It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

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Jed Bartlet’s Job Moment

bartletOne of the themes on this blog lately has been the propriety – or not – of railing against God in times of distress. I tend to (surprise!) take a liberal view on this topic, that God not only can handle our complaints and frustrations but wants us to bring them to him. He made us to be emotional beings, and stifling our emotions is neither healthy nor productive.

Many Christians disagree, and I confess it’s difficult to listen when someone truly “goes off” on God – as happens in the Season 2 finale of The West Wing, which my wife and I are working through on Netflix.

Below the jump, I’ll post the speech in its entirety; most Christians, I suspect, will wince multiple times. You might even be offended. But the question we need to ask is this: Are we offended because God is, or are we offended because we have been taught to be?

[This paragraph contains spoilers] The speech occurs in the National Cathedral, after a funeral for President Jeb Bartlet’s longtime assistant, Mrs. Landingham, who had died in a car wreck. The death occurred after a string of crises and tragedies – including an assassination attempt that nearly killed his deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman – that, let’s be honest, serve to make the show interesting, but would lead a normal person to consider whether she had been singled out to play Job in some sort of modern-day heavenly remake. [End spoilers]

Bartlett asks the Secret Service to close the cathedral so he can spend some time alone, and after some unnecessarily loud and echoey door slamming to let us know the cathedral has been closed, Bartlett begins walking up the aisle toward the vestibule.

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When God Abuses

images-2Does the Old Testament portray God as abusive?

In our Old Testament Theology class, we must give two presentations about the topics covered over a given week’s reading in our textbook, Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. Dispute. Advocacy. My first presentation was on the topic of Yahweh as hidden, abusive and inconsistent. The next week’s assignment was covering the topic of Yahweh as unresponsive, unreliable and unjust.

These are Brueggemann’s categories, and they end up being pretty redundant. The same verses used for describing Yahweh has hidden are equally applicable for describing him as unresponsive, and vice versa. Further, his hiddenness and unresponsiveness clearly make him unreliable, as does his inconsistency. In which case, Brueggemann could have saved a lot of space and simply focused on Yahweh as abusive, unreliable and unjust. But to the extent Yahweh is unreliable and unjust, doesn’t this also make him abusive?

I’d argue yes. In fact, I’d argue the primary counter-testimony of Israel in the Old Testament, whether the authors intended this or not, is that Yahweh is abusive. Abuse is God’s defining action in the texts that push back against the central portrayal of God as loving, just, merciful parent and partner.

There are a number of reasons why I argue this.

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Isaiah’s Four Sons

220px-IsaiahIt doesn’t take much interaction with biblical criticism to understand that the New Testament writers do some crazy things with their Old Testament sources. Probably the most notorious of these is when Matthew 2:15 turns Hosea 11:1, which clearly is talking about the exodus, into a prophecy for Jesus’ flight to and return from Egypt.

We ended our class on Monday talking about that and one other particularly egregious “misuse” of the Old Testament, this one less well known. Hebrews 2:13 cites Isaiah 8:18, which says this:

Look! I and the children the Lord gave me are signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of heavenly forces, who lives on Mount Zion.

Before we get to how Hebrews uses the verse, what does Isaiah mean when he says, “the children the Lord gave me”? Our professor, an Old Testament scholar, pointed us to four verses.

First, the context for this verse is the Syro-Ephremite War, in which Judah’s King Ahaz is unsure what he should do in the wake of a joint attack on Jerusalem by Syria (Arem) and Israel (Ephraim). Isaiah comes in chapter 7 to give him counsel and in the course of his prophecy, four children are mentioned.

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The Time Jeremiah Accused God of Raping Him

250px-Jeremiah_lamentingThere’s been some discussion ever since my post about the Christian rock group P.O.D.’s use of the f-word in a song about appropriate means of addressing God. I’ve argued that God does not want nor expect us to hold back from letting him see the full range of our emotion in a time of crisis or tragedy, and if that range includes full-throated anger, so be it. Others, tending to emphasize God’s holiness, believe that there is a baseline of reverence that should be kept in place, no matter what.

But those folks need to deal with Jeremiah’s striking broadside against Yahweh in Jeremiah 20. The problem is most of our translators are wary to describe exactly what the prophet is accusing God of doing when he laments ever having accepted Yahweh’s call. The key verse is v.7. Here it is from an array of common translations (I’ve grouped ones that translate the bolded words the same:

Wycliffe:

(O) Lord, thou deceivedest me, and I am deceived; thou were stronger than I, and thou haddest the mastery; I am made into scorn all day. All men bemock me,

Geneva, KJV, RSV, ESV:

O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.

For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the Lordwas made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.

NASB:

O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived;
You have overcome me and prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
Everyone mocks me.

NIV ’84/TNIV/NIV ’11:

O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived (footnotes include “persuaded” in both cases);
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.

NLT:

O Lord, you misled me,
and I allowed myself to be misled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you overpowered me.
Now I am mocked every day;
everyone laughs at me.

CEV:

You tricked me, Lord,
and I was really fooled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you have defeated me.
People never stop sneering
and insulting me.

The Message:

You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it.
You were too much for me.
And now I’m a public joke.
They all poke fun at me.

CEB:

Lord, you enticed me, and I was taken in.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
Now I’m laughed at all the time;
everyone mocks me.

I think you get the idea. Kudos to the older translations. In this case, the KJV/RSV family use the stronger word, “deceived,” while more modern translators seem uncomfortable with the notion that God could deceive someone and so change it a little – the NIV adds a more anodyne verb in the footnotes, and the New Living Translation and the Message even seem to blame Jeremiah, although that sense is not at all in the original, which simply repeats the same verb.

But that verb has a context that goes even beyond “deceived.”

This was first pointed out by Abraham J. Heschel, in his 1962 book The Prophets. The verb patah is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example:

When a man seduces a young woman who isn’t engaged to be married yet and he sleeps with her, he must marry her and pay the bride-price for her. (Exodus 22:16)

The rulers of the Philistines confronted her and said to her, “Seduce him and find out what gives him such great strength and what we can do to overpower him, so that we can tie him up and make him weak. Then we’ll each pay you eleven hundred pieces of silver.” (Judges 16:5)

If my heart has been drawn to a woman
and I have lurked at my neighbor’s door, (Job 31:9)

Therefore, I will charm her,
and bring her into the desert,
and speak tenderly to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

while she’s a virgin,
that she not be seduced
and become pregnant
while still living at home;
when she’s married,
that she not go straying;
or having married,
that she not be infertile. (Sirach 42:10)

The typical context of patah is sexual, which makes the rest of the verse far darker:

Lord, you seduced me, and I was seduced.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.

The image of overpowering that follows seduction is less rhetorical and more physical. The image seems to be far closer to rape than any mere contest of wills. Indeed, this is exactly what Heschel argues, noting the second verb, hazak, usually translated “stronger” in Jeremiah 20:7, is also used elsewhere in a sexual context:

But if the man met up with the engaged woman in a field, grabbing her and having sex with her there, only the man will die. (Deuteronomy 22:25)

So the Levite grabbed his secondary wife and sent her outside to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning. They finally let her go as dawn was breaking. (Judges 19:25)

When she served him the food, he grabbed her and said, “Come have sex with me, my sister.”

So Heschel argues, “The words used by Jeremiah to describe the impact of God upon his life are identical with the terms for seduction and rape in the legal terminology of the Bible. (113)”

The overall impression is one of shame and embarrassment, especially given the mockery Jeremiah subsequently describes. Walter Baumgartner in Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament says the seduction language is only “a weak allusion” but when combined with the stronger language of the subsequent line, which he says is taken from wrestling, it is clear the prophet has “half willingly, half under coercion, placed himself in Yahweh’s service. … But now, like a girl stranded in shame, … he reaps nothing but scorn and derision” (74).

Needless to say, Heschel’s argument, while adopted by some, has also been opposed by others.

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What Is the Son of Man?

Son-of-ManThat’s a question I’ve had for a long time. Jesus’ self-appelation of the title in Matthew always seemed needlessly complicated, and I don’t recall ever receiving an answer that made much sense (which isn’t to say one wasn’t given). My main impression growing up – and until very recently, truth be told – was that the “Son of Man” was an arcane way of essentially asserting Jesus’ humanity, the human equivalent of his description, primarily in John, as the Son of God.

But that really sells the title short. In fact, until we understand the roots of the phrase and why Jesus uses it, we run the risk of badly misinterpreting what he is trying to say.

A great example is one my wife brought up the other day. Matthew 10:21-23 caps a series of verses in which Jesus sends out the disciples and promises persecution:

Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Given the context of Jesus sending the disciples out, the literal sense of this passage is that they will not make it far before Jesus returns (since he’s already there and cannot simply “come” unless he’s coming back, right?). Yet they did actually make it quite far, certainly outside the cities of Israel, and he still hasn’t come back. Was Jesus wrong?

Certainly some biblical scholars believe so. I offered to read up on the passage in some biblical commentaries during my weekly study night at the library, and here’s what I found (in chronological order):

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Reasons for Rain

We’ve been working through 1 Thessalonians in our church’s Bible class for the past few weeks, and it’s been quite the ride. As the earliest-written Christian document ever found, it features a number of themes begging for study. The guy leading it is a New Testament professor where I work, and he’s really led the class through some unusual discussions, ones you don’t usually find in church.

One of those centered around 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, a passage that perhaps makes us squirm a little bit nowadays, for several reasons:

Brothers and sisters, you became imitators of the churches of God in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus. This was because you also suffered the same things from your own people as they did from the Jews. They killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out. They don’t please God, and they are hostile to the entire human race when they try to stop us from speaking to the Gentiles so they can be saved. They constantly fill up the measure of their sin. God’s wrath has caught up with them in the end.

I’ve used the CEB, as I typically do, but replaced their preferred interpretation in v. 16b with the footnoted translation (in italics), which more closely captures the literal sense of the Greek.

So there’s the anti-Semitism, the blaming of “the Jews” for the death of Jesus, never mind that he was actually killed by Romans – and never mind that it was actually a tiny number of Jews involved in turning him over to them. For example, even if you can justly incriminate all Jerusalem Jews for Jesus’ death – and you cannot – there were still large Jewish populations in Alexandria and Rome, never mind the rest of Palestine, who would have never even heard of Joshua the Messiah until told about him by Christians decades later.

Then there’s the italicized phrase, which is a little weird.

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