Review: ‘Us Versus Us’ by Andrew Marin

us versus us

Andrew Marin is an outspoken, in-your-face American. His first book Love is an Orientation described his personal journey from being a straight conservative evangelical who unthinkingly adopted a ‘traditional’ understanding of sexuality and had little or no real knowledge of gay people to moving to the Boystown area of Chicago, centre of the local gay community, and learning how to show love and acceptance to the people he met there. This has lead him to being at the forefront of efforts to get divided communities of liberals and conservatives to relate to each other. As a matter of principle, he does not set out his own views, but simply urges people to show love and acceptance to each other and find common ground without feeling the need to sacrifice their own integrity in the process.

Us Versus Us is a different sort of book. It’s the fruit of some detailed survey work that he did of LGBT people across America to get some understanding of their spiritual lives. The research was done following good social-science principles, over as wide a group as possible. He then reflects in detail on the results (often by making comparisons with other public-access data on the religious beliefs and experiences of the general population).

I won’t discuss all of his findings, but one stands out: 86% of LGBT people were raised in a faith community between the ages of 0 and 18. This is 11% higher than the general US population. Put simply, if you are gay it is more likely you had significant Christian input as a child or young person. The specific religious affiliations are consistent with their frequency in the general US population.

This fact flies in the face of the dominant cultural narrative, which casts the parties to this conversation as opposing forces. In reality, the culture war has always been a civil war: us versus us.

54% of these LGBT people who were raised in a religious community leave after the age of 18. This is twice as high as the general US population. So if you are gay you are more likely to have grown up religious but you are much more likely to have left your religious community as an adult. The experience of leaving your religious community behind is therefore a hugely significant part of the experience of being gay in America. This may explain a lot about the nature and tone of the debate in US society at large.

Marin does a lot of work on trying to identify what the reasons are why LGBT people leave and what might encourage them to come back. One of his more interesting findings in this regard is that the biggest reason why LGBT people leave is (unlike the general population) because of bad personal experiences. Feeling loved was the biggest thing that would encourage people to return. Love and acceptance counted for more than theological agreement. Marin uses all this data to suggest that Christians and the LGBT community have far more in common than is usually recognised, and that getting too focused on the theological disagreements distracts us from this.

All this is interesting, of course, but obviously poses questions as to how transferable any of these results are to the very different and far more secularised UK context, where people are far less likely to have been raised in a faith community. What might make it more transferable is the hypothesis he develops as to why LGBT people are more likely to have been raised in a faith community. His argument is that coming to terms with an LGBT orientation in a Western homophobic culture is an irrevocably spiritual experience. At least 96% of the entire sample, irrespective of their own religious beliefs, have at some point prayed that God would make them straight. 80% of the sample continue to pray regularly, including a 19% of self-identified atheists. Wrestling with your sexuality as a teenager makes you more spiritual than the average person. If this is true, then it is likely to be true in the UK too.

Review: ‘Studies on the Bible and same-sex relationships since 2003’ by Martin Davie

Davie book

This was the book commissioned by the CEEC in preparation for the Shared Conversations in the CofE, and reflection on which was intended to form the basis of their consultation in February 2015. Dr Martin Davie, the author, is the CEEC’s academic consultant. He has taught at Oak Hill and Wycliffe, and served as theological consultant for the House of Bishops and Secretary to the Faith and Order Commission.

The report is both impressively broad and open and depressingly narrow. Its openness comes from its insistence on considering every significant piece of writing on the 6 core biblical passages published in the last 10 years, and presenting them as objectively and fairly as possible, often through extensive quotation, allowing the writers to speak for themselves. This has been critiqued by Colin Coward as still containing an implicit filtering in that Davie chose what texts to present and what quotations to use, which is doubtless true (true objectivity is always impossible), but I’ve never seen a document by either ‘side’ in this debate take such pains to present a broad spread of texts with so little evaluation offered in the presentation. The narrowness, however, was evident in the above description (and in fairness to Davie, this was simply the brief he was given in preparing the report): this was a review of writings in the last 10 years, and only writings addressing the bible passages already identified as the ‘core’ texts. Earlier writings were not considered, neither were any writings addressing wider matters than biblical interpretation, nor any passages beyond the 6 ‘core passages’.

The purpose of the report, clearly set out in the introduction, was very sharply defined. ‘Some Issues’ in 2004 had suggested that the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation of these passages was accepted by most biblical scholars. The ‘Piling Report’ in 2014 suggested that there was no scholarly consensus on the ‘traditionalist’ interpretation. The report set itself the task of determining if anything had actually changed in the last 10 years that would warrant a change of this kind in the CofE’s understanding. The underlying assumption was that if no new research had been produced, then the evaluation given in ‘Some Issues’ could still be valid, and ‘Piling’ could be shown to be mistaken in its evaluation. In other words, the report started by assuming that ‘Some Issues’ could be trusted, and questioned whether ‘Piling’ could. It set out to test ‘Piling’’s evaluation, but made no attempt to similarly test the evaluation of ‘Some Issues’, which was assumed throughout to be trustworthy. (I should stress here that what is being disputed is not a ‘traditionalist’ or ‘revisionist’ interpretation of the passages in itself, but whether or not a scholarly consensus can be said to exist in their interpretation – the report is not just arguing for a particular position, it is arguing that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree with that position).

Given that the existence of dispute over the issue of same sex relationships cannot be denied, the report suggested three possible ways of understanding this dispute: that scripture is inherently unclear, that scholarly debate remains inconclusive, or that neither of these is the case and one side of the debate is simply wrong. Essentially, the final argument of the report is that by establishing that there is scholarly consensus on the traditionalist understanding of the passages (which the report considers itself to have done) it can be shown that scripture is clear, that scholars agree, and therefore that there is only disagreement because one side is wrong.

There are some obvious problems with this, but the most dangerous is the unquestioned assumption that the evaluation offered by Davie of the various scholars who are reviewed in the report represents in itself the balance of scholarly opinion. Davie presents evaluations of the various revisionist scholars that essentially all boil down to ‘this is not a good enough argument to warrant moving from a traditionalist understanding’. Personally I find some of his evaluations more convincing than others, but that isn’t the point I want to make. Davie has every right to argue for his own position, to make his own judgements about the worth of the arguments of others, and is to be commended for seeking to defend his position against the fair and robust presentation of others’ positions. What he doesn’t have the right to do is to argue that his judgement *is* the supposed scholarly consensus. Davie’s argument for his evaluation that scholarly debate cannot be judged inconclusive is that “Although writers about the issue continue to disagree the traditionalist position has not been successfully called into question.” But the measure of ‘successfully called into question’ used in the report is whether Davie finds the argument convincing.

Logically, by separating out the question of scripture itself being unclear (ie no clear position is possible) from the question of the current state of scholarly debate being unclear (ie a clear position may be possible but at present we can’t be sure what it is), Davie should be assessing not only whether the bible is itself unclear, but also whether scholars at present have the level of consensus required to establish a clear position. Despite the avowed intention of the report, he shows no real interest in exploring the second of these. His underlying assumption is that if scripture is clear, then there is no room for scholarly dispute. Having carefully separated out two legitimate reasons for continued conflict, he implicitly ignores the separate existence of the second. There is a hidden assumption that the clarity of scripture can be assessed independently of disputes amongst scholars, because Davie, unlike these other scholars, is capable of truly objective judgement (so even though it is clear that different scholars see different things in scripture, an objective observer (Davie) can tell at a glance that scripture is clear and some scholars are simply not reading it accurately). There is likewise a hidden assumption that if scripture is clear then there is no legitimate dispute. There can be no legitimate dispute over how the clear words of scripture should be applied to today’s vastly different context. In fact the clarity of scripture is assumed throughout. Davie’s evaluation of biblical scholars proceeds on the assumption not that their discerning different meanings might indicate a lack of clarity in scripture, or that different hermeneutical approaches might legitimately suggest different applications of clear passages, but that the clarity of scripture necessitates that only one applied meaning can be correct.

Indeed in his evaluation of the revisionist writings Davie gives no indication of offering two levels of evaluation: whether an interpretation of scripture is strong enough to convince him or whether it is strong enough to suggest a viable attempt to faithfully interpret scripture. The second is never treated as a serious possibility. What seems strangest about this is that, of course, anglican evangelicals have accepted that precisely this differentiation is possible in regard to women’s ministry: evangelicals accept that other evangelicals who take a different view from their own are faithfully interpreting scripture, even if they do not find their position personally convincing. The official position of Reform is now that women’s ministry is a second-order issue. This suggests that this sort of distinction has been recognised as genuine and significant in regard to a similarly divisive issue. It is interesting to consider why it is not even considered as a possibility here.

Torchwood: Children of Earth

I meant to blog something about this after it aired, but didn’t get round to it. So when Leah needed a quick review I thought I’d write something on it:

Review: Torchwood – Children of Earth
This five part miniseries, shown on consecutive nights over the course of a week, was a new format for Torchwood, the Dr Who spin-off series, bringing it to BBC1 and prime-time viewing for the first time after 2 seasons of relative obscurity in the listings. The teaser trailer pulled in large numbers of viewers for a slice of well-scripted, intelligent sci-fi written for the Spooks generation, where half the battle is fought against your own government.
The series really delivered, however, on the premise behind Torchwood as a series – this was Sci-fi for adults, with a decidedly different tone from Dr Who’s more family-friendly happy endings. As the series progressed it became clear that simple heroism wasn’t going to be enough to save the day, and the characters were left to make the second-best and last-resort choices that this sort of story usually doesn’t show people making. John Barrowman’s Captain Jack has never seemed more morally ambiguous, and the story went to extreme lengths to demonstrate that a man who cannot die can, in consequence, suffer a good deal more than any normal human being should. Gratifyingly, however, his suffering was not allowed to exonerate him from blame for the horrific choices he came to make.
Ultimately, as the subtitle suggests, this was a story about children. How we protect them, what value we place upon them, the things we sacrifice for them and the reasons we might make a sacrifice of them. The biggest underlying question was whether it is ever right to treat them as objects (whether that be drugs, ‘units’, or transmitters). Any TV series, Sci-fi or otherwise, that starts seriously exploring those issues is worth watching. The more so if, admirably, it refuses to close them with a ‘happy ever after’.

Angels & Demons

We’ve been doing an occasional film & discussion group at church, and we did Da Vinci code recently, which was fun, and gave me an excuse to get history nerdy and point out where things went far adrift of reality. Anyway, as A & D was just being released in the cinema we took a group to go and see it. I’ve been reading the book too. Well, the film was fun (and actually hangs together better than Da Vinci Code – once again the preposterous plot is ably assisted on its way by a very capable supporting cast) but I’m now unsure whether it’s worth meeting up for a discussion of it. There just doesn’t seem to be much to discuss from the film. As presented, the whole science & religion thing is distinctly downplayed, the Illuminati are a bit of a red herring, and the Catholic church do kind of what you’d expect them to do in the circumstances (with the exception of one character, the weirdness of whom is fairly central to the story). All in all, the church come fairly well out of it – given the feather-ruffling caused by Da Vinci Code Brown presents a suprisingly humane and sympathetic church here.

So, a bit of fun with not much real food for thought. That’s what I thought, however, until I finished reading the book. Now, I’m not a huge Dan Brown fan, and I feel at this point obliged to have a rant about his novels, so you may find it easiest to skip to the next paragraph when I’ve got this off my chest. He does just enough research to make the inaccuracies he includes very plausible to the innocent reader, and as a natural sensationaliser of history he tends towards the most entertaining and shocking interpretations of events. And (especially in the case of TDVC) the images he is presenting will linger long in people’s minds. The blue-tinted ‘history’ images from that film, depicting events that never happened will have an impact on the popular imagination that will not easily be undone. Just when Pagans were starting to concede that the myth of the Burning Times was exactly that, Dan Brown firmly underlines it in people’s minds. He’s also not the greatest writer. Robert Langdon has more than a touch of Mary Sue about him. He’s a good-looking sophisticated, witty, wealthy, Harvard professor with a world-wide reputation, seems to attract sexy smart women, and is also incredibly physically fit and a former champion swimmer… Then there’s the fact that Brown appears to only have one plot: academic is murdered with arcane symbols on his body, leaving a smart and sexy orphaned daughter to accompany Robert Langdon in following a series of clues in which they are hampered by a policeman who looks like a bad guy but turns out to be a good guy, and helped by a guardian angel who looks like a good guy but turns out to be the bad guy who has manipulated the whole thing. Oh, and they dodge some really weird psycho assassin on the way. I can only guess that it was to avoid making the overlap too obvious that Hollywood chose not to make the love interest the victim’s daughter this time, and made the assassin a conventional hitman for hire rather than a sadistic descendant of the cult of Hassassins (that and the fact that no-one wants to add a murderous muslim character just for ‘colour’ these days).

Anyway, I wasn’t overly impressed by the book as a piece of writing, but I did find the handling of the science/religion thing a lot more interesting than they chose to present it on screen. Although the villain is clearly nuts, he has a definite grasp of some interesting tensions between the church and modernity, understood in a more subtle form than is normally the case. The science/religion debate is often presented as being simply a clash between competing world-views, between rationality and superstition or faith and godlessness depending on your position. Commendably, Brown steers clear of this. He makes much of the fact that the two have never been entirely separate. Vetra is priest and scientist, seeking to prove God’s existence with science. And Janus is not a stereotypical advocate of religion alone. He embraces technology and progress. His issues are more subtle (though disturbingly he still feels drawn to take extreme measures to fight for them): the rate of scientific progress being allowed to outstrip growth in moral reflection, and a scientific mindset that encourages a search for answers even when reverent appreciation of mystery may be more appropriate. His problem is actually one of pace: the sense that the rate of scientific progress is pushing human beings beyond their ability to morally develop, that we are literally rushing in where angels fear to tread. This is a not uncommon feeling. Setting aside the trappings of the thriller (not many people feeling like this decide the answer is to provoke a war between science and religion by killing a few cardinals and threatening to blow up the Vatican), this is something well worth exploring.

It is certainly true that the pace of scientific and technological progress is accelerating. Moral codes and legal frameworks struggle to keep pace with scientific development that sometimes raises genuinely new questions: eg what is the moral status of life created from human genetic material but which is not in itself capable of becoming human life? It is likewise true that as a species we seem to find inventing ways to destroy easier than inventing ways to heal or create. Environmental issues as well as the legacy of warfare have left us very aware of the consequences of immoral and thoughtless applications of science in our world. In many ways the whole ‘modern world slipping further away from morality’ idea rings true. But there are some hidden assumptions in this line of argument, however congenial it may seem. Not least of these is that science is not permanently wedded to the idea that there is a single comprehensible answer to everything.

So, there’s probably something to discuss, but only if people have read the book, and to be honest I’m not sure I could in all conscience force people to do it…