Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 5, 2016

Evangelical Christians in North America are evolving—gradually—to become more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians. One indication of this movement is the growth in the number of books that come from a relatively conservative theological perspective arguing on biblical grounds for such welcome. One of the best of these books is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013) by James V. Brownson.

Brownson is a long-time New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. The RCA resembles Mennonite Church USA in the wide theological diversity among its congregations. As a whole, it appears to fit into an interesting space between the evangelical world and the “mainstream” Protestant world—active in ecumenical relationships on both sides.

However, as far as I know, Brownson represents a minority perspective in the RCA with his argument for the affirmation of same-sex marriage. His views as expressed in this book surely will evoke strong antipathy from many corners of the RCA world.

A parent’s response

One way to situate this book is to see it as a father’s response to his son coming out at gay. This event, which Brownson calls a “dramatic shock to my life,” challenged him “to re-imagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality” (p.1). Most fathers in this situation (and I know quite a few who made a move somewhat like Brownson’s—becoming affirming of same-sex relationships as a consequence of one’s child coming out) don’t have the expertise to write a 300-page scholarly treatise that chronicles this “re-imagining.” We should be grateful that Brownson does.

Of course, Brownson’s transparency could lead a suspicious reader to dismiss his book as special pleading. Brownson’s bias of acceptance of his son could be seen as undermining his scholarly objectivity, perhaps fatally. On the other hand, for some of us this confession of personal interest actually helps validate Brownson’s work. It shows that he will understand the human issues involved, in particular the pain caused by restrictive arguments that all too often show a profound disregard for the emotional and relational costs of their agenda. Continue reading

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What does hope even mean?

Ted Grimsrud—Sermon at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—June 26, 2016

I’d like to start with a bad analogy; it links having a strained back with having grandchildren. This is how it goes. About 25 years ago, for the first time I got laid up with a bad back. My distress was triggered when I played in an alumni basketball tournament at my old high school. Before that I had never had back trouble and was not very aware of anyone else having a bad back—I would have thought it was quite rare. But then, as I was gradually recovering, people I knew who had bad backs seemed to come out of the woodwork. Many people kindly commiserated with me, sharing my pain.

Then, almost exactly ten years ago I became a grandparent. Before that I thought very little about people I knew being grandparents. Certainly, I knew that other people were grandparents. But I hadn’t felt it. Then, boom, I had this big thing in common with other people—kind of like having a fragile back….

What does it even mean?

So, the punch line to my sermon this morning ultimately will be about grandchildren—keep that in mind. In a sense, any talk about hope comes down to our grandchildren (real or potential, literal or metaphorical). But for now, I want to mention something else about my grandchildren; that is, grandchild #2, Marja.

Last summer when we were hanging around with 5-year-old Marja, we drove by a bright orange “detour” sign and orange road barriers. “What’s that?” she asked. “A detour sign.” “Detour; what does that even mean?” We chuckled and noticed that she was using that phrase a lot, “what does X even mean?” We later realized that her mother uses that phrase a lot, too—so it’s kind of hipster idiom, I guess. As in, “what does it even mean” when a certain presidential candidate says let’s “make America great again”?

Brian asked me to share this morning about the major transition that’s happening in my life. I wasn’t sure how to do that. I decided that to reflect on how, in my first month of retirement, I suffered from major sciatica pain wasn’t exactly sermon material—nor, even, the joys of greatly reduced sciatica pain. So, instead I want to talk about one of the main ideas I’ve been thinking about. This is a kind of guiding focus for these coming years of theological work in my post-teaching career—the notion of hope.

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A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus

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Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2016

My transition to “retirement” (that is, to full-time writing) has gone a bit slower than I would have hoped due to some unforeseen (relatively minor) health issues. I take it as a sign of a renewing vigor that last night in those often intellectually fecund moments between lights out and sleep I came up with a new title for my next writing project: Healing Politics: A Non-Apocalyptic Reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

Problems with “apocalyptic”

For some time, I have been working on a thoroughly pacifist interpretation of Revelation. I put it on hold during this past school year and expect very soon to get back to it, in hopes of completing a publishable manuscript before too long. As I have studied, taught, preached on, and written about Revelation over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that the category “apocalyptic” has misled those interpreting Revelation a great deal.

What I hope to show in my book is that Revelation is not “apocalyptic” in the sense that it fits into a genre of literature that is characterized by a futuristic focus or a sense of impending cosmic catastrophe or a sense of hostility toward the historical world. Nor is Revelation “apocalyptic” in the sense of portraying an almighty, judgmental God who will rain down destructive wrath on God’s enemies (or the enemies of the writer of the book).

It is crucial to read this work in terms of the title it gives itself: “the apocalypse of Jesus Christ” (that is, always to link “apocalypse” or “revelation” with “Jesus Christ”). This book sees itself as being a message from and about Jesus. I choose to start with the assumption that the Jesus of this revelation is the same Jesus of the rest of the New Testament. And so I read Revelation expecting that it helps us understand Jesus better and that it wants us to follow the path that Jesus set for his followers as described in the gospels.

And, interestingly (and excitingly, for me), the book actually turns out to lend itself to this kind of reading. It has become clear to me that the Jesus of Revelation is the same as the Jesus of the gospels. This is apparent once the reader’s imagination is cleared of the futuristic, cosmically catastrophic, judgmental, and pro-violence assumptions that putting it into the box of “apocalyptic literature” impose on us.

Of course, there is another entire type of reading that ironically shares quite a few of the scholarly assumptions of the “Revelation as apocalyptic literature” approach. This is the future-prophetic approach popularized in the writings of Hal Lindsey and in the Left Behind books. This approach also reads Revelation looking for futuristic insights and in expectation of cosmic catastrophes—even as it is looked upon with scorn by the scholars. Continue reading

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The case for Bernie Sanders

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2016

Yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine, Jessica Penner, raised a question to me in a conversation about our current presidential campaign:

Okay, let’s say Bernie gets the nomination and wins the election. HOW will he get done half (or even a quarter) of what he plans with a congress that won’t vet a Supreme Court justice for the sitting president, with a congress that stripped Obamacare to a shadow of what the sitting president envisioned, with a congress that works to get rid of what good Obamacare does (and hurt people like me–a person working full-time but without benefits who also has pesky pre-existing conditions) that our sitting president created. HOW WILL HE DO IT? NO ONE HAS ANSWERED THIS QUESTION. I told your grandson several months ago that Bernie has my heart, but Hillary has my head. Tell me how he will do it, and maybe Bernie might creep into my head.

I don’t have a quick and decisive answer to this challenge, but I think it is worth taking a little time to respond. For me, both my heart and my head tell me that Sanders is the best serious presidential candidate that we have had since Jesse Jackson and that if he were elected at the least his presidency would be way less destructive than a Clinton presidency. I’m not sure Sanders would be all that effective in terms of his agenda, but I am sure Clinton would be devastatingly worse.

I think our current system is failing at an ever faster speed. I don’t have much hope that a Sanders presidency would prevent a catastrophe. However, I do see a glimmer of hope; on the other hand, to me the main difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency would be about levels of despair. So, really, the case for Sanders has mostly to do with the case against Clinton. However, Sanders is long committed to a positive agenda that truly would bring about major changes and might turn the direction of the system around. Even if he has little chance of implementing much his agenda, if he were president there would be some chance. A Clinton presidency would at best push us just a bit more slowly down the slide into catastrophe than a Trump presidency.

Some specific themes:

(1) I don’t think it’s fair to imply that Sanders couldn’t get his agenda approved by a Republican Congress while Clinton could. We can completely agree that the current Congress is set up to foil any legislative initiative any Democratic president would pursue. This is not, in any sense that I can see, a point in Clinton’s favor. She would go into office with a much deeper and longer-established level of antipathy from Republicans than Sanders would, so it seems at least as likely that she would not be able to get her goals passed.

The difference I see would be more on the level of the things the president can accomplish in spite of Congress. It seems like Obama finally at the end of his time in office has decided to push his agenda more forcefully and to some positive effect (e.g., stronger environmental oversight, the opening to Cuba). I’m more confident of Sanders being assertive in this way than Clinton. Plus, even more, I’m more confident of Sanders appointing a Cabinet that would pursue more progressive policies—most obviously with his commitment to resisting the domination of Wall Street we have seen among many of Obama’s appointees (and likely Clinton appointees). Continue reading

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One of the best books yet: A response to Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage

Ted Grimsrud—May 24, 2016

I tend to think it is a good thing that the North American Christian debate about whether churches should be inclusive or restrictive in relation to LGBTQ folks has generated so much literature. The sheer mass of writing is too much to keep up with, but out of this ferment have come some good materials. One of the very best books I’ve yet read on this theme is by a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and theologian, Mark Achtemeier.

The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart (Westminster John Knox, 2014) has many strengths. It’s of manageable length (131 pages), clearly written, based on solid research, a nice mixture of personal engagement and theological reflection, and coherently argued. I would recommend it as a solid book to help those already in the inclusive camp to understand better how the Bible is actually a positive resource for faith communities that have already made a commitment to be inclusive. I would also recommend it for those who aren’t sure what they believe and would like to check out the best advocates for inclusion. And, as well, I would recommend it for those who are confident of their restrictive convictions but would like better to understand the strongest arguments for inclusion. I believe it will contribute to a more accurate and fair-minded conversation going forward.

An evangelical’s change of heart

Part of the appeal of this book is that Achtemeier himself used to affirm the opposite point of view. He cites an article he published in 1996, “The Upward Call of God: Submitting Our Sexuality to the Lordship of Christ,” that was written in support of the movement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to forbid ordination to openly gay and lesbian ministers. Not long after that article, though (which did contribute to the formal reinforcement of restrictive denominational policies), Achtemeier began to change his view. In time he became an advocate for overturning the restrictive policies concerning marriage and ordination—which happened in 2011.

It would have been nice to learn a bit more of Achtemeier’s heart and mind as a restrictive advocate, but he keeps the book focused on his constructive argument for affirmation of same-sex marriage—which is a strength of the book. Achtemeier uses his thinking process in his emerging affirmative view as a device to drive the narrative. This makes the book more readable, though at times it may feel a little contrived. Continue reading

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It’s time for a change….Reflections on a transition

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2016

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same ol’ same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I’m gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It’ll be a fair curve
From a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
Cause I’ve got boats to build

Guy Clark, “Boats to Build”

Last Friday, I turned in my grades for the last time. I gave my last exam last Wednesday. It was about a year ago that I decided that this would be my final year teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and that  I would take an early retirement. Or, as Kathleen and I see it, I will transition from being a full-time college professor who writes on the side to being a full-time writer.

Last Sunday morning in church, I shared about my plans. I mentioned that EMU does not put a lot of pressure on faculty to publish; it’s not really a “publish or perish” place. But now, the pressure will increase. As Kathleen will be taking on a more central role in providing our income, she’s telling me that it will be “publish or perish.” I think she’s kidding (a little, at least), but we both certainly are excited about this transition and have high expectations.

The past year since I “gave my notice” moved quickly, and I am excited for it to be over. It’s been a good year in many ways, but not for a second have I doubted that it is time for this change—even if I am not entirely sure what to expect in these years to come. As Guy Clark sings, “Let the chips fall where they will, ’cause I’ve got boats to build.”

A time of transition like this may be a good time to look back and to look ahead. How did I get here? What clues about what’s to come may be discerned in the trajectory what what has gone before? How have I been prepared for this new stage?

It is a bit unsettling to notice a pattern in my life. Things fit pretty much into 20 year segments. I have my younger years of formal education and a kind of meandering in terms of getting a sense of my life’s vocation and passion. That period ended, it seems to me now, in the Spring of 1976, my last term in college when I took my first philosophy classes (I never did take a religion class in high school or college). I was primed for the classes (“Philosophy of Religion” and “Existentialism”). The previous couple of decades had prepared me, in a way, so those classes turned out to be a gateway to a life of a theologian. Continue reading

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A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2016

Back in the early 1990s, Neil Young recorded a song, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” that protested social circumstances in Reagan/Bush America. It included this line, referring to the language of the Bush campaign calling for a “kindler, gentler America” and pointing to “a thousand points of light” that reflect the goodness of the country: “We’ve got a thousand points of light for the homeless man, we’ve got a kindler, gentler machine-gun hand.”

Young called out the Bush campaign for its misleading message, its claims to seek a more humane country that was contradicted by the actual policies that only exacerbated the dynamics leading to homelessness and that sought expanded militarism.

I’m a little uneasy with using this rhetoric in relation to the current discussion in evangelical Christian circles about whether and how to be welcoming toward sexual minorities. However, I think the question raised by remembering Young’s critique applies.

Is the effort Preston Sprinkle makes (echoing numerous others) to emphasize the call to love gay people actually a signal of a “kinder, gentler” evangelical community—or is it only reflecting a façade of “kindness” that does not actually signal much of a change at all? I’m afraid my reading of the book People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue (Zondervan, 2015) leaves me with a strong impression of a deeper-seated “machine-gun hand” that remains solidly in place.

Do actual people really matter much?

Sprinkle is a New Testament scholar with a PhD from the University of Aberdeen and is currently an administrator at Eternity Bible College (Boise, ID). He has written several widely circulated books. He begins and ends People to be Loved with attractive reflections on the need to “love the sinner.” But he also spends the large majority of the book focused on how the Bible supposedly clearly describes and condemns the “sin” that must be hated. These dual foci, “love the sinner; hate the sin,” widespread in evangelical writing on these issues, are difficult to reconcile.

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