Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Straw Man vs. Lisa Miller

In her Newsweek editorial, Our Mutual Joy, Lisa Miller argues for the Biblical support of gay marriage. She opens with the intent to “define marriage as the Bible does.” She begins her definition with the examples of Abraham, his grandson Jacob, then King David and his son Solomon. Her conclusion is, “…all these fathers and heroes were polygamists.” The implications seem clear. The Old Testament teaches polygamy as the norm for marriage; therefore Biblical norm does not apply to the issue of gay marriage today. Next she moves to the New Testament and teaches that Jesus preached “indifference to earthly attachments – especially family”. Further, Paul saw marriage as “a last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust.” Her conclusion in the first paragraph is that the Bible is not a “how-to script” for marriage.
Miller’s editorial is lengthy and touches on so many points that it is difficult to respond to them all. However, I do think that it is necessary to respond to every point. There is one major point, demonstrated in this first paragraph that colors the entire article. Miller’s stated purpose is to “define marriage as the Bible does”, but what she demonstrates is how poorly she understands the Bible. She not only demonstrates her ignorance of the Bible but also her ignorance of how serious conservatives understand the Bible. What we have in this editorial is a classic example of the “Straw man” fallacy. The straw man fallacy is when you build an argument that looks like your opponents argument but is much weaker. You refute the weaker argument and claim to have refuted the real argument. This is analogous to building a straw man and dressing it up to look like your opponent. Then you beat up the straw man and claim to have beaten your opponent. In both cases you have neither beaten up your opponent nor refuted his arguments. A survey of the first paragraph is enough to show how poor Millers understanding really is. The rest of the article consists of more of the same type of straw man beatings.
First, she picks four Old Testament heroes (Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon) that practiced polygamy and implies that this is the normative teaching of the Old Testament. The first thing that jumped out at me was that she didn’t mention Abraham’s son (also a patriarch), Isaac. Isaac had one wife, Rebekah. Why skip from Abraham to Jacob? I can’t say for sure because I don’t to put words in Miller’s mouth but I can guess that it would cast some doubt on the argument that the Old Testament model of polygamy was normative. Second, she sets this model forward as normative but makes no mention of any mandate to multiple marriage or blessing of multiple marriages. In fact the opposite can be found. Solomon, one of the heroes cited by Miller, wrote in Proverbs, “Drink water from your own cistern…should your springs be scattered abroad…let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.” (Proverbs 5:15ff). It seems that Solomon’s advice is to love the wife (singular) of your youth and not look for others. Third, Miller makes no mention of the jealousies and problems that resulted from these men’s polygamy. Her assumption seems to be that if you can find it in the Bible, then God must approve. The enormity of the foolishness of such an assumption is beyond my ability to express in words. The Bible consists of many different genres of writing and the different books are written for different purposes and this background information can drastically color the ability of the reader to understand the author’s intent. Finally, she also makes no mention of the many men, especially prophets, who had just one wife. If we just used numbers of marriages in the Old Testament, most were between one man and one woman, yet Miller finds this so insignificant that she doesn’t even deem it worthy of mentioning in her editorial.
Now let’s turn to the New Testament examples mentioned by Miller, Jesus and Paul. She states that Jesus was “indifferent to earthly attachments – especially family.” She gives no reference but I can guess where maybe she got that impression. Perhaps she got it from Mark 3:35, Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother”. Or how about in Matthew 10:37 when Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” These are difficult saying to be sure. And an argument could be made that these statements show that Jesus put a high value on family. The Christian’s love for Jesus should be stronger than his/her strongest earthly tie. Jesus uses the family relationship as an example of this strongest of earthly ties. It is amazing how someone could read such a statement and classify the speaker as indifferent toward family. Such is the scholarship of Miller. But there is yet more to Jesus indifference to family. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for encouraging people to give money to the temple that should be used to care for their parents (Mark 7:9-13). Further, one of His last thoughts on the cross was of his mother. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, you son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (John 19:26-27). Again, I find it hard to believe that one could read such a tender moment and define Jesus’ attitude toward family as indifferent.
Miller also declares that Paul has a lukewarm attitude toward marriage. It is true that he said that it is better to marry than to burn. He also told husbands “…love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it…In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies. A man who loves his wife loves himself. For no one has ever hated his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, as Christ does the church. For we are parts of his body-of his flesh and of his bones. That is why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Eph 5:25ff). I find it difficult to define someone as lukewarm when he commands husbands to nourish and tenderly care for their wives. Paul is writing about the mystery of the church and marriage and this is a difficult passage. But the point here is that one cannot read such profound thoughts and describe the author “lukewarm” toward the marriage relationship.
Miller also makes no mention of Peter. Peter was married and said things like, “In a similar way, you husbands must live with your wives in an understanding manner, as with a most delicate vessel. Honor them as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing may interfere with your prayers. (I Peter 3:7). At the end of the first paragraph Miller asks the question, “Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple…turn to the Bible as a how-to script?” She answers, “Of course not.” I answer, “Of course”. If all the husbands of America simply took to heart this one sentence of Peter’s as a “how to” guide for marriage, we would have a very different picture of marriage in this land of ours.
Now, I think this short analysis of just the first paragraph of Miller’s editorial clearly demonstrates the depth of her scholarship when it comes to the Bible. Sadly, her scholarship doesn’t seem to reach even the depth of surface understanding. Yet, the fact-checkers and editors at Newsweek deem her opinion worth not just of publication but of the lead editorial.
The kindest explanation of Miller’s poor presentation of the Biblical teaching concerning marriage is that she did not know that the Old and New Testaments presented a rich and complex number of examples of marriage and teaching about marriage. In this case, she simply didn’t do her homework and neither did the Newsweek fact checkers. In the worst case scenario, she understood the complexity of the Biblical teaching and presented an erroneous picture. In either case I don’t see why anyone would take her opinion on Biblical matters seriously.