Today I will continue my analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. In this essay I will describe and analyze the argument of Chapter 1, which bears the title:
“The Church’s Response to the Gay and Lesbian Community: A Brief History.”
Summary: Gay People Are Human Too
The first sentence of Chapter 1 captures the message the chapter in one word: “When it comes to same-sex relationships, there is one thing we cannot forget: people.” Gays and lesbians are real people. Keen’s goal in this chapter is to expose the ways the church has dehumanized gay people and advance the process of re-humanizing them in the mind of the church. According to Keen, the church’s lack of understanding of gay people clouds its ability to form accurate and just judgments about the Christian legitimacy of same-sex relationships. Correcting the caricatures and demystifying the “ghost stories” about gay people are the first steps toward reading the Bible with an open mind.
John Chrysostom (347-407) called same-sex intercourse a “monstrous insanity.” Martin Luther argued that same-sex desire derived from the perverting influence of the devil. Matthew Henry asserts that such desires are divine punishments consequent on a prior abandonment of God. Keen could have expanded this section indefinitely, but these few examples serve to represent the church’s dominant premodern attitude. Keen also documents some pre-modern medical explanations for same-sex desire but points out that they usually picture gay people as mentally ill or suffering from disease.
Five Options within Conservative Churches
Keen next surveys five stages or stances that have characterized conservative churches over the past sixty years. Although Keen views these differing approaches as ordered chronologically she also recognizes that they exist simultaneously at the present time. I will simply list them in order in Keen’s own words:
1. “Gay [Christian] people should stay in the closet.”
2. “Gay [Christian] people are perverts and criminals.”
3. “Gay [Christian] people are hapless victims who need healing.”
4. “Gay [Christian] people are admirable saints called to a celibate life.”
5. “Gay [Christian] people are ________.”
Under heading five Keen attempts to picture the landscape at the time of her writing. She describes four group stances: celibate gays, ex-gays, same-sex attracted evangelicals who deny the reality of same-sex “orientations,” and gay affirming evangelicals. Although she writes about these four stances in a descriptive style, she clearly favors the “affirming” position. The thesis of her book, after all, is that evangelical churches can and should adopt the “affirming” position as biblically and doctrinally sound.
It might seem that this chapter (“A Brief History”) simply sets the stage for the book’s argument by documenting the history of the subject and surveying contemporary options without making an argument. However, I want to suggest several ways in which the chapter argues against the traditional view and for the affirming view.
1. Keen’s description of how premodern authors spoke about gay people makes a subtle argument. Keen clearly expects the contemporary reader to cringe upon hearing gay people described with such terms. Figures of the past who expressed disgust and hatred toward groups with whom contemporary society has become sympathetic lose credibility with modern audiences; they are made toxic by being labeled racists, sexist, or homophobic. Given contemporary society’s sympathies, rational and biblical arguments critical of gay people fall on deaf ears because of suspicion that they are rationalizations for irrational animus.
2. Rehearsing traditionalists’ dubious arguments and implausible speculations about the origins of same-sex desire leaves the impression that the conclusions traditionalists draw about biblical morality must also be false or at least doubtful.
3. Keen urges us to cease thinking of issues in abstraction from people. Gay people are individuals with feelings, experiences, and stories. In doing this she not only draws on society’s sympathy for gay people (See #1 above), but prepares readers to accept the self-reported experience of gay people as proof of three important assertions within her argument: (1) people do not choose to become gay, (2) they cannot change their orientation, and (3) maintaining a life of celibacy is very difficult, painful, and lonely.
The Perils of Critique
Before I offer any critique I need to address a huge obstacle that makes effective criticism of this book almost impossible: Karen Keen’s book—and others like it—is autobiography as well as argument. It concerns personal identity, feelings, and experience as well as thought, history, and biblical exegesis and interpretation. It is almost impossible for most audiences to separate these two dimensions. The overarching narrative—sometimes unspoken but always implicit—is a compelling story of oppression, suffering, agony, and suicide on the one hand and courage, determination, and endurance on the other. And indeed the persuasive power of the book lies in its brilliant combination of autobiography and rational argument. Since the two aspects are woven together in a seamless argument, any critique of the rational aspects of the argument will be taken as a critique of the personal aspects, as a poisonous attack on the person making the argument. Telling other people what they feel, dismissing their sense of identity, or denying their self-reported experiences appears to most contemporary people as arrogant, judgmental, and profoundly insensitive.
What is the sincere critic to do? Some critics rush blindly into this rhetorical trap and say the stupidest things. Needless to say, no matter how clever their arguments, they lose the audience the minute they open their mouths! Others see the trap, realize that their situation is rhetorically untenable, and decide not to say anything. Their cowardly silence allows weak and fallacious arguments to take cover under a strong narrative. Lack of objection will be taken as acquiescence.
I do not wish to be a coward or a fool. For…
Timorous silence is duty neglected.
Incautious speech is duty betrayed.
I hope to avoid both.
It is too early to develop an extensive critique of the argument contained in this chapter because in the following chapters she expands the three arguments I have outlined. Additionally, the book constitutes one big argument and needs to be assessed as a whole. However, I will venture some preliminary observations on these three arguments.
Regarding #1: This argument relies on the rhetorical advantage gay people have acquired over the past few decades. For a variety of reasons, including the HIV/AIDS crisis of the late twentieth century, a sympathetic media, and decisions by the Supreme Court there has developed a social consensus that gay people have been innocent victims of prejudice and violence. This consensus narrative places an unwarrantedly heavy burden of proof on those who argue the traditional thesis from the Bible. For there is no logical connection between the cringe worthy way in which traditionalists of the past spoke about same-sex activity and the truth of their conclusions about biblical teaching on this subject.
Regarding #2: Discovering that many arguments offered to support a thesis are weak or less than demonstrative does not prove that the thesis is false. For sure, rehearsing a litany of the weakest arguments in support of a conclusion tends to create doubt in the listener. However, the mere possibility of doubt does not justify rejecting the thesis in favor of its negation.
Regarding #3: Indeed gay people are people. And I agree that we ought to speak and act toward them as human beings worthy of respect. However, this is true of every person we meet. There is no connection between remembering that an individual is a person worthy of respect and affirming everything they feel and do as morally upright or accepting their self-described experience as evidence for the “affirming” thesis.
Next Time: We will examine Keen’s survey of what the Bible says about same-sex relationships.
I was a bit hesitant to get into this one, but I absolutely love the way you have organized your analysis. Thank you for sharing this, as always it will be a source of contemplation and mediation for me.
*From:* ifaqtheology *Sent:* Tuesday, September 14, 2021 1:44 PM *To:* firstname.lastname@example.org *Subject:* [New post] Scripture…Same-Sex Relationships—A Review (Part Two)
ifaqtheology posted: ” Today I will continue my analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. In this essay I will describe and analyze the argument of Chapter 1, which bears the title: “The Church’s Response”
Thank you, Justin. I hope to maintain the same standards of rigor in analysis and critique in future essays. Hold me to that. Thank you for replying.