless, they believe this prohibitive stance is a reflection not of the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts, but rather of the ignorance of the biblical writers to the fact that gay people existed. The only manifestations of homosexuality the biblical writers knew of were abusive and exploitive acts like pederasty and temple prostitution. Had they been aware of homosexuality as a fixed, innate orientation, and had they known of homosexuals in loving, monogamous relationships that demonstrate the same fruit (e.g. self-service and submission) that one finds in healthy heterosexual relationships, then their assessment would have been different. They would have recognized that their prohibitions do not apply to these cases. Thus, while the Bible explicitly condemns homosexual acts, a closer look reveals a harmony between the Bible’s teaching and homosexuality as we now understand it.
Brown first addresses what I’m calling the WHT on page 77. He puts the point as follows:
“To be sure, there are biblical scholars and theologians, both gay and straight, who claim that we really can’t be sure how Moses, Jesus, and Paul would feel about committed, monogamous gay relationships, while others claim we can be fairly sure that they would approve and accept.” (77)
As a result, a person might concede, for example, that homosexual acts are declared moral abominations in Leviticus 18 and 20 (a point we discussed in part 2), and still believe that these prohibitions need to be read as directed toward heterosexuals (the only sexual orientation known to the ancient Hebrews). The same would apply, of course, to the Pauline prohibitions in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6.
Conservatism is risky too
After briefly summarizing what I’ve called the WHT, Brown follows up with a sober warning for those tempted by the position:
“But on the day you stand before God to give account, you will do it alone, without those scholars, pastors, theologians, and friends [who advocated for homosexuality].” (77)
Logically speaking, Brown’s statement is a complete non sequitur, for the fact that you’ll be judged alone does not change the plausibility (or otherwise) of the arguments provided in favor of the WHT. So why does Brown make this statement in the first place?
I suspect the comment is based on the assumption that conservatism is a safer position than progressivism/liberalism. You might think of the progressive (in this case, the pro-gay) position as analogous to riding a motorcycle without a helmet. And Brown’s “you will stand alone before the throne” comment is akin to a warning of the risks of riding without a helmet.
The problem with this “liberalism is risky” assumption is that conservatism is also risky. This is how I made the point in my article “Why conservatism is often riskier than you might think“:
“conservatism can be a risky option. (So can progressivism/liberalism but conservatives already knew that.) In Selma, Alabama in the 1950s the conservative Baptists who sought to perpetuate the status quo ended up on the wrong side of historical progress. As Bruce Hornsby once sang, “‘Some things will never change’, Ahh but don’t you believe it.”
“Consequently, as a living tradition develops there is no safe place to stand. Think of a zombie movie where the zombies are struggling to come in the front door. To get away the protagonist backs up to the safest place: the wall. But then two arms burst through the wall and pull our protagonist to certain doom. When zombies surround you, every place in the room has perils, every place you might choose to stand bears a risk. So it is with that conservative vs. liberal continuum. We all know examples where the liberals have gone awry, but in 1930s Germany the Nazi-friendly moralist state church was the conservative option.
“By the same token, a particular ‘conservative’ view of scripture could end up being precisely the wrong option. Your back is safely against the wall with a King James only conviction when suddenly those zombie arms break through and pull you to your doom.”
While Brown believes the pro-gay Christians who endorse the WHT are on the wrong side of history, it should be no surprise that those Christians believe the same of Brown. Indeed, many of them will likely view Brown’s prohibitive stance as akin to the conservative Baptist segregationists of 1950s Alabama. So if the liberals will stand alone before the throne to give an account, so will the conservatives. There is no risk free place to stand in these kinds of debates.
Would God allow the biblical authors to offer less than perfect advice?
Given that we’re all facing a risk here, the next question is whether Brown offers any substantial argument against the WHT. Indeed, he does. In the next paragraph he writes:
“How much of your life are you willing to leave to speculation? And given the importance of this issue, would a loving God leave so many of you hanging on a thread of uncertainty, conjecture, ad guesswork? Would He inspire His servants (or, at the least, allow them) to make so many categorical statements against homosexual practice in the Bible, recognizing that no one would rightly understand the allegedly gay-friendly intent of these verses until the late twentieth century (or that no one would understand ‘sexual orientation’ until this time)?” (77)
In this paragraph Brown is seeking to rebut the WHT via a rhetorical question. If it is true that homosexual relationships are morally good, surely God would have ensured that the Bible would reflect this fact given the harm that would follow from unqualified prohibitions of homosexuality.
Frankly, I find this kind of argument to be disastrous, for while Brown thinks it impossible that God could allow limited (or even bad) advice into his book, the undeniable fact is that instruction of this type does exist in the Bible. I made this point in part 1 of my review of the Brown/Vines debate, when I noted that the Bible includes deeply harmful advice on corporal punishment. So let me try some rhetorical questions of my own starting with this: Who among us thinks that physically beating your children with a stick is the best way to raise them in the way of the Lord?
Further examples can readily be multiplied. Who among us thinks it could ever be wise to amputate a person’s hand as a punitive act? Who among us thinks it could ever be morally justified to pelt a misbehaving child to death with rocks? Who among us believes it could ever be right to slaughter an entire civilian population?
The Bible contains innumerable instances of moral wisdom and legislation that we repudiate today as harmful and even wicked. So here’s Brown’s choice. Either he can say that it can be wise and good under certain conditions to beat your children with a rod, to amputate the hand of a spouse who double teams her husband’s opponent, to beat a child to death with rocks, and to slaughter entire civilian populations. Or he can accept the contemporary wisdom that such advice is ultimately harmful and unjust. But if he concedes the latter, and thus recognizes that some teaching in the Bible is (to use a neutral term), suboptimal, then he should concede the possibility that the horizons of the Bible’s authors might include other advice and legislation that is likewise suboptimal.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker summarizes the overwhelming violence one finds in the Bible and just how far it diverges from current ethical views, including those widely held by Jews and Christians. He concludes:
“The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discretely ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartamentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.” (11-12)
Pinker is largely correct here. Conservative Christians talk blithely about promoting biblical ethics and yet their appropriation of the worldviews of the biblical authors is almost always highly selective. They’ll appropriate the wisdom of the Ten Commandments and high profile condemnations of homosexual acts (for example) but they’ll pass over large tracts of the biblical narratives and legislative directives in silence. (And as I noted in part 2, we see just how difficult this is when Brown attempts to argue that menstrual coition is indeed a moral abomination.)
Brown returns to this issue on page 160 when he considers the fact that pro-gay readings of the Bible have only appeared since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. He begins by restating the WHT:
“Some might say, ‘That’s because Paul didn’t know anything about monogamous, same-sex relationships, nor did he have any concept of homosexual orientation. The same can be said for all interpreters of Paul who lived before we learned things about sexual orientation in the last forty to fifty years.’
Next, he offers another rebuttal:
“But then wouldn’t that mean Paul wasn’t inspired in what he wrote? Wouldn’t that mean he was guilty of condemning the innocent with his words?” (160)
This comment begs the question of a theory of biblical inspiration. We’ve already seen that Brown’s assumptions are mistaken. The Bible includes suboptimal, historically conditioned instruction which we now would repudiate, including teaching on corporal punishment, capital punishment and genocide. But the response is not to pretend that this biblical teaching all accords with wisdom and moral goodness. Rather, it is to recognize that whatever one’s theory of inspiration, it needs to accord with the facts of the Bible as we have it.
A missed opportunity
In this third installment I’ve been considering the WHT according to which the Biblical writers never envisioned (and thus, never condemned) loving, homosexual relationships. Whether this argument is defensible or not, it clearly is an important one. And given that God allowed his human authors to make problematic statements about many areas (as noted above), we can’t disregard the possibility that he might have done so in this case as well.
In this review we’ve seen that Brown’s engagement with WHT is fleeting and underdeveloped. By contrast, he spends most of his energies rebutting the SHT, including an entire chapter refuting a pro-gay reading of the Centurion’s servant pericope (chapter 7). This strikes me as a misdirection of resources. While it may be worthwhile to refute bad pro-gay exegesis on specific pericopes, it seems to me that the WHT is far more subtle, substantial, and plausible, and thus it is far more deserving of Brown’s critical attention.