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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Faith Based Acceptance :: EDGE Speaks with Theology Author Jonathan Dudley

Jonathan Dudley
By Kilian Melloy -

Yale Divinity grad Jonathan Dudley says that the Bible scarcely addresses gays and their families, even though Bible-toting politicians and anti-gay clergy refer to scripture continuously. In fact, the Bible has much more to say about heterosexual divorce than gay marriage.

Dudley was still a divinity student when he penned a series of columns for the Yale Daily News examining the way in which scripture has been re-interpreted, distorted, taken out of context, and misappropriated by politicians, and by religious leaders for political purposes.

Though Dudley’s writings looked at an array of social questions, the most controversial among them might well be the issue of same-sex relationships. Anti-gay politicians and clerics hammer at gays and their families with biblical citations. The problem with this, Dudley notes in his writings, is that the Bible scarcely addresses the issue of homosexuality, which was not understood as such in the times when the Bible was written. Moreover, the Bible has considerably more to say about heterosexual relationships than same-sex families, frequently addressing issues such as adultery and divorce.

Under biblical authority, an adulterous wife could be stoned; as for divorce, the Bible condemns it in no uncertain terms, whereas all but one reference to gay relationships are subject to multiple interpretations, and that single uncontested reference to what we now call homosexuality is comparatively mild when held up against what the Bible has to say about straight couples divorcing.

And yet, clerics and politicians continue to slam gay and lesbian families, while letting multiply-married (but heterosexual) people off the hook. It clearly serves the self-interests of those who seek to build power on the backs of a minority, but is it theologically or ethically defensible? This is but one of the questions Dudley has examined.

The columns from Dudley’s Yale days formed the basis for a recently-published book, "Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics" (Random House; published April 5, 2011; $21.99). The book has already garnered some criticism from the fundamentalist camp: One self-published author of theology, blogging online, blasted the book even though he admitted to not having read it, and suggested that books on theology should reinforce already-received wisdom.

Dudley, 25, now a medical student at Johns Hopkins, shrugs off such criticism. "If the job of theologians was only to reinforce what Christians already believe, then Christians would still believe slavery is consistent with God’s will," he told EDGE in an interview.

Asked whether the rigors of med school (not to mention a side line in writing books) leaves him for time for romance, Dudley told EDGE, "It does! I’ve been in a great relationship with a fellow medical student, who was in the same anatomy group as me at the start of med school, for almost two years. As you can imagine, dissecting a dead body together can be very romantic."

The interview follows below.

EDGE: What does the Bible say about same-sex relationships, other than the "when a man lies with a man it is an abomination" bit from Leviticus?

Jonathan Dudley: Other than the two passages in Leviticus, which are accompanied by condemnations of the abomination of eating ostrich and the sin of planting two types of seeds in the same field, there are three passages in the New Testament often used to condemn same-sex intercourse: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, and Romans 1:26-27.

The first two passages contain lists of things the author considered sinful. Contemporary versions of the Bible include words like "sodomite," "male prostitutes," and "homosexual offenders" in the list of those condemned, but none of these terms were translated as referring explicitly to male-male sex until the second half of the twentieth century.

The only uncontroversial reference to male-male sex (and possibly female-female sex) in the New Testament is in Romans 1, where the Apostle Paul declares it unnatural. This is the only reason explicitly given in the Bible for condemning same-sex relations. And it’s worth noting that the only other time Paul condemns something as "unnatural" is when he asks, in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15: "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?"

EDGE: And what does the Bible, generally speaking, say about heterosexual divorce?

Jonathan Dudley: Although the New Testament contains one uncontested reference to some form of same-sex intercourse, it contains five unambiguous condemnations of divorce. The earliest occurs in the gospel of Mark, where Jesus declares: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery."

This general prohibition is repeated once in Luke and twice in Matthew, where a possible exception is made only in the case of adultery. The Apostle Paul also repeats the command in 1 Corinthians, stating that "a husband must not divorce his wife." And few questions are left about what the God of the Old Testament thinks about the matter. We read in Malachi: "’I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel."

EDGE: In previous comments to the media, you have suggested that theologians opposed to homosexuality gloss over these passages. Why? What is the rationale for underscoring some of what God purportedly has to say, while soft-pedaling or ignoring other parts of the divine message?

Jonathan Dudley: Well, as I argue in my book "Broken Words," how communities read the Bible, including which passages they emphasize and de-emphasize, and their decisions to construe words this way instead of that, reflect the beliefs they bring to it.

In other words, biblical interpretations reflect the pre-existing interests and values of biblical interpreters. This applies to conservatives and liberals [alike].

I think there are a number of reasons why more conservative theologians have read condemnations of divorce more loosely and condemnations of homosexuality more strictly, including the fact that there are more divorced people than there are gay people (meaning a blanket condemnation of divorce is is harder to enforce). David Instone-Brewer, a chief advocate of looser divorce laws among evangelicals, notes in explaining his approach: "It is difficult to believe the Bible can be as impractical as this interpretation implies."

It’s hard to forbid a woman in an abusive relationship from getting a divorce, even though the Bible wouldn’t seem to allow it. On the other hand, it’s easier to lay such burdens on a much smaller and historically despised minority, namely, gays and lesbians.

EDGE: Does the context in which the Bible was written -- at a time when next to nothing about human sexuality was known, and women, among others, were regarded as chattel -- have an impact on your thesis that the interpretations theologians who oppose homosexuality subscribe to are not the only possible ones, or perhaps not even the right ones at all?

Jonathan Dudley: To some extent, yes. Many passages that seem quite obvious on the face of things take on a new meaning when read in their historical context, including passages dealing with same-sex intercourse.

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think the meaning of a verse has to be determined by what it meant to it’s original audience. Other theologians in the past used different principles in interpreting the Bible. One of my favorite comes from Augustine, who wrote: "Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all."

EDGE: How do you respond to critics who are unwilling to entertain broader perspectives or alternative readings?

Jonathan Dudley: I’m always willing to listen to critics who have thought about what I have to say and offer serious counterarguments. I think that type of criticism promotes dialogue, which is a good thing for all parties involved. I love talking with thoughtful people who disagree with me.

On the other hand, there are many who won’t even bother to read books with alternative perspectives (but, often, presume to condemn those books anyway!). I don’t take that type of criticism seriously and usually just ignore it.

EDGE: You were a divinity student, and now you are a med student. Now that you are studying biology and the mechanical / chemical aspects of life, does that change your spiritual views?

Jonathan Dudley: I studied biology in undergrad before going to divinity school, and it certainly had an impact on me. It convinced me, among other things, that evolution is true, that humans are contributing to climate change, and that gay people don’t choose their orientation, all of which impacted my religious views. Studying medicine has made me think more about human suffering and death and the ways I can help others who are experiencing those things.

EDGE: The media (including us) have seized on the "gay" aspect of your book, but your writings address much more than that. What is your response to this? Why is the issue of gays so big, socially speaking?

Jonathan Dudley: I think it’s primarily because there’s so much going on with gay rights in the news right now, with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, same-sex marriages in Navy Chapels, discussions about DOMA in congress, and polls showing a steady increase in public support for gay marriage. It’s also a topic that touches on people’s lives in a very personal way, whereas the other subjects I discuss (evolution, environmentalism, abortion) are a bit more abstract.

Kilian Melloy is EDGE Media Network’s Web Producer and Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes aggregate news stories and commentary for EDGE.

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