While working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew "Ring of Fire." Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, "It goes something like that, right?" "No," said Cash shaking his head. "It doesn't go like that at all." I’m often reminded of that (perhaps apocryphal) story whenever I read mainstream media reports of conversations going on within evangelicalism. While the reporter may get bits and pieces right, the overall effect is that I finish the story thinking, "It doesn't go like that at all."
Take, for example, a feature yesterday by the AP, “Gay, evangelical and seeking acceptance in church.”
Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians, and the pressure isn't coming from the gay rights movement or watershed court rulings: Once silent for fear of being shunned, more gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out about how they've struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.
Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups - a development that even younger alumni say they couldn't have imagined in their own school years
From the article, we can discern that four claims are being made (three from the opening lede, and one later in the feature):
1. Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups.
2. Gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out now, more so than in the past, about how they've struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.
3. Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals.
4. Gay evangelicals have already prompted a backlash
The claim about students and alumni from Christian colleges forming gay and lesbian support groups is clearly supported by evidence, though the term “support group” is unhelpfully vague. This is a relatively underreported trend and could have been the focus of an entire article itself. Hopefully, the AP will provide additional coverage on that topic.
The second claim relies on a vague comparison to an undefined past. Still, it too is a relatively innocuous claim. The issue of homosexuality has become more openly discussed over the past ten years, so it would probably be fair to say that you could fill in the blank of “more gay and lesbian ______________ are speaking out” and have it be true for almost any group – including evangelicals.
The third and fourth points, which constitute the main theme of the article, raise the question of exactly how evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals and what sort of backlash is occurring:
The goals of these activists and writers vary. Some argue monogamous same-sex marriages are consistent with traditional Bible views and hope to remain in conservative churches. Others agree with traditional teaching on marriage and have committed to staying celibate for life, but are speaking out because they feel demonized within their communities.
Presumably, these are the two ways in which evangelicals are being “challenged to change their views on of gays and lesbians” so let’s consider how the article supports this contention.
From what I can tell, not a single source in the article is arguing that “monogamous same-sex marriages are consistent with traditional Bible views and hope to remain in conservative churches.” Perhaps that is the view of Jeff Chu and Paul Southwick, though they do not say so in the article. In fact, though the AP identifies them as evangelicals, it is unclear whether they self-identify as such. For instance, the AP says,
Gay evangelicals have published memoirs that prod traditional Christians to re-examine how they think about gays and lesbians. Among the most recent is Jeff Chu's "Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America."
By identifying someone as a “gay evangelical” you might assume the person was (a) gay, and (b) evangelical. But while Chu self-identifies as gay, there isn’t any evidence he is evangelical. In fact, he attends the liberal Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, a church in a mainline denomination (Reformed Church of America). Why not identify him as being a Christian from a mainline denomination? Could it be because that would not fit with the “gay evangelical” narrative? [UPDATE: In the comments section, Mr. Chu adds, "I was surprised to find myself described in this story as an evangelical. Though my roots may be evangelical—I grew up attending Southern Baptist and PCA churches—I don't think I'd claim that label today, at least not as it is conventionally understood in this country. Also, anyone familiar with my book would say that it isn't really a memoir. But the reporter never contacted me to confirm any of these things."]
Similarly, Paul Southwick is described as a “gay evangelical attorney in Oregon.” But is that a label Southwick claims for himself? Does the fact that he attended George Fox University make him an evangelical-for-life?
What about claims that others who agree with traditional teaching on marriage and have committed to staying celibate for life are “speaking out because they feel demonized within their communities”? “Demonized” is a strong term – and one with significant religious connotations. So how does the AP support the contention?
There are three sources who self-identify – though that too is not made clear in the article -- as both gay and evangelical: Wesley Hill, Alan Chambers, and Justin Lee. None of them even hint that they were “demonized.” They merely disagree with the view, once dominant in evangelical circles, that sexual orientation can be changed from gay to straight.
That just leaves us with the “backlash.” The term implies a strong or violent reaction, which is exactly the opposite of what the article presents. Consider, for example, their main source for the “backlash.”
The AP says that in an article for Charisma magazine, evangelist Larry Tomczak “said being gay is a choice - and one that dishonors God.” But like Johnny Cash would say, “It doesn't go like that at all." Not only was that not what Tomczak said, he was not even expressing an original opinion but quoting from New York pastor and author Tim Keller. To put Tomczak’s claim in context, let’s look at the entire quote. Here is Tomczak summarization of a talk Keller gave at Oxford University:
1. As Christians we’re called to love not disdain our neighbor—atheist, gay or antagonist. 2. If you call yourself gay and Christians disagree with you, that doesn’t mean you’re being judged unfairly. 3. The Bible clearly teaches that homosexuality is not God’s way or design for His creation. 4. Don’t let your sexuality destroy your objectivity (to come to grips with biblical truth). 5. Admittedly, some church people have attraction to the same sex but do not allow themselves to be governed by those feelings (temptations). Their identity in Christ is central, not their sexual identity. This shift is what frees them to both change and live changed. 6. God designed us for human intimacy—companionship, touch and sexual expression—in the right place and right time, but people can choose to fulfill normal desires in unrighteous ways. Key: it is a choice!
When Tomczak says, “it is a choice,” he is not referring to choosing one’s sexual orientation but rather to choosing to engage in homosexual behavior. That’s a significant distinction, at least within evangelical circles.
Unfortunately, to this sloppy reporting, the AP adds sloppy editorializing:
After the U.S. Supreme Court last week gave federal recognition to gay marriages, several evangelicals responded not only by renewing their commitment to traditional marriage, but also by urging like-minded Christians to be more sensitive in the way they express their beliefs. For those outside conservative Christianity, this may not seem significant, but it's a notable change for Christians who believe their faith requires them to challenge same-sex relationships
How is this a “notable change?” Did evangelical leaders previously urge like-minded Christians to be less sensitive in the way they express their beliefs?
While I don’t think AP’s religion writer was motivated by bias or malice, it doesn’t change the fact that the article is confusing, misleading, and unfocused.
It’s a shame the article is such a mess because there are a number of fascinating discussions going on with evangelicalism about the issue of homosexuality. The topic is ripe for coverage, but requires someone who is actually listening to the full conversation rather than just catching bits and pieces and croaking out a tune that evangelicals don’t recognize.