Robert, Meet Robert.

robert-gagnon

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.

 

4 thoughts on “Robert, Meet Robert.

  1. Is it fair to characterize Dr. Gagnon’s writings as “almost rabidly anti-gay” while you also affirm that none of your personal experience with him supported that notion? Do you truly believe that behind every disagreement is someone who is “actually loathing you”? Is that how you feel toward all the millions of Christians who support traditional Christian ethics and the plain meaning of the sacred texts?

    Reformed theology traditionally includes a healthy loathing of sin – but also a deep compassion, and even love for sinful people. That, after all, was the attitude of Jesus who did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. Perhaps there are better lessons yet to be learned from Dr. Gagnon and his legacy.

    • Michael, please re-read what I wrote. I didn’t say that “none of my personal experience” supported the idea that Dr. Gagnon holds rabidly anti-gay positions. I said only that in my classroom experience with him, he didn’t make them a focus of the way he taught the class (apparently, based on the comments of numerous others, this was not universally true of all classes he taught). There was, and is, in fact, more than ample evidence of the nature of his strident anti-gay sentiment, found in his copious writings. And that gets to my point: a person is not merely what is seen in one light or from one angle. What we are – and to be more precise here, in the case of educators, what we teach – is the sum of all of our words and actions, in all settings. In this case, my experience of him in the classroom was that he was brilliant, thoughtful, passionate and compassionate, and witty. I enjoyed his lectures. I wanted to, and almost did, really like him. But I had to leave it at “almost,” because I had read many of his anti-gay writings and knew precisely what he thought – and that baggage, and the hurt that his words have caused to many people including myself, ends up being dropped on the classroom desktop, whether one likes it or not. In the end, it’s unfortunate that the genuinely admirable qualities that I saw in him are negated by the bad – but, unfortunate or not, they are.

  2. When you state that Dr. Gagnon considers LGBT students as “sinful deviates” then you no longer have my attention and you greatly diminish what you are trying to say in your article. I am a Presbyterian pastor that firmly believes that the Scripture is clear….. that sexual expression is reserved only between a man and a woman in the context of marriage. And so, I agree with Dr. Gagnon. I have never felt that same sex expression is deviant. I simply believe it is wrong like all the other sinful practices one reads about in Scripture.

    • If I have lost your attention, either at the place you indicate or anywhere else, that’s not a situation that I would desire – but neither is it one that I will apologize for. Like you, I am also a Presbyterian pastor, one who once agreed with the traditional, anti-LGBTQ, biblical interpretations. However, the deeper I went into studying the soundest and most current biblical scholarship and theology, added to improved knowledge from linguistic studies, archaeology, biology, psychology, sociology – not to mention vast wealth of information available from the actual lives and experiences of LGBTQ people themselves – I came to recognize that the traditional interpretation is just flat wrong. And not just wrong, but horrendously, terribly, sinfully wrong, and rising to the level of evil; having directly and indirectly caused the pain, suffering, violence, even death, of millions of LGBTQ people over the course of the past 2,000 years. Sadly, the positions held by you and Dr. Gagnon make you both accomplices in this evil, and I firmly believe that there will come a time when both of you will be called to account for having been part of it, no matter how noble you may currently believe your intentions to be. My prayer for you is that some day, your eyes, mind, and heart will be opened, and you see fully your error and the harm that you’ve caused – to LGBTQ people, to yourself, and to the faith; and that at that time you would seek forgiveness for that sin, and begin to do whatever is in your power to make amends for it.

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