WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — In the video, the young man with the face of an altar boy speaks with quiet conviction for 67 minutes, looking a church congregation in the eye, glancing only occasionally at his notes, making his case that when it comes to homosexuality and the Bible, most people have it all wrong.
The Bible, he contends, doesn’t say homosexuality is a sin, nor does it condemn loving gay relationships.
Made March 8 at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, the video has been viewed more than 135,000 times on YouTube and drawn an international outpouring of praise and condemnation for the speaker.
Reaction to it is likely to swell as the issue of gay marriage percolates in presidential politics, and states debate bans on same-sex marriages.
In his home in College Hill, the speaker, Matthew Vines, 22, pops open a laptop to share some of the responses to his video.
Several gay teens write that they were about to kill themselves, but changed their minds after watching his presentation.
Other responses say he is wrong, that he is twisting what the Bible says. Some are crude rants, and Vines says he brushes those off as knee-jerk reactions. But some critics are beginning to mount more thorough and thoughtful rebuttals on blog posts and websites all over the Internet.
Vines says he made the video in part to elevate the debate. He wants to engage in arguments based on serious biblical scholarship. Perhaps he can be pushed to dig deeper into his own research, he says.
He believes critics face a difficult task overturning his findings. His case, two years in the making, is sound, he says.
“I did not do this casually. I tore everything apart to make sure I was making an argument that will withstand the toughest scrutiny, and I am confident this will. I want people to try to tear this apart. I will be happy to defend my position,” he says.
Vines grew up in what he says was a conservative Presbyterian church. He formed the view that traditional biblical interpretations say gays are not part of God’s design, that they are broken and sinful and ought to be excluded from the possibility of marriage and loving companionship. There seemed to be nothing to argue. The issue was made clear in six passages in the Bible.
He graduated as a valedictorian and a National Merit Scholarship finalist in 2008 and went to Harvard University.
Then, in the autumn of his sophomore year, he said he acknowledged to himself that he was a gay Christian.
“I knew this was going to turn everything upside down about my life, and involve a lot of stress and vulnerability, and a lot of potential pain,” he says. “I knew there were so many obstacles.”
For a time he was able to put this new self-awareness aside and compartmentalize it so he could focus on class work. Slowly, he began to see that it didn’t have to mean the end of the world.
Unable to accept that the Bible offered a loving Jesus who championed the downtrodden, yet compelled the spiritual destruction of a sexual minority, he was determined to research the issue.
When he came home to Wichita after the fall semester, he knew he didn’t want to go back.
“I needed the time to pour thousands of hours into studying this and not focusing on anything else,” Vines says.
But he also knew he had to reveal his sexual orientation to his family and his friends from school and church. He had come out in the accepting environment of Harvard. He expected the process to be more intense and protracted in Wichita.
Coming out to his parents was nerve-racking. Vines says his mother was quickly accepting, although concerned about the obstacles of prejudice and discrimination that likely lay ahead for him. His father was open to him, but needed time to work through the issue.
Within six months, his dad was able to support him, Vines says. Both parents remain strongly behind him and his efforts to spread his message, he says.
Gaining acceptance from church friends was a much greater challenge.
“It was an extraordinary process, unbelievably difficult,” Vines says.
The process — a long series of conversations, meetings, dinners and discussions — has taken two and a half years and resulted in only limited success, he says.
“Some people responded well and some people didn’t respond very well,” Vines says. “When people don’t respond well, it’s a gut-wrenching experience.”
Vines returned to Harvard in the fall of 2010 to take Latin classes because some of the early documents he’d read were in Latin. He also took classes in religion. But he left for a second time after that semester and hasn’t been back. He took up the life of a hermit scholar at his parents’ home.
Vines says he studied ancient Greek and became proficient enough to feel comfortable reading biblical texts that originally had been written in Greek. He studied previous scholarship on the issue and devoted months to develop a background in Christianity and ancient history.
He says he wanted to share his scholarship in a way that was accessible to all and acceptable to conservatives in the church.
“That doesn’t mean they will want to agree with it, but if they are open to it, it is an argument they can accept, and requires them to change absolutely nothing else about their beliefs,” he says. “All I’m asking them to do is try to give more thought and nuance to six passages out of more than 31,000.”