“Turn the Other Cheek?”: The Bible Project Blog

“Turn the Other Cheek?”

I attended my first Gay Pride parade in 1996. I was 21, living in San Diego, attending college, and recently out. San Diego Pride is an experience, in part because the weather is usually gorgeous (you know, one of those rare San Diego days with sunshine), throngs of people (over a 100,000 lining the streets of the parade, attending the festival in Balboa Park), and a celebratory air: we’re here, we’re queer, we want to drink outdoors and cheer the Dykes on Bikes, who kick off the parade. I was a member of the UCSD LGBT student association and was looking forward to seeing my new friends march (I wouldn’t join them until the next year). My then-roommates, a group of slightly older guys, two of whom I knew from the restaurant where I worked, were showing me the ropes. As we neared the beginning of the parade, we crossed paths with the religious protesters—as in the protesters of religious affiliation (usually Christian) who use their bull horns and signs to let us all know we are going to hell.

“Ignore them, they’re here every year,” one of my roommates suggested. I felt sorry for the cops who had to protect them.

They seemed odd to me for several reasons. I couldn’t wrap my brain around people so committed to disrupting a joyous event that had zero impact on them. I also had no sense of where they were coming from—nor, to be honest, did I feel the need to. Their signs adorned with Bible chapters and verse reminded me of the signs I saw foisted in the stands of Dodger Stadium’s outfield during playoffs. Furthermore, my limited understanding (and exposure to) Christianity suggested the religion was about love, be a good person, etc., not be a jerk screaming hate in front of children. But perhaps most significant, I’d never read the Bible.

The Bible was not much of a conversation piece in my household. I wasn’t raised with a religious background. Outside of my Jewish friends, I couldn’t even think of people we knew who were particularly religious either. Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley was a cool place to grow up. (For all I know, it still is, though I haven’t lived there in over 20 years.) Outside of school and weekly chores, I played with Star Wars figures, watched movies, read comics and various books (from the Mr. and Mrs. Series, to Encyclopedia Brown to Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Detectives), rode my dirt bike to 7-11 to drink Slurpees and play Donkey Kong and Joust, listened to music and collected pins which I littered my baseball hat with, and tried to think of new and creative ways to convince dad that The Pizza Cookery would be a great place to have dinner—they had the most awesome garlic rolls you’ll ever eat.

Our weekends were reserved for Little League, not church.

I recall attending Church once (outside of a wedding or funeral) with my parents. My grandmother, who never spoke of attending church regularly in front of me, had a soft spot for Christmas Eve mass, and, like a good son, my father indulged her, which meant we were along for the ride.

During the incredibly long and boring service—in part because I lacked the context for anything discussed or performed—I felt overwhelmed, in part because the massive Church seemed so cold. Had I a watch, I would have been counting the minutes to we could return home and open our traditional Christmas Eve present—I was hoping for a Star Wars Speeder Bike. Near the end—which I could figure out, watching everyone rise—I grew excited for the first time that night, but when I noticed everyone filing towards the front, kneeling, and eating and drinking whatever the priest was handing out, I wanted no part. My mother made clear that I would walk to the front and I would like it. She did not even want to mention what would happen if I spit out the wine, which hadn’t occurred to me until she said something.

I doubt I would have been super jazzed about the services for any reason, but I was less inclined to be engaged given my parent’s general attitude towards organized religion—of which my father was most vocal.

He didn’t see the point in following something that allowed you to do whatever you wanted then attend Church on Sunday and all is forgiven. Instead of life lessons learned from the Bible, my upbringing was steeped in being open-minded, good to other people, tell the truth (which I was sometimes good at), maintain and guard your credit with your life, and never be afraid of an honest day’s work. Our home was also saturated in sarcasm, healthy skepticism, and a number of off-color jokes.

Sexuality wasn’t avoided, but it never came up, outside of Dad’s conversation with me when I was 13, wherein he mentioned that, when the time came to be intimate with women, I should also communicate, ask what they like, where they’d like my hands, etc.

My dad probably never gave much thought to this advice coming in just as handy with men.

Not long after that conversation, as I entered high school, my family’s life changed drastically. My parents divorced, and my father moved to Orange County while my older brother and I stayed with my mother. Eventually, my father met and married my step-mother. Their union changed his life in several dramatic ways. The most immediately noticeable change: she helped him discover Christianity.

Around this time, my sexuality emerged, though I did little about it. Sure, I had a crush on a friend of mine, but I didn’t see us dating, so I didn’t “feel” gay. Since sexuality wasn’t either encouraged or discouraged in my house, I didn’t have any issues either way. But as I moved through high school and became a little more aware of what was going on in my head and my heart, Dad also became more vocal about his thoughts about gay people: Bible says it’s wrong.

I couldn’t really argue this point, having never read the Bible, but having seen a Bible before, this didn’t look like a fun, interesting read. Plus, the more I heard about it, the more inclined I was to avoid it. And as far as my father was concerned, he seemed happier than I’d ever known him to be, and since religion was part of that picture, I left well enough alone.

Then when I was 21, I came out.

Coming out imbued me with a confidence I wasn’t aware I lacked. For the first time, I felt a part of something, and attending my first Pride parade instilled this. Sure, I was partying, doing what you do in your early 20s, but what coming out also did was make me more sensitive to politics in ways I never cared to be: now I read the paper and followed the news. What are people saying about Gays? What laws are restricting my freedom? Sadly, most of this concern gave way to having fun, as I settled into going out, dating, hooking up, and seeking the latest “gay” film in order to support my community.

And as my 20s wore on, I grew more and more comfortable in my own skin, which meant I folded the parts of my “straight” life back into my life, which meant I could check out a Metallica concert I had avoided in favor of the club; playing softball with my (straight) co-workers on the weekends, and doing happy hour with friends who didn’t care whether we were in Hillcrest or Pacific Beach. Basically, I allowed my life to be about me, which meant every aspect didn’t have to be somehow tied to my sexuality.

In the background of this evolution was my relationship with my father.

My father had never hid his disapproval of gay people, avoided comments about his opposition to gay marriage, or the disdain he experienced driving by Orange County Pride festivities one year. That said, he’s never expressed disapproval of me, and has even welcomed men I’ve dated into his home. Still, whether real or imagined, I also felt a wedge between us, one I did nothing to address, in part because I knew that discussing it would have two results: first, I’d just be angry, and since I didn’t see my father more than a handful of times a year, it didn’t feel worth spoiling the time we did spend together. Second, the content of that wedge had everything to do with the Bible, and since I had never read it, I wasn’t exactly in a position to debate it.

So for years, I left well enough alone. Into my 30s, however, I wondered if I was really respecting our relationship by ignoring this aspect of it. And so for many reasons I recently attempted to confront that pink elephant the only honest way I knew how: in 2013, I read the Bible.

I was dreading this task. I knew it would consume an awful lot of my time and likely offered little in the way of enjoyment. But, like most gay people, given how often it is used to justify homophobia in general or anti-gay thinking specifically, I couldn’t avoid the Bible even if I wanted to, at least not, in good conscience, any longer. Plus, I’m a college professor and a writer, so it’s one of those books I should have read. At the very least, I hoped, by project’s end, I would be in a better position to dialogue with my father about his beliefs—and, by extension, others who believe similar things

I also aimed for something else from the experience: I blogged about the experience as a gay author reading the Bible for the first time.

Having finished this daunting task, I compiled my content into a book and then created a book proposal for prospective agents. Soon, I received a rejection letter from an agent who had expressed interest in the project and had asked to see a sample (30 pages). After complimenting the writing style and voice, the letter explained why the agency was passing on the book: “Much of what is said in this excerpt has no relevance to the author’s homosexuality.”

At first I was taken aback by this comment. Upon reflection—reviewing my approach to the project, where I used a personal anecdote to put whichever part of a given chapter into some personal context—I realized how spot-on this comment happened to be.

And then I got mad.

My brewing anger had nothing to do with the useful feedback from the agency; rather, it put this project in a whole new context for me—I hadn’t written about my homosexuality for every chapter (or, as I process all I wrote in my 400+ pages, even that often) because, although I am a proud gay adult, there’s more to me as a person than my sexuality. I’ll be forty one in August. I’ve been with my partner for four and a half years. I’m a university professor. I’m a published author. I own real estate. I like to travel. I am a devout Pearl Jam fan. I’m a proud Star Wars geek. I have a cat, a dog. I play short stop on my recreation (gay) league softball. I like reading, watching movies, going to concerts. In college, I played bass guitar in a band (fulfilling a dream of mine). I have great friends, only half of whom are gay, as well as a supportive family.

I have a great, fulfilling life that I don’t think of as gay or straight.

Yet, my anger over the agent’s comment highlighted an issue I likely understood but had not engaged with directly: the way a lot of people mis-use the Bible forces me to think about my sexuality as if that’s all that matters, for that lone aspect of my identity impacts every other part of my life, in part because decisions made about my life (in the form of laws) are based on the Bible’s supposed anti-homosexual stance.

Having read the Bible, I can now say that it contains little discussion of homosexuality. Sure, as those Gay Pride protester posters announce, Leviticus condemns it directly—but these individuals overlook that Jesus, when he conducted his ministry, told people to scrap the Old Testament. The people who then use Jesus as an authority ignore the fact that he never addresses homosexuality, only sexual immorality, which can just as easily speak to rape, incest, and infidelity (all of which get far more attention in the Bible than homosexuality). Sure, Romans comes out against Gays; a close reader might enjoy what else Paul has to say in this Bible book, such as that vegetarians have weak faith and, repeatedly, that people should not judge others. Paul’s points are also, as I have discussed, are often taken out of context, which changes what he is actually referring to.

In the end, I’m better off having read the Bible, and it’s a shame that people who have not might be discouraged from doing so based on the way this ancient—and at times engaging—text is so often misused to support bigotry.

As a Philadelphia resident, I still attend the annual pride festivities and I still experience the joy of having to listen to the same message of those unfortunate protesters who seem to have missed the point of the Bible, for if they’d truly studied all of it, they wouldn’t be on those corners telling other people how to live. But what’s unique about my experience over the past few years is that I’ve walked closer and closer to those lofted signs, and through this project, I have hoisted my own form of a sign with this blog project, sharing what I have learned. A person’s sexuality does not—and should not—define who they are. As the Bible says, it should be about a person’s character.

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Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality: Positive Homosexual Depictions in the Bible

Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality: Positive Homosexual Depictions in the Bible

helminiakWhen I read the Bible, I was prepared for all the anti-gay content. Given how often I heard about such content, I almost believed that that was nearly all the Bible discussed. (Turns out only six places even mention homosexuality.) However, I was not prepared to encounter the positive examples of homosexual relationships. Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality addresses the two most prominent examples.

The clearest example is found in 1 Samuel, namely in the love demonstrated between Jonathan and David. As mentioned in this Bible book, Jonathan loved David “as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1-4). Given how affectionate these two are with one another, it’s impossible to see this relationship as anything but romantic and not mere friendship. Furthermore, the sadness David expresses at Jonathan’s passing cements this read on these two: he sees Jonathan’s David_and_Jonathanlove for him as “passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26)—basically, he could love him in ways a woman never could.

By why is there no explicit acknowledgment or denouncement of this relationship? As Helminiak points out male-male sex was common in this era, so its presence was not particularly notable because the audience of the time would have recognized it without needing help (126). They also would have had no problem with it because it was accepted.

Also interesting, contrary to the way his name is often used to support disdain for progress with gay rights—in particular marriage equality—Jesus had no problem with homosexuality. He not only said nothing about us, his actions speak even louder. Both Matthew and Luke contain nearly identical telling of a particular event that demonstrates Jesus’ indifference to a homosexual relationship.

In these two similar accounts, Jesus heals a centurion’s male slave. But some people have argued that the wording might suggests the boy might actually be the man’s son. By examining in detail the words used to describe the slave, Helminiak is able to deduce that the boy is not the son of the centurion and he is a young slave. This distinction is also important, for given the wealthy standing of the centurion, Helminiak makes clear that the centurion clearly expressed romantic feelings towards the boy—otherwise, he would not have been so concerned with his well-being. Maybe he was just concerned about his property—the salve? Well, as Helminiak points out, older man often kept young slave boys for sexual purposes; therefore, his concern suggests that he was in love with him; otherwise, given his wealth, he could have afforded to go buy another slave (128-9). Rather than judge the centurion for this set-up, Jesus commends his faith and “returned the young man to the centurion in good health” (129).

Given how opinionated Jesus is often shown to be, he would have commented on the relationship had he deemed it “wrong.” If he didn’t have a problem with it, why should we? Of course, modern readers will find the age difference troubling; however, as Helminiak makes clear, people were “lucky” to reach 40; therefore, people matured faster, so, emotionally, the difference between a man and a “boy” would not be as pronounced as we would understand them to be today. Therefore, this is not a depiction of child abuse as we would understand it. Other abuse—given the slavery—perhaps, but, during that era, this practice was so accepted it was not even commented on—Even Paul counsels slaves to be obedient several times over. Jesus observes genuine feeling passing between the centurion and his slave as a positive example of one male caring for another. Thus, an acknowledgment of a positive homosexual relationship—why else would the authors have kept the account in these two Gospels?

Based on all he discusses in his book, Helminiak asserts that we need to pay closer attention to what the Bible says, especially in regard to homosexuality, if we are to use it to pass judgment on others. As he points out time and again, the Bible often does not state what so many people claim it does about homosexuality. That said, he feels that this does not mean that members of the gay community can lead their lives in any way they deem fit; rather, like straight people, members of our community can use the Bible as a moral guide—our sexuality should not matter (132).

At the end of the day, if the Bible does not really claim to denounce homosexuality, why should we?

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Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality Curbing Abusive Homosexual Sex Specifically, not Homosexuality in General

Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality Curbing Abusive Homosexual Sex Specifically, not Homosexuality in General

Our society has many laws that govern sex. In general, sex is legal. You can’t have it in public though. If force is used to initiate sex—rape—that is illegal. If there is the potential for an abusive power dynamic between an adult and a minor—statutory rape—that is illegal. These laws (among many) are designed to protect people not to discourage sex in general.

helminiakRead the way the author intended, both 1 Corinthian and 1 Timothy contain attitudes about homosexual sex; however, these target abusive male-male sex, not homosexual sex in general. Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality makes this case for the content in these two Bible books. His argument hinges on the wide variety of translations of two important Greek words: malakoi and arsenokoitai. Both words point to something evil, but the rub is that there is not enough context to appreciate what exactly they refer to.

Depending on which current Bible translation you read—Helminiak mentions 1977 and 1989 versions—these words range in meaning from “homosexual” to “sodomites” to “sexual perverts” (arsenokoitai) as well as “effeminate” to “sissies” to “boy prostitutes” (malakoi) (106). A 1985 translation, however, translates malakoi to mean the “self-indulgent.” To show just how wide-ranging these the interpretations of these two words has been, Helminiak points that until the Reformation, malakoi was understood to mean “masturbators.”

He takes this point a step further by stating that a recent Catholic New American Bible translates arsenokoitai to “practicing homosexual” (106). The problem with this particular change in meaning reflects a concept that did not exist when the Bible was written: no such sexual orientation existed. Furthermore, it also folds in women, when the original content speaks directly to men (106-7).

As Helminiak points out, Bible translations appear to reflect changing prejudices, not the author’s intent (106).

To support these points, Helminaiak examines other places these two words surface in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. Malakoi refers to “effeminacy” and to being “loose.” With this use, Helminiak understandably sees the earlier use referring to a particular way of engaging in homosexual sex—those acting effeminate (like women) and being on the receiving end. Therefore, what is being discouraged is not homosexual sex in general but rather acting a particular way that appears to act against male “masculine” nature, a behavior typically exhibited by prostitutes during this era (108).

By why is there so much debate about what these two words mean? As far as arsenokoitai, the issue lies in how obscure the word is—1 Corinthians is the earliest example of its use and it appears in only 6 other works (not including 1 Timothy). True, it always appears in a list of vices, but Helminiak argues that the way the two parts of the word function suggest that it refers to male prostitutes (111). Helminiak also suggests that this typical vice list did not belong to Paul; rather, when writing these letters, he borrowed this list in order to encourage people to be better individuals, using common vices with which they would be familiar.

Think of a foreigner coming to the US and referring to the first ten Constitutional amendments in order to explain where our priorities lie.

Understanding a bit about first century Roman society is also crucial: sex was everywhere and men often sought out other men and boys for sex. This was embraced, for the older man often mentored the younger boy. It was viewed as a positive relationship. However, men also kept and abused boys for sex, even kidnapping boys and girls and selling them into sexual slavery (113). Given this situation, Paul’s points speak to discouraging this practice, not homosexual activity in general.

This historical context demonstrates that we can’t inject our own meaning into words when we translate the Bible, choosing to massage words so they fit ideas we have; we need to better understand exactly what the author intended. To do that we need to take into consideration the culture in which particular words—like malakoi and arsenokoitai—were used. The Bible encourages love and understanding and condemns abuse; this is what the supposed gay content in these two Bible books addresses.

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