Monthly Archives: June 2012

A Great History Course

I’m currently loving this course from Yale:

The Early Middle Ages: 284-1000

I have to say I think Yale’s online courses are the best produced and most enjoyable. I’ve watched about half of them, and each semester a new interesting batch is released.

Could there have been a better time to be alive?

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How Fundamentalists Won the War and So Killed Christianity

Read this post on the Friendly Atheist where a liberal Christian makes the observation that atheists accuse her of not being a true Christian, or otherwise having a fundamentally flawed understanding of Christianity, because she supports LGBT rights.

Fair enough. Then read the comments, where comment after comment after comment is a variation of: its in the bible, you don’t believe it, therefore you’re not a real Christian. Erm, you didn’t read the article there, did you?

It occurred to me as I gamely tried to respond, but got intimidated by such a massive wall of stupid, that the fundamentalists have won. They have successfully convinced the world that Christianity is nothing more or different to bible worship. That being a Christian is believing in an inerrant, absolute bible. That the ultimate goal of Christians is to follow every instruction in the bible. We get epic lack of self awareness like:

[after ‘agreeing’ that we shouldn’t tell Christians they aren’t real Christians, returning ad-nauseum to the point that liberal Christians aren’t following the bible:] This seems like a lot of contradiction for a religion or believers in a holy book that is supposed to be somehow timeless, perfect, or even just “inspired” by god.

Yep, High five for Pat Robertson and his cronies there, right out of the fundy play-book.

Of course, you might be thinking, it isn’t just fundamentalists that believe the bible is inspired by God. It is in the creeds and statements of faith of many churches. True, but you have to actually find out what the phrase means. And it seems that fundamentalists have won the PR war to get their vision of theology to be accepted as default, as the right one. Perhaps because it is so simple, and obvious. Perhaps they snare atheists the same way they do new converts: by packaging Christianity in a shiny plastic packaging with a 10 second sound bite.

I don’t blame a blog full of ignorant atheists for not having a grasp of theologies of the bible, nor of not wanting to (heaven knows it isn’t the best way to spend your time). But I find it borderline incomprehensible that you can reply to someone saying “I have a different understanding of how to use the bible to fundamentalists” by saying, effectively, “the fundamentalists are right”. I suspect it greatly pleases the religious right that they’ve got so many atheists parroting their theology. Well done fundamentalists, you won.

But if that sticks, if Christianity only gets to be defined by extremists on the right. Well it probably doesn’t have a very long future. Maybe that’s what these atheists want. Maybe its a calculation, that if they side with the fundamentalists against liberal Christians, they’ll divide and conquer. Maybe. But I suspect there isn’t nearly that degree of awareness going on.


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Church of England on Same Sex Marriage

The Church of England today released a formal response to the (UK) government’s plans to allow same-sex couples to marry. Unsurprisingly they object to the idea that their unresolved homophobia might not be enshrined in British law and forced upon people who don’t share their theological or moral outlook. There’s plenty of language in the document about the bad effects that legalising same-sex marriage would have on society and culture, but no specific examples, of course, much less any specific examples shown to have arisen in those places around the world that have already passed this legislation.

There is plenty of reprehensible immorality on show in the document. And the usual canards that assume the Church’s current religious understanding of marriage is the ‘traditional’ marriage held through all history. One particularly disgusting foray into this territory is:

11. Marriage has from the beginning of history been the way in which societies have worked out and handled issues of sexual difference. To remove from the definition of marriage this essential complementarity is to lose any social institution in which sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.

I sat with my mouth open at this. It either betrays an astonishing lack of historical understanding, or else an immense degree of misogyny. This is an institution that has socially, legally and theologically been used as a means of oppressing women, from the beginning of recorded history. And it is to this tradition we should look. We should want to retain this institutions role in treating the sexes differently? Staggering. I’d say it is a moral imperative to strip this institution of any vestige of its role in the subjugation of women, by making it a truly equal partnership.

As well as blatant bigotry in various forms, we also are treated to logical fallacies and disingenuousness of this kind:

[The government consultation document states] “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage”. However, if one of the significant elements of the commitment that a man and a woman generally make to each other in marriage is to be open to bringing children into the world as a fruit of their loving commitment, then the commitment of same-sex couples (whatever its virtues) cannot be acknowledged as identical.

Notice the little sweep of synonyms there. “You said these things were just as significant, but we can show they are not identical” – erm, yes?

Why not recognize that, in a culture where homophobia is still rampant and ugly, committing oneself to a same-sex marriage is a commitment to a shared battle with society. Isn’t that commitment, in that sense, more significant than a commitment between two people who will receive not one iota of public criticism and attempted shaming for their action? We can play that game all day, but it doesn’t change the fact, that wasn’t what the government wrote.

And the whole thing about children just really rubs me up the same way. I am sure more children are born to or adopted by gay couples than to couples marrying in their 50s.

So once again the Church tries to dress its festering bigotry in a smart gown and caring language. Much as it did, incidentally, when it argued for the retention of the slave trade, or against successive legislative reforms on women’s rights, or against the legalisation of gay sex, or against civil marriage incidentally (a fact that is rewritten in the document to say that the Church supported civil unions*!) or against a whole raft of other things they now officially endorse. The hypocrisy is monumental. In 50 years the Church of England will be performing same-sex marriages without batting an eyelid, they’ll have moved on to some other blithe bigotry and will be championing their acceptance of LGBT folk as evidence they’re reasonable, socially responsible folk. Just as they’re happy to affirm the role of women in society, less than 100 years after arguing vehemently against it.

I have no doubt that time will prove them wrong.

* The Church, of course, did support Civil unions, at the point where the options before them were civil union or full marriage. They consistently argued against it before then. And even then, when the civil unions bill was passing through parliament, the unelected bishops who sit there were instrumental in a series of wrecking amendments designed to derail the legislation. So strictly, narrowly, one could say they favoured civil unions. But that is staggeringly disingenuous.


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The Bible and Homosexual Acts

Here’s a list of the explicit mentions of homosexual activity in the bible. Notes follow.

1. Genesis 19:4-5 — The story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

2. Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. — The laws Moses gave to Israel.

3. Romans 1:26-27 — Paul says that, because people didn’t worship God, God ‘gave them over’ to same-sex attraction.

4. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 — Both lists of various evils that the unrighteous commit.

And, that’s it. There are other passages one could say are pertinent to the discussion (David and Jonathan – Gay love or Bromance?), but nothing explicit. So I want to give a rundown of these passages and how some Gay Christians I know get around them, and how I understand them.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Gay Christians: This story isn’t about homosexuality. It is about lack of hospitality. It is a relatively late interpretation that Sodom is about sex. Early commenters don’t make that claim.

I say: I agree, the story doesn’t appear to be told about homosexuality. In fact if you read it as being about sexual morality at all, then Lot just doesn’t make sense. How can he be the righteous one when he wants to give over his daughters to be raped? But, that’s as true as it is disingenuous, while the sin of Sodom isn’t primarily homosexual behavior, it is pretty clear the writer is using the threat of gay sex as illustrative of the depravity of the Sodomites. I read the writer as bringing in his bigotry on the issue in service of his narrative. But given that this didn’t actually happen, so what?


Gay Christians: This is part of a whole detailed code that God gave to Israel to follow. Christians see that code as typical (i.e. it is the concepts behind it that are important, not the specific prohibitions) and understand it has been fulfilled in the holiness of Christ. Therefore Christians understand it is no longer binding.

I say: Please. This passage comes right after an extended and detailed description of who you’re not allowed to approach for sex. Not only is gay sex punishable by exile or death, but so is having sex during a woman’s period, and eating black pudding. So come on, let’s get a sense of how batshit insane it is to base any morality on this crap.


Gay Christians: This is an interesting rhetorical trap, Paul is reciting a stereotyped list of all the things Jews typically thought were terrible about non-Jews, with the aim of springing it at the start of Romans 2 by saying that those without Christ are just as bad. The passage shows nothing more significant than Paul’s cultural assumptions.

I say: Okay, that’s a nice theory, but look at the rest of the list. No, there’s a better way to deal with Paul. Just remember this is the Paul of women being silent. The Paul who thinks it is a sin for women not to cover their heads. The Paul who thinks slaves should return to their master and submit to them. There are only tiny numbers of Christians who don’t understand we can throw out Paul’s instructions around women and slaves. So let’s not get hung up when he is a raving bigot on other subjects.

1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy

Gay Christians: The word used here for ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ is found first in Paul’s letters, and only became common in later Greek, and only much later did it become synonymous with gay sex. If Paul wanted to talk about gay sex, there were perfectly good ways of saying it.

I say: Don’t buy it. It is odd that Paul uses this word, it probably does mean he had some interesting reason. And probably the forger of 1 Tim used it to sound more like Paul. But please, the Greek is really obvious. If Paul had used this word to mean something else, he must have known a large number of his readers would have understood it as being about men having sex with men. If I write “and those sinners, were so bad, they were murdering and manhumping, and stuff”, its pretty clear what I mean. You may correctly assume I had some reason for using that bizarre term, but it wouldn’t be ambiguous what it meant. Just because someone 550 years later writes “what a sick guy, he was even manhumping his wife”, wouldn’t make it any less obvious. No, both Paul and the writer of 1 Timothy meant gay sex. And (see my comments on Romans above), so let’s just say they got it wrong.

This post was motivated by a discussion with my mother-in-law on the subject. Who despite claiming to be a bible believing Christian, was eager to stress that her church would ostracize slave-holders and welcome women preachers and remarried couples.

I really believe the best thing Christians can do in this discussion is challenge the pretence that other Christians follow the commands of the bible. Christians have been selectively ignoring inconvenient passages in scripture since the early church (half of the New Testament epistles is one big argument about exactly that). What the bigots need isn’t fancy hermeneutics or word studies, but a history lesson.

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