Edited by Michael Bird and Gordon Preece
Anglican Press Australia 2012
Justin Denholm assesses an evangelical response to ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’.
Questions relating to sexuality are fiercely contested and deeply felt. In Australia’s current political and social climate issues of sexuality are frequently encountered. Should the definition of marriage be expanded to include same-sex relationships? Should churches and individual ministers be free to decide conscientiously if they will conduct such weddings? What voice in the public space do Christians deserve on this matter? More fundamental conflicts exist. If Christians oppose homosexual activity, on what basis do they do so? Because God prohibits it, or because it leads to personal or social problems, or because children should live with their biological parents? Even Christians who agree about an issue like same-sex marriage may have very different reasons for doing so and might choose to speak about it differently.
With so many questions like these being asked, it is essential that Christians be equipped to respond and engage in a faithful and respectful fashion. We need to be well prepared both to speak clearly and carefully into the world outside the church, while also ensuring that discussions and decisions with our brothers and sisters inside the church are faithful to the message that we have been given. Critically, we need a robust and intelligent understanding of what the Bible has say to say about sexuality and homosexuality in order to engage with these questions in a faithful way.
In 2011 the collection of essays ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’ sought to engage with Biblical texts frequently highlighted as specifically dealing with the morality of homosexual activity: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11. This is a laudable approach; as Christians dealing with important and complex moral issues, it is critical that our discussions with each other revolve first around scripture. However, for the authors of Five Uneasy Pieces it was also clearly a ‘shot across the bow’ of evangelical Christians. The collection sought to assert that the Biblical evidence for the immorality of homosexual activity was at best speculative and aimed to provide support for a range of subsequent positions in relation to issues such as same-sex marriage and ordination of those in same-sex relationships. ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’ was the opening of a conversation-in-print, and an evangelical response was needed to continue the discussion.
‘Sexegesis’, edited by Michael Bird and Gordon Preece, is subtitled ‘an evangelical response to Five Uneasy Pieces’, and provides the next step in this conversation. At its core are five chapters written in direct engagement with both the key Bible texts and the essays from ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’. Each chapter explores the selected passage, and offers an evangelical exegesis alongside critical engagement with its counterpart essay. As a response it is more than adequate, with chapters that are clearly written and present fair analysis of both text and opposing argument. Between Lindsay Wilson’s offering on Genesis 19 and Denise Cooper-Clarke’s engagement with 1 Timothy 1:8–11, I found both sensible reformulations of traditional understanding of each text as well as careful and uncompromising engagement with the nuances of novel interpretations arising from ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’. While brought together swiftly Sexegesis has an admirable clarity of vision that brings the work together as a coherent whole instead of a series of loosely related chapters.
So, apart from a truly excellent title, what does ‘Sexegesis’ have to offer the reader? Primarily, it is clear and consistent and argues throughout for a well-informed reading of Scripture which respects its evident meaning. Although it is clearly preferable to read both books in contrast, it is also worth pointing out that ‘Sexegesis’ is accessible for the reader who has not previously considered ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’ in depth. Despite all the thoughtful Biblical discussion found within the chapters, perhaps the highlights for me were the ‘bookends’ of Gordon Preece’s opening chapter (‘Sexual ecology between creation and new creation’) and Barry McGrath’s conclusion (‘Listening to a complex story’). Preece’s chapter addresses one of the evident weaknesses of ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’; in focusing on short isolated passages, the sweep of the creation narrative and its significance for understanding human sexuality is lost. McGrath completes ‘Sexegesis’ by drawing on his considerable pastoral experience to write sensitively about the dangers of simplified sexual identity labels, and encourage us to continue an active and relationally meaningful discussion within our communities.
So, I suggest you buy and read this book, and keep it as a resource for your church communities. Read it all the way through and use it as an opportunity to reflect about how we can keep listening and interacting thoughtfully and respectfully. Let’s look for chances to engage not just with academic arguments and theory, but with people who need to be heard and journeyed alongside; a process for which Sexegesis provides us with a helpful model.
Justin Denholm is the Coordinator of the Centre for Applied Christian Ethics at Ridley Melbourne Ministry & Mission College.