STRAIGHT & NARROW by Thomas E. Schmidt. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995. 180 pages, index. Hardcover; no price shown.
This book stands in opposition to Daniel A. Helminiak's "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality," published in 1994, on which I have previously written in the file GAY2.TXT. As with my previous writing, it is more a collection of notes than a book review; I mean it to have some of the attributes of both.
Helminiak's book presents the thesis that homosexuality is not proscribed by Scripture. Schmidt dissents from this, and adds other (secular) views on the issue.
The author is a professor of New Testament and Greek at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.
The book is recommended for reading by people on both sides of the issue.
The issue, for me at least, is very simple: If an adult person is committed to the view of a stable, lifetime, loving, monogamous relationship with another adult person, should he/she be denied ordination in my church (PCUSA) because that relationship happens to be male-male or female-female rather than female-male?
A second way of expressing the issue is: Does God view homosexual activity as sinful, if that activity is carried on exclusively within the structure of an adult, stable, lifetime, loving, monogamous relationship?
The issue does not involve promiscuity, n-way relationships where n = 3, 4 or more, political questions, and so forth, but only the narrowly defined questions above.
To begin with, Schmidt's book is heavily footnoted; thirty-eight pages of the "small print" follow the main text; another eighteen (!) pages of bibliography (I estimate 300 to 350 references) follow that. Then there is a one page subject index, two pages of an index to scriptural references, and finally one page with specific references to nearly fifty other ancient writings. It is clear that the author did not just "toss this off as a quick summer project," but has, indeed, taken a great deal of time and effort in order to do a professional job.
Chapter 1. About me, about you.
Written on a personal level, the author seeks to gain rapport with his target audience, which he defines (pg 15) as the "moderate to well-educated, morally conservative Christian community" in order "to deepen the understanding and sensitivity of those who question or disapprove of homosexual practice." But he goes on, saying (for example) that (pg 16) "I hope I serve another purpose for those who disagree with my conclusions -- that is, to demonstrate the possibility of disagreement without stupidity, without hatred, without slogans. Argue with me, but do not put me in a box, do not make a caricature of me in order to dismiss my conclusions. Allow me a face."
Schmidt goes on to define that "face," which he calls "an evangelical face." He does a good job doing so. For instance, he does not think all evangelicals have a "common stance" on many issues. Listing a few of these, he says (pg 17) "It happens that I hold minority views in most of these areas myself, and I am free to do so without having to attend a church for the doctrinally disabled.”
The next section of this chapter is Schmidt's view of how "evangelical" is to be understood in the perspective of this book. In summary, seven affirmations:
1. The centrality of Jesus as the only Son of God.
2. The primacy and finality of the Bible's authority for faith and practice.
3. The primary task of Bible Study -- seeking intended meanings of its authors.
4. The ongoing relevance of Biblical morality.
5. The Bible is a unity, inspired by God's spirit.
6. The world is both under God's care and God's judgement.
7. People matter, one at a time.
He concludes chapter 1 with a discussion of word definitions, choosing to use the convenient terms "homosexual" and "homosexuality" with the advance acknowledgement that these may be controversial for some readers.
I found the start promising.
Chapter 2. What the fuss is all about.
This is a dishonest book. Now I say not that the author is dishonest, but only the the book is, itself, dishonest. Not in a "fatally flawed" sense, else I would not recommend it. But here, in this chapter, Schmidt uses one of the oldest tricks of argumentation, that of "persuasive definition."
It is here he decides for the first time to label his opposition as "revisionists." It is an accurate word, it is an honest word, but it is also a word that carries much baggage with it -- and its constant use as the book progresses begins to wear badly. As the pro-life person can gain the upper hand in abortion debates if the term "murder" is agreed to; as the white/black conflicts in our nation were necessarily shaped by the common uses of "white" to mean "good" and "black" to mean "evil;" as the pro-choice person has much to gain by constant harping on the "religious right;" so it is here.
Schmidt's clear tactic is to constantly point out how the church has, for centuries, labeled homosexual acts as "sin," and it is the "revisionists" who want to upset everything. He introduces this as an ostensibly neutral term (pg 29), never pointing out, as he might have, that those who argued for a heliocentric solar system were "revisionists," those who fought for an end to slavery were "revisionists," and the list goes on. Yes, even God, when he told Peter to "kill and eat" was a revisionist! But the term is a negative; pejorative; it colors all that comes afterwards in the book.
Schmidt also has some absolutely terrible logic at the chapter's beginning, where he (pg 26) hopelessly confuses legality and morality in argumentation too chaotic to ever unravel. He correctly (IMO) however identifies a key issue (not scriptural, but possibly speaking to scriptural issues) as being that of choice -- is the gay person gay by nature, by nurture or by choice? Putting off this discussion until much later (chapter 7), Schmidt then makes a good attempt (pages 29-37) to present the opposition's arguments as fairly as possible. It is too bad Helminiak's book was unavailable when he wrote this one; the arguments cross one another. It is difficult to present your opposition's arguments well, but, IMO, it is an essential step in understanding. I'll give Schmidt a "B+" for his attempt. Not bad; he could have done better. I think. I note in passing he refers (in the notes) to over twenty-five books and scholarly articles published between 1975 and 1994 which argue the opposition's case. What a lot of research!
Schmidt also discusses how the debate is taking place in some denominations; not in others. He thinks all will have to confront it -- in time. His chapter conclusion is well put: "Whatever the stage of discussion in a given denomination, individual Christians are responsible to think, to evaluate new viewpoints, to discern right from wrong and true from false, to disagree with respect." I'll endorse that.
Chapter 3. Sexuality from the beginning
Oh dear! The author has chosen a weak word where a strong one is what he really means! He also argues that the pattern of his opposition is like that which he has chosen in chapter 2 to represent them! Bad argument!
The second one first. "Chapter two showed that the pattern in revisionist approaches is to list the apparent biblical prohibitions... ." (pg 39). From my reading, which cannot be as extensive as Schmidt's, this is one argumentation approach; it is not at all the only one. Schmidt has set up a strawman. And, of course, “apparent” in the above is simply a way of putting down the opposition – begging the question.
The first: "...the pervasiveness and reasonableness of an affirmed activity: heterosexual marriage. I will maintain ... that the Bible, reason and tradition combine to tell us what is good and how to understand departures from that good."
The "weak" word here, of course, is "good." The "strong" word would be "sin." The biblical texts affirm heterosexual marriage as a "good." And most gay persons, I think, would affirm that their sexual activities are a departure from that "good." But that departure may, or may not, equal "sin" in God's eyes! To argue a "departure from a good" without addressing the sin question is misleading, another "persuasive definition." Nodding your head "yes" to Schmidt's statement is simply following the lead of your friendly automobile salesman; say "yes" often enough and next thing you know you've bought the salmon and plum colored Sludgemobile he's been trying to peddle for the past six months! < G >
Schmidt then argues (well) the expected things:
1. Reproduction is good.
2. Sex is good.
3. Marriage is good.
4. Male & female are necessary counterparts.
He then argues that homosexuality, not measuring up, is "not good." At this point he quotes from some very outspoken gay activists, apparently not Christians, one a self-proclaimed pedophile. He then discusses other issues, including mostly acts of paraphilia, such as incest, pedophilia and other sexual perversions, and I lost interest in his essay flow as it did not have any bearing on the issue of interest. It seems clear (to me) that while there are some weird people arguing for a stance where the word "perversion" has disappeared from the human language, that scripture does not support that position and none of them are arguing from within the Christian church anyway.
But I like to end this chapter review on a positive note. On page 63, Schmidt writes (italicized) "...there is ultimately no argument against pedophilia or any departure from heterosexual monogamy if Scripture is taught (only) by individual experience."
I'll endorse that. But Schmidt is spending too much of his effort attacking arguments and causes I don't care about -- or agree with him about.
Chapter 4. Romans 1:26-27. The Main Text in Context
Schmidt deals here with the arguments of Boswell and Countryman (and others) as he dissects these verses. His arguments here are persuasive. But they are complex (as are the opposition's) and far beyond the ability of a non-Greek-scholar to evaluate. To one who has already made up his mind, perhaps the arguments (from either side) will prove useful. For me, who has not, they simply re-establish my "don't know" status.
Chapter 5. From Sodom to Sodom
Schmidt deals here with the story of Genesis 19. I found Helminiak's arguments here much more persuasive than Schmidt's. Don't know as I can offer more; Schmidt does a credible job of making his case. But it does appear that were this section of scripture the only one around to appeal to, his case would hardly be worth writing about.
He works with the Leviticus passages also in this chapter. As well as several others. Again, his arguments are persuasive, but mostly to those who have already chosen his position.
Chapter 6. The price of Love
Schmidt goes to great lengths to argue that there are very few homosexuals (in the U.S> at least). I'm not sure why -- if there are only two, the problem remains anyway.
He also argues that only a few of these few are in adult long-term committed monogamous relationships. Same comment applies.
He compares promiscuity among homosexuals with the same thing among heterosexuals. Same comment.
He argues the health issues. Same.
Chapter 7. The Great Nature-Nurture Debate
Schmidt argues well that "nobody knows." He proposes a model of his own, which may have some validity, though it's hard to figure out how to test it. One of the better chapters (readable and thought-provoking) in this book.
Chapter 8. Straight & Narrow?
A very good summary of the author's main thesis occur on pages 161-163.
Schmidt concludes his book with "a letter to a friend." It is pretty good. Worth reading, even if you don't agree with him.
John W. Burgeson