On Monday, Michael Eric Dyson appeared on The ED Show on MSNBC, this time hosted by Joy Reid. He was introduced as someone knowledgeable in American history and Biblical theology. Dyson, a professor at Georgetown, then insinuated that the Bible’s teaching regarding loving Jesus is “interestingly homoerotic.”
Look through the Bible, there’s a lot of interesting things. The same men who sat up in a church of all men — ‘I put my God, Jesus over all women, I love Him more than I love her!’ — Hmmm… do you really? That sounds interestingly homoerotic to people who are outside your religious tradition! I’m not suggesting it is, but I’m suggesting there are some very interesting, subtle narrative tensions within the Bible itself and within Christianity beyond that.
Here’s a video of Dyson’s remarks:
Dyson’s comments demonstrate a total ignorance of the Bible and of historic Christian teaching based on its text. He makes two great errors worthy of attention.
1. Christian teaching on marriage focuses on Jesus Christ as the model of what it means for a husband to love his wife. In Ephesians 5:25, the Apostle Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her….” Paul continues through from Ephesians 5:25-33 to explain that the life of Jesus Christ and his example of sacrificially pouring himself out for his Church is exactly the way that a Christian man ought to sacrifice himself for his wife. What Paul teaches here is reiterated in many other passages in the New Testament, including Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3.
What is fascinating about Michael Eric Dyson’s comments is that the behavior he represents as saying “I put my God, Jesus over all women, I love him more than I love her!” is just slanderous. The point that Paul is making is that if a Christian man loves Jesus, then he should love his wife like Christ loved the Church. If men in the first century Church in Ephesus, the audience to which Paul wrote his great letter, were to behave like Dyson’s caricature of Christian men, then Paul would have said they were in sin, because they were not living out the model of Christ’s love. Dyson is presenting a subtle, diabolical, false dichotomy between loving Christ and loving one’s wife.
A further point is worth noting here. Paul’s theology of marriage in Ephesians 5 is totally inconsistent with homosexual marriage. If you put homosexual marriage into the context of Ephesians 5, Christ doesn’t marry the Church. Instead, he marries another version of himself; the Church is gone from the illustration completely.
At the core of the Christian teaching on marriage is the self-sacrificial example of Jesus Christ toward his Church. If Christ doesn’t save the Church, then he’s not the Savior, and thus, he is not the Christ. Logically, homosexual marriage is completely inconsistent with the New Testament’s theology of Christ as the one who sacrifices himself for his bride, the Church.
Dyson’s first error naturally leads to the second.
2. Dyson equivocates between a Christian man’s relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church’s relationship to Christ. The relationship between Christ and the Church as a corporate people is the model of the relationship between a Christian man and wife. Thus, the Church relates to Christ as to a “husband.” However, individual men in the Church do not. In his relationship to individuals, in the text of the New Testament Jesus Christ is presented as “Messiah” (cristos), “king” (basileus), “shepherd” (poimen), and “friend” (filos). He is never spoken of as a “lover” (erastes). The New Testament never uses the Greek word for sexual love, “eros,” nor a derivative thereof, to describe the relationship between a Christian and Christ. Rather the language of marriage between Christ and the Church as “bride” is only and always used to refer to the Church as a body of believers, never, ever to men individually.
Given the cultural confusion in the Greco-Roman world about human sexuality, the New Testament goes to great lengths to fight against exactly the insinuation Dyson is making.
For example, it should be noted in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 5, women past the age of 60 were permitted to serve in the Church in a way that required them to be unmarried. This is the New Testament teaching permitting very elderly women to become nuns. These elderly women were to remain celibate in their offices, devoted in service to Christ and to the needy. This is not an office of sexual devotion to a deity like that which led to the practice of the cult prostitution attached to pagan temples in the ancient world. 1 Timothy 5 is very clear that the requirement of celibacy in this office prohibits women under the age of 60 from becoming nuns as the office is there defined.
The text points out that if they were to leave this office, it would be like breaking a marriage vow. The early Church took responsibility to care for the sick and the poor, and through this office it took care of elderly widows while giving these widows the opportunity to share in the community as they met the needs of others. However, the New Testament teaches no similar office for men.
The point is that the New Testament is very careful not to give even a hint that there is any situation in which a Christian man relates to Jesus Christ in a way can be construed as “interestingly homoerotic.”
One may disagree with Christian teaching. One may think that 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Timothy and the many other Biblical books that speak to these matters are all relics of a dead religion. However, one cannot with even a shred of intellectual integrity posit that the Biblical narratives insinuate what Dyson suggests.
Dyson tries to cover his tracks by adding “I’m not suggesting it is, but I’m suggesting there are some very interesting, subtle narrative tensions within the Bible itself and within Christianity beyond that.” However, he is insinuating there are implicit narrative tensions in the Bible that warrant his statements. This “narrative tension” is not in the Bible, only in his lack of scholarly integrity. The New Testament writers took great care not to use language that would suggest what Dyson does. (For those interested in further study of this, compare the Greek of the New Testament with the Greek of Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, which documents the relationship between the erastai of Sparta and their lovers.)
Michael Eric Dyson is playing off the American individualist streak which has focused on the individual Christian’s relationship to Jesus and minimized the Church as a corporate body, a community of believers who live together in a community life that is obedient to Christ. This concept of the Church is spelled out all over the pages of the New Testament. (Jesus and the New Testament writers make very clear that at least in their minds, they believe what they are teaching is a continuation of the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures.)
Today, slowly, American Christianity is beginning to overcome its individualist streak and recover the Biblical teaching on the importance of the communal life of the Church.
Dr. Michael Collender did his doctoral research in how metaphor and narrative model complex systems in neuroscience and economics. His new book To End All Suffering: A Christian Analysis of the Buddha’s Teaching will be published in 2014, by Wipf and Stock. Follow @mcollender.