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?
No matter which side of the issue we find ourselves on, these are some good guidelines I think:
1) Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.
2) Know the person before you attack the position. Forming relationships may not change your theology, but it will definitely shape your tone. It is possible to hold the position of Jesus without the posture of Jesus.
3) Stay calm. These issues are incredibly emotional. Progressives feel that these are matters of justice requiring rigorous advocacy. Conservatives feel that the Bible’s integrity and the viability of the historic faith is at risk. This creates an emotionally super-charged debate that is too visceral to be beneficial. So work hard to remain calm.
4) Don’t require from others what you refuse to offer yourself. The position of many on these matters is, “I’m totally convinced I’m 100% right about this. But you need to hold your views loosely and consider what I have to say.” That’s a conversational non-starter if I’ve ever seen one. No wonder we have a bunch of progressives and conservatives in isolated echo-chambers who talk past each other.
5) Keep it salty. This conversation has become “salty” in one sense. The right calls the left “heretics” who “don’t believe the Bible.” The left calls the right “oppressive” and “hateful bigots.” We need to keep our language salty, but in the Colossians 4:6 sense: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt …”
The battle over gay marriage is being fought in nearly every corner of American society — from public schools to the highest courts, and from television sitcoms to neighborhood barbecues.
Religious Americans — particularly evangelical Christians — have often been at the center of these debates, attempting to hold the line on traditional understandings of marriage. But as support for same-sex marriage grows (a clear majority of Americans now favor same-sex marriage), many Christians are starting to shift. Indeed, the majority of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, and Latino Catholics now back same-sex marriage rights. Strong majorities of white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants continue to oppose gay marriage, but there are both geographical and generational cracks in the foundation.
Many of the largest Christian publishers are coming out with books supporting same-sex relationships. More are on the way. These books have spurred praise from pro-gay Christians and strong resistance from the movement’s right flank. All of this indicates that Christian publishing may be the next battleground in America’s explosive debates about gay marriage.
Pastor Danny Cortez of New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, California created a media frenzy when he announced that he no longer believes homosexual behavior is sinful. The decision came on the heels of Cortez’s son’s announcement that he was gay. The church decided not to remove Cortez from leadership even though it is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a denomination that condemns homosexual behavior.
Sources within the SBC say they do not expect the denomination to respond to, reprimand, or remove New Heart from fellowship during their annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland this week.
Fermin Whittaker, Executive Director of the California Southern Baptist Convention, told me that media outlets haven’t accurately reported all the facts on the matter. New Heart is a Pilipino church, not a Spanish one. They are not actively involved in the SBC and, according to Whittaker, have only given $80 per month to the denomination’s Cooperative Program. But more significantly, he does not consider it a traditional congregation.
“This is a mission church, we think,” Whittaker said. “It is not an organized congregation, and the parent church had no knowledge of the changes happening there.”
He says that Baptist polity does not allow him or the California arm of the SBC he leads to revoke a congregation’s membership. Unless the denomination acts at their national gathering this week, New Heart will remain a participating Southern Baptist congregation until at least next Summer.
As pastor of Church of the Resurrection, Adam Hamilton has the honor of leading the largest United Methodist congregation in the United States. More than 8,600 attend services each week, and the Kansas congregation is considered by many to be America’s most influential mainline Protestant church. But with the release of his provocative new book, “Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today,” Hamilton is becoming known as someone who is challenging traditional understandings the Bible.
Here we discuss the message of his book and how he navigates the most difficult and debated passages.
RNS: You believe the Bible is divinely “inspired.” Can you explain what you mean exactly?
AH: The biblical authors were people like us. Christians do not hold, as Muslims do, that our holy book was dictated by God. The biblical authors wrote in particular times, for particular audiences, out of a particular context. Part of rightly interpreting Scripture is reading it in the light of what we can know about its historical and cultural context, the author’s purposes in writing and knowing something about the people they were writing to.
In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God…” Christians often assume they know what this means, but Paul seems to have created the word “inspired.” It does not appear in the Greek language before this and is used nowhere else in the Bible. It literally means “God-breathed” but Paul doesn’t go on to explain precisely what he means. It is a metaphor, and metaphors are not precise. Push them too far and they break down.
When I think of inspired, I think of God-influenced. This leaves open a variety of ways in which the biblical authors were influenced by God.
RNS: A lot of critics reject the Bible because of the violence in the Old Testament. What say you?
A lot of hot air is devoted to American evangelicals’ work on domestic issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But what is an ‘evangelical foreign policy?’ Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Wheaton College and author of “Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy,” is determined to answer that question. Here, we discuss the characteristics and shortcomings of evangelicals’ foreign policy.
RNS: When one thinks about American evangelicals and politics, their minds may rush to domestic issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But what are the common characteristics of an evangelical foreign policy?
MA: Evangelicals’ foreign policy concerns have been motivated by core moral values rooted in a Christian worldview. Such values include the inherent dignity of all human beings, the priority of social and political justice, the need for communal order, the demand for human freedom, the responsibility to care for the weak and the poor, the importance of personal responsibility, and the universality and transnational nature of God’s love.
Not surprisingly, evangelicals have been at the forefront of global humanitarianism through such initiatives as caring for refugees, promoting job creation through micro-enterprise loans, providing health care to the poor, and combating diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Evangelicals have established some of the largest non-governmental relief and development organizations in the world and have played an important role in helping to pass legislation to combat human trafficking, facilitate a comprehensive peace in Sudan, highlight human rights abuses in North Korea, and even helped to bring about the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
RNS: Many think of evangelicalism as a 20th century movement, but you say evangelicals were active in foreign affairs since, at least, the 19th century. How so?
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
These are the words of Madeleine L’Engle, and this week I’ve been reminded of the wisdom they contain.
This weekend, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from my new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined, in which I share a story about childhood sexual abuse and my adult struggle to understand my sexuality. Many have asked why I would do such a thing.
This wasn’t a career move or a brazen attempt to sell more books. Being open about these experiences as an evangelical writer leaves me, like so many scarecrows, exposed. I do not plan to become a spokesman for any of the issues addressed in this article. The events shared are a part of my story, but they are not the whole of my calling. Today, I return to my job as a columnist committed to exploring the interface between faith and culture and helping foster difficult conversations that others may be unwilling to have.
I shared my sexuality story chiefly because, as L’Engle says, vulnerability is one of the essential ingredients to being alive. And, I would add, to being human. When we share our stories, we share ourselves. This act creates a portal to community, to be being known, to being loved. When we refuse to share our stories and ourselves, we stiff-arm those around us and keep others from being conduits of grace in our lives.
Owning one’s story can be costly, but it is not nearly as expensive as spending one’s life running from it.
This process of moving toward openness started with my family and friends. As I’ve excavated unshared parts of myself, I’ve begun sharing them with those I care about. This has been a beautiful and painful process. Through lament and grief and honesty, I’ve tugged at the purse strings of relationship, drawing myself closer to those around me. After nearly two years of offering these gifts to my inner circle, I wanted to share many of those with a broader audience.
“Not long ago, Harvard Divinity School stood for something,” First Things editor R.R. Reno once wrote.
The implication is that this infamous divinity school no longer stands for anything. Except perhaps theological liberalism in its most potent form. Many Harvard Divinity professors see the Bible as deeply flawed relic, perhaps worthy of academic analysis but lacking even a drop of spiritually transformative power. They will tell you that Paul was probably gay and Jesus was likely married and that the latter was no more divine than the former.
Is it possible to find a personal, living God in a place like this? Andrea Raynor did. At least in the 1980s and 90s. Andrea arrived to study religion, lived in the dean’s home where she worked as a maid, and left an ordained minister. Here, we discusses her often surprising experiences at HDS and Andrea’s new book, “Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School.”
RNS: The stereotype of Harvard Divinity School (HDS) is a post-Christian, religiously antagonistic bastion of liberalism where only a Unitarian would be comfortable. Is this a complete stereotype or mostly right?
AR: My first response to this question was that Harvard Divinity School was not antagonistic in any way—religiously, socially, or politically. I think so fondly about my experience there (which was, admittedly, a number of years ago now), that only the best memories remain. But after checking in with my best friend Katherine, who lived it with me, I was reminded that there were moments of conflict, and even what one might accurately call antagonism. Sharp minds can fling sharp words. The challenge was to take these difficult moments and to learn from them. This wasn’t always easy. Even so, I found HDS to be a place where any person of any faith could feel comfortable, if they were willing to engage in genuine dialogue.
Because of its emphasis on scholarship, one might accurately say that the community was more theologically liberal than conservative, but I wouldn’t describe it as post-Christian. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t describe it as Christian at all, which is not a criticism in any way. Harvard Divinity School is not a seminary, whose primary mission is to turn out ministers; rather, it is a nonsectarian institution intent on educating students in the study of religion and to prepare them for leadership in religious, governmental, and service organizations. There were Christians at HDS, certainly, just as there were Jews, Buddhists, and atheists. I did not go to Harvard because I wanted to be a minister—in fact, just the opposite. I went to study and to learn, and to find a pathway to service. That I emerged an ordained minister surprised even me.
“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.