Friday, April 30, 2010

My Friend, So Long -- Part 1

News broke three weeks ago, in an interview, that celebrated Christian music artist Jennifer Knapp had come out. She announced that she'd been in a long-term same-sex relationship. The most conflicting element of this admission was that she still considers herself a follower of Jesus and a person of faith.

There have been all sorts of reactions. Mean-spirited comments have been broadcast where some believers have denounced her for using Christian music as a platform to make a name for herself. People outside the Christian faith have risen to her cause, no doubt seeing her as a political football to trounce the Evangelical movement. Both types of people not seeing a person I'd say; rather, seeing an icon that they could impersonally use to raise up their particular brand of vitriol.

Mostly the reaction has been sadness. From the people I've spoken with, to the blogs I've perused, to the buzz I've seen on Twitter, the general feedback has been grief. Not bitterness. Not ill will. Not even resentment or spitefulness. Just sadness. Some disappointment that such a high-profile believer would let people down. But mostly just grief at her decision.

I was proud of the Church at large in seeing that. I find it appropriate.

An endless amount of questions are raised with such a revelation. Larry King asked some of them when Jennifer appeared on his show. BTW, you can watch that interview in full RIGHT HERE (it is in a series of 4 videos on YouTube. You can catch the link to the next part of the interview at the end of each video.).

A sampling of the most salient questions:

- Is this her choice?
- Was she born this way?
- Does Jennifer still call herself a Christian artist?
- What does it mean to be homosexual? Are you already in sin if you're just attracted to someone of the same sex?
- Can you be both Christian and gay?
- Written in Greek, is the New Testament all that clear that homosexuality is a sin?
- Why highlight this issue over other issues? Scripture says so little about it, compared to other issues. Why make so much about it?
- What does it mean for kingdom people to dwell with Jennifer Knapp? (raised by Scot McKnight)

To me, the latter questions are the most interesting, and the ones I want to spend the most time with here. I can't answer the questions about Jennifer's sexual nature. I don't believe Scripture speaks clearly enough about it. What is there might tilt in favor of one perspective, but it doesn't give us definitive answers on this issue. So I'm not going to pretend to have them.

But what is in Scripture always provides a way forward. So I hope I can point in that direction for the questions that are most important.

First, why make so much of this issue? Jennifer said it this way in the Larry King interview:

"If I am a sinner and homosexuality is a sin -- let's go on that premise for a moment -- then what separates that sin from maybe, I'm angry, or mad, or I cheat....what separates that as so grievous to you that we have to sit here and have this conversation?"

There are so many different sins in the Bible. There are so many other verses in the Bible talking about so many other issues. Why do Evangelical Christians put a magnifying glass on this one?

The questions are accusatory in nature, and they are two-fold. First, that we're making a mountain out of a mole-hill. And second, that we're being selective about who/what we show contempt for.

If I may, allow me to start with 1st Corinthians 6:9-10...

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

This is just one list, among other lists and other passages, that highlight lifestyle choices that are incompatible with life in the kingdom of God.

On this list are sins that get a lot of social attention (e.g. sexual immmorality, homosexuality, greed, etc.) and some that don't get as much (e.g. idolaters, slanderers, etc.). And all of them should get attention. Paul spoke about how he strove to deliver "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). And so should we. We should not shrink back from declaring how we fall prey to idolatry even in the 21st century, or how we slander public officials when we forward along E-mails rife with lies & mis-truths. Every single one of those issues should be given attention by people of faith.

But that doesn't mean that each of them should get the same amount of attention. Because we unfortunately don't live in a vacuum. We live in a culture. And that culture intersects with our faith in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. And because of those intersections, some topics require more attention than others. Even if Scripture doesn't treat such issues as often as it treats topics like love or faith or money, the context of this world warrants their consideration. I happen to think homosexuality is one of those topics.

And of the sins on that list, there aren't a lot of them that a person of faith would succumb to and still maintain that they were sinless in the sight of God. Maybe greed. Greed is one of those sneaky sins that you can justify with words like, "Well I'm just good with money." So maybe people pass off greed; and we need to speak louder about that. I'll grant that. But I'd say that not even the greedy brush it off as matter-of-factly as Jennifer did in her various interviews.

Why is this sin of Jennifer's capturing our attention? Because it's not often that one of our own turns against what is written. It is not ordinary for a lifestyle choice that is clearly outlined as being unacceptable when under the reign of God to be shoved upon the Church to be accepted. It isn't run-of-the-mill for someone to be open about sin and yet staunchly maintain that she is in fact still in communion with God. I'd call this issue unique enough to be deserving of the attention it has raised.

But what about those words there in 1st Corinthians 6? Is it really homosexuality, or some other 1st century practices, that Paul was condemning when he originally wrote in Greek?

Jennifer raised this question in her Larry King interview. It's a question that has garnered more scrutiny in the last half-century as homosexuality has sought social acceptance.

The first word is malakoi, or malakos in it's singular form. The second word is arsenokoitai, or arsenokoitns in it's singular form. Paul chose two expressive & explicit words when he chose them, as they are descriptive of the dominant and passive roles in a same-sex engagement. Exactly what sort of same-sex engagement is what is at issue. "Both terms have received intense lexicographical scrutiny," says Anthony Thiselton. Some argue that Paul might have referred to male prostitution in general, or sacred male prostitution in religious service at Corinth. Or perhaps Paul was referring to the the practice of pedophilia when young boys were forced into temple service in Corinth.

On one side, we have the argument of the late Michael Vasey, who cautions that (in the society of imperial Rome) 1st century Jews & Christians saw a "form of homosexuality [which] was strongly associated with idolatry, slavery and social dominance. It was often the assertion of the strong over the bodies of the weak." On the other side, we have the argument of Richard Oster, who insists, "The historical record is quite clear that homoerotic activity was not confined only to pederasty in the classical world."

That's just a glimpse, but deeper and deeper the debate burrows into scholarship. And I suspect most of my readers will side with the their teacher from Harding Grad School. I do, too. In the words of Richard Hays, "The New Testament will not permit us to condone homosexual behavior."

(BTW, I fully endorse that book by Hays. If you're looking for a full, comprehensive, and compassionate treatment of the subject, I can't imagine anything out there beats his chapter on homosexuality in that book. The whole chapter is framed around his homosexual friend Gary. For that matter, the whole book is excellent for figuring out how to engage all sorts of social hot-button topics & be faithful to Scripture. Just buy the book.)

The substance of an argument against malakoi and arsenokoitai is frankly weak. In her Larry King interview, even Jennifer's mention of the alleged ambiguity in terms is weak. She can't bring herself to say that the Bible accepts the behavior; the strongest thing she can say is, "I don't know." That's a pretty flimsy fulcrum on which to rest one's faith.

What disturbs me is that, by all appearances, it wasn't Jennifer's study that led her to doubt the weight of scholarship-accredited Scripture. She leaves the overwhelming impression that it was her own feelings and personal passions that swayed her thinking. Certainly experience enriches our perspective on Scripture and life. But personal experience doesn't re-write the text.

To be continued...