Tag Archives: Book Review

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. SPCK, 2009.

N.T. Wright has achieved that stature among theologians that he can whip off a long, wordy direct response to a critique of his thought and have it become a major publishing event–which I think is mostly a good thing. I do find his switching back and forth between “N.T. Wright” and “Tom Wright” as the author of his various books to be irritating. And this book is being rushed out, seemingly in order to utilize the buzz among evangelicals concerning the debate between Wright and the super-Calvinist pastor/theologian John Piper while it lasts. The British edition has come out in paperback and can be purchased on line in the States.  The American edition, to be published by InterVarsity this month will start out in hardback–another indicator of the effort to exploit Wright’s popularity.

Nonetheless, this is an important and helpful book. As with all of Wright’s work, we have an engagingly written, theologically oriented, and exegetically careful treatment of central issues of the interpretation and application of New Testament writings. In this case, Wright focuses on the issue of “justification” in Paul’s writings–especially Galatians and Romans.

For the more general reader who is not particularly interested in the extremist views of someone like John Piper, chunks of Wright’s book will lend themselves to skimming. However, when he focuses on his constructive interpretation of Paul’s thought (which is, happily, for most of the book), Wright gives us a great deal to chew on. Basically, Wright understands “justification” in the context of the salvation narrative of the entire Bible–and makes what seems to me to be a quite persuasive case for this kind of reading. Linking with the argument of his fine recent book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (to be reviewed on this website soon), Wright interprets Paul as presenting justification as a world-transforming impetus from God in the present world–not as a matter of an individual believer finding one’s way to an otherworldly heaven after death.

He sees Paul articulating a “covenant” theology: “the belief that the creator God called Abraham’s family into covenant with him so that through his family all the world might escape from the curse of sin and death and enjoy the blessing and life of new creation” (page 222).  Well said!

So, all things considered, I highly recommend this book and anticipate the publication of Wright’s promised big, big book on Paul’s theology–which will, no doubt, be published under the name “N.T. Wright.”

Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

Barry Hankins. Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America Eerdmans, 2008.

Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University, in this cleanly written and remarkably objective short biography of Francis Schaeffer, the so-called evangelist to intellectuals, divides Schaeffer’s public live into three distinct stages. One’s feelings about Schaeffer and his impact on “evangelical America” might be closely related to which of these stages the reader is most interested in.

The first stage would be of interest to those who want to know about one important element of the intense fundamentalist reaction toward and separation from mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States (and the subsequent conflicts among the separatist fundamentalists, especially those in the Presbyterian tradition).  The young Francis Schaeffer (he was born in 1912) began his seminary studies in 1935 at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Schaeffer’s home town). Westminster had been started in 1929 by the prominent and militantly conservative  New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen in direct opposition to what Machen and his collaborators saw as in intolerable drift toward liberalism on the part of the flagship Presbyterian seminary at Princeton.

Schaeffer studied at Westminster for two years, a time of increasing tensions within the Westminster community that culminated at Machen’s death in 1937 when another splinter seminary was formed. This new school, called Faith Seminary, was led by disenchanted Westminster faculty Allen MacRae and the infamous Carl McIntire. Schaeffer was Faith’s first student, first graduate, and was the first minister ordained in a new demonination formed by MacRae and McIntire known as the Bible Presbyterian Church.  This new group, according to Schaeffer, felt especially concerned about three issues: Westminster was seen as too extreme in its commitment to Calvinism, Westminster was too tolerant concerning the use of alcohol, and Westminster was amillennial rather than premillennial.

Between 1938 and 1948, Schaeffer served several Bible Presbyterian congregations as pastor, joining wholeheartedly in the efforts of Bible Presbyterian leaders to persuade like-minded congregations to leave the mainstream Presbyterian denominations and join with them.  He emerged as a rising star in this context, but in time felt fairly battered by the constant conflict such an approach to Christian faith seemingly required.

So when the opportunity arose in 1948 to move his family to Switzerland and undertake the task of helping to reintroduce doctrinally “orthodox” Christianity into western Europe, the exhausted young pastor accepted the call. During the 1950s, the Schaeffers struggled to make their way. Francis did find the opportunity to engage Europe’s most prominent Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in a brief dialogue. Schaeffer managed to alienate Barth fairly quickly, leading to a note from Barth calling an end to the “conversation.” Barth believed that Schaeffer had basically accused him of being a heretic, devoid of truth and logic, so what was the point of dialogue?  “The heretic has been burnt and buried for good,” Barth wrote. “Rejoice, dear Mr. Schaeffer (and you calling your-selves ‘fundamentalists’ all over the world)! Rejoice and go on to believe in your ‘logics’ and in your-selves as the only true ‘bible-believing’ people! Shout so loudly as you can! But, pray, allow me, to let you alone” (page 39).

By the summer of 1954, Schaeffer came to the end of his relationship with Carl McIntire and the Bible Presbyterian Church. The bitter break led to a loss of financial support from and formal connection with the church agencies that had sent Schaeffer to Europe. Out of this turmoil came the opportunity to begin an independent ministry, L’Abri. This constitutes the second stage in Schaeffer’s career–Hankins terms it “The Making of a European Evangelical” in distinction from the first stage, “The Making of an American Fundamentalist.”

The ministry of L’Abri led to a quite different focus for Schaeffer. Rather than struggling over the creation and sustenance of a doctrinally pure church over against other Christians, Schaeffer’s attention now was focused on offering hospitality and witness to young people, many of whom were not Christians. In this context, Schaeffer developed his apologetic approach, meant to persuade these non-Christians of the truthfulness of the faith and to lead to their conversion.

Schaeffer’s effectiveness with this work led to the gradual growth of L’Abri and of his reputation. Part of his appeal was the sincere effort to provide a non-judgmental, empathetic presence for young people struggling with hope and meaning.  Part of the appeal, added to significantly by Edith Schaeffer, was practical love and care shown to the ever-growing number of visitors. However, as Hankins suggests, part of the appeal of the Schaeffer ministry also stemmed from underlying certainty in the truthfulness of the message being delivered. Schaeffer’s break with McIntire really had nothing to do with the general theology of Presbyterian fundamentalism–especially the insistence on the perfect errorlessness (“inerrancy”) of the Bible and the utter rejection of the validity of “liberal” Christianity.

Schaeffer’s big breakthrough came with the idea to transcribe his lectures for publication. The books that resulted, in particular his “trilogy” (Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, and He Is There and Is Not Silent) became a bit of a sensation. They gained wide circulation among North American evangelical Christians, expanding Schaeffer’s ministry greatly–and changing the focus a bit from encounters with European atheists and agnostics more to working with doubting Christians and former Christians from North America who made the pilgrimage to L’Abri.

The third and final stage in Hankins’ story comes when Schaeffer moved from books to film in an attempt to expand his audience. How Should We Then Live?, a film series and an accompanying book that sought to provide an analysis of Western culture in service of Christian apologetics did indeed expand Schaeffer’s audience and signaled a whole new focus for his ministry. His filmmaker son Franky persuaded him to enter into North American controversies such as the struggle over biblical inerrancy and the conflict over abortion.

This entry into these issues moved Schaeffer into the political arena with both feet–and aligned him closely with the emerging Christian Right. In fact, Franky (now Frank), in his recent memoir, Crazy for God (reviewed here), makes a not far-fetched claim that his father’s final three works (How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, and A Christian Manifesto) and their attendant conferences and publicity combined with overt efforts to expand the Schaeffers’ network of allies (which included links with “co-belligerents” such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye) served as one of the founding impulses in the emergence of the Christian Right as a major political force in the United States (Frank came greatly to regret his role in this process).

Francis Schaeffer became a kind of superstar in conservative Christian circles–becoming friends with Presidents Ford and, especially, Reagan. Schaeffer suggested that Reagan’s election provided a providential “window of opportunity” for politicized Christians to move the US back to its Christian foundations via, among other things, legislation to criminalize abortion. Schaeffer contracted cancer and died in 1984, so we don’t know what his assessment of the Reagan administration might have been, but it’s hard to imagine he would not have been disappointed.

Hankins, who treats Schaeffer with a great deal of sympathy throughout the book, suggests that when looked at now in retrospect, these three stages in Schaeffer’s career provide a fairly coherent whole. During the third stage, many of those who had been ministered to through L’Abri and Schaeffer’s early books (including several such as theologian Clark Pinnock and historian Ronald Wells who went on to prominence as evangelical scholars and teachers), came sharply to critique what seemed to them a shift toward a much more militant and fundamentalist orientation. In Hankins’ telling, though, the main difference between stage two and stage three was simply the move toward a more overtly political focus–indeed a significant shift that transformed the nature of Schaeffer’s audience, but not one reflecting any philosophical or theological changes.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Schaeffer phenomenon. Any criticisms I could mention would be minor–the book is well-written, based on solid research, and tells a fascinating and coherent story. My main regret is simply that the book is too short. It is part of a series of biographies on various religious figures and clearly was required to fit in lengthwise with other books in the series.

Reading this book certainly triggered a lot of memories and reflections for me. I encountered Schaeffer’s work about the time he was making the transition from stage two to stage three. During the summer of 1975, I joined a new church and immediately became immersed in a book study group that was working through Schaeffer’s trilogy. At that point I was a self-identified fundamentalist who very much lived in a dualistic world–my Christian faith on Sunday and college studies during the week. Schaeffer’s message to me was to bring these worlds together. I swallowed that message hook, line, and sinker, and in many ways the course of the rest of my life was set.

During my senior year in college I read everything Schaeffer had published plus numerous other writings from his L’Abri colleagues such as Os Guinness, Udo Middelmann, and Hans Rookmaaker. About this time I also encountered Anabaptist writers, especially John Howard Yoder. For a brief time these two schools of thought vied for my allegiance. Very quickly, though, Yoder won a decisive victory over Schaeffer. The key issue was his attention to the story of Jesus and his utterly persuasive case for the present-day normativity for Christians of Jesus’ politics. I came to see in Schaeffer just another version of political Constantinianism and a theological (or Christological) evasion of the core elements of Jesus’ message (including, at its heart, pacifism).

By the Spring of 1977, I was ready to leave Schaeffer behind. The process was accelerated with the film series How Should We Then Live? I co-taught a course at the University of Oregon on this series right after it was released. I have learned that the best way to become aware of the weaknesses in scholarly works is to teach them. That certainly was the case with this book and film. As we taught the class, I became increasingly disenchanted with Schaeffer’s perspective and his tendency to make highly questionable generalizations and fit everything into his apologetic box. I had numerous debates with my co-teachers, and in the end I was through with Schaeffer. When he followed up this project by moving much further to the Right politically and joining with some of the most obnoxious Christian and political leaders in our country, I realized his true colors were becoming ever more apparent.

Hankins’ book helps me understand better my experiences and perceptions of Schaeffer–and confirms most of them. As I said above, Hankins writes with great objectivity and sympathy–there is nothing here to suggest any motivation to attack Schaeffer. But he is a good enough historian to give us the information we need to assess Schaeffer’s career for ourselves.

Several elements of the story jumped out for me. I knew a bit about Schaeffer’s connection with the arch-separatist Carl McIntire, who had become quite an embarrassment by the end of his long life. It was interesting and revealing to learn how closely Schaeffer worked for McIntire and for how long they remained close allies. Schaeffer certainly remained utterly hostile toward anything that sniffed of theological liberalism throughout his career. This hostility seems especially problematic given that many of the elements of Schaeffer’s critique of anti-human aspects of Western culture have a lot of truth to them. But his antipathy toward fellow Christians who would share that critique and want to work to bring healing in our culture undermined his efforts tremendously.

A classic case, which I alluded to above, is Schaeffer’s attitude toward Karl Barth. On any reasonable theological spectrum, Barth stands pretty far to the right, pretty strongly founded on the biblical message, and pretty affirmative of the theological tradition (i.e., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et al). But Schaeffer did treat Barth as an arch-heretic, a thinker firmly below the “line of despair” who consistently leads Christians astray.

A telling comment by Hankins, which he brings up almost in passing and does not emphasize at all, puts this in perspective. “It is highly unlikely that Schaeffer ever actually read Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the other modern thinkers he would later critique in his lectures and books.  It is doubtful that he even read Barth in depth.  Schaeffer’s knowledge of these thinkers was superficial….[He] was a voracious reader of magazines and the Bible, but some who lived at L’Abri and knew him well say they never saw him read a book” (page 43).

Hankins does not go into much detail about Schaeffer’s rationale for his uncompromising stance on biblical inerrancy and his rejection of the theory of evolution. These stances were front and center through all stages of Schaeffer’s career and certainly mark him as a fundamentalist and even as, in some basic ways, anti-intellectual.

The one account of Schaeffer’s intellectual shallowness that Hankins tells in some depth is quite revealing. Schaeffer’s final book, A Christian Manifesto, centered on Schaeffer’s long-standing assertion of the United States as originally a fundamentally Christian nation. This was part of his critique of how we had lost our bearings as a culture due to losing the original Christian element. Two of evangelicalism’s most accomplished historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, challenged Schaeffer’s reading. Noll, especially, patiently devoted a great deal of time to respectfully arguing his case in a series of letter exchanges with Schaeffer. Despite being unable to marshal any evidence to support his argument, Schaeffer refused to budge–implying that the present cultural war required his argument, regardless of the evidence.

My impression, based in part on my own experience and in part on reading Hankins’ book as well as numerous other pieces over the years, is that Schaeffer (even if poorly grounded) provided evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s and 1970s with inspiration to enter the intellectual life. For some, this inspiration opened doors to a lifetime of learning and working to intergrate faith and scholarship. Perhaps he deserves our appreciation for this. However, given the enormity of his influence in encouraging powerful anti-intellectual dynamics among Christians and a politics of division and coercion that culminated in the disaster of the George W. Bush presidency, it’s hard not to conlude that ironically and tragically, the deepest legacy of Francis Schaeffer was to hasten the diminishment of the standing of Christianity in our world.

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.

Adam Hochschild has told us an engaging and dramatic story with tremendous significance for our present day. As Hochschild points out, in 1787, “well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.”  He states that just as “such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today” it was, “to most people then, unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise” (page 2).

That date, 1787, is important for Hochschild’s story because on May 22 of that year a group of twelve people met together in London, England, to begin a movement that would within twenty years lead to the British Empire ending the slave trade and within another thirty years lead to the actual abolition of slavery throughout the Empire.

This group of twelve included ten Quakers, continuing the anti-slavery concerns that long characterized many in that community, and two others, both Anglicans. One, Granville Sharp, was for many years a crusader for various social justice causes, known to be a bit eccentric. The twelfth man, the central hero of Hochschild’s narrative, was a young man studying for the ministry named Thomas Clarkson.

In his studies at Cambridge, Clarkson entered an essay contest, and prepared, as an academic exercise, a piece arguing against the slave trade. What began as an exercise in debate soon came to possess Clarkson’s soul. Initially, he later wrote, “I had no motive but that which other young men in the University had on such occasions; namely the wish of obtaining literary honor.” The more he learned, though, the more horrified he became. “In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief.”

Clarkson won the top prize with his essay. His finished his studies, set to begin what seemed likely to be a successful career in the ministry. But, as he reported later, slavery “wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true….If the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Hochschild suggests that this day in June 1785 when Clarkson struggled with the need for “some person” to fight slavery “is a landmark on the long, tortuous path to the modern conception of universal human rights.”

Clarkson continued to wrestle with his grief and passion. “Could a lone, inexperienced young man have ‘that solid judgment…to qualify him to undertake a task of such magnitude and importance;—and with whom was I to unite?’ But each time he doubted, the result was the same: ‘I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my mind there. But there the question still recurred, “Are these things true?”—Still the answer followed as instantaneously “They are.”—Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere.”‘ Only gradually, it seems, did it dawn on him that he was that person” (pages 89-90).

Once Clarkson became clear on his task, though, he took it on with a depth of commitment and effectiveness rarely matched in all of the history of human efforts for justice. The rest of his long life was devoted to this work–and he lived to see it come to fruition.  Clarkson died in 1846 at the age of 86, eight years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Shortly before Clarkson’s death he received a visit from American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who recognized his greatness in the cause.

Quakers play only a peripheral role in Hochschild’s story (unfortunately), but he does make a point to mention several times in the course of the book the Quaker tradition of Quaker men never removing their hats while in the presence of powerful people. This sets up the concluding sentences of the book, an account of Clarkson’s funeral. “In both the funeral procession and the overflowing church where the service was held, the mourners included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from long-sacred custom. They removed their hats” (page 354).

This book is much needed tonic today for anyone today who trembles at the thought of successfully resisting the forces of violence and injustice that seem so overwhelming. Hochschild probably wisely sticks simply to telling the story. I would have liked more analysis of the processes of abolition (when the final legislation is passed, we get only a cursory account of the action). I also would have liked more attention to the role of the Quakers who were central to the effort. However, the story of the perseverance, the numerous set-backs, the extraordinary suffering of the Empire’s slaves, and the ultimate success against overwhelming odds is well told and carries its own power.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Thomas Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition

Thomas P. Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. Hill and Wang, 2008.

John Woolman, the Quaker “saint” who died in 1772, is certainly worthy of continued attention–as is given in this careful and thorough biography. Woolman strongly opposed slavery in a time when even many Quakers were slaveholders. He also opposed warfare and materialism. He wrote a spiritual classic, his Journal, which continues deservedly to be read widely.

I approached this book with great anticipation because while I have known of Woolman’s witness for years, I still didn’t know much about the man and his life.

Slaughter, a history professor at Rochester University in New York, writes a very close-grained account of Woolman’s life, making the most out of the fairly scarce resources we have about this exceedingly modest and spiritually rigorous Friend. So, this book makes an important contribution in giving us the details of Woolman’s outer life that shaped the inner life so powerfully expressed in the Journal.

The Woolman that Slaughter recovers for us (and I should emphasize that Slaughter seems quite sympathetic to the subject of his book–this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet job) does not come across as an overly attractive person. In particular, Woolman seems fairly hateful toward fleshly human life and even his own family ties. He departed on his one trip across the Atlantic to witness to British friends well aware of his delicate health. He expected to die (as he did) while following his calling, loved ones notwithstanding.

My biggest disappointment with this book is Slaughter’s lack of attention to the broader context of Woolman’s life–both in the sense of the dynamics of the world in which Woolman lived (e.g., I wanted desperately to know more about the retreat of Pennsylvania Quakers from political life in their colony–a retreat that reached fruition during Woolman’s life and one that was, apparently strongly encouraged by his own ministry; we are only given glancing hints concerning this event by Slaughter) and in the sense of Woolman’s impact those who followed after him (e.g., one of the big issues pointed to by the book’s title is the abolitionist movement and the transformation among Quakers from tolerance toward slavery to total opposition–Woolman seems to have pioneered these changes but we are not given much of a sense of how).

So, I finished the book wishing for something quite a bit different that what I received. I recommend it only with strong qualifications. It’s pretty long, not particularly engagingly written, and too narrowly focused. We do learn a lot about the details of Woolman’s life–he’s important enough (though Slaughter doesn’t tell us enough about why) to warrant our attention. But so much more could be done with the fascinating story of John Woolman, his life and times, and his legacy.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Paul Boyer. When Time Shall Be No More

Paul Boyer.  When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Even though this book is in some ways now getting a bit dated (for example, one wonders how Boyer’s analysis would be differ now in light of the powerful impact the Christian Right had during the Bush II administration), it remains an extraordinarily helpful resource.

Paul Boyer, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, gives a detailed and reasonably objective portrayal of the background and emergence of what he calls “prophetic belief” (that is, dispensational premillennnialism) in the United States. Boyer is a reliable chronicler and engaging writer. He’s critical of prophecy belief, but does a good job of letting the story come through in a way that even a supporter of prophecy belief would gain understanding.

Boyer does a good job setting the context for prophecy belief in the United States. He pays special attention both to the role of the United States in the future-prophetic schema and to the role of the establishment of the Israeli nation-state as the lynchpin for current assertions of the imminence of the End. In particular, it is interesting to learn of how the understanding of Israel’s “re-establishment” changed after 1948 when it turned out that masses of Jews did not convert to Christianity as had been understood to be a necessary precursor to fulfillment of the prophecies about Israel as a restored nation-state.

The alarms Boyer raised back in the early 1990s are even more worthy of taking seriously today–this approach to Christianity will continue to wreak major havoc. His background study, hence, remains relevant, even essential.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Jerome Segal. Joseph’s Bones

Jerome M. Segal. Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible. Riverhead Books, 2007.

This is one of those books that probably makes a better contribution in how it stimulates the reader’s own thinking than in the particular argument it makes or information it conveys. Segal is a professional philosopher and (in the best sense of the term) an amateur biblical scholar.  This book mainly operates in the latter of these arenas, though its strongest suit (being its questions and testing of speculative hypotheses) surely reflects Segal’s own active philosophical mind.

That is, Segal obviously loves the Bible and draws on his long experience of teaching the Bible to young people in his Jewish community–but he writes as an outsider to the biblical studies guild. This “outsider” stance works mostly to Segal’s advantage. He is free to ask fresh questions and not bound to the distracting kind of scholarly apparatus that dooms so much biblical scholarship to irrelevance due to its thousands of qualifications, its “objectivity,” its arcane debates and butt-coverings, and its focus on minutia. Continue reading

Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality [critical notes]

Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment. Herald Press, 2003.

[These are notes from September and October 2003 made in preparation for this review.]

I wanted to like this book, because I have liked Willard Swartley so well.  He was a very important teacher for me when I attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in the early 1980s, and we have continued to have friendly contact from time to time in the years since.  I am very happy he published this book because we have had so few materials of a scholarly nature to interact with concerning what is surely the most difficult issue the Mennonite Church has ever faced.  I am hopeful Swartley’s book will open the door a bit for the sake of much needed conversation.

However, as will surely be clear in my comments to follow, I am not very happy with what Swartley has actually produced.

Preface

Swartley states that we “need to distinguish between exegetical work and the hermeneutical task” (p.11).  I find Swartley’s notion of hermeneutics to be quite impoverished.  He seems to have little to say about what are probably the most significant issues concerning using the Bible for ethics; implicitly assuming, it would appear, that our task is simply determining what the text means and then this meaning takes care of itself.

This Preface and Chapter One would have been good places for Swartley to interact with the excellent essay by Norman Kraus on “the two ‘H’ words” in the book Norman edited, To Continue the Dialogue.  That Swartley is obviously familiar with that book – he cites several of its essays throughout his book – and yet ignores probably the most important essay in the book tells me that he simply does not realize the complexities of these issues.  This failure to work with what I understand to be the key hermeneutical issues is a tremendous problem.

While I appreciate Swartley’s assertion of how important it is that we seek “to speak in love” (p.11), I am troubled with his failure to engage the testimonies of gay and lesbian Mennonites in this book.  Roberta Kreider’s two edited collections of such testimonies, From Wounded Hearts and Together in Love, are resources he should have interacted with.  This refusal to include gay and lesbian Mennonite voices in his discernment process leads me to find his quote from Miroslav Volf at the end of his Preface exhorting us to listen carefully to the voices and perspectives of those with whom we disagree ringing a bit hollow.

Chapter One: My Journey on Homosexuality

Swartley uses the term “homosexuality” without defining it or recognizing just how contested of a term it is.  This creates a problem right away when he states that with regard to “homosexuality one encounters at the level of the ‘plain sense’ of the text only prohibitions, and strong ones at that” (16).  He is already contradicting himself since, as he himself acknowledges later almost in passing, “homosexuality” is a modern term – so the “plain sense” of an ancient text can tell us nothing about “homosexuality.”

Swartley assumes that the basic issue that we have to deal with is “homosexual practice, i.e., same-sex genital intercourse” (p.17).  However, this is not self-evident.  Maybe the basic issue is, instead, the treatment of vulnerable, oppressed people in the community of faith.  Or, maybe, the basic issue is intimate relationships more broadly understood, including friendships and the other elements of committed intimate relationships besides sexual intercourse.  It would have helped if Swartley would have recognized this uncertainty and given some explanation as to why he should be focusing simply on sexual intercourse.

When he writes that “homosexual practice…always appears in prohibitive language” in the Bible, Swartley is making both a meaningless and an inflammatory statement.  It is meaningless in that the Bible cannot possibly be talking about homosexual practice, since the concept of “homosexuality” is modern.  This is important partly because the statement “homosexual practice,” though not clearly defined by Swartley, seems clearly to be meant as an all-encompassing term including any conceivable expression of sexual intimacy between two men or two women.  But the Bible clearly never has this in mind.

What the Bible seems to portray, at the most, in “prohibitive language” includes male-on-male threatened rape (Gen. 19; Judg. 19), male-male cult prostitution (Lev 18; 20), male-male orgies (Rom 1), and exploitative male-male sex (1 Cor 6).  However, the Bible also uses “prohibitive language” of male-female sex in parallel situations (rape, prostitution, orgies, exploitation).  Hence, it seems inappropriate (and inflammatory) to label these prohibitions as having to do with “homosexual practice.”

Chapter Two: The Old Testament and Early Judaism

In general, I found Swartley’s approach to the biblical materials highly disappointing.  He focuses primarily on citing various scholars, playing them off one against another, dismissing the one’s he disagrees with as “unconvincing” without giving one enough data to help the reader draw one’s own conclusion.

Surprisingly to me, given what I remember being taught by Swartley himself in his Biblical Hermeneutics class, he spends little time delving into the texts themselves and virtually no time talking about the broader literary contexts for the passages he does discuss.  So, he simply (very briefly) discusses Genesis 19 without, for one thing, noting the broader context beginning in chapter 18 of the story setting a contrast between Abraham’s receptivity to the angels and Sodom’s hostility.  That is, Swartley does not address what the point of the Sodom story is in its broader literary, treating it instead in narrow isolation.

Swartley makes the point (p.31) that the Bible speaks of “acts,” not “orientation” (or, I would add, not “homosexuality” as an element of a person’s identity).  True enough, but this fact makes it crucial for us then to be quite attentive to the particular “acts” that are referred to – and to why these particular acts are problematic.  And if we are focusing on particular acts, we must question strongly the assumption that we may automatically move from these particular acts to making generalization about all possible acts.  We would never conclude from stories of problematic heterosexual acts such as rape, sex with prostitutes, and involvement in orgies that sexual intimacy in the context of committed, mutually caring, monogamous heterosexual relationships is immoral.

Swartley argues that in Genesis 19 it matters that the “lust” leading to attempted rape was homosexual lust (pp.31-32).  However, how can this be “homosexual” lust when it obviously cannot include women?  It seems to me, in reading Genesis 19 together with Judges 19, that these two stories are not differentiating between whether the people being threatened with rape or actually raped are male or female (that is, whether the “lust” was homosexual or heterosexual), but between whether the victims are guests or not.  The daughters are rejected by the mob in Genesis because they are not guests; the concubine is accepted by the mob in Judges because she was a guest.  That is to say, neither of these stories have any relevance whatsoever to current discussions concerning same-sex intimacy.

In his discussion of Leviticus (pp. 33-36), Swartley does not discuss the broader context of Leviticus nor the hermeneutical issues related to the use of the Old Testament law codes for present day ethics (or for present-day Christian ethics).  He mostly simply cites various scholarly opinions, some of what have very little to do with the actual text we are considering.  This entire chapter on the Old Testament is a wasted opportunity to actually look in some depth at several fascinating texts and try to figure out what the texts are actually saying in their broader contexts.

Chapter Three: Jesus and the Gospels

Swartley states that “Jesus nowhere condoned the sin of the sinners to whom he graciously related.  Rather, he empowered them into a transformed status in society” (p.44).  I read the Gospels as presenting things in a more complicated way.  In some cases (e.g., poor people, sick people, bleeding women), Jesus indicates that what society sees as “sinful” (or “unclean”) is not sinful in God’s eyes.  In other cases (e.g., his followers violating the Sabbath in order to eat), Jesus critiques those who label others’ life-enhancing actions as sinful because they violate the alleged letter of some law.  In yet other cases (e.g., the “woman who was a sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment), Jesus offers acceptance with no sense of critique of the “sin.”  Perhaps in some sense in all of these cases Jesus could be seen as “condoning” sin.

In general, Jesus focuses his critique of sinners on those who hurt others (e.g., the Pharisees) and offers unconditional acceptance for vulnerable and oppressed people.  He shows a clear desire to help people to live whole lives, challenging them to make changes that would help them to do so.  But he is not bound by the letter of the law to support people in power using rules to hurt vulnerable people – which is what has all too often in the church in relation to sexual minorities.

Indeed, as Swartley insists, the Gospels portray Jesus as “not soft on judgment” (p.45).  But who generally are seen as the likely recipients of this judgment?  Isn’t it almost always those who try to block entry to the community of faith due to their legalism, not those allegedly guilty of “unrepentant sexual sin”?

Chapter Four: Understanding Paul on Homosexual Practice

Swartley begins his discussion of Romans by zeroing in on 1:24-27, and he asserts that “its function is to describe theologically the nature of humanity’s condition outside salvation in Jesus Christ” (p.50).  In contrast, I would say that the “function” of these verses needs to be understood in terms of their larger context.  In light of that larger context (most immediately, Paul’s argument in Romans 1:16–3:28 ), the function of these verses seems to be to set up Paul’s readers for Romans 2:1ff (as you judge others, you are just as sinful) which is setting the readers up for Romans 3:21 (reconciliation with God for all who trust in Jesus Christ).  That is, Romans 1:24-27 is misread when it is not read as part of Paul’s message of God’s unconditional mercy, a message that, to be understood, must be heard as shattering the kind of self-righteousness that Paul’s readers are prone to when they point fingers at the sins outlined in chapter one.

Swartley asserts that “same-sex desire and practice are regarded as the result of a God-disowning culture” (p.51).  Here his refusal to recognize that there are many types of “same-sex practice” (as there are many types of “opposite-sex practice”) is particularly pernicious.  The broader section running through 1:32 makes it clear that Paul is talking about extreme behavior here.  It is a misuse of this text to draw any general conclusions concerning same-sex affectional orientation from it – just as the story of David with Bathsheba tells us nothing about opposite-sex affectional orientation or the morality of healthy opposite-sex relationships.

Again, in this section, Swartley focuses much more on citing various scholarly opinions as if that is the key to understanding the text, instead of taking us into the text itself and struggling with the genuine issues of how to translate the text’s meaning for our day.

I found Swartley’s comment on p.66 to be a bit sanctimonious and annoying: “I prefer – and it seems to me to be more honest – to not attempt to rework what the texts say and mean with or by tenuous interpretations.”  In my opinion, Swartley could himself be accused of reworking what the Romans text actually says.  He takes what is meant to be a description of non-Christian behavior and twists that into the basis for normative ethical prescriptions for Christians.  As well, he turns the meaning-in-context of this passage on its head, taking what is used by Paul as part of his argument against judgmentalism (2:1ff.) as a basis for his judgmentalism against gay and lesbian Christians.

Swartley ignores several aspects of this text that are important for correctly understanding it.  (1) The whole of 1:16-32 picks up the theme of justice/injustice (unfortunately often translated “righteous,” et al), which in the Bible are relational terms concerned with people living in harmony with or harming others.  If we consider the sexual allusions as in some sense being linked with the vices mentioned in 1:28-31, we see that the sexual behavior problem likely has to do with the behavior being unjust and causing harm.

(2) Swartley never mentions the close parallel of Romans 1 with Wisdom 13–14, a connection that could support the idea that Paul was drawing on some stereotypical attitudes among his readers for rhetorical effect more than developing an original argument.

(3) Swartley never addresses the paucity of material in the Bible concerning women’s same-sex “acts.”  The only possible reference in the whole Bible is here in Romans 1, but this text is irresolvably ambiguous.  The reference in 1:26, “their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” could be saying the consequences of this “exchange” was “female/female” sex or, on the other hand, it could be that the consequence was simply being overwhelmed with lust in general.  One’s conclusion on this issue probably would follow from what one understood Paul’s general concern here to be, same-sex sex or out-of-control orgiastic sex of various kinds.

Perhaps Swartley’s most problematic textual discussion is his treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:9.  He starts with a single, very ambiguous word (p.67) – as if the meaning of a passage of the Bible is centered on individual words.

The conclusions Swartley draws about this word, arsenokoites, are problematic enough.  As I understand it, we simply do not have enough evidence to ascertain with any certainty that we can conclude that this word (used nowhere else in the New Testament [except for 1 Tim 1:10] and nowhere else in other surviving first-century Greek writings) simply means the sum of the two Greek words from the LXX translation of Lev. 18:22; 20:13, “male” and “laying.”  The similarity between the one word “arsenokoites” and the two Lev words certainly is suggestive, but compound words are not always simply the sum of their two parts.

The bigger problem is Swartley’s failure to be attentive to the context of this verse.  He presents the context as being one centered on the pornoi (the “fornicator”) who is discussed in 1 Cor 5, totally ignoring the context of chapter six immediately preceding 6:9.  Paul’s concern in chapter six, as in Romans 1, is justice/injustice, not “fornication.”  Paul confronts the Corinthians for taking their disputes to secular courts (with the possible subtext that these were wealthier church people using the secular courts to help them exploit poorer church people).  Paul’s punch-line here is that you can’t get true justice from these courts because they are run by unjust people, people characterized by the vices listed in 6:9-10.

Included in this list of vices are terms with uncertain meanings – possibly having sexual aspects.  “Arsenokoites” likely does have some sense of male/male sex as part of its meaning.  Given Paul’s concerns with his vice list here, and given the context for the word’s later use in at least a few early second-century instances, this male/male sex seems linked with injustice, not with all male/male intimacy in all cases.  The second term, malakos, literally means “soft” (see Mt 11:8 ) and could easily here in 1 Cor 6 simply have the sense of “morally lax.”

Amazingly, Swartley seeks to resolve the ambiguity in 1 Cor. 6:9 concerning the possible allusions to male/male sex not by reflecting on the immediate context in the preceding verses, which points toward a justice-oriented concern (implying that it is unjust expressions that Paul has in mind) but by jumping over to Romans one and using that as a basis to conclude that Paul’s main concern in1 Cor 6 was a general condemnation of “homosexual practice” per se (p. 70).

Another problem with Swartley’s approach to 1 Cor 6, echoing his treatment of Rom 1, is that he takes what is a descriptive statement of non-Christian morality serving rhetorical purposes that have nothing to do with sexual ethics (in Rom 1 challenging the judgmentalism of his readers, in 1 Cor 6 challenging the use of non-Christians courts by his readers) and twists that into a prescriptive statement for Christian morality.  Swartley, it seems to me, must resort to doing this because in the New Testament we have a total lack of such prescriptive statements concerning same-sex intimacy.

Chapter Five: Analysis of Contemporary Culture

(1) Swartley combines a blanket condemnation of what he sees to be morally reprehensible about Western culture with a refusal to differentiate among “homosexualities.”  There are surely parallel types of sexual behavior among gays as a group and among straights as a group – in each group ranging from fidelity in life-long partnerships to crass promiscuity.

By refusing to make distinctions here Swartley (1) lumps all who are open to same-sex marriage-like partnerships together with the worst advocates of “free love,” and (2) in this way undercuts any possibility of making common cause with people who would share much of his critique but make a distinction between sexual behavior that is morally inappropriate (for both same and opposite sexual relating) and morally appropriate same-sex relationships.

(2) I wish Swartley would interact with a book such as Didi Herman’s The Anti-Gay Agenda.  I believe that this book helps us see a more central cultural dynamic that drives the Mennonite Church’s (and other denominations’) hostility toward gay members.  Herman helps uncover the political forces from the New Right fueling the anti-gay movement.  Doug Ireland’s article “Republicans Relaunch the Antigay Culture Wars” in The Nation (Oct. 20, 2003)shows this dynamic is still going strong.  I am sorry that Swartley, who has been so exemplary in his peace work over the years, would even implicitly be making common cause with such cynically reactionary forces in our society.

(3) This chapter is full of problematic assertions, assumptions, and innuendos.  I’ll just mention a few.

(i) “Homoerotic attraction…has become part of the dominant cultural agenda of the West” (p.75).  This seems to be a case of greatly exaggerating the problem one is opposing as a means of justifying one’s fearfulness.

(ii) “The sexual revolution of the 60s is a paramount factor in understanding why the homosexual issue has become a cause in Western society” (76).  This statement reflects Swartley’s assumption throughout that “the homosexual issue” is primarily about sexual behavior rather than human rights.  One could just as easily argue that the core dynamic bringing the quest for human rights among gays to the surface were parallel quests for human rights for colonized peoples, African-Americans, women, disabled people, et al.  Given Swartley’s own work for peace, he would likely face a great deal of cognitive dissonance should he admit that the key issue here is human rights, which is possibly why he is so quiet in this book about the horrific persecution vs. gays in our culture and the churches.

(iii) “Western culture is founded on human autonomy” (76).  Of course this is an incredible over-simplification.  But granting at least some of Swartley’s point, it seems totally wrong-headed to imply that the hope for acceptance in the churches and support for intimate partnerships among gay Mennonites is a problem of individualism!  This hope seems to stem from the exact opposite inclination – a recognition of the need for and value of Christian community.

(iv) “It is striking that from Ezekiel 16:49 through the church fathers, wealth and especially greed and injustice, are linked to homosexuality” (78).  Besides the fact that Ezekiel 16:49 most certainly is not a reference to “homosexuality,” this is a blatantly prejudicial and illogical statement.  The famous people I know of who are greedy and unjust are almost uniformly heterosexual.

(v) “The route to be included in God’s salvation and the body of Christ is through repentance and confession of sins, baptism, God’s free justification, and the gift of the Spirit [not on the basis of some ‘human right’ based on some form of justice]” (83).  This points precisely to the issue within the Mennonite Church – we have individuals and churches who are excluded from the fellowship even though they have followed this “route to be included.”

Chapter Six: Hermeneutical Analysis and Reflection

(1) I took a class on “Biblical Hermeneutics” from Swartley in 1981.  Much of the class admittedly focused on exegesis of biblical texts, however I was introduced to Hans-Georg Gadamer (briefly) for the first time and we read and discussed an essay by Rudolf Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?”  So I credit Swartley with helping me learn of the importance in biblical study of the interpreter’s “horizon.”

So I expected this chapter to include some reflections on our starting points in approaching biblical texts related to sexuality issues.  I was disappointed that it turned out simply to be a series of justifications for particular interpretations, focusing only on internal biblical concerns.  It is amazing how little self-examination Swartley undertakes in this book.  Of all themes that one could write about today, sexuality issues require a lot of self-awareness and honesty about one’s presuppositions.  And insofar as those presuppositions shape one’s interpretations, it becomes even more important to surface them and justify them.  Swartley fails on this score.

For example, what we receive from the Bible will be largely determined by which of the following two questions we begin with as we approach biblical materials.  Are we looking for clear bases to exclude gay Christians from full fellowship in the church (with the assumption that they are in unless it is proven they should be put out)?  Or, are we looking for clear bases to include gay Christians (assuming they are out unless proven otherwise)?  Swartley does not address this issue at all that I could see.

(2) Again, Swartley assumes that the starting point in approach the general issues is sexual behavior, not human rights or Jesus’ love command.  This seems extraordinarily narrow.

(3) Following Gagnon (though thankfully, he is not as relentless in doing this as Gagnon), Swartley writes of “the homosexuality issue” as being in the same cluster of “sexually related sins” as “incest, bestiality, adultery, prostitution, and soliciting prostitutes” (p.103).  I would tend to argue that “the homosexuality issue,” instead, is best seen as being in the same cluster of sins of injustice as oppression of vulnerable people in the community of faith such as widows, orphans, and strangers.  I don’t think Swartley adequately justifies his choice here.

(4) As an Anabaptist, I am not as persuaded as Swartley that the practices of medieval Christendom, Calvin’s Geneva, and New England Puritans of making same-sex illegal and of Paris executing “homosexual offenders” are evidence for how Christian Tradition provides support for present-day anti-gay perspectives within the church (p. 112).  Given that all these people were so wrong about warfare, violence, and capital punishment, why would we assume they were right about sexuality?

Chapter Seven: The Church’s Belief and Response

Swartley writes, “institutional and congregation leaders must be alert to the way homosexuality tends to stop everything else and becomes an all or nothing bargain” (p.119).  I think it would be much more accurate (and honest) to say that opposition to “homosexuality” tends to stop everything else.

I’ll just give one example from my experience.  A couple of years ago, Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, existed pretty much out of sight and out of mind, a tiny congregation on the margins of the Virginia Conference’s Harrisonburg District.  At that point, the congregation had no gay members or attendees.  One of the members had a lesbian friend looking for a location for her commitment ceremony, and offered the church building for that use.  Somehow word got out to a Conference pastor who contacted the District leaders demanding that Broad Street be stopped from allowing their building to be used in this way.  Broad Street resisted the demand, and in the course of a conversation with District leaders admitted that the congregation would be open to the participation of gays in their church life.  The first challenge to Broad Street’s decision to allow the ceremony came in December 2001.  In February 2003, the congregation was formally kicked out of Virginia Conference.

One of the main arguments I heard expressed for acting against Broad Street was that many people in the Conference were threatening to leave if such action didn’t happen.  District leaders even openly stated that they saw themselves faced with a no-brainer – either Broad Street or the many, many on the other side who were making the threats.  (A huge irony is that the original pastor who raised the complaint did not even wait around for the very abbreviated process leading to Broad Street’s expulsion – he led his congregation out of the conference only a few months after raising his initial complaint.)

To me this story illustrates that the initiative in “stopping things” in the churches due to controversy almost always comes from the anti-gay people.  Broad Street, like other Mennonite congregations in Germantown, Pa., Ames, Iowa, and Calgary, Alberta, simply wanted to exist within its Conference and be allowed to follow its own discernment processes.  The conflict arose not because of “homosexuality” but because of those activists opposing the presence of a congregation in their Conference that had a different perspective.

Chapter Eight: A Model for Congregational Discernment

Swartley’s rejection of allowing experience to play a central role in the churches’ discernment processes (pp.126-7) strikes me as self-defeating theologically and practically.  From the get go, we in the church are involved in open-ended conversations in which we draw on our experiences as the basic elements of our “horizon.”  The only way we can hope truly to understand (each other, scripture, tradition, et al) is to accept that we each bring a unique “horizon” to the conversation, a “horizon” shaped by our own unique experiences.

I want to insist that our only hope to live together in community is to respect these various experience-shaped “horizons,” to seek to learn from our differences, and to work together to find common ground that we can build our life together on.

Swartley is, of course, correct to point out the messiness of allowing experience in as a central element of our discernment processes.  However, this is precisely where our peace theology should help us understand that the only way to find genuine peace is to learn to respect each other and genuinely listen to each other (see my article in the July 2003 Mennonite Quarterly Review, “Pacifism and Knowing: ‘Truth’ in the Theological Ethics of John Howard Yoder,” where I use the churches’ discussions on sexuality issues as an example of how a genuinely pacifist epistemology can help us proceed).

It could be that the Mennonite churches are basically facing a crossroads right now.  Either we commit ourselves to an ecclesiology that genuinely seeks open discernment where all members listen respectfully to one another in expectation that the Spirit of God guides the churches through such discernment or we commit ourselves to holding the line on the “traditional” view of “homosexuality.”  It seems increasingly clear to me that it is one or the other.

So, contrary to how Swartley presents the issues, this is not about sex.  It is about how the churches understand their basic identity and way of being.  What does it mean to be followers of Jesus today?  One of the best indications of how the Mennonite Church is answering this question is how the Church processes differences within the fellowship.  What I have seen in my 30 years among the Mennonites does not leave me very encouraged.

Conclusion

Though I am critical of Swartley’s book, and I am especially disappointed that as a biblical scholar he does not do more engaging directly with the texts in their literary contexts, I still am glad that he has published this book.

He seeks to be irenic, and that is to be appreciated.  Though he is quite dependent upon the work of Robert Gagnon (to Swartley’s detriment, in my opinion–see this critique of Gagnon) he does not share Gagnon’s scarcely disguised disgust with gay people – and that is so be appreciated.

Most of all, Swartley’s book took courage for him to publish, knowing he would be open to critical responses (and worse).  I would like to believe that it wasn’t simply a matter of, wow, we have to provide our people with ammunition for refuting pro-gay arguments.  I would like to believe that Swartley genuinely wants to foster broader and deeper conversations among Mennonite on these issues.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality

Willard M. Swartley. Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment (Herald Press, 2003)

[Review written in 2003; a shorter version was published in Dreamseeker Magazine (Spring, 2004)]

I have a dear friend, a lifelong Mennonite, grandparent of teen-agers.  My friend despairs for the future of the Mennonite Church USA.  “We have to learn to talk with each other,” he says.  He fears that various segments of the church are like a group of boats on a river during a heavy fog who do not realize how far they are drifting apart.

Since 1985, when the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church jointly published a study book, Human Sexuality in the Christian Life, official church publishers and agencies have provided little material in service of the kind of conversation my friend hopes for – hence his fear that should we ever begin such a conversation under MC USA auspices, we will find our various “boats” far apart indeed.

I hope my friend is pleased that Herald Press has published Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment.  The author, Willard M. Swartley, Professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has been widely cited as Mennonites’ foremost New Testament scholar.

A blurb on the book’s back cover from Conrad Grebel University College’s president Henry Paetkau, lauds the book as a resource that “can facilitate informed discussion and debate.”  In his preface, Swartley states he is offering the book as “a resource for ongoing discernment.”

I hope my friend receives this book as a an invitation from a church leader and the church’s publishing house for needed conversation – and a substantial contribution to such conversation.

Swartley implies in the preface that he is offering such an invitation.  He writes that we in the Mennonite Church today need “discernment on an understanding of biblical authority, assessment of the exegesis and hermeneutics on this issue, and a moral assessment of our western culture.  I too sit at the table of discernment to listen to how others perceive the crucial issues in this debate.  On these matters we need to respectfully engage each other in ongoing discussion” (p.11).

Swartley provides by far the most extensive published discussion of biblical, theological, and cultural issues related to the “homosexuality issue” that any Mennonite scholar has yet produced.  And, most helpfully for the sake of Mennonite conversations, he continually references the Mennonite context and interacts with many of the (briefer) extant Mennonite writings on the issues by others.

 

Swartley’s Argument

Swartley certainly provides material for discussion.  In his introductory chapter he provides a clear sense of his perspective.  He asserts that unlike issues he has written on previously (such as war, male/female relationships, and slavery), with homosexuality there is clarity and uniformity in the biblical witness that do not allow for movement away from a more “status quo” view towards a more “liberative” view.

In Swartley’s view, the Bible gives direct support for the claim that in relation to slavery, war, and gender relations, “God’s way is different, liberating and loving, replacing dominion and self-defensiveness with mutuality and trust.”  With homosexuality, the biblical focus is different.  “Homosexual practice is not related to grace-energized behavior in a single text” (p.18).  For Swartley, the Bible gives us grounds to challenge long-held Christian practices concerning slavery, war, and sexism; the Bible does not give us such grounds in relation to homosexuality.

After giving his rationale for affirming a high view of biblical authority and consequently seeing biblical reflection as central for how the church approaches these issues, Swartley adds that cultural analysis is also a crucial component.  He believes “the sexual revolution of the 1960s” is the crucial event that has created pressures on the church to weaken its longterm rejection of the legitimacy of same-sex intimate relationships.

Swartley notes there are many theories regarding the origin of same-sex attraction.  “The sexual revolution of the 1960s is most significant because it redefined sexual mores for the society.  As a result, the west has developed a sexualized culture, which despite the glamorous face the culture attaches to sex is often productive of sexual abuse in the home or school.  Such abuse is a key factor in influencing later sexual development and capacity for expression.  If it is true that our societal culture is a determinative factor, we must then, perhaps, regard homosexual persons (gays and lesbians) as, in part at least, products of societal cultural forces they did not choose.  This does not mean resignation to these forces, but an acknowledgment that we are dealing not with individual persons, but also with cultural systems that work against God’s pattern for human life” (pp. 23-24).

What follows are three chapters focused on biblical materials.  Swartley provides a thorough introduction to many of the scholarly currents swirling around interpretations of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality – firmly siding with those who see a clear and uncompromising stance in the Bible “against same-sex genital practices.”

Chapter two draws on materials mostly from the Old Testament.  The three main points Swartley draws from the Old Testament are: (1) Genesis one portrays God’s intention with creation being that sexuality is a good gift, with great power and subject to misuse (pp.27-28).  The only appropriate context for sexual intercourse is male/female marriage.

(2) The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is rightly understood as focusing on threatened rape as an expression of inhospitality, not on “loving homosexual relations.”  Nonetheless, it is significant that in Genesis 19 and Judges 19 “it is precisely (homo)sexual lust that precludes hospitality” (pp.31-32).

(3) Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 regard same-sex relations as an abomination in the same category as idolatry and child-sacrifice (p.33).  “The fact that same-sex male relations and Molech worship, which involved sacrificing offspring, are linked may be ‘telling’ of the seriousness of the same-sex offense” (p.35).

In chapter three, while acknowledging that Jesus did not overtly speak of homosexuality, Swartley draws eight points from Jesus’ teaching that are relevant for our ethical discernment.  He believes that Jesus combines a commitment to holiness (e.g., a condemnation of porneia [“fornication,” defined by Swartley as “as sexual genital relations outside heterosexual marriage,” p.40]) with mercy (e.g., be loving toward even those you must critique for transgressing holiness requirements, p.47).

Chapter four focuses on Paul, especially the key texts Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9.  Swartley proposes that the Romans passage is particularly important because it links same-sex practices with idolatry – a rejection of the God-ordered normativity of heterosexuality.  He understands 1 Corinthians 6:9 in the context of Paul’s concern with sexual libertinism that is reflected in 1 Corinthians 5 and the critique porneia (“fornication”).  Swartley concludes, “what was wrong, first and foremost, for Paul in the case of same-sex intercourse was the fact that the participants were members of the same sex rather than the opposite sex” (p.70).

Swartley then sketches an “analysis of contemporary western culture,” attempting to situate the recent emergence of movements favoring the acceptance of same-sex intimacy in the context of modern cultural dynamics, with a large weight of responsibility resting on the legacy of Enlightenment philosophy.

At one point he lists what he understands to be factors (many cultural) that contribute to people desiring same-sex intimacy: use of mind-altering drugs; influence of theater, film, and pornography; being in situations (such as prison) where one is forced into homosexual practice; psychological development issues between parent and child; disappointment over a failed heterosexual relationship; result of sexual abuse during childhood; compensation for loneliness and need for intimacy; and lesbian desire empowered by the fight against straight culture and patriarchy, coupled with neo-pagan religion and ritual (p. 84).

In chapter six Swartley develops a strategy for applying the conclusions he drew from the Bible in chapters two through four to our contemporary context.  He follows this in chapter seven with reflections on “The Church’s Belief and Response” and in chapter eight with “A Model for Congregational Discernment.”

Swartley seeks to combine compassion with clarity about sexual boundaries and Christians’ call to holy living.  He admits this is a big challenge, but calls the churches to seek to meet the challenge by putting resources and energy into spiritual discernment and redemptive discipline.

Willard Swartley deserves admiration for his courage in sending forth this book.  In laying out his thinking, he makes himself vulnerable to challenges from various points of view; but this is what is needed for the Mennonite Church to make genuine progress in responding to these issues.  These are difficult issues, and many questions need serious reflection.

Questions

In the spirit of Swartley’s assertion that “on these matters we need to respectfully engage each other in on-going discussion,” I would like to mention a few of the questions that seem important to me after reading this book.

(1) Is it clear what is meant by the term, “homosexuality”?  Swartley notes that the term itself was not coined until the 19th century (p.31), but does not seem to be concerned with carefully defining what he means by “homosexuality” when he uses it in relation to the Bible.

However, it is surely not self-evident that a modern concept can simply be used to describe ancient phenomena with much accuracy.  It would have been helpful had Swartley at least addressed this issue.

Throughout the book, Swartley speaks of “homosexual acts” and “homosexual practices.”  He does not clearly explain his basis for moving from the few specific examples of such “acts” given in the Bible to making blanket generalizations about “homosexuality” per se.  Especially since all or almost all of these “acts” alluded to are male behavior, how to we move these particular cases to universal conclusions?

We would never draw from stories of problematic “heterosexual acts” or “heterosexual practices” (such as rape, incest, adultery, and sex with prostitutes) that committed, mutually caring, monogamous heterosexual relationships are immoral.  Swartley would have strengthened his argument a great deal had he explained why he would move from particular cases to general condemnation in the case of “homosexuality” and not in the case of “heterosexuality.”

(2) How do we best understand the several biblical texts commonly understood to speak to the issue of homosexuality in their broader literary context.  Disappointingly, though Swartley devotes three full chapters (49 pages) to biblical matters, he does not delve deeply into exposition of the texts themselves but instead mostly settles for citing numerous scholarly opinions.  He does not help very much in empowering readers themselves to make their own informed decisions concerning the texts’ meanings.

Swartley does not help us understand the broader purposes these various texts were meant to service in their literary contexts.  Why are these particular stories told where they are told?  What’s their role in the broader literary units in which they appear?

One example is the inhospitality of Sodom toward the angelic visitors in Genesis 18 contrasting with Abraham’s hospitality toward the visitors in chapter 17 (implying that the issue in the judgment in chapter 18 is hospitality not sexuality). 

A second example is the role of Romans 1:18-32 as setting up Paul’s “self-righteous” readers to be critiqued for their judgmentalism in Romans two (implying that the portrayal of idolatrous sensuality in chapter one was first of all a rhetorical device to serve Paul’s critique of self-righteousness – similar to what Amos did with his critique of “the nations” prior to his actual punch-line critique of Israel [Amos 2]).

Probably the most troubling example is Swartley’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:10 as if its context is directly linked with Paul’s discussion of sexual morality in 1 Corinthians five (page 68).  Swartley ignores the immediate context in 1 Corinthians six of Paul’s critique of (probably rich) church people taking other (probably poor) church people to secular courts.  The list of vices in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, then, is used to illustrate why those running secular courts are not to be trusted – this is the kind of unjust people they are – for the sake of justice, you in the church need to work things our among yourselves.

When we understand the context of the vice lists in 1 Corinthian six to be concern with justice, not sexuality, our understanding of the two ambiguous, undefined terms in that list often translated “homosexuals” and similar terms (malakoi and arsenkotai) might need to be revised.  Swartley does not even acknowledge this as an issue.

(3) Is it appropriate to make generalizations about homosexuality per se (that is, about all same-sex intimate relationships) based on proscriptions and problems that only apply to some?  More specifically, because something is considered to be wrong regarding intimacy between two men, does that justify a conclusion about all same-sex intimate relationships (including women).

Swartley argues that the issue of “orientation” is relatively unimportant; what matters in the Bible is behavior.  He implies that biblically (and for contemporary Christians), the issue is what people do, period.

However, this argument requires generalizing for all same-sex intimacy based on references that focus only on males.  That is, Genesis 19 and Judges 19 tell of men wanting to rape other men; Leviticus 18 and 20 forbid men laying with men; Romans one describes men being consumed with lust for other men; and the key word in 1 Corinthians six and 1 Timothy one is a compound of the words “men” and “laying with.” 

Romans one does include a reference to women involved in “unnatural intercourse” (1:26).  However, the text is irresolvably ambiguous concerning this “intercourse.”  I could be implying that what is “unnatural” is that it was out-of-control lust resulting in orgiastic sex, perhaps indiscriminately with men and women.  Or it could be implying that what is “unnatural” is that it was women having sex with other women.  It does not appear that we can achieve certainty either way.

So this one ambiguous reference is scarcely enough on which to base any firm conclusions about biblical teaching concerning female/female sexual intimacy.  All the other biblical texts alluding to same-sex activity clearly are referring to males (Gen. 19; Jud. 19; Lev. 18; 20; 1 Cor 6; 1 Tim. 1).

A major question then becomes why these few texts portray male-male sex as problematic.  Do they do so for reasons that would also encompass female-female intimacy or are they for male-specific reasons?  If the latter, then the applicability of these texts to the “homosexuality issue” per se is lessened.

This question also arises in relation to Swartley’s appendix on the AIDS crisis.  His writing is a bit ambiguous here, but given his inclusion of this essay in this book, it seems clear he is linking AIDS with homosexuality, trying to buttress his overall argument against same-sex intimacy per se with this example of problems with such intimacy.

However, it seems obvious that the segment of sexually-active society least vulnerable to AIDS would be women in same-sex relationships.  So, AIDS would at most seem to be an issue of concern for reflecting morally on certain male-male behavior, but not relevant at all for the issue of homosexuality per se.

(4) The next question follows: What is the sin that is inherent to homosexuality?  Most of the evidence Swartley gives for the homosexuality being problematic does not necessarily apply to same-sex intimate relationships per se (that is, not to all such relationships).

Swartley argues that the churches must resist cultural dynamics that foster unhealthy sexual behavior – promiscuity, obsessive self-gratification, sexually-transmitted diseases, infidelity, coercion, etc.  However, as he acknowledges, these problems are present among heterosexual people, too.  And, many believe, there is no inherent reason why same-sex intimate relationships cannot be committed, monogamous, faith-enhancing, mutually respectful.

So, if same-sex relationships do not inherently manifest the problems Swartley is citing, wherein is the sin in relation to all conceivable same-sex intimate relationships?  If the Bible is focused on male-male behavior, what is the moral violation that occurs in relationships between women?  It would seem that if one is to make the kinds of generalizations Swartley makes concerning same-sex intimate relationships as an entire class, one should be using evidence that applies to all possible members of that class.

(5) What might we learn from the lives of Christians who are in same-sex intimate relationships?  Swartley gives makes strong assertions concerning problematic dynamics among gay people, but he does not give any evidence of considering counter testimonies.

His bibliography does not include two important books edited by Roberta Showalter Kreider, From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People and Those Who Love Them and Together in Love: Faith Stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Couples.  These books gather many testimonies from Mennonites.

Had Swartley taken Kreider’s book into account, he would have realized that according to many Mennonites in same-sex intimate relationships the issue of sexual gratification is scarcely at the center of what draws them to their committed relationships.  They present their motivations in ways quite similar how what most Mennonites in opposite-sex intimate relationships likely would – finding in their shared lives with intimate partners a sense of wholeness and completeness that provides empowerment and support for living faithfully as children of God in our challenging world.

I believe these are significant questions and I wish Swartley had spoken to them more adequately.  The fact that he says so much in this book and yet still leaves so many issues unaddressed underscores how much work Mennonites have ahead of ourselves as we week to find some wholeness in relation to sexuality issues.

Nonetheless, Willard Swartley, in Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment, has made an invaluable contribution.  He has put this topic on the table with a seriousness, thoroughness, and clarity that has not heretofore been provided by Mennonite scholars and publishers.  We now have some much more detailed touch points for the on-going conversations we so badly need.  So, let’s get to work to see if we might pull our boats back closer together before it’s too late.

 

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Robert Gagnon. The Bible and Homosexual Practice

Robert A. J. Gagnon. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Abingdon, 2001.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud (here are my other writings on “homosexuality”)—[this was written in 2004 and first posted in 2009]

One takes up Robert Gagnon’s book with some hopefulness given the wide-ranging laudatory blurbs on the dust cover and inside from a wide variety of extraordinarily prominent biblical scholars.Present-day Christians certainly are in dire need for careful, thorough biblical and theological scholarship that treats the issue of homosexuality as a problem to be solved and not as an argument to be won.The old scholarly virtue of objectivity – writers carefully, respectfully, and as accurately as possible considering all relevant points of view – has been sadly lacking in most of the reading I have done.

Introduction

Gagnon’s introduction early on gives signals that he will not likely be providing a careful, respectful, and aspiring-to-objectivity approach.His unwillingness or inability to provide a level playing field for the various perspectives he will be considering may be seen in his juxtaposition of the two general approaches he sees being followed in relation to the issue of homosexuality and the Christian churches (page 26).

The one side appeals to explicit statements in Scripture regarding same-sex intercourse, the structures of God’s creation, principles of sexual holiness, two millennia of church tradition, the influence of the environment on the development of homosexuality, the dearth of long-term and monogamous homosexual relationships, and the negative health effects of homosexual behavior.

The other side appeals to genetic causation, the fruit of caring homosexual relationships, the antiquated worldview and obsolescence of other parts of Scripture, and such Christian virtues as tolerance and inclusion.

It seems obvious that he is setting up this polarity in order utterly to refute the pro-gay viewpoints.In what follows throughout this long book, Gagnon will always understand the approach of the anti-gay side to be based on solid methods and the approach of the pro-gay side to be based on faulty methods. He gives no sense of what problems with anti-gay assumptions and methods might be and no sense of any validity resting with pro-gay assumptions and methods.

In these early pages, where one would hope for careful definitions of terminology that will provide some standard with which to hold usage accountable (and to provide a stability and clarity concerning what actually is being discussed), we find no attempt carefully to define terms such as “homosexual,” “homosexuality,” and “homosexual practice.”This lack greatly weakens the strength of Gagnon’s argument that follows because he is not carefully constructing a position based on solid reasoning for each piece in the argument.

Gagnon uses the term “homosexual practice” in an apparently all-inclusive sense of both males and females.In so doing, often he is referring only to evidence that has to do only with males (for example, much later when he uses incidents of health problems gay men have as a basis to condemn “homosexual practice”; also just about all the biblical references are to males).This uncritical lumping together of same-sexer males and females ignores huge (seemingly qualitative) differences between the experiences of the two sexes.

Gagnon seems eager to make global generalizations that apply to all possible same-sex intimate relationships.In order to do, he must minimize the specific contextual factors that shape both the particular biblical references and the actual experience of same-sexers.When, for example, Leviticus 18 and 20 speak of the “abomination” of “males lying with males,” the more one focuses on the specific concerns likely reflected in that legislation that surely relate exclusively to issues related to males in ancient Israel, the more difficulty one will have in directly applying this prohibition to lesbians.

It seems to me that a condemnation of same-sex sexuality as inherently wrong should apply to all types of same-sex relationships.If not, then the problem with the particular behavior is better seen as specific to that behavior, not a general condemnation of same sex partners (e.g., promiscuity, anal sex, rape, pedophilia).

Gagnon in general often seems to be reducing “homosexuality” to sexual intercourse, or at least to be extra preoccupied with that aspect.Leaving aside the question in what sense it is meaningful to speak of two women having “intercourse,” it is important to note that for heterosexual couples in intimate long-term relationships, sexual intercourse is a relatively small (though, of course, often extraordinarily important and meaningful) element of their relationship.Surely this is also the case for same-sexers in long-term partnerships.This point underscores a point that Gagnon seems oblivious to – there are logically just as many “homosexualities” as there are “heterosexualities” (e.g., one-night stands, coercive relationships, long-term monogamous partnerships).

Throughout the introduction, the only references that Gagnon makes to his opponents’ views are pejorative and dismissive.He makes statements such as the motivation of people who are pro-gay stems from a desire to wear “a badge of intellectual open-mindedness and membership among the avant-garde of cultured society” (26).

Gagnon does mention that he supports vigorously denouncing “anti-homosexual violence.”However, he does not develop this point to any extent.He cites no cases and “denounces” no specifics.He also immediately qualifies this “denouncing responsibility” by calling “incidents of violence against homosexuals…isolated and relatively rare.”In contrast, he cites as more dangerous how these supposedly isolated and rare cases are used in “stifling” and “coercive” ways to pressure people in the churches and broader culture to endorse “homosexual practice” (30).The only allusion Gagnon makes to specific cases of people being persecuted over issues related to homosexuality is to the persecution of people like himself who oppose “homosexual practice” (35).

Hence, Gagnon apparently is not willing to see the tradition and on-going present-day experience of violence and hostility that many same-sexers testify to as a significant part of the churches’ discernment processes.He presents the issue of persecution and oppression as essentially a wash between same-sexers and their opponents.Consequently, persecution and oppression are not part of what we need to factor in to our discussions now.He seems to be saying that we simply need focus on the sexual practices of same-sexers as our main morally significant issue.

In his introductory comments about “homosexual practice,” Gagnon brings up the emotionally evocative but essentially ad hominim examples of AIDs, “pick-up murders,” and “domestic violence and sadomasochism” (30, 37) as if these are intrinsically part of the discussion of “homosexual practice.”However, these problems have nothing to do with homosexuality per se, no more than men raping women and male/female domestic abuse have to do with “heterosexuality” per se.In fact, these problems could be seen as bases for arguing for the churches supporting same-sex unions and offering their resources to provide support for covenanted, monogamous, loving relationships as a means of overcoming the problems of AIDs, “pick-up murders,” and “domestic violence and sadomasochism.”

Gagnon seems to assume that sexual behavior is the central issue determining whether believers’ lives are characterized by holiness.He implicitly defines “holy living” in terms of following “rules” for sexual purity and living free from sin – “sin” defined in terms of breaking rules (34).Certainly the Bible does convey concern about sexual morality when it addresses holiness.However, ironically in light of Gagnon’s later use of Leviticus, when we look at one of the core Old Testament texts that elaborates on the call to holiness (Lev 19), we find at the core of concern there a definition of “holy living” in terms of caring for the neighbor, especially vulnerable and marginalized neighbors (orphans, widows, aliens).Throughout this book, Gagnon refuses to factor in the Bible’s special concern for vulnerable, marginalized people as relevant for our discernment concerning same-sexers.

Gagnon, though he is a biblical scholar and focuses his energies on expositing the Bible, nonetheless does draw heavily on assumptions about what is “natural” that are based more on “common sense” (or cultural biases) than on biblical theology, though he asserts (without explicit evidence) that the Bible bases its perspective on these sense of what’s “natural.”“The Bible presents the anatomical, sexual, and procreative complementarity of male and female as clear and convincing proof of God’s will for sexual unions” (37).As we will see below, Gagnon’s basis for what the “Bible presents” on these themes is far short of clear proof; it’s argument based mostly on silence and the tenuous linking of weak allusions.“Same-sex intercourse constitutes an inexcusable rebellion against the intentional design of the created order” (37).This is an assumption Gagnon brings to the text and then claims to have established as a biblical concern.“It [same-sex intercourse] degrades the participants when they disregard nature’s obvious clues” (37).Here we are getting at what appears to be some of Gagnon’s energy concerning this issue – he finds same-sex intimacy to be “degrading” and “unnatural” but does not reflect on how these gut feelings might be quite vulnerable to being shaped more by cultural biases than careful reasoning shaped by the good news Jesus embodied.

From the start, Gagnon is imprecise in his use of his central term, “homosexual practice.”Because of this imprecision, Gagnon is able to make broad generalizations and, especially problematically, to use emotionally evocative examples of obviously problematic “practices” as if they are characteristic of all “homosexual practice.”He never carefully defines what he means by “homosexual practice.”It appears that he means sexual intercourse, but he does not explain what he means by “intercourse” or explain why it is “practice.”He does not speak to where the line is to be drawn between morally acceptable physical and emotional connections and unacceptable ones.By citing obviously destructive sexual practices in this context without qualification, he seems implicitly to be denying a moral distinction between obviously destructive practices and non-obviously destructive practices.However, part of his overall argument will be that “homosexual practice” is destructive, the destructiveness seemingly inherent in the same-sexness of this practice.

The Witness of the Old Testament.

Gagnon’s argument from the Old Testament begins with his discussion of Genesis’s creation account.Without warrant he smuggles in an “only” when he asserts that the writer recognizes that the “part fit” male to female only and complementarity is achieved only in opposite sex unions (63).I would say that one can recognize that Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”) is about complementarity, but that there is no logical (and certainly not textual) basis to infer the “only” from this.

Likewise, Gagnon’s assertion that Genesis one and Genesis two are “in complete agreement over the exclusive claim to complementarity possessed by heterosexual unions” (63, emphasis added) is unwarranted.The affirmation of the male/female union says nothing about exceptions one way or the other, with no necessarily assumption about exclusivity.

Genesis 2:24 is clearly anachronistic (did Adam leave his parents to be with Eve?! – for that matter, was the male leaving his own family ever the norm in biblical cultures?).The notion of “one flesh” is not the norm in the entire Old Testament.What major Old Testament male character was not a polygamist?That is to say, in considering a text such as Genesis 2:24, one must seek to figure out the context and purpose of such a statement.It will not due simply to take the verse out of context and set it up as the basis for timeless norms.

Gagnon presents a creative reading of the story of Ham and Noah in Genesis 9:20-27 that threatens to undermine his entire project.He takes an utterly ambiguous story and reads into it harsh antipathy toward “homosexual practice,” revealing the single-minded intensity of his agenda – almost in spite of the actual text.

The passage literally refers to Ham “uncovering Noah’s nakedness.”This could be a euphemism for raping his father in order to gain dominance.Gagnon provides a plausible circumstantial argument for this reading.It is possible and makes some sense, but it is not the obvious or commonly-held interpretation.But Gagnon then concludes “it can hardly be doubted that the element of same-sex intercourse was an important compounding factor leading to the curse” (69, emphasis added)!He has not provided any clear evidence to suggest that this interpretation is the best way to read the text – and certainly not that it “can hardly be doubted”!

Though the Bible nowhere explicitly mentions “homosexual incest,” Gagnon draws the conclusion from the Ham story that “incestuous homosexual practice counted as two heinous acts, not one: incest and homosexual practice” (70).Notably, Gagnon uses his general, all-encompassing term “homosexual practice” here.Even if the Ham story is about the son raping his father, this can hardly be seen as the moral equivalent to a present-day, covenanted, mutually enriching same-sex partnership.As well, Gagnon’s assertion that Ham’s “curse” would have been linked with his “homosexual practice” suffers from an utter lack of support in any biblical reference or allusion.

Gagnon seems to equate “homosexual orientation” with “depraved, same-sex lust” (70).He does not seem to feel that he has to establish why this linking is valid; he simply asserts it.He states, “the question of homosexual orientation was surely irrelevant to the denunciation of same sex intercourse” (70, emphasis added).We are still dealing with the Ham story here.Gagnon now states it as a fact that this story is a “denunciation of same-sex intercourse” and that he is certain that orientation is irrelevant to the condemnation of Ham’s “homosexual practice.”All this in relation to an extraordinarily obscure allusion that has no obvious connection with “homosexual practice.”

Gagnon also argues here, and throughout the book, that the issue of orientation is morally irrelevant in the biblical materials; what matters is “the act” (70).Of course, he infers way too much thickness to the precious few and almost totally cryptic allusions to males having sex with males in the entire Bible.That is, he assumes much more clarity about what the Bible has in mind concerning “the act” than the Bible actually provides.

However, we may grant his point that the Bible is not concerned about orientation.How to apply that point, though, is part of the contested terrain in present-day discussions.It is troubling that Gagnon shows so little respect toward those on the other side of this issue, with no indication that he is open to taking their arguments seriously as part of a dialogue meant to foster greater understanding by all parties.Rather, he simply ignores, or at most mentions in order to dismiss, perspectives different than his own.

Gagnon’s view concerning the orientation issue seems to be that if the Bible was not concerned with orientation we should not be either.Others would say that it is precisely at this point that we bump up against the limits of the biblical moral guidance.Present-day understandings of sexual orientation are the result of the work of the human sciences just over the past century or so.They may provide insights that go beyond those available to biblical writers concerning human behavior.That the Bible teaches nothing about sexual orientation, then, would not be an indication that we should minimize the relevance of orientation but rather would be a reason to complement the Bible’s teachings with other understandings.

When Gagnon turns to the Sodom and Gomorrah story, we see his methodology illustrated again.Rather than considering the evidence for why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, thereby acknowledging that this is an issue over which people disagree, Gagnon starts with the assertion that only something as heinous as attempted homosexual rape could explain why God would wipe the cities out.His logic seems to run, we all know that “homosexual practice” is extraordinarily evil and thus when these cities are punished it must be because of their homosexuality.

Gagnon minimizes the possibility that the violation of hospitality could be in itself a serious enough problem (it couldn’t be “merely inhospitality or even attempted rape of a guest,” 75 – we all know that those problems couldn’t be serious enough; it had to be the element of homosexuality).This ignores the significance of the beginning story in this section of Genesis 18 and 19 – where Abraham models authentic hospitality and sets the standard for hospitality that will grievously not be met by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

From the start, Gagnon seems to be assuming the worst about same-sex partnerships, taking it for granted that homosexuality must have been terrible and extraordinarily repulusive to the biblical characters.Yet, we have next to no clear evidence of this in the texts (beyond the cryptic commands in Leviticus to be discussed below).We have no stories comparable to David’s adultery with Bathsheba or Amnon’s rape of Tamar to illustrate what is so problematic about such behavior.On the other hand, the Old Testament is quite clear about the problematic nature of mistreatment of vulnerable people.

The stories of Ham (who had descendants) and of Sodom (where “all the men” were involved in the threatened gang rape, including presumably the male spouses of Lot’s daughters) are clearly about “normal” (i.e., heterosexual) men doing sexual violence, not about anything remotely akin to present-day same-sex covenanted partnerships.Gagnon seems committed to denying that there is a meaningful moral difference between these two types of phenomena – though he does not justify this denial.

Gagnon cavalierly uses terms such as “undoubtedly” often, with little or no justification for why there can be no doubt.For example, how can we say without doubt that the Yahwist, who never elaborates on same-sex relationships at all, would undoubtedly see “consenting homosexual intercourse” as a matter of the “participants willingly degrading themselves” (78)?

Throughout the book Gagnon seems to be assuming that “a man lying with a man as with a woman” is strictly about “penetration” (i.e., anal intercourse).However, few of us would associate “lying with a woman” with anal sex!This reflects his preoccupation with sexual intercourse and his reducing the issue of “homosexual practice” to that of genital sex – ignoring that possibility that same-sexers, like heterosexual couples, tend to experience sexual intercourse in the context of a much wider experience of intimacy (physical and emotional) and commitment.

Gagnon infers a strong claim by inclusive thinkers when he writes, “rather than argue that the narrators of the twin stories of Sodom and Gomorrah would have changed their perspective on homosexual intercourse had they only had a modern understanding of sexual orientation, it is more plausible to say that it probably would not have made any difference to them” (97).

Besides fabricating a “perspective on homosexual intercourse” in these biblical texts and drawing a fantastical conclusion about how the ancient writers would “probably” have responded to modern views of sexual orientation, Gagnon creates a straw man concerning the inclusivist argument here.There is no need (or no attempt made by anyone I know of; Gagnon cites no examples) to argue that those writers would “change their perspective” if they only had a modern sensibility.That argument is an irrelevant anachronism.The point for inclusivists need only be, at most, that there is no relevant connection between those stories and the present-day acceptability of same-sex covenanted relationships.In part, this point is based on a distinction that Gagnon refuses to make between violent, dominating sexual behavior and mutual, loving sexual behavior (a distinction that everyone accepts for heterosexuals).Gagnon’s argument regarding the Old Testament depends upon the moral equation of homosexual rape and homosexual temple prostitution with same-sex covenanted relationships, a moral equation no one would make concerning heterosexuals.

The key text in the Old Testament is Leviticus 18–20

In his discussion of Leviticus 18:6-23, Gagnon concludes that the key point here is that the prohibitions listed here do, as a whole, provide direction that remains normative for Christians concerning sexual behavior.However, his ignoring the prohibition that does not have anything to do with sex indicates that his generalizations are likely not warranted.That is, that one prohibition is not about sex (vs. child sacrifice) would indicate that the commonality among these prohibitions is not that they are “forbidden sexual relations” (113).And that at least one of the prohibitions is not considered a taboo today by most Christians (sex during menstruation) would indicate that simply being on this list does not in and of itself mean a prohibition has “universal validity in contemporary society” (113).

One concern that does seem to apply to all the items on the list and to make sense in the context of Leviticus, is the concern for adding children to the community.The ancient Israelites needed children – and the children needed to be “legitimate” – to carry on their community life (which is the core concern of Torah as a whole).The problem with these various types of sexual behavior is that they could not result in “legitimate” offspring – and, obviously, child sacrifice also would be a problem in terms the community adding children to its midst.

As well, the fact that especially incest, adultery, and child sacrifice are condemned in other settings in the Bible, with reasons and stories, would seem to indicate that the prohibition of male/male sex has more in common with the prohibition of sex during menstruation (neither is given a rationale elsewhere in the Bible) than the other prohibitions.

That male/male sex (not “homosexual intercourse” as Gagnon states, 113) is the only specific act called an “abomination” in all the priestly corpus is interesting – but almost proves too much.That is, how can “abomination” be such an important category if this is the only act directly so labeled?How can male/male sex as abomination be so significant when the meaning of this prohibition is so obscure, never discussed elsewhere in the Old Testament?

The calling for death to violators of the male/male sex prohibition must be taken seriously.Since we, including Gagnon, do not call for using the death penalty for “homosexual practice” today, in some sense we are saying that Leviticus 20:13 is not to be applied literally in our setting.What are our bases for qualifying its application?Why would the death penalty be prescribed and what might this prescription tell us about the context of the prohibition and its meaning?Gagnon simply says that the provision for the death penalty means “homosexuality” is especially bad (114-5).However, he does not probe into what clues that prescription might offer for helping us understand the meaning of the condemnation of male/male sex in Leviticus.

Might it be possible that Gagnon’s failure to address the issue in this way reflects his desire to find in Leviticus a general, universalizable basis for his pre-existing assumption that “homosexual practice” is wrong?That is, looking more closely at what in the particular context of Leviticus would have led to linking the death penalty with the prohibition against male/male sex might actually lead us to see the concern as something quite specific to that particular context and not universalizable (as seems to be the case with the prohibition against sex during menstruation).

Gagnon argues that the most meaningful parallel within the list of prohibitions in Leviticus is not sex during menstruation but adultery and incest (114-5).However, this parallel seems less than obvious, since in the cases both of adultery and incest there are New Testament stories underscoring the problematic nature of the given behavior and providing direct bases for Christian prohibitions.There are none such in relation to male/male sex.

Gagnon asserts that the laws in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are “unqualified and absolute” (115).One could just as easily say, based on what the texts themselves actually say (and do not say) that these laws are cryptic and merely formal (i.e., not applied).Gagnon asserts that “homosexual acts” are portrayed as “intrinsically evil” in Leviticus 18, 20 (118).Yet this assertion is difficult to sustain given the lack of supporting evidence (no elaboration in Leviticus beyond the bare prohibition and no stories illustrating the prohibition elsewhere in the Old Testament).

Gagnon states that because many Old Testament “abominations” are still seen as evil by Christians, “homosexuality” should also still be seen as evil, since it is called an “abomination” (120).He conveniently omits mention of sex with a menstruating woman, as it is an “abomination” that most Christians no longer see as evil.This example, though, shows that simply being named as an “abomination” in the Leviticus does not make something wrong for us.All the examples Gagnon cites have generally-accepted reasons to be seen as wrong.The challenge for his position is to provide reasons for labeling sexual intimacy in the context of a covenanted, healthy, loving same-sex partnership is evil other than the reference in Leviticus.

In his discussion of Leviticus, Gagnon anticipates his later argument by discussing what he sees to be the link between Leviticus and Paul.He begins by stating as a fact that Paul “formulated…opposition to same-sex intercourse.”This is his assumption at this point, not an established fact (and is, of course, strongly contested by many writers on these topics).Then Gagnon gives “evidence” for his assertion that Paul is self-consciously linking his argument with Leviticus.

Gagnon’s evidence that Paul self-consciously draws on Leviticus consists of four main points (121-2).First is that Paul alludes to the “father’s wife” in his proscribing incest in 1 Corinthians 5 using terms close to the LXX of Leviticus 18:7-8.The problem here is that neither of these texts having anything to do with same-sex “practice.”

Second, Gagnon picks up on Paul’s warning in Romans 1:32 that the behavior he as referred earlier (including, in Gagnon’s interpretation, “homosexual practice”) is “worthy of death” echoes the warning in Leviticus that men laying with men will be executed.However, unlike Leviticus 20:13, Paul in Romans 1:32 is not addressing the behavior of people in the community of faith and many, many other examples of problematic behavior are mentioned between 1:32 and the allusion to “homosexual practice” several verses earlier.In fact, the entire discussion in Romans 1:18-32 is not focused at all on giving rules for Christian behavior, whereas, of course, Leviticus 20 is completely about setting forth rules for the behavior people within the community of faith.

Gagnon’s third basis for linking Paul with Leviticus is that Paul uses a couple of the same words in Romans 1:24, 27 that are common in the LXX version of Leviticus 18, 20.However, a basic principle in interpreting texts such as the Bible is to recognize that words do not convey meaning nearly as much as sentences do.Gagnon cites no parallel sentences.Besides, theologically, it would seem unlikely that the Paul who critiques legalistic uses of Torah and summarizes Torah in Romans as consisting of loving the neighbor (13:8-10) would want his readers to see parallel words as a basis for reading him as reiterating a literalistic application of a cryptic command from Leviticus.

The fourth point is that Gagnon’s assertion that Paul’s term in 1 Corinthians 6:9 that Gagnon interprets as meaning “men who take other men to bed” (arsenokoitai) comes from combining two words from the LXX of Leviticus 18, 20 (the words for “men” and “laying”).However, he reads way too much into a possible parallel.It could be that Paul got those words from Leviticus, but it is just as likely he knew them already and created a new compound word from them for his own purposes that may or may not have anything to do with Leviticus.We simply cannot know.If the verses in Leviticus are cryptic, Paul’s use of arsenokoitai is even more so since as far as we know Paul’s use of it in 1 Corinthians 6 is the first time it was every used – there are no other contemporary uses in the New Testament or any other Greek literature we know of.As well, Paul simply uses the term in a list with no other explanation of what it might mean.

Gagnon concludes that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are best understood as “banning all homosexual intercourse” (131).However, it seems much better to recognize that those verses are cryptic more than universal and categorical.All we have are short commands that speak only of men with no explanation or supporting stories elsewhere in the Old Testament.The lack of explanation as to what the laws have in mind argue for a more limited application than for a broader application.

Gagnon’s analogies with incest, adultery, and bestiality (131) break down because the Old Testament has much more detail on those three problems than on same-sex intimacy.If all we had in the Old Testament concerning those three was what we are told in Leviticus 18, 20, then we would have much less confidence in their applicability to our present as well.

Gagnon sees the underlying concern behind the Levitical proscriptions being a concern about the profanity of “mixing that which was never intended to be mixed” (135).But we are not really told why this is so bad.It won’t do to say only that they should not be mixed because they were not intended to be.Chances are if we could answer this question, we would find that the underlying reasons are not applicable to our context today.

To use the idea of “maintaining pure categories” (136) as the key concern and then to use not breeding two kinds of animals, not planting two kinds of seeds in one field, and not wearing two kinds of fabric at once as supporting evidence for this concern being central in Leviticus would seem to reinforce the idea that rejecting male/male sex because it violates this need for “pure categories” is context specific and not a timeless absolute.We must ask why this need was central to the text?

The witness of Jesus.

Gagnon begins his discussion of the New Testament with the assertion that “no first-century Jew could have spoken of porneiai (plural) without having in mind the list of forbidden sexual offenses in Leviticus 18 and 20 (incest, adultery, same-sex intercourse, bestiality)” (191).One missing piece of evidence supports that idea that Gagnon’s hostility toward gay and lesbian Christians is clouding his scholarship here – the complete lack of the use of the term porneiai in the New Testament in relation to homosexuality.That is, Gagnon’s assumption is only an assumption, founded much more on his own negative stance toward “homosexual practice” than on direct evidence of first-century Christians making the link.

Gagnon makes this point in service to his effort to undermine the pro-same-sexer arguments that focus on Jesus’ spirit of inclusiveness and care for vulnerable people.For Gagnon, since it is certain that “no first century Jew” (including Jesus, of course) could have spoken of porneiai without very self-consciously having homosexuality in mind, Jesus in Mark 7:21-23 “undoubtedly would have understood homosexual behavior to be included among the list of offenses” (191-2).

Furthermore, when Jesus refers to the prohibition of adultery (Mark 10:19), given his Hellenistic Jew contemporary Philo’s linking of this prohibition with pederasty, incest, and other matters pertaining to sexual intercourse, “it is probable that implicit in Jesus’ embrace of the seventh commandment against adultery was a rejection of all same-sex intercourse” (192).

The Witness of Paul and Deutero-Paul.

Gagnon makes some possibly self-revealing comments when he read into Paul’s cryptic statements said to be speaking to same-sex intercourse in Romans 1 deep “visceral feelings…of disgust toward same-sex intercourse” as “the zenith of detestable behavior” (269).One must ask, are these feelings of “disgust toward same-sex intercourse” Paul’s or Gagnon’s?

We do not have much evidence of Paul’s “deep visceral feelings of disgust” here, especially since it seems clear from the passage of Romans 1–3 as a whole that Paul’s concern is not nearly so much the behavior of which he refers in Romans one as the attitudes of the religious people he challenges in Romans two.

One must ask why same sex intimacy would be so bad.Why would it, per se, be the “zenith of detestable behavior”?Gagnon’s articulated argument seems to rest on the notion of the created complementarity of males and females.However, why would having a quite small part of the population construct intimate relationships that do not reflect that complementarity necessarily be such a threat to the basic norm for the vast majority of the people to such an extent that it would warrant this intense hostility?In reflecting on this question we must remember that Paul himself never explicitly expresses either the intense disgust for same-sex intimacy per se that Gagnon assumes he has nor does Paul directly link his antipathy toward whatever it is he has in mind in Romans one and 1 Corinthians six with the idea of the complementarity of the sexes.

Gagnon asserts, “the evidence is quite clear that Paul considered same-sex intercourse to be sin” (277).However, one needs carefully to unpack this “evidence” and not simply assume that it is obvious (even if Christians have long tended to think it is).The reason this issue is so contested is because this evidence is not clear.Gagnon’s argument is actually weakened by his unwillingness to grant any ambiguity here.

In Romans one, Paul mentions “unnatural sex” (1:26-27) with other forms of adikia (often translated “wickedness” or “unrighteousness” but arguably more accurately translated “injustice” – see N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans).Is this linking of men being “consumed with passion for one another” (1:27) with adikia an indication that all same-sex intimacy is intrinsically adikia or is it when same-sex intimacy is adikia that it reflects the idolatry/wrath dynamic?What is Paul’s implied critique here, against adikiaor against same-sex intimacy per se?We seem to have much more evidence in Paul’s writing that he is much, much concerned with injustice than with same-sex intimacy per se – reflecting the clear emphasis in Torah, the prophets, and Jesus.

The list of other phenomena that manifest adikia in Romans 1:29-31 seem to include things that are perversions and distortions of aspects of life that are not inherently adikia (e.g., rebelliousness toward parents is a problem of adikia within the context of relationships that are not inherently wrong).

It seems to me that Paul is trying in Romans 1:18-32 to speak to the strongest biases his readers would have had in order to set them up for his further argument that he develops in chapters two and three.He is not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with these biases, so much as implying that they are dangerous because they blind his readers to their own adikia and total need for God’s mercy.

So we ask, what are most likely to be the kinds of biases Paul is alluding to.Is it anti-homosexuality (in which the basic problem is the same-sexness of the partners) or is it anti-lustful debauchery?It seems crucial to note that Paul only mentions same-sex relating here in the context of people being “consumed with passion” (1:27) and being “filled with every kind of injustice” (1:29).We must remember, too, that Paul was writing to Christians in Rome who would have been aware of the notorious debaucheries associated with emperors such as Caligula and their arch-nemesis Nero.And Paul mentions numerous times in other of his writings that he is concerned about his readers being “consumed with passion” in heterosexual contexts.

The New Testament provides no evidence apart from one very cryptic allusion in 1 Corinthians 6 (discussed below) that homosexuality per se was of interest or concern.

We must also note that Romans one is not meant to be direct guidance for Christian sexual ethics.Paul is not formulating direct guidance for Christian behavior in these verses.His intent is rather to tap into the biases of his readers to make a very different kind of point – in your self-righteousness you are as bad as these idolaters and you run a great risk of separating yourself from the mercy of God found in Jesus.So Paul’s agenda here is not to provide bases for some Christians to be judgmental toward other Christians; it is rather to clear the ground for a fresh and transformative appropriation of God’s healing mercy for all people expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Gagnon gets the point almost exactly wrong when he writes that “the point of the discussion [in Romans 1:18-32] is that God is wholly justified in judging” (280) – with the clear implication that we, too, should be judging.No!The point is that even though God would be justified to do so, God does not condemn (Rom 3:21).God’s non-condemnation in 3:21 is the punch-line for the entire section 1:18–3:20.

Gagnon begins his discussion of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 with a translation of those individual verses in their immediate context – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-10.He does not consider, crucially in relation to the 1 Corinthians text, the broader paragraph in which this verse is found.By starting with 6:9, Gagnon gives the impression that Paul’s point is about people not “inheriting God’s kingdom” with the implication that he is warning Christians that they will not find salvation if they engage in same-sex intimacy.However, this focus ignores the actual context of 6:9 that is found in the eight previous verses.Paul’s concern here is with Christians taking other Christians to secular courts as a means of settling their differences.

The difference in translating dikia as “injustice” rather than “wickedness” seems especially significant in relation to the context for Paul’s use of two terms often linked with homosexuality here.Paul’s concern is with the justice system of the secular courts and strongly criticizes Corinthian Christians for using it – quite possibly in part because this was a matter of wealthy people in the church using the courts to enforce their exploitation of poorer members (see Richard Hays’ commentary on 1 Corinthians).

So when Paul gives his list of “vices” in 6:9-10, we need to be aware that the context for these vices is his concern with injustice, not sex.Plus, as with Romans one, Paul is describing non-Christians with this list, not giving commands for Christian behavior.This context makes it almost certain that whatever Paul means by some of these cryptic terms, he is thinking of them in terms of overt injustice, not a general statement about all forms of same-sex intimacy (overtly unjust or not).

Gagnon does not mention any of these points about the actual paragraph in which 6:9 is found (6:1-11).Rather, he focuses on the meaning of the individual words arsenokoitai and malakos (306).He does not even address the immediate reason why Paul would give his list in 6:9-11, giving us the idea that Paul provides this list to answer the question of what happens to all same-sexers rather than answering the question of why those exercising authority in the secular courts are not suited to judge between Christians in conflict.

By focusing simply on the sex issue, Gagnon presents the key point here being that the “malakoi are sandwiched between adulterers (people who commit an act of immoral sexual intercourse) and arsenokoitai (people who have something to do with an immoral act of same-sex intercourse)” (308).That is, the key issue is sexual behavior per se, not sexual behavior insofar as it is an expression of injustice.

The term malokoi literally means “soft” and is used both of sexual and non-sexual behavior and characteristics.However, in Gagnon’s discussion of malakoi he relies solely on its being placed between “adulterers” and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and one passage in Philo where the immediate context is “homosexual behavior” as if these points tell us all we need to know about what Paul had in mind.Gagnon ignores all other non-sexual uses in the New Testament and elsewhere.If we think of the context of 1 Corinthians 6:9 being concern about injustice more than sexual misbehavior, we would have no reason to assume that malakoi referred to same-sexers instead of more generally referring to moral softness in a broad sense (a meaning malokos did have in uses elsewhere in the first century).

The terms arsenokoitai looms large in Gagnon’s discussion.He agrees with many others is speculating that this term is likely a neologism created by Paul.However, he takes a step further in assuming that the meaning of this neologism is obviously simply the sum of the two parts that are joined together (312-3).However, this need not be the case.Sometimes a neologism can take on a new meaning at least somewhat unique (a modern day example would be Gandhi’s joining of “truth,” satya, and “force,” graha, to create a new term satyagraha that had its own special meaning).

The two words joined in arsenokoitai are arseno (“male”) and koite (“lying”).Koite is indeed in the masculine form.However this need not necessarily mean, as Gagnon seems to assume, “men lying with men [in order to have sex].”It is possible that koite is masculine simply in echo of arseno.The word could have the sense, that is, of males having problematic sex with women.

Though Gagnon flatly asserts that since arsenokoitai means “men who take males to bed” it could hardly be referring to heterosexual intercourse (323-4).He could be correct, but the basis for his assertion is mostly speculation.He seems to be assuming that a word’s presumed etymology determines its meaning – and that the meaning of biblical texts is primarily determined by the meaning of individual words.

Of all possible readings of this text (and Romans one), Gagnon’s is one plausible reading, perhaps the most plausible.However, he cannot overcome the paucity of clear evidence illumining the meaning of these texts and the high level of ambiguity surrounding the bits of evidence that we do have.That one offers a plausible reading is not a basis for acting as if one’s reading is an established fact.Gagnon’s absolute certainly and denial of complexity in how he expresses himself counts against his argument.He takes small pieces (e.g., the use of the word arsenokoitai) that could be support for his position and treats them as certainties with global ramifications.

One has the impression that Gagnon has made up his mind that same-sex intimacy is terrible and then wants to use whatever evidence he can find to force his opponents into submission, taking the little bits and welding them into something much bigger and stronger through his use of absolutist rhetoric and numbing amounts of data (the sheer amount of argumentation he muster obscures the tentativeness of his core data).

One must ask what is going on here.Why does Gagnon have to be so absolutist and overpowering?What does he fear that prevents him from treating the biblical data in a more nuanced way and his opponents as people to work together with rather than as people simply to refute and dismiss?

Gagnon time after time generalizes concerning what “most ancient Jews” must have thought (e.g., 350).These generalizations, though, are based on very minimal written documentation (imagine that Gagnon’s book is the only documentation that survives our current discussion on homosexuality 500 years from now; how reliable a reflection would it be on what “most early 21st century Christians” think?).He may be right about “ancient Jews,” but the most he can say with any confidence should be that “the few written pieces of evidence we have indicate…”, not “everyone believed….”

Even if Gagnon is correct in his assertion that Paul, Jesus, and “all biblical writers” utterly condemned all same-sex intimacy (369), does it automatically follow that this unanimity creates an imperative for present-day Christians?For example, we arguably have similar or more clear evidence of a consensus among biblical writers concerning the acceptability of slavery, the view that wives were their husbands’ property, that polygamy is fine, that usury is sinful, that we live in a three-story universe, the Genesis one is literal history, that Jesus would return within a generation of his death, that masturbation is sinful, and that God sometimes orders some people to kill others.Each of these points of “consensus” are denied to be normative for present-day Christians by at least a significant part of the present Christian church.

Thus, even if Gagnon is correct in his reading of the Bible’s view of homosexuality (though, as I have written above, I don’t think he is), does that reading of the Bible appropriately lead to the kind of certainty concerning present-day Christian ethics that he manifests?Might we not have reasons to question the motivations behind his certainty concerning this one issue?

Conclusion

Overall, this comes across to me as an extraordinarily fearful book. Gagnon’s inflexible refusal to allow for ambiguity, complexity, and the possibility that his opponents might be at least partially correct reflects this apparent fearfulness. As does Gagnon’s amazing and constant approach of making absolute and global statements based on what turns out to up, upon examination, very tentative evidence.

Gagnon leaves a number of important issues unaddressed in this very long book. He offers no reflection on the significance of the Bible’s liberative emphases, even if only to explain why these emphases should not be applied to the issue of homosexuality – given how central this theme is for most inclusive writers.Nor does he consider arguments based on the validity of the spiritual experience of gay and lesbian Christians.He does not reflect on whether the biblical materials being so male-oriented would have any significance for how we might apply them.

Perhaps most surprising from someone with Gagnon’s academic credentials, he spends very little time discussing the cultural and historical distance between today and the time of the Bible.He obviously believes that this distance does not negate the normative guidance of the Bible for this one specific ethical issue, but he does not explicitly justify this belief.Many educated Christians today would assume that this distance renders the Bible’s guidance less than obviously normative.Gagnon does not explain why he can so readily overcome the benefit of the doubt against normativeness.

Perhaps most problematic, Gagnon seems to welcome a power struggle, a fight to the death over the soul of the church.It is simply a fact that those on the opposite from him constitute a significant portion of the mainline Protestant community.The only way his take-no-prisoners approach will succeed is by utterly defeating those he disagrees with.One wishes for a much more irenic spirit that conveys the negative convictions concerning “homosexual practice” while also affirming the need for Christians with different views to work together for the wholeness of the church.

Gagnon’s long hermeneutical chapter, instead of an honest and vulnerable treatment of key hermeneutical issues such as the reality that we all approach the Bible with biases, as fallen, finite human beings, instead focuses simply on refusing pro-gay arguments.

Gagnon seems to misunderstand the significance of the argument by many pro-gay writers that the Bible’s paucity of references to “homosexuality” is an important piece of evidence.This point of this argument is not that therefore the Bible must think “homosexuality” is okay.Rather, the point is that the Bible does not tell us what to think about this issue.We must construct our own response based on our own reflection on various factors.And, if one is going to argue against acceptance of covenanted, same-sex partnerships being blessed by the churches, one needs to find grounds in addition to “the Bible tells me so.”

Gagnon mentions anti-gay violence a few times in his book, but pretty much simply in order to dismiss it as carrying any counter-weight to his arguments.However, should not we all be asking where such violence comes from?Should we not all be attentive to the causes of this violence as we reflect on this issue in general?Ultimately, it seems difficult to take with moral seriousness any extensive discussion of “homosexuality” that does not take very seriously this violence.

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Arthur Herman. Gandhi and Churchill

Arthur Herman. Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age. Bantam Books, 2008.

This is an interesting book, to say the least. Arthur Herman had an excellent idea, trace the careers of two of the giants of the 20th century from the angle of how their lives intersected with each other (even though the two only met once, when they were both quite young). So, the focus of the book, as the subtitle indicates, is on India–though other themes also make an appearance. The use of the word “destroyed” in reference to the Empire gives some indication of where Herman’s sympathies lie. Though he is an American, he seems to have much regret that the British empire fell by the wayside.

For a massive, scholarly volume by a professional historian, this book reads remarkably well. Herman has a fascinating story to tell–and tell it well he indeed does. You don’t read a book this large (600+ pages) in one sitting, and I continually found myself reluctant to put it down (in my younger days I am sure I would have continued long into the night to find out what was going to happen next). The book follows a pretty straight chronology, and even a person pretty familiar with the outline of the events will still find new information and provocative interpretive moves throughout.

Just as Herman himself clearly has a distinctive perspective that shapes how he presents this material, so readers will bring their perspectives that shape how they will respond to this book. From my perspective as one decidedly unfriendly to empires and their champions (such as Churchill), and friendly to Gandhi’s pioneering work in the philosophy and practice of nonviolence, Herman comes across as a pretty unreliable witness in the Gandhi half of this double biography. Yet, even though Herman likes Churchill much better than I do, his treatment of the man is much more objective and believable than his corresponding account of Gandhi’s career.

That is, I felt I learned enough about Churchill to be able to form my own judgment. Herman is thorough and clear in providing ample bases for seeing Churchill as a deeply problematic influence on the world of the 20th century–even as Herman himself generally views this influence as more positive. Churchill’s own father seems to have been monstrous toward his son, who to the end of his life felt he had utterly failed to live up to the father’s expectations. Churchill drank deeply of imperial grandiosity (along with other more mundane spirits) and, at the cost of untold lives, exerted every ounce of his considerable power and influence to keep the British Empire intact long after even the British people themselves believed it was time to let go. Churchill was an unrepentant racist, also with deadly consequences for India and other part of the Empire. And he was apparently the person most responsible for several terrible military disasters (most notably the infamous fiasco at Gallipoli during World War I).

To Herman’s credit, we get Churchill warts and all. In fact, after reading the book and thinking about it a few days, I am not quite sure why Herman respects Churchill so much. He certainly does not provide a persuasive case for why we should see Churchill as a great man–that seems to be Herman’s assumption, one he does not really allow the evidence he has presented here (which does not show Churchill as a great man) to challenge.

One item, not really central to the theme of the book, irritated me in relation to Herman’s treatment of Churchill and perhaps illustrates how his assumptions shape his conclusions. In its account of World War II, the book (appropriately) focuses on India. Herman is not attempting to present an account of the War in general. Nonetheless, one reading only this book would most likely conclude that Britain under Churchill’s leadership played the central role in defeating Nazi Germany–with an important assist from the United State. It seems clear historically, though, that by the major factor in Germany’s defeat was the incredible effort of the Soviet Union. By essentially ignoring the Soviets, Herman can give the impression that Churchill’s accomplishment in leading Britain (impressive in its own way, for sure) was way more significant than it actually was.

Whereas with Gandhi, it’s kind of the opposite problem. We do learn a great deal about many of the events of Gandhi’s life–but I simply don’t know how much of what Herman says about the Indian leader is to be believed. Time after time he asserts that the standard account of Gandhi’s career is wrong, but almost never presents evidence to support his assertion. If he were trustworthy on Gandhi, such assertions would be quite helpful for all who want the most accurate account of one who certainly has been the object of much hagiography. But the best I can bring myself to say about Herman’s Gandhi sections is that they raise provocative questions and challenge me to look more closely at the sources.

Throughout the book Herman combines two types of comments regarding Gandhi that seem deeply in tension–one is how just about every major campaign or other initiative Gandhi took was essentially a failure or at least of negligible significance (going back to the emergence of sayagraha in South Africa down to Gandhi’s last days of seeking for Hindu/Muslim reconciliation); the second was how powerful and highly influential Gandhi was in India and globally. The significance for Herman of Gandhi’s influence is almost always to suggest how problematic that influence was, how Gandhi bore so much responsibility when events turned bad. But how can both of these dynamics be true–Gandhi’s utter ineffectiveness and Gandhi’s powerful and regrettable influence? If Gandhi was always so ineffective, how did he come to have so much influence?

Part of the problem is that Herman makes no attempt whatsoever to account for Gandhi’s philosophy, other than occasional disparaging comments often pointing either to Gandhi’s hypocrisy or out of touch idealism. The reader of this book will learn virtually nothing about the meaning that satyagraha had for Gandhi, where it came from and how he sought to apply it. There are no reflections on Gandhi’s powerful influence on various social change efforts around the world.

Here is one quote that captures a great deal of Herman’s sensibility: “The confrontation [between Churchill and Gandhi] was between two different conceptions of life. One rested on secular and humanistic traditions that had been tested by history and centuries of human conflict. The other rested on a vision of spiritual purity in which history and material things (including Gandhi’s own body) counted for nothing. Churchill valued human liberty as the product of struggle, as man’s supreme achievement. Gandhi, by contrast, valued liberty as God’s supreme achievement. It was man’s duty to live up to that standard. Without it, Gandhi believed, life was meaningless, including his own” (page 507).

The idea that a racist and imperialist such as Churchill, who fought bitterly to keep India’s hundreds of millions of people under the dominance of Great Britain, valued “liberty” supremely seems ludicrous. And we can ask how “humanistic” any tradition is that undergirds such racism and imperialism and that so comfortably resorts to such violations of standards of restraint in warfare as seen in the Churchill-approved saturation bombing of civilian populations in cities such as Dresden and Hamburg during World War II.

The relation between Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of nonviolence and “history and material things” is a point of major debate–a debate that will be extremely difficult to resolve in part due to the incomplete evidence we have concerning where history actually is going and in part due to the importance of our assumptions in how we address such a question. However, I want to argue that in fact Gandhi’s philosophy is extraordinarily important for human history, is at its core anchored in history, and is actually our best hope for on-going human existence in history.

As I mentioned above, I did find this book highly enjoyable to read. And I think Herman deserves our gratitude for taking on such an interesting and important project. In the end, though, I don’t really think that what the world today needs is an exaltation of Churchillian imperialism combined with an attempted debunking of Gandhian satyagraha–rather, what we need is an account of this story that take the opposite tack in dealing with each of its main characters.

Peace Theology Book Review Index