Seeing Gushee’s Treatment of LGBTQ Inclusion in the Light of our Larger Problem of Not Really Knowing What To Do With the Bible in our Secular Age

Gushee at City Church SF

Link to David Gushee’s Talk at City Church San Francisco

David Gushee at City Church San Francisco

David Gushee recently did a Q/A at City Church San Francisco I assume as part of their process of exploring the inclusion of the LGBTQ in their community. He was there to represent a recognized “evangelical” voice on the subject. Scot Sherman began by establishing his credentials as a recognized evangelical scholar and author of text book used in evangelical schools around the continent. If your goal is to find a presentation to persuade an evangelical audience towards embracing LGTBQ inclusion in the church this is probably the best I’ve heard so far.

A Narrative of Personal Conversion

Evangelicals love narratives of personal conversion. It is a stock cultural artifact in the evangelical world and so if you’re going to communicate to this tribe this narrative form is usually the preferred one at hand. He talks about his experience in his local church and in personal relationships with committed Christian same sex couples and how this forced him to re-examine his traditional person and bring him to a new understanding. This is pretty standard not only in these public presentations but also in individual conversion narratives told in books and in private conversation.

The Clobber Texts Aren’t the Main Event

Part of what I found compelling about his presentation was that he echoed my feelings about how the Biblical material relates to this matter in noting that the traditional clobber texts out of Leviticus and Paul really aren’t where the primary objections lie. The most significant reasons in the Bible to resist destroying the privilege of accepting traditional normative gender polarity are deeper.

  • The Creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 where in a prelapsarian context created gender polarity is named as good and their harmonious complementarity tied to image bearing and vocational fulfilment
  • A natural law design obviousness with regard to what Scot Sherman called “the plumbing”
  • The historical, universal testimony of the church on this matter.

While Gushee touches on a number of the clobber texts in his presentation (and I assume in his book) he acknowledges that these are the big issues to deal with.

Dealing with Genesis

Having declared that this is the main event in terms of Biblical engagement with this matter I was a bit disappointed in how much treatment he gave to the subject. His main points were these:

  • We sometimes tend to rely too heavily on these first two chapter of the Bible and this historically has gotten us into trouble with other heresies.
  • Just as many evangelicals have come to transcend cosmology conflicts with the text given the limitations of the ancients in understand their world scientifically so also we should do this in this area.

Those two points are my take-aways from his presentation (now by memory a couple of days past), listen to the presentation and/or read the book and give him a fair hearing.

His treatment of the “plumbing” question was pretty standard for a Protestant which was recognizing that marriage and sexuality go beyond reproduction.

The grounds for going “beyond” (always the implicit progress narrative language) the traditional teaching of the church is the historical and relational call of the gospel to enfold all God’s children, even those born as sexual minorities.

If my summary of his arguments is unfair, please forgive me. Listen to him and judge for yourself. As I said his was the most compelling presentation in this project I’ve heard thus far.

What I Respected About His Handling of the Bible

While I was underwhelmed with his engagement of the main events in opposition to full inclusion I did appreciate the fact that he didn’t both trying to make Paul or Moses inclusive. Imagining that ancient Hebrews or early Christians were historically ignorant, tolerant or affirming of same sex couples truly strains credulity and I think has zero ground to stand on historically or biblically. I think you get further just owning up to the fact that the universal biblical witness opposes same sex sexuality albeit in a far more complex sexual context than contemporary conservative Christians often like to concede. Gushee’s points are some of the strongest pastoral  arguments I’ve heard. If full inclusion is going to have any leg to stand on it will be fundamentally pastoral and appeal to either a concession of mercy in a broken world (Smedes) or a progressive flow of redemption argument. Trying to show the biblical witness as being ignorant, tolerant or affirming it seems to me just doesn’t square with the text.

Evangelicals Reading the Bible in the Immanent Frame

While some have asked if I’ve stopped my little project discussing the church’s inclusion of sexual minorities (I have not) I am ADHD so I’m always working on too many things at once. One of my current projects is to try to get through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age as well as Jamie Smith’s How to Not Be Secular. Last year I also did a lot of sermon work on the Old Testament, specifically Leviticus. My point isn’t to bring us right into the clobber texts, but to see how our current cultural location (a secular age within the imminent frame) greatly complicates our engagement with the Bible. Some of the places where this is most obvious is the early chapter of Genesis and the Mosaic law with its system of clean and unclean. Evangelicals in particular given our legacy from the Protestant Reformation, our resistance to the modernist movement and our missionary ethos to the secular age have unique challenges and hangups.

Genesis 1-11 as Higher (non-secular) Time

Part of what’s been helpful in reading Taylor is how he helps us understand what “secular” is. Traditional cultures assumed that there was higher, sacred or “spiritual” time and space and “secular”, lower, common, regular, historical time and space. The movement of Reform typified but no exclusively in the Protestant Reformation moves us towards the reduction or even destruction of this distinction/assertion. We see this in the enlightenment treatment of Biblical material, especially the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Now we have both modernists and evangelicals reading Genesis 1-11 as “secular” time and space. This is the only time and space we have and so we see all of the creation vs. science debates play out on this level.

If you read the old CRC debates on Genesis and science (Report 44, etc.)  you’ll notice the reluctance of some just read all of Genesis as being flat historical narrative. To many of these readers there seemed to be a quality to the Genesis prologue that changes when you get to Abraham. If you read John Walton’s latest efforts in his “Lost World” series you’ll see a similar treatment. Here on “Unbelievable” you can hear him engage a young earth creationist. Walton while not denying the historicity of this first couple emphasizes the textual evidence of their archetypal status over the questions we tend to bring to the text.

Evangelicals currently tend to split on these matters.

  • Some evangelicals will become concordists, ironically taking the consistently secular path working very hard (with Ken Ham) to try to find evidence for the flood in secular time and figure out how to manage all of those secular animals on the ark.
  • Some fringe evangelicals and certain hyper-literalist sects (Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, etc) will adopt a re-constructionist posture where they not only embrace the Genesis prologue in secular time but also work hard at literalistically embracing aspects of the clean/unclean system of the mosaic law.
  • Many other evangelicals try to bring these worlds together. We don’t have to deny the finding of science in evolution or other contemporary disciplines and we don’t have to throw out the Bible either. We can find ways of reading the Bible that honors both “books” (general and special revelation) and maintain a contemporary witness to Jesus Christ in a secular age.

Gushee, Walton, and I would fit into the third category along with many in the CRC and in the broader neo-evangelical world. (Read Molly Worthen’s The Apostles of Reason). This third group is a very broad one which has incredible diversity of opinions on many theological and cultural topics. Most of the big debates in this third group have to do with exactly how to regard many of these areas of the Bible that seem to rub against our cultural and pastoral issues.

Sacramental vs. Secular in the Immanent Frame

What if the Genesis prologue is “higher time” or “time of origins” as many literary clues in the text seem to suggest? How does this fit into our theological frameworks? There has been great anxiety that if we regard these passages as this then we run into trouble with Paul on Adam and have questions about Jesus’ resurrection in secular time. CS Lewis seems to be able to recognize higher or origin times vs. Christ in secular time. This is a major point in numerous passages of his.

Probably nowhere does this issue stand out than in our reading of the Mosaic law. The old pattern of simply dismissing huge sections of Leviticus as “dietary” or “ceremonial” law and thus not having to regard it has long lost its exegetical viability. It is clear the Mosaic law was deeply embedded in a sacramental, porous universe where items had meaning and power which were of vital importance to Israel’s relationship with God. Contemporary dismissal of these facets of these passages is clumsily sweeping. We are exposed as having no serious way in which to engage this text or bring it into our own cultural context. We’re not about to ask menstruating women to skip church on Sunday but we have no answer for why God wanted them out of the camp. Our inability to account for commands given in one world to be translated into this one has now become a huge issue in terms of missions and apologetics. As old Christendom practical ways of doing things break down and are at increasing obvious moral conflict with elements of common life in the developed West Christians have no place to hide and seemingly few compelling answers to give.

The post-Christian world is not blind to this. Consider the words of a friend of mine on Facebook.

Well, if a person doesn’t know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, they most certainly won’t discover the answer by reading the Old Testament… which is the root-link of all the Abrahamic religions and the root-cause of the horrors of fundamentalism. It’s bursting with celebrations of cruelty: both human and divine.

I’ll give you that the teachings attributed to the man Jesus, in the New Testament are ‘good’… Damn shame god couldn’t get it right the first time round.

While we might increasingly realize and respect a more sacramental view of the world that was roughly handled by many in the Protestant Reformation we are a long way from being able to present a cogent reason for the hope that lives within us to a world that we can’t hope to expect with grapple with these issues for us. The same sex marriage question has simply become the most visible and explosive item on this enlarging menu of concerns.

Gushee’s take on all of the Biblical material basically follows the pattern of how evangelicals handle other Biblical items when conflicts arise whether they be pastoral or scientific. It exposes the fact that we lack a truly coherent and compelling way of engaging the text with the secular world when it comes to our imminent frame. We’ve long avoided these issues because we could but it appears that time is increasingly over. Capitulation on same sex marriage won’t make these issues go away. It may relieve some pastoral challenges we face and the most obvious item of cultural dissonance now but it will be just another item in an ever increasing mountain of evidence that we don’t know how to handle this far broader cultural transition.

God of the Gaps Problem with the Bible

For a while now we’ve recognized the “God of the Gaps” problem of the Bible when it came to the Bible and Science. God and the church retreat as scientistic explanation reveal the mechanism that govern more and more of our lives. Darwin replaced God in creation. Freud replaced God on behavior and now Oprah replaces God on morality. Christianity survives by its therapeutic chops in competition with yoga, psych drugs and a really good therapist. If Joel Osteen can help you have your best life now what more do we need?

God is not moral and certainly not needed for morality or wonder for more and more in our context. If a Christian church can provide measurable outcomes that compete favorably in the lifestyle marketplace we imagine we might have a future. It is increasingly obvious, at least in some communities, that inclusion of sexual minorities is table stakes for an organization’s moral reputation as is true for equality for women. Relegating the demands of the Biblical story to this therapeutic concern is, after all, what the present frame demands.

I, however, am not satisfied with this and you shouldn’t be either. If we want to move our dissatisfaction in a more fruitful direction we’re doing to have to figure out what to do about it and this goes far beyond what we do with sexuality and gender.  This series of practical “retreats” or “advances” (depending on your posture) will likely only be transcended if we can figure out how we can engage the Bible as revelation that makes better sense in our context.

Gushee doesn’t finally offer us any answers on this subject. He just comes to an obvious conclusion consistent with what neo-evangelicals have done for the last 70 years on matters like this. We don’t know what to do with the larger questions so we make piecemeal accommodations or adjustments until (as in the narrative of paradigm change) others simply abandon the entire project. Consider John Suk’s journey.

Denominational Fragmentation

What this will likely mean is that the organizational and institutional narrative that we’ve seen over genesis and science and women’s ordination will continue. The “third way” is really the first way for evangelical denominationalism. Our answer is fragmentation because we can’t find consensus on our foundation an issue that goes back to a foundation we can agree upon. Again Worthen’s book is helpful on this history.

So listen and read Gushee if you’re interested in this issue. But also read Taylor if you can or Smith if you can’t.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to Seeing Gushee’s Treatment of LGBTQ Inclusion in the Light of our Larger Problem of Not Really Knowing What To Do With the Bible in our Secular Age

  1. Mark Hofman says:

    Am I reading you correctly when I assume that this “foundation we can agree on” is something related to our doctrine(s) of scripture (authority, perspicuity, etc), or is it more in the camp of hermeneutics (ie. cultural analysis of connecting sacred to secular time)?

    My own opinion is that the foundation we no longer have is a kind of evangelical “analogy of scripture” (a la Berkhof) which can be trans-culturally shared. Back in the North American heyday of debates about scripture’s authority, to me Packer’s essay (http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_herm_packer.html) still stands as a call to sharing “a principle of harmony” around the methodological process of biblical interpretation (both in our doctrinal presuppositions and exegetical practices). More than just letting harder texts be interpreted by easier, or “plainer” ones, it boils down to a rejection of the rationalism to which our evangelical culture has ignorantly capitulated. Reject the fundamentalist apologetic of Ken Hamm or the flippant, post-evangelical prognostications of “being on the wrong side of history,” and maybe we’ll find our way back to the root of the problem.

    Putting Worthen’s book in my Amazon shopping cart as we speak…

    • PaulVK says:

      Worthen’s book basically says that the history of neo-evangelicals, some in our tribe come into her narrative, is one of wanting to use rationality as the place of exchange for us and the broader culture. Protestantism of course puts it all on the Bible, but the BIble is not so easily camped on, as Christian Smith pointed out with his interpretive pluralism. Alister McGrath makes the same point in his book on the “Protestantism’s dangerous idea”. In place of the magisterium we try to create a “paper pope” or a “paper tradition” through confessionalism but we with many denominations haven’t really lived up to this idea.

      Our movement was born at a critical turning point between two worlds if you read Taylor. We disposed of a sacramental view only to reap a more secular world.

      When I read Dreher’s “Benedictine Option” I think of the pre-WWII CRC. Cloistered, in control, walled up. CRC lights were on the inside while black-out curtains kept out larger lights. According to Taylor we had already made the turn years before and where we are today is the inevitable stage in the process. (It is ironic that Taylor speaks fully within an ordered world too. This is the only kind of language we permit).

      So the dilemma that Worthen asserts is the neo-evangelical problem is ours. Some run back to the magisterium for refuge. She talks about them too.

      If we don’t have a system that could explain why God wanted menstruating women outside the camp in a cogent way for a world today (apart from sending them out with the ultra-orthodox Jews) we’ll not find a way to explain why two men does not a God blessed couple make. When I say “system” it already is a capitulation to our advanced Deism. We will accept nothing but a system because we can’t see the modern moral order in any other way. BTW such a social imaginary will need to be scalable enough that TV watching, Facebook stalking pew sitting car driving regular folk “get it” and want for more. That’s a pretty tall order. It’s something that requires a movement and a community in this age of fragmentation.

  2. Pingback: Can we imagine an “affirming” church tradition flourish and grow or has “providential deism” made divine irrational demands nonsensical? | Leadingchurch.com

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