Gay Marriage and the English Language
by Derrick G. Jeter
There is an ancient proverb uttered by the mouth of God when Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”1 I thought of this recently when I read an article in Newsweek, “Our Mutual Joy,” which . . . well, I’ll just quote the subtitle: “Opponents of gay marriage often cite Scripture. But what the Bible teaches about love argues for the other side.”2
Another sage saying came to mind when I read this piece—one from Abraham Lincoln: “When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him—at least, I find it so with myself; but when the misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him.”3 The article is an amusing piece, a typical screed, not seeking to engage in civil dialogue with those who disagree with gay marriage on Biblical grounds but rather a piece seeking to portray those who disagree as a caricature. Those who disagree must be ignoramuses because “no serious (or even semiserious) person would argue that” denying “all of God’s children, made in his likeness and image . . . any sacrament based on sexuality is exactly the same thing as denying it based on skin color.”4 Aside from the fact that not all Christian traditions—the article is targeted against Christians—view marriage as a sacrament and that sex, of any kind, is a moral issue not an amoral issue, like one’s skin color, I suppose I won’t argue against it. What made me chuckle when I read the article was just the silliness of the arguments—the gross and palpable misrepresentation of the Scriptural teaching on marriage and homosexuality.
The biblical interpretations of cherry-picked passages against homosexual marriage simply create a strawman, easily knocked over, leading one to the conclusion that the opposite must be true. Arguing point-by-point is pointless, like throwing pearls before swine, but looking at the underlying logic of the article is useful.
The conclusion that “what the Bible teaches about love argues for” gay marriage is summarized by Walter Brueggemann: “‘The religious argument for gay marriage . . . is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.’”5 We can ignore the obvious, that marriage is not inclusive but rather exclusive; more to the point is the illogical claim that inclusion supports the proposition that gay marriage is biblically okay. This may be an opinion, a hope, or a hypothesis, but it is in no way an argument for the Bible’s position on homosexuality in general or homosexual marriage in particular—even for a progressive reading of the Scripture. In what way does “the practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference . . . argue for gay marriage”?6 It doesn’t. Such a claim can argue for anything—polygamy, incest, or the molestation of porcupines—which is simply a different way of saying that it is an argument for nothing. In other words, inclusiveness is meaningless when it comes to arguments for or against marriage, of any kind.
And meaninglessness is really the point of the article. This piece is not really trying to put forth a coherent biblical argument for gay marriage, it is advocating a progressive hermeneutic—the right to interpret the Bible personally, particularly passages that are offensive. The article asserts that “Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document . . . [and as such, some passages] are throwaway lines.”7 Biblical literalist certainly do disagree, the Bible is not a “living document” in the sense that that phrase is code for stripping away the meaning of words and propositions we don’t like. But it stands to reason that we can dance a linguistic tango around offending passages if we deem some as throwaway lines. Later in the article Ms. Miller says, “A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism.”8 But where is the authority of the Scripture in such a mature view? Certainly, if I can bend and twist the words of the Bible into any shape I choose, to make it comport to our ever changing notions of ethics and morals, then the Bible loses its authority because it no longer becomes the standard by which to comport my life. Yet, here is the essence of it: theologically the Bible is either the Word of God or it is not9; literally the Bible’s words convey meaning or they do not.
I found it ironic, when I read “Our Mutual Joy” online, that a sidebar, which listed the top five viewed articles, included one about George Orwell and his celebrated essay on the English language. In that article Ms. Yabroff tells how an editor advised Orwell to change his cast of characters in Animal Farm from pigs. Then Ms. Yabroff quotes Orwell as saying, “‘One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. . . .’” and then concludes, “In other words, it’s important to call a pig a pig.”10 If this is true of a pig then it is equally true of more significant words like wife and husband; they must mean something specific—namely a man and a women—or they mean nothing at all. Put simply, it’s important to call a wife a wife and a husband a husband.
Orwell warns: “It is often easier to make up words . . . than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.”11 And so it is in “Our Mutual Joy,” the meaning of the words marriage and love is sloppy and ambiguous, rendering the words meaningless. Orwell continues:
The words Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. . . . Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them as his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.12
This is exactly what is happening to marriage and love in the gay marriage debate when proponents use the language of the Bible to advocate for gay marriage—these words are “used in a consciously dishonest way.” Paul was painfully clear when he declared, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”13 The language of the Bible is unambiguous—homosexuality is an evil, a sin, like other sins, that separates us from God yet has been forgiven for those who believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. And because of Paul’s declaration, the biblical arguments for gay marriage—love, inclusiveness, community, and the “neither . . . nor, but all are one in Christ”—are no arguments at all because they have no biblical basis, no matter how you twist the language.
In a telling statement, Ms. Yabroff quotes George Packer: “‘God knows, I’ve wanted to use that essay [Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”] as a purgative. Orwell tells you how to cut through the vapor and get the truth and write about it in a way that is vigorous and clear. Those skills are particularly necessary right now.’”14 I couldn’t agree more! And the Bible is the most vigorous and clear writing I’ve ever encountered. Too bad the necessary skill to interpret the Bible’s words and its meaning is so sorely lacking among so many right now.
There is at least one thing I can agree on with the advocates of gay marriage: “if Jesus were alive today, he would reach out especially to the gays and lesbians among us, for ‘Jesus does not want people to be lonely and sad.’ Let [that] prayer be our own.”15 Amen, with this caveat: “I do not condemn you. Go. From now on sin no more.”16
1. Matthew 7:6.
2. Lisa Miller, “Our Mutual Joy,” Newsweek (December 15, 2008), http://www.newsweek.com/id/172653 (accessed December 10, 2008).
3. Abraham Lincoln, “First Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois,” August 21, 1858, quoted in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3, ed. Roy P. Blaser (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 13.
4. Miller, “Our Mutual Joy.”
5. Walter Brueggemann, quoted in Miller, “Our Mutual Joy.”
6. Miller, “Our Mutual Joy.”
7. Miller, “Our Mutual Joy.”
8. Miller, “Our Mutual Joy.”
9. See 2 Timothy 3:16.
10. Jennie Yabroff, “Why We Need to Call a Pig a Pig (With or Without Lipstick),” Newsweek (December 10, 2008), http://www.newsweek.com/id/166816 (accessed December 12, 2008).
11. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Essays (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002), 959.
12. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 959.
13. 1 Corinthians 13:6.
14. George Packer, quoted in Yabroff, “Why We Need to Call a Pig a Pig (With or Without Lipstick).”
15. Miller, “Our Mutual Joy.”
16. John 8:11.