I’m leading a Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. For the second session (since I was traveling), participants watched a video conversation I had with Dr. David Fitch of the Northern Seminary about how Christians can discern the debate around human sexuality without participating in the antagonisms which exist outside the Church in the larger culture.
Here is the video and the session notes distributed for the class:
Reiteration of “Yes, but…” Conversation Parameters:
Just to make sure we start from a place of continuity, I want to reiterate the “Yes, but…” parameters set out last week. These allow us to maintain a posture of grace and humility when discussing such a fraught subject. Since this is a subject we approach as a community, formed and read on the level of discernment (more on this later), it’s important to keep each of these in mind going forward.
1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned, it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior.
2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.
3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you).
4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.
5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes, which have been supercededby the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.
6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized, instead, that their reading* of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women. *Note to Jason: added emphasis
7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced.
8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel.
Recap from Session 1:
Last week, we started off our discussion by focusing on how it is that Christians approach, read, and appreciate the Bible, and attempting to place this within the larger discussion of how we, the Church, ought to read the Bible together. For us Christians, the sacred nature of the Bible can often be forgotten when we approach it to justify our previously arrived at conclusions. This is part of the meaning of the term “sinner.” To package the Bible up and, in essence, read it for ourselves, is a mode of self-justification that belies the underlying problems facing us as readers. Further, searching the Bible for particular passages on particular issues places us at the wrong starting point, the whole while* assuming that the Bible is meant to be used in the fashion of proving people wrong. *Note to Jason: Urban for: “all the while”
The Bible (and, especially, the New Testament), the great narrative of God’s grace visited to the world through the flesh of Christ and the witness of the Spirit, was written for and speaks to the primary duty of the Church: The apostolic proclamation of the Gospel.
And just so we are clear on what exactly that Gospel is: “For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).
As we said last week, the broader plot, the narrative that undergirds it all, should determine how we read (i.e., interpret) the particulars. Thus, we should approach the Bible not in search of particular self-justifications that we can hurl at other pews, but rather with a larger hermeneutic (a fancy word for ‘the lens through which we read’) that makes sense of the particulars.
That hermeneutic* is none other than the grace offered to us endlessly through the cross of Christ. This means that when we read the Bible, we approach it as sinners postured by grace. Note for Jason: added emphasis
Some Notes on David Fitch
We ended last week by talking about how sexuality, and scripture, is something to be approached at the level of community, formed by the discipline of tradition and informed by the context we inhabit.
David Fitch, as we see in the interview, provides us with a way of conceptualizing (a) why reading the Bible well is so hard in modern culture (a culture opposed to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord), (b) what makes reading the Bible on a communal level so difficult, and (c) the ways our cultural divisions, ideologies, and arguments find their ways into the Church, tailoring how we interact with, perceive, and understand our relations to one another. He posits in his book that the Church has been consumed by the “us vs. them” version of faith, one that guts the Gospel message at its very core. Subsequently, Fitch notes, the Church is subsumed by the “enemy-making machine,” feeding off our own fears, anxieties, and ideologies.
Fitch argues that when we as a Church engage in this kind of reading and line-drawing, we simply reiterate the cultural argument, stymieing any attempt to preach the Gospel and blocking off anything God might have to say on the matter.
In short, when we approach scripture with the divisions of culture already inscribed into our eyes, we preclude both God’s presence and, logically, our ability to preach that presence.
Fitch’s argument borrows a lot from ideology studies, which is a dense and complicated field that mixes philosophy, critical theory, and sociology. One of the claims that is central to what we are doing here is that ideology is bigger than the Church. That is, ideology tends to dominate our modes of thought, and since we are Christians, it is particularly obvious in the way we think about, interpret, and use the Bible.
In modern studies of ideology, the concept of “antagonism” dominates. To be clear, this is not the colloquial notion of “antagonism.” An antagonism is the process by which we make someone an enemy by turning them into an “Other.” An “Other” is what we turn people into when we dissociate them from their concrete reality and identify them by monolithic abstractions. To turn someone into an “Other” is to distance them from who they are by not allowing ourselves to be present with them. It functions on us, too. The defensiveness and hurt we feel when labelled particular names which bear particular connotations (such as sayings like, “You’re just a liberal,” or “You’re stuck in the 18th century.”) is a result of the simplification and monolithic abstraction that is a patent mark of “Otherness.”
The antagonism, displayed in the process of othering, is precisely what occurs when we see people in our image of God, rather than in the image Christ made them to be. When we turn people into objectified “Others,” we do violence to that Christological imprint.
Fitch notes, importantly, that we do not knowingly start antagonisms; the genesis of the antagonism is ideology – it is a product of our social and cultural life and thought. Fitch wants us to realize that when we are functioning essentially as an “us vs. them” church, we are presupposing the antagonism.
The concrete way this functions is through what Fitch calls “banners.” Banners are an ideological product that extract in-life practices and means of navigating the world and turns them into abstracted identity markers. Banners signify a monolithic, abstract structure that conveys a simplistic model with no (or, virtually, no) relation to the complexity the thing has in its concrete form. These banners tend to lead to a thing ironically called a “master-signifier.” These master-signifiers do not actually function to show any relation occurring in reality. They serve only to confuse.
For example, when we label someone “progressive” or “conservative” and proceed from there to bash our Bibles over their heads, we are participating in the “banner.” The banner, then, is in the service of a dichotomization, a crystallizing of who the enemy is and what they stand for. This is the antagonism we spoke about earlier.
The banner, with its abstracted simplicity, removes the material reality from people and the church. It obscures, under the guise of “us vs. them” the ability to physically discern what God is doing.
Speaking Christian: Discernment
Sexuality, it turns out, is one of those things we use banners for all the time. Sexuality is not, as we pretend it to be, a singular issue. Presenting it as such necessarily presumes that there are different opposing camps, only one of which can be right. Sexuality is, however, bound up in a world of complexity. In fact, it is bound up in the world.
Just as we cannot talk about who we are without talking about the world in which we live, sexuality cannot be abstracted from and discussed apart from its material reality, which is found in people, in all people.
Reading the Bible and searching for answers to a particular question (like sexuality), ignoring the larger narrative, and approaching the text with a microscopic hermeneutic, are each signs of reading the Bible ideologically; that is, it is a sign of reading the Bible through the lens of antagonism. The Church, then, is assigned the task of discernment. Discernment is a “local” project; it involves the Church being first open to seeing what God is doing. From there, discernment involves being led (Note, the passive voice) by God to learn how to speak Christian in a culture that rejects Christ.
What, you might ask, does discernment at the level of the Church really involve? The active components of discernment are myriad, but Fitch offers a couple crucial points from which to begin.
- Discernment begins from a space of brokenness: The Church is a collection of sinners, not saints. The process of discernment begins, then, not from a hierarchical positioning, but with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, no matter the argument.
- Discernment reduces the language of positions: The Church is caught up in its “position” on x and its “policy” on y. This language is not only foreign to the Gospel, but it is the reproduction of cultural norms. The language of “positions” is bound to treat people as objects instead of faithful Christological subjects. Further, policy and position leave no room for God to work in the world through our brokenness.
According to St. Paul, the Church is the “fullness of Christ,” which means that the Church submits both to Christ’s reign and, consequently, His presence. A resulting tenet of the Church is that Christ is the only alternative to the “antagonisms” of our time. Antagonism, violence, banners, master-signifiers: They are all tools of the one Paul calls “the Enemy.”
Each of these tools from the Enemy’s toolbox requires a constant stream of new enemies because – pay attention here – the enemy-making machine has no positive definition. That is, the only way it exists is by constantly defining itself by what it is against.
But, the Church cannot exist like this. If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then Jesus, in his fullness, provides the Church with what the Enemy’s enemy-making-machine cannot: a substance and sustenance that does not run out, a “well-spring that never runs dry.” When Jesus commands us, then, to love our enemies, it is not just a challenge to our virtues as a Church; it signifies the endless love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness God gives through the death and resurrection of Christ. We cannot learn to love, much less love each other, if we have not first learned of how Christ has loved us (unto death on the cross!).
So, part of the work of discernment is asking the question: “Can the banner we use make sense apart from describing who or what it is against?” If it cannot, then there is no room for God’s work, argues Fitch, partly because we have tied our own self-definition to the definition of our enemies. However, concrete, mutual discernment can combat the enemy-making machine, not least because it opens us again to be able to see where God is working, even in conflict.
Scripture teaches us a thing or two about God working in conflict. He does not recede from the scene; in conflict, God intensifies his work of healing and restoration. Focusing only on the determinative point set by the Enemy does not allow us to recognize what God is doing in the midst of our disagreements.
At the end of the video, David Fitch offers some tips for how to deal with talking about this. I’m just going to reiterate and clarify them a little here.
- Tell stories. Don’t start from an argument, but a story. Stories allow us to avoid a confrontational beginning by humanizing the situation. Stories remind us of the concrete reality from which our discussions arise. They also mimic the way God tells his story in the narrative we call the Bible. They allow us to begin in weakness and vulnerability. In dislodging ideology from below, stories provide a substantive referent, rather than the exhausting extraction and abstraction of the “banner.”
- Ask good questions. Banners, ideology, antagonisms, master-signifiers: They always mask a contradiction. Good questions lead to the discovery and inquisition of these contradictions.
- Provoke…sometimes. Provocation can, when used well, take the existing wisdom to its extreme, thereby laying bare what the contradiction is that upholds such wisdom. Use sparingly.
- Always look for a place of agreement. Note: This is not looking for agreement, but a place of agreement. The subtle, but important, difference is that the former is about arguments, while the latter is about people. The emphasis is not on theoretical agreement disjointed from subjects in the world, but on relationality and community in which agreement takes the form of a connection made possible by Christ.