The Grace Letter
1998: Christmas Remembered
Some of you aren't going to approve.
That's all right. You are on your own journey, and you will either arrive at this point on your own, or you may not arrive at this point. But I have arrived here, and I want to describe it for you.
The evolution of my Christian faith, from conservative to liberal, is obvious to one who starts in the beginning and reads my "Grace and Lace" series over these fourteen years. Yes, I consider myself a liberal Christian. Note that I do still consider myself a Christian. That's a matter between me and God, not between me and any conservative eager to sit in judgement. The term "Christian" is very meaningful for me, but it does not have the same connotations I once thought it had.
If I say I'm a liberal Christian, it follows that I'm not a conservative Christian. I'm certainly not a "fundamentalist" as the term is understood today. Most definitely I am not an "inerrantist." I understand this term to refer to someone who believes that every word in the Bible is literally true.
That's not me. It does, however, refer to many persons in the United States today. Perhaps the majority of these persons have not examined the consequences of their belief, but they accept what they are told by those who have assumed a sort of spiritual authority. It is these "authorities" who wield their Bibles as weapons against others who are in some way different from themselves.
Let's go ahead and state their weapons. Out of all the thousands of verses in the Bible, there are exactly two which are used to attack transgender persons. I'll quote them in the King James version, which seems to be the favored translation for inerrantists.
That's all we can come up with. How do we respond to those two passages? Several approaches have been taken.
First there is the scholars' approach. People have gone back to the original languages, trying to figure out what the words meant at the time they were written. It's been suggested, for example, that the Deuteronomy verse referred to ritualistic sex in pagan temples, involving priests who were dressed as the opposite sex. I have no idea if that's really what it meant.
The word "effeminate" in Corinthians has been the subject of intense analysis. The Greek word "arsenokoi" has been said to mean "morally weak." (That's a commentary, itself, on the first century view of women.) Some commentators feel it refers to a man who takes the passive role in a male-male relationship; others go back to the "temple prostitute" explanation as in Deuteronomy. At any rate, I don't see any relevance to persons transitioning to live in the gender role opposite their birth status.
I have problems with the scholars' approach. First of all, I still feel it is the worst form of hypocrisy to try to justify transsexualism on literal Biblical terms while leaving gay and lesbian Christians to fend for themselves. None of us made a "lifestyle choice" to be who we are. Any defense I make is going to be valid for my sisters and brothers also.
Secondly, there's always going to be some "scholar" on the other side of the issue who will be convinced that "my" interpretation is completely wrong, and will mount an extensive, spirited rebuttal. We can become so sidetracked in debating translation nuances that we'll never get to the real heart of the issue, which is the love of God as manifested in Christ.
The next approach is what I call the "contextual" approach. For example, the Torah (the Hebrew scripture) was rather broad in its condemnation of many life issues. That same chapter 22 in Deuteronomy prescribes death by stoning for a woman who was not a virgin at the time of her marriage. A woman who is raped inside the city gates will be stoned to death, along with the rapist, because she didn't scream loudly enough to get help.
It's well known that the Torah forbids eating pork; but it also forbids eating anything which lives in the water and doesn't have fins or scales. (Shrimp, lobster, clams, oysters? Catfish?) I put up a link last year to the satirical website "godhatesshrimp.com" - "Pinch the tail/Suck the head/Burn in hell." I'm waiting for explanations from my Southern friends whose diet is mostly catfish and barbecue pork.
We're also commanded to build a guardrail around the roof of our house, and to sew tassels on the edge of our garments. We are forbidden to wear garments of blended fibers, and to plant more than one type of crop in the same field.
Is anyone seriously following these restrictions? How, in the grand scheme, does "wearing a skirt" seem any worse?
In the New Testament, doesn't Paul also condone slavery (Ephesians 6:5) and relegate women to subordinate status (1 Corinthians 14: 34)?
All these examples are intended to make the verses in Deuteronomy and 1 Corinthians seem less authoritative by comparing them to other verses which are not followed today. This approach is a start, but it needs to be carried further, because we are still left with the nagging question, "Should we be obeying every one of these seemingly obsolete commands? They are in the Bible."
Should we - must we - consider the Bible as a book containing many beautiful and inspiring passages, a book describing the life of Jesus of Nazareth whom I can love, respect, and aspire to follow, but not a compendium of literal and absolutely true history? A book where many of the stories find more beauty when accepted for allegory or myth?
We have to "go there." My God is big enough to tolerate my questioning.
The alternative is mindless acceptance of a dogma sustained on circular reasoning: every word in this book is true. How do we know that? because it says so right here in the book.
There are many problems with considering the Bible as literally true. Bishop Spong enumerates some of them in his book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1991, HarperCollins Publishing).
In Genesis, we have a creation story in which the earth was created before the sun. In fact, the story relates that God created day and night on the "first day" but didn't create the sun until the "fourth day." The earth was flat, resting below the heavens in an arrangement similar to a giant domed stadium.
"Creation Science" is being proposed in our schools as a legitimate alternative to evolution. Some proponents of creation science believe that all this happened about six thousand years ago. They don't have much of an explanation for the dating of fossils hundreds of millions of years old, except to fall back on the ultimate circular logic: "God is omnipotent, so He can do anything." So God faked all the fossils, just to confuse archaeologists? Hey, why study science at all?
The story of the Israelites contains other logical fallacies. In the book of Joshua, the Israelites needed a little more time before sundown to complete their slaughter of the Amorite army. Joshua responded by raising his hands in the air - and the sun stopped in its revolution around the earth! Time stood still until Joshua lowered his hands. And all this time I thought the earth revolved around the sun! If Joshua had stopped the earth's rotation on its axis, the sudden loss of momentum would have flung into space everyone and everything on the earth's surface.
In the New Testament we are treated to a star which speeds up and slows down as it traverses the night sky, giving the three kings an opportunity to catch up on their way to the Christ Child. Astronomy was never like this.
Let's look beyond scientific literalism. Let's consider morality. God was portrayed as a bloodthirsty warrior, ordering the extermination of the Amalekites:
How do we reconcile this God, who was also said to have sent an angel of death to destroy every firstborn child in Pharaoh's Egypt, with a God of love? Can we love this God, or do we cower before Him in perpetual terror?
If God is so murderous, what's the point of our trying to be good? If we aspire to be like God, would we be murderous too? Would we hate others...oh nevermind, of course we would. Just like the literalists think God hates us, because they have remade God in their image.
I can't accept this.
My God is a God of love.
If God is love, then God isn't hate.
Jesus summarized this love in two Great Commandments: Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. I think Jesus understood this so much more than any of the hate-filled preachers who claim to speak in his name. I believe Jesus reflected God's perfect love better than anyone has been able to do, before or since.
I want this love in my life. This makes me a disciple of Jesus, and I am proud to identify my life with his. But for me, this means letting go of the dogma that says "every word of the Bible is literally true." I can't say that. I believe God gives us discernment to distinguish truth from allegory, and to gain the blessing from both.
I also believe, as the United Church of Christ slogan states, "God is Still Speaking." I believe there is more that God wants us to know. The revelations did not end two thousand years ago. Our task is to be open to hear God's voice - to hear the Word which was "in the beginning with God."
This is the Word which is true: God speaking a message of love in every age. The book, the word with a small "w", can point the way to the Word; but our worship and adoration should be for God and not for any book.
There. I've said it.