In this essay I will finish my chapter-by-chapter summary, analysis, and critique of Karen Keen’s book, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. In this series I followed Keen’s outline, used her vocabulary, and let her frame the issues. However after today’s essay, with Keen’s argument and my analysis still fresh on our minds, I plan to reflect on the issue of same-sex relationships a bit more independently.
A New Approach?
In chapter 8, “Imagining a New Response to the Gay and Lesbian Community,” Keen makes her final appeal for changes in the way evangelical believers relate to gay and lesbian Christians. She opens the chapter by summarizing her foregoing conclusions and urging readers to allow the following principles to inform the debate:
“Scripture interpretation requires recognizing the overarching intent of biblical mandates, namely, a good and just world.”
“Scripture itself teaches us that biblical mandates, including creation ordinances, cannot be applied without a deliberative process.”
“Evidence indicates that life-long celibacy is not achievable for every person.”
“Evidence shows that same-sex attraction is not moral fallenness; it could be understood as natural fallenness or human variation.”
On the basis of these four assertions, which are the conclusions to which the previous chapters have come, Keen argues that there are three ways evangelicals can embrace same-sex relationships without abandoning their evangelical faith:
First, the “traditionalist exception” view enables even those who believe that same-sex relationships are wrong to accept them as accommodations to human weakness because covenanted, loving relationships are better than promiscuity. Second, the “traditionalist case-law” view accepts the principle that we must take into account the “overarching intent” of biblical mandates. Given that many gay and lesbian people cannot remain celibate and that their determination to live good lives would be greatly strengthen by remaining within the Christian community, traditionalists could view the relationship as morally acceptable.
Third, the “affirming” view accepts gay and lesbian relationships on the same basis as those between other-sex couples. The affirming view sees the biblical prohibitions as “prescientific” in the same way as the biblical cosmology is prescientific. The affirming view bases its acceptance of same-sex relationships not on the letter but the intent of biblical sexual regulations. For the Bible’s rules for sex are designed to prevent harm and facilitate “a good and just world.” “Same-sex relationships are not harmful by virtue of their same-sex nature,” Keen adds. They become harmful in the same way other-sex relationships become harmful, that is, when they are poisoned by betrayal, violence, coercion, deception, manipulation, and other unloving attitudes and acts.
Karen Keen’s “Personal Journey”
In the last section of the book, Keen recounts her journey from her introduction as an infant to “a small-town conservative Baptist church” to the frightening—in some ways shattering—experience in her late teens of “falling in love” with her best female friend. Keen continues her story by recounting some of the stages in her twenty-year spiritual and intellectual quest to understand herself as gay and an evangelical Christian. I will not attempt to summarize in detail Keen’s story. I could not possibly do justice to the confusion, pathos, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and suffering that at times shows through her rather straightforward account. Her book is the fruit of her intellectual journey…so far.
Theoretical or Practical?
From the beginning I’ve been struck with way Keen combines her intellectual arguments from biblical exegesis/interpretation and science with her pragmatic goals. In this last chapter we see highlighted her practical, pastoral side. Clearly Keen would prefer that evangelicals accept her exegetical/hermeneutical case for accepting loving, covenanted, same-sex relationships on the same basis as other-sex loving, covenanted relationships. But she is willing to tolerate the “traditionalist exception” and “traditionalist case-law” views—though they are far from ideal—as ways to achieve her practical goal of having evangelical churches allow same-sex couples to participate in the life of the church without having to deny their identities or struggle unhappily and unsuccessfully to remain celibate. Keen will not allow fanatical desire for ideological purity to stand in the way of achieving her practical aim. I am only speculating here, but perhaps she hopes that once churches allow gay relationships, even on a less than ideal basis, they may be persuaded to move on to the “accepting” view by coming to understand gay people on a personal level.
The Rhetoric of Autobiography
It is foolish as well as arrogant and uncaring to argue with someone’s telling of their story or to diminish the significance of their self-reported experiences. People feel what they feel and experience what they experience, and no one knows this better than they do. The quickest way to alienate a contemporary audience is to appear unsympathetic to anyone society has designated a victim of oppression. Hence it is almost impossible for members of officially recognized oppressed groups to resist using their stories of struggle and oppression as proof that they are on the right side of history, justice, and goodness; anyone not sympathetic with them is by that very fact on the wrong side. I appreciate very much that Karen Keen resists this temptation. Along with everyone else she knows that feeling that something is good or right or true does not make it good or right or true. Things are good or true or right independently of our private experience. To assume otherwise would destroy the very idea of morality. Nor can telling one’s story serve as proof for anything other than the subjective experience of the story teller. A listener has no rational or moral obligation to accept a story full of pathos and suffering as proof of anything other than the emotional state of the story teller. Such stories rightly evoke compassion but cannot legitimately command agreement.
It would take a hard heart indeed not to be moved by Karen Keen’s story and stories like hers. And I do not have a hard heart, and I never have. Her first church experience was not unlike my own, of a small, very traditional, and Bible-centered congregation. She wanted to become a missionary, and I wanted to preach the gospel in the church. I too made a journey through graduate study of the Bible and theology, confronting all the critical questions modern historians, biblical scholars, philosophers, and theologians raise about our faith. I am also passionate about healthy teaching in the church and the care of the little lambs in Jesus’s flock. We both published books with Eerdmans Publishing Company. I do not, however, have her experience of being a woman or of having same-sex attraction. I do not consider myself better than her on this account. I know that I am worthy only to pray the tax collector’s prayer, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is also my prayer and hope for everyone, including Karen Keen.
Since I read Keen’s book the first time and looked at her website, I’ve felt a great love for her. I find her story compelling in many ways. And yet, I find myself unmoved by her argument that accepting same-sex relationships is consistent with a Bible-based evangelical faith for all the reasons I’ve laid out in this eleven-part review.