Jennifer Knapp, the Bible and Homosexuality: The Elusive Quest for Biblical Normativity

The other night’s interview between Larry King, Jennifer Knapp, Pastor Bob Bostford and Ted Haggard again demonstrated one key thing: the quest for a universal and Biblically fixed understanding of Christianity in relation to homosexuality has and remains to be elusive. Throughout the course of the two-hour interview, Larry King once again highlighted that in reality there is no such a thing as a Christian who is able to be 100% Biblically consistent while yet holding to this set of sacred Scriptures as normative. In fact, what King’s interview and the interaction of his guests chiefly illustrated is the real need in increasingly post-literate cultures for education among all groups (Liberal and Conservative) with regards to the nuance between text as authoritative and text as normative.

From the beginning, “What the Bible says” was chief among how King wanted to frame his interview with Knapp. As a Christian recording artist who recent came out, early and often King appealed to Knapp’s sense of “choosing” or “not choosing” of her sexual orientation.  King himself seemed even more occupied with how she as a Christian had come to negotiate the often problematic texts of Scripture which point to homosexuality as sin. What is more, when King introduced Pastor Bob to the conversation (a hip looking conservative Pastor from San Diego), the need for Knapp to argue her ability to be a Lesbian and a Christian took an even more decisively textual turn.

Unfortunately for Knapp, and for most Christians, this turn is one which is unavoidable and highly problematic. Why? Simply put, Christians cannot avoid the fact the authors (or redactors, or canonizers) believed that homosexuality was wrong. Particularly, the Apostle Paul believed it to be a sin. Therefore exegetically and culturally, this is a point which one can not argue against.

But the question remains, how then is one to authorize a text as inspired in giving shape to one’s life of faith if it so clearly speaks against what one experiences to be true? As a student of Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, one of the answers to negotiating this issue I believe lies in the difference between giving a text authority (the right to speak to the kind of person I am becoming) versus allowing a text to be normative (giving a text the right to speak to the kind of person I am becoming and adhering to the principles it sets out).

This nuance between text as authority and as forming of norms became even more evident when Pastor Bob was asked by King how he could eat shellfish when the Bible spoke so clearly against it as well. Bob’s response was to be expected, “God changed his mind on shellfish,” he quipped. Then quoting the Book of Acts, Pastor Bob went on to describe the way in which in Christ, the Church understood certain codes of the Hebrew Bible differently. To this point for Pastor Bob I say yes! Yet to this point, I also find that Bob has not been willing to go far enough. For not only does it seem from a New Testament perspective that the understanding of food changed for the early Chruch, but also the way in which the Church (in Paul’s time and beyond) understood the acceptance of people into it’s community.

The early Christian church’s experience of the Jesus in community did not just make it such that certain customs of behavior were recast (eating of food, household ethics), it also made it such that the early Church was forced to rethink how membership into this mystical body was achieved. Specifically, the Church’s perspective as membership coming through biology shifted to an understanding of coming through adoption. Furthermore, one could argue that the Church’s understanding of mediating the experience of God in community also changed from that of keeping boundaries, to that of forming dispositions.

In either case, what is most important for our conversation today is that what spoke most powerfully to the early Christian community was not what or how their Sacred text (the Torah) had authorized and gave them their norms, customs, and boundaries; but rather, it was the experience of community with others and that of the resurrected Christ, in the context of reading that text which fundamentally was most authorizing of their understanding of being in the way of God.

Should not the same hold true for Christians today?

Christians most shaped by life after the Enlightenment period have much to learn about the way to share community with norms which shift and vary from context to context. One might even argue, that what is most needed today, just as what happened in the early Christian church, is not a retreat to texts and or solidifying of positions, but a recasting of the Biblical texts as being able to speak authoritatively without necessitating the acceptance all of its teachings as normative. And make no mistake, this is something every Christian already does! There is no such a thing as a 100% Biblical Christian. Rather, there are only groups of Christians who read the Bible in mostly the same kinds of ways and find community under roughly the same kinds of norms.

Last night’s Larry King interview only again put a light on the real heart of the questions of Christianity and homosexuality. King’s interview of Jennifer Knapp and her conversants illustrate the delicate line between textual authority and its giving shape to norms which some in the Church hold so dear. At the end of the day, every community of Bible reading Christians decides for itself which laws, narratives, and rituals it wants to hold up as speaking most strongly about how to live and love in the world. Yet inevitably, in this present age of scientific discovery, religious pluralism, and consumer culture, the Church must seek to hold even more lightly to its need for fixed points, and seek to find even more richly a way to read its texts which illustrate the real hope at the heart of its message.

Joshua

16 thoughts on “Jennifer Knapp, the Bible and Homosexuality: The Elusive Quest for Biblical Normativity

  1. I really like this criticism of modernist views of Scripture. I agree that the fallacy of what I call the modernist view is the compulsion to “have an answer” for everything. It’s as though people can’t be Christian or witness to their faith unless they have an answer to everything. This sets up a Bible as Encyclopedia and a pretense for Christian Triumphalism.

    Only critique: “Particularly, the Apostle Paul believed it to be a sin.” Really? Paul works from the same context as the Gospel traditions and helped start many of the early communities the Gospels may have been addressing. It’s a bit unfair to single him out as the lone enemy of homosexuality in the early church don’t you think?

    Further clarification: “Yet inevitably, in this present age of scientific discovery, religious pluralism, and consumer culture, the Church must seek to hold even more lightly to its need for fixed points, and seek to find even more richly a way to read its texts which illustrate the real hope at the heart of its message.” Can you “unpack this a bit?” I wonder if the crux of your argument (and in my agreeing with it) lies in how you articulate this major point?

    Well done!

  2. Ben-

    Briefly let me say that I am not trying to pick out Paul alone, only to say that exegetically he is hard to get around. That is to say, that Paul thought it was wrong so rather than try to say that maybe he didn’t (which I think many do try to say), my sense is that we need to ask a different approach. An approach which isn’t driven simply by the need to have what Scripture says line up with what we believe/do; but rather, figuring out what to do with the things which we believe that are in dissonance with Scripture (and being adult about that fact).

    Does that clarify that point?

    I’ll unpack more later.
    JC

  3. I agree. This is where I think Scripture can have a more active quality than we give it credit. Maybe there are things that we may believe or agree with that Scripture could serve as a corrective for? Maybe we don’t always have to be a corrective for Scripture?

    Also, know I don’t mean this issue. I have a hard time because of my view of Scripture, what it says, and what my experience is on this issue. They just don’t line up. I agree that we just have to be adult with the fact that sometimes we don’t totally align with Scripture and maybe, just maybe, it’s okay…sometimes 😉

  4. It also depends on one’s view of the covenants. The easy answer to the shellfish question would have been to explain the new and old law. God did not change His mind (strictly speaking, He can’t do that).

    I also think we need to stress a distinction between people and actions. One might agree with St. Paul as far as he goes, but stress that we need to welcome all people into our communities with open arms to hear the good news. We are called to ever greater acts of charity, including loving and praying for those whose actions we think wrong. But what do I know? I’m a Scholastic Anglican (like Hooker) who somehow found myself in the 21st century.

  5. First, it was great meeting you at the Insurrection a while back. I look forward to more opportunities to connect.

    I think you’re right, Paul most probably thought homosexuality was wrong or a “sin”. However, (and I’m no greek scholar) if I remember correctly whenever he refers to what most translations word as homosexuality it in the NT he uses a word that also referred to a common practice involving grown men and young boys. This makes the matter a little fuzzier approaching the text from the modernistic or normative view of scripture.

    I know that this makes it seem as if I’ve missed the point that you’re making, but for me it raises a question regarding your point as I hear it.
    Even if my memory is faulty and I’m wrong, my question is that of praxis, which is the bigger battle? Is it more important that we try to move people away from the normative, modernistic approach or that we get them to loosen up on whatever issue it may be (in this case homosexuality)? Would the answer be different for different issues?

    I guess another way of asking it would be, if we can meet them somewhere that they are should we begin there or should we begin working on a major shift in the way they understand everything?

  6. Ben- nice dodge in an effort to guard whether someone knows what you think on the issue;) Maybe in 10-15 years you can come out!

    Kevin- So is it your belief that one can “welcome” people into a community without it challenging the very chemistry of what it means to be that community?

    Jonathan- good question with regards to how to approach the issue. I’m pretty convinced that it is in the nature of a conservative mind to remain closed. That, only through experiences which are very personal and deconstructive do most ever move far from the thinking system that they hold. In my experience, education, like what you are suggesting often does very little to move things very far.

    Here is a link to an article that I think captures some of this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-irwin-kula/leviticus-loses-the-inevi_b_557976.html

    Thanks for the banter!
    jc

  7. Josh – I think so. In fact, it seems a sort of odd question, perhaps premised on a misunderstanding of the difference between essence and accident. Why would anyone think that being a part of a community would eo ipso challenge the nature of the community? I’ve been welcomed into many communities in my life, and I don’t think I’ve challenged what it means to be, for example, a citizen of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, or a subject of the queen of England.

    How, if you think otherwise, do you avoid a race to the lowest common moral denominator? Or am I misunderstanding what lies behind the question?

  8. I thought this comment would be appropriate for this discussion.

    Maybe the lesson for today reminds us that God is ever ready to do a new thing. It further reminds us that the God we worship is not a static God, capable only of speaking to us from two, three or four thousand years ago. Rather, God is living, alive in this moment, revealing new truth to us here, now.

    God is revealing new truth in many areas of life. One which is increasingly clear is that He is speaking to us in the issue of homosexuality.

    The new thing that God is doing in our midst right now is to show us that homosexuality is not simply an act or acts of willful disobedience to God’s law and commandments, but it is a state of being. It is an identity that God has given to some of His children. It is who they are.

    Twice in the Book of Leviticus and once in the Book of Romans are condemnations of homosexual activity. One in Leviticus indicates that death is the penalty for such acts. In truth, there are instances of homosexual acts which should be condemned, even as there are instances of heterosexual acts which should be condemned. I do not doubt that the writer of Leviticus and that St. Paul had good reason to write as they did.
    But when we turn to the scripture, we need to turn to the whole of the scripture. When we do that, the central and overwhelming message is God’s inclusive love for all of humankind.

    The overwhelming love of God in Christ sweeps some specific prohibitions away, even though they are in the Bible. Do you believe that? Anyone divorced? Jesus ruled out almost all divorce. Anyone here a woman? Well, Paul didn’t rule you out, but he ruled you out of speaking in church. Anybody here eat pork? Specifically prohibited!

    Look, the sovereign message of the Bible is God’s redeeming, all-powerful love that overrides all else, and places specific prohibitions in the context of the time and place and situation in which they were written.

    “I am about to do a new thing.” –Isaiah 43:1

  9. Ben-

    Briefly let me say that I am not trying to pick out Paul alone, only to say that exegetically he is hard to get around. That is to say, that Paul thought it was wrong so rather than try to say that maybe he didn’t (which I think many do try to say), my sense is that we need to ask a different approach. An approach which isn’t driven simply by the need to have what Scripture says line up with what we believe/do; but rather, figuring out what to do with the things which we believe that are in dissonance with Scripture (and being adult about that fact).

    Does that clarify that point?

    I’ll unpack more later.
    JC

  10. Hey, my name is also Joshua Case! I too struggled with homesexual feelings that usually come out when I was intoxicated. I finally realize that I must radically amputate certain things from my life, to stay on track and run the good race for Christ. Hope this helps anyone.

    Joshua J.Case

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