This may be getting much too speculative for most people’s taste, but I’ll have a go….
It’s basically another attempt to talk about biblical narrative, missional context, and same-sex sexual relations all in the same breath, with an overblown chart thrown in for good measure.
The bit that I’m especially interested in is point 4 on the chart. What does the church in the West represent or stand for or embody ethically in relation to the secular-humanist matrix in which it is situated? I will argue, tentatively, that the church should be a benchmark not of ideals that belonged to the biblical period (though these ideals are not forgotten) but of secular humanism’s own best ethical standards.
I’ll start with the observation that most narrative models for biblical interpretation make no attempt to register history except at the point of transition between Israel and the church.
Consider, for example, this short article by the Japanese New Testament scholar Kaz Yamazaki-Ransom on Jesus Creed. The progression from four-part to five-part to six-part to seven-part reconstructions of the “grand narrative of the Bible” merely adds incremental—and largely gratuitous—development to the thoroughly abstract presentation of the biblical storyline. So we end up with Yamazaki-Ransom’s seven stage model: 1) Creation; 2) Origin of Evil; 3) People of God (Israel); 4) Jesus; 5) Renewed People of God; 6) Defeat of Evil; and 7) Renewed Creation.
This is not a narrative reading of the Bible. It is a back-translation of a systematic theology into a barely dramatised conceptual sequence. It’s dogmatics rewritten as a bed-time story. It may be “grand”, but it overlooks all the messy detail and context of scripture and leaves us with no way of talking meaningfully about the historical phenomenon that bears most heavily on the life and mission of the church today—the rise of modernity.
Off the map
In his book The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions Keith Sewell complains:
In the wake of Constantine, Eusebius, and Theodosius, the true meaning of the good news concerning the kingdom of God was lost sight of as the Christian religion became reduced to its institutional ecclesiastical expression. (196)
I agree with the analysis—the church lost sight of the kingdom of God. But I don’t see it as a bad thing. I don’t see it as the disastrous departure from the authentic gospel that it now appears from our post-Enlightenment perspective. On the contrary, in historical terms, I think Christendom has to be viewed as the fulfilment of the good news about the coming rule of YHWH—the God of Israel and creator of heaven and earth—over the former pagan nations of the Greek-Roman world.
From the exilic period onwards the central hope was that YHWH would judge the pagan empires and vindicate his people. This expectation is most vividly expressed in Daniel 7, which is why the vision of one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven was so important for Jesus and the apostles. The early Christians looked forward to the day when Jesus would be revealed to the nations and would be confessed as Lord across the empire.
But this means that the rise of modernity effectively marked the beginning of a new and unanticipated era as far as the biblical narrative is concerned. We are off the map. We don’t have scriptures for modernity, post-modernity, and whatever comes after that.
This doesn’t mean that the Bible is of no further use to us. Not at all. It tells us where we come from and why. It gives us the Trinitarian parameters (God the creator, lordship of Jesus, indwelling of the Spirit) for a people “chosen” to serve the living God. But the sort of narrative-historical reading that I argue for suggests that the church in the modern era has a much more productive role to play in the narration of its own existence.
A prophetic-apocalyptic narrative for the modern church
It seems to me that same-sex relations provide a good test case or marker for an attempt to generate what we might call a prophetic-apocalyptic narrative for the modern church—one that both maintains continuity with the biblical perspective and gives due weight to the novelty of the historical crisis that the church faces.
So here’s the chart (click for a larger version), with some explanation below….
1. Same-sex sexual activity is a serious issue in the Old Testament because it is one of the things that will get Israel vomited out of the land—in the same way that the Canaanites were vomited out of the land (Lev. 18:24-28). This storyline ends with the exile and the period of domination by pagan empires.
2. In the New Testament period same-sex sexual activity is a leading characteristic of an idolatrous culture that is subject to the wrath of God and is one of the things that will disqualify people from inheriting the kingdom of God (Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9). Wrath against the idolatrous Greek and the inheritance of the reign of God coincide in the conversion of the empire.
3. If we are willing to extend the prophetic-apocalyptic mode of storytelling into the post-biblical period, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that the collapse of the dominant western Christian worldview constituted the judgment of God on a complacent, unthinking and inhumane religious system. The attitude of the church towards homosexual people might be counted as an example of that.
4. We now have to ask how the story might be unfolding in the modern era. Western society is energetically and chaotically constructing a new post-Christian, secular-humanist reality, and the church is having a hard time working out where it fits in.
This is where things get really speculative, but stay with me….
The biblical prophetic-apocalyptic mode of storytelling seems quite alien to modern thought, but I venture to suggest that we need to find a way to speak credibly both about judgment on global secular humanism as a supreme instance of anti-theistic, Babel-like hubris and about the existence of the church as a benchmark (by grace) by which the modern world will be judged.
I won’t develop the point here, but I think that a critical issue in Romans 1-3 is the failure of the synagogues to provide a benchmark of righteousness by which the idolatrous Greek-Roman world would be judged (see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom).
So what does this have to do with same-sex relations?
Well, I wonder whether in this scary, off-the-map, prophetic-apocalyptic context we need to make a distinction—and maintain a tension—between fundamental creational ideals and contingent historical ideals.
The creational ideal, let us suppose, is that sexual intimacy is confined to lifelong heterosexual marriage. But I suggest that modern secular humanism will be judged—if we can use that sort of language at all—not according to absolute creational ideals but according to secular humanism’s own best standards. The church must then provide a benchmark of these best standards.
That obviously needs a lot of explaining and qualifying and so on. But the basic point is that the church in the West is so immersed in our secular culture that the most we can hope to achieve in ethical terms is a better way of being modern, a better way of being secular humanist.
We are still identified by the biblical narrative, which begins and ends with an act of divine creation, and we may find all sorts of ways of signalling and enacting that identity. But if in the narrative context of modernity same-sex attraction is the new “natural”, perhaps (I’m being very cautious here) the church should be able to model faithful same-sex monogamy as a best standard by which—in some fashion, in the long run, whatever—our culture will be judged.