Comprehensive and Compasionate: A Review of “The Bible and Homosexual Practice” by Robert Gagnon

gagnonIt’s not easy to garner praise from your critics. After all they are your critics because they disagree with you. But sometimes a rare volume, with a rare author, can write in such a way as to win his critics appreciation, even while disagreement is maintained. Such a writer is Robert Gagnon, and such a volume is The Bible and Homosexual Practice. To be able to write a book of this caliber at all is impressive, but to do it on a subject as a controversial as same-sex love is unbelievable, but that is precisely what Gagnon has done. In The Bible and Homosexual Practice we find a compassionate and comprehensive treatment of the Scriptures teaching that same-sex intercourse is a sin.

Just shy of 500 pages Gagnon has dealt with, in detail, every potential passage of Scriptures as it relates to the theme in both the Old and New Testament. He interacts with a plethora of scholars on both sides of the debated issue, often pointing out where noted sexual liberation scholars have misread the historical data. He treats and refutes thoroughly alternate interpretations to the text of Scripture, showing why they fall short and how they misread what the text itself says. His ability  to work among the minutia of both the Hebrew and Greek language is impressive as he examines the details of each of the relevant passages. He exposes assumptions, faulty hermeneutics, and bad scholarship. And yet, he does it all without ever taking on the tone of a polemical piece.

Gagnon is brilliant and thorough, and yet he maintains a level of respect for other scholars, and a compassion for those about whom he writes that is hard to find in academia. So in the introduction to the book he notes a number of risks that he must take as a scholar to write a volume like this: risks that he will be labeled homophobic, intolerant, resistant to diversity, uncritical in his scholarship, etc. He also admits a number of personal regrets as it relates to the theme. He laments the ways in which public debates over controversial issues require you to focus on the negative, and make you sound self-righteous even when you try your best to avoid it. He regrets that debating this issue can cause real pain to those involved in the Gay and Lesbian community. In one rather moving portion of the introduction Gagnon writes:

I deplore attempts to demean the humanity of homosexuals. Whatever one thinks about the immorality of homosexual behavior, or about the obnoxiousness of elements within the homosexual lobby, homosexual impulses share with all other sinful impulses the feature of being an attack on the “I” or inner self experiencing the impulses…Thus a reasoned denunciation of homosexual behavior and all other attempts at nurturing and justifying homosexual passion is not, and should not be construed as, a denunciation of those victimized by homosexual urges, since the aim is to rescue the true self created in God’s image for a full life. (31-32)

Some will, of course, find such language nonetheless condescending, but it is written with seeming sincerity and that same level of compassion is maintained throughout the book.

On several occasions Gagnon is quick to point out that conservative Christians need to stop using certain passages as a defense of the traditional sexual expression. He observes and informs well that certain passages cited are incomplete or do not give us a balanced perspective of the subject at hand. So he notes of the famed Sodom and Gomorrah passages:

Traditionally, Gen. 19:4-11 has been regarded as the classic Bible story about homosexuality. However, to the extent that the story does not deal directly with consensual homosexual relationships, it is not an “ideal” text to guide contemporary Christian sexual ethics. (71)

It can be tempting for conservatives to treat every passage that deals with same-sex intercourse as if it were directly relatable, but Gagnon is far more balanced and careful to look at what the texts say and how they relate to the modern concept of sexuality.

It’s amazing the host of varied scholars who recognize the profound contributions made by this volume. James Barr and Brevard Childs endorse it, as does Max Stackhouse of Princeton. Conservatives won’t be surprised to see I. Howard Marshall’s or Doug Moo’s endorsements, but to see Martti Nissinen may catch some off guard. Regardless of agreement with Gagnon’s overall point and perspective scholars cannot ignore the contributions made by this single volume.

Compassion and comprehensiveness are not easy to achieve in a book of this nature, to achieve both speaks volumes of the kind of scholar who writes it. I don’t know Robert Gagnon, but his work in this volume is beyond impressive. For anyone attempting to understand this subject in full detail I must insist that you read The Bible and Homosexual Practice. It is worth your patient and diligent digging, and you will be rewarded when all is said and done with a deep grasp of the major concepts, and the details of this debate.

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