I saw a news story this evening that, after years of controversy, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Dr. Robert Gagnon have parted ways.
Gagnon, who had been an Associate Professor of New Testament at the seminary, is best known as being perhaps the most strident anti-LGBTQ voice within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and well beyond. He has written – voluminously and passionately – in support of his scriptural interpretations that homosexuality is sinful choice, and sexual perversion. His views are clearly out of line with the overwhelming majority of the denomination he’s part of, whether considering the beliefs of ordained ministers, ruling elders, seminary faculty, or the general membership. What’s surprising isn’t that he and the seminary have split, but rather, that it didn’t happen sooner.
While a student at PTS, Dr. Gagnon was one of my professors, teaching me Pauline and General Epistles. I can say that it was a strange experience.
One of the things that I remember most from the class was that Dr. Gagnon seemed extremely pleasant, kind, generally soft-spoken, and genuinely concerned with the well-being of his students – he was, in short, about the last kind of person that anyone familiar with his writings would imagine him to be. At no time during the class, which included covering epistles containing several of the go-to anti-gay “clobber verses,” did Gagnon seem to push his own interpretations of those verses.
That was important to me, since by that time (it must have been 2009 or 2010), my own study and understanding of the scriptures had already led me to believe that the traditional anti-LGBTQ interpretations of scripture were wrong. From the moment I learned that I’d be in Gagnon’s class, I was concerned that I’d be punished for not agreeing with his well-known anti-gay stance. I worried that either my grades would suffer because of being honest about my beliefs, or that I’d have to hypocritically hew to Gagnon’s hermeneutic in order to pass.
What actually happened was quite different. Dr. Gagnon conducted that class in a way that was entirely appropriate, and taught the material – covering the origins of, and underlying issues being addressed in, the epistles – in a way that did not particularly sell his interpretations regarding sexuality over opposing views. Only once or twice did I sense even a trace of bias, and it was never something that came up in exams.
The only real complaint I had with Gagnon’s teaching was with the nature of the exams themselves. They were designed to be impossible to authentically pass, or frankly, even to effectively study for. They were completely inappropriate for the nature of the course, and as far as I could tell, they only served to reinforce to the students that Gagnon was the smartest guy in the room. Raw exam scores were abysmal, and were then simply curved to bring them up to something actually usable. I specifically remember one exam when I scored a 22%. It was the second-best grade in the class (the best was a 24), and this was not an uncommon grade range for the exams. On that particular exam, Gagnon had jotted a note on its front, complimenting me for my “rigorous scholarship.”
There’s no way anywhere other than Bizarroland that a 22% on any appropriately-prepared exam could possibly illustrate “rigorous scholarship.” I could never understand why he didn’t just design exams that were realistic gauges of the students’ understanding of the actual depth of material that the course was intended to convey.
Other than that, I had no significant complaint with him or his classroom activity.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole story with Robert Gagnon. Whatever positive qualities he may have exhibited face to face in the classroom, his other, almost schizophrenic, side was never more than a mouse-click or two away. Everyone sitting in his classroom knew about his writings, which are not merely anti-affirming, they’re vehemently, almost rabidly, anti-gay.
I shudder to think about the scores of LGBTQ students over the years who sat in his classes, being treated civilly in person by someone they knew actually considered them sinful deviates who had no business in his class preparing for the ministry. I think the unfiltered bigot or homophobe who openly expresses his feelings is preferable to the one who smiles to your face while actually loathing you.
Professors are more to their students than just their classroom presence. Their entire public persona is providing instruction and sending messages to them, and Gagnon’s sent a terrible and personally harmful message to a significant minority of his students. It was comparable to having a professor on staff who was able to speak kindly and graciously to his black students in the classroom, while openly maintaining a white supremacist website in his free time.
In this country, we’re currently in the midst of a national debate about statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy and its leaders. A lot of that debate has involved discussion of another Robert – General Robert E. Lee. Lee most assuredly had a number of admirable personal qualities, but the evil that he chose to uphold by force overwhelmed those attributes and ruined the positive legacy he might have otherwise had – something that we’re only now, far too belatedly, coming to terms with. In the same way, the terrible harm that Robert Gagnon’s obsessive anti-LGBTQ polemic has caused overwhelms the professional goodness in him that I personally experienced. That’s a shame – but just as with that other Robert, it’s a shame that he’s caused himself. Unlike my sexual orientation, Gagnon’s anti-gay stance is entirely his choice.