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To My Gay Friends, My Bethel Friends, and My Gay Bethel Friends

There has been a raft of recent articles on ANewsCafe regarding Bethel Church and the way the leaders of the church view homosexuality, as most of you readers well know.

In a nutshell: Homosexuality is a sin, but Jesus can fix you. We’ll help, for a fee……unless the State of California decides to revoke that right.

Here’s my take.

Except for hydrogen and some helium created in the Big Bang, all of the stuff we (and the Earth around us) are made of was generated in now-dead stars through sustained fusion, scattered in supernova explosions and stellar collisions, then coalesced via gravitational force.

The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and is probably going to be here another 5 billion years, until our Sun supernovas. If I live to be 100 (an unlikely round number), I’ll have lived about one-one-hundred-millionth (0.000001%) of the Earth’s likely lifespan. Less than a blink of an eye (my lifetime) in the blink of an eye (our species’ time on Earth).

There are about 250 billion stars in our galaxy. On a clear moonless night in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, you can see maybe 5,000 of them (0.000002%). The rest of the Milky Way you see is scattered light.

There are about 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe (i.e., the part of the universe close enough to us for light to have reached us in 13 billion years…it may be considerably larger).

There are an estimated 70 billion trillion stars in the observable universe (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). That’s just stars—you can probably add another zero or two for planets. Trust me, if you’re trying to wrap your head around those numbers, they’re unfathomable.

As a kid, it was pretty easy for me to think of me/us as the center of the universe.

Now my thinking is: Be humble, sit down.

I am profoundly humbled when contemplating those astronomic numbers, to the point where I’ve had what I consider spiritual experiences considering them, particularly while staring up at the wilderness sky late at night. I am similarly humbled and filled with wonder over our very existence (even if it’s true, as some posit, that we exist in a simulation). I’ve been contemplating these things for decades.

I’m a few months shy of sixty. After all these years, I’ve yet to encounter an explanation for why we exist that satisfies me more than Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. (Or, in the parlance of Aristotelian causality, the First Cause). The Unmoved Mover is that mysterious force that put the material universe in motion, and we are by our limited nature unable to use our material faculties to understand what that Unmoved Mover is and why the First Cause occurred. Granted, the Unmoved Mover isn’t satisfying if you need to believe that in this incomprehensibly vast universe we must be central to its purpose, you desire a deity who intervenes in human affairs, and you want your conscious experience to persist after you croak.

The Christian denomination in which I was raised (until I checked out at about thirteen) was short on spirituality, ecstatic experience and love—long on guilt, threat of damnation, obedience, and intolerance. My naïve view of Bethel, until recently, was that they attract young people from all over the globe because they focus on the former. Was I projecting on Bethel what I personally think are the appealing aspects of religion? The eye-rolling altered-state-of-consciousness stuff?

I don’t think my impression was off-base—near as I can tell, ecstatic spiritual experience is a big part of Bethel’s appeal. It’s just that my view was incomplete—I hadn’t realized that the church apparently holds to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, including that gay people are going to Hell unless well-meaning Bethelites bring them to Jesus for the cure.

I understand why some people are going to chaff over “well-meaning,” but the Bethel folks I know personally are sweethearts—they’re among the nicest people I know. The only way I can square the Bethelites I know with the words of Kris Vallotten is to believe that the members of the church mean well. They sincerely want to save the gays from their sinful selves.

I’m giving them—the flock, not Vallotten—the benefit of my doubt. I’m granting Johnson and Vallhotten less slack because I’m profoundly skeptical of authority figures in general, and because after perusing their videos and writings, I honestly don’t much care for them. I’m willing to concede that my view of Bethel’s leaders is a matter of opinion and taste, but what I see are a pair of charming (in a folksy and affable way), know-it-all, intellectually stunted, power-tripping hustlers. Nothing personal, fellas. It’s me—I just don’t like your type, and never will. I’ll even concede that Vallhotten sincerely believes what he preaches, even when that message is frightening to my gay friends or laugh-out-loud dumb to me (e.g., If we evolved from apes, why are the jungles still full of apes?).

Harsh? Believe me, mine is a far more charitable opinion of Bethel’s leaders than the views held by large numbers of their fellow Christians. Religion vs. religion—always an amusing battle until you get caught in the crossfire.

Much has been written about the commonality of the Golden Rule across religions. It shows up in game theory, and in evolutionary biology as an evolutionary stable strategy—one of the most rewarding tactics between people (and other animals) that interact repeatedly. Cooperation pays. Be nice if you want people to be nice to you. Jesus laid it out on the Sermon on the Mount. In my 25 years in Redding—a place that I long considered the meanest place I’ve ever lived—Bethelites are among the nicest people I’ve come to know. In my estimation, they’ve moved the community’s needle on the niceness metric.

So……we have our differences, but I’m miles from writing off my Bethel friends. I hope this notion that gay conduct is a mortal sin is primarily a generational divide in their church, though I’m increasingly convinced it’s not. Maybe some of my young Bethel friends will tell me I’m right about that divide, but I’m not holding my breath. If any of them want to talk about the perils of what they see as my moral relativism relative to their Biblical absolutism, I’m game—but it’s going to be a two-way conversation.

I will tell my Bethel friends that as a non-fundamentalist reader of the Bible, I think they’ve lost the trail. Jesus provided an enlightened, inclusive, and simple message. And then a few years down the road, Paul—a lesser man by orders of magnitude—messed up by hanging too much stuff on the Christmas tree. The tree is the thing, Paul—not the tinsel.