I am not sure why Eugene Peterson’s flip-flop on gay marriage is such a big deal. But (all about mmmmmeeeeEEE) I’m not in the habit of taking my cues any more from popular Christian authors or personalities. That could be age, temperament (naysayer), or wisdom — and in the right combination separating those traits may be redundant. But I continue to be surprised by what catches on among evangelicals who fret (even if I don’t want to come across as being above it all).
While following some of the reactions, I came across responses from Tim Keller, John Stott, and Sam Allberry. Since Stott is deceased, I should have known that these would not be direct reactions to Peterson. What caught my eye was the link to a review by Keller — can you believe it? There on display is the same affliction that got Peterson into trouble in the first place — namely, failing to minister God’s word and telling us instead about thoughts and reflections based on a lot of stuff you’ve read.
What is especially noteworthy about Keller’s handling of such a controversial subject as homosexuality if he is going to maintain his New York City profile is his ability to quote authors (other than the prophets and apostles).
First some of the debate about homosexuality in church history and antiquity:
These arguments were first asserted in the 1980s by John Boswell and Robin Scroggs. Vines, Wilson and others are essentially repopularizing them. However, they do not seem to be aware that the great preponderance of the best historical scholarship since the 1980s — by the full spectrum of secular, liberal and conservative researchers — has rejected that assertion. Here are two examples.
Bernadette Brooten and William Loader have presented strong evidence that homosexual orientation was known in antiquity. Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.
For comparisons of homosexuality to slavery Keller can take you to more scholarly literature:
But historians such as Mark Noll (America’s God, 2005 and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 2006) have shown the 19th century position some people took that the Bible condoned race-based chattel slavery was highly controversial and never a consensus. Most Protestants in Canada and Britain (and many in the northern U.S. states) condemned it as being wholly against the Scripture. Rodney Stark (For the Glory of God, 2003) points out that the Catholic church also came out early against the African slave trade. David L. Chappell in his history of the Civil Rights Movement (A Stone of Hope, 2003) went further. He proves that even before the Supreme Court decisions of the mid-50s, almost no one was promoting the slender and forced biblical justifications for racial superiority and segregation. Even otherwise racist theologians and ministers could not find a basis for white supremacy in the Bible.
He even uses awareness of 19th century debates about slavery to take a swipe at Southern Presbyterians:
During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the Scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila — they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible — across diverse cultures and times — ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it is hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.
What are those cultural spectacles? The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe “you have to be yourself,” that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.
As if the Bible supported abolitionists or anti-slavery arguments were immune to “modern western culture’s narratives about the human life.” Sometimes Keller wades into scholarly material superficially so that it agrees with him, but I digress. (Funny how when I bring the Bible into the history seminar it doesn’t gain me any credibility.)
Then you have Keller appealing to more academics to critique these modern “narratives”:
These narratives have been well analyzed by scholars such as Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. They are beliefs about the nature of reality that are not self-evident to most societies and they carry no more empirical proof than any other religious beliefs. They are also filled with inconsistencies and problems. Both Vines and Wilson largely assume these cultural narratives. It is these faith assumptions about identity and freedom that make the straightforward reading of the biblical texts seem so wrong to them. They are the underlying reason for their views, but they are never identified or discussed.
Maybe this is impressive to David Brooks and other columnists and reporters at the Times, but wasn’t Keller called to minister God’s word? Where is Moses, Jesus, or Paul? Nothing wrong inherently with being aware of some of the scholarly and public intellectual literature. But can’t you give us a “thus saith the Lord” pastor Tim?
When he finally gets around to the Bible, Keller accentuates the positive (the way Mr. Rogers did):
The saddest thing for me as a reader was how, in books on the Bible and sex, Vines and Wilson concentrated almost wholly on the biblical negatives, the prohibitions against homosexual practice, instead of giving sustained attention to the high, (yes) glorious Scriptural vision of sexuality. Both authors rightly say that the Bible calls for mutual loving relationships in marriage, but it points to far more than that.
In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes which generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N.T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.
That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories — they each see and do things that the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a life-long covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together.
Gee golly williker. Marriage is just one stroll down the trail of delight (or maybe through Homer Simpson’s Land of Chocolate). Where is the grit of NYC? Where is the complicated character of life in the modern world where we have to make tough choices, or recognize the good and less attractive in all people we meet, and the institutions in which moderns operate? Where is the edge that attracts at least some people like Brother Mouzone or Woody Allen to the Big Apple? The view from Keller’s study is awfully pleasant (and crowded with books other than the Bible).
Meanwhile, Russell Moore made a decent point about Peterson when he compared the evangelical celebrity to Wendell Berry’s own flip-flop on gay marriage:
And now Peterson says he’s willing to walk away from what the Scriptures and 2,000 years of unbroken Christian teaching affirm on the conjugal nature of marriage as the one-flesh union of a man and a woman reflecting the mystery of Christ and the church. I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books. I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me. Should I stop reading him, since he has shown a completely contrary view on an important issue of biblical interpretation—and, beyond that, of the very definition of what it means to repent of sin?
This is the same sort of conversation had a few years ago among those of us who’ve been taught much by novelist and poet Wendell Berry when he, too, embraced the zeitgeist on marriage and sexuality. Some said we should throw out our Berry books and never read him again. Others, I’m sure, seeing how much they’d benefited from Berry on place and memory, probably decided to follow him right into this viewpoint. Maybe the same will happen with Peterson now.
True enough, but when Moore says we should not throw Peterson’s books away (who am I to adopt such a move since H. L. Mencken sets on my shelf of worthies right next to Machen — alphabetically anyway), I wonder why Mr. Southern Baptist doesn’t distinguish Peterson as a would-be pastor and theologian from Berry who simply is a writer and farmer. Berry makes no pretension to issue “thus saith the Lord’s” based on his reading of Scripture. Peterson, however, operates in the world of Scripture and theology (and all you usually get — my impression — is “the Lord would be really happy if you might ever consider this and you may also flourish forever and ever”).