Category: ethics

[Book Review] Reasoning Together: A Conversation About Homosexualiy / by Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation

Reasoning Together brings two Mennonite theologians, Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation, into dialogue on an issue they disagree over – homosexuality. For Nation, the Bible’s witness on the issue is clear: homosexual acts are sinful; sex should only occur in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. For Grimsrud, to follow Jesus means to be on the side of the liberation of the oppressed – including homosexuals. This means the burden of proof is placed on the other side to prove that homosexual sex within the context of a same-sex marriage is wrong. For a number of reasons, he believe this burden is not discharged – particularly, the few passages which talk of homosexuality do not envisage homosexuality as an orientation nor do they refer to same-sex marriage.

The conversation moves around a lot, returning to several key points which are never fully resolved as the two writers respond to each others’ cases. How are we to conceptualise homosexuality? The contrast between the metaphors Nation and Grimsrud use is central to the debate. Aware of the offence it will cause – and pained by it – Nation conceptualises homosexuality as a disability, like blindness. For him, it is something that means a person is not functioning as fully as they should be. In response, Grimsrud believes a better metaphor is left-handedness, which was once thought to be a disability, but is now seen as a neutral trait, present in a significant minority of the population.  For Grimsrud, homosexual acts are not inherently sinful – they are only sinful if practised outside a same sex marriage. A number of times he states that he does not believe Nation has made a case for the inherent sinfulness of homosexual sex.

The two interpret Jesus’ silence on homosexuality in opposite ways. Does it mean that Jesus endorsed the Jewish status quo, regarding homosexual acts as sinful? In this view, it was a presumption that didn’t even need mentioning. Or does his silence mean that we shouldn’t prohibit what he did not prohibit?

The opening chapter of the book is an excellent and evenhanded survey by Grismrud of the ‘restrictive’ and ‘inclusive’ cases within Christian ethics. Both writers also supply an annotated bibliography listing what they see as the key resources.

While always respectful, each of them seem frustrated with the other at different points. Perhaps this means they are being honest. On a number of points, they are just not even able to arrive at a common definition from which they can depart. Nation thinks Grimsrud overstates the importance of hospitality in the biblical narrative – it is not the only emphasis. Grimsrud thinks Nation fails to prove the inherent sinfulness of all homosexual acts. Nation thinks the meaning of the scriptures is essentially settled and inclusivists like Grimsrud are trying to avoid the obvious. The book sums up the present debate well from an Anabaptist perspective, and shows what a divisive and difficult issue it is, while also offering an example of respectful if robust conversation.

[film review #1] Dead Calm: Hospitality and the Stranger

Philip Noyce’s 1989 Dead Calm is a classic thriller set-up superbly executed, without achieving anything beyond its genre confines. In the initial scenes, a young mother, Rae (Nicole Kidman), crashes her car, killing her toddler. Her husband John (Sam Neill), an experienced naval officer, takes her on a yacht off the Great Barrier Reef to recover.

Into their idyllic holiday comes the lone survivor from a sinking ship, Hughie (Billy Zane). Hughie is a manic, charming and strong man. Suspicious of his story that the rest of the crew died of food poisoning, John rows over to the foundering ship, leaving the sleeping Hughie with Rae. John discovers the rest of the crew murdered and frantically tries to return to Rae, but Hughie has already taken control of the yacht. For the rest of the film, Rae negotiates with Hughie while John pursues them in the sinking ship.

The question raised for me from a Christian perspective is one of hospitality and neighbourliness. Bearing in mind the film is not meant to be typical of life, it still reinforces an anxiety that lurks in the collective mind: the stranger in need of help may actually be a dangerous psychopath. Even in a Christian family regularly telling Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, I was brought up with this fear. ‘Be careful who you help’; ‘there’s certain people you just can’t risk stopping to help’.

It would have been good if Jesus had prepared us more thoroughly for this anxiety – or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Was one of the men hurrying past the injured traveller actually scared he might attack him if he helped? Would Jesus stop to help anyone he saw in need of help? He probably would have, even today. Yet again, the question brings home to me the cost of discipleship, the call to a life I fall short of.

But perhaps John in the film actually has the right response – he offers Hughie hospitality, but he’s not stupid; he checks out the story. He even takes precautions, locking Hughie in the cabin. It’s just not enough when you are facing a murderous psychopath. On the other hand, perhaps John’s response to Hughie in the final scene, when he shoots him through the head with a flare gun, falls short of Jesus’s call to nonviolence.

Peter Singer

I’m yet to read Peter Singer, but an interview with him in Saturday’s Australian magazine caught my attention. He writes:

Some things that many people consider unknowable I believe we do already understand quite well – for example, that the universe was not created by a divine being, and that there is no survival after death.

It hurts me to read these sentences, and see the world through his eyes for a moment. He doesn’t find such a world at all bleak, but I do. His certainty shocks me; does he really feel there is a consensus around these two things? Or maybe he’s not talking about consensus, but the certainties that people with the right conclusions or assumptions can ‘understand quite well’. (The ‘we’ is all people denuded of their theistic delusions.)

I find it hard to understand why most people in the world don’t have existential dread hanging over their heads in response to these two questions; most people seem to live blithely, with trite answers to both. Yet the whole mode of our living hangs on both answers. As St Paul says, if Christ is not risen we are to be pitied more than anyone.

His interview concludes with the side of Singer I heartily agree with: ‘Try to make a difference to the world. It’s the most fulfilling way to live.’ (Actually, probably living in existential dread is not a good way to make a difference to the world.) I remember when his latest book came out, a review talking about how he lives on a basic amount of money and gives the rest away. I admire him for that.

For The Bible Tells Me So: A Review

I watched the documentary For The Bible Tells Me So a couple of weeks ago. It had me crying in one point, as a woman describes how her lesbian daughter committed suicide. The woman had followed the advice of Dr James Dobson and wrote to her daughter telling her that she would never accept her homosexuality. (This approach presumably reassures one’s gay child that they are making it up, or at least making a choice that their parents are never going to endorse, lest they think they can ‘get away with it’.)

The documentary intersperses three very different approaches to the topic of homosexuality and Christianity – interviews with gay Christians and their parents, interviews with scholars (and non-scholars) about the interpretation of biblical passages about homosexuality and the history of homosexual oppression by the church in America. It is helpful and unhelpful to combine these three things.

The fault of the documentary in my opinion is its failure to adequately represent the middle position – what might be called ‘welcoming but not affirming’ (from the book by Stanley Grenz). Most of the people interviewed are either Christians who think homosexual practice is fully compatible with their faith, or fundamentalists who think homosexuals should be hated, or if not quite hated then at least aggressively resisted. The middle ground is only represented by a few brief comments from Richard Mouw – a good choice, but not enough of him, and none of the many other moderate voices from within evangelicalism (Tom Wright, Richard Hays et al). The documentary only deals with the Bible in a verse by verse fashion – the same as fundamentalists use – without attempting to understand the issue in broader terms of discipleship or the kingdom. It unfairly paints the issue as a choice between James Dobson and Gene Robinson.

I think all evangelical, fundamentalist and pentecostal Christians should see the documentary before they go on in their unthinking reactions to the ‘gay question’. If nothing else, it will startle them out of their easy answers. But in terms of the discussion of the biblical theology of homosexuality, this documentary is inadequate. Alas, it’s much more complicated than the documentary makes out.