Same-Sex Marriage and Gladwell's Generous Orthodoxy

I've been loving Malcolm Gladwell's new podcast, Revisionist History. A recent episode is called Generous Orthodoxy; it tells the story of a 98-year old Mennonite pastor named Chester Wenger who loses his pastoral credentials for performing the wedding ceremony of his gay son. This podcast attempts to reconcile the tension between relationship (generosity) and moral principles (orthodoxy). Without a doubt, he falls on the generosity side of the question. His appeal to orthodoxy consists of personal sacrifice and respect for the institution.  There's a lot to disagree with:

1) Gladwell does not espouse conservative Christian beliefs: One of my friends couldn't finish the podcast because of Gladwell's "smarmy and superior tone". It's also immediately apparent, especially if you've listened to his previous podcasts, that Gladwell is politically progressive. In one of that three-part series, he attacks Stanford, Bowdoin, and other elite colleges for their insatiable endowment appetites. It should then come as no surprise that Gladwell is LGBTQ affirming. 
 
And yet I've listened to plenty of smarmy and superior Christians. Their tone hasn't stopped me from hearing them out. I've also been known to have a smarmy and superior tone myself so how can I judge? If conservative Christians expect others to listen to us, shouldn't we be willing to listen first?

2) The Princeton protest segment is tangential: I revel in Gladwell's ability to weave disparate sources seamlessly into a compelling and cohesive narrative thread (a la Tim Keller). And yet his side story about Princeton students protesting Woodrow Wilson's name displayed all over the university campus was distracting and detracted from the gravity of Wenger's story. The protesters did indeed choose to go there and their sense of entitlement was repulsive.  It was only partially salvaged by Gladwell's suggestion that a generous orthodoxy must give up something costly - i.e. if the students truly believed in their cause, they should decline to return to Princeton and encourage potential applicants to avoid the school.

3) He only focuses on one side of the story: He says a generous orthodoxy is costly but every orthodoxy is costly when tested. I pay a price for holding the traditional Christian sexual ethic. It is unpopular, not trendy, condemned as regressive, and against "love wins". 

And yet there are tremendous gospel redemptive elements in this podcast. It's hard to deny Gladwell's implicit understanding of the gospel albeit indirectly through his admiration of Wenger and this episode had me in tears. Ultimately, Wenger's example asks the question of how would you feel about same sex marriage if the person getting married is your son or daughter?

There's a couple things to get out of the way before wrestling with that question. First of all, is Chester Wenger aware of all the Bible passages explicitly forbidding and/or condemning sexual intercourse between two people of the same gender? Any mention of these passages in his letter is conspicuously absent. The most common ones are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, and Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. The fact Wenger does not mention them does not mean he is ignorant or uninformed. I actually appreciate he doesn't talk about them. After all, his letter states he and his wife have read and reread the scriptures. I'm sure Wegner has pored over those passages and not only those particular but ALL of scripture. He has wrestled over this issue regarding his son and his parishioners FOR DECADES. And thus paying attention to which scriptures Wenger chooses to mention in his letter is important.

So if I were to pick the verses that are most important, most compelling, most revealing of God's heart verses from chapter 1 of Romans, I would choose v.16-17 over v.26-27 any day of the week. And that's how Wenger opens his interview with Gladwell - he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. It's ultimately about faith. And if there's one thing I would proclaim to the world, it's v.16-17.

Of course, acknowledging sin and brokenness is crucial and Wenger's letter makes reference to the vast array of sexual brokenness in our world today. In that regard, I appreciate the letter's reference to eunuchs in Isaiah 56. These men were sexually dysfunctional in the most literal sense of the word. And yet there is room in the kingdom for the sexually dysfunctional. There's something so gospel redemptive about this. Another helpful example I would bring up is Jesus' love for tax collectors. Being a tax collector is an ongoing lifestyle that is inherently exploitative and disreputable. And it's not clear this group of people changed their despicable occupations yet they were loved in their present status. 

Second, is Chester's son a follower of Jesus? If you believe being gay and being a Christian is mutually incompatible then you already have an answer. I'm not buying that. Chester is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt his son is a follower of Jesus. And that's where personal experience comes in.

I'm limited in how I establish my beliefs. I value the here and now. I cannot staunchly believe something solely in the abstract and thus require some type of personal exposure or experience to fully reinforce my convictions. So when dealing with same sex marriage, I need gay friends to process these issues with. And fortuitously, over the past fifteen years, God has provided men - through high school, college, and ministry - who have come out to me as gay. Some of them are still close friends and followers of Jesus today. None of them have been "cured". I've walked with these men through various stages of their journey in coming to terms with their sexuality. Each one has a different story that does less to explain the origin of his sexual orientation and rather does more to highlight the sexual brokenness of all people including my own.

Therefore I don't have a special discipleship agenda for gay men. If we're all sexually broken then we're all equally in need of the gospel. My commitment is to help someone fully understand who he is as a new creation in Christ. This means viewing and managing our sexuality as a God-given expression of our desire for relationship, intimacy, and pleasure. Sexuality is about being known and loved. Unfortunately, our flesh is fractured, self-centered, and weak. In that regard, I'm with Christopher Yuan in that I cannot support "same-sex marriage as a faithful and godly choice when blessed by the church". I base my stance on my understanding of scripture, my theological convictions, AND my personal experience. 

I discussed the podcast with a fellow believer and he responded without hesitation that if it was his son or daughter, he would have adopted a similar stance as Chester Wenger. I appreciate his honesty. I would absolutely love my child but I'm not sure how far I could go in affirming his lifestyle. I know for some that's tantamount to denying his personhood. I would like to think I could go as far as Wenger but without having gone through what he has, I don't know that I can. That's how I'm limited. 


And yet I can say his example challenges me to re-evaluate my convictions, to assess how well I understand the gospel, and to ponder the depths of God's missionary heart. For all that, I am grateful. And though I do not agree with Wenger's decision, I have no judgment - only respect and admiration. I look forward to meeting him, his wife, and all his sons and daughters, in heaven.

Comments

  1. thank you for wrestling with this, i really appreciate how much love and humility is in your writing. i came away with a few reflections and questions after reading.

    i'm curious about the price that you feel you've paid for your orthodoxy. because i feel that it is completely within your right to believe that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman, and it is also your right to refuse to engage in its practice or sanction it in your church. but if gay marriage is a relationship that another couple chooses to enter into, and you are not required to participate in it in any way, i'm not convinced that there is some price you've paid for their matrimony. It sounds parallel to the argument that some made before that allowing gay marriage would destroy the sanctity of their own marriage. i sometimes wonder today how many men are waking up, and the first thought on their mind after rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and seeing their wives next to them, is "this whole relationship has really gone to shit since the gays were allowed to get married." i'm guessing none.

    christopher yuan sounds like a fascinating read. maybe someday, i'll make time for that.

    i love your conclusion. i think expunging from ourselves the need to make a judgement all the time is key for living together in civil society. thanks again for posting this.

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    1. Ener, thanks for the encouraging comment and the question. We had a version of this conversation 15 years ago at Jack and Lav's loft apartment in Oakland. I think I know better how to respond today. First of all, given your parameters, you are absolutely correct. There is no harm done to me by same-sex marriage. And yet your parameters are not social cost of a belief (mine is) but moral impact and your moral impact is solely assessed based on the criteria of care vs. harm. I read Jonathan Haidt's Righteous Mind (Why Good People are Divided By Politic and Religion) and though I don't agree with a lot, his perspective as secular Jewish social psychologist was helpful. Here's a quote from a review: "For WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic), like most readers of his book and this blog, the most obvious bases for morality are (1) care vs harm, and (2) fairness vs cheating, to the point that many WEIRD people will not be able to fathom why anyone would regard something as wrong if it wasn’t (1) clearly harmful to someone or (2) demonstrably unfair. Yet Haidt’s studies in psychology, especially in the non-WEIRD world, presented him with a range of other foundations: (3) loyalty vs betrayal, (4) authority vs subversion, (5) sanctity vs degradation, and (6) liberty vs oppression." I'm saying sanctity vs. degradation is at play and indeed that is what people mean when they say same-sex marriage destroys the sanctity of marriage. You're viewing 1) and 2) as most important and 5) does not exist. I am WEIRD but 5) matters to me. Haidt's example of sex with a dead chicken before eating it is instructive. It does no harm but people find it morally repulsive. As far as price, I mean social cost. There's a social cost to every publicly expressed belief. There's a social cost to wearing baggy pants or ugly Christmas sweaters. There's a social cost to being a Trump supporter in urban, educated circles. There's a social cost to being a Hilary supporter in white, male, working class circles. That's what I mean when I write: "It is unpopular, not trendy, condemned as regressive, and against "love wins"" Link to review: http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/the_most_important_book_ive_read_this_year

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    2. this is really good, thank you for clarifying this, and for the framework around morality. i think i would follow up on your summary of haidt's analysis by saying that i would not necessarily want to write laws around #5. having the state define and enforce behavior along the spectrum of sanctity vs degradation seems dangerous. for example, here are some other things that might destroy the sanctity of marriage (ranking low to high in ridiculousness, but perhaps not defensibility): infidelity, money, immigration status, careerism, sports, ipads, children. if we are going to sanction legislation against same-sex marriage because it "threatens" the sanctity of the institution, then i can make a case that we should legislate against all of those other things i've listed, and that would leave about 10 of us on planet earth that would be fit to be married (jack and laverne and maybe the obamas would be the only people in north america).

      and again, i don't deny that people of different persuasions should have the freedom to define for themselves where a specific behavior falls along that spectrum, i'm just wary of the state being able to define that. one reason i love this country so much is exactly that freedom.

      and i'm shocked that you can remember details of a conversation we had 15 years ago and jack and lav's place.

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    3. by the way, can i tell you how much i appreciate you for doing all the hard work of research and synthesis, and i just get to sit back, react, and criticize?

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  2. Setting: A Christian family.
    Situation: Parents found out the kid is cheating on tests at school.
    Result: Parents rebuked the kid for cheating, does not encourage it, tells the kid it is wrong and should stop doing it.
    Observation 1: Does the kids cheating hurt/harm anyone? No. But parents rebuked the kid nonetheless.
    Observation 2: Did the parents stop loving the kid because the kid was cheating on the test? No. But discouraged the kid from continuing the act nonetheless.

    Question 1: Does the Bible explicitly state that the homosexual is a sin? (Which is the problem where most disagreements stem from, and the weakest link of this chain of thoughts.)

    Question 2: Should a Christian live his/her life according to the word of God in the Bible?

    Observation: If one's answer are "yes" to both questions, it is very obvious what a Christian would do in the situation regarding same sex marriages.

    That's the jist of my logic flow at this moment in my stage of life -- I welcome any comments that can help me improve upon that.

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    1. in observation #1, i'd say the habit of cheating on tests does cause harm because it focuses the student on test results rather than the process of learning which the test is designed to evaluate. it's the process of learning that's important, therefore cheating causes harm.

      in question #1, yes the bible does explicitly state that homosexuality is an "abomination". it also says, among many other things, that you should not wear cotton/polyester t-shirts (lev 19:19), you should never shave (lev 19:27), you should keep disabled people from worshipping god in the same way that able bodied people worship (lev 21:17), you shall always and forever bring your harvest to a priest to bless it before you can eat it, and you'd better have a healthy one year old lamb to burn and offer before you start eating (lev 23:9 - 14).

      in question #2, christians are always picking and choosing what rules in the bible they live by, so it is not very obvious to me what a christian should do regarding same sex marriage. it seems to me the question should be what rules are fundamental to a christian life and a relationship with jesus.

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