The premise of People to Be Loved is, at its heart, intellectually dishonest.
The author, Preston Sprinkle, claims that the book is a chronicle of his journey of understanding, which is a journey that will, according to the book’s blurb, “[challenge] those on all sides of the discussion to lay aside their assumptions and genuinely seek to not only know what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, but evaluate how we treat the people behind the word.”
Absolutely nothing of the sort happens within this book’s pages, however. He brings a full set of assumptions to the party and refuses to let go of them, and ultimately those assumptions bury any good intentions he might have had. Today we’ll talk about those assumptions and why they’re wrong.
He Prayed Extra-DEXTRA-Hard, Y’all.
At the beginning of the book, Preston Sprinkle does the usual song-and-dance that apologists and their audiences like to see in their media. He talks up his background, expresses his huge concern with the subject he’ll be discussing, and goes to great lengths to persuade the reader that he’s going to try really, really, really hard to be open-minded about whatever he might possibly discover during his investigations–as if the outcome could be in any doubt. (Peer-reviewed journals would be a lot more fun if historians and scientists did this, don’t you think?)
He makes a big deal out of how he bravely stepped up against his tribe to embrace nonviolence. He talks about his heroic defiance as a way of demonstrating just how hard he would totally absolutely for-sure oppose anti-gay bigotry if it turned out that the Bible didn’t support fundagelicals’ culture war.
Bravest of the Brave–Sir Evangelical!
But nonviolence isn’t nearly the culture-war marker belief that anti-gay bigotry is. The tribe might get peevish about someone pushing back against their giddy schoolkid crush on war, guns, threats, belligerence, torture, capital punishment, and general physical aggression, but ultimately that’s not a dealbreaker for them. Someone can disagree with the party line about violence and still be considered a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ even in the most fervent fundagelical church.
Not so, with LGBTQ equality. Right-wing Christians explicitly equate being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ with opposing LGBTQ equality and use this issue as a litmus test for evaluating someone’s spiritual correctness. I can’t think of a single major fundagelical leader who is anything but loud about opposing LGBTQ rights and equality. At best, you can find a few outliers who support LGBTQ rights, as well as a growing number of others who are trying hard to pretend there’s some “nice” way to be bigots-for-Jesus. Anyone who won’t parrot the party line can expect to face the full wrath of their “loving” peers if they dance too closely to the ledge.
Leaders and adherents alike are expected to stick to a carefully-curated and defended narrative. That narrative closely tracks the conspiracy-theory talking points that we’re all inundated with lately from social media, email forwards, and Fox News. Republican politicians, eager to score points with gullible Christians, use this narrative’s talking points in their campaign speeches, then cry crocodile tears when their rhetoric results in mass violence against the very groups they claimed are evil manifestations of Satan incarnate. Pastors pound their pulpits every single Sunday while screaming these points and worse ones besides, while Christian parents carefully teach their children the correct slurs to use when bullying the people their churches have taught them to hate.
The sheer savagery and brutality of the fundagelical response to any flicker of kindness and compassion in their tribemates would make even Sir Galahad hesitate before daring to speak in defense of one of most-hated groups in their entire world.
If you think Preston Sprinkle doesn’t know this fact and face this reality every time he touches his fingers to his keyboard, then you are one sweet summer child. Reading his blog is like watching a tightrope walker navigate between two skyscrapers.
So in his book, he must immediately and unequivocally state his obedience to the fundagelical narrative and assure his audience that he won’t ever challenge it or step outside it–while pretending that he totally for-sure totally would, if of course it turned out that the Bible went that way. He must make sure that his suspicious, judgmental tribe knows that his motivations are as pure as driven snow and that no matter where his questions lead, they will end up confirming his–and by extension their–worldview. He is not allowed to go anywhere else or to come to any other conclusions.
He cannot honestly engage with this subject, because his tribe will only allow him to end up at one destination:
A pretense of Biblical inerrancy and literalism in service to perpetrating the fundagelical narrative they know and love.
Literalism for Dummies.
The Bible might be a total hodgepodge of a book, as we discussed last time, but polls indicate that about a quarter of Americans (mistakenly) believe that it is a reliable science and history book that is 100% true in every way.
Talking snake in a garden? Yeah, that totally happened.
The Ten Plagues of Egypt and the Exodus? Oh for sure: that went down exactly as the Bible relays it.
Giants in the earth? Don’t get them started.
This way of seeing the Bible is often called “literalism” or “inerrancy.” Here’s a nice writeup on RationalWiki about the different permutations of the Bible-centered worldview. For our purposes, we’re using the terms more or less interchangeably and I’m simplifying some stuff, but just know that the waters can get really murky with technicalities and terminology.
When I was a fundamentalist myself, I belonged to a denomination that took the Bible literally–but even then, I wasn’t a hardcore literalist. I knew people in my church who were, and I always felt uncomfortable around them. But a lot has changed since then. I was considered a little dangerously-extremist in my thinking back then, but if I could have time-traveled to 2016 I’d have found myself regarded with quite a lot of suspicion for my liberal views.
Biblical Idolatry–For a Purpose.
As Christians began splintering further and further apart after the Protestant Reformation, they stopped accepting any central authorities over themselves except their local denominational hierarchy. They began using the Bible itself as their authority and appealing to it as the final arbiter of their numerous theological and doctrinal arguments.But these early Protestants quickly discovered that the Bible is, as we mentioned, a hodgepodge that isn’t very clear about anything.* “God’s perfect word” needed a lot of help to become clear. Entire libraries came to be written arguing about the various ways to interpret its thousands of verses, while entire denominations have arisen and fallen based on disagreements about its interpretation. For a divinely-authored (or -inspired) book given to humanity by a god desperate to make humanity’s acquaintance and be loved and worshiped by us, the Bible sure doesn’t seem very, well, sublime.
I began seeing a huge push in right-wing Christianity to Jesus-fy absolutely everything about believers’ lives (sorta like that Portlandia sketch about putting birds on everything) in the 1970s, a push that has reached its pinnacle today in evangelicals who idolize the Bible and seriously think that their highly-biased view of it is the only proper interpretation of it, and who think that a book written thousands of years ago by almost-entirely anonymous men with dozens of different goals and agendas can speak to a modern Christian who really needs to know if he should buy a fast-food franchise in Omaha.
Put a Jesus on it!
We should beware of Christians who are not aware of the fact that they see the Bible through a very fractured lens–who think that it’s possible to interpret and understand such an old and fragmented document, and, worse, who think that it can be used to establish what Preston Sprinkle proudly calls a “traditional sexual ethic” that is, itself, considerably younger and more culture-specific than he’d like to think about.
And when a Christian’s “traditional sexual ethic” seems custom-designed to allow that person to continue being abusive or controlling, then we should be doubly wary of that person and their conclusions.
So when I read this book, I immediately noticed that Dr. Sprinkle’s ideas only make sense and sound persuasive if one accepts his working assumptions going into it about the value of the Bible as a trustworthy document whose moral ideas stand the test of time.
We all have assumptions that guide us and inform our worldview. There’s nothing wrong with that. I have them, you have them, and of course Preston Sprinkle has them. They become a problem when we don’t know we have them or when we aren’t aware that they’re influencing our thinking.
That’s the trap that Dr. Sprinkle falls into.
Here are the main starting assumptions he’s working off of and why they are wrong.
1. “[Christians] want to know what the Bible actually says.” (p. 24)
Reality: Christian bigots-for-Jesus only want permission to keep doing what they’re doing. When someone inevitably tells them that they’re being hateful bigots, they just want to be able to point at an apologetics work or parrot a catchphrase to rationalize their behavior.
Dr. Sprinkle even concedes that most of the Bible scholars writing about homosexuality in the last few decades don’t agree that the Bible condemns loving same-sex relationships out of hand. If a Christian really cared about what the Bible says, then surely that’d settle the matter unless such a person wished to go study Greek and Hebrew on their own. But because that consensus runs contrary to what Preston Sprinkle’s tribe wants, he’s got to go reinvent the wheel and study the matter from scratch jussssst in case–and since his conclusion, shockingly, supports the tribe’s existing culture war, he assumes he’s gotten the matter correct at last.
2. “We need to be thoroughly biblical because we desire to thoroughly love people.” (p. 21)
Reality: Nobody needs to know what the Bible says in order to behave in a loving way.
In fact, many ex-Christians discover that the version of “love” we learned as Christians was not real love at all but rather a redefined version of it that allowed abusers and predators to roam unfettered in Christian churches. It was controlling, abusive, and manipulative. It left people “wanting to kill themselves,” as Dr. Sprinkle himself notes.
If someone cannot be loving without carefully studying the Bible, that person is doing humanity all wrong and is not a moral or good person. It doesn’t speak very highly of fundagelicals’ insistence that a real live god inhabits them when they can’t be loving without knowing exactly and precisely what the Bible says about a topic. (How universal can this “traditional morality” be if it requires this kind of scholarship before it can be trusted?)
Loving behavior makes people feel loved afterward–not judged, not condemned, not strong-armed, not manipulated, not rejected, and not coerced. It is a two-way street, not the one-sided show of force that evangelicals often envision it as. If someone can’t figure out how to make another person feel loved, the answer to that question is not “needs more
cowbell Bible.” The answer is “needs to become a more compassionate person and grow a sense of empathy.” And those will not come from the Bible.
(Along with this assumption is the one Dr. Sprinkle clearly holds about the Bible being a moral document in the first place. Entire websites, like EvilBible.com and Dwindling in Unbelief, exist to refute that idea.)
3. “There is massive debate about whether [the clobber passages] can apply to monogamous, consensual, loving gay relations. Because that’s the real question Christians are asking. (p. 17)
Reality: That’s a steaming pile of horseshit.
Yes, there is an ongoing and heated debate about the handful of Bible verses that Christians often (mistakenly) think condemn same-sex relationships.
But this debate only exists because fundagelicals want to justify their culture war against LGBTQ people, and the only way they know how to do that is to point at Bible verses to prop up their agenda.
Remember, only 25% of Americans think the Bible is literally true. That may amount to a lot of Christians, but it’s far from all of them. Even of those literalist Christians, a healthy number don’t think that the Bible points to condemnation of same-sex relationships–including scholars on the topic.
Even if Preston Sprinkle managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Bible condemns what his tribe thinks it does, which I do not agree he has proven, a large number of people will look at his scholarship and say “So what?” They’re not going to condemn and reject their gay loved ones no matter what the Bible says because that is not loving behavior and they know it.
And he’s definitely not going to convince the large-and-growing numbers of non-Christians that his brand of bigotry-for-Jesus is loving simply because it is derived from what he claims is a strict and scrupulous interpretation of the Bible. We’re getting to the point (thanks to bigoted Christians’ own efforts, ironically enough) where we don’t care why someone is bigoted or exactly what excuse someone offers for wanting to discriminate against others. Plus, most of us are aware of how easy it is to make the Bible look like it supports absolutely any position!
Granted, he isn’t talking to people who aren’t in his tribe. Non-tribemates are not going to be buying this book, nor are they going to be using his talking points. It’s hard to imagine a Christian who is affirming of LGBTQ rights reading this and going “Oh my gosh! The Bible is right! I need to vote against equal marriage and campaign for discrimination laws!” It’s even harder to imagine a non-Christian reading it and going “Wow, so I should totally give Christians a pass on being bigots if their bigotry is Jesus-flavored.”
The Biggest Indication of Error.
Dr. Sprinkle determines through his careful, ultra-prayerful, totally earnest (and one might even say ponderous) examination of the Bible that it condemns same-sex relationships. That means that his tribe’s culture war is, in his opinion, based on solid ground.
And that in turn means that not only can the condemnation of LGBTQ people continue, but that it must.
The message is perfect; the presentation is the problem.
(Where have we heard that idea before…?)
Not only that, but he discovers that pretty much everything else his tribe believes about gay people is also true: they are depressed and aching for a “church family” to love them. They’re “hungry for God’s word.” They’re totally blissed by celibacy. Reparative therapy works. People decide to go be gay because they were abused by their parents or by legalistic churches (BOO HISS!). Lying-for-Jesus is a totally legitimate and effective way to interact with people outside the tribe.
And TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t have to change a thing about themselves except to communicate their hatred and control-lust in a sweeter and “nicer” Jesus-y kind of way.
Really, it’s hard to imagine how someone’s assumptions could lead them more astray than Dr. Sprinkle’s have. Join me next time as we look at his idea of “listening” to gay people.
* A drive-by Christian once showed up on R2D’s comments loudly declaring that the Bible was incredibly easy and simple to understand, and I thought he was being sarcastic.