Skyline Church Same-Sex Marriage Debate — Part 4

For the final installment I'll shamelessly connect these remarks with my academic research interests.

Perhaps one irony (that should not really seem like an irony to those who have read/listened to the statements from anti-gay activists) of the debate at Skyline was the pro SSM side imploring the congregation to love and accept those who are different but are still fellow human beings, Americans, and even Christians, while the contrary side mainly deployed dogmatic arguments denouncing LGBT as deviant, on par with pedophiles, practitioners of incest, and such. We need no better example of the Spirit (pneuma) giving life and the Letter (gramma) killing—for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life [τὸ γὰρ γράμμα ἀποκτείνει, τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα ζῳοποιεῖ] (2 Corinthians 3:6).

The difference between a mutable, living spirit and a dead, unchanging letter is the strength and also the burden of a long, written (sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine) archive that any literate person is free to consult, reference, cross-check, etc. The spirit or breath (pneuma or spiritus means breath) exits the mouth and promptly dies, or at least it did until the 19th century invention of audio recording. Though, it's technically feasible to record the breath of our words and thereby make them as dead as the archived letters, the quick dialogue and evaluation of an idea that live debate allows survives in the speed with which the mass media disseminate and alter public opinion, even though those communication channels don't always promote the sort of criticism and rationality that easier to do with writing and print.

In their 1963 article "The Consequences of Literacy," Jack Goody and Ian Watt make an intriguing point about the difficulties literate societies (i.e., ones in which writing infusing most aspects of life) have in accommodating changes to their beliefs. Primarily oral cultures (i.e., those without a written language)—so goes the argument—resolve conflicts between received historical or mythological (in the sense of mythos or stories) teaching and current practices by simply revising the history/myth. That strategy isn't surprising given how volatile human memory is (think of the telephone game or the unreliability of eye witness testimony) and with no written (i.e., externalized) record to confirm or contradict the story, there is no barrier to the silent emendation. Literate societies on the other hand experience slower and more painful revisions to their histories precisely because written records exist to which opposing camps can refer as proof of their positions. The tendency is then toward radical shifts, breaks in history, and revolutions rather than seamless or gradual changes.

We could then sort the sides of the Skyline debate as either oral or literal—Gene Robinson's call for a "living" Christian religion that applies the spirit of the text to the present would be the more oral approach, and Gagnon's intransigent insistence on the primacy of recorded Biblical teachings would be the more literal one. Neat and tidy though it is, I'm not entirely convinced that distinction will work, because Robinson and Gagnon are both literate in the sense of having been trained to approach texts (not spoken words) as puzzles needing exegesis or hermeneutical analysis. Plus, there's the consideration that the Bible, even though the name means book in Greek, has passed through several media technologies over its lifetime—manuscript (i.e., handwritten) collection of various histories, myths, laws, etc.; mechanically printed codex; and now digitally encoded text.

This digital trace has made it all the easier for the layman to discover all the inconsistencies, omissions (hello Apocrypha and Gospel of Judas), and other papered-over (as it were) conflicts. Ironically we see quite clearly how the text has transformed over the centuries while also getting a fairly unchanging record of all those modifications. Depending on your existing beliefs. Given the preference for mash-ups, covers, and remixing, I think this irony will work in more Robinson's than Gagnon's favor.

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