Note: Perhaps I should prepare my readers for the reviews I will be posting today and tomorrow. The writers of the book I am reviewing today endorse what they would describe as the church’s historic consensus about human sexuality while attempting to deal thoughtfully and sensitively with contemporary issues in this contentious space. Tomorrow, I will be reviewing a book on intersectional theology, in which the co-authors support an “open and affirming” stance with regard to LGBTQ persons. I will understand if some of my readers decide to opt out of one or both, perhaps for good reasons because even summaries of the books and discussion of them may not feel “safe” given the reader’s personal experience. There is much I found in each book that I appreciated, and matters about which I had questions, or even disagreements. I suspect you will as well, and we may differ in our appreciations, questions, and disagreements. At least this blog won’t be one more “echo chamber.”
Beauty, Order, and Mystery, Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson, editors. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.
Summary: A collection of papers given at the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians conference exploring various aspects and contemporary issues concerning human sexuality from the perspective of the church’s historic consensus.
The editors of this work begin by advancing the idea of “mere sexuality” which they hold to be the church’s historic consensus on the meaning and appropriate expression of human sexuality. They argue that this has been a time of sweeping change with the upholding of marriage equality and transgender rights, as well as the predominance of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the ease of divorce, and the separation of sexual intimacy and procreation because of birth control. Some see this as sweeping away that consensus, others as evidence that there never really was one. The attempt of the contributors of this book is to articulate in fresh terms the church’s historic understanding of human sexuality, not only addressing contemporary questions but seeking to articulate a vision of the beauty of human sexuality, how a proper ordering of sexual love leads to human flourishing, and the meaning that underlies it for creatures made in the image of the triune God and the incarnate Son who calls the church his Bride.
There were several essays that I found especially helpful in articulating this vision. Beth Felker Jones writes about the goodness of embodied gender and sexuality, and challenges “cultural assumptions about femininity and masculinity [that] may interfere with Christian discipleship.” Wesley Hill, a celibate, gay, Anglican theologian, sensitively engages the work of Eugene Rogers and Robert Song, who both are “affirming” theologians. He carefully discusses Matthew 19:1-9 arguing that Jesus not only reaffirms the creation order of male and female marriage, but in his teaching about divorce, announces the redemption of this order. At the same time, he challenges readers to consider how LGBTQ persons may be gifts to the church rather than problems to be solved, people to be loved and wanted for who they are.
Joel Willitts offers what I found to be a courageous and vulnerable account of what it was like for him to struggle with a history of sexual abuse, pornography use, struggles with intimacy and the futility of the quick fixes often dispensed in the name of pastoral care. He shares, in an email with a woman struggling with porn, a woman abused from age 6 who became pregnant at age 12:
“…if you ever do come to the point that you can give up porn, it will not be because of contempt or fear or guilt or shame or self-discipline. If you ever give up porn it will be because you have come to know God’s kindness at the deepest level of your heart. Start being kind to yourself now because that is exactly how God will treat you through eternity. No sense waiting until then:)!”
Matthew Mason draws upon 1 Corinthians 15 and the work of Oliver O’Donovan to address the resurrection hope as it applies to those dealing with transgender identity and gender dysphoria. Amy Peeler explores the revelation of God’s glory in male and female worshiping and prophesying together as God intends in 1 Corinthians 11. Matthew Levering, a Catholic scholar, introduces us to Thomas Aquinas and the ordering of our sexuality that allows for human flourishing. Daniel J. Brendsel, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, explores “selfie” culture and its implications for the culture’s understanding of sexuality. All these essays, I found quite helpful and reflected theological engagement and imagination.
The one essay I struggled most with was Denny Burk’s on “The Transgender Test.” After invoking “biblical inspiration and authority” I felt he, without exegesis or an engagement with what is known about gender dysphoria, equates “biological sex and gender identity.” My assumption is that he defines biological sex in terms of genitalia. He does not acknowledge the cases where this is ambiguous, and dismisses neurobiology and gender identity (what he calls “brain-sex theory”). While neural pathways are less visible than genitalia, they are no less biological. Instead, we are told that the Bible gives us all we need for life and godliness, that we need to accept that we were made male or female, and that is that. I thought this essay was not up to the level of the others, and question how helpful the “pastoral theology” found here will be to transgendered individuals.
On the other hand, I found Richard Mouw’s closing reflections on the conference filled with wise counsel for the church, from how he counselled a lesbian student as a seminary president, to our needs to think with the global church on these issues. This raises a criticism I would have of this collection of essays. As far as I can tell, these are all by white, North Americans (twelve men, one of who identifies as gay, and two women,). There are no voices of people of color, or theologians from outside North America. I hope that the Center for Pastor Theologians will heed Mouw in composing future conference speaker slates (an issue at many Christian conferences).
Nevertheless, I found much fresh and careful thinking in this work. Nowhere was this more typified that the closing essay on “What Makes Sex Beautiful?” Matt O’Reilly explores the beautiful bookends of the Bible in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 and how both occur in a garden, have imagery of a temple where God dwells and involve a wedding. He writes:
“My argument is that sex derives its beauty from the marriage relationship, which is designed by God to uniquely embody and magnify his creative and redemptive love. When sex is celebrated in the context of that relationship and as its consummative act, it magnifies the beauty of the triune God.”
It seems to me that this touches on the heart of the discussion. All of our sexual ethics flow from the meaning of our sexuality, and here, as elsewhere, Christians cannot answer this apart from the loving triune God and the incarnate Christ, the Bridegroom who will come for his spotless bride.