Greg Johnson and the Dead Poets Society

Poets thrive on feelings. They can sound rational and grounded. They can even solicit biblical themes. But try to hem in a person who thinks poetically using the coherence found in the Bible and he becomes like a wet bar of soap you think you have wedged in your tight grip only for it to pop out.

 

A great dispute is confronting the evangelical churches. The question is whether or not one can be a homosexual Christian with the proviso that one remains chaste. Answering in the affirmative is a self-professed homosexual, Greg Johnson, pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He is supported by the Revoice conferences and many individuals.

My position here is that those of us who oppose Johnson and Revoice, and who embrace the biblical and confessional teachings of historic Christianity on human sexuality, are not arguing with theologians. We are talking to poets.

Poets thrive on feelings. They can sound rational and grounded. They can even solicit biblical themes. But try to hem in a person who thinks poetically using the coherence found in the Bible and he becomes like a wet bar of soap you think you have wedged in your tight grip only for it to pop out.

I am not asking us to abandon Scripture in this fight. I am asking us to reconsider who we are really dealing with. Doing so may well add a needed perspective to our biblical apologetic.

Artisans, writers, and poets have been at the forefront of some of the most important shifts in cultural history in the West. The birth of the cultural period known as nineteenth-century Romanticism was led by writers and aestheticians. Sturm und Drang led the way. The central goal of the Strasbourg society was to revive Christian culture. It did so by experimenting with new modes of literary discourse and interpretive practice. No longer was the basis for the meaning of language to be sought in objective truths, but in the speaker’s subjectivity and personality.

When Greg Johnson, in response to article 7 of the Nashville Statement, which states that “it is a sin to adopt a homosexual self-conception,” says that “it hurt,” that is not the language of theologians. It is the language of poets. It is a highly eccentric and figurative expression that is foreign to the context of Reformed theological inquiry. It is an emotional expression, its purpose being to clear away what it perceives to be outdated prejudice and methodical reason.

A father of the Sturm und Drang was Jacob Lenz. He sought the revival of Christianity in a new approach to theater and poetry, one that overturned French Neoclassical dependence on the Greek view of telos in history. For Lenz, the way to embody ideas in drama was to drive the action from within the feelings of the characters, letting the plot evolve naturally rather than making it match up to an artificial purpose from without.

Coming to the defense of Johnson and Revoice is Scott Sauls who, like Johnson, is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In an article, he writes that Revoice participants gather to “find support, understanding, and inspiration for obedience and personal holiness.” It is fair to ask for the source of this “obedience and personal holiness.”   http://scottsauls.com/blog/2019/06/21/thoughts-on-revoice-unnecessary-division-and-the-pca/

The source, according to Sauls, is “from a community that understands and empathizes more fully than many (culturally) conservative, nuclear family focused, and sometimes homophobic churches do.” In other words, Revoice participants gather to receive inspiration from Revoice participants. Lenz would be proud. Sauls locates the basis of inspiration for Revoice from within the feelings of its participants, rather than from without—the Bible. Sauls uses Christian ideas only heuristically, that is to say, for its potential capacity to assist human beings in becoming aware of their own freedom and thereby capable of what they perceive to be genuinely moral action.

Where homosexuals can find inspiration for personal holiness is from the telos of Scripture, which is to conform God’s people to the holy image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). That truth is supported by the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states that “This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man (1Th 5:23).”

A contemporary of Lenz was the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fitche supplied much philosophical fodder for the literary abandonment of absolutes. Wanting to bridge the reason of the rationalists and the ego of the liberals, Fitche left room for the imagination. Reason discovers the existence of facts, while the imagination finds the meaning about facts.

In the same article, Sauls identifies the existence of numerous scriptural references to sin. They are not hard to find. One such reference is to Paul who “identifies himself not only as a saint but as a sinner.” The upshot? According to Sauls, it is that “most of the Christians I know who describe themselves as ‘gay’ use the word in a similar way that Paul did when he called himself a sinner.” What I understand Sauls to mean is that homosexuality is no different than any other sin; in fact, it is on a par with the personal sins of Paul.

Sauls is right on one level. Homosexuality is a sin. He is incorrect, however, regarding the meaning about the biblical facts he cites. That Sauls thinks he knows people who exploit the word “gay” in the same way as does Paul in his use of the word “sinner” is not the issue. The question is, rather, would Paul have understood the word “sinner” in the same way today’s homosexuals understand the word “gay?” The answer is no.

Paul is clear that union with Christ’s glorious death and resurrection frees his children from sin’s dominion and power over their lives (Rom. 6:5-7). For Paul, one of those sins is homosexuality (Rom. 1:24-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). That means that Johnson can be completely free from his homosexual orientation. We can tell Sauls that redeemed people are left only to deal with sin’s pollution and that the promise of Christ is to empower his people toward that end (Phil 1:6). But I doubt that that will matter. Sauls thinks poetically.

Johnson says that “I can’t find a single instance of Same Sex Attraction going away.” Maybe that’s because he’s not looking. At the same time, he insists “I’m mortifying my flesh every single day.” That is yet another instance of one discovering the existence of facts while allowing his imagination to discover the meaning about facts.

Biblically, Johnson’s position is mutually exclusive. Mortification has two parts: accomplished (Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:5) and applied (Rom. 8:13). A person can only mortify in practice what Christ has already mortified in principle. If Christ did mortify one’s flesh in his perfect work, then SSA can be mortified in practice. What is more, mortification is not limited to keeping oneself from acting on one’s inner desires. Mortification of the flesh goes deeper. It includes the very passions and desires (Gal. 5:24) Johnson says he cannot change. If SSA does not go away in an individual the reason can be because Christ did not mortify that person’s passions and desires in the past. Another reason can be that God has given him over (Rom. 1:24).

My concern is not that Johnson remains celibate. What I care about is what Jesus cares about— the heart. Our Lord said, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries” (Mark 7:21). While it is those of us who oppose the idea of a homosexual Christian who have been labeled Pharisees, the truth is the reverse. It is those who try to look beautiful on the outside yet their fundamental nature has not been changed who are “full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:28).

I doubt that any of these scriptural truths matter to Johnson. He is a poet. And poets live in the esoteric. In the words of William Blake, they want,

To see a world in a grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

A constant theme among writers in modern times is brokenness. Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and many more, suffered clinical depression. With the facilitation of modern psychiatry, clinical depression is listed alongside alcoholics and paraplegics, people suffering from physical diseases.

Among so-called SSA Christians the concept of brokenness functions as an immutable condition. Johnson said as much when he compared his homosexual orientation to alcoholics and paraplegics whom, according to Johnson, we would never say “that they should conceive of themselves as able-bodied because that’s ideal.”

Johnson’s language is not biblically informed. The Bible does not say that Christians are “broken.” We are, rather, imperfect (Phil. 3:12). There is a difference. We are restored in Christ (Romans 8:1-2). We are a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). Yet, that restoration remains imperfect (Gal. 5:19-23) until we see Jesus “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Imperfect is not comparable to a proto-state of brokenness. The Spirit is sanctifying his people unto holiness (Eph. 5:18). Among purported SSA Christians, sin is romanticized as the plight of poets, rather than hated as the enemy of God.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Romanticism had failed leading to widespread disenchantment throughout the West. The downward slide can be traced through numerous art and literary movements including Essentialism. In effect, Essentialism views language, art, and poetry as having no inherent meaning apart from its cultural context. For example, a red square is just a red square. But place that red square in a culturally-specific museum like the Guggenheim and you have men stroking their beards, musing, “Hmm.” In the poetry of Juliana Spahr, feminism is the context for otherwise meaningless words on paper.

Imagine a homosexual in isolation. Now place the homosexual in a gay bathhouse and have him say, “I’m a celibate, Christian homosexual” and the other men will think he is broken, but according to their immoral perspective. Now place the same homosexual in a culturally-specific ecclesiastical setting like the 47th General Assembly of the PCA and have him say the same thing. What happened? People applauded as if they were listening to John Cage’s 4’33”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=JTEFKFiXSx4)

Why do Johnson and Revoice have the ear of an increasing number of evangelicals? It is because poets have always been the moral spokesman for their age. When Petrarch was crowned the first poet laureate since classical times, he was considered the mouthpiece of morality, virtually equivalent of the Jewish prophet. Bob Dylan’s influence has extended well beyond the United States and his chosen genre of songwriting to literature, film, politics, and religion.

Many have written strongly against the positions held by Johnson and Revoice. Still, they and their supporters seem undeterred. Why? It is because we are speaking the language of classical Reformed theology to poets. Men like this seek, as Wordsworth penned,

. . . . a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwellings is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air.

Greg Johnson and Revoice will continue to gain a following. Afterall, who wants to hurt a poet?

Dr. John Barber is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a missionary with Equipping Pastor International.