Matthew Vines‘ God and the Gay Christian has become something of a phenomenon. Charting Vines’ journey – with his family – from coming out to his Christian parents as gay to convincing them that the Bible really does “affirm” LGBT people, the book is essentially an investigation of what the Bible says about same-sex relationships. Weaving scriptural criticism and analysis with personal storytelling, the book charts how Vines and his father, Monty, explored what the Bible “really says” about homosexuality, coming to the conclusion that it does not reject all forms of homosexual relationship.
I’m gay, and I struggled deeply with my sexuality for a long time – Vines came out in college, while it took me until I was 27 to accept my own homosexuality. Although my family was an always has been fully supportive, and although I have never been religious, I know what it’s like to fear rejection because of your sexuality. I deeply empathize with Vines’ story. He tells that story well, and makes his case cogently. God and the Gay Christian is not a stupid or shallow book: it comes from a deeply personal place and charts a journey which is both heartening and inspiring.
I’m certain, too, that Vines’ Reformation Project – a project he began to “train Christians to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity from the ground up” – does good work. Helping congregations become more accepting of LGBT people is a good thing to do – something I, as an atheist and Humanist, cannot do so effectively. Christian churches are much more likely to listen to “insiders” like Vines than “outsiders” like me, so to a certain degree I am glad he is doing what he is doing.
That said, Vines’ project – to reconcile a “fully affirming” view of LGBT people with the “full authority of scripture” – is one that I, as a Humanist, cannot in good conscience support. Not because I do not think LGBT people should be un-affirmed, but because I do not believe the view he arrives at is fully affirming, and because I do not believe that recognizing the authority of scripture is a reasonable or ethical thing to do.
First, Vines’ view – alongside that of many “accepting” evangelicals – is in fact still a deeply conservative view of human sexuality and relationships. His “affirmation” of LGBTQ sexuality extends precisely as far as the edge of the marital bed. Vines believes that sexual same-sex relationships are OK as long as they occur within the confines of a marriage. All those who wish to pursue sexual and romantic satisfaction outside of marriage are explicitly denigrated by Vines as lost in unbridled lust for which marriage is the “remedy” – the same demeaning rhetoric the religious right has always used to condemn LGBTQ people, now limited in use only slightly to non-married, non-monogamous LGBTQ people.
The second problem with Vines’ approach is deeper. Throughout his book – and his recent discussion with Diane Rehm – it is clear that Vines’ first priority is not the well-being of LGBTQ people, but the integrity of his biblical interpretation. Though this may sound harsh, a simple question reveals it to be true: what if Vines and his father, having examined the biblical texts together, had come to the conclusion that God is most honored through gay people remaining celibate? Vines gives every indication that, had that been the outcome of their inquiries, he would feel bound to follow that injunction – regardless of the effect it would have on his life or the lives of others. Otherwise why go through the process of trying to determine what the Bible “really says”? In Vines’ mind, people are less important that Scripture.
Jayne Ozanne, Director of UK organization Accepting Evangelicals and an openly lesbian Orthodox Christian, demonstrated the same moral priorities on a recent discussion with homophobic bigot Rob Gagnon on UK podcast Unbelievable! Seeking to find common ground with her opponent, at one point in the discussion she says “Both sides of this debate feel passionately about the authority of scripture – and I think that’s a good passion.” Well, I don’t: that “passion” for scriptural accuracy over human decency is precisely the problem.
The root problem here is not just the teachings of scripture themselves: the Bible, as any complex text, can bear numerous reasonable interpretations, and people will be advancing different interpretations for as long as they are interested in the text. Not one will be able to claim final authority. The problem is with the meta-ethical principle that the way we should determine how to treat each other is refer to a properly-interpreted manual of ethics.
Regardless of the ethical position you arrive at after performing your interpretation – be it bigoted or ever so loving – to subordinate your moral judgment to any book is to abdicate moral responsibility in a heinous way. The only things which should have priority in ethical discourse is the experiences of the people involved, as best we can determine them, expressed (as far as possible) by those people themselves.
The truth is it doesn’t matter what the Bible “really says” about homosexuality. It doesn’t matter what any book says about it. What matters are LGBTQ people – our desires, hopes, and dreams. I hope one day Matthew Vines will come to realize that whether the bible “affirms” him or not is irrelevant: what matters is if he affirms himself.