Monday, December 08, 2008

The Hermenutics of Newsweek

There's an interesting and unexpected new voice in the gay marriage debate: Newsweek magazine. While most mainstream media coverage of religious issues demonstrates a pathetically weak understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand (one would expect a business reporter to understand something about business, so why not religion?), this Newsweek article is surprisingly articulate.

The cover story (which you can read here) correctly points out that nowhere in the Bible is marriage explicitly defined as only between a man and a woman. It also rightly points out that many biblical marriages included multiples wives, children conceived with slaves, women stolen from guys you had murdered, and enough other scandalous things to fill several seasons worth of prime time soap operas.

This article has, of course, made a lot of conservatives angry. Politico has a pretty good article surveying the reactions of several leading conservative voices.

While I thought the Newsweek article was pretty insightful, I do take issue with one of their conclusions. In the middle of the article the writer says that "religious objections to gay marriage are not rooted in the Bible at all, but in custom and tradition". The writer has very ably demonstrated that the subject of marriage between two people of the same gender is never specifically brought up in the Bible, and that homosexuality as an orientation is not, either. But just because a specific issue is not mentioned in the Bible does not mean that one cannot turn to the biblical text for guidance on it.

Let me pause for a moment and "out" myself, so to speak. Those who know me and/or read this blog can probably guess that I'm for marriage equality. I disagree with the official position of my denomination, even though I uphold the Discipline as part of my covenant as a pastor. The fact that I fall on the side of this particular issue that is usually labeled as liberal or progressive does not mean, however, that I don't see the merits in the other side's position.

The biblical texts are ancient documents written by ancient people and concern the issues of the ancient world. The modern/postmodern world is very different, and thus has very different issues and conflicts, yet many of the same human tendencies remain, so these ancient texts still have something to teach us. We have to understand the context in which they were written to understand what they might have to say to us today.

For example, I care greatly about the issue of climate change, which is also not specifically mentioned in the Bible, nor are any environmental issues, but that does not mean that the Bible cannot provide guidance for people of faith when dealing with the environment. In Genesis 2 God tells Adam that he is responsible for the earth. Some versions translate this as "fill the earth and subdue it", others say "care for it". The Hebrew words can legitimately be translated a number of ways, so an interpretive choice is involved. I choose the latter translation not just for the heck of it, but because I see in the broad scope of the biblical witness that God cares greatly about how we treat all the things God has created: people, plants, etc. So I take the "care for the earth" command as a kind of biblical support (but not a proof text) for the idea that we should be aware of and actively minimize our negative impact on the long term health of the planet.

All this is to say that those who oppose same sex marriage can certainly cite the Bible in their arguments even though the issue is never explicitly mentioned in the biblical text. Most people in this camp would disagree and say that it is explicitly mentioned, of course, and they certainly have the right to make that interpretive choice.

And that's really the point. We're all making certain interpretive choices when we read and apply the Bible. Let's be honest about that and say which choices we're making. That way we can discuss these issues on a level playing field instead of retreating into our trenches and lobbing rhetorical bombs at one another. We'll make a lot more progress if we will.


Anonymous said...

Amen, Amen. What you said. Amen.

Anonymous said...

I applaud your call for open discussion and honesty about interpretive choices.

You do sort of side step the part of the other camp's argument that is mentioned explicitly in the Bible - certain sexaul acts.

I'll be in hunkered down in my trench waiting to see if your summons to reasonable dialogue draws any machine-gun fire.

Craig L. Adams said...

The reasons that some of us remain so adamantly opposed to the moral acceptance of same-gender sex is the result of two considerations (which I list in order of importance): (1.) We believe that there is a Biblical view of marriage and thus, a moral standard against which sexual acts and behaviors can be evaluated. Genesis 2:23 and the teaching of Jesus on marriage is the place where Christian teaching on sexual ethics begins. There is a monogamous heterosexual standard for sexual behavior. Other sexual behaviors are evaluated by their conformity or deviation from this standard. (2.) Same-gender sex is explicitly condemned in Scripture. It is condemned in strong terms. The condemnation seems to be general or generic in nature.

In the USA, civil law and moral concepts derived from Christianity have probobly been entangled from the very beginning. How else can you explain why polygamy is considered a crime? It was considered (to borrow a phrase) "incompatible with Christian teaching" — that's why!

You thought the Newsweek article was interesting, but I thought this op-ed in the LA Times was far more interesting:

Same-sex marriage is too limiting
There are many other types of legitimate partnerships that could use legal validation.
By Robert Epstein
December 4, 2008,0,5976724,print.story