Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Art, Homosexuality, and Silent Women: Another Response to Mark

I promised I was going to try to keep this religious conversation from running away with the site, and doggone it, I even managed a few lighthearted posts yesterday. But Mark wrote a long comment on my last post, and since I knew it was apt to offend people, I also knew I had to reply. Which is why I'm still at work at 6:30. (God, I need my computer fixed!)

I hope you'll forgive me, Mark, but I didn't quote everything because I didn't see a need to.

Quoth Mark:
I also appreciate your point about the lack of an understanding of art (and ambiguity) within evangelical circles. Too many are afraid to even step into an art museum - no wonder our most well known painter is Thomas Kinkade. John Grisham is looked down upon by many (most?) evangelicals because even though his works often point to God, they also contain words like "hell" and "damn" and maybe even worse swear words. Plus he's "sold out" to a non-christian publisher! But even Grisham's works aren't great literature, destined to become classics. If we want to impact our culture, we need to get involved in the arts again in a positive and constructive way, not just complain when something we don't like gets funded or called "important" in some way.

I wish I had your optimism, but honestly---I was a writer and an evangelical, and I finally came to the conclusion that the reason there’s no art in the evangelical church is that art 1.) reflects reality in hopefully uncompromising ways, and 2.) expresses itself through ambiguity, irony, and other hard-to-pin-down ways. You can't change the way evangelicals think. The only way to survive is to specialize in abstraction (musicians do quite well) or take your words and leave.

This brings us back to hell, actually. You said in an earlier post that you believe in gray areas. I believe you. No one who lives and adjusts their thinking to the world can fail to believe in gray areas. What I object to in your worldview is that you don’t believe in nearly enough gray areas, and the gray areas you (or evangelicals anyway) do believe in are usually ones that haven’t successfully been extinguished or are otherwise eternally obdurate. (i.e, anything the Bible doesn’t strictly or clearly address.) And that’s not an accident. If there is a hell, and God holds you accountable for your actions with a heaven-or-hell carrot and stick, then ambiguity is irrelevant and unhelpful. Ambiguity is, in fact, potentially dangerous. And celebrating ambiguity, or communicating with irony, is positively perverse, and why would any concerned Christian want to do that? So fuck art. How’s that going to help anything in the long run? Give me another of those John 3:16 hats, which might actually spread a message! The only people who are evangelicals and artists are the ones who haven’t taken hell seriously enough. (Or, possibly, put in a few hours of witnessing and then paint on the side to relax, as a form of prayer or meditation.) Or---and this is my repeated point---they’ve embraced art by allowing commonsense decency to override the clear demands of the Bible. Because the Bible really doesn't give a damn about it.

The classic example of this I can remember is when I was listening to the book-on-tape version of Left Behind. (Morbid fascination is why; no fair laughing!) And in the very beginning of the book, it’s clear that our hero, Rayford Steele, is a man with an unhappy marriage (because, you know, he’s too busy with work) who is tempted to have an affair with a flight attendant he works with. As it’s described, they’ve never slept together, they kissed once, and she’s trying to lead him to something further. And as the scene unfolds, she flirts with him … and it’s laughably unconvincing. At first I thought, Gosh, he's a bad writer. But then I realized that he was literally, morally compelled to write a shitty temptation scene. Because, of course, if you actually, successfully created a scene that caused sexual tension, you’d be inciting your readers to lust! That's a sin, Paul says not to cause people to stumble, I must write poorly: QED. This failure to want to experience the world not only hobbles its art, but also hinders the evangelical from really understanding other people. Because you can’t understand other people without risking being moved to change, and Finding An Unassailable Place Of Truth To Never Move From is the evangelical’s job number one. Because, you know, there’s hell.

Regarding homosexuality, I think you have come to the wrong conclusion about the Bible making you a bigot. [Much offensive material snipped, but read the original comment if you're curious.]

Actually, I’m dead right in my conclusion, and your post essentially proves it. By worrying about what is and isn’t sin, I discovered I was completely shutting myself off from how homosexuals might actually feel, and I was also blinding myself to the fact that, just possibly, my interpretation of the Bible might be a little off. (When I had enough of this jarring evidence that the Bible was leading me wrong, I eventually had to jettison the Bible altogether. But there are plenty of people who consider themselves devout and Bible believing who would disagree with you. It sounds impossible, I know, but I’ll give you a few tips in that direction after this next paragraph. But I have to lay some groundwork first.)

I’m composing a whole post about this for later, but let me say that your assertion that sexual sin is just like any other sin is completely disingenuous: I heard it for years, nodded along with it myself, and it’ll pass muster in a Sunday school. But it’s a empty piety that utterly fails in the face of reality, as you would know if you’d ever tried to, say, change your orientation by sheer force of will. Sex is not like other areas of sin. As C.S. Lewis points out, sexual sin is the only sin for which there is an actual healthy biological urge. I’m not naturally driven to murder anyone. Thievery is a learned skill, but I can live without it. Alcoholism may be genetic, but if you remove the alcohol from an alcoholic, they stop being an alcoholic. But someone who rejects sex is automatically removed from the gene pool. We’re all in the gene pool, so there’s millions of years of biological investment driving us, often with incredible intensity. And nothing stops us from being sexual beings, or allows us to turn our sex lives on and off. Even Jesus, if he was human, had morning wood and wet dreams. And sex is also central to our lives. (If heterosexuality were a sin, would you feel that "not practicing it" with a consenting adult really made you more lovable to God? "God loves you. Now never come anywhere close to doing what you want, and for that matter, try not to want what you want in the first place.")

Now, as for homosexuality in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t call homosexuality a sin. Paul calls homosexuality a sin. Paul also says women should keep their heads covered in church and if they have any questions about the service they should just shut up and ask their husbands when they get home. (Single women are just supposed to remain ignorant until marriage, one assumes.) As you yourself note, lots of evangelical churches ignore bits of Paul as a matter of course for a simple reason: some of his stuff is crazy bullshit that makes no sense nowadays. Of course women can talk in church! If the only reason you believe something is because Paul said it, you should look twice and cover your ass.

The Bible as a whole doesn’t call homosexuality anything at all, because there wasn’t really a word for it until around the time of Freud. In a way, you must know this, because trying to find verses about homosexuality in the Bible is really, really difficult. But when it is touched upon in the Old Testament, it’s generally regarded as an unclean pagan practice---this is why it’s not in the Ten Commandments, but it is listed in a series of “abominations” that render you unfit to go to Temple. (Alongside having sex with a woman who’s menstruating and wearing two different kinds of fabric.) It's not evil; it's just not something that we Jews do. (This was before Harvey Fierstein.)

Sodom and Gomorrah, weirdass story that it is, is ultimately about God cursing a town that violated the rules of hospitality. I heard that point parodied as “the dumb thing liberals believe” long ago and scoffed. (“Hospitality? What a weak-ass sin compared to gang rape!”) But then I did the research. In desert cultures, as you may know, the rule of hospitality requires that you take in anyone who needs shelter---even your enemy. Why? Because being left on your own in the desert is a death sentence, and a mutual awareness of this---the assurance that everyone can count on everyone else for at least food, water, and shelter---is essential to keeping the society going. Many of the early Old Testament stories are often lessons about hospitality---such as that bit in Judges where Jael kills the enemy king Sisera with a tent peg while he’s sleeping in her tent. We read that and say, “Hooray, Jael! And what the hell was Sisera thinking?” But we’re supposed to read it and think, “My god, the time of Judges was a time of moral chaos! We need a king like David!” So similarly the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah was a judgment not so much on the exact nature of their sexual practices, but the fact that the town demanded that the host violate the rules of hospitality.

Again, I scoffed at this, but then it was pointed out to me that Jesus only mentions Sodom and Gomorrah once---and the context is hospitality. When the disciples are sent out to go spread the gospel, Jesus tells them, “if a city won’t receive you, shake the dust off your shoes and never return. I tell you, it’ll be better for Sodom and Gomorrah in that day than it will for the city that rejects my disciples.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the sense.) It is clear from the context that Jesus seems to have understood the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as one of making evil choices in accepting or rejecting wanderers---otherwise, why would he have used this example at all? (And the connection was presumably so clear to the disciples that it didn’t need to be underlined.) Jesus had plenty of opportunity to talk about sexual sin and he never mentioned Sodom and Gomorrah at all then.

This, by the way, is the kind of thing I kept finding out when I was reading “liberal” Bible scholars: they routinely came up with answers that actually explained the textual evidence better than what I wanted to believe going in. By comparison, my beliefs always seemed to raise questions that were usually answered more glibly than thoroughly.

And by the way, I’m not suggesting that the Bible says homosexuality is groovy. But I think that it’s very interesting to note that the Bible doesn’t hate homosexuality nearly as much, or anywhere near as often, as evangelicals want the Bible to hate it. That hatred (or intolerance or discomfort or whatever) comes from somewhere, and I’ll lay you odds it comes from the fact that an unrepentant homosexual is an ambiguity that it is essential to erase in the name of moral clarity. (To restate a point I’ve already made several times: evangelicals constantly hunger for more moral clarity than the Bible actually provides.)

Your latter assertions about working women are so bizarre to me that I can’t even bring myself to answer them in detail (you took a metaphor from Titus and turned it into a rule and a cornerstone?). So let me go somewhere very practical. About half of the readers of this blog, and most of my best friends, are gay. I’m sure that if I pressed you about whether you love homosexuals, you’d say the standard fundy boilerplate: “I love the sinner but hate the sin.” So look at those last few paragraphs you wrote and ask yourself; how loved do you think the gay readers of those paragraphs feel? How respected? How understood? If you’re reading like a real outsider, you’ll see that you come across as someone who might want to love gay people, but are far more concerned about the dangers of too much acceptance. Or that you might want to understand, but you’re afraid to move from the ground the Bible has cleared for you. Or that you’re seething with intolerance and can barely manage a few civil-sounding words couched in Bible-ese. But actual love doesn’t come across, and adult people aren’t stupid. We know acceptance when we feel it. My recommendation to you is that you not post on the subject of homosexuality again until you 1.) have made a gay friend and 2.) helped him or her through a romantic problem to a happy ending.

One more thing: Evangelicals have a terrible habit---as I think I’ve pointed out before---of saying, “This isn’t my opinion! This is just what the Bible compels me to believe!” That’s bullshit. It may be soothing to your conscience, but it’s bullshit. Do you demand women cover their heads in church? Do you demand silence from your wife until the drive home? I’m guessing not. I’m guessing that little things like common decency overrode your desire to take the Bible’s word on that, so you imported a little bit of context (“When Paul said women should be quiet, he was talking only about a single church in a specific region,” etc.) that the plain text doesn’t support, and sighed with relief over not having to believe that one weird thing, while simultaneously failing to import the same common decency to other passages that would help you be (from my perspective) a little more compassionate. Hell is a good example. 95% of the Bible’s verses on hell come from Matthew. You don’t have to believe Matthew’s dead wrong to say something like, “Matthew, like James, is a single book with a rather extreme viewpoint that isn’t found in other parts of scripture. Therefore anything he says about hell ought to be weighed against the rest of the Bible’s relative silence on the matter” (and Paul’s assertion in Ephesians, among other places, that all of creation is being saved).

Evangelicals have a terrible habit of choosing terrible beliefs and then pretending they haven’t chosen them; as if they emerged naturally out of the plain text of Scripture, when most of what they believe was never taught until the American and British revivals of the 1840s. This is a world of many religions, and even within Christianity, you have a host of options. So why have you chosen to live with an interpretation of the Bible that makes you say such weird things about women? What do you get out of it that’s worth more than common decency?

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Mark Newhouse said...

I apologize for any offense I may have caused - was not my intent. I also apologize for keeping you late at work, and for managing to completely sidetrack your blog.

I think I may have been misrepresented in your reaction to my post. However I'll leave it at that and return to reading and not commenting.

7/12/2006 7:14 PM  
Blogger Angieb303 said...

Don't stop commenting Mark, I can't be the only one standing up around here. Well, the good news is, I think this whole religion thing can die out for now, cause I don'y have anything else to say. Lets move on to insulting someone else now, how about people's mothers? Okay, just kidding. We need move fun post Dave. Bring out the fun!

7/13/2006 11:32 AM  

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