REVIEW. Fall 2002, Vol. 27, No. 4.
The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert A. J. Gagnon (Abingdon, 2001), 520 pp.
by Dr. Ralph Blair
A book should not be judged by its cover, its jacket’s many blurbs, or its superabundance of words and footnotes by which it thinks it will be heard. But this book’s forbidding length will put off careful examination while impressing with a farrago of face validity. The more Gagnon goes on and on, the more he misinterprets, misrepresents, misconstrues, and misapplies. Yet for all his verbiage, he offers little more than what’s been said before and what’s been refuted by biblical scholars, historians and scientists. He belabors irrelevancies (e.g. Ham’s alleged rape of his father Noah) and straw man arguments (e.g. “God did not offer up Jesus Christ for the purpose of rubber stamping and affirming all human desires.”) Say what? He fails to engage the arguments of constructionist historians. When he wanders away from his seminary turf, he’s taken in by discredited sex “experts” as well as by self-styled “ex-gay” leaders. Perhaps not surprisingly, he displays a remarkable ignorance of the requirements of random sample research and a naivete about the science of statistics.
Gagnon’s argument is based, in part, in his reading of the Bible. But unless one admits, as he does not, the vast difference between same-sex behavior of two-plus millennia ago and homosexual orientation and gay relationship experienced and understood today, one has no helpful hermeneutic for today’s debate. His failure to hear the biblical writers address their own concerns in their own age results in his dominating rather than submitting to their texts. For example, he’s so oblivious to, or careless of, the post-antiquity construction of homosexuality that he concocts an anachronistic letter from the ancients in terms of today’s issues.
He says his aim is to show “that affirming same-sex intercourse is not an act of love” and insists that “that road leads to death: physically, morally, and spiritually.” He adds that all “homosexual practice” is also “harmful … to the church, and to society at large.” Further, he complains that “Promoting the homosexual `rights’ agenda is an awful and harmful waste of the church’s energies and resources.” He warns that if the church is welcoming of any “homosexual practice” – a term he prefers, for polemical purposes, over homosexual orientation – that welcoming “will shake to the core the church’s fidelity toward Scripture.” But hasn’t the church already weathered centuries of shakings over Scripture in controversies – from inclusion of the gentiles to issues of slavery, interracial marriage, integration, etc.? Luther complained that “this fool [Copernicus] will turn the art of astronomy upside down. The Scripture shows and tells another lesson, where Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” Calvin asked: “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit” in Scripture?
Gagnon claims that “the complementarity of male and female sex organs [is] the most unambiguous” evidence he can offer against homosexuality. But isn’t sexual complementarity a bit more complicated than tinker toys? Surely he knows that genitalia are hardly the only or most frequently involved body parts in sexual expression. What about lips and arms and the brain (the most significant sex organ of all)? His reductionism to mechanics refuses to acknowledge the nature of the fascinatingly other that’s the very essence of psychosexual orientation, attraction and affection – whether enjoyed by a heterosexual or a homosexual couple. But “what matters [to Gagnon] is that [same-sex conduct] is done at all.” To him, self-sacrificing love that “fulfills the law” and can be shown within a committed homosexual partnership is beside the point.
Gagnon has put much time and energy into erecting barriers against his gay and lesbian neighbors’ being allowed to live in a relevantly same-sex intimacy. He’s no doubt blind to the obscenity of three little words at the book’s beginning: his affectionate dedication “For my wife.” As if there had never been a Golden Rule – not to mention common grace and justice – Gagnon celebrates his own sexual intimacy while doing his utmost to damn intimacy for his gay and lesbian neighbors. But “any theology or mission that does not `love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is offering a truncated and therefore heretical gospel,” as an evangelical says in another context. [John G. Stackhouse] And this refusal of hospitality is not lost on gay people.
But Gagnon’s take on the gospel is tied to his take on gayness rather than grace. He claims “the core proclamation of the gospel [that] stop[s] short of actively and sacrificially [?!] reaching out [with] the gospel’s transformative power” – by which he’s harking back to “ex-gay” promises – is the “truncated” gospel. “I believe the gospel at its core is a message of liberation. By liberation, I mean something more noble than tolerance or permissiveness.” Well, yes. But can the lame “liberation” of “ex-gay” doubletalk hold a candle to the liberation from the law of sin and death?
“Despite [what he calls] one’s personal repugnance for same-sex intercourse,” he concludes with an expression of concern: “The real difficulty for the church lies not in assessing whether the Bible’s stance toward same-sex intercourse is unremittingly negative. … No. The real difficulty for the church lies in the pastoral dimension: the `nuts-and-bolts,’ day-to-day compassionate response” to homosexuals. But he’s blind to the difference between the concerns of ancient texts and the plight of gay people today. He pays more attention to ecclesiastical politics than to the real day-to-day needs of gay people. So he’s in no position to give the pastoral care he means to give. Granting what he admits could be the “unintended effect of bringing personal pain to homosexuals,” he self-righteously refuses to take responsibility for his part in inflicting such predictable pain.