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Beyond Polarization to a Deeper Ethic

By November 1, 2013 No Comments

Nick Overduin

The day I sat down to write this review, there was a photograph in my local newspaper (The Toronto Star) showing a happy gay couple in Paris, the first two men to be married there under official French law. France had just become the fourteenth country to approve same-sex marriage. Two weeks later, there was an article about the tenth anniversary of gay marriage in Canada. And today, three weeks later, an article about the Russian parliament surprisingly voting 476-0 to ban gay pride parades and any “pro-gay propaganda.” Book Cover Meanwhile, the premier of my province, Ontario, is an openly lesbian woman living in a relationship with another woman. As a Christian citizen, I owe her the submissive attitude towards authority commended by Romans 13.

Such articles, facts, and photos demonstrate both the relevance and the marginal nature of this excellent book: relevant, because the topic is everywhere. Marginal, because the “church’s debate” of the book’s subtitle may no longer be the main consideration in most people’s minds. The Bible, it often seems, has been left in the dust.

Brownson’s book is excellent because it shakes off the dust and tries to make everyone interested once again in what the Bible has to say about this volatile and emotional topic. Brownson demonstrates the core requirement of any good facilitator: empathizing sincerely with both exegetical sides of the contentious issue. He wins the reader’s trust, regardless of the reader’s starting point. Even his decision to choose the terminology of “traditionalists” and “revisionists” is helpful in this regard (much better than “conservatives” versus “liberals”). He is resolute in trying to articulate both the strong points and the weak points of both camps in their biblical interpretations and assumptions.

The main accomplishment of this book, I believe, is that it salvages intriguing, relevant, ethical categories from the Bible. Brownson thereby avoids the trap of polarization. Some people insist that the clear future trajectory of the Bible’s witness favors abstract notions of justice and love, while others are adamant that the Bible is clear about core sexual values from the Creation accounts onward. Brownson encourages both sides instead to ferret out a peculiar and helpful biblical ethic that might contain four spiritual and Spirit-inspired ethical principles relevant to all ages and cultures. The four categories he highlights are Lust/Desire, Purity/Impurity, Honor/Shame, and Natural/Unnatural. Applying these four specific ethical groupings to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, he believes, will give us more exegetical and biblical traction than do the current polarizing debates. He encourages both traditionalists and revisionists to orient their mutual conversations around these precise terms, rather than fighting about justice and love in general, or fighting about the ways in which biblical texts clearly abhor intimate same-sex actions.

One strength of the book is that the vast bulk of its exegetical material concerns Romans 1:24–27. Both traditionalists and revisionists can likely agree that this is the major text we all need to face. The other six or seven “clobber passages,” as they are known in the gay community, are easier in terms of reaching a consensus about interpretation, regardless of whether we are in one camp or another. Brownson does deal adeptly with all the passages, but the Romans passage is the most complex and far-reaching. Advocates for any position need to be able to explain with credibility and sincerity how they analyze Paul’s message in these prominent words.

The summaries at the end of each chapter are another helpful feature of the book. They are so well done that one could easily print an abridged version of this book using only the summaries. At the same time, such an abridgement would be an unfortunate reflection of the fact that many people lack the patience or stamina to delve deeply into this topic and wade through all the careful arguments and materials. Brownson is not wordy, and he is an excellent writer. But some of the people who should be most urgently encouraged to read him will not feel like doing so.

In my own experience in the last twelve years, being pastor of a completely inclusive and yet very orthodox Christian congregation, I have frequently noticed a strange seesaw dynamic in debates about homosexuality. People say, “It is against the Bible.” When one then starts working through the biblical texts, demonstrating there might be some options in interpretation, people’s eyes eventually glaze over, and suddenly someone declares, “But it is against Nature.” When one then starts talking in detail about nature and creation, trying to show it might not be so terribly “unnatural” after all, the eyes again glaze over, and suddenly one hears again, “Well, anyway, it is against the Bible.” And so it goes, back and forth between Bible and Nature. It is extremely difficult to get beyond this dynamic.

This leads me to my main critique of Brownson’s book. He feels that the traditionalist camp sometimes assumes that the Bible is against homosexuality because the biblical authors must have understood deep down that homosexuality was against Nature. But, says Brownson, the biblical writers nowhere articulate that this is the reason why they are against it. Instead, they give other reasons, referencing ethical criteria such as Shame/Honor, Purity/Impurity, and so forth. (I will not delve here into the very complicated discussion of Paul’s use of “unnatural” in Romans 1.) Brownson argues that if the traditionalists are correct, then “we should certainly expect to find biblical passages that treat this subject of the biological complementarity of the genders directly and explicitly.”

But this is exactly the problem. What if the biblical authors do in fact assume a basic anti-Nature stance so deeply that they never even bother to articulate the same? And perhaps this is the very reason why we moderns also never get beyond the seesaw dynamic in the debates we have about the Bible verses. The biblical writers might share in the very same dynamic that pervades the modern debate.

Well, enough said. This is absolutely a most worthwhile book. There are some true gems—for example, a forceful and convincing case for the idea that leaving mom and dad and “cleaving to your spouse in one flesh” is not about the physical complementarity of male and female genitalia, but about the normativity of new kinds of “kinship” clans. These are extremely helpful “progress points” in any ongoing conversations between traditionalists and revisionists.

As noted in my opening paragraph, I suspect ongoing developments in history and politics will outmaneuver for many the relevance of all these exegetical debates. But I am still very pleased that these exegetical conversations are proceeding apace.

Nick Overduin is pastor of First Christian Reformed Church of Toronto.