Tuesday, October 26, 2010

JESUS & GAY WEDDINGS: It's Not Just About Shellfish

When five years ago I shared the above link ("What Would Jesus Do If Invited To A Gay Wedding") on my Facebook page, there were two immediate consequences. The first was that I was presented with an ultimatum that led to my withdrawal from preaching and music ministry at my local church. The second was that a highly respected and deep-thinking Facebook friend disagreed with its conclusions with grace and intelligence.

Ultimately, I had to reject his conclusions, but he pointed out a rather simplistic aspect of the author's Christology: The Huffington Post articles states that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. However, if Jesus is God and if God authored the Scriptures (both assertions that orthodox Christians accept) then by a simple syllogism Jesus authored the scriptural passages that seem to condemn homosexuality along with all other sin. I have to say that I found this argument itself rather simplistic; it disregards the wide diversity and the integrity of the many individual biblical voices. But my friend's next point was harder to dismiss out of hand.

My friend went on to point out that Jesus certainly gathered together with sinners, but also dealt with their sin. So, in response to the question whether we should accept an invitation to a homosexual wedding, he responded that we should do so, as long as our goal is to love people and share the mystery of the gospel with them. This is a very sound and reasonable principle, but his practical application was quite disturbing: "Telling people about their lostness is really the most loving thing we could do." This was intended, of course, as a loving application of sound doctrine, and to some extent it tackles the stereotypical view of an Evengelicalism more concerned with slavish adherence to rules than with sharing the love of Jesus.

However, in my view there is nothing loving about going to someone's wedding and using it as a means to an end - to preach to them about the sinfulness of what they are doing - which is what my friend's hermeneutics ultimately came down to. And it is not just pastorally insensitive but in my view theologically erroneous. 

Muslims regard the Qur'an in Arabic as the perfect word-for-word recitation of God's word to humanity, to the extent that even the best translation into another language distorts its intended meaning. In the late 19th century, initially in the USA, some Evangelicals over-reacted to the twin-pronged assault on their faith of socialism and liberal theology and developed a quasi-Islamic insistence on the literal truth of every jot and tittle of the Bible.

This was not the view of the early Church Fathers or the original Evangelical Reformers. Luther believed that parts of the Bible (especially the wonderful Letter of James, which he dubbed 'a right strawy epistle') were the result of errors by the early Councils that selected the canonical books. Saint Augustine of Hippo (the original source of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith and the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and perseverance) believed that passages of scripture can have up to five levels of figurative, symbolic and allegorical meaning. I actually think Augustine's approach is excessively influenced by Greek philosophy, but it helps us reflect on what Scripture is and what it isn't. To the writers of the New Testament, there is only one Living Word of God, i.e. Jesus. We have to regard the whole Bible the way they regarded the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. as a divinely inspired but brutally honest, mistakes-and-all record of how the People of God heard and responded to the presence of God in their midst in various times and cultural settings. It is precisely in that light that the N.T. most clearly represents continuity with the O.T.

As far as biblical morality is concerned, most modern Evangelicals accept that there are both permanent and culturally contingent laws in the Bible, including both the Torah and the N.T. (for example, few Evangelicals today would support stoning adulterers to death, although in some parts of the Middle East this is still the cultural norm). Clearly, the crucial question is how you differentiate the permanent from the cultural. And there are two common approaches that in my opinion are equally flawed: 

  • One common approach is to say (as some liberals do, even in quite serious pamphlets) that since we no longer have a taboo on eating pork or shellfish, we can no longer support a taboo on homosexuality. This is simply puerile: it patronises LGBT relationships and cultural identity in putting them on a par with dietary restrictions and discredits the strong theological cause that it claims to support. 
  • The other approach is to create an arbitrary distinction between moral laws (universally binding) and religious ritual laws (only binding on a particular community, e.g. food taboos).  I believe this is patronising to the coherence and integrity of the Mosaic Dispensation, and dangerously conducive to eisegesis (i.e. reading one's own beliefs and prejudices back into one's interpretation and application of the text).

Some kind of ordering of the various laws and moral teachings of the Bible is essential if we are to use it as a moral guide. But any such ordering has to do justice to a number of different claims: the philosophical unity of the Hebrew revelation; the related but distinctive integrity of the Christian revelation; not least the overarching message of the Bible as a whole, and the amazing oneness it builds out of seemingly conflicting themes (e.g. holiness/liberation, unity/diversity, tribalism/universalism, love/anger, justice/mercy).

We each have to make an informed and prayerful judgement on this, but I believe that one possible starting point is the oft-quoted and widely misunderstood Galatians 3:26-29.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The crucial question is, which of the actions condemned as an abomination in Leviticus are actually sins, and which are simply social conventions (albeit useful ones in their original context)? Some are clearly based on moral or spiritual repugnance (killing, marital infidelity, blasphemy) while others (e.g. frequent  washing, with a taboo on potentially unsafe foods like pork and shellfish, and a prohibition on non-generative sexual lifestyles) are based on the needs of the early Yahwistic  community in its historic context. A tiny community of freed slaves in a hostile environment needs massive social cohesion, a high birthrate and a healthy populace. In other words, although I bridle at equating shellfish with Gay love for the reasons set out above, I do not accept that either is a sin but fully understand how they could have been seen as a threat to growth, prosperity, security or social harmony in post-Egyptian Israel.

In conclusion, while accepting that adultery and promiscuity are intrinsically sinful regardless of gender (involving as they do betrayal of trust and the use of other people as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves),  I believe that intolerance of stable, socially integrated LGBT relationships needs to be consigned to history along with many other (not just ritual) evils tolerated or even commanded at various points in salvation history, including slavery, genocide, blood feud, polygamy, the treatment of women as mere chattels, and the ban on commensality.

Finally, while proudly upholding the truth that Jesus is God, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is also God, and I am personally convinced (although each person has to make his or her own prayerful judgement on this) that the prevailing attitude of acceptance regarding Gay Christians is His doing. We tend to think of the individual as the basic building block of society. The Jewish and Christian communities of the Bible saw not the individual but the family as that basic building block, and would have seen the breakdown of family life today as the cause rather than just a symptom of the wider social collapse. We have to ask ourselves, are same-sex family units part of the collapse of family life, or a powerful restatement of family values at just the time when they are most needed? I think the latter, and I would gladly accept the invitation to a Gay wedding, not just to share the Gospel but also to receive it and to join in their rejoicing along with the Trinitarian God in whom all joy and peace and fellowship have their source.

Monday, October 11, 2010


The first in an occasional series of responses to "The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis"


Fleming, John V., "Literary Critic" in “The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis”, edited by MacSwain, R. and Ward, M., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK (2010)

I always warn my Philosophy students, about two weeks into the course, never to patronize Plato. I'm fond of quoting Alfred North Whitehead at them: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." It's a warning I need to repeat periodically.

They need this warning because by this time they have met both Plato and Aristotle, and found the latter’s model of the universe more familiar to them than the former’s. In fact, they have begun to pigeon-hole Plato (and his division of reality into two eternally divided planes of existence – the spiritual and the material) as an irrelevant hang-over from some primitive, superstitious pre-history. They need reminding that all of western philosophy is a continued exploration of questions and themes identified by Plato. Even the great Aristotle is defined largely by his disagreement with Plato, who had mapped out the terms of engagement on the nature of reality, goodness, virtue, truth, knowledge and political governance when Aristotle was still a callow youth.

The point is that Whitehead had fundamental disagreements with Plato, but recognized that he and his peers work entirely within this field of enquiry that Plato mapped out. He never spoke of Plato condescendingly as a product of his times, never damned him with faint praise, and never spoke of his achievements just to set him up for an assault on his outmoded a priori assumptions.

In some ways, I feel, John V. Fleming is Aristotle to C. S. Lewis’s Plato. I am not aware that he was ever Lewis’s pupil in the way that Aristotle was Plato’s (Lewis retired from teaching at Oxford shortly before Fleming went there as a student) but Fleming is one of today’s leading scholars in the field for which Lewis was most admired in academic circles: medieval romantic poetry. He is on some issues one of Lewis's sternest critics. And in the brilliant recently published “Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis”, he contributes the opening chapter on Lewis as a literary critic.

By way of background, Lewis did pioneering work in bringing some of these epic medieval poems into the world of academic debate, and in the process he identified the concept of ‘courtly love’ as the driving paradigm behind this form of literature. Courtly love is best explained as the relationship between a noble knight and his beloved: subject to rigid protocol, ineffably romantic, chaste, each the epitome of truthfulness and honour, with the woman served by the man and venerated by him as the pure, untouchable embodiment of beauty and virtue.

I have not read either the epic poems to which Lewis devoted so much of his life and energies, nor have I read any of his books about them. On the other hand, I have read most of his populist writing; I have some understanding of, and empathy with, the meta-narrative that he brought to his analytic work. And I can see how his high view of courtly love in terms both moral and artistic could have been informed to some extent by wishful thinking. The kind of attitude to human love that he describes (or rather, prescribes) in his role as a Christian ethicist has much in common with it, and is deeply rooted in the classical and biblical concept of agapĂȘ or altruistic love which Christians associate with the self-giving action of God in Christ. To regard divine-human love as the role model for human relationships is in the main stream of Christian ethics.

Fleming rejects the concept of courtly love as unhelpful and misleading (p16), and in fact he often apostrophizes the term, perhaps a little ironically, in his essay. He is entitled to do so, and indeed I agree (much as a mouse might agree with a lion) with some of his criticisms. However, as with Aristotle and Plato, Fleming unavoidably works within the boundaries of a discipline developed and codified by Lewis. And however strongly he disagrees with Lewis, however much he rejects Lewis’ assumptions, however fiercely he disowns Lewis’ methodology and conclusions, he owes Lewis more respect than he shows in this essay.

In fairness, there are few openly negative comments, particularly in the early part of the essay, where Fleming nevertheless makes his disagreements with Lewis clear:

‘Courtly love’ is not a medieval term. It was first used in the 19th century by a French medievalist… (p16)  

’Everyone has heard of courtly love,’ Lewis writes, ‘and everyone knows that it appears quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc."   (p16)

’Comparatively few still believe, as Lewis did,  that courtly love reflects an actual social reality...' (p16)

Indeed, most of the essay's descriptive and analytic passages show considerable enthusiasm for Lewis’ knowledge and style, even where his assumptions and conclusions are dismissed as questionable. It is in the final section headed “Assessments” where Fleming summarises his own evaluation of Lewis that things sound a little less positive:

“…he was strangely content to identify ‘courtly love’, an extra-Christian if not anti-Christian substitute for the foremost of the theological virtues, as the mainspring of medieval European poetry.” (p25, my italics)

Fleming continues, without clarifying what he thinks the foremost of the theological virtues to be:

It is my opinion…that in his pursuit of ‘courtly love’…he became the corrupting Aristotle who misled a generation of readers in understanding the supremely important poem he had done so much to rescue from oblivion.”

I would love to know Fleming comes to see Aristotle as a paradigm of corrupting influence (indeed it is ironic that he himself seems to be acting as the Aristotle to Lewis’s Plato). I also cannot relate to the ‘strangely’ I have italicized above, even in the full context in which it occurs, because courtly love seems to articulate precisely (albeit in a radically different cultural setting) a biblical picture of male-female relationships modeled on the eschatological relationship between Christ as groom and the Church as bride, which I am sure is what Lewis himself had in mind.

Two further references in the essay are worthy of comment. In the context of a paragraph on Lewis’ generosity of spirit, the suggestion that he even on one occasion "approaches genuine scorn for a fellow literary critic" (p26) seems a disparaging non-sequitur. And finally, the last paragraph contains the single most patronizing comment in the entire essay:

What a professor can point out, perhaps, is that Lewis’s prose is probably most confident and also most magnificent when he is addressing an audience most like himself: an audience admiring of and widely read in the earlier periods of English literature. (p27, italics original)

What a layman reader of Lewis’ works can point out, perhaps, is that hundreds of thousands of very ordinary people have been moved and inspired by his confident and magnificent prose, and that many of them might think this statement says more about the essay’s author than its subject.

The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis is essential reading for any fan of Lewis’ work. I feel that this opening essay, however, starts the anthology out on a less than totally gracious note.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


I have no great pretensions as a poet, but this rather eclectic spiritual reflection was triggered a while back by the sight (on TV) of mid-summer pilgrims to Stonehenge overlooked by ranks of megaliths on the one side and Britain's finest on the other.

The light of summer solstice gleams
In flash of green, then red,
Reflected in unblinking eyes
Cro-Magnon wide.

In wire corral’d they dream the Dance;
The inner shaman sings
As sentinels both sacred and
profane look on.

The moment past, some go their way,
A hunger briefly slaked,
As others, lost to self, dream on
in endless Dance.