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Gay rights for Christians?

Dan O. Via and Robert A.J. Gagnon

Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views

Fortress Press, 2003. 117pp. $13 (paper)

To totally neutral observers--should any exist--current skirmishes over the status of gays within the church make for an interesting, sometimes even amusing, spectacle. In their arsenal conservatives have ancient homophobic tradition and a range of lethal proof-texts, from Leviticus to Romans. Liberals can marshal broader theological principles and appeal to the ecumenical spirit of loving inclusion and celebration of differences. But neither side, for obvious reasons, wants to concede an inch to the other. Hence, this handy little survey of the conflict will doubtless change nobody's mind; but it's a fine compendium of the issues at stake.

In classical debate style the book opens with the affirmative case for Christian homosexuality, argued by Via, who is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, followed by the vehemently negative line of Gagnon, who teaches New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The position-statements come with brief rebuttals and a modest bibliography. Not surprisingly, the older Via has a longer and more varied c.v. than Gagnon, whose publications seem to be limited to biblical critiques of homosexuality (his web site attacks gay marriage). On the cover Via is shown smiling congenially; Gagnon is not smiling at all.

Via starts with some damage control by arguing that the Old Testament prohibition of male homosexual acts (lesbianism never gets mentioned) is more a matter of "uncleanness" than sin (and from a New Testament standpoint "the physical cannot defile"). Paul is a harder nut to crack; and Via finally has to break with

Paul's patriarchal bias and narrow view of human nature (cf. 1 Cor. 11.14: "Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him?")

One way to bridge the gap between Pauline anathemas and Christian love is to declare that a homosexual orientation is acceptable so long as it doesn't lead to homosexual acts. But Via rejects this solution (popular in some Catholic circles) because its basic message amounts to: "Since you had the bad luck to turn out gay, it is only fair to impose the added burden of denying the realization of who you are sexually." Heterosexual love, in other words, is sacred and should be celebrated; homosexual love is taboo and must be stifled.

Via condemns this double standard not just on rational grounds (sexual identity is a more or less immutable given), but as bad theology (sexual identity is a gift of God). That is the heart of the controversy; and what strikes liberal Christians as self-evident justice strikes conservatives as the eloquent rationalization of lust. Via (who happens to be straight) ends with a long quotation from a gay New Testament scholar, Dale Martin, that shows, among other things, why dialogue on this topic is likely to go nowhere. "Any interpretation of scripture," Martin says, "that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, now matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable."

That trio of adjectives neatly sums up the contribution of Professor Gagnon, who now comes on the scene with guns blazing. Gagnon is in a hurry. He has already had to pare his original 45,000 word essay down to 15,000 words (readers can find the omitted material at, into which he's trying to load every conceivable barb and bomb, biblical or otherwise, against Christian homosexuality. He's got great firepower and a clear strategy; but his tactics are deeply flawed.

Gagnon can't resist using inflammatory-insulting language, phrases like, "those afflicted by homoerotic desires," "the pro homosex lobby," "two noncomplementary sexual sames," "negative moral behavior," "abomination." He drags in red herrings, e.g., by citing a "statistically verifiable association" between homosexuality and "an increased risk of negative ancillary effects" (he won't say "AIDS" out loud)--despite the fact that Via is talking about committed monogamous relationships.

Gagnon repeatedly strives to rebut arguments that Via never made in the first place. He insists, without supplying any proof, that the love of David for Jonathan wasn't physical. He detects homosexual violence in the obscure passage of Genesis where Ham "looks on" Noah's drunken naked body. And with a comic irony to which he himself is oblivious, Gagnon lists "false" analogies used by liberals to bolster their case for ending Bible-based homophobia: slavery, misogyny, and exclusion of women from ministry (he might have added polygamy) all come with a biblical stamp of approval, yet are now deplored; so why not reverse the ban on gays (or, as Gagnon would say, "pro homosex advocates")? Gagnon finds such thinking flawed ("Scripture nowhere expresses a vested interest in preserving slavery," etc.), but the parallels, once suggested, seem irresistible. And what about the stunning positive reevaluation of "unclean" eunuchs in Isaiah 56.3-5? (Gagnon doesn't mention it.)

So, Gagnon's case is rock-solid: yes, the Bible disapproves of homosexuality. But we already knew that; and hearing it solemnly repeated to the accompaniment of trumpets and timpani doesn't take us very far. Whatever the ultimate dogmatic truth here, Via's conciliatory thesis that "biblical themes" and "extra-biblical horizons" trump apparently hard-and-fast biblical rules looks much more humane and sounds much more persuasive than Gagnon's pious ferocity. Being bibelfest is not enough.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Heinegg, Peter
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:Whispers.
Next Article:Jesus in America: A History.

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