Undivided – the story of Vicky Beeching

cover-mobileA church I was once part of was very keen on Christians ‘telling their story’. People might argue about theology, we were told, but they cannot argue with your story. When you tell your story clearly and from the heart, its authenticity will ring true to even the most hardened skeptic.

‘Undivided’ is the story of Vicky Beeching. Vicky was a Christian worship leader and songwriter. Throughout the 00’s her songs were sung and she led worship in some of the largest evangelical and charismatic churches in the USA. She had known she was gay from her early teens but believed these attractions were deeply sinful and so struggled with inner turmoil for 20 years. Aged 34, and realising this struggle was crippling her physical and mental health, she came out as gay. She had never so much as kissed a woman, but coming out cost her career anyway, as record contracts and bookings were cancelled, and she was shunned and vilified both privately and publicly. In ‘Undivided’ Vicky tells her story from early teens, through her time at Oxford studying theology, her years in the Christian music industry, her agonies at coming out, her struggles with chronic illness, and her new career as an equality and inclusion activist who lives very much in the public eye.  She also tells how far from abandoning her Christian faith, she has found a faith which is stronger, more authentic, and more meaningful than ever before.

Part of Vicky’s story is realising that what the Bible ‘clearly says’ about same-sex relationships isn’t really that clear after all. Many of the so-called ‘clobber passages’ can be easily addressed but fundamental is Romans chapter 1 which appears to condemn both male and female homosexual relations. However we know that in Greco-Roman culture, same-sex behaviour was primarily seen in terms of a power-play, between men and adolescent boys (masters and servants), via prostitution, and by men who were also married to women. This is worlds away from loving, committed same-sex relationships. ‘Undivided’ is not however a theological treatise, and readers who are interested are referred to a number of other resources, for example, those from Matthew Vines (1).

When I was 21 I went to stay with a Christian friend and his family for a few days before we moved into a shared house for our final year at uni. One day as he was driving me up the M6 motorway he turned to me and said,”There’s something I want to to know about me – I’m gay”. I’d been brought up in a very conservative evangelical church setting and don’t think I’d ever met anyone openly gay before. I’d never even considered challenging the assumptions about being gay that I’d grown up with. Fortunately however I found myself replying before I’d had time to think, “This doesn’t change the way I think about you. You are still one of my closest friends. Thank you for telling me”. Things took an interesting development later that month when we moved into our student house and the third friend sharing with us disclosed that he too was gay. My two friends, both evangelical christians, had different perspectives on being gay. The first felt that he had always been gay, always would be gay, and resigned himself to a life of celibacy. The second felt that through much prayer and humble obedience he would stop being attracted to men and eventually be able to have a fulfilled hetrosexual marriage. Like many gay christians he took this path but after 2 children and 15 years his marriage could not stand the strain. His story continues on a happier path and he has been in a stable relationship with a man for over ten years.

Everyone we meet has a story. Although it is important we understand our own story, perhaps it more important to listen to the stories of others. Too long has the church projected an ideal story upon the lives of its members while those for whom it does not fit are forced to suffer in silence or be shamed and ostracised. The consequences of this can be tragic; the high profile case of Lizzie Lowe (2) is  just one of countless stories that should make all of us who call ourselves Christians deeply uncomfortable.

But Vicky’s story is also a story of hope. Hope that we can all live lives that are not torn between who we are and what others want us to be. Hope that we can all live lives that are full of grace not shame. Hope that the church will one day not be divided by prejudice but united in love.

It is high time we, the church, listened to the stories of LGBTQ+ persons,whether Christians, former Christians, or those who would never seek God in the church. Only by listening to others will we hear the voice of God, challenging our own attitudes and idols, calling us to journey further into grace and mercy. We have much to learn and little to teach to those who we have forced to carry this burden of shame, and for whom we have closed the doors to the kingdom of heaven.

So I highly recommend you read Vicky Beeching’s story, either in the book or on her website (3). And I strongly encourage all of us to take every opportunity to listen to the story of others, to really listen, humbly and attentively. We might just hear the voice of God speaking of a story more beautiful than we had ever dared were possible.

Resources

  1. Matthew Vine’s website
  2. Report in The Telegraph on Lizzie Lowe
  3. Vicky Beeching’s website
  4. Buy ‘Undivided’

Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 2 The Bible

It is my conviction that to treat the Bible as inerrant and infallible is un-Christian in that it is both dishonest, and dishonouring to the the Bible itself and to the God Christians believe inspired it.

Image of a fragment of a dead sea scroll, from the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab
From the Dead Sea Scrolls; a portion of the second discovered copy of the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls)

As an evangelical I was taught that the Bible is inerrant (contains no mistakes about anything) and infallible (absolutely trustworthy). Some evangelicals temper this with ‘as originally written’. The second statement is a matter of faith, since no original manuscripts exist. But for practical purposes it makes no difference, since it is the Bible we have which is used as the basis for faith and life.

The reason inerrancy and infallibility matter so much for evangelicals is their understanding of inspiration. Since ‘All scripture is inspired [literally ‘breathed out’] by God’ (1 Timothy 3.16), the argument goes that it must be inerrant and infallible, since God does not make mistakes and always tells the truth. Any suggestion that there are inconsistencies or mistakes in the Bible must be strongly refuted, for two reasons. Firstly it would be blasphemous to suggest God would make mistakes, and secondly, to accept an error in the Bible would be undermine and negate its entirety, and the whole of Christianity into the bargain.  

Many make the case against against Christianity based on the Bible: ‘it can be proved there are errors in the Bible therefore the whole of Christianity is false’. Ironically evangelicals adhere to the same belief, that Christianity stands or falls on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Historically both views are extremely modern. Inerrancy and infallibility simply were not an issue for Christians before the enlightenment. It was a given that the Bible was written by ancient writers and reflected their varying understanding, worldviews, particular agendas and reasons for writing.

By way of three questions let me provide examples that illustrate why this view of the Bible is dishonest.

  • In the creation accounts, in what order were animals and man were created? (see Genesis chapters 1 and 2)
  • Who incited King David to take a census of Israel – God or the Satan? (see 1 Samuel 24.1 and 1 Chronicles 21.1)
  • When did Jesus carry out the ‘cleansing of the temple’ – near the start or the end of his ministry? (see Matthew 21.12 and John 2.13)

These are just three of literally hundreds of ways the Bible shows us it is not one book with one overriding message. It was written by dozens of authors over many centuries. It reflects the particular agenda, understanding and worldview of its authors. In many places it attempts to correct or revise earlier instances of history or theology, and in other places flat contradicts itself. (The writers of Chronicles seem especially keen to ‘correct’ or ‘revise’ the accounts of Samuel and Kings.) Just consider for a minute that some words attributed to God are outright contradicted in other places, again supposedly by God.  Attempting to iron out and resolve these differences into one ‘flat’ narrative is simply not possible and insisting on this has let many people to reject the faith altogether. In my view is misses the point about what the Bible actually is.

One further example: why do we have four gospels, not one? If historical and theological consistency is the aim, then one definitive gospel would be far preferable. However the church fathers rejected early attempts to consolidate the gospels into one definitive account, regarding retaining the differing accounts as preferable.

Let us be honest about what the Bible is and what it is not. Let’s be honest about what ‘inspiration’ actually means. To do so is not ‘liberal’ or a sign of weak faith. To be really honest about the Bible honours it for what it is: a collection of different genres of writing, written over many hundreds of years for many different reasons. I would go further: the Biblical writers obviously thought it was legitimate to challenge, re-interpret and re-purpose earlier writings and to be faithful to the Bible one must be free to engage in this today.

If you are interesting in exploring this subject further a good place to start is Peter Enns’ blog and podcasts at https://peteenns.com/blog/ and https://peteenns.com/podcast/.

Disarming Scripture

img_0133-1“Christians have long sought to reconcile the loving God they encounter in the New Testament with the violent and angry depictions of God found in the pages of the Old Testament. On the one hand, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44). On the other hand, we read in the Law of Moses the divine command for God’s people to ‘show them no mercy’ (Deut. 7:2) and ‘kill everything that breathes’ (Deut. 20:16).”

So begins Disarming Scripture by Derek Flood, subtitled ‘Cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we need to read the Bible like Jesus did’.

I have counted myself a Christian since the age of eight, when an encounter with the love of God changed me forever. The question of how to reconcile a God who unconditionally loves all people with the scriptural accounts of God sanctioning or commanding actions which were undoubtedly brutal, cruel and barbaric has obviously occurred to me a few times. This is a particular issue for evangelicals if we care to admit it. As Flood puts it, ‘If the Bible is God’s word (inerrant and infallible), how can it present such starkly contrasting visions of who God is, and what faithfulness to God entails? What effect does this have on our ability to trust and love God? How does it affect how we see and treat others when such violent passages are meditated upon and internalised as Holy Scripture?’

Several solutions have been offered to me over the years, and perhaps offered to others by me. ‘The sin of these people was so bad that God needed to cleanse the land of it completely.’ ‘This was the most loving thing for God to do; letting the people live would have resulted in an even worse situation.’ ‘God is God, and whatever he does is good, therefore these violent actions are also good.’ ’Jesus only shows us part of the picture of what God is like; we must also factor in these violent passages to get a full revelation of God’s holy character.’ Evangelicals are taught (conditioned?) to humbly accept what they are told by their leaders, and for the most part I believe this is good and have tried to do so. However when subjected to close examination, some of these statement are downright unscriptural (e.g. compare the last statement with Hebrews 1:3), and all extremely worrying.

As an aside it is worth noting that the problem is magnified by the doctrines of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. These concepts are not part of the historic dogma of the church but rose to prominence in the 19th century as an understandable but in my view misguided reaction to enlightenment thinking and scientific discoveries which challenged the authority of scripture. The Orthodox Church have far less issues with the violent passages of the OT (or the Revelation of St John) as they believe that the revelation of the Gospels ‘trumps’ all other scripture.

In Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood argues convincingly that we cannot endorse the violent portrayals of God in scripture, nor simply ignore them. Just as it is unacceptable to use scripture to justify bloodshed in God’s name, it is equally untenable to pretend these passages are irrelevant and simply whitewash over them. The so called liberal and fundamentalist approaches do not do justice to the sacred text. Flood’s solution is that we must learn to read the Bible in the same way Jesus did. He presents many examples of the way Jesus challenged in his teaching and life the traditional interpretation of scripture and subverted its meaning completely. To give just one instance, when Elijah calls down fire from heaven to consume his enemies, the OT presents this as evidence that he was acting as a ‘man of God’ (2 Kings 1:10). But when James and John want to do the same (Luke 9:54) Jesus rejects this spirit as belonging to the devil. Flood also devotes a chapter to the Apostle Paul’s conversion from violence and how this is manifested in his message. For example 1 Cor. 15 uses verses from the prophet Hosea to proclaim a defeated death and an end to the victory of sin through the resurrection of Jesus. But the original verses describe a killing spree where compassion is hidden from God’s eyes and even unborn children and killed along with their mothers.

In these and many other examples we see Jesus and Paul taking OT scriptures and interpreting them in a way which is redemptive and transformative, resulting in disarmament of the texts. Rather than focussing on the ‘correct’ way to interpret the text, taking all the data into account, harmonising everything and making everything balance out, both Jesus and Paul employed a faithful questioning of scripture, interpreting it in the context of the redeeming and transforming love of God. We would have to say that neither Jesus nor Paul regarded all scripture as faithfully representing the character and will of God. In so doing they show us the way to approach scripture which neither defends nor ignores the violent passages but redeems them.

There are several other chapters in this book which deal with reading the Bible in the framework of its trajectory towards the revelation of Jesus, the role of the state in ‘bearing the sword’, what it means to love your enemies, and un-doing judgement. In the final chapter Flood concludes by rejecting the moral bankruptcy inherent in unquestioning obedience and its contemporary expression in authoritarian Biblicism, and argues for the better way of reading the Bible like Jesus did: faithful questioning motivated by compassion.

Derek Flood is a writer, artist and theologian. He holds a master’s degree in systematic theology from the Graduate Theological union, and is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post and Sojourners Magazine. Derek blogs at The Rebel God http://www.therebelgod.com/. To hear an interview with Derek try the Nomad podcast at http://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/nomad-81-derek-flood-how-to-read-the-bible-like-jesus/ (to jump over the presenters’ banter start at 9 minutes and 30 seconds). Disarming Scripture is published by Metanoia Books.

Inspiration and Incarnation

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament 

pete-ennsFor most evangelical Christians it is a given that the Bible (by this is meant the canon of scriptures recognised by the early church fathers, minus the books dismissed as ‘apocryphal’) is infallible and without error. The reasoning goes something like: scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16) and God does not lie; therefore we can treat the Bible as if God himself spoke every word, and every verse is perfectly true. Some allowance is made for simile, hyperbole and interpretation, but within strict limits. If someone’s opinion or a scientific discovery are found to be conflict with the Bible, well they must be wrong.

The problem with this stance is obvious. If one single verse of the Bible can be proved to be false, then the whole belief will collapse under its own weight, taking with it our confidence in the scriptures and our faith in God. In my view this stance is fundamentally disrespectful to the scriptures and to Christ. It treats the Bible as so fragile that a smallest question will undermine its authenticity and also leads to a faith centred on the Bible instead of on God.

In this book Enns aims to demonstrate that is it possible to hold firmly to an evangelical position that the Bible is ultimately from God and is God’s gift to the church, but at the same time acknowledge that the Bible bears the weaknesses and flaws of its human authors and the cultures in which they lived. Moreover this is the way that God meant it to be. Just as God incarnated himself as a man who took on sin, suffering and disgrace, so the Bible itself is an incarnation in which God can be found revealing himself through the lives and writings of people who had some very bad ideas and practises. This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures.

In around 170 pages Enns considers a few aspects of the issue:

  • Similarities between the Old Testament and (earlier) near eastern literature, covering creation and flood stories, history and civil and religious law. If the Bible is directly from God, then why do these parts draw so heavily on earlier non-Jewish literature?
  • Theological diversity in the scriptures themselves; parallel proverbs, histories and even versions of the Ten Commandments that differ and in some cases contradict each other. If all these scriptures are infallible and inerrant, then why the differences. Granted some are fairly minor differences, but some are opposites (God requires complex ritualised animal sacrifices; God never required sacrifices…).
  • The treatment of old testament scriptures by new testament writers. Paul for example often takes OT passages and totally subverts their meaning. Jesus himself regularly does the same, reflecting the way that contemporary Jewish theologians treated the OT scriptures.

That these issues are problems at all are a symptom of the way that evangelicals use the scriptures. As Jonathan Sachs has recently observed, ‘fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts. They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that it’s meaning is not self-evident’ (Not in God’s Name, p218).

Enns finishes by tentatively suggesting approaches to understanding scripture that incorporate both its inspirational (God-breathed) and incarnational (born out of human persons and culture) nature. We must remember that that it is impossible to divorce the Bible from the cultures from which it emerged, and also impossible to divorce our interpretation of the Bible from our own culture. In considering diversity in the scriptures, we can trust the Bible not because we can ‘argue away’ its diversity but because we believe, by the gift of faith, in the one who gave scripture to us. We trust God, not our conceptions of how the Bible ought to be.

This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures. It is Enns’ conviction that, ‘The primary purpose of scripture is for the church to eat and drink its contents in order to better understand who God is, what he has done, and what it means to be his people, redeemed in the crucified and risen Son.’ The Bible is not a fortress that we defend, it is a path that we walk. Conversations about interpreting scripture in a changing world are therefore essential and must be full of humility, love and patience.

I recommend this book to all who love the Bible but are troubled by the way it is still used to justify beliefs and practices that would otherwise be self-evidently wrong, for example, young-earth creationism, discrimination, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and even genocide (although of course all that’s in the past!). You are not faced with a binary choice: accept that good is evil, and evil is good; or reject the Bible outright. There is a third way, viewing the scriptures like we might view men and women, flawed but nevertheless bearing the image of God, revealing the nature and purpose of God, and bearing witness to Jesus. Isn’t this like The ‘Word of God’, who not only took on human nature but also took on all the flaws and sins of mankind on the cross, the greatest revelation of God?

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University (St. Davids, Pennsylvania). You can read more of his work at http://www.peteenns.com/. Inspiration and Incarnation is published by Baker Academic.