Thabiti Anyabwile ruffled feathers last week with an essay arguing that homosexual behavior ought to induce “moral outrage” (a “gag reflex”). Among other things, he argues that our culture has lost its “moral outrage” concerning homosexuality because people have lost sight of what this conversation is all about—perverted sexual behavior. He argues, therefore, that we need to drop expressions like “gay” and “homosexual” and to use explicit terms that are not cloaked in euphemism. He then gives an object lesson on how we ought to speak, giving a brief but explicit description of what gay sexual behavior actually is.
As you can imagine, Thabiti’s post has caused no little controversy among friends and enemies alike. But it was Jonathan Merritt’s critique that really caught my eye—not least because of its strident tone, but also because it doesn’t seem to be coming from a good-faith critic. What follows are some thoughts on Thabiti’s essay and Merritt’s response to it.
1. Defining the “Yuck Factor” – Thabiti did not invent the so-called “yuck factor” as a category for moral judgment. The idea has been around for a long time and has become common fare in the realm of bioethics. Arthur Caplan is credited with having coined the term, but the concept goes by other names as well. In 1997, Leon Kass called it “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” Kass writes,
Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it… We intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. Repugnance… revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound (p. 20).
Kass acknowledges that “revulsion is not an argument” and must be open to rational scrutiny. Nevertheless, Kass contends that it is morally unwise to ignore “the widespread repugnancies of humankind to be mere timidity or superstition” (p. 21). In other words, sometimes people feel moral outrage that they cannot justify with rational arguments, but that does not mean that the outrage is misplaced.
Critics like Merritt need to realize that people make moral judgments based on the “yuck factor” all the time. It is not the exclusive domain of Christian moralists. Earlier this week, I watched countless secular commentators deplore Miley Cyrus’ performance at MTV’s video music awards. Their judgment was nearly universally negative, and yet hardly any commentator had a moral vocabulary to justify their outrage. But that didn’t keep them from pontificating against Cryrus’ display. They spoke out of an intuition. They spoke out of the “yuck factor” provoked by her salacious performance.
To be sure, the “yuck factor” alone is an inefficient and insufficient way to sustain a moral argument. Sometimes the “yuck factor” is no more than an expression of carnal self-interest. Even so, if we are indeed created in the image of God, if we indeed have consciences, and if the creation does in fact have a God-defined purpose, then widespread moral repugnance can be an indication of moral wisdom (Rom. 2:15). Thabiti’s post is lamenting the loss of this wisdom, and he wants to find a way to bring it back. This is a tall order for a people whose consciences have been seared (1 Tim. 4:1-2), but it is nevertheless a noble aspiration on Thabiti’s part. A good-faith critic with a Christian worldview would recognize that, but Merritt does not.
2. Cultural naiveté – Merritt says that one of the main reasons people are driven away from Christianity is because of “rhetoric” like Thabiti’s. I have to say that this is a rather shallow analysis of our current cultural moment. And I say this as one who doesn’t agree with the explicit nature of Thabiti’s remarks (see below) or the invocation of the “yuck factor” (which I have communicated personally to Thabiti).
Merritt is sorely mistaken to blame Christians for the mistreatment they experience in the broader culture. How facile to blame Christianity’s decline on an allegation that Christians are mean. If every Christian learned how to communicate our message with just the right words and with perfect pitch, the sexual revolutionaries would still be dead-set against us. He accuses Christians of “playing the victim,” as if Christians are really getting their just desserts for being so mean. He writes,“Christians look like whiney bullies who can’t take what they dish out.” Is he serious?
Is anyone “nicer” than Louie Giglio when it comes to these issues? Nevertheless, Giglio was deemed unfit to participate in the President’s inauguration. What about the photographers in New Mexico, the cake shop owner in Colorado, the baker in Oregon, or the florist in Washington State? Each of these Christians serve gay customers, and yet they didn’t feel that they could participate in gay weddings in good conscience. Nevertheless, gay rights activists made sure that these Christians were penalized by the state. It wasn’t because these Christians were mean that they fell under state-imposed penalties. It was because of their views. The tolerance police have grown increasingly intolerant of a Christian sexual ethic. They now have the upper hand in terms of public opinion, and they are spoiling for a fight.
Jesus warned us that it would come to this (John 15:19-21), and so none of us should be surprised by it. Yet Merritt says that the conflict is just Christians “playing the victim.” He seems to suggest that if Christians were “nicer” all this bad feeling would go away and the sexual revolutionaries would cease their offense. That idea is breathtakingly naïve.
There is a great conflagration coming upon Christians because of their views on sexuality, but apparently Merritt refuses to see it and instead chooses to hector Christians for “playing the victim.” It’s comments like this that make me wonder whose side he’s on.
3. Knowing who your friends are – I have read several critiques of Thabiti’s post in addition to Merritt’s, and some of them are clearly not coming from good-faith interlocutors. It is clear that many of the critics are trying to use Thabiti’s remarks to discredit a biblical view of gender and sexuality. Indeed, some of the critics have already stated elsewhere that they don’t agree with the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality, and it is clear that in general they endeavor to undermine the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). They have a particular hatred for the reformed brand of evangelicalism that Thabiti represents–especially for those who continue to hold the biblical line on the morality of gay sexual behavior. We rightly abhor the error of these bad-faith critics, and the faithful would do well to be skeptical of those who are motivated by their hatred of biblical truth.
So my question is this: Why is Merritt lining up with those who have explicitly opposed the Bible’s teaching on sexuality? Even if he disagrees with Thabiti’s rhetoric on this one, doesn’t he have more in common with Thabiti than with those who deny inerrancy, embrace universalism, and eschew biblical morality? Thabiti Anyabwile loves the gospel, loves God’s word, and has given his life to shepherding God’s people. He’s not perfect. None of us are. Nevertheless, he is one of the good guys, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Merritt talks. Why is that?
4. On the propriety of explicit language – With respect to the substance of Thabiti’s article, I think it is unseemly to resort to explicit language to describe homosexual acts. As a practical matter, I don’t think that it will work with the kinds of people who need to be won-over to a biblical view. Such people are more likely to feel moral outrage about explicit language than about what people are doing in private. So from a purely pragmatic point of view, I just don’t think this works. But there’s another more principled reason to reconsider this kind of language.
Would it not be better to allow our language to be shaped by the Bible’s own language in speaking about these things? If scripture is our authority, then we would do well not to be more explicit than the Bible is in confronting these issues. I think the most explicit reference to homosexual acts that we find in the New Testament is Romans 1, which says, “Men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men in men committing indecent acts” (Rom. 1:27). Even though the text says, “men in men,” it does not speak explicitly of body parts. Elsewhere when Paul refers to such body parts, he does so euphemistically calling them the “unseemly” members (1 Cor. 12:23). In 1 Thessalonians 4:4, Paul refers to the male sexual organ not explicitly but with euphemism. In text after text, the Bible’s language about sexuality is indirect and discreet. Would it not be better to adopt the Bible’s mode of expression rather than language that many would consider to be coarse and explicit?
5. On the wisdom of invoking the “yuck factor” - I like what Tim Challies has said on this topic. He writes:
I would suggest that as Christians it may be most helpful to keep the “yuck factor” to ourselves. I do not know that we gain anything in our conversations with and about homosexuals by expressing our disgust towards their actions. We can always plead “love the sinner, hate the sin,” but this falls flat when we can barely look in their eyes because of the disgust we feel for what they do. After all, the “yuck factor” is not consistent as a moral argument. We must dig deeper than that.
Tim is saying that even though the “yuck factor” is real, we have to be careful about expressing it. We are sinners, and sometimes our repugnance is misplaced. But there’s also another danger. People often confuse moral repugnance with personal repugnance, and we don’t want to risk communicating the latter to people that we are trying to reach with the gospel. We will eventually be accused of the latter no matter what we do. But we should adopt modes of speech that seek to minimize the confusion. And terms like “yuck factor” and “gag reflex” confuse the issue.
Thabiti repeatedly clarified this in his follow-up post, and yet Merritt insisted on misunderstanding or misrepresenting this distinction. Again, a good-faith critic would have done better.
I believe Thabiti’s ultimate intention in his post was to rouse consciences that have grown dull to biblical morality. In that aim, I stand with him foursquare athwart the spirit of the age that is raging against Christ and his people. I disagree with him on the approach he takes in his post. I nevertheless love and appreciate Thabiti and believe him to be a courageous servant of the gospel. We are united on all the most important things.
So I don’t understand Merritt’s critique. He seems to miss what is most important in the wider conversation, and he also seems to miss what is most important about Thabiti.