It started out with our church re-examining its policy on marrying same-sex couples, which is negative. But the pastor wanted us to think about the homosexual (read lesbian, etc.) issue more deeply so we were given a book by Tim Otto to read.

The book is Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gary Relationships, which we were to read and discuss on Wednesday evenings. There is obviously a lively interest because we have had more turn out for these sessions than for pancake breakfasts.

While reading the book, I have have tried to apply my linguistics and anthropological training. Allow me to explain: In linguistics we study, among other things, language structure, and in anthropology, my interest is in diverse cultures. In both instances I have certain tools that I have used.

My wife and I were in Papua New Guinea for over 32 years and, like many others, learned to speak and analyze an unwritten language. To do so, we used certain methods to write the language phonetically, then reduce it to writing, analyze the grammar and culture, prepare a dictionary, and so on. And in each case we did so from a particular perspective.

Our initial viewpoint was from the ‘outside’: there are several hundred sounds that a human can make and each sound can be classified according to its point and manner of articulation and other features (lips, tongue, palate, voice characteristics, and so on). We can label these features from an etic (from a phonetic or outside) point of view. There will be some variation (there always is) but ten linguists writing Kiowa words phonetically for the first time will write them much the same. But first, of course, they must be trained in phonetics, so that they can distinguish the sounds they hear and they must have a script (a phonetic set of symbols) with which to write the language. Once the language has been written phonetically, linguists may try to examine the sounds from a phonemic (or ‘inside’) point of view. For example, there may be several dozen sounds that they have been transcribed, but only a limited number of them will be necessary for a phonemic alphabet (one used to teach people to read and write their language).

For example, if I hear and write the beginning of the English word ‘paper’ phonetically, I will begin it with a [ph], but phonemically it will not be necessary to write the [h] because in English all initial voiceless bilabial stops have that sound—a simple /p/ will do. (Square brackets indicate phonetic sounds and diagonal slashes indicate phonemic sounds or analysis).

As a linguist, I first hear the language phonetically—it is only later that I can write it phonemically and that is only with the aid of the vernacular speaker—one who is an insider and hears the language emically. An English speaker will reveal to you (by means of contrasting words) that it is not necessary to write the aspiration [h]. (You may think that writing a word like ‘phone’ contradicts this, but remember that its initial sound is phonetically an /f/.

We do the same kind of analysis with culture: for example, we can elicit the names of personal relationships, like father and uncle, mother and aunt, and then place them in an etic genealogical chart to distinguish gender, generation, and other relationships. Later, with emic analysis, we may learn that there are multiple words for ‘father’ or mother’, depending on whether we are referring to the person or addressing the person.

We are aiming for an emic analysis but we must start with an etic description and our etic description depends upon our training and perspective.

Appealing this to my gender concepts, I was brought up knowing what a ‘male’ and ‘female’ were. Therefore, as an inside, emic speaker, I used the words and knew who I was talking about. However, the world has changed and there is now a different etic grid that social scientists have taught society to use, based, it is claimed, upon scientific evidence like genetics. The network now includes words like ‘gay’, ‘transgender’ and ‘bisexual’. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania I never heard those words. We spoke of ‘queers’, ‘fags’, ‘drag queens’ and used other (even more pejorative) words. From my emic rural perspective I classified the gender world around me. I was raised caring for animals and I knew what a bull or cow looked like and I knew when the cow wanted to be mated. But I never saw bulls mating bulls or cows mating cows—although when a cow climbed on the back of another cow it was a pretty sure indication that it wanted to see a bull. There were no homosexual animals in my world.

My belabored point is that Otto, as an homosexual insider, appeals to his emic orientation, but in doing so gives us an etic grid (LGBT, with more initials added by some) to understand multiple orientations. We are now to apply ‘G’ to him and to others within the homosexual orientation. In general American culture this now seems like a valid placement, but from my rural and naïve position it wouldn’t make sense. Sure, growing up, we saw that some boys were ‘effeminate’ and some girls were ‘Tomboys’. However, they were not separated and given special gender status. We lived with them and worked with them, ate with them and played with them. There were no special discriminatory actions (all Tomboys sit on the left) or bias (boys with high-pitched voices must eat their lunches with the girls) forced upon us.

My conclusion, after reading Otto and other similar books and articles, is that things have gotten out of hand. We want to make the newly defined groups feel loved, because that is broadly and basically Scriptural, so we empathize with them. We try to become emic partners but most of us are etic outsiders and never can be insiders, and we should accept that. Jesus ate with sinners and prostitutes but he did not become one of them. As I understand the Scriptures, unnatural sexual relations is a sin, just like indecent acts, fighting, jealousy, anger, ambition, separating into groups, envy, drunkedness, orgies, idols and witchcraft (see Galatians 5:19-21 for example).

Jesus amplified the law of Moses in regard to anger, marriage, divorce, making promises, revenge, loving our enemies, giving and prayer (Matthew 5 and 6). In each case (and others) He made it clear that none of us can live up to the law and need his saving grace.

We are trying to understand all LGBTs and accept them into the fellowship of the church. However, and as Rod Dreher warns us (in his book How Dante can save your life), it may be too easy to forgive a wrongdoer and “In another sense it is a warning against too much empathy: our identification with a wrongdoer may blind us to the seriousness of that person’s sin” (108).

I realize, of course, that some at our church do not believe that anyone with an LGBT brand is a sinner simply because of the label. But my understanding of what Moses and Jesus taught is that we are all sinners and in need of redemption. Homosexuality, like lust, pornography, gossip, lying and many other things, is not something that a Christian should be involved with—we are commanded to try and live like Jesus and he has given us the Holy Spirit to guide and help us. Jesus was motivated to be a friend of tax collectors and sinners so that they might repent (Luke 5:30). We should also be the friends of the ‘outcasts’ and pray that they, like us, would repent.