Tuesday, August 20, 2013

God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage (a book report)

I just finished reading a fantastic book called God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage.  It was written by Gene Robinson, the bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire, and the first openly gay person elected to the episcopate.  I remember when this controversy erupted, an openly gay Episcopal priest.  I was actually casually attending an Episcopal church in Placentia at the time, and the church seemed evenly divided on the issue.  At the time, I remember, this external division reflected the inner conflict in my own mind.  I'd grown up in an evangelical church environment (the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton), which condemned homosexuality.  On the other hand, I was in college and starting to meet openly gay friends and the idea of condemning them felt, somehow, wrong.  If I'd had this book at the time, it would have greatly clarified things for me.

Robinson's book is characterized by an honest, accessible style that represents the kind of writing I aspire to, the kind my dad encouraged me to write growing up: clarity, simplicity, honesty.  The book's chapters all take the form of questions that go to the heart of our society and culture's lingering uncertainties about the issue of same-sex marriage: 

Why should you care about gay marriage if you're straight?

What's wrong with civil unions?

Doesn't the Bible condemn homosexuality?

Doesn't gay marriage change the definition of marriage that's been in pace for thousands of years?

Don't children need a mother and a father?

Is this about civil rights or getting approval for questionable behavior?

In each chapter, Robinson blends personal experience, research, and even the Bible to carefully and thoughtfully work through and address these questions.  Each chapter deserves its own book report, and I would strongly encourage anyone confused about these questions to read the book.  In the interest of sharing what I learned, I'd like to address a few of the book's more salient points.

First off, the bedrock question for Christians: Doesn't the Bible condemn homosexuality?  This is the fundamental question which Christians must engage with fearlessly, openly, and with new eyes.  I grew up being told that homosexuality is a clearly-defined sin in the Bible, and I think most people who grow up in church are told this (except, of course, in Gene Robinson's church!).  It was not until quite recently, as I've taken a renewed interest in studying the Bible, that I began to look more carefully at the seven passages in the Bible that have historically been used to condemn homosexuality.  

I've written about this elsewhere, when I reviewed Ky Dickens' wonderful film Fish Out of Water.  The main point here is that any serious study of the Bible must take into account culture and context.  For example, regarding the famous passage in Leviticus 20:13, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them," Robinson writes:

"In practice, we modern-day Christians have regarded most of the injunctions in the Holiness Codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy as culturally-bound to the ancient times of the Hebrews--but not binding on us.  These same purity codes forbid eating shellfish, planting a field with two different kinds of seeds, or wearing simultaneously two kinds of cloth.  They would prohibit us from ordaining to the priesthood any handicapped person--not to mention women.  We cannot, then, isolate these passages about homosexual acts and impute to them the kind of enduring authority that we ascribe to nothing before or after them.  One has to wonder why the biblical literalists who cite this passage against homosexuality don't seem to go all the way and advocate, like Leviticus, for death as the punishment for homosexual behavior!  We cannot have it both ways."

Another important point  is that Jesus Christ NEVER ONCE mentions homosexuality.  Robinson writes, "One has to wonder, if homosexuality is such a heinous sin against God, why does Jesus himself never refer to it?"

My point here is not to give exhaustive arguments on this issue, but to encourage people who are interested to look very carefully at these passages.  If you are going to go ahead and deny marriage rights to a large part of the population, you better understand these seven passages though and through.  Or, at the very least, acknowledge that you don't understand them.

Another important question Robinson addresses is, "Doesn't gay marriage change the definition of marriage that's been in place for thousands of years?"  I've recently been doing a Bible study with my parents, and this issue has come up.  We are reading through the book of Genesis, and the picture of marriage we find there is VERY different from our modern notions of marriage between one man and one woman.  Jacob, grandson of Abraham, had TWO wives (and sisters at that!).  King Solomon had hundreds (if not thousands) of wives.  In ancient cultures like Israel, women were the property of their husbands.  I think that most women today (even Christian women) would be glad that THAT definition of marriage has changed over time.  The point here is that the definition of marriage HAS changed dramatically over time to reflect changes in society.  Thus, this argument that allowing same-sex marriage would undermine some ancient ideal is, historically, not true.

In the end, Robinson's book is, as the title suggests, about love.  He ends his book with these words:

"I believe in marriage.  I believe it is the crucible in which we come to know most deeply about love.  It is in marriage that God's will for me to love all of humankind gets focused in one person.  It is impossible to love humankind if I can't love one person.  That opportunity to love one person and to have that love sanctioned and supported by the culture in which we live is a right denied gay and lesbian people for countless centuries.  It's time to open that opportunity to all of us.  Because in the end, God believes in love."

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