Gay, Christian author seeks to start a conversation

The Wichita Eagle/April 21, 2014

By Fred Mann

Matthew Vines has continued to arm himself in his fight to change traditional thinking among conservative Christians about the Bible and homosexuality.

Two years ago, he appeared in a YouTube video contending that the Bible doesn’t say homosexuality is a sin, nor does it condemn committed and loving gay relationships.

The Wichita East High graduate, who dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year and spent two years researching the issue, made the video to show that it is possible to uphold the full authority of Scripture and reconcile two of the central realities of his life: that he is a conservative Christian, and that he is gay.

Now he has written a book, “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” released Tuesday.

He will sign copies of the book at Grace Presbyterian Church, 5002 E. Douglas, at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Vines also has founded a nonprofit called the Reformation Project to recruit and train people to help him spread the word, hoping that some day other gay conservative Christians won’t have to experience the pain and rejection he did after he came out to his own evangelical Presbyterian church in Wichita.

Vines said he wasn’t prepared to write a book after the video appeared on YouTube in March 2012.

The video, filmed at a Wichita church, went viral, receiving nearly 700,000 views. He spent six months promoting it, responding to feedback, and reaching out to people to make new friends and connections.

In September 2012, the New York Times profiled him on the front of its Sunday Style section, and within a week he heard from five literary agents and five editors or publishers. Within a couple of weeks, he had a book deal.

“God and the Gay Christian,” published by an imprint of Random House, expands on the video, in which Vines discussed six passages in the Bible that address same-sex relationships. The passages are Genesis 19, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Leviticus 18 and 20 in the Old Testament; and, in the New Testament, a passage by Paul in Romans 1, and two Greek terms in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.

Vines contends that same-sex behavior in the Bible is related to the vice of excess, the lack of ability to control one’s desires, and that long-term, loving, monogamous gay relationships aren’t present in the Bible. Other references in the Bible to homosexuality are inapplicable today, he says.

Opponents of the video say he is wrong, that his arguments have been raised before and debunked, and that he twists the Bible’s words.
Starting a conversation

In his book, Vines explores other issues in the Bible such as celibacy and marriage equality. He uses as a framework for the discussion a detailed account of his own personal journey from the awareness of his sexual orientation while a student at Harvard to his decision to leave school and return home to Wichita to come out to his parents, friends and church.

Many books have been written on the Bible and homosexuality. Vines said his agent and publisher think the time is right for such a book to finally go mainstream. Progressive and moderate churches already are more accepting of gays, courts are striking down same-sex marriage bans in states following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, and polls show most Americans now support gay marriage, he said.

Still, Vines expects the book to encounter resistance. Polls continue to show that a majority of evangelicals believe same-sex relationships are sinful.

He won’t shy away from at starting a conversation with them, he said.

“Not having this conversation, we are perpetuating a vast amount of suffering and pain,” Vines said.

“It’s still going to be an uphill climb. I don’t have many illusions about this being easy,” he said.

But he said: “If you can show to lay conservative Christians that the Bible is not at stake in this issue, that takes so much of the heat out of this conversation.”

The book was a 15-month process for Vines, including more research in addition to the two years of work he’d put in on the video. Starting in January 2013, Vines said, he worked on book seven days a week, 10 to 14 hours a day, in the College Hill home of his parents. He finished in October. Two and a half months of editing followed.

Vines said he is not trying to make new arguments in the book, merely synthesizing much of the scholarly work that already had been done and breaking it down for a lay audience.

“It’s just speaking to an audience that we have not reached yet, on terms that are at least potentially powerful, plausible and persuasive,” he said.
Transcending politics

As he was working on the book, Vines also spent time developing his Reformation Project to train “ambassadors” to deliver the message in as many communities as possible.

Vines said that when it comes to advocating for same-sex marriage, those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities are weakest when they try to talk about the Bible. So the project aims to train them and other affirming Christians in the Bible and help them feel confident in their arguments.

The Reformation Project held its first conference in September in Kansas City for 50 LGBT Christians, including some from Canada, Korea and England. Attendees had to apply to go to the conference. Vines sent applicants 1,500 pages of academic literature to read, and they had to spend eight to 10 hours a week studying the material, he said.

“I wanted to find the people I thought were best positioned to advance the message, and who demonstrated the greatest level of commitment,” he said.

The goal of the conference, which he called a “Bible boot camp,” was to build a training model for educating people about how to talk about the Bible and homosexuality with conservative Christians, and how to connect with like-minded Christians in their local communities to build support, he said.

Another conference is planned for 900 people in Washington, D.C, in November. Future conferences are planned for February 2015 in Atlanta, and April 2015 in Kansas City.

Vines said he raised $104,000 as a result of the video, and was able to hire a staff member for the Reformation Project in January. He will continue to seek donors and grants to support the project, he said.

The goal is to build a widespread grassroots movement within a few years and work for change from the ground up, he said. Ultimately, he hopes that effort will create an environment that will allow church leaders to accept the new interpretations without losing influence.

“My message isn’t that change is inevitable, because it’s not,” Vines said. “My message is that change is possible. I think it’s only really possible with the right biblical approach to arguments. That’s what the book is all about. But once you have that, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of persistence and effort and determination and grit for years to make that happen. But I’m convinced that it’s possible.”

Vines wants churches to transcend politics.

“I want the Christian church to be an effective, authentic witness of God’s love to the world,” he said. “That’s what most Christians want, too.”

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