I wrote another piece for the Rock & Sling blog called “Expectations,” about the birth of our third child. He was nearly born at home, on the side of the road, or in the parking lot outside the Emergency Room. It was exciting and scary!
A year ago I began thinking about modern scholarship of the Bible, and how I had never seriously considered it. Up until then, whenever I cracked open the Good Book, I took everything at face value. I accepted whatever my evangelical Christian tradition held regarding the authorship or historicity of any given passage. Although I knew Christians who disagreed on specific theological issues (e.g. the role of free will, how to interpret the book of Revelation, what type of baptism should be used, the role of women, etc.) all of us agreed on certain bedrock assumptions including the authorship of the Torah or the factual nature of the historical books of the Old Testament. God inspired a small collection of men to write down these books, and they were without error.
Though I grew up reading the Bible as literally and factually true in all points, I began this blog detailing how I changed my mind about the issue of creation and evolution. I learned what modern science had to say about origins and I adjusted my view of Genesis. Mostly that was a matter of reconciling science and faith, seeing them as compatible rather than opposed, though it also concerned the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (and other passages, too, but especially those ones). I first encountered scholars who explained that it was possible to interpret the days of Genesis as long periods of time. They allowed for an ancient universe, though they still rejected evolution, presumably because it meant that humans could not be sufficiently distinct from animals and thus couldn’t truly be in the image of God. Later I read Christians who accepted evolution and had synthesized views of science and the Bible.
Despite changing my views on Genesis and the creation account, I still never considered much of modern biblical scholarship. All I had been exposed to were those who would defend against the attacks of modernism that had tried to debunk the traditional readings of scripture. So while at Bible college I had learned about the documentary hypothesis concerning the Torah—sometimes referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis for its originators or other times referred to as JEDP for the sources that comprise the Torah (i.e. Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly)—I basically learned that it was an evil theory aimed at undermining belief in the Bible. We never spent time actually trying to learn why anyone would have come up with the theory in the first place.
So in a post I wrote more than a year ago, I explained that I wanted to be a modern day David Lurie, a character in a Chaim Potok novel who wrestles with modern scholarship on the Bible even as it shakes his faith. I began reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible to get a sense of what modern scholarship has to say about the Bible. It’s been eye-opening. I’m now more than halfway through the book, taking it real slow. It’s overwhelming at times to have the rug pulled out from under me. I have to sit on the floor for a while and think about it, then get back up, only to have it happen again with each new chapter I read. What follows are some of my thoughts so far, with some examples. I wrote portions of this post immediately after reading passages in Kugel so some of this records my real-time reactions to the book in an almost live-blog format.
Kugel’s book is very unsettling. Each new chapter spends some time looking at a passage first from the ancient interpreters’ viewpoint, and it feels mostly familiar. Much of my evangelical fundamentalist understanding is roughly the same on these points. I can at least see the connection from what they thought to the way I was taught. But then comes the modern scholarship on the passage. And it’s rationalist, and makes the passage come apart and mean something different than I ever thought.
To illustrate how Kugel organizes his chapters, let me give an extended example from the book on a passage that I had never really thought much about before. In Genesis 34 we get the story of Dinah, the lone daughter of Jacob amidst the 12 sons. This is the story known as “the rape of Dinah.” It comes after Jacob flees his uncle Laban with his wives, children, and livestock. Jacob wrestles with God and has his name changed to Israel. Then he meets up with his brother Esau who he had swindled out of blessing and birthright years earlier. Now Jacob and his household settle in the land of Canaan, outside the city of Shechem. A man from the city who also is named Shechem (same as the city) sees Dinah and rapes her. He falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons aren’t too happy about this, but they agree to the marriage on one condition: Shechem, his father Hamor, and all the other men must get circumcised. They undergo the knife, and while they are recovering, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the convalescing men with swords. It’s all pretty gruesome.
Kugel presents the various lines of thinking by the ancient interpreters on this passage. First, what is the moral of the story? At first glance, it doesn’t appear to have one. But looking closer, they were able to point to the statement in verse 7: “such a thing must not be done.” In context, it might be the implied response the brothers had upon hearing about what happened to Dinah. On the other hand, this might be the voice of the narrator of the story, which would in fact be God who divinely inspired the writing of the text. But if the point of the story is the retaliation for Dinah’s lost honor, why give the story a whole chapter? The ancients were bothered by the apparent lie that the brothers tell when agreeing to the marriage. Simeon and Levi kill the Shechemites even though they abided by their side of the agreement.
Some interpreters said the real reason for the story was the problem of intermarriage. Indeed, that was a problem for Israel’s sons for generations, including the troubling account in the book of Ezra where the men are commanded to divorce foreign wives, which they do. So the brothers did not lie when they said that the marriage was a disgrace and should not take place, and their scheme to slaughter the Shechemites was justified. Some other interpreters thought perhaps the brothers were divided on the idea of Dinah’s marriage to Shechem. Perhaps ten of them thought intermarriage would be okay if they were circumcised, but Simeon and Levi disagreed. So there was no lie because the offer was sincere if not unanimous.
When modern scholars approach the stories of Genesis, they often are looking for an etiological message (a just-so story that explains how something became the way it is). But there doesn’t appear to be anything that the Dinah story explains. For one thing, Dinah completely disappears from the biblical record. The entire incident is only referred to once more (apparently) when Jacob is dying and he gathers his sons together to give them blessings. Simeon and Levi get left out of the blessings because of their violent actions against the Shechemites.
It’s all rather strange for a few reasons. Though Simeon and Levi apparently slaughter all of the Shechemite men in Genesis 34, Jacob himself seems to refer to having conquered Shechem “with my sword and with my bow” (Genesis 48:22). The city of Shechem appears again in the book of Joshua and is apparently re-populated, but there is no reference to what had happened before. Then in Judges 9 there is another reference to a guy named Shechem who lives in the city of Shechem whose father’s name is Hamor, just like in the story back in Genesis 34. Quite the coincidence.
Kugel points out that perhaps there is something that the Dinah story might explain. Perhaps it makes sense of the blessing that Simeon and Levi do not get from their father Jacob in Genesis 49. But a careful reader will note that the curse the brothers receive does not in fact have much connection to the story of the rape and the subsequent slaughter of an entire city. Some modern interpreters conjecture that the story happened at some other time (perhaps the time of the Judges) and has been inserted and retrofitted into the Genesis account to make sense of the fate of Simeon and Levi. So by this theory, Jacob never even had a daughter named Dinah. She was added to the text later with a story of her lost honor in order to make sense of the two brothers who were cursed.
This chapter on Dinah kind of blew my mind. The more I thought about the passage, the less it made sense with a straight forward traditional reading. I no longer know what to do with it. I’m not sure I accept all of the theories of the modern scholars, but I can’t completely trust the ancient interpreters either at this point. It’s a quandary.
Kugel points out many other compelling reasons to take modern scholarship seriously on matters of authorship and sources when it comes to interpreting Genesis. Many of the stories in the primeval era are etiological (again, an explanatory story for why things are the way they are), so the story of Cain and Abel might be an explanation about the Kenites, nomadic neighbors of Israel or the story of the Tower of Babel might be an explanation about the spread of language and the evils of Babylon’s religion and culture.
So if things aren’t what I thought, like Adam and Eve are not literal people but types, or that the Flood story comes from ancient Mesopotamian sources, what am I left with? A belief that God still exists and reveals himself to humanity. The Biblical accounts are human attempts to chronicle those revelations. But will even this understanding stand up to scrutiny?
The primeval literature (Genesis chapters 1-11) seems less vital, somehow, that it be historically true. It’s mythic and explanatory, an attempt to understand the world and how it got to be the way it is. When it comes to Abraham, it seems more important that he be a real person with a real relationship with God. Scholarship has seesawed on the question of Abraham’s actual existence. But it seems plausible that he was a real man. As I was about to read about the covenant and I was almost scared. After I finished and read how cutting up animals was common practice for covenants, I was relieved that the Abraham story makes sense. Phew. It could be true.
The next chapter was very thought-provoking. Kugel pointed out that there are two very different portrayals of God in the OT. At times he is anthropomorphic, appearing as an angel or man, and does not seem omnipresent or omniscient. The people he appears to seem to “be in a fog” until they realize (if they do) and then they fall prostrate. It happens to Joshua, Samson’s parents, and even to Abraham. It’s hard to mesh this view of God with the more traditional view of an incorporeal, omniscient, etc. being. But the passages that portray God this way seem to be real experiences with the divine. Was it a matter of perception for these people in the OT?
Reading this book makes me feel like I’ve jumped off a cliff and I don’t know where I’ll land. Will it be a 2 foot drop or a 2,000 foot freefall? Will I get battered and bruised on the way down? Will I even land anywhere? There’s no going back. I want to know the truth and face modern scholarship squarely in the face and take it seriously. I don’t want to rest on what I was always taught and accept it blindly. I want the faith I retain to be my own. But I’m worried what this will do to my faith.
Is it possible for me to lose faith? Is there a point at which I could learn something that would make me give up on the Bible? I don’t know. I don’t think I would have been able to say that when I was younger. I was confident, even if I didn’t know everything. I had unshakeable faith. Now all I know is that I have more questions and doubts than ever. But that’s not to say that I’ve given up.
It’s quite a rollercoaster to think through all of these interpretations. While I feel most familiar with the ancient interpreters, even their suppositions are often about problems I never saw in the text. It reminds me of the Talmudic scholars in a Potok novel as they tease out a passage and look at it from all angles. But then the modern scholars come at it and it seems like they’re trying to debunk everything. Take God out of it. Make it entirely a human document. And I don’t know what to do with that. It’s so foreign to me to look at the Bible that way.
A few months into my reading of Kugel I started reading Robert Alter’s Ancient Israel, a translation of Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, with extensive commentary, especially on translation. I wanted to read this book after seeing the smaller version that focused solely on the life of David. Alter’s translations have been praised for their poetic plainness and fidelity to the original Hebrew. I read the first chapter of Joshua, which isn’t a book that holds a lot of interest for me. When I was younger the stories of the taking of the promised land seemed heroic and adventurous, but now they seem a bit more horrific.
What struck me was the literary composition of the first chapter. It’s basically four speeches with a few words in between as connective tissue. First God speaks to Joshua, then Joshua speaks to the overseers, then to the trans-Jordan tribes, and lastly those tribes reply to him. In their reply, they say the exact same phrase (“Be strong and stalwart”) to Joshua that God says to him twice earlier in the chapter. What are the odds? It seems clearly to be a literary element to repeat the same exhortation to the new leader, showing that he is in fact the new leader now that Moses is dead.
A little later, after the famous siege and capture of Jericho and the subsequent treaty with the scared Gibeonites, the king of Jerusalem organizes 5 other kings against those Gibeonites in chapter 10. Joshua and the Israelite army come to the rescue, as per the treaty agreement. They defeat the armies, kill the kings, and then proceed to take city after city. Curiously, they do not take Jerusalem, despite having killed its king and taken every other city of the instigators. Jerusalem, of course, was not conquered until the time of David two centuries later. Why is Jerusalem left out? Is it possible that the entire account is not exactly factual?
Based on his introduction and the notes, Alter is definitely in the modern scholars camp. I like reading his translation because it uses new rhythms and vocabulary to get me out of any ruts I get into when I read a familiar translation. Sometimes my eyes glaze over as I’m reading the NIV or ESV. I feel like I’m ten years old and back in Sunday School. Alter helps get me out of that and see it anew. But with the fresh eyes is a fresh perspective that pulls bricks out of my biblical foundation.
So a few days ago I started another book (someday I’ll finish one of these books) called Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns that gives me some hope that I won’t have to fall off a cliff, or at least not so far down. Maybe some of my biblical foundation can be salvaged. He takes modern scholarship seriously while still taking the Bible seriously. His model for the Bible is incarnational, so just as Jesus is fully God and fully human, the Bible also is fully divine and fully human. Many of my previous assumptions about the Bible made me overlook its human dimension, overriding it in fact. The Bible had to be without any error straight from God or else it was a book like any other. But the evidence doesn’t support such a view. Instead, Enns argues that God speaks to humanity where they are, in their own language and culture, and even in multiple voices that don’t always agree.
So I’ve got more to chew on and consider. For now I’m stuck in the middle.
I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 at the right time. I was in junior high, and it hit the right funny sweet spot, weird and wacky and nerdy all at the same time, that made it irresistible to me. Plus, it came on right after American Gladiators on Saturday evening, so I didn’t have to miss beefed-up body builders smashing peons with foam pugil sticks. Win-win.
I loved many things about the show: the cheesy movies they skewered with hilarious one-liners and non sequiturs of course, but also the concept and characters. A mad scientist and his henchperson send a worker drone to outer space to see what the effect of bad movies will be on his psyche (it’s all explained in the theme song embedded above). The jumpsuited everyman creates some robots to keep himself company, and they riff on the bad movies together.
There was something about Joel, the guy in a jumpsuit with the bots, that endeared him to me. Maybe it was his sleepy eyes, or his laid back persona, or his seeming discomfort at being in front of the camera. I could relate to his awkwardness, but he seemed to take it all in stride. Whatever it was, I liked Joel. I liked him a lot.
And then suddenly, with no forewarning, he left the show in the middle of the fifth season. His character found a way to escape the Satellite of Love, and poof, no more Joel. He was replaced by another worker drone named Mike, but it wasn’t the same. After he left, I didn’t watch the show anymore, except reruns that starred Joel or, more likely, the beloved episodes I had taped to VHS. (In hindsight, my response was unfair to Mike. But, in my defense, I was a teenager at the time. I’ve been assured by a few trusted MSTies that the Mike seasons were also great.)
I wrote about it at the time in my journal in an over-the-top and melodramatic way with tons of references to the show, here reproduced exactly with a few comments sprinkled in (two things to note: for some reason I used to write in all caps, a weird stylistic choice, but it does convey the earnestness of my cri de coeur, though the journal entries before and after are also in all caps so that kind of diminishes the effect in context, and also Joel’s last episode, Mitchell, aired on 10/23/93).
IT’S TRUE. THE AWFUL RUMOR IS TRUE. WHEN I FIRST HEARD IT I THOUGHT “NO WAY,” AND I WENT INTO A STATE OF DENIAL. BUT NOW IT HAS COME TO PASS. THE PROPHECY OF DOOM AND UTTER MORONICY HAS COME TO PASS. JOEL IS GONE. HE LEFT. JUST LIKE THAT. GONE. IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT HIM. SOME LOSER NAMED MIKE NELSON IS TAKING OVER. [Mike was the head writer on the show.] NO MATTER HOW FUNNY HE IS IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME. JOEL, HOW COULD YOU? I WAS A MSTIE THROUGH AND THROUGH. I HAD MEMORIZED THE LOVE THEME THREE TIMES. I WAS THERE DURING CLASSICS SUCH AS THE SIDEHACKER AND CATALINA CAPER AND EEGAH AND DURING SHORTS LIKE HIRED AND JUNIOR RODEO DAREDEVILS AND THE PHANTOM CREEPS. WE LAUGHED TOGETHER, CRIED TOGETHER, PLAYED HIDE-AND-GO-SEEK WITH THE BOTS ON THE SATELLITE OF LOVE TOGETHER, ATE CHEESE BALLS TOGETHER , I COULD GO ON AND ON. YOU MEANT THE WORLD TO ME, I LOVED YOU LIKE A BROTHER AND NOW YOU GO AND TREAT ME LIKE THIS? [I wasn’t actually a creepy stalker; this is a paraphrase of lines from aforementioned MST3K classic “The Sidehacker.”] WHO’S GOING TO TAKE CARE OF GRETCHEN THE SLINKY? WHO’S GOING TO CARRY TOM? WHO’S GOING TO BE GYPSY’S BEST FRIEND? WHO’S GOING TO WASH THE WINDOWS DURING THE MOVIE? WHO’S GOING TO INITIATE HEALTH CARE REFORM? [It was 1993, and somehow I had absorbed something about what was in the political conversation of the day, though I didn’t know anything about health care reform or what I thought about it at the time. It was a joke, my own attempt at a non sequitur, which now that I’ve explained it, it’s not at all funny, if it ever was.] WHO’S ON FIRST? [The famous Abbott & Costello routine was also a favorite of mine.] JOEL, DON’T YOU SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO ME? I THINK I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GET GAMERA [a kaiju turtle, sort of like a lovable Godzilla in shelled form] TO KNOCK SOME SENSE INTO YOU. YOU HAVE TO COME BACK. YOU JUST HAVE TO. YOU’RE FROM MINNESOTA, DOESN’T THAT MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU? [My parents are from Minnesota, and we traveled there every summer to see family. I was pulling out all the stops, even personal connections.] YOUR PLACE IS BETWEEN TOM AND CROW CRACKING QUIPS LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. I BET YOUR SEAT IS STILL WARM. JOEL, I’M GOING TO LEAVE YOU WITH THE COLD TRUTH: A COW HAS FOUR STOMACHS.
P.S. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING. [A reference to the classic episode “Lost Continent,” though in that episode they said “rock climbing” over and over. Oops.]
I’ve been thinking about MST3K lately because Joel recently launched a Kickstarter to revive the show (it’s still ongoing, as of this writing, so if you’re a fan of the show and hadn’t heard yet, go ahead and contribute). I think it would be great if the show can continue with new characters filling the familiar roles having fun riffing on bad movies. A new generation could discover the joy it brought me, and the old fans could make more memories.
MST3K has a way of bringing people together; it’s not really a solitary experience, at least it wasn’t for me. Back in junior high when I first started watching it, I would trade all the best lines on Monday morning at school with a good friend who also liked the show. In college a friendship started my freshman year with another MSTie who had his own VHS tapes of episodes I hadn’t seen yet. We would get a whole group of friends together to watch the antics of Joel and the bots on a Friday night (it was at Bible college—there wasn’t a whole lot else happening on a Friday night in rural Georgia). Later, when I was in grad school, which was often an isolating and lonely experience, another friendship deepened over watching episodes of MST3K. That friend even made me copies of dozens of Joel episodes for me to take to North Dakota, where I started another grad program even though I knew no one there, so I wouldn’t be too lonely.
I hope it can continue to bring people together and make them laugh.
Long live movie sign.
A few years ago I worked at a hospital as a constant observer. It was a transitional job as I tried to figure out the next step of my life. What exactly is a constant observer? one might reasonably ask. A constant observer is basically a nurse’s aide who stays in one room to be with patients who might be a harm to themselves or others. Hospitals try very hard not to tie people down on their beds anymore. There are a lot of reasons I might be assigned to a patient: dementia, adverse reaction to medication, brain injury, detoxing, or suicide watch, to name some. I saw people at their most vulnerable state. This is the seventh in a series of vignettes on my experiences in the hospital. I did this one a little differently in honor of Native American Day.
Despite only having one leg, he had ripped down a television from the wall the day before. He was a Native American, older, maybe in his 60s or 70s, and he had had his leg amputated. Many of the patients on the Renal floor are diabetic and have dialysis once or twice a day if they have chronic renal failure (damaged kidneys). Some patients have to have feet or legs amputated because of a combination of numbness/insensitivity and vascular damage which can lead to skin ulcers and infection and ultimately necrosis and gangrene. They had replaced the TV in his room but wanted someone in the room with him now—just in case, I guess. In the morning he needed to be bathed, but couldn’t take a shower with his sutures and bandages, so that meant a towel bath. The nurse helped me wash him for which I was grateful. His scrotum was extremely swollen—he was in a lot of pain as she washed his genitals. It was probable that he hadn’t been washed properly before, but she insisted that he allow her to clean him thoroughly. I doubt I could have done it by myself. I washed other men in my job, but it was generally rather quick and they were cooperative. This man intimidated me. He rarely spoke. When he did it was usually in a quiet voice. Except later when I followed him to occupational therapy and he pointed his finger at me and nearly yelled, “Quit following me!” I tried to explain why I was with him but he repeated “Go.” The therapist told me to go ahead and take a break. After the break he was okay with my presence in his room. He spent most of his time looking out the window in silence.
She wanted to be released immediately. I think the woman, a Native American, was given a room in critical care because she had been difficult on a regular floor. There they could keep a closer eye on her. And I was there at all times for the rest of the night. She was so angry that they wouldn’t let her leave the hospital. She was tired of people sticking her for IVs. So a nurse specialist put in a more permanent tube in the crook of her elbow. It had to be completely sterile. Early in the evening, she didn’t want me in the room when she peed in the commode, but after a while she stopped complaining. I assured her that I wouldn’t look. I’m not sure if that made any difference or if she simply resigned herself to my presence. Sometimes I ignored her when she tried to get a rise out of me. Sometimes I couldn’t help responding with pointless objections and explanations. She dozed during programs on Lifetime. In the morning, when my shift was nearly over and I thought she had warmed up to me a bit, she started demanding to see the doctor. He was making his rounds, but not fast enough for her. She threw the TV remote at the wall, smashing it to bits.
Both of these patients had a moment of rage. They were probably hours away from home—Sioux Falls has two major hospitals so patients from all over the state end up here. What was at the root of their anger? Something personal? The weight of generations? Their treatment at the hospital? Their treatment every day? I didn’t know, and couldn’t. I felt bewildered and awkward. The barriers between their lives and mine felt insurmountable. They had no reason to trust me.
One of the things we learned in training was that we shouldn’t look Native American patients in the eye because it showed a lack of respect in their culture. It was hard to fight against my own cultural norms. Did I do anything to make their hospital stay worse? Patients in the hospital are usually at low points in their lives—sick, injured, possibly dying. Here they were in the hospital, surrounded by white walls and white people.
Before moving to South Dakota, I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee because I wanted to have an idea what had happened on the plains in the clash of cultures. I wanted to know the damage that had been caused: the treaties made and broken, the massacres perpetrated in the name of destiny. There are many things that white South Dakotans don’t do right regarding the Native Americans in their midst, but changing Columbus Day to Native American Day twenty five years ago is a notable exception. It’s a nice recognition, but it’s only a start.
After the recent Supreme Court decision to allow same sex marriages in all 50 states, the internet has been full of celebrations, cautions, laments, explanations, accusations, and recriminations. I’m here to add one more essay to the pile, but it’s a little different. I’d like to explain how I changed my mind on the issue of same sex marriage. I’m an example of how a change in thinking can take a long time. For me it took seeing how the issue affected a close friend personally to catalyze reconsidering my beliefs. Then I searched for a new perspective to make sense of the direction my heart was leading me.
First, the background. Growing up in the evangelical Christian culture, believing that homosexuality was a sin was merely a given. I don’t remember ever questioning the belief that homosexuals chose their lifestyle and that they were actively living in sin. It was a self evident belief that everyone in the cultural community shared as far as I knew. It said so in the Bible, and I believed it.
At our Christian school, seniors were required to complete a service project during the spring before graduation. Most of my classmates opted to volunteer at a food bank or a home for people with disabilities. At the suggestion and prodding of my sister, I decided to try volunteering somewhere different, a place called David’s House, a group home for people with AIDS. I didn’t want to do it alone, so I asked my friend Andy to join me (this is the same friend I’ve written about here and here). In order to volunteer at David’s House, we first needed to receive training from the Red Cross about AIDS. They also wanted us to volunteer for more than the day or two that would fulfill our school requirement. Normally they required a year’s commitment, but they agreed to let us volunteer for only the summer until we left for college.
The AIDS training at the Red Cross was eye-opening for me because I had never had any comprehensive sex-ed at my Christian school. I recall having some type of abstinence presentation, where they undoubtedly talked about condom failure rates, but nothing about how to put one on. So when Andy and I were given cards that had the steps of putting on a condom properly and were told to put them in order, we had to make our best guess. I felt rather embarrassed, both because of my shyness about sex, but also because I was so obviously ignorant. My embarrassment increased later when a guy from David’s House who was there at the training pressured me to take a few condoms “just in case.” I had no intention of using them because I was going to wait to have sex until marriage, but he wouldn’t let me say no. I sheepishly put two in my pocket so he would stop joking with me, wink wink nudge nudge. He probably thought I was an alien from another planet.
My actual time at David’s House involved mundane things like watching Cops with the residents or mowing the lawn or cleaning out a room after a resident left unexpectedly or sitting and talking with one guy in particular. I wanted to witness to him, share the love of Christ with him, change him somehow. I could imagine how it was going to be an amazing conversion story of a man with AIDS coming to the Lord. But I never gave him any of the scripted Gospel spiels that I knew. Mostly I listened to his stories. The closest I ever got to being Christ-like was when I helped him with a bath one evening. He was so weak and frail that he couldn’t get out of the tub safely without assistance. These experiences didn’t have any effect on my belief that his homosexuality was his own sinful choice. Though I had a lot of sympathy for his pain and suffering, I still saw him more as a witnessing opportunity than a person.
During college several of my friends were in the closet about their sexuality, but I didn’t find out until after graduation. I’m not surprised that they stayed in the closet since they would have been kicked out of our small evangelical college in the south if they revealed they were gay. I’m also not surprised that they didn’t confide in me their struggles. It’s not that I wasn’t sympathetic when I found out (because I truly was), but that I still held onto my beliefs that they were living in sin. I don’t think I ever said anything about loving the sinner, while hating the sin, but it’s essentially the approach I took. When I talked to one of the guys on the phone (we had both moved back to our respective home towns), I told him that it didn’t affect our friendship. But in my mind, I still felt like he was lost and adrift. I wanted to help him, and I didn’t know how. But it wasn’t my struggle.
In the first composition course I taught while a grad student, one of my students wrote a personal essay about being gay and part of the essay was how his sexual orientation intersected with his Christian beliefs. I didn’t know what to do with it. I disagreed with the premise that he could be a practicing homosexual and a Christian in good standing, but I also didn’t want to grade him down because I disagreed with him. I knew that I was likely to disagree with lots of things that students wrote about, so I would have to judge their papers on how they wrote, not the specific topics and whether I agreed with them or not. But that attempt at objectivity bothered me in this instance because I wanted to help someone who was claiming to be a Christian. I wanted to help him see his error.
I decided not to write anything directly telling him what I thought, but I figured I could help guide him to see for himself that he was deluding himself that he could integrate his faith with his sin. I went to the library and skimmed sources that addressed the issue from multiple angles. I figured it was okay, and more objective, if I presented him with sources that both affirmed and disconfirmed what he believed. I thought the truth would win out as long as I presented it as one of the options. I suggested that he read more on the issue. It was all rather presumptuous of me that he hadn’t thought it all out for himself. It was his life after all. I was the one thinking about the issue for the first time. He had been living it. I can hardly blame him for not responding to my comments.
Later, when one of my fellow grad students asked me to sign a petition calling for the university to extend benefits to domestic partners, I declined. She was surprised, probably figuring everyone in the office could be counted on. I don’t remember how I explained myself. I knew that I wanted to be a good witness for my beliefs, but I didn’t know how to explain my position without sounding like a jerk. The truth is that I didn’t really even know what my position was when I was put on the spot, so I asked for time to think it over. While the idea of domestic partner benefits sounded benign, I knew it was a cover for condoning and encouraging homosexual couples. I couldn’t support that in good conscience. She didn’t press me on my reasoning, thankfully, because it would have been embarrassing for her and me. I had stood up for my beliefs in a small way, but I didn’t feel all that good about it. Now, looking back, I feel rather ashamed of my lack of sympathy. But again, it wasn’t my struggle, so I didn’t see how heartless I was.
The pivotal moment for me in all of this personal history is when David came out to me. He was a close friend I grew up with. He told me later that first year of grad school, a time when I was figuring out who I was in a lot of ways. It was after we had seen each other at a mutual friend’s wedding. He wrote it in an email, and I was dumbfounded. We had grown up in the same church and the same Christian private school. We had had Bible studies together, gone on missions trips together, played soccer together, sang together, attended youth group together. We had been on student council together. We had gone on a double date (with girls!) to the Jr/Sr banquet our school held in lieu of a prom (no dancing allowed!). After high school we had gone off to different Christian colleges, but would get together at Christmas or during the summer, if our schedules allowed. I realized with sadness that I didn’t know my friend as well as I had thought and the struggles he had lived through.
I wrote him back what I consider now an embarrassing reply. Instead of merely telling him that I loved him and that we were still friends and that I would be there for him, I felt the need to let him know that I thought homosexual acts were a sin. Then I went on about how sin is sin, no matter what it is, and that I didn’t think homosexuality was worse than any other sin in God’s eyes. I thought I was being magnanimous and compassionate. Everyone struggles with temptations, I said. I lamely offered my own struggles with (heterosexual) lust as an example. What I couldn’t see at the time was that he had probably heard similar judgments from many other well-meaning friends. Instead of love and acceptance, he heard condemnation as a first reaction. It’s a testament to his graciousness that we have remained friends to this day.
I asked myself a lot of questions after his revelation, and I didn’t have any answers. My understanding at the time was that there might be some biological component to homosexuality, but that there were environmental factors as well, and that there must be some large element of choice (how else could it be a sin?). But the more I thought about it, it didn’t seem possible that David would have ever chosen to be gay. He had practically the same background as me, with the same teachings on sin and homosexuality. But if he had been born gay, then that made me very uncomfortable about a God who would create someone with attractions and urges that he could never act on without damning himself. Everyone wants love and companionship and affection, but he was essentially denied the chance. It made me doubt the goodness of God. I asked God how he could be so cruel to David. I didn’t understand.
I remember talking to a friend about my dilemma. I knew enough not to out David, so I talked about an anonymous friend. Somehow the implications of my beliefs about homosexuality and the goodness of God didn’t hit me until I thought about David’s struggle. I didn’t stop and reflect on my understandings before when I learned about friends from college. I think the difference is I could see myself in David. It was easier to put myself in his shoes and see how devastating and impossible it was to reconcile what we were taught with how he felt.
It still took me a long time to change my mind on the questions of homosexuality as sin and same sex marriage, though. I couldn’t figure out any other way of understanding the biblical passages that mention homosexuality, and I wasn’t ready to throw out my faith. So I lived with the cognitive dissonance for a few years. Though I fumbled my initial reply to David, I was determined to be a good friend to him. I visited him and kept in contact because I wanted to keep him in my life.
I finally fully came around on the issue after reading some books. As this blog is a testament, books are vital to me. The first was Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality. I was familiar with Sullivan from his days at Time magazine, which I started reading regularly when I went to grad school. I knew he was gay and that he was a Catholic. I was fascinated that he somehow reconciled those two aspects of his life. I didn’t see how it could be done. His book was published in 1996, and it was an early argument for same sex marriage, arguing that opening up the institution to LGBT individuals was both a conservative and liberal move. His argument was well reasoned, but it was mostly philosophical and political, not biblical, so some of my biggest doubts remained.
Later I read What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage by David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni. The book provided the additional reasons I needed to complete my change of mind. I think I was looking for those reasons. Myers is a well-respected psychologist, author of popular textbooks in the field, and a Christian. He and Scanzoni grounded their arguments in social science and biblical interpretation. They pointed out all the benefits of marriage for individuals and for society. They examined the nature of sexual orientation and how difficult it is to go against one’s orientation. And lastly, while acknowledging that they are not theologians, they showed that many scholars dispute the interpretations of the passages usually used to prove homosexuality is a sin and abomination. I felt like I could finally let go of my old beliefs.
So that’s how I ended up changing my mind. It took a long time, years really. It took seeing how this issue affected a close friend for me to examine what my beliefs really meant. My heart slowly changed, but I still needed the justifications and reasons to feel okay about my change of heart. So reading books with answers I found compelling sealed the change in me. I most recently finished Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships which goes into much more detail than What God Has Joined Together did on the interpretation of relevant biblical passages. It’s been a long process of change.
For the longest time I couldn’t see how my beliefs and interpretations of the Bible kept me from truly seeing others and their full humanity. I thought I was sympathetic to others, but over and over again I wasn’t, not really. Without intending to, I had been arrogant and dismissive and uncharitable to students, colleagues, and friends. I hadn’t lived up to that most difficult of all rules: to love others as I love myself. But love wins.
I hope to write some follow-up posts that dive deeper into some of the issues that I have merely touched upon in my all-too-brief summaries of the books I’ve mentioned. Look for those in the near future.
Seven years ago, Andy, one of my best friends, was shot and killed in the line of duty as a police officer. I miss him so much. Last year I wrote about one of my memories of him. It helps me to continue healing from his absence when I think of the good times we had. And since I know some people who knew him read my blog, I want to share some of the pieces of him I hold dearly in my heart.
I have a soft spot for the Smothers Brothers. When I was in grade school I saw them perform once in Milwaukee, WI, at an insurance convention for my dad’s work. They were funny and I liked Tommy’s yo-yo tricks. A few years later a friend let me borrow his cassette tape of their greatest hits. I thought it was hilarious. It fit right in with the other funny elements of my youth: “Weird Al” Yankovic, MST3K, D.C. Follies, “Who’s on first?”, Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Jerk (an edited for, and taped from, TV copy). I liked the Smothers Brothers cassette so much that I told my friend that I wanted to perform some of the routines for the high school Senior Variety Show when we were older. He agreed, probably figuring I would grow out of it. When senior year finally came, I approached my friend about our agreement. I was still committed to doing a Smothers Brothers routine. He wanted nothing to do with it anymore, mostly I think because he didn’t want to perform in the variety show at all if he could help it. I hated to let go of the idea. I had to find someone else to do it with me.
I asked Andy. I’m not sure why he said yes, but he did. I didn’t really expect him to. He seemed to think they were funny routines, if old-fashioned, which made them safe for our Christian school. He was a good friend to agree to the silliness of getting onstage and pretend to be my brother and say ridiculous things.
I listened carefully to my dubbed copy of the tape, stopping to rewind every few seconds, so that I could write down an exact transcript of the two routines I had chosen for us: “You can call me stupid” and the song “Crabs walk sideways.” I gave him a copy of the routines both on cassette and written out, and he learned them. I had decided to play Tommy, the goofy and clueless one, while Andy would play his brother Dick, the straight man. It seemed like the easier part to learn since Andy was starting from scratch. I could already practically recite the entire greatest hits cassette, I had listened to it enough times. We practiced a few times at my house and his house, and it seemed like we mostly had it. Neither of us played guitar, so we sang a cappella.
The senior talent show was held in the gymnasium of the school, a stage on one end with chairs set up on the floor. A few hundred students and parents gathered in the dark. Our moment arrived and we gave it everything we had. We belted out our lines and sang to the cheap seats (that is, all of them). We were both a little bit nervous to sing in front of so many people, but thankfully it was so dark and with the spotlights so bright in our eyes, we couldn’t see anyone. People by and large laughed at the right parts, so that helped too. Afterwards, I could tell, when mostly the parents were telling us that we did a good job, that it was humor from another generation.
Those who know me now may be surprised to hear that I would do something like this. Though I’ve always been an introvert and somewhat shy, I also used to have a bit of an exhibitionist streak, too. I liked performing and acting, being someone other than myself. I liked making people laugh. I liked being a stranger to myself and my friends. Something unexpected and wild. I’m thankful that Andy played along with me for this moment.
A few years ago I worked at a hospital as a constant observer. It was a transitional job as I tried to figure out the next step of my life. What exactly is a constant observer? one might reasonably ask. A constant observer is basically a nurse’s aide who stays in one room to be with patients who might be a harm to themselves or others. Hospitals try very hard not to tie people down on their beds anymore. There are a lot of reasons I might be assigned to a patient: dementia, adverse reaction to medication, brain injury, detoxing, or suicide watch, to name some. I saw people at their most vulnerable state. This is the sixth in what I plan to be a series of vignettes on my experiences in the hospital.
“C’mon. Let’s go, Hiawatha!” he told me at one point during the day.
A stroke can be devastating; a mind and body laid waste, I think to myself. This guy yells for people who aren’t there—an Ed, a John, a Bob—yells cocksucker and fuck you and occasionally messes up a phrase like son of a fish. Sometimes he’ll yell for help or just declare that he loves you (though not to you, but to someone else he thinks is there). Other times he will talk of conspiracies or about business files or stocks. His right arm and side hangs limp, and he seems not even aware that it is part of his body. After he bit his hand once, I spend the rest of the day preventing him from doing it again, a half dozen times or more. It’s a wrestling match. His legs and arms are covered with bruises and sores from where he has kicked the side rails of the bed. His left arm, the whole left side really, is very strong. It’s easy to imagine that he had once been a powerful man when at full strength. He can still twist his body wildly or squeeze his hand very hard. But he can’t manage any basic functions. He had a colonectomy decades ago that causes him to have loose stools ever since. Now he’s on tube-feeding and that doesn’t help a bit. He has a catheter for urine and a fecal management tube for bowel movements. His buttocks are raw from the wiping of shit. The fecal tube (held in place by a ball inflated with water the size of a nectarine) should help with that, but he ripped it out the night before. He’ll throw pillows and pull off his gown. He’ll push himself with his left arm so he’s leaning far to the right on the bed or in the cardiac chair. The nurses try the chair to give him a change of position, but it’s hard work getting him in and out of it. Fortunately, the chair has two safety straps to keep him in.
* * *
The doctors say he isn’t going to get better. In fact, he’s gotten worse since the last time I saw him. He still yells for Ed to help him or for John, but then feels betrayed by John (which happens to be the name of his nurse today), but he still loves him. “I love you, Ed. Did you realize that?” He says it as if he is just discovering it, too. I wonder who it is, and if he realized it. A childhood friend? His brother? A business partner? He keeps pulling at the binder around his chest and belly. It’s a girdle-looking thing that’s velcroed in the back. They put it on him so he couldn’t pull out the feeding tube that goes directly into his stomach. It would have been impossible to place an NG tube (nasogastric). With his movement and thrashing, a lot of the hair on his chest and back has rubbed off around the binder.
* * *
Now he is in restraints. Actually, only his left arm, the strong one, is tied down, but this is even while I am in the room. Normally, patients are not restrained when they have a constant observer because that’s why I’m there. But he is too much. He hits. He still tries to bite his right arm. He no longer seems to have any idea where he is or who is there. It’s hard to tell what is left of him in there. The nurses say the family will have to decide what to do next. The only option seems to be heavy sedation and keep him in a nursing home. At times, the drugs have no effect. He disturbs all of the patients around him. His fecal tube leaks. They finally discovered that it’s broken. And when I say leak, I mean that the ball of water that is supposed to keep all of the liquid stool from seeping out isn’t doing its job. It’s supposed to direct all of the waste through the tube in order to keep his buttcrack clean, but it isn’t. His butt is much worse. It’s so raw he is bleeding in places. It’s horrible. The nurse puts in a new tube while four of us hold him down. It’s like pinning down a wild animal.
* * *
So now he’s dead. I ask a nurse who had cared for him what happened to him and she told me he died a week earlier. We both agree it’s probably for the best, that he’s in “a better place,” whatever that means. She hopes he isn’t in that “other place,” as she puts it. I start to tear up as I talk to the nurse. It’s all so sad. Sad that he is dead at age 50, leaving behind a wife and kids. On the dry erase board his child (for some reason I imagine a daughter, though there was nothing in the handwriting indicative either way) had written “We miss you, Daddy.” It’s heartbreaking. I hate to think of his children or wife seeing him in that state, on the bed, confronting a shell of the man they knew. One who yells obscenities and calls out for a childhood friend. Who can’t eat food or control his own waste. Who doesn’t know where he is.
He was gone long before he left.