The Rev. Dr. Phil Snider’s pro-gay rights performance before the Springfield, Missouri city council became an overnight sensation last month. More than 3 million people have viewed it. And no wonder: it’s brilliant theater.
I trust he won’t object to my describing it that way: it was he who acknowledged he was play-acting. He presented himself at first as a preacher speaking from the Bible in opposition to gay rights. He played that role for a minute or so until he pretended to stumble over the word “segregation.” Then in a superb surprise twist, he revealed that the lines he had been speaking had actually come from white preachers a half-century ago arguing against civil rights for African-Americans.
He played it well. The effect was dramatic. Shouts of “Bravo!” are echoing around the Internet, and understandably so. For supporters of gay rights, his play was just the thing to catch the conscience of conservatives.
Except for one thing: it was built upon emptiness and fiction.
I do not mean to take anything away from his dramatic effectiveness, but there’s something in the technique he employed that so takes the breath away, and so impresses the audience, that it becomes difficult to distinguish the performance from the argument.
And what was that argument? Apparently it was supposed to be something like this: “Racist white preachers used the Bible to support segregation, which was wrong; therefore conservative Christians who use the Bible today to oppose gay rights today are wrong. Future Christians will be as embarrassed over today’s opposition to gay rights as we are now over the racism in our past.”
But racist preachers (whoever they may have been) didn’t get their teachings from the Bible. To the extent they used the Bible to support racist conclusions, they were twisting it beyond recognition. From early in Genesis, through the ministry of Jesus Christ, even all the way to the end in Revelation, the Bible celebrates and supports the value of “all peoples” (ethné in the Greek, meaning tribes, colors, languages, and nations). There is nothing there that supports racial segregation.
If his point, then, was, “Racist preachers used the Bible’s teaching to support segregation, therefore the Bible is wrong,” honesty should have led him to add that these racists were distorting the Bible’s meaning, misinterpreting it badly.
That wouldn’t have had near the same dramatic impact, obviously. In fact this more honest approach wouldn’t have been worth bringing to the council meeting at all, at least not by any supporter of gay “rights.” The conclusion obviously doesn’t follow. That there are evil misinterpretations of the Bible hardly proves that proper interpretations are evil.
But then it might be that Dr. Snider’s intended point was that it’s a mistake to use the Bible at all. Again, though, you can’t show the Bible is wrong by showing that distortions of the Bible are wrong.
Dr. Snider’s theatrics demonstrated nothing but that bad things come of misusing the Bible. It’s a point well taken: his performance has strengthened my commitment as a believing Christian to handle the Bible accurately.
I doubt that’s the resolve Dr. Snider intended to reinforce.
More likely he meant to embarrass the Bible and all who rely on it. If so, he certainly succeed, based on the reaction around the Internet; except that rational reflection reveals he said nothing of substance, other than that it’s wrong to interpret the Bible wrongly. I’m not embarrassed by that. It’s obvious enough, after all, and Christians been saying it for centuries.
The questions surrounding gay rights and marriage are serious ones. Many of us think the Bible speaks importantly to these questions. Many others think we’re wrong as wrong could be. As divisive as these issues are, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re all fellow human beings on both sides of the issue, and the human thing to do is at least to listen to one another. To shout one side down is disrespectful; to laugh one side down is dehumanizing.
And what did Dr. Snider add to that conversation? Further thoughtlessness, further dehumanizing; cringing among Christians, gleeful laughter among others. For all its dramatic deftness, his contribution only served to deepen the divide that keeps us from working out our differences as human beings.
It was great theater, but it was no help at all.