Monday, November 2, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.3): Genesis

At this point in the series, we have gone over two big verses from the New Testament that almost certainly do not deal with homosexuality. Whatever Paul in 1 Corinthians, or the author of 1 Timothy thought about homosexuality, we find no evidence in those verses - only a difficult discovery of the normalcy of ancient sexism. We will now be covering the issues raised in the stories of Creation and the story of Sodom and Gomorra in this post (Genesis 1-2 and Genesis 19:1-9).

Some Christians have tried to use the Genesis creation story in various ways to prove the Bible is “clearly” against homosexuality. Even a respectable scholar like N.T. Wright uses his own (problematic) brand of narrative theology to link Genesis with Revelation's heterosexual imagery to supposedly prove God's intentions for humanity. Yes, Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. And yes, Revelation uses the metaphor of a heterosexual union of heaven and earth to imagine the healing of the world at the eschaton. But to refer to these culturally bound metaphors in order to prove the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexuality is a form of literalism that I find completely unsustainable for a thinking Christian today. It is quite a leap to suggest that just because the first and last books of the Bible happen to both use culturally relative heterosexual metaphors to explain two different events that the Bible is therefore against homosexuality. On the contrary, I do not believe that this means that heterosexuality is automatically the only acceptable form of sexuality. Again, we need to get away from that kind of textual literalism (which would frankly horrify the authors of Genesis and Revelation!) and cultural naivete.  This is about as thin and weak of an argument as I have heard. Unfortunately, Wright feels compelled to retain a traditional view on sexuality that I do not believe will remain the norm for much longer. Nor should it, biblically speaking. Harvard professor and pastor Peter Gomes comments on the Genesis story in his classic, "The Good Book":

"Heterosexuality may be the dominant form of sexuality, but it does not follow that it is the only form of appropriate sexuality. What the story does do is reflect the world experience of those human beings who wrote it. Of course they would privilege the only way available to perpetuate the race, and they would do so with the aid of their own cultural lenses...the authors of Genesis were intent upon answering the question 'Where do we come from?' Then, as now, the only plausible answer is from the union of a man and a woman...The creation story in Genesis does not pretend to be a history of anthropology or of every single social relationship...to regard it as excluding everything it does not mention is to place too great a burden on the text and its writers, and too little responsibility upon the intelligence of the readers, and on the varieties of human experience."

I think Gomes is spot on in this quote, as the creation story does not mention singleness or celibacy - both of which describe Jesus and the apostle Paul. Additionally, the narrative was compiled at a time when women were subordinated to men, which did not remain the absolute norm in Christian history. We need to be very careful to understand the Creation story for what it is and what it is not.

Now we will look at the more popular "clobber" passage in Genesis. In a nutshell, Sodom and Gomorra is not a story about homosexuality but about the sins of inhospitality (Matthew 10:14-15, Luke 10:10-12) and pride (Ecclesiastes). The city was not destroyed because of the angry mob's supposed homosexual lustfulness at Lot's door - after all, the city was to be destroyed before the angels arrived in the city to warn Lot of impending doom. The men at Lot's door in the story are not there to have gay sex with angels, but to humiliate them through gang rape - a very common, obviously despicable practice in ancient times that we find in many ancient cultures (including on the battlefield for some of the Greeks). As Gomes writes,

"The attempted homosexual rape of the angels at Lot's door, while vivid and distasteful, is hardly the subject of the story or the cause of the punishment, and no one in scripture suggests that it was."

New Testament scholar Walter Wink agrees in his book "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith":

"That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them 'like women,' thus demasculinizing them. (This is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.) Their brutal behavior has nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting adults of the same sex is legitimate or not."

To conclude this post, I want to mention something about the curious etymology of the word "sodomite." It derives from this story of Sodom and has meant a variety of things over the centuries: ordinary heterosexual intercourse in any position other than missionary position, oral sexual contact with animals, excessive heterosexual sex, male homosexuality, male prostitutes, idol worshippers of pagan fertility cults – all of this before it was ever equated with homosexuality as such.

As an added note, I feel an urgency today about this blog series after witnessing a "God hates gays" sign holder who was condemning members of the large HSU queer community to hell on the quad for some three or four hours today. My religious studies class was tense as a number of my peers are gay and were reeling from the experience.  This kind of stuff is so destructive and sad, and most of it is perpetuated because of distorted uses and readings of the Bible.