When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.
This is a common source of ambiguity in language. When I projected my own experience with ships into the story, the result was not completely misleading. Certain root elements of the concept of “ship” were shared between the ship that Paul rode on in the book of Acts and the “ships” that I saw sailing past when was on the waterfront, or the ships that I rode on trips to Seattle or Victoria. But there was still a certain significant level of misunderstanding in my reading of the text (though I doubt that misunderstanding led to any erroneous theological conclusions).
I use this example only because I want to discuss a different, though related, question: when someone uses or hears the word “gay,” what set of experiences or dispositions is the word about for them? And I will argue that different life stories produce differences in the word’s content that are probably larger than the differences between my boyhood concept of a “ship” and the concept of a “ship” that Luke had in mind when he wrote the book of Acts. These differences, in turn, make it easy for two people, looking at the same text, to assign very different meanings to the word “gay,” with the result that some readers project meanings into the text that were not present for the author. Here, the differences in meaning are much more theologically significant, and so need much more careful discussion.