Tag Archives: Best Sellers

Did the Movement for Marriage Equality Begin in 2008? One Chapter in a Larger Narrative

Forcing the Spring, the recent best-seller by New York Times reporter Jo Becker, purports to chronicle the back story to the sweeping success of the marriage equality movement across the nation, but critics complain that the book gives too much credit to Becker’s sources and too little to the significant contributions of others, especially earlier pilgrims in the long journey toward marriage equality. In response, author Becker acknowledges that “The book is about one chapter in a larger narrative, and that narrative includes so many people who worked so hard on this issue when the going was far tougher than it is today.”


Let us consider the role of progressive religion. Against well-entrenched religious opposition to all things gay, progressive religious leaders were early voices “crying in the wilderness,” and decades of advocacy within religious spheres have largely prepared the good soil for recent marriage equality policy breakthroughs.

In the sixties, the issue was not marriage equality but criminalization and police harassment of homosexuals. Of course, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 exploded as a spontaneous backlash to a police raid on a gay bar, and Stonewall has become the iconic moment that marks the birth of the gay liberation movement.

Clergy press conference following police raid

Clergy press conference following police raid of 1964 New Year’s ball

However, nearly five years before Stonewall, the San Francisco based Council on Religion and Homosexuality (CRH) sponsored a New Year’s Eve ball in 1964 that was raided by police, and the clergy who appeared at a press conference the next day to denounce the police behavior focused the eyes of the nation on abusive police practices and policies. One commentator suggested the clergy provided the “cloak of the cloth,” a powerful and visible sign of religious support for the LGBT community. In 1965, the prestigious Christian Century Magazine suggested, “the law … should not penalize private immoralities which cannot be proved contrary to the common good.” The first LGBT policy statements of the ecumenical Protestant denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ) in the late sixties and seventies called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.

Holy Union 1970

The 1970 Holy Union of Father Robert Mary Clement and John Darcy Noble, Rev. Troy Perry officiating

By the 1990’s, still long before marriage equality was on the legal horizon, many clergy conferred a blessing on the relationships of their gay or lesbian parishioners, variously referred to as “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” commitment services,” “holy unions,” and other terms. In fact, the terminology “holy union” dates to 1970 when independent (non-Roman) Catholic priest, Father Robert Mary Clement, who had marched in his clerical robes in the first Gay Pride parade in New York City, was joined with his life partner in a religious ceremony, and the officiant was Rev. Troy Perry, who had started the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay denomination, months before Stonewall. In 1993, Perry and the MCC organized a Washington D.C. event they dubbed simply “The Wedding,” and Perry claimed “At least 2,600 same-sex couples, complete with tuxedos and wedding gowns, made a public commitment in a mass ritual.”

Meanwhile, the ecumenical Protestant churches wrestled with policies regarding blessing gay and lesbian couples.

  • In 1993, the Lutheran Conference of Bishops stated that although the church did not recognize an official ceremony of blessing, the bishops acknowledged the prerogative of pastors and congregations in ministry with gay and lesbian persons to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care,” and that was widely interpreted to allow clergy discretion to preside at rites of blessing.
  • After Methodist Pastor Jimmy Creech was defrocked and Pastor Greg Dell suspended just before the turn of the century for presiding at covenant ceremonies, nearly one hundred West coast Methodist clergy jointly officiated in the covenant service of a lesbian couple. Though Methodist policy remained unchanged, the horde of media representatives and bank of television cameras at the February 2000 press conference announcing that no ecclesiastical charges would be filed against the “Sacramento 68” demonstrated that the same-sex marriage issue had captured the attention of the world.
  • When Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality in 2003, by judicial fiat, the local Episcopal bishop initially encouraged his priests to refrain from conducting marriage ceremonies, but the priests widely ignored their bishop, and within a few years, the bishop himself presided at a lesbian wedding–of two of his priests, no less!
  • On July 4, 2005, the UCC General Synod formally endorsed marriage equality with an overwhelming vote for a resolution that “affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”
  • In the last decade, the Presbyterian journey to full LGBT inclusion was marked by ecclesiastical trials wrestling with rites of blessing, and the Presbyterian courts made it clear that rites of blessing were permitted as long as it was not a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, when the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” instructed her local presbytery to censure Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr, who has long been the “poster lesbian” of the Presbyterian Church, for officiating at legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples, the presbytery instead issued a resolution of support for Rev. Dr. Spahr’s ministry. All Presbyterian eyes are on Detroit this week where issues of marriage equality are front and center of the General Assembly.

In the last dozen years, as marriage equality has gained momentum in the civil sphere, so too has full inclusion of LGBT persons moved forward in the religious sphere, at least within the ecumenical denominations. By removing the gates to the pulpit through revisions to ministry policies–that is, by ordaining partnered gays and lesbians–the UCC (as early as the 1970s), the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have all recently affirmed that the relationships of gay and lesbian partners are to be recognized, supported, and celebrated. Without attempting too fine a point regarding a chicken or egg analysis, when the moral authority of the church swings toward inclusion, public opinion will be affected.

Finally, and especially germane to the recent sweeping success of marriage equality adjudication and legislation across jurisdictions, the role of progressive clergy in statewide pro-equality movements cannot be understated. The example of Minnesota is illustrative. In 2012, a restrictive constitutional amendment was defeated by the electorate, and marriage equality was enacted during the next legislative session in 2013. Minnesotans United was the LGBT advocacy group that successfully worked on both measures, and their strategy “refused to cede the religious ground.” Though the local Roman Catholic Archbishop was an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, ecumenical Protestant and Jewish clergy served in highly visible leadership roles. Minnesota clergy issued joint communiques, provided legislative testimony, appeared at rallies and press conferences, and a priest, a minister, and a rabbi came into a bar together in a humorous TV ad. The clergy collar was omnipresent in LGBT advocacy efforts.

Marriage is a legal contract, defined and sanctioned by the civil law but with significant religious overtones, and the voices of opposition to LGBT rights have long used religion to bolster their arguments. Because of the religious underpinnings to LGBT issues, legal and societal progress would have been slowed or thwarted without the counter-influence of activists and allies, within the church, who offered the “cloak of the cloth” from the earliest days, who provided the example of holy unions to bless and solemnize gay and lesbian relationships, and who “refused to cede the religious ground.”

Book Review: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

2004 Hardcover release Published in 1979, The Gnostic Gospels has received the National Book Award and has become the leading work regarding the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in 1945, and Pagels is recognized as a preeminent authority on these Coptic language, gnostic flavored texts.

Although discovered in 1945, the texts remained outside public purview for many years due to scholarly and governmental squabbling over access.  When western scholars finally obtained access to the discoveries, Pagels was entering graduate school at Harvard.  Listen to her story:

I first learned of the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1965, when I entered the graduate program at Harvard University … I was fascinated to hear of the find, and delighted in 1968 when [a Harvard professor] received mimeographed transcriptions … because the official publications had not yet appeared … Convinced that the discovery would revolutionize the traditional understanding of the origins of Christianity, I wrote my dissertation at Harvard and Oxford on the controversy between gnostic and orthodox Christianity.

After receiving her Harvard PhD, Pagels accepted a faculty position at Barnard College, Columbia University, and she continued her research into early Christian Gnosticism, publishing a couple of technical books in the process.  In 1975, she traveled to Cairo and received access to the original documents, she delivered a paper to the First International Conference of the Nag Hammadi scholars, and “having joined the team of scholars, I participated in preparing the first complete edition in English, published in the United States in 1977.”

Nag Hammadi codices The story of finding the buried vase that contained the ancient texts is filled with blood revenge murder and sufficient intrigue for an Indiana Jones movie, but the speculation regarding the burying of the vase millennia ago is equally compelling.  Nag Hammadi is a small city on the banks of the Nile River several hundred miles upstream from the Nile Delta.  Based on dating the codices found in the jar, it is commonly believed that the vase was buried between 350 and 400 CE. 

Who buried the vase?  Why?  Pagels borrows this explanation:

The scholar Frederik Wisse has suggested that the monks who lived at the monastery of St. Pachomius, within sight of the cliff where the texts were found, may have included the Nag Hammadi texts within their devotional library.  But in 367, when Athanasius, the powerful Archbishop of Alexandria, sent an order to purge all “apocryphal books” with “heretical” tendencies, one (or several) of the monks may have hidden the precious manuscripts in the jar.

All this is merely background to the primary thrust of The Gnostic Gospels, which is to interpret and compare these gnostic texts with orthodox Christianity.  Here are Pagel’s main theses:

  • Hierarchy threatened: 

Because gnostic Christians stressed a direct relationship with God attained through self knowledge (gnosis) as revealed by Jesus, the authority of the deacons and bishops was threatened, and the hierarchy attacked the gnostics with a vigor befitting a life-death struggle.  Even though the gnostics were fellow Christians, albeit with different views, the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy developed to smash the gnostics.  Chief among the heresy hunters was Bishop Irenaeus whose monumental “Against Heresies”, c 180 CE, provides the greatest insight into the early battle over orthodoxy.  He wrote:

Such persons are, to outward appearances, sheep, for they seem to be like us, from what they say in public, repeating the same words [of confession] that we do; but inwardly they are wolves.

[Gnostic teaching destroys them in] an abyss of madness and blasphemy.

[S]uch a person becomes so puffed up that … he walks with a strutting gait and a supercilious countenance, possessing all the pompous airs of a cock.

One must obey the priests who are in the church—that is … those who possess the succession from the apostles.  For they receive simultaneously with the episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.

  • Significance of the Resurrection: 

Since gnostics stressed interior knowledge initiated by the revelatory character of Jesus and under the guidance of the spirit, individual theological views varied–dogma was not important—interior enlightenment mattered, and this varied from one to another.  Thus, gnostics held varying views on the resurrection of Jesus, but they tended to spiritualize the resurrection accounts and understand the resurrection symbolically while their opponents stressed the literal historicity of the resurrection, at least in part as self-serving claims for authority for the witnesses to the resurrection (Peter and the disciples) and their heirs (priests, bishops, and pope). 

Pagels describes the resurrection view of the gnostics as follows:

Ordinary human existence is spiritual death, but the resurrection is the moment of enlightenment.  “It is  … the revealing of what truly exists … and a migration into newness.”  Whoever grasps this is spiritually alive.  This means that one can be “resurrected from the dead’ right now:  “Are you—the real you—mere corruption?  Why do you not examine your own self and see that you have arisen?”


  • The role of women:

Again, gnostic views are diverse and varied, but clearly the gnostics held a higher view of the role of women than did their orthodox opponents.  Since the gnostics had no priests, anyone, including a woman, was free to speak at gnostic gatherings.  Some gnostic sects had women in leadership roles. 

Gnostic imagery also offered a heightened view of women.  Pagels sketches three common motifs: the divine mother as part of an original couple, divine mother as holy spirit—the trinity becomes father, mother, and son, and divine mother as Wisdom.

Why did the orthodox church move to exclude women?  Pagels speculates that part of the reason was because the gnostics did not; thus, excluding women became a mode of differentiation from the heretics.

We can see, then, two very different patterns of sexual attitudes emerging in orthodox and gnostic circles.  In simplest form, many gnostic Christians correlate their description of God in both masculine and feminine terms with a complementary description of human nature … Gnostic Christians often take the principle of equality between men and women into the social and political structures of their communities.  The orthodox pattern is strikingly different: it describes God in exclusively masculine terms [which] translates into social practice: by the late second century, the orthodox community came to accept the domination of men over women as the divinely ordained order, not only for social and family life, but also for the Christian churches.

  • Persecution of Christians:

Martyrs and a lion While some gnostic Christians would have been victims of first and second century Roman persecutions, Pagels generalizes that it was mostly orthodox Christians who faced, and embraced death, while the gnostics mostly did not.

The examples of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicity are illustrative.  Each of these willingly and gladly accepted their deaths, repeatedly refusing the offer for leniency in exchange for demonstrating sacrificial allegiance to the emperor.


  • The True Church:

The gnostics and the orthodox drew differing boundaries that defined the true church in ways that excluded the other.  For the orthodox, the church consisted of those who held fast to the creed, participated in the sacraments and worship, and obeyed the clergy—“Outside the church there is no salvation.”  For the anti-authoritarian gnostics, the church consisted of seekers after esoteric wisdom–“the light within”–even if their search led them away from the established church.  Truth was to be found in individual enlightenment rather than blind obeisance to the dogma of the bishops.  The charge that gnostics claimed to be spiritual elites has merit.

Conclusion: Pagels offers a benign view of the gnostics, suggesting their suppression resulted in the impoverishment of Christian tradition, but she does not advocate or “side with” Gnosticism.  Yet, the historical record reminds us that orthodoxy always belittles those on the fringes, those who dare wonder, those “restless, inquiring people who marked out a solitary path of self-discovery.”  And, she suggests that current Christians again dare ask questions that orthodoxy would claim are settled:

How is one to understand the resurrection?  What about women’s participation in priestly and episcopal office?  Who was Christ, and how does he relate to the believer?  What are the similarities between Christianity and other world religions? …  What is the relation between the authority of one’s own experience and that claimed for the Scriptures, the ritual, and the clergy?

According to Pagels, if the ancient monks had not buried their library, those gnostic texts would surely have been burned and Christianity would have lost a great treasure. 

Today we read them with different eyes, not merely as “madness and blasphemy” but as Christians in the first centuries experienced them—a powerful alternative to what we know as orthodox Christian tradition.  Only now are we beginning to consider the questions with which they confront us.

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Last night, I attended a book club meeting at the Monkey See bookstore in downtown Northfield, Mn.  Jerry, the bookstore owner, hosted Phil and Barb, Mary, Charlene, and author Tom Swift whose own book, Chief Bender’s Burden, has been getting lots of favorable publicity lately.  At the once-a-month get together, we discussed the short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri.


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The “theology” of Dan Brown

ross-douthatConservative commentator Ross Douthat (author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream) sees a sinister theology behind the popular novels of Dan Brown.  In a NY Times op ed piece, Douthat suggests that The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and the soon to be released The Lost Symbol are more than wildly popular pulp fiction.  “He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology,” says Douthat.

The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.

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