Turned Away, He Turned to the Bible
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
By DOUGLAS QUENQUA
Published: September 14, 2012
ONE year after Matthew Vines was forced to leave the Wichita, Kan., church he had attended since birth — not because he is gay, but because he tried to convince people there was nothing wrong with that — he was sitting facing a crowd of 235 Christians, most of them gay or lesbian, at the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Throughout the evening, various guests called him an inspiration and a messenger. One woman suggested he is an angel.
“Last year I felt like the only gay Christian,” Mr. Vines told the crowd last month, his hands noticeably shaking. “Now I feel like all Christians are gay. I suddenly have hundreds of Facebook friends who are gay Christians. So all right, we’re doing great!”
It was a rare moment of levity from a serious young man. At 22, Mr. Vines has emerged as an unlikely advocate (and lightning rod) for those straddling one of the most volatile fault lines in America’s culture war: homosexual Christians. As the country rushed to take sides over Chick-fil-A, J. C. Penney, the Boy Scouts and Michele Bachmann, Mr. Vines took a leave of absence from Harvard, where he was studying philosophy, to offer a lesson on the Bible and same-sex relations.
“It is simply a fact that the Bible does not discuss or condemn loving, gay relationships,” said Mr. Vines, eating an omelet at Tom’s Restaurant in Brooklyn the day after his church appearance. “The point is that these texts have a meaning, and the traditional reading of them is wrong. It is incorrect — biblically, historically, linguistically.”
The medium for Mr. Vines’s message is a lecture that hedelivered, videotaped and posted to YouTube in March. In it, Mr. Vines tackles the traditional interpretations of all six Bible passages that refer to homosexual acts, arguing that they don’t actually condemn, or even address, the modern understanding of homosexuality.
It is a dense and scholarly presentation, drawing from history, theology, hermeneutics and ancient Greek. It is also suffused with emotion, particularly when Mr. Vines pleads with viewers to consider the plight of the modern gay Christian, who is effectively forced into celibacy.
“Falling in love is one of the worst things that could happen to a gay person,” Mr. Vines says early in the video, “because you will necessarily be heartbroken, you will have to run away, and that will happen every single time that you come to care about someone else too much.”
In the six months it has been on YouTube, “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality” has been viewed 350,000 times and generated nearly 7,000 comments — not bad given its 67-minute run time and lack of music, humor or even a second camera angle. It has been translated into six different languages, including French, German and Spanish, with Japanese, Korean and Arabic versions in the works. Churches as far away as Australia and South Africa have held public screenings of the video, and Mr. Vines has been invited to speak at churches from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.
“I had basically become a closeted Christian,” said Jim Augustine, 32, a member of Marble Collegiate Church who was instrumental in bringing Mr. Vines there to speak in August. “When I came into sexuality, I came out of Christianity. Matthew gave me the intellectual tools to get past that cognitive dissonance.”
FOR the devoutly religious Mr. Vines — who is small-framed and pale with dark, narrow eyes — convincing people that there is no contradiction in being gay and Christian has deep, personal roots.
In late 2009, just weeks after accepting that he was, in fact, homosexual, Mr. Vines decided to take a semester off from college so he could come out to his family and friends in Wichita. Knowing that his father would have trouble reconciling his sexual orientation with Scripture, Mr. Vines decided to arm himself with all available scholarship on the Bible and homosexuality.
He studied scholars like Martti Nissinen, professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Helsinki; Dale Martin, a professor of religious studies at Yale; and John Boswell, author of the seminal book on the topic, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.” Eventually, at the request of a classmate, Mr. Vines compiled the information into a six-page research paper.
Some of the arguments were well known (Leviticus does not apply to Christians, for example); others less so, like the more plausible translations for the Greek term malakos, long interpreted as “effeminate” in the Corinthians passage listing those who won’t inherit the kingdom of God.
But key for Mr. Vines was the realization that every instance of homosexuality in the Bible represented excess lust, gang rape or “unnatural” acts committed by heterosexual men. Portrayals — much less condemnations — of naturally gay men, for whom opposite-sex relationships are not an option, simply never appear.
“That’s huge, that argument,” he said. “It’s key. It’s being made, but it needs to be made more, and more often.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: