Slavery, seafood, sexuality and the Southern Bible

I’ve written many times here about Peter’s vision of the treyf smorgasbord in the book of Acts (most recently here, and earlier here).

I love that story, which is why I’ve linked to those chapters from Acts, reprinted them here, and summarized them many times. It’s a terrific story from the Christian Bible and I want everyone to read the whole thing. For some reason, that leads my conservative friends to accuse me of desperately wanting to hide this story and to prevent people from reading it. Please go read it.

Do you see anything at all in that sheet about race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality? No, you do not. And that is why, despite what Peter says, his vision was only just God's way of telling him that it was OK to eat elephants, giraffes and snakes. Obviously.

(Seriously, click the link there with the words “go read it.” Or click this link here. Read it. Read what it actually says rather than just what these alleged “conservatives” pretend it says. Go read it.)

Part of my fascination with that story, yet again, is that so many modern American readers of it insist that the apostle Peter was some kind of disobedient jerk who could not be trusted to report honestly on the meaning of the vision that God gave to him alone and that he alone witnessed.

That’s what Southern Seminary president Al Mohler says about this story. And it’s what this guy says about this story.

They don’t say this explicitly, in exactly those words. But they want to tell you what Peter’s vision means. And what they tell you it means is not at all the same thing as what Peter himself said it means and what Peter himself showed it to mean.

Don’t listen to Peter, they argue — Peter cannot be trusted to tell us what Peter’s vision means. And don’t listen to Luke.* Both of them pervert the obvious meaning of Peter’s vision, refusing to stick with the obvious literal interpretation of this divine revelation.

So, OK, here, for the um-tiddly-umpteenth time, is Peter’s vision as described in Acts 10:11-16, quoted here in the approved conservative formulation that surgically segregates those five verses from the whole story as told in Acts 10:1 through Acts 11:18 in which it reinforces the themes, also, of the larger story told in Acts 1:1 through Acts 28:31, inclusive:

He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

This vision, Team Mohler says, correctly, is very specific. It’s about food and diet and doesn’t mention anything else — nothing about sexuality or gender or ethnicity or liberation or Jubilee or reconciliation. God speaks in the imperative and God’s words are clear, direct and specific: “Kill and eat.” This imperative applies specifically to that which is shown in the vision, to “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.”

The voice of God speaks in this vision and Team Mohler notes that the voice of God is unambiguous and explicit. We have a verbatim quote from God: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

That’s God Almighty talking there. God Almighty, the source of this vision, explicitly states the meaning of the vision and sets a clear, unambiguous boundary on that meaning. To miss that point or to try to change God’s words would be to contradict the explicit, verbatim words of God Almighty.

That’s a powerful argument there from Team Mohler. Seems conclusive. They’ve cited chapter and verse and the authority of the very words of very God.

And yet some of us — obstinately — refuse to accept that this is all that this vision meant or all that it means or ought to mean. Worse than that, some of us who insist that this vision meant something more than that have the audacity to put other words into the mouth of God. We insist on changing the words that God Almighty spoke to Peter and, thereby, vastly altering and expanding the meaning of this revelation.

Let me note yet again that this vast alteration of the explicit words of God wasn’t my idea. If you want to blame someone here for changing the words and misquoting Almighty God, blame Peter and Luke. They started it.

They started it almost instantaneously, seconds after Peter received the vision, with the explicit words of God still ringing in his ears. In that instant, Luke writes, Peter reveals the confusion that would lead to his changing the words God spoke. Here is the very next verse:

Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen …

What is that all about? How could he possibly be “puzzled”? How could Peter fail to understand the very explicit meaning of what he had just seen, of what he had just heard God Almighty say, verbatim, three times?

This puzzlement separates Peter from Team Mohler. Mohler et. al. read the account of Peter’s vision in Acts 10:11:16 and they are not puzzled at all. They know exactly what it means and what it doesn’t mean and don’t see any basis for Peter’s confusion. It’s obvious. It’s clear. God spoke and all we have to do to understand is to listen to the literal words that God literally said: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The “four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” that had previously been forbidden as un-kosher were now fair game.

But the apostle Peter doesn’t listen to those verbatim words from God. Instead he listened to something else — to the knocking at his door. That knocking heralds the arrival of the two-footed, warm-blooded, un-feathered gentile servants from the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius. With the arrival of these visitors Peter arrives at a new conclusion about the meaning of his vision. He arrives at a conclusion that Team Mohler insists is the wrong conclusion — one that contradicts and changes the very words God Almighty has just spoken to him.

And make no mistake about it, Peter does exactly that. He changes the words. He misquotes God. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” God said. God said it, Team Mohler believes it, and that settles it. But Peter unsettles things by changing those words, saying instead that, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

That’s not what God said. God didn’t say “who,” God said “what.” God was talking about “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air,” and saying that un-kosher food is no longer forbidden. Peter’s formulation is radically different — it’s sweeping and universal in scope, going far beyond what God actually said in the vision. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Rebellion. Sin. Apostasy. Peter is putting words into the mouth of God. New words, different words, incompatible words that directly contradict what God Almighty had said, verbatim, just a few verses earlier.

To make matters worse, Luke plays along with Peter’s alteration of the words of God. The following chapters of Acts treat Peter’s perverse paraphrase of the words of God as authoritative, denying and defying the clearer, more obvious, less expansive literal meaning of the words God spoke.

This rewriting of divine revelation, this putting strange new words into the mouth of God Almighty is, alas, not unique to Peter and Luke. It happens all over the place in the Bible.

Isaiah** did the same thing Peter did. It’s an even more egregious case, actually.

In Isaiah 58, the prophet directly contradicts and alters the clear and unambiguous words of God as revealed in the books of Moses.*** God ordained and commanded feast days. God decreed particular sacrifices and offerings. These were not optional. This was the word of God Almighty.

But not only does Isaiah dismiss those explicit, verbatim words of God, he has the gall, like Peter, to put new words into the mouth of God. Isaiah brazenly interprets his own vision from God as a contradiction of what is clearly and explicitly established as God’s will. It’s not just that Isaiah makes God ridicule and dismiss those earlier divine statements about feast days, fast days and sacrifices, he also puts words in the mouth of God that deal with a much larger subject. Isaiah 58 changes what God had to say about the singular theological question that has shaped American history, American culture and American Christianity more than any other theological question: the matter of slavery.

The laws of Moses did not condemn slavery. The laws of Moses permitted, regulated and condoned slavery. In the books of Moses, the people of God were sometimes commanded to take slaves and to keep slaves and to punish slaves. Abraham, a righteous man blessed by God, owned slaves. Abraham’s owning of slaves did not adversely affect his standing with God as a righteous man or cause him to lose God’s blessing. On the contrary — Abraham’s owning of slaves is portrayed in the books of Moses as a sign of God’s blessing. We know that Abraham and others were righteous and blessed, in part, because they owned so many slaves.

That’s in the Bible. That’s canon.

And yet here comes Isaiah to turn all of that upside-down. Here comes Isaiah to put new words into the very mouth of very God — words that contradict the canonical words God spoke to Abraham and to Moses. Here comes Isaiah, like Peter, to suggest that the clearest, most straightforward and literal obvious meaning of those words of God is wrong — that the literal face-value meaning of those words is inadequate, that it’s not nearly big enough or expansive enough or inclusive enough.

Rebellion. Sin. Apostasy, etc.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

That’s in the Bible too. That’s also canon.

So here we are: Scripture vs. scripture, the Bible vs. the Bible. How are we to make sense of this?

That’s a difficult problem for any subject in any context. But we’re not talking about just any subject or just any context — we’re talking about the subject of slavery in the context of America. And that takes things to a whole other level.

The question of slavery was the foremost theological controversy in America in the 19th century, but it was never simply an abstract question for scholars in ivory towers to debate abstractly and disinterestedly. There was way too much money at stake for that.

It may seem crass to suggest that any amount of money at stake would influence a theological dispute or the way that Christians relate to and interpret the Bible, but you really need to appreciate the amount of money we’re talking about here.

No, no, no — much more money than that.

I’m not sure how much money you were thinking about when you read that phrase “too much money at stake,” but you’re underestimating the sheer, vast, mind-boggling size of the pile of money at stake in this dispute. Whatever amount you were imagining, the amount of money at stake in this controversy is bigger than that — even if you’re taking into account that the amount is bigger than what you’re imagining. Here’s Yale historian David Blight:

By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society — slave population — in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. … In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

So it’s hard to imagine that the pro-slavery side of America’s epic theological dispute over slavery could have been wholly disinterested.

And the anti-slavery side, of course, wasn’t disinterested either. Frederick Douglass, for example, never even tried to approach the theological and hermeneutical controversy over slavery from a vantage point of impartial abstraction. His personal interest in the controversy was unquantifiable — it was priceless.

So both sides had more at stake than can be easily imagined and the theological battle-lines were drawn.

On the one side were the ancestors — in every sense — of Team Mohler. They defended slavery by citing chapter and verse from the Bible and by arguing that this is how the Bible must always be read and understood, by citing chapter and verse. They listed dozens of biblical passages that unambiguously permitted, condoned or commanded slavery. Such passages, they said, must be interpreted literally. That was the only acceptable way to read the very words of very God. “Literal” became a rallying cry, a battle cry that shaped one faction’s theology throughout the 19th century and, thereafter, on through the 20th century and into the 21st.

But the other side quoted the Bible, too. They had a few passages, such as that chapter of Isaiah, that were no less explicit and unambiguous in condemning slavery. But this side didn’t rest its case on a literal reading of those literal words. Instead, they stepped back to look at the bigger picture, at the trajectory of the Bible, at the character of God portrayed in that Bible and the characteristics it taught for any people who sought to be God’s children. They sometimes cited chapter and verse, but they also sought to put verses into the context of chapters, and chapters into the context of books, and books into the context of a larger whole. For them the big picture was clear, and no single chapter-and-verse data point from one location along the grand trajectory could rightly be interpreted — “literally” or otherwise — as contradicting the clear meaning and direction of the whole.

So who won this theological argument? In a sense, the big-picture people did, but they didn’t really win on theological grounds. They argued that their hermeneutic was more consistent and more respectful of the whole of scripture, but that contention didn’t turn out to matter quite as much for the outcome of this debate as did, say, Gen. Sherman’s burning of Atlanta. They came out on top in the theological dispute because they were aligned with the side that came out on top in the Civil War.

Before that war, slavery had also been the subject of a fierce secular controversy over the meaning of the text of the U.S. Constitution. That conflict precisely mirrored the ongoing theological dispute. On the one hand there was the pro-slavery side, arguing for a literal interpretation of the literal text. And on the other hand was the anti-slavery side arguing for a big-picture consideration of that text’s larger trajectory. Victory in the war allowed the anti-slavery faction to settle that matter by subsequently rewriting the Constitution to include the revolutionary 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The dispute over the interpretation of the text of the Constitution thus was resolved — in theory — by amending the text to make it support the winning side.

Alas, this textual dispute settled by the lethal violence of war was quickly unsettled by the lethal violence of terrorism, with mass killings, night riders, lynchings and mob rule rendering the text itself — literal or otherwise — largely irrelevant throughout most of the country for a century afterward.

It may seem like I’ve drifted far, far afield from my original subject. I started out by discussing Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and somehow I’ve wound up at the Colfax Massacre.

Well, yeah. Because it’s all the same subject. The question I’m exploring about Peter’s vision is how we go about understanding what that vision means. Can we accept Peter’s interpretation of it, even though that requires us to change the literal words that God spoke to him? And there — at the intersection of biblical literalism and meaning — I as an American must also come inevitably and inexorably to Colfax and terrorism and the Klan and all the cruel violence of a history shaped by slavery.

These things are inseparable here in America. Here the claim of a “literal interpretation of scripture” is bound up, warp and woof, with the central, defining American dispute over slavery. American biblical literalism arose to prominence in defense of slavery and has shaped itself for centuries in pursuit of that one contention. American biblical literalism retains that same shape today, even when it is applied to diverse other subjects, from sexuality to origins to eschatology.

American biblical literalism has not changed. It preserves its essential fear of and antipathy toward any consideration of the bigger picture or the larger trajectory. It reflects its instinctual sympathy for siding with the deepest pockets. It reflexively strikes back against any hint of liberation or of Isaiah’s redefinition of Jubilee.

If you really want to understand Team Mohler, you have to appreciate that it is the heir to, and the latest incarnation of, Team Calhoun.

That’s not to suggest a direct equivalence or a moral equivalence between contemporary biblical literalists and their ancestors who produced this formulation of the hermeneutic they’re now employing. Just because Albert Mohler defends the Southern American biblical literalism that evolved to defend slavery doesn’t mean that I think he approves of slavery. I’m sure he doesn’t.

My point is not that Mohler believes in a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 and that he is therefore the moral equivalent of antebellum white racists. My point, rather, is that antebellum white racists devised a way of interpreting the Bible that, today, accounts for why Al Mohler believes in a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* The authorship of the Acts of the Apostles and of the Gospel of Luke is often attributed to Luke, the Gentile physician who sometimes accompanied Paul. This traditional attribution is defensible, but arguable. Neither book itself claims the name of Luke as its author. Usually, when we can’t be certain as to who the author of a work is, my usual practice is to refer to that author simply as “the author” — as in “the author of Acts” or “the author of Beowulf.”

I avoided doing that above, though, because such phrases acknowledging our uncertainty are perceived as tribal markers by the folks at Team Mohler. It’s perceived as a sign of dangerous seminary book-larnin’ that signals to them permission to dismiss anything else that might be said in this post. For them, the phrase “the author of Acts” doesn’t signify “the book is anonymous and we cannot be certain of who wrote it,” but rather it signifies “Warning: Liberalism alert! Ignore this person.”

So I’ve stuck with the traditional attribution of Luke in this post, a choice undermined by the confirmation here, in this footnote, that, yeah, I have read all those seminary books and absorbed all that dangerous information. And even though that doesn’t actually make me anything at all like the wicked Bultmannian liberal of their nightmares, I suppose it does make me close enough to the sort of person their pastor warned them about.

** Regarding the use here of “Isaiah” to refer to the author of Isaiah 58, see the footnote above.

*** Re: “Moses.” Ditto.

  • EricS

     That King James guy must have been a hard guy to live with. He wrote this entire book in one sitting and couldn’t keep any of this consistent?!

  • rrhersh

    I love it when people cite an imagined “holiness code,” which they made up, in order to justify why they get to ignore the bits of the Bible they don’t like, while insisting that we must nonetheless pay strict attention to those bits of the Bible that they do like.  All the while insisting that they are being “literal” in their reading.  I point at these people and laugh. 

    I wonder if, in the deep recesses of their brains, they realize that they are picking and choosing.  This might explain the vehemence with which they accuse anyone who disagrees with them of doing just this.

  • Mau de Katt
  • Mau de Katt

    Oh wait, I get it — while Matt Kennedy is willing to concede that the real meaning of Peter’s vision is that one shouldn’t call people unclean when it is clear by the evidence that God has made them holy, he says that only applies to Gentiles.  Because Gentiles are the only “other people” that that Bible chapter specifically mentions. 

    It says nothing about gays.  So therefore, either gays aren’t Gentiles, or gays aren’t people.

  • Mau de Katt

     And this would be called “selective literalism, I guess…?

  • Jurgan

    I’ve tried the “Peter’s vision” argument for acceptance of gays.  The other side always seems to end up with some version of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”  I then say that it’s part of their identity and can’t be separated, but that’s hard to convince people of.

  • P J Evans

     It’s hard to get people to understand something new when their entire religious (or political) identity is based on not understanding it.

  • Mary Kaye

    I am puzzled by Cornelius.  He is a Roman centurion and a Gentile; not a Jew, and not, until the end of this story anyway, a Christian.  When he is described as “praying to God constantly” or when he says that he saw an angel of the Lord, what god does he mean?   Is he a non-Jewish worshiper of YHWH?  Or does he mean Jupiter or Mithra or Ahura Mazda?  Can someone clear this up for me?

  • hapax

     There were many Gentile “God-fearers” (“phoboumenos”) at Jewish synagogues at the time.  Judaism was appealing to many in Hellenistic culture because of its documented antiquity and strict ethical standards (also because of the reputation of Jewish scholars for magical powers), but the requirements for conversion (principally circumcision, but also some of the dietary requirements) were culturally repellent.

    It is  usually assumed that Cornelius was one of this number.

  • Iain67

    I love how something similar happens for Jesus too, with the faith of the Canaanite  (Syro-Phoenician) woman (Matthew 18 21-28). Jesus is focussed on the Israelite ‘lost sheep’, and this woman challenges his small vision:
    25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
    He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
     “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
     Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
     
    Perhpas not the best language to apply to the current debate! But Jesus ends up helping someone new and different, expanding his ministry to a new group of outsiders.

    This stretches my picture of Jesus to something very diffierent to what I was taught in Sunday School!

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    It wasn’t just about money. Yes, there was a whole lot of money at stake. But talking about that can sometimes obscure what else it was about, what it was about at its core, and why slaveowners got so enraged about it, rather than looking somewhere else for money.

    It was about the right of certain people to rape other people. Rape was at the center of slavery. When abolitionists talked about liberating slaves, slaveowners would counter with a slew of things — and the slaveowners would be utterly furious. Frothing at the mouth, over the edge, violent, blood vessels bursting furious. 

    This is because abolitionists were telling them, often in so many words, “you are rapists. Stop tearing apart families so you may continue to rape. We are listening to the women you rape. We are hearing the cries of your own children whom you sell to your buddies so they may rape them. We are those women. We are those children. And we know the horrible judgment that awaits you.”

    The response of slaveowners was to to lie and pretend that black women were some kind of hyper-sexual Jezebels and that the only way to “protect” innocent white boys from their overt sexuality was to keep them under the “protection” of white men. Also that black men were irrational rampaging beasts and the only way to “protect” black women and especially white women was to leash black men. They neatly blended racism and misogyny in a masterstroke that is still with us today.

    Al Mohler and his ilk are in fact the direct descendants of slaveowners. The right wing in America has always pointed at black women as a bunch of whores (end welfare), at black men as rampaging beasts (lock them up), and pretended that rich white men were holy and had everyone else’s best interests at heart (“job creators”). They have always screeched at consensual sex as the bane of all that is holy. (Women aren’t supposed to be allowed to tell their husbands no. Two equal partners aren’t supposed to be able to tell each other yes. Slaveowners forbid slaves to marry.) And when we stand up and say, “no, you must stop, you are hurting us,” they only screech louder.

    Because hurting people is what this is about. Their inalienable right to hurt people, to control us sexually, is at the core of their religion and their self-image. The reason they are able to do this is because they have so much money. They control media, they have a seat at the high table, they are able to divide and conquer because they have so much money. But that is not the reason they want to do it.

  • Jurgan

    The idea of Jesus learning is shocking to some who view God as eternal and unchanging. Fred had a great post on Epiphany Day about how Lazrus’s death taught Jesus, and by extension God, how Job must have felt during his trials.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    “It says nothing about gays.  So therefore, either gays aren’t Gentiles, or gays aren’t people.”

    This is the crux of the matter, and from it springs the classic “love the sinner, hate the sin.” 

    On one side, we argue that whatever the understanding of homosexuality at the time, this in no way represents what history, sociology, psychology, biology and personal experience have taught us about homosexuality since, and that therefore we must choose between the spirit of the law and an outdated interpretation of the letter of the law. Therefore LGBT people as LGBT people are among those “I should not call…profane or unclean.”

    On the other side, they argue that of course no people are inherently unclean, but that does not mean there is no sin or that no people are unsaved. They ignore all we’ve learned about human sexuality over the millennia and how that would apply to the spirit of the law, instead stick to the old code and old interpretation of the letter of the law, stating that “I should not call…profane or unclean” those with homosexual inclinations, but that is not the same as saying God endorsed homosexual acts or relationships.

    Letter vs spirit, map vs terrain, destination vs trajectory. It seems to me that’s what it always comes down to.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I know this isn’t the point, at all, but I wanted to say that I love the three footnotes.

  • Lunch Meat

    That’s why I try to explain it as a trajectory, a journey. It used to be against God’s will to eat certain foods and wear certain clothes, but things changed and Jesus brought us more freedom. There is a continuing trend in our faith toward less reliance on law, ritual and externalities, and more on love and faith and purity of heart. Some people seem to be able to think that Christianity and God’s will could change while the Bible was being written, but once the last word of Revelation was written, everything was set in stone, and if a rule change didn’t make it in before then, it will be the same forevermore. That doesn’t make sense to me.

  • arcseconds

    wow.  You’ve been posting about that passage for some time, and i thought I got what you meant, but I must be slow on the uptake, because I’ve only just realised what your interest is here. 

    It’s not that Peter understands the vision as a commandment to tolerance (although that’s important, of course). 

    It’s that in this passage, we have literal, Biblical evidence of an Apostle not taking a literal attitude towards the Word of God.

  • friendly reader

    (Note for anyone who wants to look it up: it’s Matthew 15:21-28, quoting Mark 7:25-30; the differences between them are interesting)

    Well, and it shows Jesus breaking out of the either-or mentality, where advantages for one person takes way advantages for another. His initial response implies that if he takes off time and energy to help her, that automatically means he’ll have less for his mission with his fellow Jews (children of God). She points out that in his analogy, there’s still plenty of food for “dogs” (unclean outcasts) like her.

    If you want to take that in the issue at hand:
    “Lord, let me get married!”
    “I can’t break down the institution of marriage, even if it might help you.”
    “But you’ll only be expanding it. There will still be marriage for straight people.”
    “Good point, go get married.”
    (Although given that it’s miraculous, as in, the daughter is already well, shouldn’t he somehow make them already married? I don’t know how that would work…)

  • friendly reader

    I’ve always figured that what puzzles Peter was why God had given him this specific vision. Sure, he was hungry, but why all of a sudden now did God tell him to go eat a bunch 0f un-kosher food? Then Cornelius shows up and he sees the connection. So yes, Peter went with “reading it in context of the big picture.” Clearly a liberal heretic.

  • Tricksterson

    So it’s okay to hate gays as long as they’re Jewish then.  Got it.

  • Tricksterson

    So Cornelius was basically a fanboy.

  • friendly reader

    Okay, can anyone more versed in Evangelical-speak explain what he means in the  StandFirmInFaith post Fred linked to? I don’t see why he thinks he’s totally one-upped Fred by proving that the Holiness Code no longer matters. Isn’t that exactly Fred’s point — the Holiness Code doesn’t matter? And should I risk commenting on that dreadful site to see what reaction I get?

  • Joshua


    I’ve tried the “Peter’s vision” argument for acceptance of gays.  The other side always seems to end up with some version of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”  I then say that it’s part of their identity and can’t be separated, but that’s hard to convince people of. 

    I agree. I think the “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude is fair enough in theory, when applied to actual sins. But the fact is, you can’t cleanly separate gay behaviour from gay identity.

    This, to me, is evidence that gayness (gaiety? :) is not sinful. Nor bisexuality or transgenderiness or any of the other vast array of human sexual identity that provokes people here to strange acronyms.

    Actual sins can be regarded separately from the people who commit them. My personal grumpy bastardry is not a core part of my identity, and I won’t fight to keep it and have it recognised or celebrated. It’s just a different kind of personal trait to my sexuality.

  • Joshua


    Okay, can anyone more versed in Evangelical-speak explain what he means in the  StandFirmInFaith post Fred linked to? 

    I was raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical church for an early part of my life, and I don’t think you’re missing anything.

    The liberals just have to be wrong, so therefore, he’s proven how and why in his argument. Doesn’t matter so much what the argument actually says.

  • Lunch Meat

    The trick is, we go through all the laws in Leviticus, and find the ones that we break in our culture (eating shellfish, wearing mixed fabrics, touching women who are on their period). Then we create something called the Holiness Code and stick all those laws in there. Then when the New Testament argues against legalism or rules, we can limit the damage by claiming that applies to the stuff that everyone already wants to do. There is no chapter in Leviticus labeled “the Holiness Code”; everything is all mixed together. But because the Holiness Code sounds like a scholarly word, we can hide the fact that we’ve picked and chosen what to put in there, which is why sexual sins aren’t in there, despite the fact that “sexual sin” that is consensual and just outside marriage has far more in common with rules about eating than it does about not stealing–both are much more about personal purity and not much less about hurting people. See? It’s like magic!

  • Jurgan

    Well, then my argument ends up with saying that I don’t see why it is inherently sinful if it doesn’t do any harm.  I then was told that it was harmful to society, because the breakdown of the family correlates with the destruction of societies, such as the Roman Empire.  Had I had time to think of an answer (this was an in-person argument, not an internet one), I would have said that gay marriage strengthens families by reducing divorce and allowing adoption by gay couples.

    The woman I was arguing with was a very conservative, literalist fellow member of my church.  I asked her once how she dealt with the Timothy passage about women being silent in church, and she didn’t seem to have an answer.  My other favorite argument about trajectory is to cite the passage in Deuteronomy (I think) which says that men who rape unmarried women must marry them.  While that seems horrifying to us today, a woman who was raped at the time would be seen as damaged goods, unable to marry and thus with no means of support.  The law, then, basically said that the man would have to take care of his victim as penance.  That’s not the correct way to handle the situation today, but it was progressive for its time.  The trajectory is towards greater protection for the weakest members of society, so we shouldn’t simply apply by rote law from the Torah and the early days of the Jewish nation.  Strangely, when I asked about that passage, the woman above said that was “man’s law.”  I don’t know how that jibes with a supposedly “literalist” interpretation of the Bible.

  • Michael Pullmann

     He really should have handed it off to some beta readers.

  • rrhersh

     You forgot the part about bragging about reading scripture “literally” and not “interpreting” it like those liberals do!

    I was once at a service where they both disparaged “interpreting” scripture, and in the sermon explained that when Paul writes of the “the Greeks and the Jews” we should understand “the Greeks” to mean non-Jews in general, not merely persons of Greek language or ethnicity.  Now as it happens, I think that this interpretation is entirely sound.  But it is unclear what mental gymnastics were executed to avoid that nasty “I” word.  Excellent mental compartmentalization skills would be my stab at an explanation.

  • Joshua

    Yeah, well, sounds like an uphill battle alright. You can’t reason a person out of a proposition they didn’t reason themselves into, as they say.

     the breakdown of the family correlates with the destruction of societies, such as the Roman Empire.

    Yeeeeaaaaaaaaaaah. Look, all the classics scholars of the world! I’ve figured it out! The fall of the Roman Empire was actually Catullus’s fault! The fact that it was 400 years after he died proves how insidious he was!

    Strangely, when I asked about that passage, the woman above said that was “man’s law.”  I don’t know how that jibes with a supposedly “literalist” interpretation of the Bible.

    That’s because knowing is something you do with your heart, not your brain. Get with the program.

    I asked her once how she dealt with the Timothy passage about women being silent in church, and she didn’t seem to have an answer. 

    Actually, that’s pretty consistent, strangely.

  • arcseconds

     I must admit I don’t really get the footnotes.  I mean, I understand how it might be strategic to give the traditional authorships of those books in order to not set off ‘liberalism alert!’ alarms, but won’t they already be well and truly set off by everything else that Fred ever says on this ‘blog?

  • Jurgan

    Heck, we’ve seen Fred cover this ad nauseum in regards to our old friend Tim LaHaye.  “I interpret the book of Revelation literally!”  “So when it says it was written to the seven churches in Asia Minor…” “That refers to the seven time periods in the life of the church.”  “And the great beast with ten heads?”  “The United Nations, of course.”  “And this is literal?”  “Yes, this is the most plain reading of the text.”

  • Tricksterson

    Go ahead, just be sure and make sure your dainty underthings are made of asbestos lined kevlar.

  • Jurgan


    Yeah, well, sounds like an uphill battle alright. You can’t reason a person out of a proposition they didn’t reason themselves into, as they say.”

    Well, yes, but I’m not giving up.  One thing I’ve learned in these discussions is to appreciate that other people think differently.  I certainly don’t agree with them, but when I’m talking to people face-to-face whom I share a history with, it’s harder to dismiss them as simply unfeeling bigots.  And while the person at the opposite end of the table and I almost always disagree, I don’t think she means any harm.  I also like to think the other people in between us are at least being exposed to an alternate viewpoint- I’ve had a lot of people in this Sunday School class say they’re glad I’m there to give my opinion.  Yeah, it’s a Sisyphean task at times, but I figure I’m more likely to convince anyone than a stranger on the news or a protest march would.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

    Just because Albert Mohler defends the Southern American biblical
    literalism that evolved to defend slavery doesn’t mean that I think he approves of slavery. I’m sure he doesn’t.

    I’m not. I think a substantial portion of the Southern American Christian community would be fine with the reintroduction of slavery. Certainly, they have no problem with the proliferation of private prisons that supplement their revenue streams with forced labor from inmates, nor do they seem to have any problem with sweat shop labor around the world or the constant stripping away of all workers rights in this country. I’d really like someone to ask Al Mohler what he thinks of unions. I imagine he thinks they’re socialist in nature and therefore anti-Christian.

  • Jurgan

    P.S. Please don’t think I’m putting down protest marches in my last sentence.  That was not my intent, but I realized after the fact that it might be read that way.  I’m all for fighting for equality in every way possible, but different methods are effective for different people.

  • Joshua

    “Whatever happened to protesting nothing in particular, just
    protesting because it’s Saturday and there’s nothing else to do?”

  • Trixie_Belden

    I’m sorry if this comment is too silly – but I love that illustration!  The giraffe and the hippo look so cute!  Who could possibly want to eat them?

  • http://pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com/ Latebloomer

    Fred, I need to get me more of that “dangerous seminary book-larnin” that you mentioned.  I’m a recovering fundamentalist and trying to educate myself for the first time about the history of the book that used to control my life.  Any recommendations for reading on the history of the Bible and the formation of the canon?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    IIRC Fred doesn’t directly participate in these comments, but a good way to start might be to find an edition which publishes the original language (Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic) along with the most literal English translation and then side by side with a more free-flowing translation.

  • Mau de Katt

     

    They ignore all we’ve learned about human sexuality over the millennia
    and how that would apply to the spirit of the law, instead stick to the
    old code and old interpretation of the letter of the law, stating
    that “I should not call…profane or unclean” those with homosexual
    inclinations, but that is not the same as saying God endorsed homosexual
    acts or relationships.

    Interesting that this was the same argument Paul faced (or those Epistles say that Paul faced) when dealing with the Judaizers — those who said that “sure, God accepts Gentiles, but Gentilism is still a sin.  Gentiles must convert to Judaism/be circumcised first before becoming true Christians.  Paul even got into a fight with Peter (who apparently had forgotten the whole “vision & Cornelius” thing) over this.  And nowadays, even the fundamentalist legalists side with Paul over Peter in this argument.

    But of course, “Gentiles must become Jews first” doesn’t at all have anything to do with “Gays must become straight first” in terms of whom God accepts and calls holy.  Because the Bible says Gentiles, not gays.

  • Joshua


    a good way to start might be to find an edition which publishes the original language (Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic) along with the most literal English translation and then side by side with a more free-flowing translation. 

    I disagree. Interlinears – with the original and literal English translation side-by-side – are good tools for someone wanting to translate and desiring a little help, such as myself. They are a linguistic exercise.

    They would be very dry, and pretty much useless, for learning the history of a biblical text, or the formation of the biblical canon. That’s more of a biblical studies topic, which can be done very well in <insert modern language of choice>.

  • Joshua


    I’m a recovering fundamentalist and trying to educate myself for the first time about the history of the book that used to control my life.  Any recommendations for reading on the history of the Bible and the formation of the canon? 

    Good for you. This is one of my favourite topics. My background, in case it is relevant, is that I was raised in a fundamentalist kind of church, and when I left home wanted to find an intellectually rigorous faith. I wound up getting a degree in theology, which is a course of action I’d heartily recommend if you have the spare time and money.

    For free resources, I have found Wikipedia is actually really good, most of the time. Topics to read in particular include:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-source_hypothesis 
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_hypothesis 
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon 

    Also, the wikipedia pages for individual books of the bible, especially the sections on composition or dating. Books where the consensus of modern scholarship (tongue in cheek) differs from traditional ideas on authorship include:

    * The first five books of the Bible,
    * Isaiah,
    * Daniel,
    * Esther,
    * The gospels, at least Matthew and Luke,
    * The pastoral epistles, Timothy I and II and Titus.

    If you want to read a real book, my introductory textbooks were http://www.amazon.com/New-Testament-Story-An-Introduction/dp/0534541631 and oh, I forget the first testament one. I can recommend them as an introduction, though.

    However, while many people interested in their Christian faith academically start out wanting to study the Bible and so take biblical study papers, they often find the area that really tackles the things they’re interested in to be systematic theology - http://www.amazon.com/Faith-Seeking-Understanding-Introduction-Christian/dp/080282787X.

  • Ursula L

    Okay, can anyone more versed in Evangelical-speak explain what he means in the  StandFirmInFaith post Fred linked to? I don’t see why he thinks he’s totally one-upped Fred by proving that the Holiness Code no longer matters. Isn’t that exactly Fred’s point — the Holiness Code doesn’t matter? And should I risk commenting on that dreadful site to see what reaction I get?

    If you’re going to comment on such a site, I suggest you go to a public library or someplace else where you can somewhat conceal your identity.  Because the reaction you’ll get won’t be nice.
    But, if you have enough teaspoons, it might be worthwhile, because you might plant the seed of an idea in someone who hasn’t (yet) learned much about alternative ways to understand the world, but who isn’t 100% comfortable with the rules they are being taught. 

    As far as understanding the “rebuttal” goes, the key thing to remember is that “reinforcing or changing someone’s factually incorrect worldview when they encounter a factually correct worldview that doesn’t fit their incorrect worldview” is something very different from “proving the correct worldview to be correct in a logical and realistically correct argument.”  

    Humans have really good imaginations.

    This is, overall, a good thing.  I would not want to do anything that would reduce the human ability to suspend disbelief when encountering a really good fictionally story.  Because the ability to enjoy stories is one of the best things about being human.  

    The benefit from contributing to such a site is that many people who frequent such sites are part of the subculture that pressures them to limit their exposure to “The World” and to only listen to opinions that fit the understanding of their religious leaders.  Which means that any QUILTBAG [1]  individual who is part of the subculture and who frequents such a site may find that your post defending QUILTBAG folks is the first sympathetic and caring interaction they’ve had.   

    My inclination is to support anything that might provide a tiny bit of hope to a QUILTBAG individual who finds themself born into an anti-QUILTBAG subculture.  

    But any contact with anti-QUILTBAG culture is 100% certain to be very uncomfortable to any caring and humane individual.  So I don’t want anyone to feel pressured into confronting and interacting with anti-QUILTBAG culture if they don’t have the teaspoons to manage it without hurting themself.  

    **********************

    [1] QUILTBAG

    Q – Queer, Questioning
    U – Undecided, Uncertain
    I – Intersexed
    L – Lesbian
    T – Trans* (Transexual, Transgender, Transvestite, Trans-anything)
    B – Bisexual
    A – Asexual, Allies
    G – Gay

    A soft, warm, comfortable space that has room for everyone.  Even someone who is “Straight” by the most prudish, restrictive and boring understanding of “straight” is included if they are committed to being  “Allies” of everyone else staying warm in the nice quilted bag.  

    For the record, I first encountered the acronym “QUILTBAG” in the comments of the blog “Slacktivist.”  I don’t consider it to be the most accurate or useful acronym in every situation.  I do find it a useful acronym in a variety of appropriate situations.  

    And I appreciate the fact that it is a pronounceable acronym. And also an acronym that successfully invokes a non-threatening, comfortable, even cozy, imagining of its meaning.  

  • Loquat

    Regarding the Holiness Code:

    As you probably already know, the Bible has some rules that are about morality (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, etc), and other rules that are about ritual cleanliness (don’t eat shellfish, don’t touch a menstruating woman, etc), i.e. the Holiness Code. The basic disagreement here is which category the prohibition on gay sex falls into – Fred believes it belongs to the Holiness Code, while the StandFirmInFaith poster considers it a morality rule. So the SFIF post’s argument is essentially that dastardly liberal Fred is trying to pull a fast one by claiming that because God abolished the rules about ritual cleanliness we also get to disregard certain moral rules that were not in fact abolished.

    Now, why exactly one should consider the prohibition on gay sex to be a matter of basic morality rather than ritual cleanliness is a question you might be able to get some results with, if you do comment over there. Some might argue that it’s because all Biblical prohibitions on sex acts are matters of basic morality, but I haven’t seen any fundies declaring sex with a menstruating woman immoral lately, so there’s clearly at least one exception to that rule.

  • Caravelle

    I had that conversation once. The upshot was, AFAICT the person in question had no idea what “interpreting” meant (she even brought oral translations into it !), and just took it to mean “a reading of the Bible I disagree with”.

  • Joshua


    As you probably already know, the Bible has some rules that are about morality (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, etc), and other rules that are about ritual cleanliness (don’t eat shellfish, don’t touch a menstruating woman, etc), i.e. the Holiness Code. 

    My reading of Fred’s post is different. I think he does not make that distinction between these two categories at all, or at least, does not see them as relevant to Peter’s vision. Neither do I.

    Peter’s interpretation of the vision about the dietary laws that effectively separate Jews from Gentiles is purely about people: no group of people is unholy. According to Peter’s interpretation of the vision, but not according to the literal words of God in the vision, God has called Cornelius clean and Peter ought not to disagree.

    Fred feels, as do I, that this interpretation ought to include LBGT people in the same manner as it includes Gentiles like Cornelius. No artificial distinction between a repealable holiness code and an eternal morality code is needed.

  • Joshua

    Further to what I said before, my First Testament textbook was 
    http://www.amazon.com/Crisis-Story-Introduction-Old-Testament/dp/0874849349.

    However, a thing I’ve noticed among protestant, especially fundamentalist or ex-fundamentalist Christians wanting to formally learn about their faith, is that they are doing this to answer questions like: What do I believe? Why? How do I make it consistent with itself or with the world around me? Dunno if this is applicable for you or not, take it with a grain of salt.

    Such people tend to say, well, I believe or believed in the Bible, so that’s where I’ll look for answers, and hey, here’s this field of study called Bible Studies, that must be for me. And become quite disappointed.

    In Bible Studies done well, you leave your own beliefs at the door. What Isaiah thought about such-and-such is the key to studying Isaiah, not how later biblical authors read him, or how Christians read him now. It’s ancient history and archaeology and literature criticism. (All of which I love, I studied some ancient history before I ever started on it.)

    Systematic theology is the field that’s more about, well, how do we put all these different ideas, from the Bible or later Christian thought, together into a coherent whole. It’s there that a discussion of what the Bible might mean to us today takes place. It’s also there that a topic like the Trinity, how biblical it may be, and what biblical support it may have, would be discussed.

    So I included a reference to my introductory textbook in my previous answer, even though it wasn’t strictly relevant. I haven’t read Wikipedia articles on introductory topics in systematic theology so I don’t know whether to recommend them. I find Wikipedia to be pretty good on these things though, you’d think it’d be a trolling battleground, but maybe it’s too technical to attract attention or something. YMMV.

    Best of luck.

  • Elizabby

    I agree completely with Fred’s main point and have nothing to add to that. I’ve always liked how the Bible often has layers upon layers – a “tell” and then a “show” of the same point. In this case God tells, Peter shows. IMO it all works so well together.

    But I wanted to say thanks for writing this article, because it explains a lot to me about Americans that I didn’t understand before. I don’t know heaps about American history (I’ve read “Gone with the Wind”, if that counts) and I never realized how the history of slavery and the civil war was such a big part of the formation of America. Or that so much money was involved.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Hmm. Well, I knew someone who did actual honest to god Bible school, and he had one of those. My impression was that one use would be if you’re interested in the accuracy of a translation, to go back to the unrefined material (better yet, learn the source language but failing that…)

  • arcseconds

    The benefit from contributing to such a site is that many people who
    frequent such sites are part of the subculture that pressures them to
    limit their exposure to “The World” and to only listen to opinions that
    fit the understanding of their religious leaders.  Which means that any
    QUILTBAG [1]  individual who is part of the subculture and who frequents
    such a site may find that your post defending QUILTBAG folks is the
    first sympathetic and caring interaction they’ve had.  

    Further to Ursula’s remark, this won’t necessarily be limited to QUILTBAG folk.  It’s quite possible that many of them, including the straight ones, have simply never heard or payed any attention to a sympathetic argument for the rights of alternative sexualities, and others may have heard such things (or have thought about them indepedently) and are beginning to have their doubts.  You  have the opportunity of reaching those people, too.

    However, don’t expect capitulation! Or even any outward sign that doubts have been raised.   The best you can hope for is to raise doubts where none existed before, and people are unlikely to admit to that.  This is always the case when challenging entrenched views, but it’s particularly likely in this case. In such a culture, as Fred has been at pains to point out, ‘correct’ views on homosexuality etc. are a shibboleth.  Saying you have any sympathy with alternative sexualities is basically treason.

  • Jurgan

    “I don’t know heaps about American history (I’ve read “Gone with the Wind”, if that counts)”
    Not really… GWTW is heavily revisionist, and romanticizes the Old South more than it deserves.  It’s not so much the facts are wrong, but the tone of it is slanted so heavily in the South’s favor and demonizes the Union so much that I wouldn’t trust it as a historical source.


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