Matthew Vines ’12 was undoubtedly the smartest kid in my Social Studies 10 section. Every week he tackled the material with energy and verve, and effortlessly raised the interest level of everyone else in the room. Then, halfway through the year long tutorial, Vines took a leave of absence. On a brief return to Harvard the following semester, Vines implied that he had been suffering from depression, and said that he had decided to take time off to do some necessary “reading.”
Last week, I discovered what that “reading” was.
“I am gay,” Vines said to a Methodist church in his native Wichita, Kansas earlier this month, in an hour-long speech later posted to YouTube. And “according to the traditional interpretation of Scripture, as a Christian, I am uniquely excluded from [the] possibility for love, for companionship, and for family.”
For the past two years, Vines has dedicated his life solely to studying traditional Christian exegesis, in order to create a reasonable interpretation of the Bible’s stance on homosexuality that could replace the austere orthodox one espoused by his community. And the devotion and intellectual honesty he evoked in his quest should serve as a paragon for anyone who seeks to effectuate change in the religious (or political) sphere.
Vines came to grips with his sexual orientation during his sophomore year of college. He found numerous allies at Harvard, but felt consistently rebuffed by the fact that many of them came from such different cultural and religious backgrounds than he did. One LGBT tutor, for example, responded to his plight by bemoaning the burden that religion often placed on its gay adherents. “Her attitude was basically ‘Matthew, religion isn’t worth it,’” Vines said. “And I was just like, ‘well, okay, but that’s not really helpful.’”
Vines returned home to Kansas after that semester and stayed there. He decided that he couldn’t complete his undergraduate degree until he discovered a way to square his sexual orientation with his faith. This ended up being harder than expected, since he was at a loss to find a comprehensive, cogent, single piece or argument that he felt did justice to the issue. “There were so many books written on this topic, there are so many websites,” Vines said, but virtually all of them “cu[t] corners in order to reach their desired conclusion.” Most of the genuine scholarship on this issue, Vines discovered, was inaccessible to the vast majority of Christians, and most of the popular literature wouldn’t persuade a mainstream conservative Christian—and, most importantly, persuade Matthew Vines.
So ever since March 2010, Vines has devoted his life to researching this topic. This involved reading myriad scholarly articles, teaching himself basic Greek, and even returning to Harvard briefly to study Latin. Only after thousands of hours of study did Vines finally feel comfortable enough to present his findings. “I really want to reclaim the Bible,” Vines told me, “and not have to do it in a way that’s manipulative of the text. And fortunately…I think that my arguments and my interpretations are actually more accurate historically and Biblically” than the traditional ones.
You can decide that for yourself—as a non-Christian, I have no stake in this issue. But I do have a stake in how religious debates are conducted in this country.
Far too often, public discourse on controversial religious issues devolves into shouting matches between skeptics and staunch traditionalists. When debating religious conservatives about contraception, abortion, and gay marriage, opponents typically frame the dispute as one between those who care about “equality and compassion,” versus those who prefer to hold “outdated” views on antiquated texts that bear no relevance for the modern day. Such a self-righteous position may flatter skeptics’ sense of superiority, but it has little chance of persuading the unconverted and affecting actual religious reform. Indeed, such attacks tend to lead to retrenchment by religious institutions that interpret these accusations as assaults by liberal society on their moral character, and then circle the wagons to protect their purity.
Having grown up in Wichita, Vines knew that. And as a deeply devout Christian, he refused to accept a Biblical interpretation that in some way “cut corners” in its approach simply for the sake of politics. LGBT advocates often “completely knock the Bible all together, or Christianity altogether,” Vines said. “That is so counterproductive to the goal here. Why on earth, when you’re dialoguing with people, would you take something extremely sacred to them” and degrade it?
This basic understanding permeates Vines’s speech, and is precisely what makes it so beautiful. It’s filled with reverence for those who adhere to the tradition—Vines among them—and attempts to make an argument within the framework that they hold dear. In the long run, Vines’s speech will probably create far more change on the ground than unconvincing apologetics or anti-Christian diatribes.
So take the time to watch this video (there’s a screening on campus this Saturday). Even if you’re not a Christian, even if you’re not very religious, and even if you disagree with Vines’s findings, his work serves as a beacon to those who seek a popular discourse on religion that is grounded in erudition, thoughtfulness, and dignity.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.