As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
— Acts 8:36-38
So this story involves an episode of “Prophetic Perspectives on Current Events,” a goofball heresy talk show on the Christian-brand Morningstar TV network. The usual host of this show is a guy named Rick Joyner. Joyner is bonkers. He believes that climate change is a communist plot. He believes that President Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim.” And he believes that the winner of the Super Bowl is always a prophetic sign from God.
Joyner is a C-lister of the religious right — someone I’ve usually just ignored because responding to his outrageousness just seemed like nut-picking. But I’m less inclined these days to dismiss the nutjobs as unrepresentative. They’re in charge now — both of American government and of the white evangelical Christianity that helped put that new government in office.
Anyway, Joyner took some time off for the holidays and Wellington Boone was among the guest-hosts filling in with their own “Prophetic Perspectives on Current Events.” Boone, like Joyner, is quite a character. He might charitably be described as having an entrepreneurial spirit. Or, less charitably, as having a self-promotional streak and a knack for cashing in on the religious right’s anti-gay hustle. (At a conference hosted by The Liar Tony Perkins, Boone gave a speech in which he denounced “faggots” and “sissies” for an audience of Very Nice white evangelicals who would all be horrified by my coarse language when I say that this makes Boone a raging asshole.)
But even though this is coming from a fringe figure subbing-in on Joyner’s fringe platform, once you get past Boone’s oddball quirks, his approach and foreordained conclusion here is very much representative of respectable mainstream white evangelical teaching and preaching.
This is what Boone had to say: “Gays are eunuchs who have been tricked by the devil.”
“Let me say something that will absolutely blow the gay community’s mind right now,” he said. “You really have been misnamed. Just like ‘African-American’ is a misnomer — that’s not a correct name — it’s black American. So is ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual.’ What you are, are eunuchs. You are a eunuch culture. And in the Bible you let the devil trick you, though, by making you think your issue is sex with the same gender, who is actually having a union with God. And there are many, many places in the Bible where you can see you’re a eunuch. … Look up eunuch in the whole of the Bible; you’ll see that you sold yourself for human pleasure when you were made to please God. You are eunuchs. And Jesus even spoke to that point, he says, ‘There are you who are born that way, there are eunuchs who made themselves that way, and then there are eunuchs who were made to be eunuchs by someone else.’”
“Look up eunuch in the whole of the Bible.” That’s white evangelicalism in a nutshell. It’s irrelevant that Wellington Boone is, himself, black. This is the crux of white evangelical biblicism — the white theology that was designed and tailored and mandated in defense of whiteness.
It doesn’t ask us to read the Bible. It asks us to “look up” things in the Bible — to consult the Bible without reading it.
Scot McKnight is working through Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible in a fine series critiquing this standard white evangelical biblicism. But I’m not even sure “biblicism” is the right word. It’s more like Concordance-ism.* A concordance is, after all, the only way to “look up” something “in the whole of the Bible.” (Or you can use the concordance-like search function of an online Bible.)
I would say this is a terrible, terrible way to read the Bible, but, again, it doesn’t actually involve reading the Bible at all. And it often winds up being terribly misleading. Such concordance-driven “word studies” abstract and obscure the meaning of the specific passages they extract from the text and context around them. They obscure more than they reveal — obscuring even the fact that they’re obscuring. The choice of search terms shapes the outcome of the search. And, of course, the whole project is based on the illiterate premise that every relevant passage will include an explicit term labeling it as such.
That illiterate premise is a feature, not a bug. That’s what biblicism is for. That is how and why it was invented, adopted, and ultimately required for white evangelical American Christians.
Because slavery. See, if you read the Bible, the trajectory and its conclusion is unmistakable. But if you instead “look it up” in the Bible — turning to the entry for “slavery” in a concordance — you can compile a list of abstracted clobber-texts that can be weaponized as an “authoritative” defense of the opposite conclusion. It’s quite effective. That concordance search for “slavery,” after all, won’t ever turn up any of that “loose the bonds of injustice” and “break every yoke” business. Nor will it show you how Jesus made such a passage the mission statement for his ministry. Nor will it remind you of the freaking title of the second book of the Bible.And whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s quite easy to tailor the terms of your concordance search to ensure that you get only the result you’re looking for while avoiding anything that would challenge, question or contradict your prior conclusions. (Make sure you do your word search for “slavery” rather than for “liberation” or “oppression” or “injustice.”) Biblicism — concordance-ism — thus allows you to seek and find whatever it is you want to say and then to claim you’re not the one saying it, but that God’s Word is saying it, and therefore it is incontrovertible.
It’s a racket and a means of deception. And it doesn’t cease to be a racket and a means of deception just because most of the people now practicing it are doing so sincerely because it’s all they’ve ever been taught to do.
But even in the hands of a skilled manipulator, concordance-ism can be a tricky thing. It can backfire. “The word of God is … sharper than any two-edged sword,”** and you can cut yourself with it if you’re not very careful.
I think that’s what Wellington Boone has just done to himself here. “Look up eunuch in the whole of the Bible,” he tells his listeners, urging them to interpret all such passages as applying to LGBT people.
He seems to be thinking here of Deuteronomy 23:1, which is sometimes translated as “He that is a eunuch … shall not come into the congregation of Jehovah.” So if eunuchs are forbidden and excluded, then LGBT people are forbidden and excluded. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
Unfortunately for Boone, most English translations of that verse don’t include that actual word “eunuch” — they’re more colorfully literal (“he that is wounded in the stones”) — so the concordance search he urges his listeners to do won’t direct them to that passage.
It will, however, direct them to Isaiah 56:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
And it will direct them to the story from the book of Acts quoted at the top of this post — a story that seems intended to be read as a direct allusion to that passage (it starts with a man reading Isaiah). “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. …”
Black, queer, foreigner, big-government tax collector. Philip tells him about Jesus. He replies, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
Here’s Philip’s entire response: “Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.”
I don’t think that’s what Wellington Boone had in mind when he urged his audience to “look up” what the Bible has to say about those he personally wants to exclude from the family of God.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
* Princeton University Press has an interesting book series on “Lives of Great Religious Books.” I’d love to see them include Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible in this project, with a “biography” of that book and the history and development — and eventual hermeneutical surrender to — concordances in general. I nominate Christian Smith to do the writing.
** That’s from Hebrews 4:12, a passage that concordance-ists regard as a reference to the Bible — a canon that did not yet exist at the time Hebrews was written and that cannot possibly be what this verse is referring to. See also every other text that concordance-ists cite as being about “the Bible.”