Turning the Bible on its Head -- Newsweek Goes for Gay
Posted: Monday, December 08, 2008 at
6:50 am ET
magazine, one of the most influential news magazines in
America, has decided to come out for same-sex marriage in a
big way, and to do so by means of a biblical and theological
argument. In its cover story for this week, "The
Religious Case for Gay Marriage," Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller offers a revisionist argument for
the acceptance of same-sex marriage. It is fair to say that Newsweek has gone for broke on this question.
Miller begins with a lengthy dismissal of the Bible's
relevance to the question of marriage in the first place.
"Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at
their word and define marriage as the Bible does," Miller
suggests. If so, she argues that readers will find a
confusion of polygamy, strange marital practices, and worse.
She concludes: "Would any contemporary heterosexual
married couple�who likely woke up on their wedding day
harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender
equality and romantic love�turn to the Bible as a how-to
script?" She answers, "Of course not, yet the religious
opponents of gay marriage would have it be so."
Now, wait just a minute. Miller's broadside attack on the
biblical teachings on marriage goes to the heart of what will
appear as her argument for same-sex marriage. She argues
that, in the Old Testament, "examples of what social
conservatives call 'the traditional family' are scarcely to be
found." This is true, of course, if what you mean by
'traditional family' is the picture of America in the 1950s.
The Old Testament notion of the family starts with the idea
that the family is the carrier of covenant promises, and this
family is defined, from the onset, as a transgenerational
extended family of kin and kindred.
But, at the center of this extended family stands the
institution of marriage as the most basic human model of
covenantal love and commitment. And this notion of marriage,
deeply rooted in its procreative purpose, is unambiguously
As for the New Testament, "Ozzie and Harriet are nowhere"
to be found. Miller argues that both Jesus and Paul were
unmarried (emphatically true) and that Jesus "preached a
radical kind of family, a caring community of believers, whose
bond in God superseded all blood ties." Jesus clearly did
call for a commitment to the Gospel and to discipleship that
transcended family commitments. Given the Jewish emphasis on
family loyalty and commitment, this did represent a decisive
But Miller also claims that "while the Bible and Jesus say
many important things about love and family, neither
explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one
woman." This is just patently untrue. Genesis 2:24-25 certainly reveals marriage to be, by the
Creator's intention, a union of one man and one woman. To
offer just one example from the teaching of Jesus, Matthew 19:1-8 makes absolutely no sense unless marriage
"between one man and one woman" is understood as normative.
As for Paul, he did indeed instruct the Corinthians that
the unmarried state was advantageous for the spread of the
Gospel. His concern in 1 Corinthians 7 is not to elevate
singleness as a lifestyle, but to encourage as many as are
able to give themselves totally to an unencumbered Gospel
ministry. But, in Corinth and throughout the New Testament
church, the vast majority of Christians were married. Paul
will himself assume this when he writes the "household codes"
included in other New Testament letters.
The real issue is not marriage, Miller suggests, but
opposition to homosexuality. Surprisingly, Miller argues that
this prejudice against same-sex relations is really about
opposition to sex between men. She cites the Anchor Bible
Dictionary as stating that "nowhere in the Bible do its
authors refer to sex between women." She would have done
better to look to the Bible itself, where in Romans 1:26-27 Paul writes: "For their women exchanged
natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and
the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were
consumed with passion for one another, men committing
shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due
penalty for their error."
Again, this passage makes absolutely no sense unless it
refers very straightforwardly to same-sex relations among both
men and women -- with the women mentioned first.
Miller dismisses the Levitical condemnations of
homosexuality as useless because "our modern understanding of
the world has surpassed its prescriptions." But she saves her
most creative dismissal for the Apostle Paul. Paul, she
concedes, "was tough on homosexuality." Nevertheless, she
takes encouragement from the fact that "progressive scholars"
have found a way to re-interpret the Pauline passages to refer
only to homosexual violence and promiscuity.
In this light she cites author Neil Elliott and his book, The Arrogance of Nations. Elliott, like other
"progressive scholars," suggests that the modern notion of
sexual orientation is simply missing from the biblical
worldview, and thus the biblical authors are not really
talking about what we know as homosexuality at all. "Paul is
not talking about what we call homosexuality at all," as
Miller quotes Elliott.
Of course, no honest reader of the biblical text will share
this simplistic and backward conclusion. Furthermore, to
accept this argument is to assume that the Christian church
has misunderstood the Bible from its very birth -- and that we
are now dependent upon contemporary "progressive scholars" to
tell us what Christians throughout the centuries have missed.
Tellingly, Miller herself seems to lose confidence in this
line of argument, explaining that "Paul argued more
strenuously against divorce�and at least half of the
Christians in America disregard that teaching." In other
words, when the argument is failing, change the subject and
just declare victory. "Religious objections to gay marriage
are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and
tradition," Miller simply asserts -- apparently asking her
readers to forget everything they have just read.
Miller picks her sources carefully. She cites Neil Elliott
but never balances his argument with credible arguments from
another scholar, such as Robert
Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary [See his
response to Elliott here]. Her scholarly sources are chosen so that they all
offer an uncorrected affirmation of her argument. The deck is
She then moves to the claim that sexual orientation is
"exactly the same thing" as skin color when it comes to
discrimination. As recent events have suggested, this claim
is not seen as credible by many who have suffered
discrimination on the basis of skin color.
As always, the bottom line is biblical authority. Lisa
Miller does not mince words. "Biblical literalists will
disagree," she allows, "but the Bible is a living document,
powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to
us even as we change through history." This argument means,
of course, that we get to decide which truths are and are not
binding on us as "we change through history."
"A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we
have in the past, to move beyond literalism," she asserts.
"The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it's
impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours."
All this comes together when Miller writes, "We cannot look
to the Bible as a marriage manual, but we can read it for
universal truths as we struggle toward a more just future."
At this point the authority of the Bible is reduced to
whatever "universal truths" we can distill from its (supposed)
horrifyingly backward and oppressive texts.
Even as she attempts to make her "religious case" for gay
marriage, Miller has to acknowledge that "very few Jewish or
Christian denominations do officially endorse gay marriage,
even in the states where it is legal." Her argument now
grinds to a conclusion with her hope that this will change.
But -- and this is a crucial point -- if her argument had
adequate traction, she wouldn't have to make it. It is not a
thin extreme of fundamentalist Christians who stand opposed to
same-sex marriage -- it is the vast majority of Christian
churches and denominations worldwide.
Disappointingly, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham
offers an editorial note that broadens Newsweek's
responsibility for this atrocity of an article and reveals
even more of the agenda: "No matter what one thinks about gay
rights�for, against or somewhere in between �this conservative
resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of
fundamentalism," Meacham writes. "Given the history of the
making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical
attention scholars and others have given to the stories and
injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the
Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because
it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt�it is
unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian
Well, that statement sets the issue clearly before us. He
insists that "to argue that something is so because it is in
the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt." No serious
student of the Bible can deny the challenge of responsible
biblical interpretation, but the purpose of legitimate
biblical interpretation is to determine, as faithfully as
possible, what the Bible actually teaches -- and then to
accept, teach, apply, and obey.
The national news media are collectively embarrassed by the
passage of Proposition 8 in California. Gay rights activists
are publicly calling on the mainstream media to offer support
for gay marriage, arguing that the media let them down in
November. It appears that Newsweek intends to do its
part to press for same-sex marriage. Many observers believe
that the main obstacle to this agenda is a resolute opposition
grounded in Christian conviction. Newsweek clearly
intends to reduce that opposition.
Newsweek could have offered its readers a careful
and balanced review of the crucial issues related to this
question. It chose another path -- and published this cover
story. The magazine's readers and this controversial issue