Writing in defense of the scriptural and historic-Christian defense of a male-female requirement for valid sexual relations has always invited abuse. Such abuse, however, should be disclosed for what it is.
Recently scholar-theologian Dr. John Stackhouse, Professor of Religious Studies & Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University, invited me to respond to a Facebook thread that had developed around an article he had written: “Evangelicals, LGTBQ+, and the Bible: What’s (Been) Going On?” Someone had posted in the comments: “I wondered if anyone could comment on [Jean-Fabrice] Nardelli’s refutations of Gagnon’s scholarship in, ‘The Bible and Homosexual Practice,’” giving links to Nardelli’s first screed, my beginning response, and Nardelli’s second screed. He then linked to an abusive blog post by a certain Don M. Burrows: “Anti-Gay Scholar Shows His True (Non-Scholarly) Colors” (posted in 2013).
I thought it best to post my comments here for future reference.
I. On the Abusive Burrows
I hadn’t seen the Don M. Burrows piece beforehand. Burrows has a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Minnesota. He apparently hasn’t been able to find employment as a classics scholar. I’m not aware of anything he has published and he is critiquing me in a blog so his criticism of me posting a lot of online stuff is a bit bizarre.
Burrows says: “Most scholars do not do this; if they have a beef with a given review or article, they submit a rebuttal to the publication in question, which will then publish it if warranted.” Um, did it ever occur to Burrows that Nardelli’s two pieces that Burrows extols are online pieces that have either not been submitted for publication or submitted and rejected? There is no way that Nardelli could ever get pieces with such vitriol and ad hominem published.
The inaccuracies start from the very first paragraph where he claims that I say that homosexual practice is more unnatural than bestiality. He is apparently as bad a reader of texts as online “gay” polemicist Jeremy Hooper. Anyone can go to the Hooper posting of my email and see what I said. I had just finished talking about the opposition of Paul and other biblical writers to homosexual practice. In the very same paragraph I then commented: “Bestiality is an even more unnatural form of sexual practice since it is cross-species.” Since in the preceding sentences I was speaking about the biblical prohibition of homosexual practice, it would be fairly obvious to any literate third-grader that the “even more unnatural” statement is made in relation to homosexual practice.
I then comment on incest: “Adult-consensual incest is also a particularly perverse form of sexual practice since it involves sex with someone who is too much of a familial same.” Immediately after this I say: “But Scripture treats homosexual practice as even more severely unnatural because the male-female requirement for sexual relations is foundational for all that follows (so Genesis and Jesus) and because sex or gender is a more constituent feature of sexual behavior than kinship.” Here I am clearly making the comparison with incest, not with bestiality. I even state at the end that “sex or gender is a more constituent feature of sexual behavior than kinship.”
Hooper is so obtuse that even after I pointed this out he still claimed that I was “implying” that homosexual practice was worse than bestiality, though he then added: “Mr Gagnon, however, claims my read was ‘incompetent.’ This being the case, I will gladly limit his belief to just incest.” Burrows is apparently even more obtuse because he, having that information before him, continued to make the false claim.
I do entirely own the view that homosexual practice is more unnatural than even adult-consensual incest, for the two reasons that I stated in the citation above.
The male-female requirement is the only requirement for consensual sexual relations between humans held absolutely for the people of God from creation to Christ. The first human differentiation at creation is the differentiation between male and female. In Gen 2:21-24 the creation of woman is depicted as the extraction of a “rib” or (better) “side” from the human so that man and woman are parts of a single integrated whole. Woman is depicted as man’s sexual “counterpart” or “complement” (Heb. negdo). A male-female prerequisite is thus grounded in the earliest act of creation.
Compare the situation with incest prohibitions: Most such prohibitions cannot be implemented until after the human family spreads out and becomes numerous. In addition, while we see a limited allowance of polygyny in the OT (multiple wives for men, though never polyandry, multiple husbands for women), subsequently revoked by Jesus, and some limited allowance in earliest Israel of what will later be termed incest in Levitical law (e.g., Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister Sarah; Jacob’s marriage to two sisters while both were alive), there is never any allowance whatsoever for homosexual practice in the history of Israel. Virtually every single law, narrative, poetry, proverb, moral exhortation, and metaphor dealing with sexual matters in the Old Testament presupposes a male-female prerequisite. The only exceptions are periods of apostasy in ancient Israel (e.g., the existence of homosexual cult prostitutes, which narrators still label an abomination). Incest is a violation of a requirement of embodied otherness that is only secondarily extrapolated from the foundational analogy of sexual otherness established at creation.
Note that the higher rates of birth defects for progeny of incestuous unions is not an effective argument for rejecting incestuous bonds categorically because (1) we are dealing here with higher rates, not intrinsic harm; and (2) it is easy to imagine an array of incestuous unions that would not produce children (e.g., same-sex incestuous unions, unions where either or both of the partners is infertile whether naturally or through surgery, and unions where the partners take active birth-control precautions. Note too that arguments that reject incest on the grounds that children should not be molested does not address the kind of incestuous relationship that I am talking about: adult-committed.
Burrows criticizes my alleged failure to publish anything since 2005. He was making use of an old online c.v. that I hadn’t bothered to update but now have so far as published materials are concerned.
Now as to the specifics of the blog post by Burrows:
1. According to Burrows, “Gagnon clearly believes that man and woman were created by God to be complementary, and thus heterosexual coupling is the only kind approved by God. But the classicists Gagnon cites most certainly do not agree with this overall premise.”
Well, yes, that makes our agreement on how to read certain Greco-Roman texts all the more powerful.
2. According to Burrows, “Put another way, if God has been creating gay people for thousands of years, how can it be considered some aberrant, perverse deviation?”
Dr. Stackhouse rightly noted in a FB comment:
“A quick read of the blog itself shows the author to be utterly clueless about even the most basic Christian construal of things. He argues that ‘is = ought’—as in, ‘Since there have been homosexual persons for thousands of years, and since God creates everyone, therefore God endorses homosexuality in those persons’...which might be true, yes, but it might also be true that God does not endorse that feature of those persons that he did indeed create, and does indeed love…just as I believe God created me, and loves me, and precisely because he DOES love me is administering a long, patient, and sometimes severe program of changing me away from my deep confusions and harmful ways of being in the world—which is how Gagnon and other traditional Christian ethicists see homosexuality. The failure, that is, to understand Creation, Fall, and Redemption is just fatal to this blogger’s interaction with a Christian anthropology, and so he ends up just talking right past Gagnon and the entire mainstream tradition he represents.”
I’ll just add a little analogy: Since God has been creating men with polyamorous desires for thousands of years, how can it be considered some aberrant, perverse deviation? Let’s chuck stifling monogamy and embrace our inner polyamorist! Add to this the universal impulses for pride, greed, and jealousy.
3. Burrows also states: “Gagnon’s overall view ... seems to utilize evidence of in-born, ‘natural’ homosexuality in the ancient world while simultaneously claiming it is ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverse.’ So God clearly does make gay people … but then roundly condemns them for it. Surely someday, when our history of sexuality is written, this will be considered the asinine, flailing death throes of anti-gay rationalization.”
Whatever society considers such views to be will be of no account in determining the truth of the Creator’s handiwork. It will rather serve as evidence for the kind of societal suppression of the truth about the Creator and about the way the Creator made us which Paul indicts in Romans 1:18-32. Ah, the folly of human sin.
The existence of sinful desires within human flesh is hardly convincing proof that it is God’s will that we live out of such desires. By Burrows’ reasoning we would have to approve not only of polyamorous activity (who asks to have polyamorous desires?) but even pedophilia (who asks for pedophilic desires?). Did God “make” pedophiles? According to Burrows’ reasoning , if it is an innate trait, the answer is “yes.” Then it is terrible of God to “roundly condemn them for it”?
4. Burrows criticizes me for repeatedly calling Thomas K. Hubbard’s Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (University of California Press, 2003) “magisterial” Burrows adds: “but it is not a monograph, and does not attempt to make an over-arching, conclusive argument about sexuality in antiquity.”
Though criticizing me for the “magisterial” characterization, Burrows then adds about Hubbard’s book: “which I agree is quite magisterial”! Hubbard provides 56 pages of analysis of homosexuality in the different periods of Greece and Rome. Hubbard certainly does make over-arching conclusive arguments about homosexuality in antiquity.
5. Burrows writes: “While Hubbard introduces each set of texts with his own overview, which often betrays his own convictions, he does not stray from citing those sources that do not adhere to an essentialist viewpoint. A key example of this can be found in a section often cited by Gagnon, where Hubbard refers to a set of texts that ‘reflect the perception that sexual orientation is something fixed and incurable’ (p. 446). Of course, Hubbard goes on to note that ‘two texts from this period show sexual orientation as a matter of relative indifference,’ citing Artemidorus and Philostratus, who seem to recognize no real sense of categorization between homosexuality and heterosexuality. That’s the difference between honest scholarship, what Hubbard practices, and snake-oil chicanery: an honest assessment acknowledges the evidence that complicates or even contradicts a given view. Gagnon never appears to bother with that.”
Actually, I have never argued that everyone in the ancient world believed in a rudimentary view of sexual orientation. I have always only contended that some did; that therefore Paul could have believed something similar and still rejected homosexual practice, just as he rejected numerous behaviors that were the product of innate but sinful sexual urges. So Burrows has dishonestly represented me.
The quote from Hubbard that I most frequently cite (which incidentally is not the one that Burrows cites from me) speaks for itself:
“Homosexuality in this era [i.e., of the early imperial age of Rome] may have ceased to be merely another practice of personal pleasure and began to be viewed as an essential and central category of personal identity, exclusive of and antithetical to heterosexual orientation.” (p. 386)
I also have never claimed (contrary to what Burrows says about me) that there are no differences between the ancient view of orientation and our own; only that there is enough similarity to reject the contention that we have such radically new knowledge about homosexual practice as to allow us to reject the strong, pervasive, absolute, and countercultural biblical witness against it. For a nuanced and detailed presentation of the data see pp. 140-52 of this article (posted online some years after print publication):
6. Burrows really hates this comment of mine in a Christian Post op-ed from 2011:
“What I think almost all classicists would probably find abjectly absurd are statements like, ‘It should go without saying that upholding a male-female requirement for marriage can and should be a product of a loving desire to avoid the degradation of the gendered self that comes from engaging in homosexual practice.’”
Burrows did not add my follow-up sentence:
“That it does not go without saying is due in large part to today’s charged political atmosphere where hateful characterizations of persons who disapprove of homosexual unions are commonplace among proponents of such unions.”
Burrows’ own abusive writing style is (ironically) evidence for this point. Burrows is apoplectic that I should disagree with the “consensus” of “gender studies.” Burrows characterizes this as “ignorance” on my part and “comic buffoonery at its finest.” Actually I am well aware that homosexualist advocates who dominate gender studies do not view homosexual practice as a “degradation of the gendered self,” though that is clearly how Paul in Romans 1:24-27 describes it. Get your smelling salts out: I disagree with homosexualist advocates and agree with Paul and, for that matter, Jesus and the rest of Scripture.
II. On the Abusive Nardelli
So much for Burrows. The reason that I have not responded to Nardelli has nothing to do with the alleged strength of his arguments. It has everything to do with the vile ad hominem rhetoric that runs from first to last page of his lengthy screeds. Were they short pieces, I might have responded. But life is too short to subject myself to such verbally abusive rants. At the time his first tirade was posted online I was in a very busy season of commitments. I decided to put out a preliminary piece discussing a couple of his abusively framed allegations. Before I could return to it he published an equally lengthy screed that continued with the torrent of personal attacks in page after page and which I could see hadn’t really responded to my main points. So I decided not to accord such a grossly uncivil response the respect of a rejoinder. But if someone wants to specify what his convincing arguments are, they are welcome to do so (minus the vitriol) and I would be happy to respond. Nardelli himself is off the rails and I will have nothing more to do with him.
Apparently his abuse is not limited to me. In the comments to Burrows’ piece one person links to this comment by David Konstan of Brown University in Bryn Mawr Classical Review: “First, disclosure: I am a great admirer of Alberto Bernabé, whom I have had the pleasure to meet on several occasions; he is an excellent scholar, and a fine person. I am also a good friend of Douglas Olson, whose review of Bernabé‘s edition Jean-Fabrice Nardelli describes in the most hostile terms.”
Olson himself responded to Nardelli as follows (it deserves quoting at length):
Several weeks ago, Jean-Fabrice Nardelli published in this journal (2006.07.36) a supposed response to my review of A. Bernabé‘s Poetae Epici Graeci II.1 (2006.07.27) which was in fact an extended, vicious personal attack on me and my academic work. Nardelli accuses me, inter alia, of “ranting” and “fuming;” describes me as chalcenteric, arrogant, patronizing and gratuitously reckless; characterizes my reviews as reeking of venom and as universally “bitter in the extreme;” denounces my commentaries as second-rate; and so on and so forth. What he signally fails to do is engage with, much less offer any substantial, thoughtful reply to my detailed criticisms of Bernabé‘s edition of the Orphic fragments…. It would serve no purpose for me to respond to Nardelli’s other remarks, except to say that I imagine he now regrets them—and the alacrity with which they were published in BMCR. Instead, I would like to reflect briefly on why we as scholars disown ad hominem argumentation, and on the obligation of editors to refuse to publish such material when it is presented to them.
...Scholars disagree, often at length and sometimes repeatedly over many years; and this is generally best interpreted as an index of our commitment to our common subject and of our shared belief that dialogue and debate advance understanding. Ad hominem argumentation, on the other hand, is a diversionary tactic, designed to distract from the weakness of one’s own case by focusing on the supposed moral or personal failings of the opponent. It does not advance discussion of the point at hand; has a poisonous effect on academic discourse generally (particularly when sanctioned, explicitly or implicitly, by individuals in authority); and in the long run makes those who engage in or encourage it look foolish, vicious, or both. Ad hominem argumentation is accordingly regarded as an intellectual embarrassment: we as a community of scholars do not behave this way, and we discourage others in the larger world from doing so as well.
The larger question here thus has to do with editorial responsibility. Even in an age of electronic publication—perhaps more so now—editors exercise a vital gate-keeping function, and the responsibilities of the office include an obligation to decline to publish ugly and irrelevant personal assaults masquerading as academic discussion. One might have expected the corrosive effects of allowing this sort of thing to go on to be particularly apparent to the editors of a review journal. In the last analysis, the book review process depends on a willingness to tell what one takes to be the truth. But what sensible individual would say anything negative about a book, if he or she had reason to expect that the result might be a long, vituperative attack on his or her character and accomplishments—published, to make matters even more unfortunate and absurd, by a third party, and in the same journal? Permitting, and thus encouraging, such behavior, including in the name of “open discussion” and the like, does a substantial disservice to the field and marks an embarrassing failure of editorial judgment.
That Nardelli felt the need to inject himself into a non-existent quarrel between Bernabé and myself, and to attack me and my work in a nasty and misleading fashion, was unfortunate. That the editors of BMCR opted to publish his “response,” on the other hand, represents something far worse: a serious abdication of their professional responsibility, which deserves to be publicly described as such.
And that is what Nardelli could get away with in print. Online he is far more abusive.
As an example of how badly reasoned Nardelli’s screeds are, he rejects any intertextual echo to Genesis 1:26-27 in Romans 1:23-27, even though there are eight points of correspondence, in similar tirplicate fashion in the two short sets of texts. Nardelli’s argument is: No scholar before Gagnon has seen such an echo. Well, that is not quite true. Some scholars beforehand have seen a connection to Genesis 1:27 in Rom 1:24-27. But it is true that I was the first one to point out the similar tripartite structures to the two sets of text. That is called scholarly progress.
Intertextuality is a burgeoning industry in NT studies and scholars are making connections, many justified, that other scholars have been missing for generations. The argument that no one else previously published such points is not by itself convincing. When there are eight parts of correspondence in similar tripartite structure (human/image/likeness, birds/cattle/reptiles, male/female) between two verses in an OT text and 3 verses in a NT text, it becomes absurd to deny the back echo.
Moreover, the echo that I have seen has recently been affirmed in the work of NT scholar William Loader, who is thoroughly supportive of homosexual unions and has written more significant work on sexuality generally in early Judaism and early Christianity than any scholar who has yet lived. In his book, The New Testament on Sexuality (Eerdmans, 2012), in which he has about 70 pages on the issue of homosexuality, Loader interacts with my work more than any other (apparently he regarded it of some scholarly caliber) and reaches significant points of agreement. As regards a creation reference in Rom 1:26-27, Loader states:
“With the reference to female and male here [in Rom 1:26-27], he connects with the creation, to which he has alluded specifically in 1:23. It is highly probable that he believes, that the creation story implies that only sexual relations between male and female (and then only in marriage) are acceptable before God. It was inevitable that Jewish authors would associate nature and divine creation and ordering as its foundation.” (pp. 313-14)
“The allusion literally to ‘males’ and ‘females’ probably has in mind, the creation of male and female, which along with the prohibitions of Leviticus will have shaped Paul’s stance” (Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature [Eerdmans, 2014], 138)
My only complaint with Loader as regards the allusion to creation is that he doesn’t note from me the first two parts of the tripartite structure initiated in Rom 1:23 of human/image/likeness and birds/cattle/reptiles, which are designed to connect the reader to Gen 1:26-27.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon.