The narrative-historical approach recognises that the biblical story works on different levels. Modern (evangelical) theologies tend to highlight the universal story of the individual person who is a sinner in need of salvation, etc. More recently greater attention has been given to an overarching but largely uneventful story about God and the ultimate renewal of creation, which has helped to extend the ethical and social reach of modern (evangelical) theologies.
But there are two thick, dense, event-laden intermediate narrative layers that are almost entirely disregarded by modern (evangelical) theologies: the story of human history, which in scripture is mainly a story of pagan empire; and the story of Israel, from Abraham through to the proclamation of Jesus as Lord in Athens or Rome.
These two “political” layers interact with the cosmic narrative in important ways, and they obviously provide a controlling context for the multiple personal stories. They can also be extended beyond the end of the New Testament. So the diagram highlights the shift, first, from the story about Israel and the land to the story about kingdom and the nations; and secondly, from the kingdom story—the story of Christendom in effect—to the story of the church struggling to redefine itself under the conditions of secular modernity.
That is the general hermeneutical point: the church interprets and relates to scripture on the basis of a continuing narrative of historical existence. A couple of recent posts on Wright’s five act play model of biblical authority develop this model further:
- All the world’s the stage: a narrative-historical revision of Wright’s five act play hermeneutic
- On second thoughts, the five act play model doesn’t work
What I want to do here is to consider whether this hermeneutic has a bearing on the difficult question of whether the church should affirm same-sex relations. If you like it’s an exercise in applied hermeneutics.
The land narrative
The prohibitions in Leviticus against same-sex relations presuppose a narrative about the land (Lev. 18:3). The previous inhabitants of the land had made themselves unclean by such practices and others (cf. the Sodom story) and had been vomited out of the land, just as unclean food is vomited out of the body.
The Jews are warned in the strongest terms before they enter the land that if they commit the same “abominations”, they will likewise, sooner or later, be vomited out of the land (e.g., Lev. 18:28). Hence the draconian punishment of males who lie with males as with a woman: they have “committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:13).
The kingdom narrative
The New Testament prohibitions against same-sex relations are formulated in a different context and presuppose a somewhat different narrative. If the churches imitate the characteristic same-sex practices of the idolatrous host environment, they will disqualify themselves from participation in God’s new future: catamites and sodomites will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
The two narratives, in fact, are not as different as we might think. The “kingdom of God” is not an abstract spiritual condition, vaguely now-but-not-yet: it is—or so I argue—the eventual rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. The kingdom narrative simply repeats the land narrative on a larger scale: the conquest of the land by the armies of Joshua would lead to the eradication of the unclean practices of the Canaanites—in theory, at least; the conquest of the empire by the martyr-armies of Jesus would lead to the eradication of the unnatural, dishonourable, shameful practices of the Greeks and Romans (cf. Rom. 1:26-27).
The new creation narrative
There is no explicit reference to people who engage in same-sex activity in the list of the unrighteous who will be consigned to the lake of fire as part of the renewal of all things in Revelation 21:8. It may be that they are included with the “sexually immoral” (pornoi), but the grounds for this are not strong.
In Paul’s lists the pornoi are a separate category: “neither the sexually immoral (pornoi)… nor catamites, nor sodomites” (1 Cor. 6:9; cf. 1 Tim. 1:10). Since he has “adulterers” (moichoi) as a separate category and then goes on to talk about porneia as bodily union with a prostitute (1 Cor. 6:12-20), it seems likely that here the pornoi are specifically men who visit prostitutes.
In the Septuagint, Pseudepigrapha and Philo the porneia word-group is used only for heterosexual fornication/harlotry/prostitution—or at least is nowhere explicitly connected with same-sex relations. Some have argued that for the Hellenistic Jew porneia would have comprised the whole catalogue of proscribed relations given in Leviticus 18, including same-sex relations. But I haven’t seen any evidence for this. I doubt that Jesus consciously included same-sex relations in his condemnation of porneia (e.g., Matt. 15:19), but the point here is that it wasn’t an issue in the Palestinian context. If the Pharisees had a dragged a man caught in sodomy before him for judgment, I imagine Jesus would have told him to go and sin no more. But it is striking how improbable such a story appears.
That said, it seems inconceivable that John the Divine would have embraced in the new heaven and new earth behaviours Paul so emphatically excluded from the kingdom of God.
So in scripture we have three stories: same-sex relations, as understood at the time, are explicitly prohibited in the stories 1) about the land and 2) about the coming reign of God over the pagan world; and we should probably assume 3) that John would not have tolerated sodomy in the new creation.
The modern narrative
But what about our situation today? What is the story that should form the response of the modern people of God to same-sex relations?
The church is clearly in two minds over whether what we understand by same-sex relations today can be equated with what scripture understood by same-sex relations back in ancient times.
Is it historically or morally reasonable to suppose that the modern ideal of a loving, long-term egalitarian same-sex relationship must be condemned along with ancient practices that were typically, if not exclusively, associated with inordinate sexual desire and the abuse of power and status? Are we talking about the same thing?
The world has changed in a quite significant way in this respect.
But I would argue, further, that we lack a prophetic narrative for modernity comparable to the biblical narratives about land and kingdom.
The church has contented itself with only the most general narrative frameworks: a now-and-not-yet narrative of the kingdom of God; an overarching narrative about the renewal of creation. These offer no help in formulating a response to the particular historical challenges facing the church after Christendom, under the rule of secular rationalism.
So we have no up-to-date narrative framework by which to formulate a reasonable and fitting response to the modern notions that homosexuality is a matter of personhood or identity in some sense and not merely of behaviour, that it is unusual but not unnatural in modern terms, and that gay marriage is, in principle, every bit as good as heterosexual marriage—or at least, that gay and lesbian people should be given the chance to prove the point.
We get some sketchy guidance from the large-scale creation narrative: humanity created as male and female, man and woman as one flesh as the basis for kinship, and the probable exclusion of classical same-sex behaviour from the new creation.
But as we have seen, the dominant storyline of scripture operates at a political level, having to do with the concrete existence of a people, amongst other peoples, over time, subject to the ups-and-downs of history. At this level, things are not what they used to be, and it’s only going to get worse.
So my contention would be that a proper “Christian” response to the modern validation of same-sex relations cannot be separated from the development of a viable prophetic narrative about the church as it makes its way through a post-Christendom and increasingly post-Christian wilderness, into a post-modern exile, or whatever.
I don’t know whether this course will lead to an affirming or a non-affirming position with regard to same-sex relations. I also think that the interplay between experience and story-telling, between mission and theology, will run both ways—and indeed, should do.
But it seems to me a necessary task of narrative theology that we ask whether and how the emergence of a fundamentally different same-sex paradigm in the modern era, as part of the wider triumph of secularism, should affect the story that we tell about the place and witness of the people of God in the world.