Turning Teachings on Their Head: What Does it Mean to Follow Paul’s Teaching?
This is going to be a longer post, and a bit more theological than most. I hope you will stay with me.
My novel Angel is the story of a Christian minister named Paul. (If this was a reference to St. Paul it was a subconscious one, it just popped into my head as the right name for him.) In one scene the fictional Paul argues that there is no conflict between homosexuality and Christianity. The basis of his argument is, as it happens,the letters of Paul. (My subconscious may have been up to something.) It goes like this: Jesus came with a new covenant, which is why Gentiles do not have to be circumcised or follow Jewish dietary laws. This same logic should be applied to other specifics of the law such as Leviticus which contains the Bible’s most unambiguous anti-gay command. “Man shall not lie down with man, it is abomination.” (18:22)
This is actually a small part of the novel. A novel is a story about characters, not a theological position paper. The novel does not make an argument. It tells a story with a point of view. Any theological discussions between the characters had to be conversational. So fictional Paul did not go into his reasoning in depth.
A reviewer some time ago said that Angel “turns Paul’s theology on its head.” I would like to explain why I do not think this is true.
Some time back, I decided to read the New Testament of the Bible from start to finish in chronological order, the order in which scholars believe it was written. I wrote down all of my initial impressions as I went trying to disabuse myself of any preconceived, second-hand notions about what the Bible was supposed to say. Now I am in the process of going back through, reading the books a second time, and researching some of the issues and questions that came up the first time by consulting different translations of key passages and sources such as the Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary. (Not an impulse purchase at $269!)
Because I have been reading in chronological order, I began both times with the authentic letters of Paul of Tarsus. There are a number of things about his letters that jump out immediately. The first is that he did not think he was writing with the authority of God. Paul is insecure, worried about rival teachers, he makes emotional appeals, he uses all of his powers of persuasion. “I am not lying!” is one of his favorite phrases. Paul expected the recipients of his letters to doubt, disagree, argue– and they did! That is what makes them so vivid and vibrant. Paul was a living man fired by new thoughts, experimenting with ideas, crafting his message, making his arguments, growing, evolving, changing his mind. It is exciting.
In his most beautiful passage he writes to the Corinthians:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. Paul was inspired by his vision of (or encounter with) the risen Christ, but he does not make any claims to have divine and perfect knowledge himself.
Because his letters have become Biblical canon and traditional, orthodox theology, it takes a great leap of imagination to remember how novel and strange his arguments were at the time. The Messiah is not a great soldier who will lead our people to triumph but a Galilean who was executed as a common criminal?! You don’t have to follow Jewish law to be a Christ follower?! This was crazy stuff to a lot of people.
And Paul was nothing if not bold. He used the story of Abraham, the first to make the covenant with God through circumcision, as an argument against the requirement to be circumcised. The word “brit” in Hebrew means both circumcision and covenant. The idea that you could have one without the other was crazy-talk. To most Jews it appears that Paul took the story of Abraham and turned it on its head. But to Paul, what was most important about the story of Abraham was not the historical fact of his circumcision, rather the spirit of the story about his faith.
God’s initial call to Abraham was “Lech leka!” “Get up and go!” God asked Abraham to drop everything, give up his old way of life, his family, his traditions and trust God– and he did. So, Paul argues, contrary to tradition, those who embrace this new form of Judaism “in Christ” should not cling too tightly to Jewish law and should instead take a leap of faith, trusting in God as revealed through the crucified Messiah, being ruled by one guiding principle. “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14)
Now along the way, in the course of his letters, Paul said a lot of other things. He spent a great deal of time resolving a dispute in one of his communities about whether you should be able to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods. (You shouldn’t do this on purpose, but you should be able to have a meal with your Gentile friends and shop in your regular market in case you’re worried about his answer to this.) He had to deal with people who were trying to show off their prophetic excellence by ostentatiously outdoing their peers by speaking in tongues.
He said that women should keep their heads covered and not speak in church. If they did not, they might as well shave their heads. He pictured a hierarchical universe that goes God-Man-Woman. He conceived of heaven as consisting of a series of levels with God and Christ living in the “third heaven.” He was not sure if the resurrection of Jesus was physical or only spiritual. He was concerned with the sin of sorcery.
Paul was anti-marriage. Not anti-gay marriage. He was anti-marriage. “He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord– how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world– how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world– how she may please her husband.”
He would prefer everyone remain celibate as he is. “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
The best thing he has to say about marriage is that it is a lesser evil than promiscuity. Paul says he wishes that every man could be celibate as he is, but “as a concession” if they are not able to control their desires, they should marry and render to their spouses the affection due them. Marriage, in Paul’s mind, is not about mutually fulfilling sexual union. Rather it is a way to quench desire. “If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Being married puts the fire out. (This is in First Corinthians if you want to look it up.)
What about children? Well, he believed that the Kingdom of God was going to replace the world of man in his hearers’ lifetimes, so future generations were not on his mind.
And Paul believed that homosexual desire was God’s punishment for idol worship. (This is in Romans.)
Do we have to share all of these beliefs or throw Paul out completely? Of course not.
What does it mean to have faith as Paul describes it? Is it to accept all of the things that Paul did– his idea of the role of women, homosexuals and idol worship, that the end of the age was coming in his lifetime? Or is it to follow his example– to trust the promptings of the spirit, the soft voice of the Holy Ghost as it whispers in your ear? Is being a descendant of Abraham being circumcised like Abraham or being faithful like him? Is being a descendant of Paul believing what he did or believing as he did?
I believe it is the latter.
What does it mean to have faith like Paul? Paul kept going back to scripture with a question for God in his heart. How do we fulfill the promise we made to each other? Paul also has an unshakeable faith, based on his own vision, that this man Jesus was the Christ, the fulfillment of God’s end of the covenant. God’s promise will be kept, it will be extended beyond old tribal boundaries and everything that separates us from God will be destroyed. What did he identify as God’s only true command? Love your neighbor as yourself.
If you want to make a Pauline argument against homosexuality, then, you should have to demonstrate that this is the more compassionate and loving way to behave toward your neighbor. If you can show this, then it is what you should do. If you cannot, then it is not.