Disclaimer: I have not yet read Matthew Vines’ book.
I have, however, just finished reading Christopher Yuan’s review of it over at Christianity Today. Here are some of my thoughts:
Yuan asserts that Vines uses his own experiences to interpret Scripture. And he warns against this. He also states that Vines bases his arguments on scholarship produced mainly by gay Christian academics, which he then declares as “biased”.
Surely he sees that this could also be applied in reverse? That straight Christians for centuries have been interpreting the Bi ble according to their own subjective experiences; and that much of the “orthodox” Christian view of Scripture is based on scholarship produced by straight Christian academics, and therefore is as equally biased in the opposite direction? Or at least potentially so.
And just as there are a minority of straight Christians who hold to Vines’ view, so there are some gay Christians who hold to Yuan’s?
As an aside, I’d note also, that not all the scholars that would agree with much of Vines’ thesis are gay – in fact one of the biggest names in scholarship on ancient gender and sexuality, who will remain nameless to preserve my own anonymity, I recently met the other day in person, along with his lovely wife.
Secondly, if I hear the whole “our identity should not be placed in anything (such as our sexuality, gender, or race) other than Jesus Christ” one more time, I’m going to pull all my hair ou t! For fuck sake’s people, no gay Christian that I know – and I know quite a few – has ever said to me that their being gay trumps their being Christian. The terms are not mutually exclusive. In the same way that I can be a man and be a Christian, or be white and be a Christian, so I can also be gay and be a Christian. Please, for the sake of everybody’s sanity, stop bringing up this identity nonsense.
Thirdly, why is it that we can’t hold a high view of Scripture and also believe that God doesn’t put everything he knows in it, but condescends his omniscience to the time, cultures, and weaknesses of the authors whom he chose to write the different parts of Scripture? I mean we’re all happy to see their different styles and approaches elsewhere – no one expects an Old Testament author to have the same knowledge or style etc. as a New Testament author, for example; or think even of the differences in the gospel accounts. And besides, I’m pretty sure God knows how to build and fly a spaceship, but he didn’t seem to impart that knowledge to Paul. But, more seriously, he also – I presume – thought slavery was a bad idea, but he let Paul go on assuming that it was just a necessary part of society – along with everyone else in the Roman Empire. The authors can be fixed in their various times and places without compromising God’s perfect revelation – and our holding of a high view of Scripture.
Gabriel Blanchard’s recent piece raises a number of interesting questions for me. However, I guess that because we don’t have some of the same underlying assumptions, I cannot fully agree with it at all points. Anyway, I’ll jot down some of my questions and queries here in an attempt to try and understand them myself.
Firstly, the natural law argument has never convinced me of anything – I think, typically, it’s a more Catholic idea, and perhaps that’s why it doesn’t resonate with me. Clearly, a narrowly defined, utilitarian, and teleological approach to sex organs just doesn&rsqu o;t do justice to what sex means (something I think Blanchard himself is hinting at in the piece, hence his appeal to non-material factors). As an aside, my belief is that “nature” is culturally conditioned. Also, by stating that sex organs are solely for the purpose of reproduction belies even their own utilitarian functions, and is a somewhat limited view of biology.
The next point it raises for me is the question of the gender of one’s soul. Does a soul even have a gender? Blanchard is quick to move to the point that a masculine soul doesn’t fit with another masculine soul, but this would, it seems to me, fly in the face of what some people have recently been saying about ancient views of friendship even – that it is the joining of two souls; between members of the same sex. But it also makes the assumption that the soul has a gender in the first place – now I’m on more shaky ground, as I know in the differing Hellenistic schools ther e are differing views of the soul, its gender, its very existence, etc. but it is interesting to note that you do occasionally in literary and historical texts get authors speaking about women with manly spirits/souls (e.g. Lucretia’s virilis animus) – what exactly is in view here, I’m not quite sure.
But then I also think of cases of intersex individuals – what gender is their soul?
“Monogamous, lifelong same-sex relationships were known in the ancient world as well as in the modern—there is plenty of evidence, despite what people sometimes say”.
Such was the claim made by N. T. Wright in a recent interview with Jonathan Merritt. All I can say is that this is news to me! I’d really love it if Wright could provide me with some examples – because, by his claim, there is “plenty of evidence”. You see, I’ve been looking for examples for a number of years now, and I can’t really seem to find any concrete ones. Yes, once or twice I’ve come across the suggestion, or possibility of one – usually a literary creation – in an ancient text, but I fear that Wright is being a bit disingenuous and overreaching in his claims, in order to present his predetermined conclusions on a more solid foundation than they actually possess.
But then maybe I’m reading him wrongly, maybe this “abundance” of evidence only applies to the “modern” world?
But this is the wrong analogy. Suffering, such as a physical disability, is not something for which the Bible holds us morally responsible. But Scripture regards internal temptations to sin as categorically different from blameless suffering. Within a non-affirming framework, same-sex desire should be viewed no differently than lust or anger: a temptation to sin that we should not only resist, but for which we also must repent. As James writes, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
So within a non-affirming framework, same-sex desire is not merely a sign that “the world is not right.” It is also a sign that one’s own heart and mind are not right. Like any other desire for sin, it is a symptom of a heart in rebellion against God. Now, it’s true that all of our hearts are in one way or another in rebellion against God, and certainly, a perfect life is not a prerequisite for being a faithful Christian. But as we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives to regenerate and redeem us, the fruit of genuine faith should involve at least some change in our sinful desires. Consequently, within a non-affirming framework, while experiencing same-sex attraction is itself no worse than experiencing impulses toward greed, anger, or adultery, experiencing persistent and exclusive same-sex attraction for a lifetime should call into question whether one has truly surrendered one’s heart to God. Certainly, a Christian who is always angry with his brothers and sisters has a deeper heart problem that he needs to address: perhaps pride, self-seeking, or a failure to love his neighbor as himself. Likewise, within a non-affirming framework, a Christian who always experiences same-sex attraction must have a deeper heart problem he needs to resolve. So long as his same-sex attractions persist, his deeper problem of moral alienation from God has not been sufficiently addressed.
Allberry, like many other celibate, non-affirming LGBT Christians, skirts over this issue of moral responsibility for his same-sex attractions. In so doing, he makes non-affirming theology easier to live out, but at the cost of introducing profound theological confusion and inconsistency. Now, of course, I am highly sympathetic to the reasons why Allberry and others have, largely unintentionally, created this theological muddle. The consistent non-affirming response to same-sex attraction I have just outlined is essentially “ex-gay:” not only is acting on being gay wrong, but being gay itself is also wrong, so Christians struggling with “SSA” should constantly seek to eradicate their same-sex attractions and replace them with heterosexual ones.
While that approach is theologically consistent to a certain point, Allberry and others reject it as a favored pastoral prescription for “SSA” Christians for good reason: it doesn’t succeed in eradicating or even significantly diminishing same-sex desire in the vast majority of cases, and it is a recipe for constant torment and crushing shame, the burden of which has proven far too great for many gay Christians to bear. Given the rank failure of the “ex-gay” approach, non-affirming Christians like Allberry have sought to find a middle way, wherein they do not have to feel morally at fault for their persistent same-sex desires but can still regard any and every expression of those desires as sin.
Sympathetic as I am to that attempt at a middle ground, however, it cannot hold from a biblical perspective. The Bible simply does not allow us to consider ourselves blameless for internal temptations to sin, nor does it allow us to view unchanged sinful desires as a sign of a vibrant, faithful Christian life. In that respect, part of the reason Allberry fi nds his non-affirming beliefs livable is because he has already watered down his beliefs in order to make them livable."
The question of “homosexual orientation” that has been raised again in a few posts is worth thinking through in more detail, mainly because, while most academic social historians would agree (and talk amongst themselves) that sexuality is a construct, the fact remains that today, it is popular - especially among young Western gays - to talk about one’s orientation. Basically, while it may be provable that all sexuality, both hetero and homo, is a construct, orientation (or a measure of “essentialism”) has become a useful fiction that has gained some currency in the modern debate for gay rights.
Its worth pointing out also, at this point, in light of my other recent comments, that even non-affirming, proponents of orthodox Christian views, such as Richard B. Hays, believe “sexual orientation” to not have had any traction in the ancient world. In his chapter on homosexuality in The Moral Vision of the N ew Testament (1997), Hay’s writes, “In any case, neither Paul nor anyone else in antiquity had a concept of ‘sexual orientation’” (p. 388).
Now, that is the position with which I am generally sympathetic - and one that I would certainly argue for in an academic arena, however, intellectual exploration and inquiry is only possible if we occasionally try to think differently to how we would normally think.
What if John Boswell were right? What if the essentialist view in fact did have some traction? What would that mean for Christian sexual ethics?
[I shouldn’t be too unfair to Boswell. In a number of places within his publications - which I don’t have the energy now to look up - he did in fact state and demonstrate that he was not a hard-lined essentialist].
One thing, surely, would be that my experience of homosexuality would be accounted for. For I, as with many gay men, find myself in the position of being , from as early as I can remember, permanently attracted to members of my own sex (in ways, I might add, more than just sexually).
So what of an ontology of homosexuality?
P. S. You didn’t think I was going to provide answers, did you? Nope, I’m afraid only questions tonight.
P. P. S. Also, isn’t it funny how a few years ago all the conservative Christians were arguing that there was no such thing as orientation, and now, all of a sudden, they’re all arguing that there is - and that Paul’s condemning it?
P. P. P. S. I raised some of these issues .
A number of people have responded to various points I raised yesterday in response to a recent piece over at Spiritual Friendship. I will respond, briefly, to some of them.
First up, a commentator on the SF blog of yesterday, going by the handle “happiness1535”, directed me to a blog post by Preston Sprinkle, in which he review’s Matthew Vines’ recent book. The commentator appealed to this post as evidence in support of an ancient understanding akin to our modern notion of sexual orientation (contra, what they called, the “Vines-Brownson thesis”). As an aside, it is worth noting here that I’ve not engaged at all with Preston Sprinkle’s blog posts on the topic of homosexuality except for this single post; I have heard, via some friends, that in general his engagement with the topic has been quite good, so here I confine my judgements only to this post.
In it Sprinkle makes the claim that contra Vines the ancient did in fact have a notion of sexual orientation and he goes on to cite a number of examples mainly drawn, I assume, from Bernadette Brooten’s work on the topic, from her monograph, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism ( Chicago, 1996). This assertion has been contested by a number of reviewers of the work, and in fact by David Halperin himself, so instead of rehashing their arguments, I’ll simply link to his comments here, and hope that they will at least go some way in putting those claims to rest.
Second, in response to , :
I’m always made uncomfortable by questions of the type “Did Paul have in mind the kind of committed, self-giving, etc. relationships we see today?” because it seems to me to exclude a priori the notion that the Scriptures are inspired. Did Paul of Tarsus the historical man know about same-sex relationships as they would exist in the 21st century West? No, probably not (although I think we can reliably guess as to what he would make of them). But did the Holy Spirit? Axiomatically yes. The reason we care about what Paul wrote is not because Paul, as a person, was some infallible oracle; it is because we believe as Christians that his writings were inspired and, therefore, authoritative. What did Isaiah have in mind when he prophesied “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son”? If he did not have in mind (and surely he did not) Mary and Jesus of Nazareth, does it mean it cannot be a prophecy of Jesus? Whatever Paul “had in mind”, we have to look at what the text says and take that as authoritative. Don’t get me wrong: because God works through human freedom, in order to understand the text we have to understand Paul, and his historical context, and so on. But we take Paul’s letters to be authoritative because believe that through them and through Paul it is the Holy Spirit who is speaking. And the Holy Spirit knows about the 21st century. Now, we can all agree on this and still think that arsenokoitai does not refer to current committed monogamous same-sex relationships, but I do think the “Did Paul have in mind…?” question is asked uncritically when in fact it bears some, in my view, very problematic assumptions.
In response to this I will say only the following: Given the doctrine of inspiration, did the Holy Spirit know today’s lotto numbers in the First Century during the time Paul was writing? Well, yes of course he did! That doesn’t mean that Paul knew them. Surely we have to assume that the Holy Spirit/God/Jesus in some way condescended their revelation to the times, places, and cultures of those they chose to inspire to write the Scriptures? And by trying to understand, for example, Paul in an historically and linguistically sensitive way by no means diminished our belief in Scripture’s inspiration, nor God’s omniscience.
Finally, to some of the great points that Ron raised today over at SF in response to my response of yesterday. Firstly Ron articulates, admirably succinctly, what has become standard orthodox Christian belief regarding the Bible’s teaching on same-sex sexual acts.
In response to that, I’d just like to raise a few cautious notes. Firstly, he claims, with appeals to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, that Jewish Law prohibited sex between two men. In fact, if we’re being very careful, I think we’d need to be rather more guarded in what we claim those verses are prohibiting. Daniel Boyarin, among others, has demonstrated that what those verse prohibit are anal intercourse between men on the basis of gender deviance – and are not a universal condemnation of all sex acts between people of the same-sex, nor of the “orientation” of homosexuality itself (see his remarkably good article, “Are there any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’”? Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1995), 333-355; cf. also Saul M. Olyan, “‘And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman’: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1994), 179-206).
Secondly, we go back to the vexed term – arsenokoites – in Corinthians and 1 Timothy. Ron’s contention, based on Paul’s (probable) coinage of the term in light of the Leviticus passages (and presumably the Greek translation of LXX), is that Paul’s very creation of a neologism signals his intention in those passages to condemn all same-sex sexual acts between men. Again, as I did yesterday, I’ll appeal to Dale B. Martin’s discussion of the term, which, convinces me at least that, that making such a claim is saying more than our knowledge actually allows (see ‘Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences’ in R. L. Brawley (ed.), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture  117-36). He says,
The only reliable way to define a word is to analyze its use in as many different contexts as possible. The word “means” according to its function, according to how particular people use the word in different situations. Unfortunately, we have very few uses of arsenokoit& eacute;s and most of those occur in simple lists of sins, mostly in quotations of the biblical lists, thus providing no explanation of the term, no independent usage, and few clues from the context about the term’s meaning. But having analyzed these different occurrences of arsenokoités, especially cases where it occurs in vice lists that do not merely quote 1 Cor. 6:9 or 1 Tim. 1:10, I am convinced that we can make some guarded statements.
As others have noted, vice lists are sometimes organized into groups of “sins,” with sins put together that have something to do with one another. First are listed, say, vices of sex, then those of violence, then others related to economics or injustice. Analyzing the occurrence of arsenokoités in different vice lists, I noticed that it often occurs not where we would expect to find reference to homosexual intercourse — that is, along with adultery (moicheia) and prostitution or illicit sex (porneia) &mda sh; but among vices related to economic injustice or exploitation. Though this provides little to go on, I suggest that a careful analysis of the actual context of the use of arsenokoités, free from linguistically specious arguments from etymology or the word’s separate parts, indicates that arsenokoités had a more specific meaning in Greco-Roman culture than homosexual penetration in general, a meaning that is now lost to us. It seems to have referred to some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily homosexual sex.
One of the earliest appearances of the word (here the verb) occurs in Sibylline Oracle 2.70-77.10 Although the date of this section of the oracle — indeed, of the finished oracle itself — is uncertain, there is no reason to take the text as dependent on Paul or the New Testament. The oracle probably provides an independent use of the word. It occurs in a section listing acts of economic injustice and e xploitation; in fact, the editors of the English translation here quoted (J. J. Collins) label the section “On Justice”:
(Never accept in your hand a gift which derives from unjust deeds.)
Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed (to generations of generations, to the scattering of life.
Do not arsenokoitein, do not betray information, do not murder.) Give one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress a poor man. Take heed of your speech. Keep a secret matter in your heart. (Make provision for orphans and widows and those in need.)
Do not be willing to act unjustly, and therefore do not give leave to one who is acting unjustly.
The term occurs in a list of what we might call “economic sins,” actions related to economic injustice or exploitation: accepting gifts from unjust sources, extortion, withholding wages, oppressing the poor. “Stealing seeds” probably refers to the hoarding of grain; in the ancient world, the poor often accused the rich of withholding grain from the market as a price-fixing strategy. I would argue that other sins here mentioned that have no necessary economic connotation probably do here. Thus the references to speech and keeping secrets may connote the use of information for unjust gain, like fraud, extortion, or blackmail; and “murder” here may hint at motivations of economic gain, recalling, for example, the murder of Naboth by Jezebel (1 Kings 21). In any case, no other term in the section refers to sex. Indeed, nothing in the context (including what precedes and follows this quotation) suggests that a sexual action in general is being referred to at all. If we take the context as indicating the meaning, we should assume that arsenokoitein here refers to some kind of economic exploitation, probably by sexual means: rape or sex by economic coercion, prostitution, pimping, or something of the sort.
This suggestion is supported by the fact th at a list of sexual sins does occur elsewhere in the same oracle, which is where we might expect to find a reference to male-male sex (2.279-82). The author condemns “defiling the flesh by licentiousness,” “undoing the girdle of virginity by secret intercourse,” abortion, and exposure of infants (the last two often taken to be means of birth control used by people enslaved to sex; such people proved by these deeds that they had sex purely out of lust rather than from the “nobler” motive of procreation). If the prohibition against arsenokoitein was taken to condemn homosexual intercourse in general, one would expect the term to occur here, rather than among the terms condemning unjust exploitation.
A similar case exists in the second-century Acts of John. “John” is condemning the rich men of Ephesus:
You who delight in gold and ivory and jewels, do you see your loved (possessions) when night comes on? And you who give way to s oft clothing, and then depart from life, will these things be useful in the place where you are going? And let the murderer know that the punishment he has earned awaits him in double measure after he leaves this (world). So also the poisoner, sorcerer, robber, swindler, and arsenokoités, the thief and all of this band. …So, men of Ephesus, change your ways; for you know this also, that kings, rulers, tyrants, boasters, and warmongers shall go naked from this world and come to eternal misery and torment (section 36; Hennecke-Schneemelcher).
Here also, arsenokoités occurs in a list of sins related to economics and injustice: delighting in wealth, robbery, swindling, thievery. Note also the list of those who prosper by their power over others: kings, rulers, tyrants, boasters, warmongers. The emphasis throughout the section is on power, money, and unjust exploitation, not sex.
As was the case in the Sybilline Oracle, “John” does denounce sexu al sins elsewhere in the text, and the word arsenokoités is absent (section 35). If this author took arsenokoités to refer generally to homosexual sex or penetration, we would expect him to mention it among the other sexual sins, rather than in the section condemning the rich for economic exploitation. Thus, here also arsenokoités probably refers to some kind of economic exploitation, again perhaps by sexual means.
Another second-century Christian document offers corroborative, though a bit less obvious, evidence. Theophilus of Antioch, in his treatise addressed To Autolychus, provides a vice list.13 First come the two sexual sins of adultery and fornication or prostitution.14 Next come three economic sinners: thief, plunderer, and defrauder (or robber). Sixth is arsenokoités. The next group includes savagery, abusive behavior, wrath, and jealousy or envy, all of which the ancients would recognize as sins of “passion”: that is, uncontrolle d emotion. Next come instances of pride: boastfulness and conceit or haughtiness. I take the next term, pléktés (“striker”) to denote someone who thinks he can go around hitting people as if they were his slaves. Then occurs the term “avaricious,” or “greedy.” Finally are two phrases related to the family: disobedience to parents and selling one’s children. These last three may all have been taken as belonging to the category of greed, surely in the case of selling one’s children and also perhaps in the reference to parents, if the particular action is understood as a refusal to support one’s parents in their old age.
Arsenokoités is separated from the sexual sins by three terms that refer to economic injustice. Would this be the case if it was understood as a condemnation of simple male homosexual intercourse? Furthermore, as Robert Grant notes, Theophilus takes these terms, with the exceptions of phthon eros and hyperoptes, from vice lists in the Pauline corpus. Therefore, it is notable that Theophilus places arsenokoités in a different position. Grouping it with economic sins, I suggest, reflects his understanding of the social role to which it referred and his rhetorical goal of grouping the vices by category.
Later in the same work, arsenokoitia occurs in another list: again adultery and porneia come first, then arsenokoitia, followed by greed (pleonexia) and athemitoi eidololatreia, referring to idolatry. This list is not very helpful, since the term could here be taken as a sexual vice, grouped with the two preceding terms, or as an economic vice, grouped with the following. One possible explanation is that it is both: it is economic exploitation by some sexual means.
There are two texts in which one might reasonably take arsenokoitia as referring to homosexual sex. In each case, however, I believe a careful reading encourages more cautious conclusions. The fi rst occurs in Hippolytus’s Refutation of All Heresies 5.26.22-23. Hippolytus claims to be passing along a Gnostic myth about the seduction of Eve and Adam by the evil being Naas. Naas came to Eve, deceived her, and committed adultery with her. He then came to Adam and “possessed him like a boy (slave).” This is how, according to the myth, moicheia (adultery) and arsenokoitia came into the world. Since arsenokoitia is in parallel construction with moicheia, it would be reasonable for the reader to take its reference as simply homosexual penetration. We should note, nonetheless, the element of deception and fraud here. The language about Naas’s treatment of Adam, indeed, which could be read “taking or possessing him like a slave,” could connote exploitation and even rape. Certainly the context allows a reading of arsenokoitia to imply the unjust and coercive use of another person sexually.
The second debatable use of the term occurs in a quotati on of the second — to third-century writer Bardesanes found in Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel. Bardesanes is remarking that the peoples who live east of the Euphrates River take the charge of arsenokoitia very seriously: “From the Euphrates River all the way to the ocean in the East, a man who is derided as a murderer or thief will not be the least bit angry; but if he is derided as an arsenokoités, he will defend himself to the point of murder. [Among the Greeks, wise men who have lovers (eromenous echontes, males whom they love; "favorites”) are not condemned]“ (my trans.).
On the surface, this passage appears to equate "being an arsenokoités” and “having a favorite.” But there are complicating factors. In the first place, the text seems to have gone through some corruption in transmission. The sentence I have given in brackets does not occur in the Syriac fragments of Bardesanes’s text or in the other ancient authors who seem to know Bardesanes’s account, leading Jacoby, the editor of the Greek fragments, to suggest that Eusebius himself supplied the comment. Thus Eusebius’s text would provide evidence only that he or other late-Christian scribes wanted to equate arsenokoités with “having a favorite.” This fourth-century usage would therefore be less important for ascertaining an earlier, perhaps more specific, meaning of the term. Furthermore, we should note that the phrases occur in Eusebius in a parallel construction, but this does not necessarily mean that the second phrase is a defining gloss on the first. The point could be that “wise men” among the Greeks are not condemned for an action that is similar to one found offensive to Easterners. The equation of the terms is not absolutely clear. I offer these thoughts only as speculations meant to urge caution, but caution is justified. Especially since this text from Eusebius is the only one that might reasonably be taken to equate arsenokoitia with simple homosexual penetration, we should be wary of saying that it always does.
I should be clear about my claims here. I am not claiming to know what arsenokoités meant, I am claiming that no one knows what it meant. I freely admit that it could have been taken as a reference to homosexual sex. But given the scarcity of evidence and the several contexts just analyzed, in which arsenokoités appears to refer to some particular kind of economic exploitation, no one should be allowed to get away with claiming that “of course” the term refers to “men who have sex with other men.” It is certainly possible, I think probable, that arsenokoités referred to a particular role of exploiting others by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily by homosexual sex. The more important question, I think, is why some scholars are certain it refers to simple male-male sex in the face of evid ence to the contrary. Perhaps ideology has been more important than philology.
Ron’s final point, in his neat summation of his beliefs, is to appeal to the standard rhetoric of “contrary to nature” in relation to Romans 1. Here, however, I think my point about Judeo-Christian rhetoric against pagan sexual “excess” and behaviour is important, given the larger movement of Paul’s argument in the early chapters of the epistle. What I think is partly in view here is not so much same-sex sexual acts, per se, but gender deviant behaviour (Boyarin’s thesis, cited above, would also provide support for this as a centrally “Jewish” concern for morality). This point is made most articulately by Diana M. Swancutt in her article, “‘The Disease of Effemination’: The Charge of Effeminacy and the Verdict of God (Romans 1:18-2:16)” in Stephen D. Moore and Janice Capel Anderson (eds.), New Testament Masc ulinities (Leiden, 2003), 193-233. I’m afraid because this piece is already much longer than I anticipated, I’m going to simply cite it and not outline her main arguments.
In relation to this appeal to acts “contrary to nature” (para phusin), it should be noted here also, as an aside, that 1 Corinthians 11:13-15 also claims that for a man to have long hair is para phusin – so while the idea might prohibit culturally specific gender-deviant behaviour, there would need to be a lot more said for it to be considered as a universally valid judgement. I guess here, I’m inclined to agree with John J. Winker, when he advises readers of ancient texts that when the see “nature” they should rather read “culture” (The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece [New York, 1990], 17).
Quick responses to some of the other points:
I don’t have a problem with age difference – in fact, I’m pretty sure you would have found men up to 20, 30, even 40 years older than their wives in the house-churches of the early Christian church; and often, by modern Western standards, the females involved often would have undoubtedly been teenagers (or even younger, if some of the Roman material is anything to judge by!) – nowhere in my piece did I single out age – where I indicated unequal status, I meant just that, status – i.e. non-citizens/foreigners; slaves etc. This is partly why – as Ron points out – the Romans viewed pederasty negatively; whereas in Greek culture it was at least acceptable to penetrate a citizen-boy, at Rome, any penetration of a citizen-boy would have been condemned out right under the law of stuprum. Status was important.
In this way, Paul’s condemnation of same-sex sex – if it is that at all (and I’m not wholly convinced) – would have in fact bee n “good news” to slaves or other sexually exploited groups. I seem to miss why Ron accuses me of trying to make Paul plausible for a 21st century audience – it definitely wasn’t my intention – in fact, quite the opposite.
I may comment more in the near future, but for now, I have run out of steam – my fingers are sore from typing, and I’m starting to feel a little brain-dead, as I’m sure you are too (if you’ve read this far!).
As Rowan Williams has said, and what I hope to suggest by this post (and I hope that I did so in yesterday’s one as well), is that “the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures”.
Sometimes I just want to scream,
“For the love of God, people, just read Foucault!”
and then run from the room.
I’m probably going to get push-back from the more liberal readers on this one…
I recently watched a talk that Wesley Hill gave in which he presented his own narrative of finding himself to be both gay and Christian and how he responded to that (the talk as a whole is well worth your time). What he sought to do in the talk was explain his own story within the larger narratives presented to him: on the one hand, one that could in short-hand be called the ex-gay/reparative therapy narrative, and on the other, one that presents being gay as being created that way by God – a narrative that Wesley says places much emphasis on the Creation aspect of God’s larger narrative – on the affirming of being gay as a gift from God as something to be celebrated – but perhaps not enough on the other elements: Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. In this, I think, Wes is spot on. Too much gay-affirming theology doesn’t think enough about what the Fall means for sexuality, and instead errs on the side of a kind of triumphalism that, personally, I don’t really see anywhere in Scripture.
But one thing does stick in my mind, though, that suggests the possibility of being able to reconcile these aspects of the narrative, and that is something that Justin Lee, of the Gay Christian Network, once said.
In his case for a Side A position, Justin says the following:
God designed our ears and mouths so we coul d communicate — we listen, and we talk. Every culture on earth communicates this way. But some people are deaf, maybe because they were born that way or maybe because of something that happened to them. Either way, they can’t communicate the way the rest of us do, so they have to improvise with what they have. Most deaf people today use sign language to communicate, and even though that’s not what our hands were designed for, it gets the job done. None of us would call that “sinful.”
I wonder about that sometimes, and wonder if being gay isn’t something akin to being deaf. [More liberal gay readers, please don’t get upset by this, I mean no disrespect – to you or to deaf people, I’m just trying to think through things and have inadequate language… so bear with me].
But what if, perhaps, yes, being gay wasn’t God’s ideal intention for his creation – but for whatever reason, in a post -Fall world, he allowed us to be that way (and I really do think he’s the originator/creator/allow-er etc. of gays to be that way, at least in the same way that he allows straights to be that way – or however theologically you want to phrase that!). Acknowledging this would mean that we do in part reconcile our status with the Fall. Perhaps also gay marriage is a way of redeeming a less-than-adequate state of affairs – and in so doing, something redeemed – just as, yes, we admit that a hand in and of itself wasn’t created to communicate – our mouths were meant for that – but we can still use our hands in communication, and yes, while that isn’t ideal, it isn’t necessarily considered sinful.
Some thoughts on Ron Belgau’s ‘Pederasty and Arsenokoitai’ over at Spiritual Friendship
Thinking – and writing – about ancient views of sexuality is a notoriously difficult task. Not in the least because our evidence for making definite claims about what the ancients thought, believed, or actually did in the privacy of their own homes is sketchy at best. [As an aside, it is worth noting, even, that for many academics, the very application of the term ‘sexuality’ to the ancient world is problematic in the extreme, see e.g. David Halperin, John. J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin (eds.), Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Princeton, 1990).] And so I have sympathy for someone like Ron who is attempting to succinctly respond to some of the claims he sees in response to an orthodox Christian view of sexuality. His recent piece, however, does oversimplify some of the issues involved – and it is worth clarifying some of them. [Again, another aside, this is only a partial response; I have things to do – and so, although, I’d love to spend all day writing a monograph on the topic – and believe me, it deserves several in my opinion – I just do not have the leisure to do so here].
The first point I’d like to raise is that I – contrary to Ron – do think that Paul was not thinking about monogamous, adult relationships. While he may certainly have had much more than simply pederasty in view, it is fairly easy to demonstrate that he could not have conceived of the kinds of relationships that are suggested by mode rn proponents of gay marriage – which I take, here, to be, in the words of Kim Fabricius, “relationships that are responsible, loving, and faithful, not promiscuous, exploitative, or episodic”.
One way to approach this is by noting the lack of adequate lexical terms that can be used interchangeably between the cultures of Greece and Rome [and, it is worth saying here also, the remarkable differences between them even; for example ancient views of pederasty in Greece are something quite different from views of pederasty at Rome, see Craig A. Willians, Roman Homosexuality (Cambridge, 2010)] and the modern Western world. Take therefore, for example, this: a man who penetrates a boy in the rear is a “homosexual”; in ancient Greek or Latin, a cinaedus is a “homosexual”; therefore a man who desires to penetrate a boy in the rear is a cinaedus. Clearly not! Or again, a man who performs cunnilingus is a cinaedus; a cinaedus is a “homosexual”, therefore a man who performs cunnilingus is a “homosexual” – again, clearly not! As Holt N. Parker has pointed out, “by the fifth time we make the qualification, ‘The Greeks hated homosexuality but only the passive form,’ or ‘The Greeks mocked a man for being a homosexual, that is, a passive homosexual,’ it ought to become clear that we not talking about homosexuality but about passivity” (‘The Myth of the Heterosexual: Anthropology and Sexuality for Classicists’ Arethusa  320).
Holt N. Parker (2001, p. 321) provides a useful example:
I can illu strate this point, and some of the common confusions about it, with an example from English. English has no lexical item, no word, for “device run by electricity.” “Electronics” or other terms will not do since these include TVs, computers, etc., but ignore electric knives and electric trains. That is, we do not have a basic emic category that lumps together TVs and computers with electric stoves (but not gas ones), electric staplers (but not mechanical ones), and battery-operated clapping monkeys (but not wind-up ones).
Now, obviously, we can formulate the category; we can create nonce words or describe the category (we just did). However, the point is that the mere fact that something is run by electricity is just not very important to us. That is because it involves no social consequences. Electric stoves will be found next to gas stoves in an appliance store, electric staplers next to old-fashioned staplers in an office supply store, and battery-power ed monkeys next to their wind-up cousins in a toy store. It is false to say that we actually have this category, but merely fail to have a word for it. Quite the opposite: we fail to have a word for it because we don’t use it. By way of demonstration, it is extremely unlikely that among the objects that floated through your mind when you read the phrase “device run by electricity” was your telephone, yet it obviously counts. So does your car, now that you think about it, but you didn’t.
There are two other major clues that can help determine if a particular notion is a primary category. One, an emic category is defined by its opposite. Two, an emic category implies ontology, that is, it “exists” at some level that a merely etic notion does not. I can make this clearer again using our own sexual categories. For our culture, hetero is the opposite of homo. My hometown has made it legal for heteros to discriminate against homos. This minimal pair may literally make the difference between life and death. Homo and hetero denote real categories, real people. Thus if a friend tells me he is gay, and I later find out he has been sleeping with a woman, I would be at the least surprised. I would wonder what happened to change him. If a friend tells me he is straight, and I later find out he has been sleeping with a man, I may even feel betrayed. How could he have lied to me about what he really was?
But for etic categories, take the example of someone calling himself a “leg-man” or a “breast-man.” These are concepts within our culture–there are magazines and web sites devoted to these tastes–but they do not exist at the same ontological level as homo and hetero. “Leg-man” is not the opposite of “breast-man.” If a friend tells me that he is a “leg-man,” and I later find out he has been admiring a woman’s breasts, I would not wonder why he had changed, how he had hidden what he really was. I probably would not even notice. Similarly for the ancient world: when Callignotos switches from a girl to a boy, no one, except poor Ionis herself, cares (Callimachus AP 5.6). When Horace switches from a girl to a boy and then to either a girl or boy, no one cares (Epod. 11). Callignotos has not changed his sexual category; Horace has not changed what he really was.
The next point that I’d like to raise is Ron’s rather tendentious claim that “There are exceptions [to pederasty]—Plato’s Symposium discusses committed, lifelong same-sex relationships”. While I would agree with him that there are exceptions to pederasty, that Plato’s discourse on Love provides examples of “committed, lifelong same-sex relationships” is something that I’m not sure scholars of Greek sexuality would agree with. This is where, as I suggested at the beginning of thi s piece, the evidence is sparse. Ron may be thinking of the relationship between Agathon and Pausanias at this point, but the fact is that their relationship is based on the typically hierarchical model – as the Greek terms for it make clear. So while theirs may be one of the most unique cases in all of Greek literature in that the relationship has continued into adulthood, it is still based on the active/passive dichotomy, and hence, if Pausanius, for example, took up with a woman, his friends would have assumed merely that he had changed his sexual tastes but not his sexual categories. He would have still been considered a “normal” Greek man. His friends may have been surprised however if he announced that he desired, instead, Agathon to penetrate him – for then he would have completely changed his sexual category (in their eyes).
If Ron is thinking instead of Aristophanes’ myth here, – as many classical scholars have demonstrated &nda sh; trying to map on hetero- or homosexuality onto the story just does not square with the language itself (see e.g. David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love  18-21; M. Lambert and H. Szesnat, ‘Greek Homosexuality: Whither the Debate?’ Akroterion 39  46-63).
My final point is on the Greek term arsenokoites, and our abilities to make any generalised statements concerning its meaning. One mistake is to assume that a word’s etymology provides its necessary meaning. Rather, as most lexicographers will tell you, etymology tells a person a word’s history. While the word may be a Pauline coinage based on the translation of Leviticus in LXX (as is demonstrable from comparison with Philo), both its lack of usage outside of the Pauline corpus and associated texts, and its contradictory usage in other and later texts, suggests that its meaning might not be as simple as we think. As D ale B. Martin (‘Arsenokoitês and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences’ in R. L. Brawley (ed.), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture  117-36) has shown, its usage in the vice lists of Corinthians and 1 Timothy seem to indicate an association with economic injustice or exploitation (like, e.g. prostitution).
My general sense – although I do admit, it is a work in progress – is that what the Judeo-Christian tradition is condemning when it speaks negatively of sexual acts between men are, demonstrable in most cases, acts that are based on exploitation, unequal status, or excess – all key markers (esp. in moral rhetoric or invective) of the “exotic” sexual practices of those “ungodly pagans” from the West, namely, the Greeks and Romans. In contrast to these, Judeo-Christian views on the appropriate, morally right, or godly, place for sex, was in the confines of a committed, self-giving, chos en relationship – a relationship based on grace, and not biology – that mimicked their Creator’s relationship with his creatures.
[Final side note: I’ve spent too much time this morning putting these thoughts down on paper, when, as I said, I have other pressing things to do; and so while they’re incomplete, and so that I don’t have to actually respond to them, I direct you to the for further (and fuller) exploration of these points and more].
[Oh, and be gracious if there’s a typo or something – I wrote this really quickly, and haven’t bothered to proof-read it].
The Gender of Activity
A friend posted the picture above on Facebook recently with the following comment:
“Gender equality - we’re getting there. Babies are as much a man’s responsibility as they are a woman’s…”
All I can say is, amen!
Another friend the other day made the following comment in relation to HBO’s Looking, a TV series that follows the lives of 3 gay men in San Francisco [I’ve modified the comments slightly for the sake of anonymity]:
“TV where gay guys are not a) a girl’s-best-friend b) dying c) employed in the fashion industry d) Insufferable / Sean Hayes”
And yet I also see and hear of churches’ planned men’s hiking weekends away and ladies’ “craft days”. To be honest, I’m all for th e occasional gender-specific activity, and I even support the idea that, *generally* speaking, some activities are better suited to a specific gender, *and* even that there is gender-difference (what exactly, I’d like to hash out in more detail than a Tumblr post allows however).
But surely the ladies would like to go on a hike too some time? I’ve known many women who much prefer it to me and many of my male friends. And also, men doing creative activities surely is a non-issue these days? I mean, .
“I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities – thousands of years’ worth – to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status – this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution."
- Ross Douthat, The Terms of Our Surrender.