Last week, I interviewed Bill Arnold about his new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality. I’ll let you go there to see more summary of the book and Dr. Arnold’s thoughts about it.
I should start this review by saying I’m no neutral observer. Dr. Arnold has been a long-time encourager, supporter, mentor and friend to me. I have great respect for him. And on the particular focus of this book––theological reasoning about sexuality and how the United Methodist Church should handle it––my beliefs largely agree with Bill’s.
Given those biases, my long list of praise for this book won’t surprise you, though I hope the things I list would be beneficial to most people, regardless of their biases. I’ll share four things I thought were especially excellent in the review below.
While most of what I have to say about the book is positive, I do have one disagreement with Dr. Arnold. He also changed my thinking about one aspect of this issue in a way that I don’t think he wanted to. I’ll explain both of those points in a post to follow (NOW AVAILABLE HERE).
What I love about Seeing Black and White
For a small book (204 pages) and an easy read, this book is packed with information.
I expect most people would tell you Seeing Black and White is about homosexuality and the United Methodist Church. But I would eagerly give it to several people who aren’t in the UMC and have no interest in the debate over homosexuality. That’s because I think the book is an education in many other important areas. You’ll see that only my fourth point directly applies to the church’s debate over sexuality.
1 – A healthy approach to theological conversation
I belong to a group whose motto is, “People we respect; ideas we beat within an inch of their lives.” I think Seeing Black and White is a shining example of those values.
The book offers a lengthy critique of Adam Hamilton’s Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. While Arnold beats many of Hamilton’s ideas within an inch of their lives, he also shows respect for Hamilton throughout. You can see more examples of that in the first two questions of our interview.
In a debate that has involved no small amount of name-calling and personal attacks, I think Arnold gives a great demonstration of grace and truth––toward both Hamilton and all other interested and affected parties.
Arnold’s approach is an education in logic––a pleasant surprise to me. He uses the word “fallacy” 29 times. He explains and identifies the Ad Populum Fallacy, the Red Herring Fallacy, the Ad Baculum Fallacy, the False Cause Fallacy, and the Fallacy of False Dilemma, to name a few. If you don’t know what these are, you will after reading, and you’ll be equipped to analyze others’ arguments with greater acumen and ease.
2 – Taking on pragmatism
I’ve been dismayed by the Western Church’s focus on pragmatism. We often seem more persuaded by what works than what’s faithful (though all of us hope for situations where both are true).
I was excited to see Arnold fighting back against pragmatism. He writes,
Adam’s book is firmly rooted in pragmatism. By this I mean decisions about controversial issues are often based on claims about what works or what is believed to be most effective in appealing to the greatest number of people […] The question needs to be raised: Is it legitimate to establish Christian practice along the lines of a business model in which measurable or numerical success determines truth?
In an atmosphere where numerical success receives more attention and accolades than anything, Arnold provides a needed corrective. He also demonstrates that while the world may want a church that acts as a mirror, “reflecting the values of the world back upon itself,” the world has no need for that kind of church. He provides a much richer version of the church––the kind that will continue to be relevant in our world precisely because it doesn’t mirror the world’s values back to itself.
3 – How to read the Bible
I would love to give several friends chapter 3, “The Fork in the Road.” It could stand on its own as a clear and concise essay on “reading the Bible the Wesleyan way,” as Arnold calls it.
In this, Arnold confronts popular ways of reading the Bible and shows their flawed logic. For example, he addresses the common idea that Jesus’ words carry more weight than the rest of the Bible––and even that Jesus’ silence on certain issues carries more weight than anything the rest of the Bible says. So he writes, “Jesus also didn’t mention genocide or rape. To argue that his silence on these topics means he approves them is of course nonsense.”
Arnold instead offers three principles of biblical interpretation that we would do well to keep in mind.
In the first, he explains understanding texts in context––arguing against proof-texting specific verses but also against dismissing certain texts as irrelevant. I hear plenty of people today cautioning against proof-texting. I don’t hear enough cautioning us not to dismiss texts that prohibit lobster-eating and beard-trimming. Arnold’s insights here are important.
The second principle teaches a different understanding of the Bible’s purpose than I usually see. Arnold writes, “As sacred canon for the church, we believe the Bible is not primarily inspired for us to know things (epistemology),” instead its primary function in and for the church is “to know God through personal and corporate salvation (soteriology).” This point could change the life of anyone who hasn’t grasped it yet. The primary function of the Bible is to cultivate a life-giving relationship, not to help us win a trivia contest.
The third principle focuses on the primacy of Scripture. Arnold is concerned (and for good reason, I think) that many have neglected this principle, especially in ethical debates. He presents a healthy model for understanding the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” in light of its many abuses today.
4 – Framing the debate about homosexuality
I think Arnold provides an exemplary framework for the debate about homosexuality, even for those who disagree with his conclusions.
In chapter 3, he describes without bias the general positions of the two “camps” in this debate––naming them the “Holiness” and “Hospitality” camps (an improvement on the titles I previously used: “Holiness” and “Openness”). In chapter 5, he shows why we make a category mistake to pit these two against each other.
The sixth chapter is another that could stand alone as an excellent essay. In it, Arnold deconstructs three common myths about the debate: that it’s about orientation, liberation, or civil rights. The discussion of sexual orientation is more researched and nuanced than what we typically hear in the public discourse. The discussion about liberation is a profound critique of “sexual liberation” in all its forms. The discussion about civil rights provides a historical understanding of civil rights movements and why this debate doesn’t fit.
These are only a few highlights. As I write this review, I’m again made aware of how many high points this book has. I’ll let this review serve simply as a small sampler, and I’ll urge you to go buy the book.
I’ll leave you with this great quote that serves as a nice summary of Dr. Arnold’s constructive proposal for moving forward:
Unlike Adam, I believe the holistic gospel we need today is not something to be created in the twenty-first century by Christians who are able to discern gray. I believe it emerged in the late eighteenth century in the Wesleyan revival, whose leaders scrutinized afresh the black-and-white truths of Scripture in the context of ancient church tradition. And I believe the holistic gospel they preached continues to offer the world the best understanding of Christianity’s apostolic faith.
See part II of my review here.