Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Dear Reader

I've received several letters from readers of my books.  Few things excite me more than when a reader has read carefully my work and then offered a response.  For an author, it doesn't get much better.  Here's my response to a letter received last week:

Thanks so much for the kind, hand-written note regarding Spirituality according to Paul.  Please forgive my letter in print form; my handwriting is atrociously illegible, especially when compared to your beautiful cursive script.  I blame my poor penmanship on fast-talking professors during my studies at the university and seminary.  But, to be fair, my writing was in pretty bad shape before I started college.


Thanks for picking up a copy and reading the book.  I hope what I wrote is both fair to St. Paul and helpful to the Church.  There’s so much to say about our apostle, and so many excellent minds have devoted much study to unpacking his ideas.  No one, of course, will ever be able to say they’ve offered the last word on Paul.  To say that we shall study his letters until the end of the world is not a statement of resignation but a sincere and promising hope.  There’s still much work to be done.


Thanks also for including notes from your talk about homosexuality and the Bible.  To be sure, this is a complex and sensitive subject.  As a culture, we’ve certainly witnessed a revolution in the way we think and talk about homosexuality.  And, there’s no way a little letter will capture the way I read the Bible, and especially Paul, on this matter.  But, I will say this:  for the most part, I agree with your statement, “There can be no question Paul condemns homosexual acts, but he does not condemn homosexuality as such.”  But, allow me to parse your words a little in light of my reading of the Bible.


Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is a modern construct.  In New Testament times, they only knew of homoeroticism.  No one in Paul’s day would claim a psychological identity “gay” or “straight.”  So, to say that Paul condemns homosexuality in our terms is anachronistic (as your notes seem to point out).  That’s why I like to use (along with other NT scholars) the more descriptive term, homoeroticism.  Paul does condemn homoerotic acts, both man to man and woman to woman.  This is to be expected because as a first-century Jew who’s very concerned about holiness—especially as it applies to the behavior of his converts—Paul wants to present the obedience of the Gentiles to Christ as the ultimate proof of his apostleship.


Now, to claim that Paul would therefore affirm homosexual (a modern construct) relationships or unions (whether civil or religious) is purely speculative.  I think the burden of proof falls on anyone who would argue that Paul would support gay marriage.  Just because a more accurate reading of Paul’s arguments—based on the culture of his time—helps us see the difference between homoeroticism and homosexuality, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Paul would support gay marriage.  The most that could be said is that he would oppose it because he believed homoerotic acts did not glorify God (and gay couples certainly have every opportunity to engage in homoerotic behavior).  And, the least that could be said is that we don’t know whether Paul would support gay marriage.  One would have to weigh the arguments—plotting a trajectory from Paul’s letters to our context—to see whether we’re being fair to Paul (and especially) the full revelation of God’s Word.


Of course, some don’t feel obliged to read Paul carefully; claiming to be “red-letter” Christians they base their support of gay relationships on the silence of Jesus.  But, I’m afraid such an argument from silence is pretty shaky ground.  Besides, Jesus does have much to say about human sexuality and practice that needs to be more carefully considered, for example his teaching about lust, the abuse of divorce, and the importance of “eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom.  I don’t hear many people fretting over what Jesus meant about becoming a eunuch.  Why not?  Sometimes it feels like the “marquis” issues of our day dominate our reading of the Bible.  Our selective reading of the Scriptures has more to do with what we’re trying to prove.  I would like to turn the hermeneutic around.  Perhaps a more careful reading of the Bible should inform the issues we choose to discuss?  Is that na├»ve?  Maybe so.


I hope my little note helps explain what I wrote in the conclusion of the book, where I speculate on what St. Paul would say to us today.  It was offered as a “thought experiment” and not a definitive word.  But, you certainly read my comments correctly.  I don’t believe Paul would come down hard one way or the other on the politics of gay marriage.  I do, however, believe that Paul would continue to condemn homoerotic behavior and would have much to teach us about sacrificing ourselves for one another—even Christians who are attracted to the same sex.


Thanks again for your kind remarks about the book.

Blessings to you, my brother.