Robert A J Gagnon (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2001)
Reviewed by Christopher Shell PhD
This is the book that the erstwhile Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, refused to discuss. No scholar or honest person would fail to discuss – would fail to leap at the chance to discuss – the fullest available treatment of the topic that was currently engaging them. And this book certainly is the fullest available treatment – though there’s also a good one by James De Young. Good people stand for science, study and scholarship, and against ideology. They will always continue to do so – and their way, which is self-evidently correct, will win.
Why discuss the Bible texts when a lot of the people in the debate do not accept biblical authority? For two reasons. First, Christians and nonChristians are on common ground in reasoning that nothing suddenly becomes true when it is written down by a biblical writer. Whatever a biblical writer writes that is true was already true (on grounds of fact and/or history, which are both things that can be independently investigated) before they wrote it. So there is basic common ground here between Christians and nonChristians. Second, although the fact that ‘the Bible says it’ does not make any assertion true, there is plenty of dispute about what the Bible actually does say. When it comes to this topic, most of that dispute is (unusually) between the learned on the one hand and the ignorant on the other, rather than between different learned persons. Normally the ignorant (with the exception of taxidrivers) learn to be quiet and listen, as you or I would do in any discussion of astrophysics. But not when it comes to the biblical view of homosexuality. Here, people without the slightest knowledge of biblical languages, culture, or exegesis are all too happy to present their two penn’orth as though it had some value. Normally this two penn’orth amounts to the idea that really Paul (or Jesus) was a good twenty-first century liberal just like them.
Gagnon discusses the ancient Judaeo-Christian writings in four parts: Old Testament; ancient Judaism (especially the Platonic tradition); Jesus; and Paul. His reading of the texts is wonderfully close and detailed – and therefore truthful and accurate, not partial. One does wish sometimes that he would number his points or provide a less dense layout – but this is of no matter provided that one reads slowly and carefully, which his fantastic analysis certainly deserves.
On the Old Testament, it is good to have a full discussion of the levitical laws from someone who values them as a Jew. But the highlight is his discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah. How many times has one heard that ‘theologians believe that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality’? Sharon Ferguson voiced this generalisation on The Big Questions and Tina Beattie in The Tablet. It is hard to know where to start in answering this view. Of course we can easily dismiss the idea that the men who surrounded the house in Sodom wanted to ‘know’ the angels socially. Had they wanted this, they would have been not inhospitable but exceptionally hospitable – the whole town coming out to welcome them. But granted that the ‘know’ was sexual, as confirmed by Lot’s rather shocking proposed trade-off of his daughters, some argue that the fault lay in the proposed rape (mass-rape) rather than in the fact that this was homosexual in nature. Now… Point one: if there had been only one ‘sin of Sodom’, Sodom would be a proverbial beacon of righteousness: there were clearly more sins than one to their name. Point two: how come it just so happens that the city which was condemned for its immorality was also the same one that was characterised by homosexuality to a degree far exceeding other biblical cities. Coincidence? However, this is just an example of the fact that opponents can be so intellectually weak (or, more likely dishonest) that they can try to argue against positions which any eight-year-old would immediately see were obvious upon their reading of the text.
The same applies to Romans 1: there are plenty of exegetical points in need of discussion, but the passage’s orientation in opposition to homosexual practice is not one of these: rather, it is undeniable. The same Paul who is enthusiastically quoted as an inclusivist (Gal. 3.28 was mentioned by Lord Ian Blair in the Lords recently) was the man who wrote that those who engage in homosexual acts (i.e. the persons are in view as well as the acts) will not inherit the kingdom of God. Particularly good is the excursus (pp443ff) on the difference between the slavery issue and the homosexuality issue. The comparison is often made – generally by those who take not the slightest account of the literature on the topic or of their opponents’ rebuttals. Again recently, the Bishop of Salisbury decided that Wilberforce invented Christian opposition to the slave trade. Who, then, wrote in Revelation 18 that ‘the bodies and souls of men’ were the climax, the most despicable, of the list of 28 Roman cargoes?
The final chapter (ch5) gives a very full modern application – but the gold is all in the footnotes. Chapter and verse is given for the scientific and social scientific studies (practically none of which is religious in nature or origin) that show the massive statistical degree of the homosexual disadvantage in many matters: claim to be natural or biological or genetic; rates of STIs; rates of promiscuity; typical length of relationship; degrees of monogamy; drug use; suicide; premature death.
Questions of fact and interpretation will never be settled by the potboilers, full of anecdote and chatty generalisation, that are Bp Harries’ speciality. Here, by contrast, we have proper scientific scholarship, full of exactitude and truth. And best of all, Prof. Gagnon through his website makes sure that his exactitude and thoroughness get ever more exact and thorough.
Christopher Shell PhD