Saturday, March 10, 2012

Text And Subtext

It came to me secondhand that friends at church are distressed that many Christians want to treat homosexuality as a sin different than the others. They (we) are thus less tolerant because we accept people with other sins in the church but not that sin.

I get annoyed at that because the shoe is on the other foot. We are being asked not to treat homosexuality in the same manner as other sins, but just the opposite. We accept thieves if thieves repent and endorse honesty; accept liars if they repent and tell the truth; accept the greedy if they renounce greed and embrace generosity. Yet here, we are being asked to accept the sinner who says his actions are just fine, and no business of ours anyway.

Yet there is one sense in which they do have a good point. In terms of content - the text - their complaint hasn't got a leg to stand on and makes no sense. Adding in the irrelevancies that they have met some nice gay people now that they are more out in the open, or that their children "do better" with this because they have gay friends does not add anything to the discussion logically. (As for friends and nice people, I likely have more gay friends than any of them. what part of "theater major" and "social worker" eluded them?)

Yet the logically irrelevant aspects point strongly to emotionally relevant ones.

It is absolutely true that there are Christians, perhaps even a lot of us, who do regard homosexuality as a worse sin than others, who have a visceral anger or condemnation that is greater than what we bring to dishonesty, avarice, violence, or even heterosexual sexual sin. I know people like that, including ones who become irate when their "personal issues" are pointed out to them, denying it hotly. (BTW, the old pop psych idea that these are folks afraid of sexuality in general or doubting their own heterosexual nature I reject as silly. Bring some data and I might listen, though I think such data would be hard to come by. That is a fantasy of those who disagree with them, stated because it feels good to believe and might sting when said. But there isn't any evidence for it.) They insist either that they don't hate it any more than other sins, or that they do, because so does God. They can quote you the verses on that. Not that they hear contrary verses, of course.

So. If my friends are ignoring the text and attending only to the subtext of the debate, they have some defense. But there are good reasons for backing off from subtext interpretations as anything more than supplementary data. They are far more susceptible to our own biases and emotional states than pure text arguments. Even the socially skilled among us make mistakes often in this. The nuanced expressions of irony, understatement, and hints of condescension or disapproval are missed at times even among friends. We "get it" more often than not, and so approximate that we always do. Not even close.

Next, we all need to learn to stand or fall by what we have actually said.  Adhering to text aids that.  It also keeps us in better contact with past ages and later ones, when we read the former or are read by the latter.

It is a sad thing that so many of us move quickly to the "nice people" standard without realising it.  "Nice people" slides very quickly into "pleasant people" as the standard after which we will put up with any amount of sin from entertaining folks.  Worse, we then begin to regard the prickly and stern, or even the socially unskilled, as "wrong" because they have disrupted the social comfort; not noticing that we have substituted social comfort for moral categories.* There is a certain cognitive dissonance, perhaps, in maintaining a friendship with someone who you feel is engaging in a great sin, and so one or the other has to give.  I likely have areas where I do the same thing, and my response would be to cut you off and no longer be your friend.  Not necessarily better.

*Rule of thumb.  If you are absolutely sue you don't do this, then I call it very likely that you do it in some disguised form.


Mr Tall said...

This is a very thoughtful and accurate assessment, AVI.

I ran into this issue this past week. Our church is running a Lenten devotional campaign in which we use a purpose-edited book of daily meditations comprising contributions from many of my city's pastors.

It's been very good, until last week we hit the inevitable lesson on 'We must welcome all to The Family and strive to avoid oppressing them on the basis of race, class and gender'. (It really uses the phrase 'race, class and gender' verbatim -- twice! You cannot parody this stuff.) The groups identified for extra-special welcoming: sex workers, AIDs victims, and homosexuals.

Anyway, the message, as always from this crowd, is that Jesus welcomed 'the marginalized' in His society, so we must emulate Him. So be it! But the Biblical witness is then immediately abandoned, i.e. the parts where Jesus tells people to repent and sin no more.

This is what infuriates so many more conservative Christians, and creates the impression that we want to crack down especially hard on sexual sin. No! I am with C S Lewis on this, actually -- I think many types of sexual sin are likely less harmful than other sins. But I will not agree to condone it, much less see it raised up as a characteristic that somehow reflects a special grace or blessing from God, which is precisely what I'm being asked to do in that devotional. . . .

We conservative Christians would also be far more likely to raise the alarms about other kinds of sin if our children were being subjected to organized, state-sanctioned programs of 'education' in schools that celebrated and demanded admiration of those sins.

It's all so sadly and predictably anachronistic, isn't it? So many parts of the Church today are fighting the sins of the 19th century, as the challenges of the day pass them by or are meekly accommodated. True counterculturalism is very, very hard.

bs king said...

The one place I've seen it treated differently (with very poor results) was not in the actual "action" phase, but in the "planning/struggling" phase.

I had several good friends in college who struggled with this, all while attending various Christian groups. When they finally opened up to someone in leadership (3 different people, 3 different groups of leaders) they were all told some version of "limit your involvement with this group until you've decided if you're gay, and if you decide yes you're out". Every single one left the church within a month, and a decade later none have gone back.

I criticize those leaders because honestly, college groups deal with sexual sin all the time and I know what they responded with to the heteros in the group. Coffee with leaders, long talks about character and "who do you want to be". They condemned the actions for sure, but it was much more of a "hey, everyone struggles, let's talk" reaction. I think not letting people share their struggles is dangerous, and I truly think at least two of the three I'm thinking of would still be in the church today if someone had let them just talk a few things out without jumping on them.

To note: not one of these kids was (at the moment they sought help) actually doing anything wrong, just struggling with temptation. Before every action there's a planning phase, and it's there I've seen the church most fail people who's struggles aren't garden variety.

Texan99 said...

I agree there's a strong element of "everybody struggles; let's talk" as long as it's the kind of sin we think "our kind" of people often commit. But if it's that other kind of sin, look out below!

The same problem shows up in reverse with forgiveness. It's easy to forgive the kind of sin we often fall into ourselves, or that in our hearts we think is just forbidden but not genuinely wrong, like violating the Sabbath. It's a lot harder to forgive a child molester. For people who lump homosexuality in with child molesting, it's obvious that we have to take a firm stand against homosexuality and not coddle it. But then they fail miserably at humility and forgiveness with regard to that particular sinner. For people who lump homosexuality in with harmless premarital sex, it's obvious that we're all sinners and none of us should lord it over others. But then they fail miserably at honoring God's law by refusing to wink at sin.

Sometimes I think we scarcely treat sin as sin at all. There are just crimes that bug us personally and crimes that don't. You know, it's a sin, but not a "sin" sin. -- But just pollute the Earth with CO2, and look out. Or, on the other side, just fraternize with those dirty gays.

Why is it so easy for churchgoers to deal with adulterers or divorcees? It's not really about whether they've repented, usually. It's just that there are sexual transgressions that hit us in the gut, and others that don't.

karrde said...

But there are good reasons for backing off from subtext interpretations as anything more than supplementary data. They are far more susceptible to our own biases and emotional states than pure text arguments.

Yeah, that.

Wish I could find a better way to say that. Reading the subtext (finding the 'real reason' a person expresses an opinion) is a method of argument that tries to shut down the opposition.

Not by argument, but by name-calling.

I can't find a politer way to express this. Reading the 'subtext', and asserting that the new meaning discovered there replaces the meaning in the text, is a form of argument by name-calling.

This (as well as the usual opinions brought forth after someone uses 'subtext') makes me a little mad at the entire process.