A book review and interview
Can two people of the same sex live in committed, loving relationships with the blessing of God? This is the question that Rev. Jeff Miner of Jesus MCC of Indianapolis and John Tyler Connoley set out to answer in their book The Children Are Free. Their intention was to create an intermediate size booklet that might not be as intimidating as the large volumes on homosexuality and the Bible but contains more meat than a small pamphlet on the subject.
As the authors started their search they found, to their surprise, that many such books depended too much on speculation on scripture and contained little documentation. They couldn’t find any that covered all of the biblical texts, including those that seemed to be condemning along with those that are obviously affirming, all in one volume. What they found was that there were many books available on this subject but they dealt primarily with the six so-called “clobber passages,” and in most cases, the books were too detailed for the average searcher. They also found that none of the books they perused included the “affirming passages” and stories which reveal that deep homosexual love is definitely scriptural. As they compiled solid documentation, they ended up with a comprehensive, easy to understand, and well-documented analysis of the biblical data on homosexuality.
Their first task is to briefly dispel the falsehoods that have been generated against homosexuals due to the “clobber passages.” Focusing on the use of common sense and compassion, they clarify the more common literal meanings of these passages by combining the biblical stories with modern day examples.
“Today San Francisco has the reputation for being the `gayest’ city in the world. Yet even in San Francisco, gay men constitute far less than half the total male population. If the Scripture text had told us that `certain men of Sodom’ or even `many men of Sodom’ gathered at the door, we might then surmise that the men at the door could have been motivated by homosexual desire. But the text says ‘both young and old, all the people to the last man’ gathered at the door. To suggest that every man and boy in Sodom was homosexual is simply not credible. Any reasonable interpretation of the story must account for the fact that all the males of Sodom (both homosexual and heterosexual), and perhaps even the women, participated in this attack. Something other than homosexual desire seems to have been at work here.”
As you can see, using a common sense approach for clarification of scripture certainly is a necessary and useful tool to be used in any contextual interpretation of scripture.
Interspersed with the discourse of these passages, they define what it means to pretext and using Jeff’s previous career as an attorney they provide a clearer understanding on how it is applied by many when they interpret scripture. Pretext simply means that we believe what is put before us without “the facts.”
“If we want to interpret spoken or written statements accurately, we must carefully study the context in which the statements were made,” they write.
They use of the story of a married couple having a conversation as an example.
“…suppose a married couple is talking and the wife says to her husband: ‘Don’t touch me.’ She has announced a ‘rule.’ Now, suppose someone copies down this statement and hands it to us saying, ‘These were her exact words.’ We now have the wife’s words in front of us in black and white, and that is all we need to interpret the meaning of their statement accurately, right?”
Of course we see that we need more information to understand the intent. What we need is “context” not “pretext.” Perhaps this happened in a divorce and the woman commanded that her husband should not touch her again; or perhaps this statement was made while the wife was ill. These are two “radically different meanings.” Thus, we must go beyond pretext (before facts) and dig deeper for the purpose and meaning behind this scenario (the context). This should be done when interpreting intent in scripture. With understanding of pretext and how it can distort the meaning of any story, no less the intent of scripture, the reader will be able to broach the subsequent passages in a much more accurate and understandable way.
The authors take us on a beautiful and knowledgeable explanation of passages and stories that they call the “affirming passages,” which help us see that same gender love is scripturally accurate and biblically sound. They take an in-depth look at the story of Ruth and Naomi in a way that brings to life the richness of these two women of faith and the intense love and commitment that they shared for one another. We next encounter the love story of David and Jonathan, which is often passed off as a simple story about friendship. We find that this is not just a friendship, but a concrete example of a covenant of same gender love between two men, one who is considered “a man after God’s own heart.” We also walk with Jesus as he encounters a gay man and delve deeply into the unnamed eunuch that Philip meets on the road and baptizes. As the authors do with the clobber passages, these affirming stories are given with modern day examples, told with humor and wit.
We also find that Jesus defied the legalist viewpoint of those who were “in charge” of religious teaching during his day. The authors clearly show us when and where “the law” should be applied and give us an overview that explains how Jesus taught that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. The question is asked: “Do we use the law as the sacrifice or do we use compassion?” According to the authors we must use compassion and common sense, as Jesus did. If this method is not true, they ask: “What is the purpose of the Holy Spirit?”
During an on-line interview, the authors revealed to Whosoever the process they went through to write this book.
WHOSOEVER: What is the need for this book when there are similar books tackling this issue? What made you feel it was necessary?
JEFF & TYLER: At our church, we’re often contacted by people who are afraid they’re going to hell because of their sexual orientation, or by people who need a resource for their family who are struggling to accept them, and we just couldn’t find anything we felt comfortable giving these people. When we started looking at the available titles we found they were all either too scholarly for a lay reader, or not thorough enough to be helpful to someone who’s really struggling. Another problem is that many of the affirming books seem a bit too dismissive of the Bible. We were both raised in Christian traditions and hold the Scriptures in the highest esteem. That’s very much a part of who we are. So we set out to write a book that was thorough (covering the affirming passages as well as the clobber passages), easy to read, and deeply respectful of the Bible. We hope we accomplished that.
WHOSOEVER: Why did you decide to co-author the book?
JEFF & TYLER: Jeff had preached a sermon series on the subject, which was available on cassette, and people kept telling him he should use those sermons as the basis of a book. However, as the pastor of a thriving MCC, he just didn’t have the time to take on a project of that scope by himself. Tyler is a member of Jeff’s church, and was completing work on his Masters in Theology at Earlham School of Religion. So, Jeff asked Tyler to help, because of his abilities as a theological thinker and writer. And, it’s been a wonderfully collaborative effort.
WHOSOEVER: Much effort is put into the interpretation of scripture by using “compassion and common sense” instead of literal or doctrinal reading of the scriptures. Do you truly believe that this is proper for theological understanding and why?
JEFF & TYLER: Absolutely. In fact, we both feel Chapter 3 (the chapter where we talk about compassion and common sense) is the key to the whole book. The name of that chapter is “How Jesus Applied Scripture,” and as followers of Christ we feel it is essential that we approach Scripture the same way Jesus did. If Christ was not a literalist — and we believe he was not — then those of us who call ourselves Christians shouldn’t be either. How can it be “doctrinally correct” to read and apply Scripture in a way Jesus didn’t?
WHOSOEVER: As we read through much of the book, it details portions of both of your lives as descriptive modern day analysis to explain long-standing biblical stories. Why did you do this?
JEFF & TYLER: We actually tell many people’s stories in the book, not just our own, particularly in Chapters 3 and 4. We felt it was important to put real names and faces on our analysis, and not remain in the realm of theory where it’s too easy to ignore the people who are truly impacted by our theologies. We serve a personal God, and the Bible is a personal text with lots of stories about people. We wanted our book to reflect those facts.
WHOSOEVER: What do you believe are some of the most confusing reasons that the Bible is interpreted improperly today? Do you believe that the average reader has half a chance at deciphering scripture for what it is really saying?
JEFF & TYLER: At the beginning of Chapter 2, we tell how personal prejudice affected white slaveholders’ interpretation of the Bible in nineteenth century America. One of the hardest things to do when reading the Bible is to set aside our own prejudices. But Jesus promised that the Spirit of Truth would guide us into all truth (John 16:13), and we believe if we’re open to the Spirit, then God will guide our reading of Scripture. Of course, we also must be willing to test our interpretations by listening to and weighing the interpretations of others. Bible study is always more effective in community, even if that community is only various books and magazines written by different authors.
WHOSOEVER: Getting a bit off subject: Do you think it is necessary to have churches that are purposely designed for the GLBT believer and why or why not?
JEFF & TYLER: Absolutely. We both attend Jesus Metropolitan Community Church in Indianapolis, Ind. Jeff is the pastor, and Tyler is an active member. And, although we celebrate the rise in the number of affirming congregations, there will always be a need for churches that are predominantly GLBT. The purpose of MCC is not to ghettoize GLBT people, but to give them a place where they can relax and be themselves as they worship God. It’s the same function served by the traditional black churches — which are still thriving and growing, years after white churches ceased imposing segregation.
In a world where we are the minority, we are always reminded of our minority status, but when we can step into a world where we are the majority it gives us the mental space to focus on other things. For example, instead of having to translate the sermon illustrations to apply them to our lives, we can apply them directly because they include people like us. This simply doesn’t happen in predominately straight churches.
WHOSOEVER: It is my understanding that neither one of you get any royalties to this book. Where do the royalties go?
JEFF & TYLER: All the rights to the book belong to Jesus Metropolitan Community Church, and the proceeds go into the church’s building fund. Our congregation is growing by leaps and bounds — attendance now runs about 350 — and we will soon have to expand our facility.
WHOSOEVER: Since I’m only aware that the book is available at your Web site, do you have plans for wide release of this book?
JEFF & TYLER: Currently, the book is available at the church’s Web site, on Amazon, and at an Indianapolis bookstore named Outword Bound. The church just started a ministry group to market the book more widely, and part of the group’s responsibility will be to get the book into as many bookstores and other venues as possible.
WHOSOEVER: Do you sincerely believe that the children REALLY are free?
JEFF & TYLER: Absolutely. As followers of Jesus, we acknowledge him as our gold standard for biblical interpretation. Jesus taught that the children are free, and we follow his example by proclaiming this good news far and wide.
Not only is this gem of a book easy to read but it is easy to understand, unlike most books that are available on this topic today. It is a perfect primer for those who need a less complex way of understanding the biblical verses that have been used to condemn those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. It will also give those who are searching for strength to know that the Bible affirms that two people of the same sex can live in a committed, loving relationship with the blessing of God. It also will certainly be a welcome addition to anyone’s home library, as well as a wonderful gift to family members and others who have difficulty understanding this complex and often misunderstood subject.
Are the children really free? One only need to read this book and I believe that most would answer that question with a resounding YES!
Rev. Jeff Miner is the pastor of Jesus Metropolitan Community Church, a thriving congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana.
John Tyler Connoley, while working on this book, completed a Masters in Biblical Studies at Earlham School of Religion and is a member of Jesus MCC in Indianapolis.
Erny Phipps is co-moderator of Whosoever Prays, an online prayer group offering support to GLBT Christians. He lives in Arizona with his son.