Haircuts, Public Homilies, News Magazines, and Gay Marriage: A Look at the Case from Newsweek Post # 1- The Starting Point

Every Christmas and Easter, it seems, there is another shot across the bow of evangelical Christianity (often labeled with the old term fundamentalism or at least described in those terms for holding conservative or traditional views). This holiday season’s challenge comes from Newsweek with a full focus on the issue of gay marriage. The salvo comes in two blasts, one from its well-known editor, Jon Meacham, and another from its religion writer, Lisa Miller. I have been interviewed by Lisa and know her to be a competent reporter on religion. One way to respond to this effort is to simply react at how liberal and “agenda driven” the American media is. But that is too easy a response and skips over the debate that needs to take place. (In fact, Meacham, in a moment that hardly reflects prophetic gifts, expects this predictable reaction, almost baiting conservatives to it. He says, “The reaction to this cover is not difficult to predict. Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their "agenda," a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation. Let the letters and e-mails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion. (As it has been with reform in America from the Founding forward.)” As Newsweek sees it, the debate is about being inclusive and engaging in evolving [read deeper, more enlightened] understanding versus an appeal to what the Bible or world religion as a whole have taught for centuries about the nature of humanity. Our approach is different. We will not label, as others on both sides are wont to do, and as this piece from Newsweek’s editor does. We will engage, hopefully, with substance.

When he speaks theologically editor Meacham avers, “Briefly put, the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin color. The analogy with race is apt, for Christians in particular long cited scriptural authority to justify and perpetuate slavery with the same certitude that some now use to point to certain passages in the Bible to condemn homosexuality and to deny the sacrament of marriage to homosexuals. This argument from Scripture is difficult to take seriously—though many, many people do—since the passages in question are part and parcel of texts that, with equal ferocity, forbid particular haircuts. The Devil, as Shakespeare once noted, can cite Scripture for his purpose, and the texts have been ready sources for those seeking to promote anti-Semitism and limit the human rights of women, among other things that few people in the first decade of the 21st century would think reasonable.”

Here Meacham attempts to do several things. By lumping the issue of slavery, sexuality and gender into parallels with race and gender, not to mention hair cuts, he suggests that just reading the Bible at the surface is not good enough. This linkage is not new and evangelicals have noted the hermeneutical questions tied to it for some time. In 2001, William Webb wrote Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals with an eye directly on this supposed equation (and overgeneralization). He argued that these three issues are not handled nor are they to be read as being hermeneutically equivalent because of the manner each issue is handled within Scripture. Yes, some have handled them the same, but a careful reading shows that the grounding for slavery did not appeal to the same types of arguments as discussions did on the role of women and homosexuality. Even more, by far the strongest arguments and statements are made about homosexuality in comparison to the topics of either slavery or women. Webb’s book has caught much flak in some evangelical circles because of his more open position on the role of women, but one should not miss the point of the overall book, to highlight how the discussions of these three areas differ in how they are handled within the Bible with by far the strongest statements appearing on the issue of rejecting homosexuality. What this means is that a major periodical’s cavalier dismissal of real conversation about the issue reflects an unfortunate turn in dealing with such an important cultural issue. As one email responder put it, an article has really become an op-ed piece. Our compliant is not that Newsweek has a view or takes a stand, that is what the public square is all about. Our compliant is that in doing so, they significantly misrepresented the nature of the actual discussion coming from a perspective they reject. So my next few posts will go in this direction and engage some of the key claims in these pieces. So we begin with claim 1: What of Meacham’s claim of a Judeo-Christian starting point for gay marriage?

Point 1. Meachem claims that “Briefly put, the Judeo-Christian religious case for supporting gay marriage begins with the recognition that sexual orientation is not a choice—a matter of behavior—but is as intrinsic to a person’s makeup as skin color.” I am not sure if Meacham’s starting point reflects a Judeo-Christian religious case beginning point or a modern starting point. Where is the case that from a Judeo-Christian perspective sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person’s makeup? Where is the religious text that says this? Why is it that these two great Western religions have historically challenged gay orientation as unnatural, even in its key texts and largely throughout its theological tradition. One may challenge this, as Newsweek does, but do so honestly, noting that the position is not one defended instinctively by the religious traditions appealed to in order to make the case. The fact is that the appeal Meacham makes in his introduction to the issue is not a religious argument; it is a claim about the nature of a person with an assumption that God made the person this way and is open to a creation operating in this manner.

This assumption is precisely what the religious traditions, both in terms of sacred text and theological reflection, have explicitly challenged through the centuries. Paul’s appeal in Romans 1 is that the exchange at a gender level is an affront to the design of God where humanity is seen as both male and female (an idea rooted in Genesis 1). It is a challenge to marriage which is about a relationship shared between genders in part in order to raise a family. What homosexuality does is to deny this differentiation in human relationships by privileging one gender to the exclusion of the other in the intimacy of oneness that marriage is supposed (designed) to reflect. The enculturation of children also fits into this issue in terms of the impact on young people who are raised with only one gender at play. Now I know the reply will come that too many heterosexual marriages today lack love or that too many children live in broken homes where only one gender participates. The point is true, but two wrongs in terms of human development and behavior does not make a right in this particular case. Our world is filled with inconsistencies in life that are still not healthy for us. It is important also that in complaining about areas like gay marriage that other human failures (perhaps even more common and taken for granted ones) also be recognized. We fail and sin in many ways, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is clear that all of us fail. That does not remove the goal we should have as humans to do better. The desire to pursue a virtuous society, which I think is a goal all good people should have, should not play favorites in dealing with questions where virtue may be distorted or lacking. And that is precisely the debate that needs to take place in our treatment of this issue. We should be concerned not merely with what makes for freedom, but what societal structures make for a more healthy society, and for a beneficial environment for our children.

Is the starting point for this discussion one that simply says that sexual orientation is a given for all who welcome this route for sexual orientation, or is this discussion far more complex, with this appeal being too facile. Why not suggest another starting point? That the divinely created world is filled with the intended diversity of male and female, which in combination makes up humanity in the image of God. So this cooperation is part of what God intended by marriage, since the core marriage text of Scripture does speak of a man and a woman being brought together. Surely if God exists and speaks (something that is a given within the Judeo-Christian tradition), he could have made it more clear that gender does not matter when it comes to marriage—and there is no such text anywhere. Now those not tied to a religious tradition are free to make other claims and make their case for the lifestyle they envision. This is certainly a part of what it means to live in a nation that is pluralistic in its structure, but let us not pretend to be appealing to Judeo-Christian values where we question at its core not only that tradition’s sacred texts and teaching, as the Newsweek piece does, but even its core description of the nature of humanity in God’s image and marriage as a reflection of the sacredness of that divine work.

This post is but an introduction. Future posts will consider additional claims and arguments. For now, the key point is this. The starting point for our discussion, at least from within a Judea-Christian perspective, which is what the Newsweek piece raised as a starting point is in how God made the world and what he has said about it in texts the tradition is said to embrace. In making this point, we do not escape the need to read these texts with care and attention, as our future interaction with the Newsweek material hopes to do and something the Newsweek piece rightfully asks of those who oppose gay marriage. However the way forward is not simply to jump in affirming a starting point that has little in common with the tradition it claims to reflect.  


  • Grant

    Newsweek’s Starting Point
    Dr. Bock,
    What do you think is the reason why Meacham made the claims he did about the Judeo-Christian’s starting point on this issue? Could it be intentional deception, an uninformed opinion, or honest disagreement?

    • bock

      Startign Point dlb


      One thing I never do is imput motive. I am not a prophet, and do not pretend to be, so I do not know and will not speculate. I also think it is disrepectful to claim you can read someone else’s mind. I have had people imput motive to me and they have been very wrong. So I do not do it ot others. I do think Meacham disagrees with a more traditional stand for the reasons he is suggesting. This is why his rationale needs to be engaged.


      • William Ross

        “Why” questions
        My children know that if they ask me a why question, I will tell them that “I don’t answer why questions.” Why? Because, I can’t speak for someone else about their motives. You are spot on in this response.

        I understand prohibitions about “judging” others to be very much linked with the presumption that you know their motives are evil, even if their actions are not intrinsically evil.

        For example, if someone wears lipstick and you say that they are presenting evidence that they are evil, even if the action itself is not evil, then you are “judging” based on “appearance.” And this goes on and on.

        The motives of the person who wrote the Newsweek article are not known. It is horrific blunder to presume that one knows their motives.

        Now, we can use clues to avoid company that might be harmful, but someone who “judges by appearance” goes much further, and passes an “authoritative” decision about them.

        As time goes on, I find that “the liberal media” is really a bunch of people doing a pretty darn good job of calling it as they see it, often at great peril to their own lives, and often taking a stand against someone or something that is very popular with the masses, and the religious.

  • John Correia

    Thanks, Dr. Bock!
    Dr. Bock,

    Thank you for the post. I especially appreciate the way in which you engage the issues without resorting to ad hominem attacks. I believe that discussing the issues is far easier when we respect the person raising the issues. I also agree with you that the Newsweek piece does a horrendous job of representing evangelical Christianity.

    Merry Christmas!
    John Correia

  • pf

    Darrell, you say: “marriage
    Darrell, you say: “marriage … is about a relationship shared between genders in part in order to raise a family. ” First of all, the Bible doesn’t exactly say that, it is your interpretation.

    More importantly, you don’t address the ideas involved. Marriage in the Bible has little to do with how conservative christians define marriage today. Talk about raising a family — OK, so if a woman doesn’t produce children, is it OK in America for a man to have sex with his servant to produce an heir? That’s Biblical. Should sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle result in excommunication? That’s Biblical. If a married man dies childless, should his wife be forced to marry his sister in America? That’s Biblical, new testament era.

    Let’s be honest — in the Bible woman have no legal rights and basically are property. It is inconsistent with any rational modern society. You have to twist yourself into knots to try and avoid ackowledging this.

    • bock

      you say….dlb


      The list of things you complain about in Scripture reflects a very undifferentiated reading of the text that ignores what happens to the topic of marriage and gender between its introduction in Genesis and where we are by the time of the NT. The complaint also ignores the fact I said there is more coming that will interact with many other of the issues at hand. After all, the post was entitled part 1. I had only a limited goal in this first post. It was to suggest that the starting point Meacham raised as a Jude-Christian starting point was flawed, because it ignored the key reasons many people in the Judeo-Christian tradition respond to this issues as they do. But let’s look at your specifics (that is part of engaging).

      The creation of Adam and Eve in the garden pictures the creation of marriage and a couple to help "be fruitful and multiple." This points to a family element in the role of marriage. The leaving and cleaving and becoming one flesh is for this purpose.  So your claim that the Bible has nothing to do with family and child raising ignores this context for the introduction of marriage and the remark in Genesis 2. This is a text Jesus cites as the ground of marriage when he is asked about divorce.

      You are right to note that men in the OT often had other wives and used slaves to be child bearers when their wives were barren. One of the important features of that narrative is that those actions did not turn out well, showing they were a problem.  It is one thing to note when the Bible describes THAT something happened; another thing to say it endorses what took place.

      The menstral cycle stipulation is part of the law of Torah, which many Christians take on basis of the progress of revelation within the Bible and in relationship to what Christ did with the Law to no longer apply as it did in the Hebrew community of the past. The same applies to levirate marriage (a brother marrying a widow), which by the way was designed in part to make sure a widow was cared for and remained as family, not simply cast aside to fend on her own.

      Finally, one of the things the Bible did with women was to give them more rights than they had in the cultures many of these texts describe. So there are female prophets, women are the first to witness the resurrection and report it, Jesus is explicit about teaching women, and they are gifted with the same access to God that does not make them mere "property". When it comes to issues tied to divorce, Jesus and the early church gave women the same rights and protections men had. What was true for the man was true for the woman in this process. When you say the Bible teaches that women are mere property, you are failing to note texts in it that say otherwise or to pay attention to the time frames between these texts. For example, Heb 13:4 speaks of the sanctity of the marriage and its realtionship, with adlutery and sexual immorality to be avoided. It is important to recognize that the Bible describes ancient cultures in the way they operated without endorsing everything that went on in them.

      So here are my answers and there is no twisting or knots that I see, just a reading of the entire Scripture with an eye on what it describes versus what it commands and with an eye on when it does so.


  • pf

    Thanks, but no thanks

    Thanks for the reasoned response, but sorry, I’m not buying (Incidentally, I grew up in a church where Dallas Theological was the ultimate source of truth).

    The idea that the Bible describes behavior of the patriarchs but doesn’t condone it is weak, weak, weak. It only makes sense if you completely ignore the intent of the authors and abandon all rational thought. This is what they did, it was OK to them and God because they lived, as I said, in a time when women were property. It just wouldn’t have occured to anyone at that time to think otherwise. And it is interesting for people who say the Bible should be taken literally to then pick and choose which of the behaviors of its heros are acceptable.

    The leverite marriage is not a dispensationalist issue, Jesus was asked about it as it would occur in “heaven” and didn’t condemn it, he took the proposition seriously. Besides, the whole dispensationalist thing itself is not Biblical, it is a modern attempt to try and reconcile the huge gaps between the theology in the Hebrew bible and new testament that only make senses if one takes one’s logical hat off.

    And to say that the Bible gave women more rights than other cultures is more than weak, it is a non-answer. Why didn’t God set people straight back then? He spoke directly to people in those days, why didn’t he tell Moses that women had equal rights under the law? By that logic, fundamentalsists should be happy with abortion laws in the US because they are better than those in Sweden.

    There is only one way to look at this and make any sense of it. People who wrote the bible weren’t inspired, they were just primitive people reflecting primitive beliefs. Truth is, you don’t believe the Bible literally, nobody does. If they did, they would (rightly) be considered insane today. Trying to live our lives based on the odd prejudices of people who thought the earth was flat is simply ridiculous.

    • bock

      No Thanks dlb


      Nobody is selling anything, just explaining in the context of a caricature.

      Anyone who reads narrative knows that it has characterization and that characters do good and bad things. Ask yourself this question: If what Abraham did in taking a slave as a child bearer was good, then why not have that child be Abraham’s heir of promise? The fact is on a normal reading the wife is seen as being the bearer of the genuine line. That is making a point. Now on one point you are right here. Abraham reacted normally in terms of cultural expectations, but part of what Abraham is being taught by God is NOT to react that way. So this is just a good literary reading of the text (Nothing irrational here)

      My response on levirate marriage had nothing to do with dispensationalism. It had to do with the two testaments and the relationship of how law functioned for Israel versus what the church is and is to be. For example, Reformed or Methodist believers would read this the same way. As for Jesus taking the proposition seriiously, he had to take the whole illustration seriously since people lived this way and since the question was a serious one about denying resurrection. His reply undercut the entire scenario, but the concern was to address the denialof resurrection.

      As for God just setting people straight, Jesus tried to and look what he got. It seems clear that whether one holds to a religious faith or to just to philosophical virtue, one can call for a walk of faithfulness and righteousness and many people are not interested. I will note you ignored the kind of standard Jesus did put forward for women.

      As for telling me what I think about how I really use the Bible, thanks. Your the one who used the "literally" description, not me. So you try to put words in my mouth here (the caricature I noted above). I think we are speaking about reading a text contextually, with an appreciation for what the Bible does and does not do literarily. It is easy to attack a position someone does not hold as if they do and insist that is their only option in a kind of all or nothing contrast while appealing to their complete lack of sanity. 



  • pf

    Abraham’s son with his slave wasn’t his chosen heir, but that is a far cry from saying the act was condemned. Why did he do it? It was the custom of the people, and nowhere is that custom condemned. Think if someone did that today, would that person be considered a good man ever again? No way.

    It’s amazing how one can’t understand the simple words of the Bible without fancy hermaneutics. Jesus didn’t set people straight. Nowhere did he tell anyone he was a member of a Trinity. He said straightforward things, like “god will forgive those who forgive others,” and “the meek will inherit the earth.” Christians don’t believe any of that.

    • bock

      Abraham dlb


      Three points. First, you still have not incorporated one of the two points made.  Selective use of someone’s argument is a nice tactic but is not a substantive engagement of the question. And one of the points of my "fancy" hermeneutic (and argument) is to read the Scripture as a whole and what happens over time in it. The fact that Abraham’s child is not honored is a sign something less than what was desired was done. Nothing fancy about that reading; it is a point of the account. When Abraham tried to help God solve the problem of his barren wife, he went in a direction God did not have in mind.

      Second, Jesus also pointed to Genesis 2, namely that marriage is between a man and a woman in dealing with the divorce question. That was where these posts started, on the Judeo-Christian point of departure in this conversation. That is the starting point for this discussion as well on what the Jewish-Christian perspective is on gay marriage.

      Third, selective quoting of Jesus also does not get things done. He also told the woman caught in adultery, "Go and sin no more." He did set people straight, often using the prophets to do so (Just take a look at Matthew 23). He even called them to repent (Mark 1:14-15). He did note we should be forgiving, as you say. No problem there, forgiveness is central to the faith. He also taught that when a brother goes astray, he should be brought back into the fold (see Matthew 18:10-17). It is not as if Jesus did not care about morality. I agree that often times Christians do not conduct themslves in ways that reflects the meekness Jesus called for from disciples, but meekness does not mean not caring about sin nor fialing to seek to live in a righteous manner while encouraging others to do so. As for the Trinity (not sure how we got here other than scatter-shooting), Jesus did say he would share the throne of God (Mark 14:62) send the Spirit from God (Luke 24:49), and for believers to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit (Matt 28:18-20), so that gets us all the way down that road except for the explicit use of the word Trinity.

      Now nothing I have said here involves fancy hermeneutics. Just reading the text in its fullness.


    • bock

      Passages Vs Principles dlb


      I will add it to the mix of the future posts if relevant. For now, I note it is your piece that is being referred to here  (thus, why you like it!). I also observe that I have already dealt with the issue raised in general by appealing to William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. It works through the very issues of a parallelism with slavery you raise.

      I prefer an approach that does not pitch passages and principles as if they stand in opposition to each other. There is a consistency to how homosexuality is handled across the Bible that is at work here—and there is no explicit counter principle at work within that revelation as we see in the case with circumcision and the fresh issues Jesus raised. There also is another key distinction in that parallel. The issue was whether Gentiles who had never been asked to be circumcised would be required to be circumcised now. So the debate was not whether Jewish believers would be circumcised, but whether Gentiles would now be required to meet this as a new demand. That was the issue of your parallel in its historical setting. To realize this means that the "parallel" is not as parallel as it might look at the start. It does nto fit the "change" you see the passage makes. What we have is a question whether what was asked for Jews was now to include Gentiles, not a nullification of a previously established practice. Thus the principle you get from the example to move in the direction you do is less than clear. That is an initial take on your piece. May come back to it, if anything fresh is raised or changes.


  • James McGrath

    Passages and Principles
    Thanks for replying. I do think that the circumcision issue is more relevant than you make it out to be. Isn’t Genesis as clear as it could ever be on circumcision being a permanent requirement for inclusion in the covenant? I think the long history of Gentile Christianity without this requirement can easily blind us to just what a radical departure this was for the early church, a departure not merely from earlier tradition or custom but from Scripture.

    Of course, you will probably disagree, and disagreeing on matters like these is also something for which there is a long precedent in Christian history! 🙂

    • bock

      Passages and..dlb


      This is a departure from a past perspective, but the claim is that the Spirit came on Gentiles without them being circumcised–and where does the OT say Gentiles needed to be circumcised? What we have is a fresh situation in which the logic might suggest circimcision but it is not a clear precedent for the people in question (Are they Abraham’s seed in the sense that Gensis worked so hard to establish [ie biologically]?) nor is the passage a direct point of contact (unlike the counter situation we are seeking to resolve). This is what renders the analogy you raised as more problematic. I am quite aware of what a "turn" this was. I often tell my class there is a logic to the position not adopted at the Council. So, yes, we disagree, but as in all good discussions, appreciate the point at issue clearly.


  • Michael Ejercito

    I wonder why Lisa Miller did not include Islam in her arguments.

    There are over a billion Muslims in the world. Do they not deserve the chance to read how the Holy Quran supports same-sex “marriage”?

  • Dan

    Award for Miller
    Lisa Miller’s story on gay marriage received a third-place honor from the prestigious National Headliner Awards for coverage of a major news event by a magazine. Here is the list of winners.

    For whatever it’s worth.

    • bock

      Miller award dlb


      Thanks for the note. This is no great surprise. There are many in the news field are very in favor of what the article represented.