Does it matter if the lyrics you sing to worship God were written by someone with whom you have deep theological disagreements?
Christian rock star Vicky Beeching forced her fans to confront this question last week when she toldThe Independent that she is a lesbian. Her songs are among the most commonly sung in North American churches. But many within her Christian fan base believe gay sex and marriage are sinful.
Beeching has shared harrowing stories of struggling to shirk her sexuality. She even recounts participating in a traumatic exorcism at a Christian youth camp. Nineteen years after the failed attempt to purge the gay-ness from her spirit, Beeching chose to just be open and honest about who she believes she is.
“Old habits die hard,” Beeching told me via email. “I’m finally free from guilt and shame, but it’s been a very long road to get here.”
Beeching isn’t the first major faith-filled musician to come out of the closet or change his or her views. Many in the Christian music industry — like their book publishing counterparts — appear to be slowly and quietly shifting on the issue of gay marriage. This is a formative moment when many Christians are reconsidering the traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage. And popular leaders within the Christian music industry could accelerate a broader swing.
Christian musician Vicky Beeching has written songs that have reached Gold status and hit the top 100 iTunes chart. But now the 35-year-old British musician is singing a different song about her sexuality. Beeching told “The Independent” that she is gay in an interview published on Wednesday.
Beeching’s star has risen in recent years as a regular commentator on the BBC and Sky News. She is an Oxford-trained theologian, PhD candidate, and has been influential in the Anglican Church’s debates on gender. She told me she plans to be involved in the two-year conversational process on sexuality happening within the Church of England, and she personally told Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby she was gay before the Independent interview. (She’s scheduled to have dinner at Lambeth Palace next week for dinner with the Welbys.) Beeching also says she plans to write a book–perhaps two–about her personal journey and what she believes the Bible teaches about sexuality.
Here we talk about her decision, why she plans to stay in the church, and what she wants to tell the many people who sing her songs.
RNS: After coming out as gay, “The Independent” said you may “become a key figure in the liberalisation of Anglicanism.” Is this how you see yourself?
VB: All I want to do is play whatever small part I can to help people rethink their beliefs around sexuality; to stir people to reexamine doctrines that need a second look. I don’t see myself as a “liberal” as I value the Bible highly and hold to many of the same views that evangelical Christians do. I just think we’ve misinterpreted the Scriptures that talk about sexuality – as many people did with the Bible passages about women in leadership.
For me, believing God can be in favour of same-sex marriage isn’t to dilute the Bible or become theologically liberal. It’s actually rooted in my very high view of the Biblical texts, as there is much in the Bible about relationships based on love, faithfulness, commitment and authenticity. Jesus taught, “You’ll know a tree by the fruit it produces” and “good trees can’t produce bad fruit, and bad trees can’t produce good fruit.” So if a relationship is displaying the traits of God’s selfless, pure, faithful love, the relationship is proven to be innately godly and not sinful.
RNS: You attempted to fight these feelings in early life and even cure yourself through seeing a Catholic priest and participating in an exorcism. How did this affect you?
“There is no third way,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote in a June 2 blog post. “A church will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them.”
Arguing against such an assertion is difficult if you follow American religious life closely. Pastors in the United Methodist Church have proposed a “middle path” too, but some now believe a denominational split over the issue is imminent. Some in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America once claimed they held to a “middle way” in the debate, but they can hardly claim to be Switzerland after electing their first openly gay bishop last year. One strains to find an example of a Christian organization who has been able to thread the needle on the matter.
But one Christian theologian, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, says a third way is possible. In new book, Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church, she lays out her vision for faith communities where various perspectives on sexuality can thrive alongside each other. Wendy claims that the church has been distracted with the politics around homosexuality and our obsession with orientation change and causation. A self-described “eclectic Calvinist,” Wendy is a theologian and PhD candidate who serves as executive director of New Direction Ministries. Here, we discuss her provocative ideas for carving out a third way on the so-called “gay issue” in the church.
RNS: Some might say that what you call “generous spaciousness” is just tolerance. Is there a difference?
WV: When I tolerate someone with whom I disagree, I bite my tongue a lot but I don’t open my heart. Tolerating can mask all kinds of uncharitable attitudes toward the other. Where people feel forced to extend tolerance, resentment typically simmers just below the surface.
In generous spaciousness, I choose to listen deeply to the other, expecting to encounter God in our conversation. With generous spaciousness, I am seeking to experience a sense of community with those with whom I disagree. That means I intentionally contribute to an ethos of mutual respect. True respect doesn’t whitewash differences as if they don’t matter. But in generous spaciousness I allow myself to wonder if there might be more for me to learn and discover as I build relationship with the one who sees things differently than I do.
Rowan Williams always seemed to attract controversy when he led the worldwide Anglican communion as Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke out against his own government twice. He tried to hold together a church splintering over teachings on homosexuality while his personal views seem more aligned with the minority. He even got the infamous atheist Richard Dawkins to admit he was only “6.9 percent out of seven” certain God doesn’t exist.
After his retirement in 2012, Williams sought out a less controversial existence. His newest book, “Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer,” attempts to avoid scandal by simply discussing what Williams believes are the four essentials to following Jesus. Here we discuss baptist, the Bible, gay marriage, and whether he is creating another standard for judging who is and isn’t a Christian.
RNS: You’ve written a book on “being Christian.” Is this one more measuring stick for people to determine who’s in and who’s out or is there more here than meets the eye?
RW: No agenda about who’s in and who’s out; the book began simply as a series of talks in Canterbury Cathedral for anyone interested in exploring the basic components of Christian practice as it’s usually understood. A resource, I hope, but not an examination paper.
RNS: You open with baptism, noting that “people are formally brought into the Christian community by being dipped in water or having water poured over them” but then you go on to say that the word “baptism” originally just meant “dipping.” Is there a single acceptable way for Christians to baptize?
(Note: This is part two of my interview with NT Wright. The first part addresses the Bible and why he doesn’t call himself an inerrantist.)
TIME Magazine called him “one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought.” Newsweek once labeled him “the world’s leading New Testament scholar.” His name is N.T. Wright, and he has just written a controversial book on the Bible.
In “Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues,” Wright comes out swinging on theological hot buttons such as Darwinian evolution, whether Adam was a historical figure, and why he thinks the Bible makes space for women pastors. Here, we discuss the issues of homosexuality, science and gender.
RNS: Many American evangelicals believe that the Bible requires the rejection of Darwinian evolution. You dedicated your book to Francis Collins and address science right out of the gate. Do you think American evangelicals have created a false choice between what they believe the Bible says and the dominant views of modern science?
NTW: Some have, some haven’t. Sadly, many have been taught that there is a straight choice: either biblical Christianity or Darwinian evolution. Actually, some of the great conservative American theologians in the late 19th century—I’m thinking of B. B. Warfield and others—didn’t see it like that at all.
The problem is that Darwin’s findings were “heard” by the wider community within the popular Enlightenment “Epicureanism” (Jeffersonm etc.) in which God—if there is a God—is a long way away, so the world just does its own thing. That is a modern version of an ancient philosophy which Jews and Christians always rejected. The trouble is that much “conservative” Christianity in America has bought into the same split-level worldview and simply emphasizes the “God” side of it. The false “either-or” of “Bible or Darwin” is thus itself a dangerous symptom of a sub-Christian culture. I explain all this in that first chapter, of course. But yes, it is a false choice. We urgently need to take a couple of steps back in order to see the issues more clearly and go forward with confidence.
RNS: There’s a chapter in your book about natural disasters and the problem of evil. I’ve heard some theologians outright declare that God “caused” an earthquake or flood or tsunami. Is this wrongheaded in your view?
“I’d like to purchase a wedding cake,” the glowing young woman says as she clutches the arm of her soon-to-be husband. “We’re getting married at the Baptist church downtown this coming spring.”
“I’m sorry, madam, but I’m not going to be able to help you,” the clerk replies without expression.
“Why not?” the bewildered bride asks.
“Because you are Christians. I am Unitarian and disapprove of your belief that everyone except those within your religion are damned to eternal hell. Your church’s teachings conflict with my religious beliefs. I’m sorry.”
Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions? Because if not, they better think long and hard about advocating for laws that allow public businesses to refuse goods and services to individuals anytime they believe the person’s behavior conflicts with their sincerely held convictions.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have allowed the state’s businesses to refuse goods or services if providing them conflicts with their religious beliefs. Though same-sex weddings are the impetus for the bill, it did not specifically mention gays and lesbians. TheArizona Republic editorial board warned Brewer, “The proposed law is so poorly crafted it could allow a Muslim taxi driver to refuse service to a woman traveling alone.”
So with a stroke of the pen, Brewer killed a bill conservative Christian activists—part of her political base—had been championing. Similar legislation also died in Kansas and is being blockedin Mississippi and Georgia. But conservative Christian activists are vowing to keep pressing such bills, claiming that these roadblocks are a temporary setback in their push to gain protection for religious believers who discriminate against customers.
Interestingly, the conservative Christians who support these bills also believe that America is becoming increasingly antagonistic toward members of their own faith. They have long decried the secularizing and pluralizing of America’s public square. They’ve argued that America is, in Robert Bork’s phrase, “slouching toward Gomorrah” and becoming post-Christian or even anti-Christian.
The evangelical world blew up this week over the question of whether Christian business owners and individuals should refuse goods and services for same-sex weddings. Many Christian theologians, pastors, and bloggers—particularly hailing from the evangelical new-Calvinist movement—have argued the answer is yes in some cases.
In a Daily Beast column I wrote with Kirsten Powers, we argued that the Bible does not prohibit such service. Sean Davis at The Federalist blasted the column as “a masterpiece of Biblical ignorance.” He points to a passage in 1 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul addressed whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols as proof that Christians should not provide service to same-sex weddings.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), made a similar argument and cited the same scripture in a response to our column. He reasserted his position that Christians should “sacrifice the business for the conscience” when there is an obvious deviation from Biblical standards. ERLC Director of Communications Joe Carter took to Twitter to accuse Kirsten and I of having “embarrassed” ourselves with the column.
So, is our argument really that far off base? I reached out a variety of leading theologians the evangelical world respects to get their take. They uniformly found the use of 1 Corinthians in this case to be a misapplication.
“USA Today” columnist Kirsten Powers kicked the conservative Christian hornet’s nest this week with her article, “Jim Crow laws for gays and lesbians?,” by arguing that religious business owners should not be able to refuse service to same-sex couples. The column questioned the legitimacy of a recent bill, which passed the Kansas House of Representatives, that would allow religious employers and individuals to discriminate against gays and lesbian customers.
Powers rankled conservatives by accusing Christian business owners—such as the bakers and florists who refuse to serve same-sex couples who are being wed—of double standards. After all, she said, they serve “unrepentant murderers through prison ministry.” In the article, evangelical mega-church pastor Andy Stanley echoed Powers’ sentiment, noting that if companies refused service to every couple entering into an unbiblical marriage, they’d go bankrupt.
Many criticisms of Powers’ piece centered on her comparison of the Kansas law with Jim Crow era discriminations of black people by white people. But there is at least one religious leader from the past who would likely agree with Powers: Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a lecture King delivered in 1961 to an ethics class at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Civil Rights pioneer addressed the issue of whether a business owner in the United States should be allowed to “choose his customers” and those he serves. He responded thusly…
Religious conservatives have long decried the collapse of the nuclear family, and it’s difficult to deny the shifts we’ve seen. The number of stay-at-home dads in America has more than doubled over the last decade and a half. Working mothers are now the primary income earners in 15% of married households with children. The most recent census figures show that, for the first time, Americans living in a nuclear family has dipped below 25%.
Contrast these trends with America in the 1950s when society accepted that a model family consisted of a breadwinning father, a submissive housewife, and a couple of respectful, biological children.
What has caused such sharp changes? According to Jonathan Fitzgerald, author of Not Your Mother’s Morals, one of the most influential forces has been television.
“Sometimes pop culture is a reflection of where we are and other times it is a shaping force,” he says. “In the case of television, we often don’t know that our morals and values are being shaped until after it happens.”
In the 1950s, television largely mirrored the prevalent concept of the American family. Popular shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” depicted the family as a heterosexual, patriarchal, churchgoing unit with chaste children. But in the 1960s, family depictions began to change. And so did America’s thinking.
Here are ten television shows that forced America to reimagine what a family could, and perhaps should, look like:
Christians need to relearn how to gag at all those gays and their yucky behavior.
This isn’t the assertion of a child; it’s a serious argument by a reputable Christian thinker.
Author and pastor Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article last week on his blog at The Gospel Coalition (TGC) titled, “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage.’” In it, he argues that Christians need to “remove the ‘yuck factor’ in the gay marriage debate and that “it would be a good thing if more people were gagging on the reality of the sexual behavior that is now becoming public law, protected, and even promoted in public schools.”
Not surprisingly, Anyabwile’s remarks provoked an immediate reaction across the twittersphere and blogosphere—not just from angry gay rights activists but from his fellow conservative Christians as well. The protests were so sharp that that he was forced to offer a response and apology.
“I regret using ‘gag reflex’ as shorthand for the conscience’s reaction….” Anyabwile said. “For writing in this way, I offer my sincerest apology to every reader, not just those hurt.”
The problems with his original post are legion, and I was among those who expressed outrage that a reputable blog community like TGC would allow it to remain on their site. Yet as my blood pressure returned to normal levels, I’ve realized that there are at least three things I learned from Anyabwile’s gay rant.