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.