State of the Block 2008

As a very inconvenient snowstorm descends on our little town’s attempts at First Night outdoor revelry, I am inspired to look back on the highlights of 2008 here at Reiter’s Block.

Books of the Year

Ariana Reines, The Cow
The Cow is like putting Western Literature through a sausage-making machine. The Cow is about being a girl and also a person. Is it possible? “Alimenting the world perpetuates it. Duh. Plus ‘the world’ is itself a food.” The integrated self equals sanity and civilization (whose machinery creates the slaughterhouse), yet the body is constantly disintegrating, eating and being eaten, being penetrated and giving birth. With manic humor and desperate honesty, Reines finds hope by facing the extremes of embodiment without judgment or disgust. Winner of the 2006 Alberta Prize from FENCE Books.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Precocious, decadent classics students at an isolated New England college kill someone during their attempt to recreate a Dionysian rite, then go mad covering it up. What I love about this book is that it works on so many levels. It’s a great thriller, but also a novel of ideas, and a modern-day Greek tragedy about hubris and tempting the gods. The protagonists experience the ultimate punishment of getting exactly what they asked for. Having chosen to live in their own superior, imaginary world (a campy mixture of the Roaring Twenties and ancient Greece), they are judged by that world’s merciless, fatalistic standards. Occasional intrusions of 1980s America into their reverie are sometimes comical, sometimes heartbreaking, a reminder that there is a real world where their games have consequences.

Byron Brown, Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within
An unparalleled practical guide to living in grace. Learn to be present with your true self and allow your spiritual growth to be directed by love, not fear. This book is written from an Eastern meditation perspective but is wholly compatible with a Christian worldview.

Magazines of the Year

The Open Face Sandwich
Brilliantly deranged literary journal of innovative prose and found texts. Highlights from the first issue include a short memoir by Ariana Reines, excerpts from the unpublished novels of Hortense Caruthers (an author so reclusive that she may not exist), and lovely photos of Atlanta roadkill.

Chroma: A Queer Literary and Arts Journal
This British literary journal publishes and promotes edgy, lyrical, and challenging prose, poetry and artwork by lesbian, gay, bi and trans writers and artists. They also offer an international queer writing competition.

Queer fiction, art, poetry and more. Editorial board includes Charles Flowers and Dorothy Allison.

10 Magazine
Gorgeous British fashion mag with an attitude.

Monthly French magazine about artistic and commercial photography. Go track down their October issue celebrating Patrick Demarchelier. Delicious!

Personal Milestones

Best decision:
Dyeing my hair red.

Proudest accomplishment: Being sane.

Second proudest accomplishment: Publishing several chapters of my novel-in-progress.

Biggest indulgence: Thrift-shop clothes and Barbie dolls.

Verses to Live By:
“Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4)
“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2)

Good times:

Northampton Pride 2008:

Confirmation into the Episcopal Church:

10th wedding anniversary:

What Children Hear in Church

Sara Pritchard’s first novel, Crackpots, won the prestigious Bakeless Prize from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2002. I’ve put the book on my wish list after savoring this hilarious excerpt, “The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi’s Dead Mother”, on her website. This is the story of a child who is doomed to become a writer, who relishes words with a physical delight, even (or especially) when she’s a little unclear on what they mean. My favorite part:

“I believe in the holey ghost, the holey Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, Hey men!” you say to yourself, bouncing a ball, walking Go-Jeff on a make-believe leash, jumping rope, hopping on one foot, skipping to school, whumping your slinky down the stairs. “The life everlasting, Hey men! The life everlasting, Hey Men! The holey Christian church. The holey Christian church. The holey-moley, roley-poley, holey Christian church.”

Now it’s Thanksgiving vespers, and after your favorite poem, the Apostles’ Creed, everyone is singing one of your favorite hymns, “Bringing in the Cheese,” their voices happy and cheerful, their faces kind in the yellow light. Mrs. Kline, at the pipe organ, is trying to keep up, her crow wings flapping, her feet going one direction, her hands the other.

Bringing in the cheese, bringing in the cheese,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the cheese.

You stand next to Albertine in the children’s choir and sing as loud as you can, sort of shouting. You sing with your top lip curled under and your top teeth sticking out like a mouse because this is a hymn written by church mice, and you are pretending to be one of them as you sing. Gus and Jock—from Cinderella—probably had a part in composing this wonderful hymn. They probably know it by heart. They are probably singing it right now at the top of their lungs in one of the dark, echoing alcoves of Riverview Lutheran Church, maybe over to your right there behind the baptismal pot, standing on a big hunk of Swiss cheese.

The hymn is over. The congregation claps shut their hymnals, but everyone remains standing as Mason, an acolyte, puts out the altar candles with the big candlesnuffer on a pole. Reverend Creech raises his arms like he, too, is about to fly. “Let us pray,” he says, and then the beautiful words wash over you, the words you will always remember all the long days of your life and whisper to yourself when you’re afraid, when you’re alone, when all the sadness of being human gathers itself around you:

May the piece of God, which passeth all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.

For many, many years you ponder just exactly which piece of God Reverend Creech might be referring to, but for now, you forget about all that because the choir is filing out and everyone is singing your very most favorite song in the whole world, the one your mother plays for you on the piano at bedtime, and your father has taught you and Albertine to sing in two-part harmony:

Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening steal across the sky.

Now the darkness gathers, stars begin to peep,
Birds and beasts and flowers soon will be asleep.

Thru the long night watches may thine angels spread
Their white wings above me watching ’round my bed

Grant to little children visions bright of Thee
Guard the sailors tossing on the deep blue sea.

Comfort every sufferer watching late in pain
Those who plan some evil, from their sin restrain

Jesus, give the weary calm and sweet repose
With thy tenderest blessing may my eyelids close.

* * * * *

1958—With very little coaxing and carrying, and only minor scratches, a big orange cat follows you and Albertine home from school. A big orange cat with silky fur and a big round pumpkin head. An orange cat who walks around the house rubbing her head on the legs of everything, including you. She walks in and out your legs, in and out, and her tail goes up your dress and makes you giggle.

“Our cat must have a very beautiful name,” Albertine announces. “Princess!” she exclaims. “Here, Princess! Here pretty Princess Kitty!”

“Kyrie Eleison!” you call, after the beautiful and mysterious words of the kyrie sung in church. “Here, Kyrie,” you call, crawling across the carpet toward your cat. “Here Kyrie! Kyrie Eleison!”

“Daisy,” Albertine says resolutely. “DAISY BUTTERCUP.”

“Here Dona, Here Dona,” you persist, “Here Dona Nobis Pacem!” and Albertine rolls her eyes so far back into her head they disappear completely. Only the whites—like Orphan Annie’s—show.

“Panis Angelicus?” you pout and beg, “Adeste Fideles? Agnus Dei?”

For many hours that night, you lie awake, wandering through the enchanted forest of all the words you know, bumping into trunks and branches, tripping over roots and stumps, searching for the perfect name for your beautiful orange cat: mimosa, marmalade, gladiola, peony, poppycock, forsythia, taffeta, pinochle, piano forte, aspen, pumpkinseed, Leviticus Numbers, lickety-split, fiddlesticks, Worcestershire, nincompoop, whippoorwill, whippersnapper, Fridgedaire, DeSoto, squirrel, pollywollydoodle all the day . . . and on and on. And then . . . lying on its back, humming “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” kicking its feet and doing the back stroke around your brain, you find it: the perfect name for your cat. So you can go to sleep now. But come morning, you wake up in a panic because the perfect name you’ve now forgotten! You should have written it down! Your heart is racing: mimosa, gladiola, peony, forsythia, taffeta, squirrel . . . Oh, praise the Lord, there it is! You run downstairs, but . . .

Your cat is gone.

“He wanted out,” Mason mumbles, dripping a big, sloppy servingspoonful of Wheaties up to his mouth and never looking up from the cereal box he’s reading.

Visit Sara Pritchard’s website here to find out about her new collection of linked stories, Lately.

William “Wild Bill” Taylor: “Evil as a hop, skip and a jump”

Taking apart the body that brought me here,
the fourth trip behind the moon,
where stars multiply in the dead of winter
for those looking for meaning and signs
from an indifferent astrologer,

mother remarked that when they knocked
on our door,
the young men were the most handsome of men,
polite, muscular and smiling.

little children were playing in the streets
a hop, skip, and a jump from God’s thumb nail.

and when the nice SS men finally came
to take me away,
I was hiding in the freezer with the sausage,
and the chicken,
and that corpse that brought me to the moon.

“Nature” a Moving Target for Theologians

Austen Ivereigh, a columnist on the website of America: The National Catholic Weekly, made some insightful comments on the Church’s changing understanding of what is “natural” in his Christmas Eve column, “Gays, Galileo, and the Message of the Manger”. Excerpts:

The BBC has the correct headline on Pope Benedict’s curial speech story. “Pope attacks blurring of gender” is far more accurate than all those headlines claiming that “saving gay people is as important as saving the rainforests”…

The essential theological point in the Pope’s intriguing address is that going green while erasing God from Creation is a contradiction. Nature, he says is “the gift of the Creator, with certain intrinsic rules that offer us an orientation we must respect as administrators of creation.”

And he goes on: “That which is often expressed and understood by the term ‘gender’ in the end amounts to the self-emancipation of the human person from creation and from the Creator. Human beings want to do everything by themselves, and to control exclusively everything that regards them. But in this way, the human person lives against the truth, against the Creator Spirit.”

It’s worth placing this papal observation alongside the tribute Benedict XVI paid last Sunday to Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) on the 400th anniversary of the condemned astronomer’s telescope.

Galileo, you will recall, was declared a heretic by the seventeenth-century Church for supporting Nicholas Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun (church teaching at the time placed the Earth at the centre of the universe). For centuries the Galileo condemnation has been used by secularists as a symbol of all that is incompatible between faith and science.

Last weekend, the Vatican sought to reverse that symbolism, building on Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apology and dusting off Galileo as a shining representative of faith and reason working together….

…I can’t help but spot an irony.

Galileo was condemned, at the time, because he was held to subvert the God-ordained nature of things. One can imagine Pope Urban VIII in 1633 using words similar to Pope Benedict’s to the Curia: that nature has “certain intrinsic rules that offer us an orientation we must respect as administrators of creation.”

But it wasn’t long before the “intrinsic rules” were overturned by the evidence. It turned out that putting the Earth at the centre of the universe was not God’s plan at all.

Mark Dowd, gay ex-Dominican and strategist for the Christian environmental group Operation Noah, is widely quoted in UK press reports as saying that in his curial speech Benedict XVI betrayed “a lack of openness to the complexity of creation” — in other words, that papal faith in the fixity of male-female gender roles may be misplaced.

At the moment, there seems little room in the Catholic Church’s “human ecology” for a possible divine purpose for homosexuality — just as in the seventeenth century there wasn’t much space for the idea that God has arranged the universe with the sun at its centre. It would be syllogistic to suggest that because the Church was wrong on the second it will turn out to be wrong on the first.

But it’s striking how the homosexual orientation appears in church teaching as “intrinsically disordered” — in other words, as contrary to the way God arranged the universe — in the same way as the Copernican view appeared in the seventeenth century.

And it isn’t a bad thought, at Christmas, to remember that the Creator of the Universe is capable of subverting its laws for the sake of His creatures.

Things are never so finally fixed that God can’t rearrange it all. The arrogance of scientists, of clergy, of the wise, our own arrogance — all get dethroned tonight by the Great Event: the manger-child, born of a refugee couple and the Holy Spirit, in a cave, in a place somewhere off the map, to where the centre of the Universe quietly relocates. Happy Christmas.

Alegria Imperial: “Plea for a Poem”

Alegria included this poem in a comment below a recent post here, and I thought it was so beautiful that I wanted to make a separate post out of it. Enjoy, and happy holidays to all.

Plea for a poem

write me a poem
words to breathe in
even if only whispers
as shouts have turned
the air into a
hail storm

write me some rain
my heart crackles
in the drought longing
for words drenched in
thought to sip
in the dark

i yearn for verses
snipped from flame tips
words that dance
the fire of fallen angels
saved from their march
on dying coals

write me a song
cadenced in sunsets
tympanis of words
rising off the hum
of meanings
drums have flattened

give me back
poems shredded spirits
birth in caves midnights
cleansed poems howling wolves
hankering for stars

Book Notes: The Glass Violin

Australian poet P.S. Cottier truly does see the universe in a grain of sand–as well as in a tram ticket, a Caesarian scar, the names of Australian military operations, a shabby bear in the Soviet zoo, a wren visiting a dead friend’s garden, and myriad other small details of modern life that she turns into windows on the human condition, in verses both whimsical and profound. Her new collection The Glass Violin (Ginninderra Press, 2008) contains all this and more.

One of the pleasures of reading poetry is finding that someone else has experienced and expressed a precise emotion that you thought was peculiar to you. When Cottier writes, in a poem titled “Forlorn”, “The abandonment of teabags is absolute,” I feel less silly about my pangs of guilt for turning those neat, dry, nearly immortal little packets into wet lumps of trash. Elsewhere, in “Cutting on Laminex”, she reflects on how the scratches on a cutting board outlast the meals prepared there, which segues into awareness of the marks that time has left on her: “I can’t recall the accidents, the sharp slice/which scarified, but skin scratches speak/of that open cut, some day, grave of mine.” She has kindly given me permission to reprint a poem from this book below.


I didn’t want this, not at all.
The rock rolled back,
groaning, rasping,
birthing brightness.
It was meant to
make them free.
But a single breath,
in and out,
a teasing pause,
then they crucified others;
those who walked outside
their straitened view of me.
Labyrinthine irony,
to fill the sarcophagus
in my name.
Those chaotic echoes
darkening on deafness,
I hear them still.
I’d asked them to put down stones
and not to pound down sinners.
To understand, or at least,
not to irrevocably judge.
But when they built their church
on rock, of rock,
flesh was pushed aside,
Golgotha glorified.
A mortar and pestle,
hope ground against granite.
Sometimes when I watch, I wish
that boulder had not budged.
When my flesh was tortured
and my mother’s tears fell,
I believed
it would erode
the rocks in human minds.
But I hadn’t counted on their
thoughts like drowning pebbles,
sinking in a hard skull cave
just beneath the skin.
Love sealed within forever,
not knowing light.
The third day never comes.

AltXmas Art Envisions Holy Family of Color

Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus in Love blog is running a series of artworks that look at the imagery of the Christmas season through the lens of poverty, racial and gender justice. The beautiful and thought-provoking images are accompanied by Kitt’s daily Advent meditations. She’s kindly given me permission to reproduce today’s painting, “The Holy Family” by Janet McKenzie.

Copyright 2007 Janet McKenzie
Collection of Loyola School, New York, NY

About this painting, Kitt writes:

…Sometimes McKenzie’s art sparks controversy. Her androgynous African American “Jesus of the People” painting caused an international uproar after Sister Wendy of PBS chose it to represent Christ in the new millennium in 2000. However, McKenzie says that the responses to “The Holy Family” have been accepting and positive, perhaps because it was commissioned and wholeheartedly supported by the Loyola School in New York.

“As a school run by the Jesuits, it was important to them to have such an image, one that reflects their ethical and inclusive beliefs,” McKenzie explains. “ ‘The Holy Family’ celebrates Mary, Joseph and Jesus as a family of color. I feel as an artist that it is vital to put loving sacred art — art that includes rather than excludes — into the world, in order to remind that we are all created equally and beautifully in God’s likeness. Everyone, especially those traditionally marginalized, needs the comfort derived by finding one’s own image positively reflected back in iconic art. By honoring difference we are ultimately reminded of our inherent similarities.”

The Vermont-based artist had built a successful career painting women who looked like herself, fair and blonde, before her breakthrough with “Jesus of the People.” At that time she wanted to create a truly inclusive image that would touch her nephew, an African American teenager. “The Holy Family” continues the process of embracing everybody in one human family created in God’s image.
Read the full post here.

“Darwin’s Sacred Cause”: The Anti-Slavery Roots of Evolutionary Theory

One of my favorite classes at Harvard was “Nature, God and Religion”, taught by James R. Moore, a visiting lecturer in the History of Science Department. Jim, a leading expert on Charles Darwin’s life and cultural context, always made complex ideas seem accessible and lively, giving us a taste of the radical zeal that inspired 19th-century thinkers who grappled with the relationship between science and religion.
Jim and his colleague Adrian Desmond have collaborated on several books about Darwin, the latest being Darwin’s Sacred Cause, available now for pre-order from Penguin Books UK. In this study, they argue that Darwin’s passionate opposition to slavery motivated him to seek a common ancestor for all human races, countering the conventional wisdom that non-whites were distinct and inferior species. Here’s an excerpt from Jim and Adrian’s fascinating interview on the Penguin Books website:

What was the initial spark that inspired you to write a book arguing such a revolutionary thesis?

We asked the big question in our 1991 Darwin biography: “Why did such a rich and impeccably upright gent go out of his way to develop such a subversive and inflammatory image of human evolution? He had everything to lose!” But we only partially answered it, showing how Darwin covered his tracks and kept ominously quiet for thirty years on the subject, before publishing The Descent of Man in 1871. The question kept niggling: `Why did he do it – and why did he wait so long?’ We knew that contemporary radicals, Christian and otherwise, had opposed slavery, and then it dawned on us that the Darwin family’s anti-slavery brotherhood beliefs could have driven the ‘common descent’ approach of Darwin’s particular brand of evolution.

About ten years ago our thesis began to jell. Jim was particularly interested in The Descent of Man, which no one seemed to have read. Why was two-thirds of a book supposedly about human evolution devoted to beetles, butterflies, birds and furry mammals? Darwin’s answer was: to prove his theory of `sexual selection’. But why was sexual selection so important to Darwin? Jim’s answer: because it was his prize explanation of racial common descent – why black people and white people looked different but were still members of the same family, not separately created species, as pro-slavery demagogues were arguing. Meanwhile Adrian realized how Darwin’s work on fancy pigeons and hybrids, leading up to sexual selection, also served to undermine pro-slavery science. What’s more, Darwin had originally intended all of this to go into his great work on evolution, which was finally published as The Origin of Species – a book that everyone knows `omits man’. No Eureka moment for us, then, but a lot of loose ends came together to tie a gloriously satisfying knot.

2009 is the Darwin Bicentenary, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species. Why has it taken so long to discover the moral motivation behind Darwin’s theories of sexual selection and human origins?

The Descent of Man hasn’t been read, much less read carefully. Over and over, scholars have called it `two books’ crushed together (and it is unwieldy, over 900 pages). That’s one reason. Another is this: only in the last generation have Darwin’s private notebooks, letters and marginal jottings become fully available. Without these, it was difficult to trace the development of his views on human origins. Above all, though, there has been great reluctance to see Darwin as more than a heroic `genius’ uncovering pure gems of `truth’ beyond the vision of ordinary mortals.

To most of his admirers, Darwin was a `great scientist’ getting on with a great scientist’s proper job, not a Victorian gentleman with a moral passion making all life kin by solving that contemporary `mystery of mysteries’, how living species originate. But historians today see Darwin quite differently: they emphasize the social and historical context that made it possible for Darwin or anyone to craft a theory from available cultural resources. One such resource in Darwin’s world was anti-slavery, the greatest moral movement of his age. Our thesis is that the anti-slavery values instilled in him from youth became the moral premise of his work on evolution. Many scientists and philosophers think that explaining genius and its insights as we do saps the power of science and, given the challenge of creationism, is an act of treachery. The reluctance to dig beneath the surface of Darwin’s books into the social and cultural resources of his times is as dogged as ever.

And why is Darwin’s moral motivation important?

This is perhaps the most radical and upsetting idea: that there was a moral impetus behind Darwin’s work on human evolution – a brotherhood belief, rooted in anti-slavery, that led to a ‘common descent’ image for human ancestry, an image that Darwin extended to the rest of life, making not just the races, but all creatures brothers and sisters. In his family `tree of life’, all share a common ancestor. It’s vital to realize that Darwin’s science wasn’t the `neutral’, dispassionate practise of textbook caricature; it was driven by human desires and needs and foibles. Even our most vaunted theories – such as human evolution by a common descent with apes and all other creatures – may be fostered by humanitarian concerns. This throws all Darwin’s work – so vilified for being morally subversive – into an entirely different light.

Pre-order the book on Amazon here. Listen to an interview with Jim and Adrian here (recorded for Dutch radio, but in English).

Newsweek Makes Christian Case for Marriage Equality

The debate over scriptural views of homosexuality makes many people afraid that they will have to choose between their faith and their relationships. Conservative friends have told me that I am cutting myself off from the orthodox Christian community by attending an inclusive church. Meanwhile, some in that church are skittish about its historic doctrines, afraid that tradition cannot be disentangled from a legacy of institutional oppression.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who hasn’t given up hopes of an inclusive orthodoxy. Newsweek ran a brave and controversial cover story last week: Our Mutual Joy: The Religious Case for Gay Marriage, by Lisa Miller. Highlights:

In the Old Testament, the concept of family is fundamental, but examples of what social conservatives would call “the traditional family” are scarcely to be found. Marriage was critical to the passing along of tradition and history, as well as to maintaining the Jews’ precious and fragile monotheism. But as the Barnard University Bible scholar Alan Segal puts it, the arrangement was between “one man and as many women as he could pay for.” Social conservatives point to Adam and Eve as evidence for their one man, one woman argument—in particular, this verse from Genesis: “Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” But as Segal says, if you believe that the Bible was written by men and not handed down in its leather bindings by God, then that verse was written by people for whom polygamy was the way of the world. (The fact that homosexual couples cannot procreate has also been raised as a biblical objection, for didn’t God say, “Be fruitful and multiply”? But the Bible authors could never have imagined the brave new world of international adoption and assisted reproductive technology—and besides, heterosexuals who are infertile or past the age of reproducing get married all the time.)

Ozzie and Harriet are nowhere in the New Testament either. The biblical Jesus was—in spite of recent efforts of novelists to paint him otherwise—emphatically unmarried. He preached a radical kind of family, a caring community of believers, whose bond in God superseded all blood ties. Leave your families and follow me, Jesus says in the gospels. There will be no marriage in heaven, he says in Matthew. Jesus never mentions homosexuality, but he roundly condemns divorce (leaving a loophole in some cases for the husbands of unfaithful women).

The apostle Paul echoed the Christian Lord’s lack of interest in matters of the flesh. For him, celibacy was the Christian ideal, but family stability was the best alternative. Marry if you must, he told his audiences, but do not get divorced. “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): a wife must not separate from her husband.” It probably goes without saying that the phrase “gay marriage” does not appear in the Bible at all.

If the bible doesn’t give abundant examples of traditional marriage, then what are the gay-marriage opponents really exercised about? Well, homosexuality, of course—specifically sex between men. Sex between women has never, even in biblical times, raised as much ire. In its entry on “Homosexual Practices,” the Anchor Bible Dictionary notes that nowhere in the Bible do its authors refer to sex between women, “possibly because it did not result in true physical ‘union’ (by male entry).” The Bible does condemn gay male sex in a handful of passages. Twice Leviticus refers to sex between men as “an abomination” (King James version), but these are throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world, a text that devotes verse after verse to treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or a turtle dove. Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions. Why would we regard its condemnation of homosexuality with more seriousness than we regard its advice, which is far lengthier, on the best price to pay for a slave?

Paul was tough on homosexuality, though recently progressive scholars have argued that his condemnation of men who “were inflamed with lust for one another” (which he calls “a perversion”) is really a critique of the worst kind of wickedness: self-delusion, violence, promiscuity and debauchery. In his book “The Arrogance of Nations,” the scholar Neil Elliott argues that Paul is referring in this famous passage to the depravity of the Roman emperors, the craven habits of Nero and Caligula, a reference his audience would have grasped instantly. “Paul is not talking about what we call homosexuality at all,” Elliott says. “He’s talking about a certain group of people who have done everything in this list. We’re not dealing with anything like gay love or gay marriage. We’re talking about really, really violent people who meet their end and are judged by God.” In any case, one might add, Paul argued more strenuously against divorce—and at least half of the Christians in America disregard that teaching.

Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition (and, to talk turkey for a minute, a personal discomfort with gay sex that transcends theological argument). Common prayers and rituals reflect our common practice: the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer describes the participants in a marriage as “the man and the woman.” But common practice changes—and for the better, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours.

Marriage, specifically, has evolved so as to be unrecognizable to the wives of Abraham and Jacob. Monogamy became the norm in the Christian world in the sixth century; husbands’ frequent enjoyment of mistresses and prostitutes became taboo by the beginning of the 20th. (In the NEWSWEEK POLL, 55 percent of respondents said that married heterosexuals who have sex with someone other than their spouses are more morally objectionable than a gay couple in a committed sexual relationship.) By the mid-19th century, U.S. courts were siding with wives who were the victims of domestic violence, and by the 1970s most states had gotten rid of their “head and master” laws, which gave husbands the right to decide where a family would live and whether a wife would be able to take a job. Today’s vision of marriage as a union of equal partners, joined in a relationship both romantic and pragmatic, is, by very recent standards, radical, says Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History.”…

…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. The Bible offers inspiration and warning on the subjects of love, marriage, family and community. It speaks eloquently of the crucial role of families in a fair society and the risks we incur to ourselves and our children should we cease trying to bind ourselves together in loving pairs. Gay men like to point to the story of passionate King David and his friend Jonathan, with whom he was “one spirit” and whom he “loved as he loved himself.” Conservatives say this is a story about a platonic friendship, but it is also a story about two men who stand up for each other in turbulent times, through violent war and the disapproval of a powerful parent…

…In addition to its praise of friendship and its condemnation of divorce, the Bible gives many examples of marriages that defy convention yet benefit the greater community. The Torah discouraged the ancient Hebrews from marrying outside the tribe, yet Moses himself is married to a foreigner, Zipporah. Queen Esther is married to a non-Jew and, according to legend, saves the Jewish people. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, believes that Judaism thrives through diversity and inclusion. “I don’t think Judaism should or ought to want to leave any portion of the human population outside the religious process,” he says. “We should not want to leave [homosexuals] outside the sacred tent.” The marriage of Joseph and Mary is also unorthodox (to say the least), a case of an unconventional a
rrangement accepted by society for the common good. The boy needed two human parents, after all.

In the Christian story, the message of acceptance for all is codified. Jesus reaches out to everyone, especially those on the margins, and brings the whole Christian community into his embrace. The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, cites the story of Jesus revealing himself to the woman at the well— no matter that she had five former husbands and a current boyfriend—as evidence of Christ’s all-encompassing love. The great Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, quotes the apostle Paul when he looks for biblical support of gay marriage: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” The religious argument for gay marriage, he adds, “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage. If one is for racial equality and the common nature of humanity, then the values of stability, monogamy and family necessarily follow. Terry Davis is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hartford, Conn., and has been presiding over “holy unions” since 1992. “I’m against promiscuity—love ought to be expressed in committed relationships, not through casual sex, and I think the church should recognize the validity of committed same-sex relationships,” he says.

Still, very few Jewish or Christian denominations do officially endorse gay marriage, even in the states where it is legal. The practice varies by region, by church or synagogue, even by cleric. More progressive denominations—the United Church of Christ, for example—have agreed to support gay marriage. Other denominations and dioceses will do “holy union” or “blessing” ceremonies, but shy away from the word “marriage” because it is politically explosive. So the frustrating, semantic question remains: should gay people be married in the same, sacramental sense that straight people are? I would argue that they should. If we are all God’s children, made in his likeness and image, then to deny access to any sacrament based on sexuality is exactly the same thing as denying it based on skin color—and no serious (or even semiserious) person would argue that. People get married “for their mutual joy,” explains the Rev. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center in New York, quoting the Episcopal marriage ceremony. That’s what religious people do: care for each other in spite of difficulty, she adds. In marriage, couples grow closer to God: “Being with one another in community is how you love God. That’s what marriage is about.”

Newsweek has been bombarded with mass emails from conservative churches who were outraged by this article. To send your message of support, see this page on the Human Rights Campaign website.

I commend Newsweek for their courage and thoroughness in giving a voice to inclusive interpretations of scripture. But frankly, I’m getting fed up with trying to prove that “hey, we’re Christians too!” The Biblical analysis above won’t convince everyone that this is the only legitimate way to read the verses referring to same-sex intercourse–because it isn’t. It is, however, a legitimate reading. Can we all just move on now?

Most Bible passages admit of several interpretations if they are talking about anything remotely interesting. Christians can spin out book-length arguments for and against infant baptism; the Eucharist as Real Presence or symbol; six-day Creation; the timing of the apocalypse; free will versus predestination; pacifism versus just-war theory; whether Jesus was a communist; and on and on.

These are important issues, affecting many more people than the 10% of the population who are homosexual. We may not be able to gather all views under a single denominational umbrella. Yet somehow Arminians manage to recognize that Calvinists are still Christians. Baptists acknowledge Catholics’ sincere discipleship, even if they don’t take communion together. 

But dare to suggest that there’s more than one way to read a half-dozen little verses about same-sex intimacy, and your obedience to God and Scripture is immediately called into question. You’re not just wrong, you’re disobedient. You don’t belong to the body of Christ. There can’t be any evidence of the Holy Spirit in your life.

I’d like to know why the burden of proof is on us to show that these verses should be narrowly construed, rather than on anti-gay Christians to justify their preference for laying the heaviest possible burden on an outcast minority. Why does it seem like they’re actively looking for arguments to maintain the status quo? Shouldn’t our choice of hermeneutic be driven by love and charity?

For all my fellow queer families out there: We can’t wait around for permission to believe that God’s grace belongs to us equally. We have to claim it for ourselves, within ourselves. Yes, “be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you.” But remember that we’re the body of Christ now, and no one can take that away from us.

Poems by Conway: “The Miracle” and Others

Advent is traditionally a time of quiet reflection and repentance, when we anticipate not only the birth of Christ but the Second Coming when God will bring justice and peace to the whole world. In America, where images of traditional families dominate the airwaves from Halloween until January, it can also be a sad time for those who are separated from their families by incarceration, war, abuse or estrangement. Advent gives us permission to mourn as well as rejoice, as in these new poems by my prison pen pal “Conway”, which he sent inside a beautiful Christmas card.  

The Miracle 

            Create unprecedented tones
                conjure tracings of a murmur

Our breath turns into sounds
as again I start these movements
straining for
an accurate use of words…

        While air drifts along
            with its light, solitary steps
                untouchable noise
                    dissolving the silence
                        into spelled words
                These fixed, yet faded fingers
                    pointing at nothing
                    but gestured dreams
        of an empty street
a diffused vacant voice
        more fragile; Than
                Threads of Glass
                        Eluding a Hurricane…

This song, even now
flees from a distant tongue
in a stalled unforgiveness

The only contact allowed here
are shadows crossing paths
stretching to know each other
They revel in the Sun’s light
off a wall, from left to right
indifferent to any bickering
speaking only their own language

a noiseless echo of everything
following, watching from behind
it belongs to man, bird and stone
unaffected by the wind even.

Strange, that no one thinks
to challenge that, that
belongs to no one, yet everyone
reaching for the horizon…

Everything is only for a day

Everything, is only for a day.
    Both that which Remembers, and that
which is remembered.

As we observe this Holy Day
    in reference to one’s perception, for
this series is not a mere enumeration–
    of disjointed things.

    Time is like a river–
made up of events which happen
    and a violent stream; for
as soon as a thing has been seen,
    it is carried away too.

Altogether the interval is small.
    Let the part of your soul
which leads and governs–
    be undisturbed, by
The movements in the flesh.

    We Remember our Dead.
When they were born, when
    They passed.
Either as beings of promise
Beings of Achievement…