It’s a matter of bullshit.
I do not use the word “bullshit” lightly, or merely as a colorful synonym for “nonsense.” I’m using it, here, in its sense as a fully-developed philosophical term, as articulated by Harry Frankfurt in his insightful little book On Bullshit.
Frankfurt defines bullshit by differentiating it from lying. Liars, for Frankfurt, are actually closer to the truth than are bullshitters, because liars actually know what the truth is and deliberately misrepresent it. Bullshitters, on the other hand, disregard the truth from the getgo, instead caring only about two things: First, bullshitters care about promoting a particular agenda, and are only interested in saying things that serve that agenda, with no regard for truth one way or the other. Second, bullshitters, for Frankfurt, are interested in communicating something about themselves, in presenting a particular kind of image of themselves that also serves the agenda. Where lying is about deliberately ignoring a known truth, bullshitting is about leaving truth in the dust, caring only about promoting a brand, one that will give traction to some other purpose.
Frankfurt writes that the bullshitter:
is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose (54).
Much (digital) ink has already been spilled on the so-called Nashville Statement, released recently by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an organization seemingly dedicated to raising the importance of a particular, patriarchal, heteronormative, and essentialized view of human sexuality to a centrality unprecedented in Christian history.
The one thing I haven’t seen in all the ink spilled so far, however, is the quality of the statement that, as a believer myself, I find most disturbing–and the reason I think the statement legitimately fits Frankfurt’s definition.
The bulk of the statement affirms a number of the things that one might expect a group of very conservative Evangelical Christians to affirm: that gender is essentially binary (male and female), that sex is essentially procreative in purpose and therefore only proper in the context of marriage between one man and one woman, and also that, while men and women are equal before God, the essential differences between them assign them to certain predefined “roles.” (This is, basically, a euphemism for patriarchy, since the “roles” ultimately require women to be submissive to men. Deus super caelo; homo super femina regnat, apparently.) Of course, the statement unequivocally condemns any form of LGBTQ sexuality. None of this is anything at all new or surprising.
Except for one thing. And that one thing changes the game entirely.
The kicker comes in Article X of the statement:
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism [sic] and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faith and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism [sic] is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.
There are numerous issues with this article, and I won’t try to enumerate all of them here. Some of them are just matters of sloppy thinking. For example, the phrase “homosexual immorality” both begs the question and manages to be self-contradictory (after all, if there’s such a thing as “homosexual immorality,” that implies that there is also such a thing as “homosexual morality,” which I don’t think is what they intended) and exemplifies deep confusion and mushy comprehension concerning gender and sexuality. It’s hard, after all, to either affirm or condemn clearly something one can’t even describe without a great deal of ambiguity and internal contradiction.
More significant is the use of terms like “homosexual” and “transgenderism,” which are blatantly derogatory. The civil words/phrases are “gay” or “lesbian” (or other more specific terms), and “being transgender.” These terms are considered derogatory because of the ways in which they have been aggressively weaponized by those who wish to demonize LGBTQ persons, essentially reducing their humanity to a “condition.” This belies as entirely disingenuous Article XI’s affirmation to “speak the truth in love,” or really any pretense of good intentions toward LGBTQ people. It’s hard to tell if CBMW employs these terms as intentional insults or uses them out of ignorance, but, either way, the use of the terms demonstrate utter disregard for the baseline human dignity of those they purport to love. Their use also belies the pretense that CBMW is actually interested in speaking to LGBTQ people as an audience in order to bring about some sort of change or repentance (as is implied by Article XII), since, surely, one cannot lead another person to repentance while slinging derogatory epithets at them. How can love be present when even kindergarten-level civility is not? To use the term “transgenderism” in this context is the only-slightly-more-subtle rhetorical equivalent of saying, “We want to love and speak truth to all f-gs.” (And yes, the term “transgenderism,” especially, as I’ve come to understand, is really received by transgender persons as that derogatory and dehumanizing.)
But neither of these are the really big problem from a Christian theological perspective. The real problem is that Article ten redefines the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself as a particular view of human sexuality. If adopting views other than CBMW’s constitute “an essential departure from Christian faith and witness,” and if they deny that “the approval [which I take to indicate any form of meaningul inclusion in the Body of Christ] of homosexual immorality or transgenderism [sic] is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree,” then one’s stance on sexuality becomes the primary deal-breaker, the trump card of Christianity. Essentially, the statement asserts that to disagree with CBMW’s stance on sexuality in any way is to cease to be a Christian.
I can’t emphasize enough how radical a departure this is from two thousand years of Christian thought and history. Never, ever, have Christians defined the Gospel in terms of sexuality. Never has any statement or idea concerning sexuality been included in the traditional creeds, or, really, any statement concerning what the central message of the Gospel, the real core of Christian belief, is about. One wonders how it would be possible, here, to miss Paul’s definition of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news [Gk: euangelion, the Old English translation of which is God-spael, gospel] that I proclaimed to you, which in turm you received, in which you also stand, through which you are also being saved [my boldface], if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance [my boldface] what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called and apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1-11, NRSV).
The entire remainder of the chapter continues to re-emphasize the importance of the Resurrection as the most central concept of the faith.
In other words, for Paul, and for all of the historical Christian creeds (which are precisely statements of the historical consensus concerning the central tenets of the faith), the “heart of the Gospel” is the resurrection, the act of self-sacrificial love that created the conditions under which human beings and the Divine are reconciled to one another. That’s the Gospel. Always has been.
John Pederson, a great theologian (and an old friend and my most valued spiritual mentor) articulates the Gospel this way:
The gospel is God’s announcement of good news into all creation.
The gospel is proclamation, announcement, performative utterance (J. L. Austin offers the example of “I take you to be my wife. . . .”), speech-act (Ernst Fuchs), and as such has more in common with the creation story (“And God said, and it was so.” than Torah or any other ethical configuration. The gospel has more in common with the jury’s announcement/proclamation, “the jury finds you not guilty. . . .” than any moral aspirations I might hope for. The gospel is not exposition, exhortation, aspiration, achievement, and certainly not any stipulated moral code.
The gospel is God’s action and not mine. I do not constitute the gospel by my performance of it or anything else. The gospel is God’s performance, just as much as is creation, covenant, and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Best not indulge human narcissism by suggesting any part of this on my own.
The gospel is good news. It is uncalculated, unexpected, undeserved, surprising. It goes against the evidence, one might say. Evidence for the gospel is in God’s speech, God’s promise and not in any moral influence that may be effected in me. The gospel is not conditional in any way, but rather proclamation, performative, and, as Lutherans might say, forensic.
Moreover, a very strong and consistent strain in Christian theology–from antiquity to the present–specifically rejects the claim that the Gospel qua Gospel has anything whatever to do with codes of morality or behavior. Theologian Gerald T. Sheppard writes:
The Gospel stands out against morality. The purpose of the church should be to call the bluff on any attempts of finding morality in the Gospel.
The Lutheran theologian and theological historian Gerhard Forde further explains:
Christianity is not the move from vice to virtue, but rather the move from virtue to grace.
This is the Gospel, not only as I understand it, but as the whole history of Christianity has defined it since the very beginning. The Gospel is fundamentally not about anyone’s behaviors, much less about any sort of moral code. Never has been. In fact, it’s not about anything human beings do at all. It’s about what God does. We have no role in Grace, save to receive. In fact, Paul consistently seems to see the Gospel as the death of moral codes, exemplified, for him, by the Old-Testament law: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NRSV). The Gospel is entirely one of grace. The law might convict people of wrongdoing or sin, but, for Paul, it convicts everyone equally, making human beings unable to become reconciled to God under our own steam. Christ’s sacrifice is what frees us from that trap, brings us back into relationship. Once again, this is not to say that moral behavior is unimportant, and that grace becomes some sort of “get out of jail free” card that makes life a moral free-for-all. But it does mean that concern about behavior is clearly secondary–part of how one responds to the Gospel. There is no entrance exam for the grace of Christ.
The CBMW statement, however, replaces this traditional, entirely orthodox, consensus about the Gospel with their view of human sexuality. The statement makes that idea, not even a broad moral code covering any wrong behavior, but a single, narrow set of particular behaviors, the deal-breaker. To depart from this particular set of norms concerning gender and sexuality, for CBMW, is to depart from the faith altogether. By making acceptance of this set of norms the litmus-test for true faith, the CBMW statement posits that set of norms as the central tenet of the faith. Two things, of course, cannot occupy the center point at the same time. In affirming their view of human sexuality above all else, CBMW crowds the Gospel of the Resurrection and Grace of Christ out of its traditional place.
I wish I felt I could use terms as mild as unorthodox or heretical to describe this unprecedented innovation. It’s really more than that. By replacing The Gospel of Jesus Christ with Our Gospel of Sexuality, CBMW has, precisely, invented an entirely different religion that has nothing whatever to do with historical Christianity, save, perhaps, as its point of departure. This is not mere aberration from orthodoxy, but rather an entirely novel religion. One that gives its worship to its new trinity of patriarchy, gender essentialism, and heteronormativity, not to mention the political power with a certain voter base those concepts help to motivate.
[It’s worth saying once again: I am not, in this particular essay, taking a stand one way or the other on matters of sexual morality. The bigger issue here, for me, is the way in which the statement places any view of sexuality above what has traditionally been regarded as the central concept of the Gospel. Were it a left-wing group doing the same thing in the service of an opposing agenda, I would be just as concerned, and writing the same article.]
The matter becomes even clearer when one looks at some of the follow-up statements and defenses of the original statement that have come out in the last couple of days: Denny Burk, CBMW’s president, in a follow-up piece defending Article Ten, not only defends the idea that a particular view of sexuality is the central concept of Christianity, but also doubles down on it even more than the original statement:
From the very beginning of the Christian faith, sexual morality has always been central. [my italics.]
And, a bit later:
To get these questions wrong is to walk away from Jesus not to him. There is no more central concern than that [my italics].
Immediately thereafter, Burk puts it even more dogmatically and belligerently:
Readers who perceive Article 10 as a line in the sand have rightly perceived what this declaration is about. Anyone who persistently rejects God’s revelation about sexual holiness and virtue is rejecting Christianity altogether, even if they claim otherwise.
But nowhere in the history of Christianity has sexual morality been treated as the central concern of the faith. This is not to say, of course, that it has been unimportant–Paul is certainly concerned about it in various passages, but Paul is also entirely unambiguous in many more passages, including the passage from 1 Corinthians quoted above, about what is central.
This is why I think it’s legitimate to call bullshit (in Frankfurt’s sense) on the statement as a whole. The statement asserts in its preamble that CBMW’s purpose is to prevent the church from losing “her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age” and to “declare once again the true story of the world and of our place in it.” But how does fundamentally altering the very nature of the Gospel and ignoring the many entirely unambiguous passages that define the Gospel preserve biblical conviction? How is it possible to declare the “true story of the world and our place in it” if the Resurrection is shoved into a corner? How is it the “word of life” if the Resurrection–the very condition that makes abundant life in the now and eternal life in the hereafter possible (John 3:16 anyone?)– holds only a secondary place?
Put all this together with obvious political motivation behind the timing of the statement and the insensitivity of the statement’s own language, and you have a pretty demonstrative specimen of Frankfurtian bullshit. My colleague Chris Gehrz over at The Pietist Schoolman observes how suspect the timing of the document is, released just as President Trump is in the midst of imposing a ban on transgender persons in the military and in the midst of a massive humanitarian disaster in Houston. Gehrz writes:
The Nashville Statement strikes me as theology for the Age of Trump because it’s being thrust into social media for little purpose other than to energize allies and troll enemies, distracting our attention from more pressing problems in order to demonize minorities whose existence causes anxiety among the many in the majority.
It’s not truth written in love of people who share innate human desires for love, self-worth, and identity, bearers of God’s image who know their own shortcomings far more acutely than what others presume to judge in them from afar.
Clearly, the document goes so far as to make what has always been the primary component of the Gospel secondary to their view of sexuality in the service of an also-clearly-politicized agenda. It’s about getting away with that agenda by appealing to traditional Christianity while, in fact, departing from its most primary tenet. The document purports to speak in love while using hateful and derogatory terms toward those it claims to love, ejecting LGBTQ persons, by its very language, from the very space it pretends to invite them to join. It purports to preserve the Gospel witness while eschewing its central component. It sacrifices the lamb of the Gospel to the idols of political power, branding, and spin. Invents a new Gospel for the Age of Trump.
Of course, what I’m addressing here is limited to the theological implications of the Nashville Statement. While it would take another post entirely to fully explain, I should also at least acknowledge, here, the real harm the perspective espoused by the statement causes. The statement claims that a change in orientation is the only acceptable response for LGBTQ Christians. We know from mountains of clinical research, however, that such attempts not only do not work, but cause real, palpable, and lasting harm. The American Psychological Association, in a comprehensive 2009 review of the clinical literature on the subject, demonstrated quite clearly that sexual orientation change efforts most often lead not to a fuller life, but rather to deep distress, self-loathing, depression, and, all too often, suicide. Regardless of one’s stance concerning “Biblical sexuality,” then, it is abundantly clear that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach, that says that the only “loving” response to LGBTQ persons is to insist that they change orientation, simply does not work. It does not lead to repentance or change. So whatever the theology, the tactic stinks. Surely it can’t be the case that the only loving Christian response to LGBTQ brothers and sisters is one that causes them harm. The Nashville Statement, in this regard, not only creates a separate religion from an abstract theological perspective but constitutes a manifest danger to real-life LGBTQ persons. If the goal is to love and to help, I would challenge CBMW to explain what help their ideology provides for and what love it can demonstrate to those it has driven to suicide.
Ultimately, I’m not really sure what to call this novel religion that deifies and offers its worship to a particular set of norms about gender and sexuality, not to mention political power. But one might imagine stringing together various Greek or Latin roots: Heterogenitalians. Homopotentarians. Misogynolatreians. Arsenikodictatorians. Theologiospurciferians.
But the term doesn’t matter. It still smells the same.