Friday, July 11, 2008

Standing on Your Head and Other Impossible Feats of Gay Theologians

Summer is never my best time. What winter is to someone who lives in northern Minnesota, summer is for me—nothing to do except power through. I’m reading Tucker Malarkey’s novel Resurrection right now. It’s set in Cairo. As I read page after page of descriptions of the pitiless sun of Egypt, I keep reminding myself that I live in a city that is on the same latitude with Cairo.

The Sahara with humidity. That’s Arkansas in summertime—for me, at least, with my Pillsbury-dough boy body and fair complexion. Give me the bracing chill winds of Scotland sweeping across fields on a July day, anytime. Though put me there for a summer, and I expect I’d soon grouse about how I missed the smell of gardenias in June in my muggy Southern garden . . . .

In the spiritual torpor summer induces—aided and abetted by that accidie about which I blogged a few days ago—I’ve been asking myself why on earth I ever got the crack-brained idea of keeping a blog. What’s it all about?

What lunatic inspiration ever led me to suppose that I could somehow build a bridge between the gay community and the world of the churches? The gay community, which has been treated like offal by the churches, and which rightly repudiates religious communities that profess love while practicing hate. The churches, who will not and cannot hear the voices of gay believers, because they begin with the assumption that anything we say proceeds from sickness and sin.

What made me think it was not only possible, but worthwhile, to try to speak out of gay experience as I do theology? It’s not as if the gay community is clamoring for theological spokespersons. It’s not even as if there’s a lot of welcome within the gay community for those of us insane enough to keep clinging to faith. And it’s surely not as though any church has put out a welcome mat for the likes of me.

I suppose I’ve been rethinking this blog as I read a fascinating book the past week or so—Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia. It’s Powell’s account of a topsy-turvy year of blogging while she tried to cook her way madly through every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, blogging about her culinary adventures all the while.

As with any book, one can read Julie and Julia as a mélange of many texts. It’s about food and cooking; about marriage and relationships; about how crackpot ideas feed creativity; about the cultural world of urban thirty-somethings in post-9/11 New York. It’s about good Democrats and evil Republicans. It’s above all about the cool, understated movie-saturated irony of the generation to which Julie Powell belongs.

It’s also about blogging: how the practice creeps into our lives and takes over. It’s about persistence in blogging even when the originating idea for a blog is totally off the wall—as with my own blog.

And it’s also about how, through blogging about her own crack-brained inspiration to cook through Child’s entire MtAofFC in a year—in a dilapidated tiny kitchen in an outer-borough “loft” apartment, while working days as a temp—Julie Powell discovered a path for herself as a writer. The book ends with the hopeful recognition that, by giving ourselves to even the craziest vocational impulses, we may actually discover a “reason” for it all, at the end of the tunnel (which forms the beginning of a new tunnel leading to another end and another beginning).

Soooo, I’m ending this week continuing to attempt the impossible: to do theology from that no-place meeting point of two communities who do not want to meet, who eye each other suspiciously while circling round each other looking for a grapple hold to bring the other down. Crazy as it seems, I intend to keep doing theology from the no-place formed by the intersection of the gay experience and the churches—from the no-place formed by my experience as an animal the existence of which neither community trumpets: the gay theologian.

What else do I have? From where else do we write, except from the path we tread in our own unique life? From what wells of creativity do we draw, ultimately, except our own—and where does that creativity come from, if not from our own experience?

So I write (and care) about the disastrous FISA vote this week, and the bill that our president has now signed into law, in part, because I have experienced the kind of undue and often illegal prying people sometimes engage in, when they want to silence someone else. I have experienced such scrutiny as a gay theologian. In one of the two disastrous job experiences where my sexual orientation and “lifestyle” meant everything to those intent to do me in, I discovered after I had received an unexplained terminal contract that a book I had written had circulated secretly among faculty (and the monks who owned the college), prior to the terminal contract.

Faculty and monks had marked “errors” in the margins in red ink. At the same time that I learned about the secret vetting of my book (with no opportunity on my part to defend myself), I also learned from students that they had been quizzed by colleagues and monks about what I was teaching in a New Testament class. Specifically, said colleagues and monks accused me of teaching a “political Christ.” One of the students who informed me of the spying—an outstanding student from India who gave me a mural of the Lord Krishna that I cherish—told me that he replied, “He’s teaching the New Testament. And he’s following the textbooks we’re using to study the New Testament.”

At this point in my career, I was still naïve enough to be dumbfounded that people—academics, people of faith—could behave in such an underhanded way. When I later searched for my contract and found it had disappeared, along with other documents in my office containing details about my salary, I found it almost impossible to imagine that anyone had deliberately gone into my office and removed these materials from their place in my filing cabinet. I was equally baffled when a faculty member who had repeatedly stuffed my mailbox with hate mail passed me in the hallway and muttered to me that we were both agents for different ideological masters. Just as I was dumbfounded when I learned that, the night before my hearing to appeal the unexplained terminal contract, the vice-president for academic affairs had given my personnel file—my private personnel file—to committee members to take home and read . . . .

Graduate school had not prepared me for such ludicrous shenanigans. Life had not prepared me. I didn’t know that people who claimed to represent the churches, while denying me the right even to live peaceably within a church communion, could behave in such an unethical way—ostensibly on behalf of the noble cause of defending the church.

So, yes, I’m concerned about spying, and about the wide latitude now given to our government and the telecoms to continue unwarranted spying in which they have already been engaged. And my fears about the abuse of this “privilege” have not been allayed this week, as I have read about how the archdiocese of St. Louis sent a spy to a women’s ordination ceremony last November, to film one particular attendant, Sr. Louise Lears (see Tom Fox and NCR Staff, “St. Louis Archdiocese Videoed Women’s Ordination Rite,”

Reports indicate that, with 600 or so folks in attendance, the films taken by the archdiocese zoom in repeatedly on Sr. Louise. Recently, when it was announced that the Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, was being promoted to a Vatican post, as one of his last acts before leaving St. Louis, Burke forced Sr. Lears out of her ministerial positions and banned her from communion. The spying was clearly premeditated, because the person doing it on behalf of the archdiocese filed an affidavit about the spying with the archdiocese ahead of time.

Ugly. Stinky. As in, stinks to high heaven. I identify with Louise Lears even more, because she’s 58 years old. As I am. I know what it feels like to be booted—with ugly, stinky techniques of marginalization attending the booting—when one is approaching retirement.

My feelings about this case deepened yesterday when I opened the latest report from my teachers’ retirement account. Because of my checkered past as a theologian in non-gay-affirming church-affiliated colleges, I have been unable to build up any retirement fund to speak of. The years in which I willingly (and gladly) worked for a pittance in HBCUs—I considered this part of my vocation as a theologian—certainly didn’t help feather the nest, either.

So when I opened the envelope and discovered that, in the first quarter of this year, my account dwindled by over $7000, I experienced some twinges of concern. When one has no job and no prospect of a job—a paying job, that is—and when one’s savings are seeping out of one’s account due to economic downturns, it’s hard to smile. Hard to feel upbeat and cheery. (And as I say this, I am also strongly aware that there are millions of folks in the world—folks more deserving than I am—whose primary concern is not a dwindling retirement fund, but whether there is enough food to feed the family today.)

I understand—a little bit and from a distance—what Sr. Lears must be going through now. It’s hard to hit a brick wall at any point, but particularly as one nears retirement. It’s also hard to set out on a vocational path that seems to represent God’s call for your life, to serve a church and its communities (in my case, several churches and the African-American community by my work in HBCUs), and to have the church and communities you have served repudiate and expel you. And use ugly, stinky techniques of marginalization to effect their expulsion, while professing that they unilaterally own God, and informing you that you deserve the wretched treatment doled out to you in the name of God.

As I mulled these thoughts over in the last few days, I also ran across a fascinating story that—to my addled mind—confirms the need for theologians who speak out of and understand the gay experience. A number of news sites are reporting that Bradley LaShawn Fowler of Canton, Michigan, is suing Zondervan and Thomas Nelson publishers for producing translations of the New Testament that use the word “homosexual” in their translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9 (see

Fowler alleges that through their decision to use the term “homosexuals” or “homosexual behavior” to translate the Greek term arsenokoitai in the original text, the publishers have made his life hell as a gay man. He notes that the belief of his family and others that he is headed for hell as a gay man—based on the use of the term “homosexual” in this biblical translation—has resulted in violence towards him and other gay folks.

I’m perfectly aware that some news accounts dealing with this story are treating the case as frivolous, and the story as yet another sample of special pleading by a gay community that needs simply to accept that the bible condemns homosexuals and homosexuality. I’d like to argue, however, that Fowler is making a very important point.

The exceedingly obscure word Paul uses here, which he seems, in fact, to have coined, and which the publishers are translating as “homosexual,” is the word arsenokoitai. Precisely because this word is not found in extrabiblical literature—because Paul seems to be coining it—we have no clear idea what he meant in using it. As in not a clue . . . .

Literally, the word seems to say something close to “male bedders”—that is, males who bed. Who bed somebody. Does this mean male prostitutes? Is it referring to men who take an active role in male-male sex, subordinating a younger man to unwanted sexual advances (a practice not unknown to Greek and Roman culture)?

Whatever the word means, it cannot mean what we mean by the term “homosexual” today, since the term “homosexual” did not even exist at the time Paul was writing. Until the end of the 19th century, when it became apparent to early psychological researchers that a certain proportion of the human community, across cultures and across time, consistently experiences as part of its God-given nature a more or less fixed erotic attraction to members of the same sex, there was no awareness, no term for the awareness, that people can have an innate predisposition to such erotic attraction.

Paul cannot be condemning what he could not even think of. He could not be using a word that simply did not exist in his culture. His language in the entire verse is far from lucid. Another murky term that has often been used to stigmatize gay men is the term malakoi, which occurs earlier in the text and literally means “the soft ones”—specifically, “the soft men.”

So. We have Paul in 1 Corinthians writing that among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God are “soft men” and “men bedders.” Hardly a pellucid text, and yet one on whose basis Christians have been willing to construct an astonishing edifice of malicious prejudice against a specific group of people for some time now.

As Fowler notes on a website explaining the basis of his lawsuit, the Zondervan-Nelson translation of this verse veered in the short space of three decades in the latter half of the twentieth century from translations that confidently told us the malakoi were effeminate to renderings that turned them into adulterers (see In the same period, the text careened from telling us that the arsenokoitai were “abusers of themselves with mankind” (whatever the heck that means), to proclaiming with supreme confidence that “homosexuals” (and, later, “those who engage in homosexual behavior”) would be barred from heaven. By 1994, the translation had revered to the 1964 usage: “abusers of themselves with mankind.” At one point, the mysterious term was even rendered as both “male prostitutes” and “homosexuals.”

You see the point? We don’t really know what the hell Paul meant when he enumerated this list of people bound for hell. That is, we do not know Paul’s intent with the arrogant certainty of those late-20th century translators who had Paul sending homosexuals to hell in this verse from Corinthians.

Which is to say, Fowler has a point, and it’s an important one. People base behavior on language. People frame their perceptions of others through language. In this nation with the soul of a church, we filter many of our perceptions through biblical texts—or what we believe those texts mean and say. (Few of us actually read the bible, least of all those who quote it with the most confidence.)

When we cannot be absolutely certain that a biblical verse used to condemn homosexuals actually intends to condemn homosexuals—when that verse could not even be speaking of those with an innate erotic attraction to others of their own sex, because such a psychological awareness and a term for this awareness were totally unknown to the biblical writers—why would we introduce a loaded, prejudice-laden (and prejudice-fomenting) term into our translation of a biblical text?

Bradley Fowler is asking the right questions. I say more power to him. And remind me sometime to tell you what happened when I asked permission from the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference to use the Catholic translation of the scriptures, the New American bible, in my book Singing in a Strange Land. And also please remind me to tell you the story of what happened to an ethics text I wrote for a Catholic graduate program in ministry, in the last part of the 20th century—how a text that, a decade before, had been highly regarded by bishops around the country suddenly became problematic, because of its treatment of the preceding issues.

Point being: the act of translating the scriptures is enmeshed in all sorts of political considerations and political battles. It is naïve to think that those doing the translating are without bias. When that bias is not strongly supported by the scriptures themselves, and when it causes harm to a group of people, we need to take a long, hard look at what is going on with scripture translations and how they are being used.

And without theologians, who speaks for the gay community as these battles are fought? Without gay theologians sitting at the table as translations are hashed out, who assures that unreflective social biases don’t get read into the scriptures? These are questions women theologians have been raising for decades now, and with great persuasiveness. It’s time for the churches to let gay voices be heard, too. And, unfortunately, they simply aren't doing so, when they deny us job security and expel us from their communities when we refuse to apologize for being gay.

Which is to say, the gay voices are there, at the table, in the churches. They're just not open about their identity. And among those suppressed, self-denying gay church leaders and their theologians are many of those who still work hardest to bash those who are trying to live openly and with dignity as gay church members . . . .

I can't end this kvetching Friday post without remembering two folks who deserve my thanks as this week ends. One is Peterson Toscano, whose blog I cited a few days ago in my posting about Bayard Rustin entitled "Prejudice Is of a Single Bit." Peterson Toscano kindly noted my Bayard Rustin posting on his blog the same day, and for that I'm grateful. His notice has brought me some traffic from his outstanding blog.

I also want to thank my nephew Patrick for making me smile earlier in the week. Patrick is a fan of my spaghetti carbonara. He has been bugging me all summer to make that dish for him at some point while he's home for college.

It worked out that most of his family and Steve and I had a night this week free, so that turned into spaghetti carbonara night. Patrick wants to learn how to cook, so I walked him through the steps of mixing the eggs with a bit of milk, parmesan cheese, crushed garlic, salt, lots of fresh-ground black pepper, chopped bacon, and, if you wish, some melted butter, and then stirring this in the top of a double boiler while the pasta cooks.

I told him of disasters I've had when the egg sauce sets, and other disasters when I haven't gotten it sufficiently warm to form a sauce that will envelop the pasta in a silky sauce. I tried to walk him through the tricky part of stirring, stirring, timing, watching to see that the sauce is just warm but not cooked, right when the pasta comes from the pot.

As we cooked, Patrick reminded me that I had first cooked this dish for him when he was a little boy of around five, and we lived in North Carolina. He said, "I tasted it, and my life changed forever."

All those years of teaching, and I've always wondered if anything I ever said and did really made a difference. Now I know the way to form a lasting impression: just cook some decent spaghetti carbonara. Thanks for counting me in, Peterson and Patrick (and all the other wonderful people in my life whom I should thank a whole lot more often than I do).


colkoch said...

I'm glad you brought Fowler's suit up Bill. This is really critical if only because some conservative pastors have been thinking along the lines that Paul wasn't specifically referring to homosexual men, having no concept of that, but his reference has to be taken to mean hetersexual men engaged in homosexual activity. Which makes Paul's statement a reflection on a specific form of hetersexual lust.

If the verse is routinely changed to negate this distinction it negates this argument and the gay bashing can continue with biblical permission.

I suspect the people who think Fowler's law suit frivilous haven't done their homework, or don't want to.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, I'm glad, in turn, that you had also noticed Fowler's suit! You're right, once people began to pay close attention to what was going on with the translation of this and the other handful of gay-bashing texts the religious right routinely trots out, even conservative pastors began to ask if Paul might be referring to straight men engaging gay sex, and thus going against their own nature.

That's why the translations of the text in Zondervan's and Nelson's editions have veered back and forth and have finally ended up back where they started.

The really interesting question Fowler's case should make folks think about is that translations of the bible don't fall out of the sky. People who put their faith in the "literal" truth of the text have no real idea what they are saying.

Almost no literalists can even read the text in the original language. That means they're depending on someone else to do the translating for them--someone who has his/her own set of presuppositions and biases.

And when we're talking about a text as murky as this one--where even the Greek terms don't make clear sense to translators--the problem of literal reading is compounded even more.

If Fowler's suit can raise awareness about this in American popular culture, he'll be doing a really great service to all of us interested in the intersection of religion and culture.

Dad said...

Brilliant as always, Bill. I haven't visited your blog for a while as life is hectic, but I always learn something new. You are quite right that most people do not read scripture (cannot read it) in the language in which it was originally written--therefore so many errors and misunderstanding occur. Food for thought. And thank you for ending with actual food and the story of Patrick, who is very lucky to have you as a carbonara-cooking uncle. All the best,

William D. Lindsey said...

Dad, I really appreciate the encouragement. It does give me hope (and heart) to know of communities such as your church, which actively welcome and affirm gay people.

Thank you for your kind words about my nephew. I'm lucky to have nieces and nephews who have an interest in all kinds of people, and a willingness to try to reach across boundaries to those who are different. They keep me on my toes.