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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Gay Christian’s video draws praise, scorn

By Fred Mann
The Wichita Eagle

In the video, the young man with the face of an altar boy speaks with quiet conviction for 67 minutes, looking a church congregation in the eye, glancing only occasionally at his notes, making his case that when it comes to homosexuality and the Bible, most people have it all wrong.

The Bible, he contends, doesn’t say homosexuality is a sin, nor does it condemn loving gay relationships.

Made March 8 at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, the video has been viewed more than 135,000 times on YouTube and drawn an international outpouring of praise and condemnation for the speaker.

Reaction to it is likely to swell as the issue of gay marriage percolates in presidential politics, and states debate bans on same-sex marriages.

In his home in College Hill, the speaker, Matthew Vines, 22, pops open a laptop to share some of the responses to his video.

Several gay teens write that they were about to kill themselves, but changed their minds after watching his presentation.

Other gays write that they have returned to the Bible after giving up on Christianity.

One high school student writes that her stepfather changed his opinion about what the Bible says about homosexuality and apologized for calling her a sinner.

One gay woman writes: “I just want to say thank you. You are changing the world, and changing my life.”

Other responses say he is wrong, that he is twisting what the Bible says. Some are crude rants, and Vines says he brushes those off as knee-jerk reactions. But some critics are beginning to mount more thorough and thoughtful rebuttals on blog posts and websites all over the Internet.

One minister in Arizona has offered a three-hour rebuttal that begins cordially but evolves into a strident appeal for Vines to repent, accusing him of making arguments used to justify pedophilia.

Vines says he made the video in part to elevate the debate. He wants to engage in arguments based on serious biblical scholarship. Perhaps he can be pushed to dig deeper into his own research, he says.

He believes critics face a difficult task overturning his findings. His case, two years in the making, is sound, he says.

“I did not do this casually. I tore everything apart to make sure I was making an argument that will withstand the toughest scrutiny, and I am confident this will. I want people to try to tear this apart. I will be happy to defend my position,” he says.

‘Extraordinary process’

Vines grew up in what he says was a conservative Presbyterian church. He formed the view that traditional biblical interpretations say gays are not part of God’s design, that they are broken and sinful and ought to be excluded from the possibility of marriage and loving companionship. There seemed to be nothing to argue. The issue was made clear in six passages in the Bible.

At Wichita’s East High School, Vines demonstrated a passion for social justice and civil rights. He lobbied successfully for legislation that divested the state’s pension system from companies with ties to Sudan, which by then had been blamed for atrocities in Darfur that had killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.

He co-edited the school paper, appeared in school stage productions, and had enough talent to win two Jester Awards sponsored by Music Theatre of Wichita for supporting and lead roles. He also performed in Music Theatre productions. And he found time to work on a Harry Potter website that developed a national following.

He graduated as a valedictorian and a National Merit Scholarship finalist in 2008 and went to Harvard University.

Then, in the autumn of his sophomore year, he said he acknowledged to himself that he was a gay Christian.

He was overwhelmed at first.

“I knew this was going to turn everything upside down about my life, and involve a lot of stress and vulnerability, and a lot of potential pain,” he says. “I knew there were so many obstacles.”

For a time he was able to put this new self-awareness aside and compartmentalize it so he could focus on class work. Slowly, he began to see that it didn’t have to mean the end of the world.

Unable to accept that the Bible offered a loving Jesus who championed the downtrodden, yet compelled the spiritual destruction of a sexual minority, he was determined to research the issue.

When he came home to Wichita after the fall semester, he knew he didn’t want to go back.

He found that decision liberating.

“I needed the time to pour thousands of hours into studying this and not focusing on anything else,” Vines says.

But he also knew he had to reveal his sexual orientation to his family and his friends from school and church. He had come out in the accepting environment of Harvard. He expected the process to be more intense and protracted in Wichita.

Coming out to his parents was nerve-racking. Vines says his mother was quickly accepting, although concerned about the obstacles of prejudice and discrimination that likely lay ahead for him. His father was open to him, but needed time to work through the issue.

Within six months, his dad was able to support him, Vines says. Both parents remain strongly behind him and his efforts to spread his message, he says.

Gaining acceptance from church friends was a much greater challenge.

“It was an extraordinary process, unbelievably difficult,” Vines says.

The process — a long series of conversations, meetings, dinners and discussions — has taken two and a half years and resulted in only limited success, he says.

“Some people responded well and some people didn’t respond very well,” Vines says. “When people don’t respond well, it’s a gut-wrenching experience.”

Vines returned to Harvard in the fall of 2010 to take Latin classes because some of the early documents he’d read were in Latin. He also took classes in religion. But he left for a second time after that semester and hasn’t been back. He took up the life of a hermit scholar at his parents’ home.

Vines says he studied ancient Greek and became proficient enough to feel comfortable reading biblical texts that originally had been written in Greek. He studied previous scholarship on the issue and devoted months to develop a background in Christianity and ancient history.

He says he wanted to share his scholarship in a way that was accessible to all and acceptable to conservatives in the church.

“That doesn’t mean they will want to agree with it, but if they are open to it, it is an argument they can accept, and requires them to change absolutely nothing else about their beliefs,” he says. “All I’m asking them to do is try to give more thought and nuance to six passages out of more than 31,000.”

Vines’ argument

The six passages Vines addresses in the video are Genesis 19, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Leviticus 18 and 20 in the Old Testament; and, in the New Testament, a passage by Paul in Romans 1, and two Greek terms in 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1.

Vines argues that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah does not offer biblical evidence that homosexuality is a sin, that the reference to male-to-male sex in the story is in relation to gang rape, not loving relationships.

Levitical law, he argues, is inapplicable to Christians through Christ’s fulfillment of the law, and although some of its rules continue to be observed by Christians, the prohibitions of same-sex relationships appear among dozens of other prohibitions in Leviticus that Christians have never considered applicable, such as eating shrimp, planting two kinds of seeds in the same field and cutting the hair on the sides of one’s head.

The New Testament verses pertain to sexual exploitation and lustful behavior, not loving relationships, he says. The Bible, Vines says, never condemns loving, committed, same-sex relationships.

Vines argues that for the non-celibate, Paul prescribes marriage as a protection against sexual sin.

“And so if the remedy against sexual sin for straight Christians is marriage,” he says in the video, “why should the remedy for gay Christians not be the same?”

Vines acknowledges that he used scholarship done by others and that his arguments don’t break new ground. That wasn’t his goal.

“If you’re making an original argument, chances are it’s not going to hold up. People have been studying these texts for a long, long time,” Vines says. “The problem is, most of it is too esoteric for your average lay Christian to find acceptable or resonant.

“I’m trying to bring them together in a much more cohesive, clear and cogent way than they’ve generally been brought together before.”

Critical response

Reaction to the video among local clergy has been split.

The Rev. Catherine Neelly, associate pastor and acting head of staff at Grace Presbyterian Church, which Vines has been attending since autumn, praises his scholarship and his presentation.

“I think Matthew makes a compelling argument, and I’m supportive of his conclusions,” she says. She knows not everyone in her church will agree with her.

Neelly attended the presentation at College Hill United Methodist, and she says it clearly shows Vines’ love of Scripture.

“He knows it, and it’s so deeply personal to him that it draws people in,” she says.

But the Rev. Terry Fox, pastor of Summit Church in Wichita, says Vines’ views are simply wrong. Anybody who reads the Bible can see that homosexuality always is presented in a negative context in both testaments, he says.

“For Matthew to try to justify this lifestyle with Scripture is just absurd,” Fox says.

Fox, who has seen parts of the video, says Vines contends that the Bible is out of context with today’s culture.

“If Matthew were right on that, then the Bible would have no relevance, period,” Fox says.

If he singles out homosexuality as no longer relevant, why not murder, or stealing? Fox asks.

Vines is making public a discussion that has been ongoing for at least 30 years, says Stan Harstine, associate professor of religion at Friends University and chair of the division of religion and humanities. Since 1989, about 100 books have been written on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible, and they offer contradictory conclusions.

But then, biblical interpretation is an art, not a science, Harstine says. In the same way that people can disagree on the worth of a painting, they can disagree on what the Bible says based on how they approach it.

Some use the Bible as a starting point to guide their experience. Others use their experience as the starting point and try to find out how the Bible approaches it, Harstine says.

“Matthew starts with his experience and uses the Bible to understand his experience. The other side starts with the Bible as an authority for what it means to be Christian, and that goes toward their experience,” Harstine says. “They come out at two different positions because they start in two different places.”

Biblical interpretation depends on the layers people add to the Scripture. The simplest way is to read it literally, he says, but then people layer their own backgrounds, religious traditions, research and other influences. All of it affects how they interpret it.

Vines offers established scholarship on the six passages, but he skips other parts of the Bible that would add context and could affect his interpretation, Harstine says.

“He has looked at the literature and brought out information to help him understand who he is, and to provide information that helps him come to grips with his particular situation. He’s a brave young man for saying, ‘This is who I am,’ and ‘This is what I understand, and I have this doctrinal support.’ There are denominations, churches and congregations that would fully embrace his understanding,” Harstine says. “But it’s only one side. There are others who would not embrace it.”

Fox points out what he regards as one benefit of the video:

“It’s going to create some dialogue,” he says, “and that can be really positive.”

Fox and the Rev. Joe Wright will host Vines in a debate on the issue Sunday night on their radio show, “Answering the Call,” from 7 to 8 p.m. on KQAM, 1480-AM.

Dialogue is what Vines is seeking, especially with conservative Christians who are open to considering arguments from different standpoints, but who also want those arguments to be thoughtful and uphold the authority of Scripture.

Vines hopes, too, that pro-gay advocates consider his arguments and use them when confronted by the traditional biblical interpretations that dominate the debate.

“If we’re trying to make progress, then this is the kind of engagement we have to do,” Vines says. “These issues will remain contentious issues, and anti-gay prejudice is going to be around as long as we don’t do this well. And we don’t do it well.”

Future goals

Vines says he has never had a relationship. He isn’t part of a gay community in Wichita. He doesn’t go to clubs, bars or parties.

“One day I would like to get married. I’m just not there yet,” he says.

It would be different, he says, if he were “straight.” He doesn’t feel secure enough yet as a gay man to have a relationship.

“When I get married, I don’t want to have to worry about all of the prejudice and discrimination, all the patchwork of gay-marriage bans that are being passed everywhere. It gets frustrating and demoralizing,” he says.

He continues to live quietly with his parents, doing research and responding to comments on the video.

He has no plans to return to Harvard yet.

“I would go back to Harvard if and when I felt like being in school is really going to advance the goals I’m working on. Those goals right now are getting rid of homophobia and reforming Christianity. I am passionate about those goals.”

Vines doesn’t want to do a tour with his lecture, just let the video live on the Web and hope its audience continues to build. Results after two months have been encouraging, he says. He has heard from gay Christians in conservative communities not only in America, but in Madagascar, South Africa, Lebanon, Sweden, Australia and Indonesia.

Vines shares another message of thanks from a gay Christian woman who informs him that she was about to commit suicide because her family and church don’t think there can be any such thing as a gay Christian.

“Instead of giving up my life and ending it,” the message says, “I will give my life to the cause, to enlighten and preach reconciliation so that the marginalized can indeed be free."

Another message comes in from a conservative Christian who says she has changed her mind about homosexuality after thinking about his video for two months.

Such reactions are rewarding, he says.

“I hope that in time … we can relieve some of the antagonism and tension, which doesn’t have to be inherent in Christianity and in religion,” he says.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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