EDITOR'S NOTE: The following post moved earlier in the day, at which point a reader noted something that I should have noticed right off (but didn't in the small type or the URL) about this piece on the USA Today website. This story is from 2008.
Now, here is one of the mysteries of the Internet. Why do some stories from the past suddenly go viral all over again, leading readers to send us the URLs without noting the time element? 'Tis a puzzlement. Click here for a fine Ed Stetzer online essay on this phenomenon -- including this blast from the 2008 past -- at Christianity Today.
So why confess this cyber-sin and then run this post anyway? Well, because (a) the journalistic content of this post is still, alas, somewhat relevant and (b) because I assume this piece went viral all over again -- which was a mistake, of course -- because lots of people thought this was relevant after the 5-4 Obergefell decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. Is that true? Stay tuned.
Every reporter knows that there are stories that your editor wants you to write in 450 words or so that simply cannot be handled accurately and fairly in that length.
That could be what is going on with a very strange Religion News Service piece that ran in USA Today, under the headline, "Gay man sues publishers over Bible verses."
Now, the subject of this story is rather strange, on several levels, if you stop and think about it at all. Here is the top of the short report:
CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- A gay man is suing two heavyweight Christian publishers, claiming their versions of the Bible that refer to homosexuality as a sin violate his constitutional rights and have caused him emotional pain and mental instability.
Bradley LaShawn Fowler of Canton, Mich., is seeking $60 million from Zondervan, based in Cascade Township, and $10 million from Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Publishing.
Fowler filed the suit in federal court against Zondervan on July 7, the same day U.S. District Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr. refused to appoint an attorney to represent him in his case against Thomas Nelson. Fowler filed a suit against Thomas Nelson in June. He is representing himself in both claims.
"The Court has some very genuine concerns about the nature and efficacy of these claims," the judge wrote.
Now, the key to this story is that Fowler appears to be arguing that these particular editions of the Bible, published by these evangelical-market companies, refer to homosexuality "as a sin" and thus have made him an "outcast from his family and contributed to physical discomfort and periods of 'demoralization, chaos and bewilderment.' "
Let me stress that the goal, in this post, is not to critique Fowler's claim, but to ask if this RNS story, as published in USA Today, has given readers enough information to understand his claim and then to understand the views of those who argue against it. Why isn't this simply a First Amendment slam dunk?
So, question No. 1: Is Fowler saying that these editions of the Bible refer to homosexuality "as a sin" while other editions or translations do not?
Question No. 2: Do these Bibles, in his opinion, somehow uniquely say that homosexual orientation "is a sin" as opposed to homosexual acts being considered sinful?
The next chunk of the story is crucial:
The intent of the publisher was to design a religious, sacred document to reflect an individual opinion or a group's conclusion to cause "me or anyone who is a homosexual to endure verbal abuse, discrimination, episodes of hate, and physical violence ... including murder," Fowler wrote.
Fowler's suit claims Zondervan's text revisions from a 1980s version of the Bible included, and then deleted, a reference to homosexuality in 1 Corinthians without informing the public of the changes.
And that is pretty much the end of the story.
Question No. 3: What verses are we talking about here? How can readers understand this story without knowing the specific wordings that Fowler claims were inserted into these Bibles and then removed?
It's safe to say that we are talking about 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, which in the New International Version favored by evangelicals states:
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a]10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Meanwhile, the New King James translation used by Thomas Nelson states:
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals,[a] nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
Contrast that with the classic King James text:
9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
Finally, here is the same passage in the New Revised Standard Version that is the Bible of choice in most modern, progressive Protestant pews:
9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers -- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
Once again, my point is not to argue about Fowler's lawsuit or to argue about the theological content of these verses. So please (and you know who you are), do not click comment to argue about all of that.
My point is to say that readers have ZERO chance of understanding Fowler's argument without knowing the differences between the wordings of these verses in the Bibles published by Zondervan and Thomas Nelson and those in other editions of the New Testament published by other companies -- publishing companies that he is NOT SUING.
Yes, the story also needs commentary from a First Amendment lawyer or two, as well as scholars -- maybe on the left and right -- who can contrast the wordings in these various editions. That seems rather crucial, don't you think, since that is at the very heart of this man's lawsuits?