Joshua Penduck writes: In Part I of this review of Charlie Bell’s book, Queer Holiness, after outlining his overall argument, I noted that the hints and implications of some of his arguments lead to a ‘sacralisation’ of contemporary Western norms for sexual ethics, that is, equating our current culture with divine revelation. As such, I proposed that something has gone wrong with his argument. I would love to dive in and answer that proposal. However, I will have to delay the reader for a little while. So far, I have presented Bell’s argument in its most irenic and reasoned mode. Had Bell decided to maintain an irenic tone, this would have been a good and challenging book. There are plenty of irenic moments—calm, considered, rational—and I have tried to present the better part of his argument above. But this irenicism is conveniently granted only to those who agree with his position.
The book, in the main, is a sustained polemic. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a well-written polemical article or book, even when directed at my own theological/political positions. But it takes quite a bit of skill to pull off such a thing. One must be careful of internal consistency, strawmanning, and an undeserved superiority complex. Even excellent theological polemicists like David Bentley Hart have a tendency to lapse into at least one of these three. When all three are continuously present, the rhetoric becomes less polemical and more a diatribe. Bell’s Twitteresque mode of communication spills over, leaving a much weaker book than what it could have been, with a more than comfortable number of internal inconsistencies, strawmanning and an undeserved superiority complex. This means that (sadly) this review will have to be much longer than should have been necessary. A whole section has had to be added because Queer Holiness is a (very) flawed text.
In general, Bell’s argument is consistent. But when it comes to the practical implication, it tends to be one rule for him and another for others. A prescient example can be found here:
In the Church, like elsewhere, there remain people whose lack of introspection and whose privilege leads them to quite genuinely believe that they know better and know more than others, and that it is their right and even calling to ensure that their interpretation is not only heard but enforced (126).
In the same paragraph he then says:
This is an outright abuse of power and authority, and one that the Church should stamp on before it damages souls [emphasis mine].
Were Bell talking about an outright ‘stamping’ on people enforcing their positions on others, there may be something to say for it. But the context—critique of conservatives who tend to be ‘white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered and well off’ according to Bell (I fit the first four)—makes it quite eye-opening. What enforcement means is unclear—at the very least it means that other views are ‘stamped’ upon, which is an interesting position to say the least. Bell is himself white, male, cisgendered (as far as I understand) and well off—in other words, very privileged himself. It would not be too difficult to draw the implication that any expectation for monitoring (or ‘enforcing’ the Church of England’s canonical position should be curtailed by enforcement, at the recommendation of a white, cisgendered and well-off male. (The evolving position of The Episcopal Church comes to mind here—let the reader understand).
Elsewhere, the statements of the text contradict the events of the out-of-text world. Bell writes, ‘that Christianity has not managed to throw off the very human lust for power is disappointing but not entirely unpredictable’ (113). He spends a lot of time in the following chapter analysing the lust and abuse of power. Now, unlike Bell, I do not have the privileged contacts or cultural influence to speak to MPs in Parliament, who have the power to bring up legislation to disestablish the Church of England unless it conforms to contemporary norms. That he has such contacts and cultural influence is a position of immense privilege, something to which most people, including myself, do not have access. From my non-London-centric perspective, Bell has immense power and privilege. Indeed, he has had one of the most privileged educational upbringings in the world: Cathedral School education and a Cambridge doctorate. My secondary modern-educated parents, who were born into the upper working class, taught me from a young age that to get by in class-ridden Britain I would have to lose my Welsh-inflected Black County accent and put on Queen’s English—the truth of which was horribly confirmed in university.
Why do I bring this seemingly unrelated subject up? It’s a matter of pointing out power and privilege, as Bell is seemingly oblivious to his own. This is the problem of intersectional theory (which Bell recommends on p 212) that someone of his privilege and power could consider himself to be oppressed by someone like me. It has the feeling of, ironically, a paternalist intersectionality. (It’s why Roxanne Gay’s friendly though insightful critiques of intersectional theory resonates so much with me; also why I am highly sceptical of the so-called ‘1968’ revolutions in the West). Bell’s classist attitude lurks beneath the surface of the text. For example, in his pot-shots towards evangelical accommodation of pop aesthetics he writes that no ‘amount of imported pop culture in our worship’ will convince people (219)—a position which is blind to the psychological implications of contemporary aesthetic theory, and how that works out amongst those who did not have the privilege of being immersed in the post-bourgeoise aristocratic aesthetics of a Cathedral school when growing up.
Another example of Bell’s internal inconsistency is his frequent critiques of the pride and lack of humility in his opponents, especially regarding the conservative argument for the perspicuity of the Scriptures on matters of sexuality. Yet as we will see from the undeserved superiority complex, Bell’s writing presents itself as almost entirely lacking humility. Because of this, when he does attempt humility—‘It is important to state something that is entirely obvious—we might be wrong’ (139)—it seems like a shallow or even sarcastic assertion. The extent to which he is genuine is masked by the prior rhetorical strategy. It feels like a sophisticated manoeuvre to please his adherents rather than a genuine sense of humility in the face of reading the arguments of his opponents. More of, ‘there is a statistical probability that I might be wrong’ rather than ‘my opponents have some good arguments which I find challenging’—as seen in his statement that continuing opposition to LGBTQI relational sexuality is ‘flimsy’ (151).
A final example is his critique of ‘othering’ (183-191). Bell spends much time emphasising the sin of ‘othering’ human beings. Although there is far more to it (summarising the riches of Levinas in a paragraph is a non-starter), one way of viewing ‘othering’ is to treat people as 2-D caricatures rather than psycho-social 3-D beings deserving of ethical respect and love. Yet throughout Queen Holiness, conservatives are treated as stupid, uneducated, unthinking, oblivious, manipulative, cruel, wicked, even demonic. Perhaps I missed it, but I could not find a single occasion when conservatives were treated as people deserving dignity and respect. Take this, for example:
It is all part of a culture war that has been whipped up by ‘conservatives’ in order to point the finger of blame at those who don’t fit the norm. These aberrant people are the problem, the argument goes, and their ‘lifestyles’ cannot possibly fit within the Christian church. The problem with this position is that its starting point is culture rather than God: it assumes that the Church of God must, by its nature, be monocultural, and thus must require adherence, and even loyalty, to one, particular, cultural way of ‘being church’ (141).
Now excuse me for a moment whilst I put my MAGA hat into the cupboard before anyone discovers that the Labour-voting Europhile Joshua Penduck is in reality a fifth-columnist Trumpist. Joking aside, who here is Bell talking about? This idea of conservatives being monocultural culture warriors is a nonsense fantasy projection. Yes, there are right-wing culture war warriors amongst theological conservatives; there are also Corbynists and Liberal Democrats too. Conversely, a liberal colleague in my church is a Telegraph-reading Brexiteer. An Augustinian interpretation of a parable about wheat and tares comes to mind.
And Bell’s ‘monocultural’ critique is unintentionally amusing. A good number of the theologically conservative churches I have visited are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-class, multi-generational groupings. A good number of the theologically liberal churches I have been to have been monochrome groups of middle-class white retirees (the irony of Bell’s critique of the typical white, middle-class Anglican parish on p 144 is therefore quite amusing). Is this to say that all conservative churches are beacons of diversity, and all liberal churches are bastions of in-group suspicion? Of course not. But to claim it of conservatives, as Bell argues here, is a classic and egregious case of othering.
This contradictory attitude is nicely illustrated when he writes, ‘we do not win people for Christ by pretending there are no other arguments, rubbishing others, or streamrolling people’ (218). After a book full of such attributes, this line also gave me much ironic mirth. Which leads to the second fault of the text: strawmanning.
This is the fruit of his ‘othering’ of conservatives. Because he has refused to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt, they are presented in the worst possible light. This seriously effects his argument and his research. I could not help being reminded of that old classic of strawmanning, The God Delusion, where any engagement with opposing arguments is dealt with in the most disdainful, withering and simplistic ways.
There are occasions when I can let the strawmanning slide and give Bell the benefit of the doubt—there’s only so much you can say within what appears to be a middle-to-high-brow popular book. Not every argument can be fully explored. On other occasions the strawmanning is just irritating. His blithe dismissal of the conservative arguments from the Scriptures—based on a lack of clarity from the Biblical texts—connects with a sliding between conservative critique of same-sex sexual activity and rejection of LGBTQI people. Take this, for example:
We may hypothetically prove beyond reasonable doubt that particular Greek words used in the epistles really do refer to consensual sexual acts between two men (although such a claim is highly dubious), yet this does not immediately mean that the Christian church must oppose homosexuality in all its forms (125) (italics mine).
But outside of Fundamentalist circles, no one is arguing that the Church ‘must oppose homosexuality in all its forms.’ Another example can be found later in the book:
It is important to be clear that unless and until LGBTQI people have access to the sacraments, rites, and public ministry of the Church in the way that heterosexuals currently do, then there is no equality (161).
Once again, no one in the mainstream is arguing that LGBTQI people should not have such access. The question is about practice and order. These are just two (irritating) examples amongst many. In a similar way to how Dawkins would associate all religion with its most fundamentalist interpretations, Bell associates the conservative position with fundamentalism.
But the real problem of strawmanning is when it undermines the credibility of the arguer. For example, Bell only seemed to engage with popular conservative books on sexuality—with one exception—whereas his arguments for a liberal case is resplendent with journal articles and academic tomes. It’s not as if theologically rigorous conservative arguments are difficult to come by. One just needs to turn to Oliver O’Donovan or John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. But there is nothing in Bell’s text that indicates even an awareness of standard conservative approaches. Nothing. Zilch. Because of this lack of engagement, he writes conservatives off as ‘appearing increasingly desperate’ (181). Well, of course they would appear to be that if you hadn’t read them. It’s not even as if there is any engagement with liberals such as Luke Timothy Johnson who would claim that a directly biblical case cannot be found for changing the Church’s traditional teachings on sexuality (though Johnson would claim biblical principles—such as found in Acts 15—do equip the church to think differently).
But even on the one occasion Bell does engage with an academic conservative book, namely Robert Gagnon, he does so without any real rigour. Excepting a critique of the latter half of The Bible and Homosexual Practice (which Bell rightly critiques for its selective—and I would also argue, outdated—approach to the psychological literature on LGBTQ people)—the only engagement with the main body of Gagnon’s work is through one other author. For example, he claims that an article by David Atkinson ‘carefully decimates’ Gagnon’s account (82 ff.10). However, Bell does not say how. Considering that Gagnon’s book, for all its faults, is a key (though by no means faultless) text in this debate, at least from the perspective of biblical theology, one would have thought that some indication may have been made to show why Atkinson’s argument is superior. But yet again there is nothing. Zilch. As such, I had to dip into my increasingly small post-energy crisis book budget (!) to buy Other Voices, Other Worlds in which Atkinson’s argument could be found. Though his argument has some good points, I did not find it ‘carefully decimating’. It would just require a bit more clarification from Gagnon. After reading, it occurred to me: ‘I’ve read this somewhere before.’ As it happens, Gagnon responded to Atkinson’s argument on the website of the organisation of which I am part, Fulcrum. It is a long, thorough, reasoned, and measured rebuttal, arguing that Atkinson’s account misread The Bible and Homosexual Practice. What’s more, Atkinson himself responded to Gagnon, also on Fulcrum (which, albeit disappointingly, is little more than a shorter restatement of his original argument). After re-reading Gagnon and Atkinson’s articles, there clearly was no ‘careful decimation’.
All this was not difficult to find: I just typed in ‘Gagnon response to Atkinson’ into Google. My point is that because of his othering and strawmanning, it seems Bell did not think the conservative response might have even been worth his time to research. There’s a word for that: laziness.
The opposite of strawmanning is called ‘steelmanning’. This is about so entering into the arguments of one’s opponents that you can find ways of improving them, before then critiquing them. The technique goes all the way back to Socrates—or at least Plato’s interpretation of him in Meno. I attempted to dabble a little bit of that in my account of Bell’s book in Part I of this review. Although the technique is not entirely faultless, at least some steelmanning would not have gone amiss in Queer Holiness.
Undeserved Superiority Complex
This leads to the final problem of the polemical tactic manifest in the book: undeserved superiority complex. A good polemic always has a whiff of the superiority complex—but that is because the polemicist really knows their subject well enough to make it feel genuine. But that takes a lot of work, none of which Bell has really demonstrated. When it comes to his own strengths—psychology—he is worth listening to. But otherwise the superiority complex demonstrated throughout the book is thoroughly undeserving.
a. The hermeneutical question
Too often Bell decides implicitly that all his opponents are fundamentalists of the most literalistic sort. Take this for an example:
Just because their [LGBTQI people] interpretation is different to others’ doesn’t mean they don’t believe or that they don’t place the Bible above everything else in their lives. Indeed, quite often their way of reading the Bible shows it more respect, rather than less, because it takes the Bible on its own terms, and doesn’t ask it to do what it is not able to do, nor designed to do. The Bible is not an instruction manual.
From personal experience I know that instruction manual biblicism is not something restricted to conservatives. Bell goes on to criticise ‘a literalist, peripherally-focused reading of Scripture’, and goes on to criticise a conservative reading, thereby tying the two together. The long running thread throughout Bell’s chapters on the Bible is the implication that hermeneutics is an alien field to conservatives. Of course, those great hermeneutical scholars who represent the church triumphant and church militant respectively, Anthony Thiselton and Kevin Vanhoozer, would be bemused at such a statement. Is Bell aware that there is a whole host of hermeneutical scholars—biblical, systematic, philosophical—who hold a conservative position? If he is aware, then it demonstrates dishonesty in its presentation of the opposing argument. If not, then it has been badly researched—yet again.
A quasi-postliberal understanding of overarching narrative is offered (49) as Bell’s own hermeneutical tool for approaching Scripture (though admittedly little attention is given to this). Where Bell does use narrative-based interpretation, it tends to be used to overrule propositional interpretation. But this is an increasingly problematic interpretation of Scripture. For example, Fred Sanders in his The Triune God has made an excellent case that the kind of Barthian, revelational narrativity typical of, say, Leonard Hodgson, was not the means through which the Church Fathers developed that great doctrinal development in the Nicene Creed. Instead, there was a far more propositional approach than postliberals would be comfortable with today. A similar argument has been made in Katherine Sonderegger’s second volume of her outstanding Systematic Theology.
At the same time, Bell’s hermeneutical method isn’t quite what he claims it is. Rather than a narrative approach, the method appears in practice to be more a Neo-Irenaean developmental understanding of Scripture typical of 19th Century liberalism. For example, there are hints of a Whiggish notion of historical development—‘the Church has lagged behind wider society’ (19)—drawn towards some eschatological future which nevertheless lacks content. Indeed, except for Particular Incarnation and Trinity, there is little here that is substantially different from a 19th Century liberal Protestant account (the ghosts of Ritschl and Harnack lurk here and there). His use of a community of love and justice as a hermeneutical principle seems to be taken straight out of a Ritschlian textbook—a kind of hermeneutics of charity towards which Augustine would be quite suspicious (see On Christian Teaching III.X.14-16). It must be said that there are the Anglican family-resemblances to F.D. Maurice and Charles Gore thrown in the mix. But in general, this is a classic liberal hermeneutic—and Bell doesn’t appear to be aware of it. If he is, there is a dishonesty in not even giving the knowing reader a footnote that to such an approach there has been over one hundred years of excellent conservative critiques from a variety of church traditions. If he is not, then it once again demonstrates an disappointing lack of research and methodological self-awareness.
Another example of this is his lauding of the three-legged-stool (41-2)—of Scripture, tradition, and reason (with experience being partly reason, partly its own category). Within this, the Bible is considered in a somewhat Barthian vein as ‘a divine-inspired record’, or alternatively just a ‘record of God’s revelation’ (37) (the slide between the two is very interesting, considering that they are two fundamentally different ontologies of Scripture). It is ‘a dialogue partner—the senior partner, indeed, but a partner nonetheless’ (41) for whom we look to for ‘guidance on human flourishing’ (46). He goes on to claim an Anglican heritage for this stance: ‘The Church of England takes the ongoing revelation of God through history very seriously indeed—the Bible is indeed complete, but the work of the Spirit is not, and the Bible can point us to where that work continues in our own day’ (41).
But once again, with the exception of a reference to Paul Avis, Bell shows no awareness that there are different models of three-legged-stoolism. Thomas and Turretin and Tillich all lauded Scripture, tradition and reason, but their different emphases changed the outcome. Barth and Balthasar and Borg all used the three legs but have remarkably different theologies: whereas Barth would say Jesus is the one revelation of God, Borg would say he is one of many. Even Hooker’s own model is not neatly packaged to systematisation: as Michael Brydon’s The Evolving Reputation of Richard Hooker demonstrated, there were a variety of ways in which 17th Century Anglicanism appropriated Hooker’s legacy. One just needs to pick up Beveridge’s Ecclesia Anglicana to see that one can take the three legs in a blandly literalistic approach, or one of Jeremy Taylor’s sermons to find a much more organic approach—though one which admittedly too easily slides between the three. Waterland used the three legs to defend Orthodoxy, Gilbert Burnett to allow a whole host of heresies to nestle quietly within. Bell’s own model seems to be something of a mix-and-match: on occasion, Scripture dominates (i.e. incarnation, Trinity, justice etc), at times tradition (liturgy, Creedalism etc), at times reason (sexuality, psychology, biology), at times experience.
At the risk of sounding like a German systematician, a little bit of consistency justifying the changing accents would have been highly useful. Even an methodological appendix or endnote nicely tucked away from the main text would have helped. But once again, nothing. Zilch. The impression given is that because the author assumes stoolism plus experience equals superiority to those ignorant biblical literalistic conservatives, he has no reason to explore any further. And once more this undermines the credibility of the author. Indeed, quite far from the Bible being ‘the superior partner’, Anglican stoolism mainly worked on the principle that the Bible is the norm normans non normata, that is the norm in theology that is not normed, or the one ‘leg’ of theology which does the shaping, whereas the other legs have been considered as norma normata, that is, normal aspects of theology which are shaped by the Scriptures.
Wherever Bell uses the Bible specifically on the matter of same-sex sexual practice, he consider it a ‘normed norm’, that is, shaped by his understanding of reason and experience. Having the Bible be ‘the superior partner’ may or may not be a legitimate development of Stoolism; but classic Anglicanism it is not. Indeed, Bell’s understanding of reason bears ripe comparison with the Socinian models which mainstream classical Anglicanism was at pains to reject. The irony is that for all its many faults, Issues in Human Sexuality is far closer to classical Anglican models than Bell’s, despite his critique of its ‘broad but shallow flourish towards the Anglican three-legged stool’ (133, emphasis mine).
A merely cursory reading of doctrinal history over the last few centuries would prove that the kind of dogmatic function for reason that Bell employs to critique the traditional understanding of sexuality has been used for nearly every dogmatic and ethical loci: the Trinity, the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, miracles—the list goes on. That the Church of England has rejected such an approach over the last few decades and reaffirmed creedal orthodoxy is in part due to the reclamation of the supreme authority of Scripture as interpreted through the tradition. (On a side note, I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons Trinity, incarnation and resurrection have been reclaimed even amongst liberals is that they fit in with a post-Deleuzian model of ontological diversity and a feminist/queer defence of the integrity of the body and materiality. Not that these are bad things in themselves—indeed, any return to creedal orthodoxy is a good, no matter the route. Nevertheless, this risks reliance and dependence on the fittingness of creedal orthodoxy with academic and cultural trends).
I should say that there are many places where I have placed ‘ticks’ in my copy of Queer Holiness (for example, the central paragraph on page 53) and wholly agree with Bell’s understanding of Biblical interpretation. Funnily enough, most mainstream conservative exegesis within the Church of England—even those far more conservative than I—would also agree (and therefore doesn’t fit into the binary between conservative and liberal which Bell seems at pains to create). Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand the dogmatic function of the Bible for Bell. Is it narrative formation? Sacramental? Of pneumatological existentiality? Something having merely formal authority? A literary classic for a traditioned community? Calling it an inspired record of God’s self-revelation is a parson’s nose. It can mean anything to anyone, depending on how ‘inspired’, ‘record’, ‘God’, ‘self’ and ‘revelation’ are understood. I think in principle even Don Cupitt could agree with this.
In one place where he does seem to give the Bible senior partner authority is also the one where he also seems to divest it of all potentially authority of content—‘The Bible, in one sense, does have all the answers—the problem is that one of the Bible’s own answers is to take narrative and human knowledge seriously’ (83). I am now probably splitting hairs but considering that at the heart of this debate for conservatives is the quality of authority which the Bible has within Christian dogmatics and ethics (not just quantity, which ‘a senior partner’ indicates), clarity is vital. Despite his lauding of the role of Scripture in the last chapter, this seems to contradict how he has approached Scripture on this particular issue of sexuality.
This problem of a lack of clarity is worsened in that Bell spends considerable time across the book pointing out how it is difficult to understand the meaning of Scriptural texts, which lack clarity. Naturally, his preferred Biblical verses are presented as beacons of perspicuity; it’s just the verses which challenge his own argument which lack perspicuity. This is convenient, to say the least. Yet two of the examples he gives for Scriptural perspicuity—‘God… does not bless the subjugation of women’ and ‘does not bless coercive sexual behaviour’ (52)—have (tragically) not been seen as clear throughout Christian history. In Bell’s own words, with Scriptural interpretation, ‘we can always find what we want’ (130).
Conclusion to Part II
It should be noted that the kind of background research I have noted Queer Holiness as lacking is not necessary for every contribution to this debate (or any debate). It is not required for one to know the genealogy of their own thinking, nor even some historical excavation for the theological views of one’s opponents. However, once one decides on a polemical rhetorical strategy, lest one fall into the trap of a diatribe, it becomes necessary to understand the wider thinking of one’s opponents in order to understand how they came to a conclusion in one particular area of ethical loci. Yet repeatedly throughout the text, Bell presents a haughty tone towards his opponents, dripping in condescension. Repeatedly, overblown and overly-simplistic statements are thrown about:
Beyond these creeds, there are no foundational articles of belief, and there is no test of orthodoxy. To base orthodoxy on the sex-lives of LGBTQI people is nothing short of blasphemy. (212)
There are no foundational articles of belief critiquing numerous ethical problems, including genocide. Does that mean we should remain in communion with a church which advocates genocide? Is it blasphemous to schism in such a circumstance? Of course not. It’s a silly statement for Bell to make and gives ammunition to those who critique Anglicans as creedal reductionists. (Note: for those who are eager to see evil incarnate in anyone making a conservative argument, I refer here to the well-established distinction between the use of rhetorical casuistry to illuminate ethical principles and a moral equivalence).
Sometimes, Bell gets quite cringe-worthy in his lack of basic understanding. Take this for example:
whilst the teleological argument—the argument from intelligent design—has well and truly run its course’ (81)
(The great disturbance that you may feel in the Force is that of tens of thousands of Thomists, Medieval scholars and Aristotelians having sickly convulsions). Once again, this kind of theological faux pas was unnecessary. A little bit of research—plus a good theological editor—could have made this embarrassing statement disappear into the ether. But sadly, the text is littered with moments like this. What I find unsettling is that despite all its othering and strawmanning of the conservatives, a diocesan bishop can claim in the sleeve notes that such a ‘comprehensive’ book ‘deserves’ to be ‘read widely’. The question can be legitimately raised of what extent he shares Bell’s views of the conservative parishes and clergy in his diocese.
The great mistake here is that of pride, understood both in its classical theological sense, and also as argued by Stephen Cherry. Perhaps it is a reaction against unthinking conservative arrogance (I know my own ‘side’ of this debate can get horribly haughty and unthinking). But two wrongs don’t make a right. Othering, strawmanning, and an undeserved superiority complex has led to a lack of basic research outside of Bell’s own academic niches, an unhealthy scattering of theological clangers, and an overconfidence in his positions without the necessary prior excavation of methodological presuppositions nor those of his opponents. It is the last which makes his argument weakest: the first two can be easily corrected if ever a second edition were forthcoming; the last is a structural problem. Had Bell stuck to his strong areas—in particular, the contribution of biological and psychological sciences—this would have been a valuable contribution to a difficult debate. Unfortunately, his tendency towards polemic has undermined what value could have been offered and in doing so made the book a very mixed bag.
Now that this (unfortunately both necessary—from my end—and unnecessary—from Bell’s end) part of the review is over, I can return in Part III to the closing question of Part I: what has gone wrong?
Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent.