Oscar’s Wife

ImageI recently finished reading Franny Moyle’s book Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.  Constance Wilde is generally given short shrift in biographies of her husband. This book provided a much different perspective on the playwright’s life, and an important one. One of the things I took away from this book was just how many demands were being placed on Wilde in the years before his trials.

He was trying to capitalize on his new success as a playwright, he was courting the emotionally demanding Lord Alfred Douglas,  taking part in dinners and social events not to mention a notorious secret night life (seriously, don’t mention it), all the while maintaining his domestic role as a husband and father.  The domestic vantage point adds new dimensions to other, more well known, parts of his biography.

For example, in 1893, Wilde and Douglas had a series of arguments over Douglas’s translation of Wilde’s play Salome.  Wilde’s memory of the events were recorded in De Profundis.

“After a series of scenes culminating in one more than usually revolting, when you came one Monday evening to my rooms accompanied by two male friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to escape from you, giving my wife some absurd reason for my departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you might follow me by the next train.”

Most of the biographies I have read of Wilde or Douglas which deal with this episode go on to describe the tensions in the relationship between the two men. After these rows (and the threat of a scandal involving some indiscretions by Wilde, Ross and Douglas) Wilde determined that Bosie should take a trip to Egypt and he wrote to Lady Douglas asking her to send him abroad.  Without the perspective of Constance, Wilde’s reasons for wanting some space from Douglas seem to be entirely about the young man’s character.

What Moyle makes clear is that Wilde was being pulled in two directions. The demands placed on him by family life were just as strong as those placed on him by his lover.  His quarrel with Douglas was followed hard upon by an equally draining quarrel with his wife. When Oscar flew off to Paris to escape Bosie, he bailed on a wedding he was supposed to attend.  Constance was furious.  This is when Oscar decided he could not live this double life any more. He refused to see Bosie, arranged for him to be sent away, and for a while he tried to be the “ideal husband” he had seemed to be early in their marriage.

It didn’t last long, of course.

The beginning of the book contained a bit more background on Constance, and especially  on her wardrobe, than my level of interest supported. As the book reached its climax and tragic end, though, it is riveting.  After society had torn the family apart in the name of protecting the nation’s morals by sending Wilde to prison, they did it again with a severe penal system. Prisoners were allowed few visitors and only one letter a month. Friends and family had to compete for available slots. Because of this, Wilde’s well-meaning friends and Constance’s well-meaning advisors could only guess as to Wilde’s true wishes. Each tried to act on his behalf, and at cross purposes.  It would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic.


When “and Then I Got Rich” Doesn’t Happen

As part of my ongoing exploration of failure, I wanted to embed a video from the local news station on a an upcoming program called Failure Lab.  I failed. Follow the link to watch.

In Failure Lab, which will be presented at the Detroit Opera House on November 21, is described as “an intimate evening showcasing personal stories of failure.” The catch is that none of the speakers frame the stories in terms of stepping stones to success. They do not follow up with lessons learned or how they went on to great things. They just contemplate the experience of failing.

Three years ago (on another Detroit television station) I explained the reason I wanted to write Broke is Beautiful.

“You can find lots of stories about broke people doing well but they always end with ‘and then they got rich.’  And I wanted to talk about living a good life if ‘and then they got rich’ doesn’t happen.”

Why should anyone want to do this? Isn’t it dwelling on the negative? Shouldn’t you be striving for success?

Only discussing failure as part of a success narrative isolates people. It doesn’t give anyone an opportunity to share the experiences that are shaping their lives until after the fact, and only after some sort of “happy end” has been achieved.  It blinds us to the fact that our stumbling, bumbling, awkwardness, and the pain of falling short of great dreams unites us as human beings.

The British, I think, have much more of an understanding of this. As an illustration, here is clip of Stephen Fry talking about the difference between British and American humor:

In this clip he talks about our self-help culture and the American “idea that life is refinable and improvable.”  What I would add is that not only do we think we can improve our lives we feel that we must improve our lives.

It is important to expand the narrative about success and failure to include empathy for those who do not reach the top (and recognition that they are us). Then we can give each other a pat on the back, a helping hand, and laugh at our foibles and theirs.

I have a sense that perhaps our narrative about failure is changing in the wake of the Great Recession.  The limits of our control in the universe have been made clear.  This is related (in a way I hadn’t expected until I started writing this) to my post yesterday on having only one narrative in popular culture.  The problem with the narrative failure as a stepping stone to success, the self-made man, always winning in the end is not that it is a bad story. It can be motivating and uplifting, and sometimes that is just what you need. But it is not always what you need. Sometimes you need to be reassured that we’re all a bit screwed up and we’re all in this together.

Incidentally, if the premise of Broke is Beautiful sounds interesting and you would like autographed copies for the people on your gift list, you can order directly from the author (support a starving artist) by following the link.

Writing for Free and the Danger of the Single Story

“… publishers that don’t pay people amplify privileged voices who don’t need to get paid.”

This was a tweet that Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) sent out today as part of an ongoing dialogue on whether writers ought to write for free.

Kendzior is a St. Louis-based writer who focuses a lot on what she calls the “prestige economy,” that is unpaid work, such as internships or writing for the Huffington Post,  that people do in exchange for exposure or experience and a line on a resume. In an interview with PolicyMic Kendzior explained:

We have had a fundamental shift in what is “normal” corporate behavior and “normal” personal sacrifice. Because this shift is cloaked in terms like “meritocracy,” and espouses values like hard work and education, people have been reluctant to recognize it for what it is: the annihilation of mobility…This is aristocracy masquerading as meritocracy. Higher education is the lynchpin of social inequality, but it really begins earlier than that, with public schools based on parental tax bracket. Add to this the influence factors in admission — private schools, discrimination against high school students that have to work instead of “enrich” themselves through activities, expensive SAT prep courses, and so on — and you see how early this stratification begins.

I have written quite a bit here about the frustration of trying to make a living as a writer, the insistence that artists should do it for love in order to prove their authenticity, how it is assumed that writers will have a second (primary) source of income, and how contracts are sometimes written in ways that do not allow writers to have the normal security of knowing when, if and how much they will be paid for completed work.  I’ve written quite a bit about how a writer can deal with this state of affairs emotionally.

I recommend also an editorial in today’s New York Times by Tim Kreider “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

“I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing,” Kreider wrote.  “I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.”

Kendzior’s tweet, however, made me step back and look at the big picture.  What is the real harm in a system that requires writers to be either independently wealthy or supported by someone else in order to stay in the profession?

(Incidentally, while Kendzior describes this as a “new normal” I do not believe this is the case. I have read a lot of history and I do not remember any period in which writers found it easy to get paid for their work.  Literature has always been created by the elite and their work frames how we think of the cultures that spawned them. The write for free on the internet model is only the 21st Century manifestation of this problem.)

Keeping those who cannot afford to go without a paycheck out of the field limits our vision and our cultural dialogue. Writers are the people who are charged with speaking about the world. We are the journalists, the reporters, the social commentators and the fiction writers. Writers observe the world and tell us what they see. They tell us who we are as a people.  If only the well-to-do can stay in the field for long then the view of who we are as a people is skewed.

I wrote a while back about famine blindness.  Most Americans who read the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son do not remember that there is a famine in it. That is because we simply do not understand hardships that fall outside our personal experience.  They are so unreal to us that we fail to account for them at all.   It is not exactly fair to say that a person who comes from a well-to-do family, who is a 4th generation Harvard graduate, is unsympathetic to the obstacles in front of someone who did not have those advantages.  She is not aware of the obstacles at all.  She can be told a story that includes them and not even hear relevant information.

In my earlier article on famine blindness, I asked what it meant for public policy that our members of congress are substantially richer than the people they are hired to represent. I wonder now what it means for our culture if our American story is only told from the point of view of people who can afford the luxury of working without being paid?

I’m Not Doing it To Make Money

Yesterday I came across a post by writer Anabel Smith called On (Not) Making a Living as a Writer.  As not making a living as a writer is a major theme of my blog, I passed it along in my Twitter feed.  The article focuses on Smith’s struggles to define success in a field that offers little recognition and less pay.   There is one part of the article that was still on my mind today.

Smith writes, “I wanted my book to sell more, because I wanted it to reach more readers. And though I don’t expect writing to make me rich, I would like to earn more than $6.20 an hour, mostly because, in the absence of a ‘minimum wage’ for my work, I have to look elsewhere for income.”

What struck me about this is the way the writer feels compelled to explain that she doesn’t write for the money.  I have heard many writers and artists make similar statements and I have made them myself.  Why do we find ourselves compelled to say that we’re not motivated by money?  Plumbers don’t seem to have this compulsion. We don’t ask policemen to proclaim that they work for the love of it, not the money.  It is certainly not something you hear bankers saying.

In his book Life: The Movie, Neal Gabler wrote:  “…art was directed at a person; entertainment was directed at the largest possible number of people. It followed as a kind of corollary that if artists seemed to create their work assuming that different spectators would have different experiences of it, entertainers created theirs by deploying familiar words, images, symbols, techniques or stories in an attempt to manipulate a spectator not only into having a particular experience but in ensuring that every member of the audience would have the same experience. That is why art is thought of as inventional and entertainment as conventional or formulaic; entertainment is constantly searching for a combination of elements that has predictably aroused a given response in the past on the assumption that the same combination will more than likely arouse the same response again.”

There seems to be a sense in the arts that anything that is done for money is cheap, crass, commercial and of little quality.  Therefore, wanting to be paid indicates you are not a serious artist.  It is a strange definition of professional. The more dedicated you are to your craft, the less you are supposed to expect a salary. If you create with an expectation of consumer success you are creating “entertainment” not “art.”

I am not sure where this prejudice comes from or how it is perpetuated.  As I wrote in my post Do it in the Name of Love last week, William Pannapacker writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education reflected on the idea of working “for love.”  The imperative to work “for love” Pannapacker wrote “supports the transfer of resources from one group to another, typically from women to men, from minority to majority. There’s no doubt about it: ‘Love’ is ideological, and it should not be left unquestioned when it is used in relation to work.”

Of course, as with all ideologies, it is not simple enough to say that those in power impose it on the powerless.  The powerless do a good job policing themselves.  (See Vaclav Havel’s The Power of The Powerless.)  In the case of writing for love, artists who are not making a living perpetuate the myth because we need to hold onto the idea that there is meaning in what we do. If we can’t measure it using the tools most people use to measure success– making lots of money– then it helps to use the very fact of not making money as a sign that we are producing something of quality.

Given the history of payment of artists in the world, I’m not terribly optimistic that our status is going to dramatically change. On the other hand, we should probably no apologize for wanting to be paid.

Related articles:

Harvard Business Review: Choosing Between Making Money and Doing What You Love

The Paint Shop: Should an Artist Charge More than a Plumber

Heliumm: Working Charitable Events Without Becoming a Charity Case

Chronicle of Higher Education: On Graduate School and “Love”

Maria Brophy: Are You Selling or Making a Contribution

A Few From my archives:

Do It In the Name of Love

But Sports Are Big Money

How Writing is Like Working at McDonald’s

You Weren’t Expecting to Be Paid, Were You?

Money’s Invisible Influence: The Cases of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Why Writers Choose to “Go Indie”

And all the articles in my “failure series.”

“But Sports Are Big Money”

“Millions for Illitch but not a Penny for Detroit” was the headline in today’s Metro Times.  At a time when the city’s financial manager is seriously considering selling of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection, Michigan wants to give boat loads of money to a billionaire to build a new sports arena.  Or as Jack Lessenberry worded it in his article:

Yet, what would you think if I were to suggest that the state pick one Detroiter, a guy who happens to be struggling along on his last $2.7 billion, and give him public money? Lots of money.

An estimated $284.5 million, to start. By the way, we aren’t giving him this dough to start a public works project, or to do anything that will actually help Detroiters, though the politicians are pretending it will. We will be coughing up this money so that Mike Ilitch can build a new hockey arena.

What strikes me about this story is the entirely different way we view sports and arts in our culture.  Theater and sporting events are both activities that spectators attend in their leisure to be entertained.  Yet when  we talk about building sports stadiums it is almost always framed in terms of economic development. When we talk about building a symphony hall it is generally framed as charitable giving.  Rich donors put their names on arts venues to show their civic mindedness.  Supporting art is philanthropy.  Supporting sport is investment.

In his highly viewed and entertaining TED Talk on creativity in schools, Ken Robinson said “…something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: every education system on earth has the same heirarchy of subjects. Every one, doesn’t matter where you go, you’d think it would be otherwise but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth. And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think maths is very important but so is dance. Children dance all the time if they’re allowed to, we all do. We all have bodies, don’t we? Did I miss a meeting? Truthfully what happens is, as children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

But this is not exactly right.  We do train children’s bodies– in physical education class.  We teach them to play sports.  In terms of career building, soccer is no more practical for most children than ballet.  Few kids will grow up to play in the World Cup Championships and few will dance with American Ballet Theater.  We teach soccer anyway.  High schools usually have huge sports programs and competitions with other schools. Sports are part of school pride.

Professional sports scores are shown every day as part of the evening news in exactly the way reviews of the city’s theatrical productions are generally not, at least not with any consistency or regularity.  There are, of course, entertainment programs, but Entertainment Tonight is not news.

I can’t come up with any reason why this should be so, why watching a game for fun should have so much more social support than watching a theatrical production.  The only theory I have is that sports appeal to men and are considered masculine while the arts are viewed as part of the feminine sphere.  The masculine sphere is the world of business and the feminine sphere is supposed to operate as part the gift economy.   (Child rearing, home making and so on.)  Fathers take their sons to baseball games and mothers take their daughters to dance class and so baseball is part of training for a man’s life of earning and dance is part of training for a woman’s life of being beautiful and supported by others.

You might say that I am being conspiracy minded here.  Sports are economic development and arts are not  because more people spend big money on sports.  If arts made that kind of money,  we’d be investing in theaters as economic development. This may be true, but doesn’t it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?  In a world where schools cut arts programs and focus on building new sports fields, where sports results finish every news cast while classical arts can only be found regularly on Youtube, wouldn’t you expect sports stars to command greater salaries than ballerinas?

This isn’t the only possible way to view the arts.  Suppose that our schools taught all children learn to play and appreciate in the arts at the same level they do sports.  Might a foundation of  appreciation and pride in the arts lead to a culture in which the arts report was a regular feature on the news along with the sports and weather?  If this were the case, maybe the opening of a new opera house would have the same kind of hype and focus as the opening of a hockey stadium.   The arts could be part of our sense of civic pride. We could be as loyal to our local music scene, theater and dance company as to our sports team.  We could boast about how our museum kicks your museum’s butt.

During the Cold War when the Soviet Union wanted to impress the world with the strength of its nation, they invested in their arts as well as their space program and Olympic athletes.  We competed with them with our rockets, and with our Olympic program but we left the classical music and ballet to them.

What might our arts landscape be like today if we had entered an arts race with the Russians?

(See also my post David Hallberg, Random Penguins and Things That Give Me Hope as a Writer.)

Fair to All Churches: Social Change, Fiction and Characters as Archetypes

The website Fireside GLBT Book Reviews posted an extensive review of the novel Angel today.  One paragraph inspired a bit of thought, which I would like to share:

It is interesting to see how the author handled the world of the everyday life of a church. As someone raised in that world, I found it extremely well-done: realistic and fair.  The author carefully painted a comfortable, comforting atmosphere, so that when it comes crashing down the reader is deeply affected. As a reader, I was somewhat bothered by the book’s reluctance to address the reality that there are more liberal churches than the one presented. I felt that a picture was being painted that wasn’t fair to all churches, in an era when Christianity is poorly understood to begin with. However, upon more consideration I realized that it is not the business of this book or its story to address all that: this is ultimately a story about one man, one church, one group of believers. It doesn’t need to address the wider political reality.

Several months ago I was pleased to receive a review of Angel from a conservative Christian blogger who believes homosexuality is a sin.  One of the points that she made was that she felt the novel should have told “the other side of the story.”  As an example, she suggested having the minister seek counseling from a fellow minister who could voice the view of conservative Christians.

I believe I wrote a post about this (although I can’t find it now).  In case I did not, my reaction was that I had written a novel, a work of fiction.  Although it has a point of view, it is not a morality play.  It is the story of one man, what happened to him, and how he reacted to it.  What is “the other side of the story” to a person’s experience?  What is the “other side” of your life story?  Is there a valid counter argument to the way you live your life?  I appreciated this same reflection in today’s review.

All novels deal with social issues.  That is to say, they are all narratives about individuals interacting with others in a social context.  The more a particular social issue is politicized, the more characters seem to be seen as archetypes.  So Paul is seen as representing ministers or the ministry or Christianity in a way that Ian is not generally seen as representing recovering alcoholics in general.

Paul’s church does not represent “Christianity.” It is a particular Christian church.

What interested me even more was the perception of Paul’s church as “conservative.”  This highlights, for me, the pace of social change since I started working on this novel a decade ago. To see this, I will go into some of my process in creating Hope Church.

Although The Minister and the Mountain (working title) was in the works since 2000, the central conflict regarding a same sex love affair did not come into the picture until late 2008.

Day to day work in a church, and many of the internal political questions that church boards deal with came from my own experience working in a Unitarian Universalist church office.

One of the questions our church board tackled, for example, was whether Red Cross blood drives, which do not accept donations from gay men, ran contrary to our mission as a Welcoming congregation.  (This is actually a federal law and not Red Cross policy if you want to study the question.) This inspired a scene in Angel in which the subject of the ban comes up.

(UU, for those who don’t know, is the most liberal of the Protestant denominations, to the point that there is disagreement among members as to whether Unitarian Universalists belong to the Christian tradition at all.  My minister, at the time I worked in the church, felt it was a Christian denomination.  Most of the office staff disagreed.  When I lived in France, I looked up Unitarian Universalism in a dictionary and it was defined as “a heretic religion.”)

Being part of a liberal religious organization I felt as though many agnostics and liberal religious folk had an unrealistic picture of where Christian churches were on social issues.  The image of the “Christian” in the news media tends to be exclusively that of the Evangelical Fundamentalist Christian.  I wanted to paint a more nuanced picture of the church, a picture of a mainstream denomination.

I decided that I would look up the statements on sexual orientation of two denominations that I considered to be mainstream and representative– not on the liberal end of the spectrum like the UCC and not Fundamentalist.  I  chose the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches.  Both had similar statements on human sexuality, statements that tried to have it both ways.  Gays and lesbians should be tolerated and welcomed, but it was still “incompatible with Christian teaching” and openly gay ministers were not allowed, nor was the blessing of same sex unions.

It was a time of social change, and large organizations change slowly.  They were trying to balance the needs of a new generation without alienating an older generation.  The story, then, was particularly interesting, because it was not a story of a church with a single point of view, but a living church with multiple, conflicting points of view.  This balance could only exist as long as they were not forced to confront the issue directly.

Shortly before the book was published, in 2010, the Presbyterian church voted to change its position and allow the ordination of LGBT ministers.  This was not without controversy; a number of individual churches left the denomination over it.

The United Methodist Church has retained its policies, in fact, while my book was in the process of being edited and printed Rev. Amy DeLong was tried by church authorities for being “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” (the same language I use in Angel, taken from UMC guidelines.)

While the UMC is, for now, sticking to its language and policies, many individual Methodists, congregations and organizations are campaigning for change.  (And Rev. Amy rocks!  Look up some of her sermons on YouTube.)

While I purposely do not identify Paul as Methodist, the official position of the fictional denomination was mostly based on the UMC.  (A Methodist friend of mine described her frustrated minister saying that his denomination’s position on gay rights was “not to have a position.”)

Paul’s is a church that is scrambling to keep up and to balance the different views of a large body of Christians, who never are and never were a monolith.

What is interesting to me is that a church that I thought of when writing in 2008 and 2009 as being a bit more on the progressive end of the spectrum comes across as “conservative,” even unfairly conservative, to some readers in 2013.  Things are changing very quickly.

The speed of change was one reason I didn’t want to identify Paul’s denomination.  But there is another important reason.  It was very important that Paul’s church be of a denomination that allowed ministers to serve until they decided to retire or they were dismissed by the congregation.  Some denominations (and I believe Methodists might be among them) assign ministers for a finite period of time.

Paul had been at Hope Church for years and he planned to stay there until he retired and to be buried in the church yard beside his wife.  Paul was connected to his denomination through family history and tradition, and he was connected to Hope church by the community.

People attend churches for many reasons, and I would argue that theology is a much smaller part of that decision than people believe.  Paul disagreed on a number of points with his denomination’s position.  That did not mean he could just pack up and leave and get a job at a more liberal UCC church.  Not without pain.

“It’s a relationship with a church, like a friendship,” Paul says to Ian. “You don’t stop speaking because you disagree on something.”

Whatever differences he might have had with his denomination about theology, Paul had devoted his life to the Hope Church community, it was his family, his home.

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.