Friday, May 17, 2013

Some Belated Reflections on Jason Collins's "Coming Out"

When I first heard the news a couple of weeks back that longtime bench-warming center Jason Collins, most recently of the Washington Wizards, had decided to "come out" as gay, my initial reaction was "So what? Where's the story here? Who cares?" In a sense, I thought then as I do now, the very fact that this is considered a "big story" simply reinforces the impression that western culture has declined to the point where real issues are trivialized and the trivial are magnified. Of course, at a deeper level, the very fact that this story is considered eminently newsworthy is Exhibit Z demonstrating an inexorable cultural change for which large segments of the American public, so-called "evangelical" Christians, are inexcusably unprepared.

Let me be up front. I am a Christian. I also am an "evangelical" theologian who is convinced the Bible consistently teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful, and who wrote extensively on that subject in this forum last summer. I am not naive, however. I know that studies and surveys, both here in the USA as well as in the UK and in continental Europe, have demonstrated a fairly consistent (admitted) homosexual/bisexual rate of 3-5%, with rates in some American cities (San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Boston) exceeding 10%. I have worked and now work with both lesbians and homosexual men. Indeed, though the administrators may be wont not to trumpet the fact, I taught gay students at the ultra-conservative Christian college located in ultra-conservative Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I was a Professor for 8 years. So to hear that a current player is gay came as no surprise to me.

That is why the cover of the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated struck me as more than a little odd. "The Gay Athlete"? Come now. What serious American sports fan has not heard of 2-time Pro Bowl tight end Jerry Smith of the Washington Redskins, who succumbed to AIDS in 1986, having never publicly admitted his homosexuality? Or Glenn Burke, the light-hitting outfielder of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late '70s, who likewise died of AIDS-related complications in 1995? Or what about athletes in Europe, such as Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas who, like Collins, came out near the end of his playing days in 2009? Indeed, who in their right mind doubts the ever-forthright and loquacious Charles Barkley when he claimed last week that "of course" he played with gay players, three in particular, in his 16 years in the NBA?

In a sense the whole discussion is a bit odd. We all know of gay politicians. To be sure, in the past most were in locked closets, as it were, such as the presumed homosexual President James Buchanan, whose mansion may still be visited today in Lancaster. Today, of course, many are more forthright, such as Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. [Unfortunately, we are also aware of apparently gay politicians in denial, such as former Republican congressman Larry Craig of Idaho. It all depends, it seems, on one's constituency and ideology.] Gay actors, of course, are a dime a dozen: formidable Shakespeareans like John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, and Ian McKellan; comics and television stars like Stephen Fry, Raymond Burr, David Hyde Pierce, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jim Parsons. Few are surprised at this phenomenon, and thankfully it is becoming less common for gay celebrities to suffer deleterious career consequences for their sexual orientations alone (witness the rejuvenation of Ellen DeGeneres's career as a talk show host, for example). Likewise, there are gay musicians galore: Little Richard, Billy Preston, Elton John, Rob Halford, Freddie Mercury, Joan Jett, and a host of others in various segments of popular music. The same goes in the classical sphere. I am hardly less excited for the prospects of the great Philadelphia Orchestra because their youthful new Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is gay. Nor, for that matter, did I ever refrain from listening to the New York Philharmonic when the famously bisexual Leonard Bernstein was at its helm. Even more significantly, the great Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had a well-known same-sex orientation (shared by his brother Modest), which led to the collapse of a short-lived marriage and may or may not have (debate rages on the subject) produced the depression that plagued him throughout his life and which, no doubt, contributed to the most exquisite melancholic passages in his musical output. Foremost among these, of course, is the devastating Adagio lamentoso of the finale of his 6th symphony, the last piece he ever composed. The case has been made (though it is increasingly doubted today) that Tchaikovsky's homosexuality played a key role in producing this (deliberate?) swan song of Russia's greatest symphonist. Listening to that most tragic of symphonies, only the dullest self-righteous Philistine would let what he might view as the composer's personal failings detract him from appreciating the profundity of the music or, indeed, contemplating the dire fate that awaits us all.

The point is that a person's sexual orientation is irrelevant in terms of how that person makes a contribution to society. And it is wrong for anyone to be marginalized, let alone persecuted, for that reason alone. After all, a fundamental tenet of the Christianity I hold dear is that all people are sinners and bring nothing to the table of their own doing when they must stand before the bar of God's justice. Homosexual behavior is indeed, according to the Bible, sinful. Recent attempts to rehabilitate it and pretend it isn't are born of a hermeneutic of wishful thinking. Nevertheless, there are no legitimate grounds for claiming that homosexuality is "more wrong" than fornication and adultery—including divorce for biblically-disallowed reasons, on the word of Jesus himself. And certainly Jason Collins's homosexual proclivities are no more troublesome—and in terms of quantity certainly less so—than Wilt Chamberlain's famous boast that he had slept with 20,000 different women (certainly an exaggeration, as it amounts to more than one a day between 1951 and 1991, when he made this "estimate"), let alone former Seattle Sonic Shawn Kemp's fathering of 7 children with 6 different women.

But  ... sports, like the military which likewise saw its ban on gays overturned, are not the arts. It is—or at least has been until recently—culturally unexpected for male homosexuals to excel or even to desire to compete at the highest level in one of America's last bastions of unmitigated machismo. And so, predictably, Collins's announcement became the latest occasion for yet another skirmish in the tiresome culture wars that have raged in America over the past generation or so.

Right away it became de riguer to brand Collins as a "hero" for having the "courage" to come out (for an example, see here). Some (for example, MSNBC's Thomas Roberts ) even had the temerity to compare Collins with Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers' star second baseman who broke Major League Baseball's inexcusable color barrier back in 1947, at a time when racism was decidedly more culturally acceptable than it (thankfully) is today. As such Collins's announcement plays right into the modernist "progressive" view of history, in which, one by one, the "arbitrary" barriers preventing an egalitarian society are toppled by the forces of justice.

Just as predictably, an equal and opposite reaction was offered by America's cultural conservatives, not least by many purporting to speak for "evangelical" Christians. ESPN's Chris Broussard was roundly condemned for his outspoken view that, as a Christian, "I don't agree with homosexuality. I think it's a sin, as I think all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is." And, to make his point even more controversially, he added, "If you're openly living in unrepentant sin ... that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ." This latter comment was controversial because Collins claims to be a Christian.

The matter was just beginning to heat up, however. For Collins outed himself on the very day that right-wing Christian hero Tim Tebow was released by the New York Jets. For many of Tebow's supporters, it wasn't his marginal abilities that led to his demise, but his outspoken Christian testimony. Over at US News and World ReportPeter Roff noted the contrast in the media's portrayals of Tebow and Collins. At CNN, John Blake blogged about how "evangelical" Christians are fast becoming a hated minority in America. Nothing, however, caught the imagination of conservative Christians more than the following cartoon drawn by The Chicago Tribune's conservative political cartoonist Scott Stantis:

The Christian rejoinder to the popular culture's lionizing of Collins has been met by a not-unexpected surrejoinder of sorts. Some, such as Stefanie Williams in the Huffington Post, have scathingly ridiculed Christian claims to persecution while exaggerating the dangers inherent in being an open homosexual. More significant, however, are the countless comments I have read in the dozens of articles I have perused on the matter in the past couple of weeks. The accusations are harsh, and they are made with alarming (for a Christian) regularity: Christians are bigots; Christians are intolerant; Christians are hypocrites. How should a thinking Christian respond?

First, many of today's evangelicals might not like to hear it, but the fact remains that Christians are, as Blake argued, a distinct minority in American culture and, as such, have no right to expect, let alone impose, their views on the culture as a whole. This is something that the Christians among whom I was raised in the 1960s and 1970s took for granted. In youth group we would sing the ditty, "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through." I heard countless sermons on Philippians 3:20, where St. Paul contrasts the "enemies of the cross of Christ," whose "end is destruction," whose "god is their belly," and whose "minds are set on earthly things," with Christians, whose "citizenship is in heaven," from which they "await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." Of course, much of such preaching and singing carried with it unbiblical dualistic and quietistic overtones. Nonetheless, the sense of living as "exiles" on an earth still awaiting its ultimate redemption was palpable, and rightly located the church in its "alien" position in the midst of the present evil age.

Indeed, contrary to the apparent expectations of all too many Christians, the New Testament teaches that hostility, not entitlement, is the expected lot of God's people in the present world. Nowhere is this more clear than in Paul's first letter to the young church at Corinth. There, to a group of people in thrall to their culture's love of "wisdom" and rhetorical brilliance, the apostle deconstructs the culturally-assumed understanding of what true "wisdom" entails, identifying it with God's act in the ignominious cross of Christ:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called,both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25, NIV)

Moreover, the consequence of this shocking epistemological revolution is the inevitable rejection of the message of the cross by those who do not possess the Spirit of God:

The natural person (psychikos anthrōpos) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he understand them, for they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14, tr. JRM)

In other words, it is the gift of the eschatological Spirit of God which enables this epistemological revolution. Those without the Spirit just don't and can't "get it" because they lack the requisite "equipment" necessary to do so.

Why, then, are today's "evangelicals" so shocked and angry when the world despises their viewpoints and appears unable even to articulate their beliefs properly? The answer, I believe, has much to do with Jerry Falwell and his creation of the so-called "Moral Majority" in the late 1970s, which was then followed by the "marriage" of conservative Christianity with the increasingly right-wing political policies of Ronald Reagan's Republican Party, creating the so-called "Religious Right," whose influence is certainly waning in the present day. Frankly, I never understood the appeal of Falwell, the erstwhile Southern segregationist and promulgator of old-fashioned, legalistic fundamentalism. Religiously, he represented a variety of Arminian revivalism which ran against my own developing theological sensibilities. Even worse, however, by identifying traditionalist Christian moral teachings with those held by the "majority" of Americans, he not only mistakenly wed Christianity to the culture of the nation as a whole, but also served to marginalize and demonize the perspectives of the culture's movers and shakers in the Northeast and West Coast—an effort to divide and conquer akin to Richard Nixon's less than a decade earlier when he spoke of the "silent majority." Worst of all, however, he and his minions laid Christians bare to the related charges of selective self-righteousness and hypocrisy. It is one thing, of course, to adhere to biblical standards of morality (and. for Falwell and the like, "morality" was almost exclusively related to sexual and "right to life" issues; the call to "love your neighbor as yourself," and the societal implications of that call, were, and are, largely ignored in such circles). It is another to insist, in a secular "liberal" democracy, that one has the right and obligation to impose and enforce that morality on society as a whole. It is this lack of nuance, of course, that has led large swaths of conservative Christians to lionize such self-righteous nincompoops as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, which has only served to silence authentic Christian witness even more in the early 21st century. And when the "conservative Christians" of South Carolina, who condemned Bill Clinton for his infidelities back in the 1990s, last week voted en masse to elect Mark Sanford, the lying, adulterous former Governor who had used state money to fund his dalliances, to the U.S. House of Representatives, one would not be amiss to reflect that something seriously had gone wrong with the movement. The result, as Scot McKnight asserted last week, is that "[t]he politicization of the evangelical movement has proven to be far more disastrous than beneficial." And this goes, I might add, for the Christian left as much as for the Christian "right."

On the other hand, attempts by more secular, "progressive" voices to lionize Collins for his "courage" and to downplay or ridicule Christian concerns about persecution or, better, prejudice against them, likewise need to be exposed for the ideological hyperbole that they are. It is true, as I have argued many times, that American Christians' complaints about "persecution" are unseemly. Such complaints both misunderstand the true nature of persecution—ridicule and mocking are not the same as persecution—and dishonor the multitudes of their genuinely persecuted brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia. At the same time, however, secularist mockers of Christianity exaggerate both the assumed cultural privilege enjoyed by Christians and the perils of being openly gay in America. Indeed, reading authors like Williams, one would think that being gay in 21st century America is as perilous a scenario as being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century.

Such is, frankly, ridiculous. Yes, bullying of gay or presumed to be gay teens still occurs. So-called "hate crimes" against gay people occur, like they do against all sorts of different people considered "other" by the perpetrators. Such acts are despicable, and any Christian worthy of the name would agree wholeheartedly. But watch television and movies. There are gay characters a-plenty. And they are, almost to a person, portrayed favorably. Contrast this with how religiously conservative people are portrayed. Almost without exception, they are viewed as unintelligent, self-righteous, hypocritical zealots. Yes, it's a stereotype that plays well in comedies. That I can appreciate. But the same portrayals are found on "serious" dramas where they can be used as a too-easy scapegoat. This is the standard portrayal of religious folk in the culture of America that its citizens are fed day in and day out. And for writers such as Williams to ignore this or to pretend it isn't this way is disingenuous at best. Indeed, a case could be made that, in the current cultural climate, it took as much courage for Chris Broussard to articulate, rightly or wrongly, his disagreement with homosexuality on national TV than it did for Collins to announce to the world that he was gay while getting paid for it.

More troublesome is the claim that Christians, by opposing homosexual practice, are being "bigoted" and "intolerant." According to the Oxford Dictionary, "bigotry" is defined as "intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself." What the dictionary doesn't articulate is that connotation of the term involves holding to opinions that are unreasonable. Likewise, "tolerance" and "intolerance" have undergone a not-so-subtle transformation over the past generation. Rightly understood, "tolerance" involves the ability of a person to "tolerate" opinions different from those he or she holds, no matter how strongly. Certainly there are some Christians who aren't "tolerant" in that sense, but most certainly are. In that case, simply disagreeing with certain views does not constitute one a "bigot." The trouble, of course, has arisen because of the interface of the notion of "tolerance" with the postmodern ethos in which all viewpoints are considered to be personally or culturally constructed and, hence, relative. If there are no "absolute" truths (other than the axiom that there are no absolute truths, of course), then claiming one's view is absolutely true, no matter the authority for the claim, is by definition a manifestation of "intolerance."

It is here that the Christian must make his or her stand. All dreams of a "Christian America" must be abandoned as not merely impracticable, but unbiblical as well. And this means that all the hand-wringing among Christian conservatives over "gay marriage" is much ado about not-so-much. Elsewhere I have argued that the government get out of the marriage business and stick to offering civil unions for both hetero- and homosexual partners. Certainly one can remain convinced of the sinfulness of homosexual behavior and yet insist that gay partners are granted civil rights and legal protection which heretofore they have not received.

But, if a Christian is to remain faithful to Scripture, he or she must maintain that homosexual behavior is one of many manifestations of life lived "not the way it's supposed to be." It is ironic that a culture which increasingly despises or denies the Christian god in the interests of pluralism and secularism has managed to create a goddess of its own, to which all are expected to genuflect. I am speaking, of course, of the goddess Tolerantia, "tolerance." This is a goddess that directly challenges the claims of Christ to exclusive allegiance. And the Christian believes that it is to the exalted Christ, not to Tolerantia, that the name "Lord" has been granted and at whose feet every knee will one day bow. If that means increasing cultural marginalization, so be it.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the church's first two centuries, the early Christians, like the Jews before them, were often referred to by Greco-Roman writers as atheioi, "atheists," because they refused to adhere to the prevailing religious syncretism and acknowledge the Roman Pantheon along with their triune God (for texts, see here). Increasingly it appears as if the western church in the 21st century is entering a similar cultural landscape. The real question to ask is whether or not they will remain faithful to the Lord who bought her with his own blood and has called her to shine the light of the gospel in the midst of a broken and fallen world.


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