Sunday, December 5, 2010

Homosexuality, Paul, and the Illumination of a New Book

We hear lots of folks talking about homosexuality these days, lots of people trying to parse what the Bible says, and more importantly, what it means.

I must be honest here, it's not a conversation that much interests me as a Christian. The Bible spends far more time talking about economic inequality than homosexuality. I suspect that if Jesus came to breakfast, he wouldn't be interested in our views of homosexuality. He'd want to talk about the homeless, pregnant women that we let sleep in the streets. He'd want to talk about why we allow children to be hungry, and he'd likely want to chat about our spending patterns.

Those verses in Leviticus? I am not interested. Leviticus proscribes many ways for us to live our lives, and I'm not following most of them.

But let's talk about Paul. Let's talk about the Greco-Roman view of homosexuality. Let's talk about a new book by Sarah Ruden: Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Pantheon 2010). Some of us have this idea of a genteel model of homosexuality in the ancient world, but classics scholar Ruden points out that sexuality of all types was more about brutal domination than about a mutually supportive relationship.

She says, "Readers may think I am exaggerating, that the day-to-day culture of homosexuality could not ave been so bad. They may have heard of Platonic homorerotic sublimity or festive or friendly couplings. None of the sources, objectively read, backs any of this up" (48-49). And she goes on to demonstrate this point in a graphic way that proves that ancient homosexual couplings were more about rape than about any kind of consenting relationship that we see today. And heterosexual sex was not much better.

Along the way she proves Paul's forward-thinking qualities. She doesn't completely redeem him for me, but I came away from the book with a deep sympathy and appreciation for him. She covers not only homosexuality, but the issue of women, church leadership, slavery, and the Christian's relationship with the government. It's a fairly easy read and a great window into the ancient world.

If you find your head spinning by all the discussions your church might be having about God's view of homosexuality, I heartily recommend this book. One of the joys of being a Lutheran for me is that I'm not a Biblical literalist. One of the joys of having a Ph.D. in British Literature is that I have all sorts of tools for understanding the written word. I see literature, including the Bible, as firmly rooted in a particular time and space, and the educated reader can't discount those factors. Ruden helps us understand the time and the space in which Paul wrote his letters. We can't afford to be ignorant in this area.

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