The Sins of Sodom: Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church

Fifteen years ago I was an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. The newly adopted denominational ad campaign proclaimed the UMC to be a denomination distinguished by “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” When the North Alabama Conference of the UMC – of which I was a member – met on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College, the floor of the basketball arena that served as our meeting space was adorned with free-standing door frames. The doors were all open wide.

It was a powerful symbol; it is a powerful symbol: the open door.

Before the legislative body that day was a resolution to affirm the stance of the denomination towards the ordination of homosexual persons to the ministry. The denomination’s stance was already pretty clear: “homosexuality,” the Book of Discipline stated, was “incompatible with Christian teaching” – gays and lesbians were not welcome into the ranks of clergy. There were stirrings in the church, however –indications that things might, some day, change – so some in the North Alabama Conference wanted to affirm that they were opposed to that change. Some hearts, some minds, some doors just weren’t ready to be opened.

The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority. I, and a few others, spoke against it. I can’t remember my words exactly, but I do remember that I pointed out the staggering hypocrisy of the open doors.

I probably ruined my career in the church by speaking that day. When I arrived at my new appointment the next week, many members of my new congregation had already heard about what I had said. From day one, I was a dead man walking. Soon, I came to understand what Dylan meant when he said, “I’ve been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.”

I stayed there for two hard fought years – fighting constant battles about this issue and countless others. Parishoners called to ask my opinion on abortion. (I, like the UMC, am pro-choice.) Lessons that I had delivered at other congregations without comment were the subject of scrutiny. My supervisor received regular calls about my “liberal” heresies. As a well-known conservative, he gave me no cover; he did his part in tightening the screws.

I remember talking with other, more senior, pastors about the situation, pastors that said they were sympathetic to making the church more inclusive. One said that he wasn’t going to say anything until he was farther along in his ministry; once he made it to a flagship church, or was elected bishop, then he would be a champion of the cause. Another – with whom I was interviewing for a job as an associate pastor at a large Birmingham-area church – said he was afraid to say anything because the church wasn’t ready; he was afraid that, if we made too much of it, it would kill the church.

I reminded him of something Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save their life will lose it.” I didn’t get the job.

When I was able to get my finances in order, and buy a home, I asked to be moved from full-time to part-time status. After three years, when my finances were a little more in order, I turned in my papers.

Resigned.

Fled.

Except for weddings and funerals, I haven’t been in a church since.

Now, all these years later, I see that the United Methodist Church is arguing in earnest about how wide they should open their doors. The discussion today has expanded from issues related to clergy ordination to include the issue of same-sex marriage. There are a lot more people in the church now with open hearts and open minds who are working hard to open doors. Indeed, there are people who have worked their whole lives to get the church to move – to inch – closer to true openness. Things are changing. I admire those who are leading the charge.

But, despite all of that effort on the part of so many, the denomination still asserts that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Some things, some hearts and minds, haven’t changed at all.

Cultural change happened without them, of course; hearts, minds, and doors were opened despite the church. Now the church is torn between those who want to hold on to the past and those who are trying to play catch-up with a culture that, as it turned out, didn’t need the church, or its teachings, to discover the truth.

To me it all seems so ridiculous – here in 2016 – that the church still stands on the side of wrong. Ridiculous. Shameful. Sinful. I honestly wish that I could say that I thought that things would be farther along by now for the church. But, if I had thought that, I might never have left.

Throughout the South, legislatures rush to enshrine bigotry and discrimination in the guise of “religious freedom.” Mississippi Governor, Phil Bryant, claims that he signed that state’s version of the bill into law in order “to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

Sadly, Methodist beliefs are the sorts of religious beliefs and moral convictions that bills like this one are meant to uphold. Beliefs about homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching. Beliefs that those who live different sorts of lives from our own are, because of that, sinful.

I want to make it clear that I’m no hero in any of this. I haven’t marched the streets for justice. I haven’t fought the fight alongside my gay and lesbian friends. I haven’t written letters to elected officials. I just turned in my papers. I just resigned. Fled.

And, like Lot when he fled from Sodom, I don’t even deserve credit for doing that. The messengers from Yahweh told Lot to go, but he lingered. He debated and weighed the merits of their arguments. He did a cost/benefit analysis. Finally, the angels had had enough so they seized him and forced him to safety.

That’s the way it was with me. It wasn’t so much a noble gesture on my part as a necessity of life. Things got so bad that there was no way that I could stay. As Dylan says, “I didn’t know whether to duck or to run. So I ran.”

There’s no heroism in that.

But, for me, it was worlds better than staying behind.

***

Much is made of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But, in the Genesis narrative, it is pretty clear that Yahweh didn’t destroy those cities because the residents were gay. Yahweh destroyed those cities because of the way they treated the strangers who came to their door.

In Genesis 18, Yahweh and his two partners came from out of the desert and greeted Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre. Without hesitation, the couple invited them into their home. They killed the fatted calf and prepared a feast. They gave them water to wash their feet.

Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.

But, in Genesis 19, when Yahweh sent his messengers to Sodom, the greeting they received in the city could not have been more different than the greeting they received in the desert. The angels were forced to run for their lives. Lot opened the door to his home, but the crowds gathered to demand that the foreigners be turned out to face the violence of the mob. Yes, it is true that the men of Sodom threatened the angels with sexual assault. But sexual assault is a far cry from the love of two men or two women for one another. Surely it would not have mattered, in the eyes of God, if it had been women who were threatened by the angry mob, would not have made any difference if Yahweh’s angels had been female instead of male.

We’ve always had it wrong. The sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality. The sin of Sodom was the sin of closed hearts. The sin of closed minds. The sin of closed doors.

I’m happy that more and more United Methodists are arguing and debating the church’s mistaken stand on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching. I’m happy to see congregations breaking with the church to open their doors to any and all who will come. I’m happy to see bishops and clergy and laity standing firm against the evils of the crowd. I’m happy to see that the church is slowly – sinfully slowly –beginning to think, talk, consider, change. Finally, the church is beginning to debate and weigh the merits of the arguments, analyzing the costs and the benefits.

I admire those who have stayed, in my absence, to speak as prophets and to lead the way.

But – for the life of me – I can’t make myself understand why anyone would want to stay in a land of closed hearts, closed minds, closed doors. I can’t understand why anyone would give time and money to an organization with bigotry enshrined in its very code of laws.

At one time, I was a part of the UMC; now I’m just an outsider looking in. Take my words as just that, as the words of someone who jumped ship, fled into the night, abandoned his post.

But it is past time to draw the line in the sand. Past time to negotiate. Past time to count the cost and analyze the benefits.

If the doors won’t open, it is past time to remember the words of Jesus to shake the dust off your feet and be on your way.

I know it’s scary, but life’s not so bad out here in the desert.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

 

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The Shaver Mystery: Everything You Need to Know about the Underground Forces that Control our Lives!

Amazing Stories All Shaver

There was a time (before black-and-white television images were streamed into every living room in America via invisible rays that transformed the masses into mindless zombies) when pulp magazines were an important source of entertainment for millions of Americans. Cheap pulp paper was the vehicle for delivering exciting and quickly produced tales to the public: tales of the old west, tales of true romance, tales of crime and mystery and, most exciting of all, tales of science fiction set on far off planets, in the distant future and in the ancient past. (George Lucas was not the first sci-fi creator to set his stories “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”)

The garish and wonderful covers of these magazines, none more colorful and exciting than the ones which adorned Amazing Stories, were filled with space adventurers, scantily clad women, streamlined spaceships, and bug-eyed monsters. They also contained, at least between 1945 and 1948, illustrations for stories by a now mostly forgotten writer: Richard Shaver.

Amazing Earth Slaves

Shaver, along with Amazing Stories’ editor Ray Palmer, produced a series of popular stories about space travelers and subterranean civilizations. They also, to the shock and dismay of many in sci-fi fandom, claimed that the stories were based in reality. Shaver, a sometime resident of mental hospitals, insisted that he regularly received transmissions from caverns under the earth where the evil dero and the kindly tero fought for the soul of humanity. He also insisted that he had visited the cavern world and observed the operation of the powerful technology (“mech” in Shaver’s terms) that was responsible for much of the good and bad that happens on the surface of our planet. The Shaver Mystery, as it came to be called, sold magazines. It also caused a scandal in the sci-fi world that ended the Palmer/Shaver era at Amazing. In June of 1947, an entire issue of Amazing Stories was dedicated to the Shaver Mystery and to Shaver’s “true-to-life” fiction; by 1948, both Shaver and Palmer were gone from the magazine. Palmer went on to play a central role in the development of the flying saucer craze. Shaver carried on, out of the spot-light, with less overt fiction and more direct descriptions of life within the caverns, both now and in the distant past, and of the hidden danger posed to those on the surface.

Shaver - Gods of Venus

I confess that I find everything about Richard Shaver and the Shaver Mystery utterly fascinating. Shaver’s fiction, like much pulp fiction of the era, is now sometimes difficult to read and enjoy; it is obvious that it was written quickly and according to a strict formula. Some of his more obscure non-fiction, especially when he describes the operations of underground technology, is also painfully obtuse and, to be honest, irrational. There is something about his writing, however, that makes it worth the effort. I think it is because Shaver was an utterly original voice. There is, within both his fiction and his subterranean theorizing, a hint of genius. Perhaps that genius was hampered by his mental illness; perhaps it was accentuated by it. It is there, nevertheless. Shaver makes me shudder at the fear he finds at the heart of existence; he makes me wonder at the crazed creativity of human thought.

Self Shaver

Richard Shaver – Self Portrait

Richard Toronto’s recent book, War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940’s Science Fiction is a masterful accounting of the lives and careers of Palmer and Shaver. Toronto, a lifelong fan of the Shaver Mystery and friend to Richard Shaver, is the perfect person to tell the story of the Shaver Mystery. Indeed, his Shavertron fanzine (and later website) probably did more than anything else to keep the Shaver Mystery from disappearing completely from popular consciousness.  Toronto’s book is not be missed by anyone interested in the history of science fiction, in the flying saucer craze, or in the development of mid-twentieth century science fiction-influenced religious movements. (My review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

War Over Lemuria Cover

I was not surprised to find that Toronto was not able to include everything he wanted in War over Lemuria. This is a problem faced by anyone with space limitations and editorial concerns to consider; it is especially true when dealing with material as voluminous and odd as that associated with the Shaver Mystery. I was surprised, and delighted, however, to learn that Toronto has published a second volume under his own Shavertron Press imprint. Behold Shaverology: The Shaver Mystery Home Companion! Containing personal accounts of visits with Shaver and Palmer written by long-time Shaver Mystery follower, Richard Horton; hard-to-find editorials by Ray Palmer himself; details (and seemingly whole chapters) cut from War over Lemuria; correspondence and poetry written by Richard Shaver; excerpts from Shaver fanzines; a moving account of the journey by Shaver’s daughter to discover her unknown father; countless illustrations; and detailed analyses of Shaver technology, this book is an answer to the prayers of Shaver Mystery fans or anyone intrigued by the subterranean streams that feed popular culture and popular religion. When read along with Toronto’s War over Lemuria, this book is an indispensable introduction to Richard Shaver and to the remarkable confluence of fiction, hype, madness and religion that was the Shaver Mystery.

Shaverology Cover

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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