Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Bible tells me so. Oh, really?

In his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren states that “for a new kind of Christianity to emerge, we need a new approach to the Bible.” He claims that most Christians treat the Bible as a kind of constitution; in other words, it is a set of immutable laws that Christians are expected to live by. At the core of this constitutional metaphor is the idea of authority—not so much the authority of the Bible itself but “the authority of the people interpreting the Bible.” McLaren cites a pre-Civil War novel as an extreme example of where this exploitation of the Bible-as-constitution metaphor can border on the extreme.

Nellie Norton was a novel to celebrate the greatness of slavery, and the subtitle was basically something like this: “How the Bible is a pro-slavery Bible and God is a pro-slavery God." Now, that turns your stomach to hear that now but we haven’t had any scrutiny about the way we read the Bible. We’re still using it the same way.

We are indeed still using the Bible the same way. In fact, many claim today that the Bible is an anti-gay Bible and God is an anti-gay God.

For the Bible Tells Me So is a wonderful documentary that came out a few years ago and made the rounds of the film festivals; I’m not sure whether it ever found its way into general release. The film is about Christian parents with gay children.

The documentary looks at five families, including Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop elected in the Episcopal Church, and his parents, and former U.S. presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and his wife and their lesbian daughter Chrissy. In the film we learn of the struggle of the parents to come to terms, in the context of their own religious upbringing and beliefs, with the sexual orientation of their children and with their own prejudices and their fears for their children’s safety and well-being. The film also examines the fears and misgivings faced by gay and lesbian children in religious families as they hear the condemnations of homosexuality in their churches and as they consider coming out to their parents.

The Bible is a major character in this documentary as it is quoted by pastors and laypeople alike in order to condemn homosexuality and homosexuals. There are numerous clips of preachers railing against homosexuality; the most common word that is used against it is “abomination.” One preacher, Jimmy Swaggart, says to his congregation: “I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. If one ever looks at me like that, I’m gonna kill him and tell God he died.” He goes on to say—with no awareness of the irony of his statement—that “God calls homosexuality an abomination. It’s an abomination! It’s an abomination!”

A parent of a lesbian daughter and husband of a Christian minister says, “I’ve learned enough about the Bible now to understand God. I understand how God works, how Jesus works.” A little later, when talking about his two children, he has this to say: “When my kids were growing up, I said, ‘God, please don’t let my son grow up to be a faggot and my daughter a slut’. And he did not…he did not do that. He reversed it (laughs).”

Gene Robinson, who was a model Christian boy in his childhood church, says, “From ten to eleven on Sunday morning everyone was in Sunday school class, [which] was always and only focused on the Bible. So we were absolutely steeped in scripture.” From the seventh grade, Robinson knew that he was different from the other boys his age and he immediately realized that he must keep this difference to himself. “I was always familiar with what the Bible said: Anyone who is thought to be ‘that way’ was an abomination before God.”

All of the stories in For the Bible Tells Me So are compelling. The senior Robinsons, southerners and members their whole lives (they are in their late seventies when the film is shot) of the Church of the Disciples of Christ, deeply and unconditionally love their son. The Gephardts are willing to forego Richard’s quest for the presidency if their daughter feels the campaign—and Gephardt believes her being a lesbian will be an issue—is in any way going to be painful for her.

For me, the most powerful story in the film is that of Mary Lou Wallner and her daughter Anna. Mary Lou was raised in a family of fundamentalist believers and attended “a conservative, Bible-believing church” every Sunday of her childhood and her adult life. In her Christian community, “everything in the Bible was taken literally and there were rules about everything.”

The church that Mary Lou was attending taught that homosexuality was a sin—and not just a sin but the sin of all sins. “I didn’t really study the Bible at all about [homosexuality], but I did pull out those passages and read them and certainly used them against Anna, later.”

When she was away at college, Anna wrote to her mother and told her that she was gay. Mary Lou reacted to this news by first going to the bathroom and throwing up and “then just going completely underground, not telling anybody and being ashamed and embarrassed.” She wrote her daughter back and told her “some things…that were not very loving.”
Undoubtedly the most difficult part of your letter is the gay thing. I will never accept that in you. I feel it’s a terrible waste, besides being spiritually and morally wrong. For a reason I don’t quite fathom I have a harder time dealing with that issue than almost anything in the world. I do and will continue to love you, but I will always hate that.

She thought her daughter’s sexuality was a choice and that “she needed to just get her act together and stop this.”

The letter caused an irreparable break between daughter and mother. Ten months later, before there could be any reconciliation, Mary Lou’s daughter took her own life by hanging herself from the bar in her bedroom closet.

The death of her daughter led Mary Lou to question what she had been taught by her church—that being gay was a choice, for example—and to begin to research the subject of homosexuality for herself. What she learned was this: “…instead of taking the Bible literally, I have to take it in the context and culture of the day in which it was written.” She has since become an activist for the advancement of gay rights and for the understanding of gay and lesbian people by the church.

Jorge Valencia of the Trevor Project Suicide Hotline says:
It’s estimated that every five hours an LGBT teen takes his life, and for every teen that takes his or her own life, there are twenty more who try. One of the top five reasons why teenagers call us is for religious reasons. They’re feeling there isn’t a place for them and God.

Reverend Jimmy Creech of Faith in America says:
The church, because of its teachings that homosexuality is sinful, is wrong, is a perversion, has created the climate in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered children growing up feel very much in conflict with the world in which they live. It really shapes their thinking so that they hate themselves, so that they internalize this judgment and condemnation.

In The Bible Tells Me So, a number of clergy members, including biblical scholars like Reverend Peter J. Gomes of Harvard Divinity School, stress the wisdom and importance of reading the Bible in the context of the period and culture in which it was written. They point out, for example, that the famous prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus—“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall be put to death. Their blood is upon them”—does not exist in isolation from other abominations: eating shrimp, planting two different seeds in the same hole, comingling crops, eating a rabbit, and so on.

Moreover, biblical scholarship has determined that in the Hebrew Bible the word abomination “is always used to address a ritual wrong. It never is used to refer to something innately immoral. Eating pork was not innately immoral for a Jew, but it was an abomination because it was a violation of a ritual requirement.”

It is not a stretch to say that selective reading of the Bible, as a constitution, led to the tragic death of Mary Lou Wallner’s daughter and has led to the deaths of many other young people. It has also resulted in closeted lives of fear, self-loathing, and confusion for countless numbers of LGBT teenagers who do not take their own lives. In this age of information, where the truth of both scripture and homosexuality are readily available, the choice of pastors and laypersons to not only remain ignorant but to preach in ignorance is, in the sense of the word as they so like to use it, an abomination.

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren suggests an alternative metaphor for the Bible; his suggestion is that we think of the Bible as a library, which is “a collection of documents.” His rationale for the use of this metaphor is that “in a good library you want to present all sides of an issue. A good library preserves key arguments; a good constitution eliminates all arguments.”

A library is a sacred place of ideas. For every argument you find there, you will find a counter-argument, made with the same intelligence, with the same love for truth as the first. This interplay of ideas promotes growth—spiritual, intellectual, and emotional. If we can see the Bible as a library rather than as a constitution, Christian churches and Christian families might begin to have respectful and loving conversations that include the LGBT members of those churches and those families and that allow them to be who they are.

If you have not seen The Bible Tells Me So, I highly recommend it. You can watch it on YouTube in nine parts. Here is the first:


  1. This was excellent. I watched the first part. I could never stand Jimmy Swaggert, he always gave me the creeps. What a big hypocrite. I feel bad for kids who were taught such hatred about gay people. I went to 12 years of Catholic school and never heard a word against homosexuality and gay people. We never read Leviticus in school. Even in Church I never heard anything against gay people. I know that a minority of Catholics don't like the gays and some wants gays out of the priesthood and seminaries but this is foreign to me.

  2. It was interesting hearing about Bishop Robinson tell when he was young that the other boys showed him magazines. Nobody ever did that with me. They probably thought that I wouldn't be interested. My friends never really talked about sex around me. I was very modest. My dad liked Playboy but hid it from me because he knew that I thought that stuff like that was disgusting. I was like a junior member of the legion of decency. Well, at least until I found magazines with pictures of guys in them. Oh well, nobody's perfect.