When I was nine or ten years old, I got out of being thrashed silly on the playground by lecturing another kid — the biggest kid I’d ever seen in my life — about Jesus Christ.
I’m not making this up. The bully later approached me when nobody else was looking and asked, in an awed voice, if I really believed all that stuff about God. I gave him an earful.
I have long been a close and diligent reader of the Bible. I rank it not only as one of the most profound books on my shelf, but also one of the most beautiful.
Which is why my ears perked up when Dan Savage, one of the most prominent gay rights activists in the country, sparked a furor by talking trash about the Good Book.
Speaking to a group of young people recently, Savage argued that it’s time to discount Biblical teachings about homosexuality, in the same way that we casually discount so much else that’s in Scripture. Here’s what he said:
“We can learn to ignore the bull%#$ in the Bible about gay people. The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bull#$* in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bull@#@ in the Bible about all sorts of things.”
Savage’s comments have been described as anti-Christian bigotry and as a form of hate speech.
On first listen, they slot neatly into the take-no-prisoners culture war that rages in America, fitting somewhere between the war on Christmas and the effort to ban gay marriage in North Carolina.
But as someone who reads and thinks and grapples with the Bible a lot, I think it’s important to point out that on the basic facts, Savage is absolutely correct.
The Bible contains a lot of profound wisdom, but it also articulates moral points of view about slavery, about women, about human sexuality, about science, and about mundane things like diet and daily ritual that most of us would find shocking today.
The problem, of course, is that so few Christians actually read the Bible. And when they do, they often digest it in tiny, out-of-context Bible verses, each carefully packaged with a modern, fuzzy-minded exegesis.
We used to be made of tougher stock. In 1843, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard grappled at length with the story of Abraham’s decision to murder his own child at the behest of a God so jealous that He wanted proof of Abraham’s loyalty.
Kierkegaard confronted the creepiness and the moral nausea that the story conjures up today, titling his own book “Fear and Trembling.”
These days, the folks in the pews rarely wrestle with the deep quandaries, the ugly bits, the parts of the Bible that to modern eyes seem flatly unacceptable.
Take, by way of example, the idea of “traditional” marriage. The truth is that a healthy marriage, as we understand it today, is completely unlike the Biblical version.
The Old Testament casually accepts polygamy, absolute patriarchal dominance, the treatment of women within marriage as property, and the beating of children with “a rod.”
And consider the Bible’s treatment of rape, one of the crimes we now see as among the most brutal.
“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver,” commands the book of Deuteronomy.
Then there’s this additional prescription. The rapist “must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”
Yikes. The point here isn’t that the Bible is crummy or bad. It’s not. It’s just really complicated.
And Savage is correct in that gays and lesbians are in an almost unique position in our society, in that they are still being asked to live by strict Biblical teachings. Indeed, many conservative Christians want those teachings codified in secular law.
Savage made his point, well, savagely. One can question him, even condemn him, on style points. He’s been crudely provocative before and will be again.
But he is also asking a fair and even a vital question. If we insist that the gay community be judged by a Gospel that most of us never read, are we willing to do the same?
Will we submit ourselves to state and Federal laws that would punish us brutally for adultery or premarital sex? Should we accept a Constitutional ban on divorce, in the way that many Christians want a ban on same-sex marriage?
Would we — and in the context of religious teachings, this is no small thing — be willing to have the government intervene to restrict our sinful diets, or restructure our sinful sabbath-defying schedules?
Are we willing to see a clear and unambiguous primacy of men over women enshrined in secular law?
The bottom line is this: The Bible was written as a moral and spiritual guide, and some of its teachings are timeless and universal.
But it was also scripted as a worldly teaching, laying out laws and edicts that were highly specific to a time and a place and a culture that existed roughly two thousand years ago.
Yes, those laws include a firm condemnation of homosexuality. But they also condemn many of the habits, customs and lifestyles that we all take for granted.