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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Confessions Part 1

Hey folks. As a heads up, I have started a series Confessions of an Amoral Ethics Teacher over at Pints and Prose, the creative laboratory which grew out of a longstanding writers/thinkers/questioners group. If you are interested in following the series which will autobiographically explore my reaction and rejection of ethical systems. I will keep this post updated as it comes out, and yes, C.S. Lewis will be much referenced and quoted.
For now the Introduction is here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Tim Keller's Anachronism - My review of his review

So Tim Keller recently released a sort of combined review entitled The Bible and same sex relationships: A review article about Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian  and Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation in which he dismisses their overall arguments. I am not especially well acquainted with Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church or his books but I know and love quite a few people who respect him deeply and up till now I have been generally impressed with the quotes and blurbs I have seen attributed to him. I have also seen his teachings generally have a good impact on people’s lives and I don’t think that my disagreement with him on this subject ought to undermine what are (so far as I can tell) the very real good he has brought to the world.

Additionally, while I do not agree with his conclusions, and have some very real concerns about the way he handled Vines and Wilson, I understand Dr. Keller has a strong record of genuinely trying to love LGBT persons. I like that he opens his review with a nod to Wesley Hill who represents, together with several other awesome people, by far the kindest face of non-affirming American Christianity that I am aware of.

However, once he got down into the body of his review, I found Dr. Keller’s reactions fairly deeply problematic. Let me respond to the first three sections now, in order to keep the length of this post manageable, and then offer some closing thoughts:

  • Knowing People Personally.

Keller’s response here is that If Vine’s and Wilson changed their views on the biblical legitimacy of gay sex after getting to know gay Christians, then they probably did have non-biblical positions to begin with because knowing wise gay Christians is not (in Keller’s estimation) a challenge to a conviction that “the bible never forbids homosexuality1”.

The intellectual point represented here is, I think, accurate: There are people who know gay Christians and respectfully disagree with those of them who believe that God does bless gay sex in certain circumstances. However, this is actually very difficult to analyze since Keller fails to provide his own account of a non-affirming theology which is not challenged by the existence of Godly, wise, gay Christians.

  • Consulting Historical Scholarship

In this section Keller suggests that Vines and Wilson have failed to account for contemporary research into the cultural/historical context for gay sex in the 1st Century. He references a few historians and scholars in support of his contention that Vines and Wilson have done bad historical scholarship and then launches into an analysis of the Aristophanes account in Plato’s Symposium as evidence against their claims.

This is probably the section I found the most problematic. The fact of the matter is that Keller is committing the same error he is accusing Vines and Wilson of. In fact, contemporary scholarship is fairly thoroughly divided on the specific question Keller is addressing here (what actually would have been in the minds of 1st century people when they discussed gay sex - pederasty, slave rape, auto castration, and temple prostitution or committed, monogamous relationships). Keller cites the scholars who agree with him and makes an undefended, and frankly unwarranted, claim that they are the “best” scholars on the subject.

Keller’s treatment of the Aristophanes account in Plato’s Symposium is particularly unfortunate as it is first anachronistic (it was written more the 300 years before Paul was born and is at best representative of Greek and not necessarily Roman culture) and also deeply problematic as a source even for Greek culture in the 4th century BCE. Aristophanes famously despised Socrates (Plato’s hero in the Symposium  and in life) and the feeling seems to have been mutual. Since the Symposium was written by Plato, any theories put in the mouth of Aristophanes can, at best, be read as ridiculous to Plato’s audience. So while Aristophanes does present a theory that some people are naturally attracted to their own sex, the best historical analysis of that passage would be that contemporary Greeks didn’t take that idea seriously.

The best part of this section is where Keller suggests that the reader “familiarize themselves with this research”. I recommend the same. But in addition to Loader and Brooten (who are fine scholars) I also recommend Cantarella, Crompton, Cameron, Halperin, Coontz, and Hersch. I would recommend starting with Luis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization. 2

  • Re-categorizing same sex relations

This may be Keller’s weakest section. He spend a great many words trying to counter Vines’ claim, that the church’s view on homosexuality is analogous to its history with slavery and segregation - that the church discovered it had been misinterpreting the bible with respect to slavery and segregation and that it is therefore possible that the church has misinterpreted the bible with respect to homosexuality.  Keller argues that while the church never monolithically supported slavery, it has (until recently) monolithically opposed homosexuality. His response to Wilson’s claim, that the church’s reaction to homosexuality is analogous to its reaction to divorce, is a repeated claim that the church has monolithically opposed homosexuality.

The major problem here is the Keller seems to have forgotten about Church history between Jesus’ birth and the enlightenment. He fails to mention that the Church was effectively monolithic in its support for slavery and condemnation of divorce up till the enlightenment. For Keller’s argument to work here one would have to believe that the enlightenment (rather than Pentecost) marks the “true” beginning of the church.

Furthermore, the claim that the church has monolithically opposed homosexuality is anachronistic since our very concept of homosexuality only dates back to the middle of the 19th century. Prior to that homosexual wasn’t a category the church had, either to oppose or to accept. Certainly the vast majority of the church has historically opposed gay sex where they ran into it, but to equate what they were opposing (largely gay sex outside the context of committed monogamy unless John Boswell is to be believed, and Keller doesn’t) with contemporary gay sex in the context of same-sex marriages is, again, frightfully anachronistic.

Closing Thoughts:

One final thing which particularly troubles me about this review is that Keller only barely engages with Wilson’s actual point in A Letter to My Congregation. ALtMC is built around an analysis of Romans 14 and argues that gay sex in the context of a same-sex marriage falls under the category of “disputable matters” and that as such, it should not be used as a litmus test or barrier to full participation in the church. It seems to me that any review worth its salt ought to at least engage the primary argument of its subject matter.

1. Throughout the piece, Keller conflates homosexuality - “being attracted to a person of the same sex” with gay sex - “gay sex”. In this section I suspect he means “gay sex”.

2.For a more thorough reaction to the type of argument Keller is making in this section check out Jim Brownson’s response to Gagnon.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Christian Defense of the Gender Identities of Transgender Persons - Part 3

This is the third in a series that began with this post. If you haven't read it yet you may want to go back just to get the full picture.

In this post I intend to address the Bible passages which directly pertain to the validity of the claims of transgender persons vis. their gender identities.

The Bible does not speak directly to the validity of the claims of transgender persons vis. their identities.

Well that was easy.

The closest I have been able to find is the prohibition in Deuteronomy 22 against a man wearing a women's clothing or a woman wearing a man's clothing. It is sandwiched between a command to help your neighbor if you see that his Ox has fallen down in the road and a prohibition against taking a mother bird along with eggs or young out of any nests you happen to find lying around.

However, even putting aside questions of Christian consistency in the implementation of Dueteronomical commands, the only way this passage would be relevant to Wanda would be if it were used to demand that she stop wearing any of her "Bob" clothing immediately  since Wanda's claim that she IS a woman would require her to avoid wearing any man clothes. I hope this point is clear; as I have demonstrated in the previous post, trans people are their identified gender for the purposes of Scriptural commands and Christian ethics. So from a Christian perspective, Wanda is not a man dressing as a woman, she is a woman who is finally able stop dressing as a man.

And that's about all I have. In researching this post I went and re-read the Southern Baptist Convention's recent Resolution on Transgender Identity and looked into the Scripture passages they use to support their wrong opinion. Their Scriptural support was decidedly sparse and when I examined the passages I found that they were essentially passages which could be used to support a gender complementarian theology but that they had nothing which actually directly supports a prohibition of recognizing the gender identities of transgender folks.

I will allow the brevity of this portion to speak for itself and in my next post I will offer an analysis and refutation of the common arguments Christians make against the recognition of trans persons in their gender identities.

In my next post in this series I will address the more oblique texts which bear on this subject.

P.S. I want to do my best to avoid making any straw man arguments in this debate so please do not hesitate to use the comments section to draw my attention to anything I have missed here.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Listen to Baltimore

Ashley and I had dinner with a bunch of our friends last night, and as we settled into chatting, we rather naturally turned to this last week's events in our city. We are all Baltimore residents, and as our conversation progressed, I noticed a theme emerging: Baltimore is being used.

Most of us are fairly active social media types and we have been inundated this week, by predominantly liberal and conservative analysis of the violence and looting that happened last weekend. Honestly that wasn't especially surprising. Did you realize we live in a politically polarized environment? What I did find noteworthy is an apparent deafness to the voices of Baltimore residents in general and Black Baltimore in particular.

I don't mean to say that these groups have been ignored. The "Young Black men of Baltimore" have been almost endlessly obsessed over this week. I am saying that these voices have not been listened to. At least not outside of the city. Even when and where these stories have been told, they have not been allowed to speak for themselves. Instead their stories have been co-opted to fit the political or social narratives which most closely align with the interests of others.

And as a privileged resident of the city - maybe for the first time - I caught a brief whiff of what it is like to have your suffering used to further someone else's agenda. We do this all the time though right? A transgender kid commits suicide and the religious right folds her death into their narrative of sin at work our nation and the natural consequences which grow from a false hope of sexual depravity; the liberal left points its finger at the intolerance, systemic ignorance, and reified religious abuse which deprived her of hope and drove her to take her own life. And a torn, broken family weeps over the death of a child.

An American is killed in the middle east, and the hawks scream that the tragedy could have been avoided if only we had been willing to kill more Muslims, while the doves coo out a tale of developing nations driven to violence by the economic and military hegemony of a paternalistic, self interested, imperial west. And a torn and broken family weeps over the death of a child/husband/wife/father/mother.

Baltimore Tuesday morning
So this really shouldn't surprise me. Our national media and political machine have a long history of adapting the experiences of individuals as fodder for their particular agendas. Did you realize the national media sources have their own agendas? So what stood out to me this time is that at least here in Baltimore, there actually has been a significant effort to listen.

On Monday night last week, the nation was screaming that there is a race/class/violence/reverse-race problem in America and Baltimore was everyone's proof. Some of them are probably right. But in Baltimore, we cried and prayed and watched our city burn and crack as her long  ignored wounds - the wounds into which we have been pouring salt - split open. On Monday night thousands around Baltimore cried out to God, and on Tuesday morning, we reached out to one another. While the nation focused on the violence and inhumanity which was/wasn't a result of systemic, long term injustice, Baltimore picked up brooms, organized food drives, opened spaces for out-of-school children, and began the hard work of listening to our neighbor.

Stories are to be listened to
So do I think that the events in Baltimore are part of some larger socio-political narrative at work in modern America? Of course I do. All stories are chapters in the great story which is being lived and being told after all. But maybe I am wrong about what that story is. Maybe, that story isn't a story we can know the details of ahead of time. Maybe, if we want to pursue peace and walk in justice, we need to begin by listening to the voices of the hurt, the bleeding, and - yes - the angry. Maybe the story isn't there for us to tell, maybe it is there for us to hear.

My two favorite Facebook reactions this week came from two incredibly different sources. One friend quoted H.L. Mencken: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." Another friend Steven Leyva, a poet and teacher, and Baltimorean called out "Now more than ever Baltimore needs it's poets speaking up, seeking justice, giving out Balm of Gilead one line at a time." Baltimore will tell her story, it's messy and painful. It's full of rage and injustice, hurt and rebuke. It is complex and human, and deeply beautiful. Please listen.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hubris Towers is Big News

So I'm really excited today.

Hubris Towers: A new comedy series for fans of P. G. Wodehouse and <i>Fawlty Towers</i>.
This is our story! We wrote this thing.

My friend Ben Y. Faroe who blogs here, and I have been working on a "side project" which has proved so much fun that it has been consistently edging out a whole bunch of our other creative work. Hubris Towers is an episodic story which we will be releasing in regular novelette sized chunks (episodes) which build to a series of eight episode seasons.

The entire series is contemporary comedy. Ben describes it as a comedy of manners meeting a comedy of errors. I see it as the inevitable result of our collective obsession with P.G. Wodehouse (think Jeeves and Wooster), Terry Pratchett (think Johnny and the Bomb), and Monty Python (think everything Monty Python has ever done) crashing headlong into our shared bemusement with modern life.

And now I get to tell you that it we are finished with the first episode and are getting ready for an official in the tantalizingly near future. Get ready to meet a host of ridiculous, endearing, provocative characters straight out of our collective insanity.

If you want to get on our mailing list for neat updates and offers and such click here

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Meanwhile in Another Part of the Web

This is Luke,
with glasses
This is me,
with a pipe
In case any of you have been wondering about my take on the first three letters of the LGBT acronym, I have been discussing that in a conversation with Luke Geraty (a far more orthodox member of the Vineyard - our shared Christian tradition) over at his site Think Theology. We are currently at the halfway point in our six post series A Conversation on Homosexuality & the Church, so it seems like a good time to point it out. The three posts are:

Framing the Conversation

Arsenekoitai and Malakoi

Romans One

We are always thrilled when more people enter the discussion so please don't hesitate to comment on any of the posts or if you prefer a slightly smaller audience, leave a comment here.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Christian Defense of the Gender Identities of Transgender Persons - Part 2

In the scenario I suggested in my previous post, Wanda has both a claim and a request which raise three questions: Is Wanda’s claim meaningful (is it possible in principle that Wanda is correct in her claim)? Is Wanda’s claim true? And would the fulfillment of Wanda’s request be sinful?
Peter Kreeft isn't always right,
but he is always awesome.

It is clear to me that Wanda’s claim is meaningful. As a human person and a Christian, I experience myself as both male bodied and of masculine gender. As a matter of faith, I believe that at the death of my body, my self will persist in a non-corporeal form awaiting the resurrection of the body. To quote the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, “Sex is between the ears before it is between the legs. We have sexual souls. and “Rather, in every soul there is—to use Jungian terms—anima and animus, femaleness and maleness; just as in the body, one predominates but the other is also present. If the dominant sex of soul is not the same as that of the body, we have a sexual misfit, a candidate for a sex change operation of body or of soul, earthly or Heavenly. Perhaps Heaven supplies such changes just as it supplies all other needed forms of healing.”(1)
Now I suppose the claim that we humans have a gender (or as Kreeft puts it, “sexual soul”) which is ontically distinguishable from the sex of our bodies, is one that can be attacked on philosophical grounds. A strict materialist, for instance, would deny that we have souls at all(2). But there is certainly no direct Biblical passage which would immediately contradict the claim. Consider for following propositions:

  1. Persons are comprised of both soul and body
  2. Souls are sexed (masculine and feminine are meaningful descriptions of souls)
  3. Bodies are sexed

Even Dr. Dobson should like my propositions.
See, he's smiling.
So far as I can tell these should not be problematic claims for even the most conservative evangelical, after all the Bible uses gendered language when it speaks of the incorporeal dead(3). Yet, if you agree with these three propositions(4), it is not, in principle, problematic to claim that a person’s soul and body may not correspond. Certainly you will find nothing in the Bible to contradict the claim.
So Wanda’s claim is meaningful, but is it true? I have shown that Wanda’s claim is possible and I maintain(5) that the Bible does not forbid her conclusion. This means that as her pastor, we must decide whether or not to trust her account of her soul. Given that she is the only person (other than God) who is able to know her soul directly, she is the only person who can verify her own claims, the hypothetical(6) pastor will probably feel a bit like Peter or Susan when they went to talk to the old Professor about Lucy’s claim that she had discovered another world in one of his wardrobes:

I want to be Professor Kirke when I grow up

‘Logic!’ said the Professor half to himself. ‘Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’

 Just as with Lucy, either Wanda is telling lies, and does not actually experience herself as feminine, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. If the pastor’s experience with Wanda, suggests that she is not a liar, then simple Christian charity rules out that possibility. And here we are on familiar ground since many of the arguments Christians make against the recognition of transgender people in their perceived gender identities, are based on a claim that transgender people are somehow deluded and insane. One sees many references to the fact that what is currently described in the psychological literature as “gender dysphoria” was previously categorized as “gender identity disorder”(7).
This is not you.

But the claim that Wanda is insane is unsustainable. Transgender people do not behave in the ways that delusional people do. In general, people suffering from gender dysphoria exhibit exactly the symptoms psychologists would expect with people who are forced to play an alien role for an extended period of time while facing the threat of alienation from their communities. They do not exhibit the symptoms and behaviors associated with people who believe themselves to be Napoleon Bonaparte or a boiled egg. In short, transgender people do not act like crazy people, they act like incredibly stressed and oppressed sane people. The only “crazy” thing about transpersons is the fact that they claim a gender at odds with their physical sex but since that is specifically the claim we are investigating, it would be begging the question(8) to take that as evidence of insanity or delusion.
Love believes all things.

Which means that the pastor is compelled by logic and charity, to conclude that Wanda is a person whose soul is feminine and whose body is masculine(9).

With this established, the law of Christian liberty, together with the abundant evidence that Wanda will be psychologically harmed by a refusal to recognize and relate to her as a woman, suggests that the sinful choice would be for our hypothetical pastor to refuse Wanda’s request. If our pastor is a complementarian, refusal would be further problematized by the fact that it would effectively force Wanda to act against her “proper gender role”.

In my next post I will address the Scripture passages (or lack thereof) which pertain to this subject. I look forward to discussion in comments.

Part 3 is available here.

(1) Both quotes are from the essay Sex in Heaven by Peter Kreeft
(2) though they will often maintain that gender is a social construct which may or may not “fit” the psychological experience of a given individual.
(3) Luke 9 and Luke 16 for instance.
(4) If you disagree please speak up in comments!
(5) It is foolish to try to prove a negative so if you have an argument that the Bible does forbid acceptance of Wanda’s claim, please draw my attention to it and I will respond.
(6) but often enough very real
(7) This is usually accompanied by extensive hand-wringing over the apparent "liberal capitulation" of the psychological community.
(8) circular reasoning
(9) There is a great rundown of the evidence for this over at Debunking Denialism.