Review: Washed and Waiting

washed and waiting

Washed and Waiting (revised with new Afterword), Wesley Hill. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016 (originally published in 2010).

Summary: An updated narrative of a celibate, gay Christian man, including thoughts about the recovery of the place of celibacy and the importance of spiritual friendship.

Wesley Hill was one of the first to articulate a distinctive perspective in discussions on homosexuality and Christian faith. At a time when people on one side were simply advocating against same-sex intimacy, and for ministries helping gay and lesbian persons develop opposite sex attractions, and those on the other side were affirming LGBT persons in their identities and choices of who they would love, Hill took a different stance. He admitted that he was attracted to men and self identified as gay in orientation, but that as a Christian he was committed to a celibate life, the only option he believed open to him.

When Washed and Waiting was first published in 2010, it gained a great deal of notice for its honest and painful narrative of Hill’s growing awareness that there was something “different” about him, even as he also became aware of God’s call to ministry. He narrates how hard it was to “come out” to a trusted professor who responded with grace, and connected him with a counselor who began to help him sort out what to do with this. He learned the importance of having people in his life wherever he went who knew his story and were willing to share his journey. He describes the peculiar sense of loneliness and shame he believes many LGBT people feel, even while seeking, and often finding community.

In the original work, he explains why, not seeing a change in orientation likely for him, he chooses celibacy. For him, it is not just the prohibitions, which he believes are clear, but also the larger story of creation, fall, and redemption he finds himself in, and the place given to marriage in that story. He also sees his own condition as emblematic of life between the already and the not yet, where we are washed in the waters of baptism (1 Corinthians 6), but living in what can be the painful tension of embodied life touched by the fall, waiting for the redemption of those bodies spoken of in Romans 8.

He punctuates his story with vignettes of Henri Nouwen and the poet priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, both who experienced homosexual attractions and chose celibate lives. One has a sense in reading of both the real pain these men knew, and yet the real gift their lives became as they lived within the washed and waiting tension.

Hill’s afterword takes on the challenge of his critics of writing such things as a young man with much life ahead. In “Washed and Still Waiting” we hear more mature reflections ten years after the original manuscript. Hill’s focus is on the celibate call. He contends first, in a society where you are thought not to be fulfilled without sexual intimacy, for restoring the dignity of the celibate calling, noting the biblical commendation of celibacy including the examples of Jesus and Paul as well the honorable instances of celibacy in church history. He also thinks there needs to be frank discussion of stewarding one’s sexuality while refraining from sexual intimacy. Finally, he discusses the importance for the celibate of living in community, and enjoy within that “spiritual friendship” (an idea he develops more fully in his book Spiritual Friendship, also reviewed on this blog).

Hill’s work is helpful in several ways. He helps us understand something of the journey of gay persons — the unsettling awareness, feelings of loneliness and shame, “coming out,” and growing in a Christ-shaped acceptance of himself. It strikes me that his was an instance where Christians around him got it right, lavishing grace rather than shame, and giving him the space to come to his own convictions within caring, yet hardly perfect communities which is the most any of us gets. Finally, he challenges us with the reality of the struggle any of us faces who truly tries to live into the tension of the already and the not yet–those of us who refuse the Christian success dreams of white suburbia and the prosperity gospel. He writes:

“More and more, I have the sense that what many of us need is a new conception of our perseverance in faith. We need to reimagine ourselves and our struggles. The temptation for me is to look at my bent and broken sexuality and conclude that, with it, I will never be able to please God, to walk in a manner worthy of his calling, to hear his praise. But what if I had a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness, and righteousness that included within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling? What if I were to view my sexual orientation, temptations, and occasional failures not as damning disqualifications for living a Christian life but rather as part and parcel of what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death.”

While I do not share Hill’s sexual orientation, I identify with every other word in this paragraph. Who of us cannot, if we are honest with ourselves and before God? The calling Hill speaks of here is both gift and challenge to us all, and the only way for any of us to life. We stand together, washed and waiting.

Review: Single, Gay, Christian

single gay christian

Single, Gay, ChristianGregory Coles. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017 (forthcoming August 22, 2017).

Summary: An autobiographical narrative of a young Christian who becomes aware of his attraction to other men, his struggles against this within a Christian context, his experiences of “coming out,” and how he has decided to follow Christ through all of this.

This book had me at the first page. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t quote so extensively, but I know nothing better to give you a sense of Gregory Cole’s story, and of his exquisite writing:

“Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other.

I promise to tell you my story. The whole story. I’ll tell you about a boy in love with Jesus who, at the fateful onset of puberty, realized his sexual attractions were persistently and exclusively for other guys. I’ll tell you how I lay on my bed in the middle of the night and whispered to myself the words I’ve whispered a thousand times since:

“I’m gay.”

I’ll show you the world through my eyes. I’ll tell you what it’s like to belong nowhere. To know that much of my Christian family will forever consider me unnatural, dangerous, because of something that feels as involuntary as my eye color. And to know that much of the LGBTQ community that shares my experience as a sexual minority will disagree with the way I’ve chosen to interpret the call of Jesus, believing I’ve bought into a tragic, archaic ritual of self-hatred.

But I promise my story won’t all be sadness and loneliness and struggle. I’ll tell you good things too, hopeful things, funny things, like the time I accidentally came out to my best friend during his bachelor party. I’ll tell you what it felt like the first time someone looked me in the eyes and said, “You are not a mistake.” I’ll tell you that joy and sorrow are not opposites, that my life has never been more beautiful than when it was most brokenhearted.

If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me.”

In succeeding chapters, Coles unfolds, often in a self-deprecating yet not self-hating fashion, his growing awareness that he was gay, his silence and attempts to cover this up by dating girls and even of trying to awaken heterosexual desires through them. He describes the scary and wonderful moment he comes out to his pastor, who listens, and loves, and keeps on loving.

We trace with him his journey to reconcile his faith, his orientation, his understanding of biblical teaching, weighing but rejecting “affirming” interpretations, which precludes for him acting on his gay attractions by pursuing intimacy with another man, and what it means for him to believe that God has nevertheless made him good.

He helps us hear what is often said in churches that affirm a “traditional” view from the perspective of a gay person. I cringed here as I read things I’ve said. He also leads us into a broader conversation about sexuality and how the fall has affected it for all of us, gay or straight.

He speaks about his choice to live single, both the heartache, and the joy. He raises the question of views of discipleship that never involve suffering or self-denial. He casts a vision for a life that is full, and has a unique capacity for relationships because of who he is as a gay man. Where the church often sees LGBTQ persons as a threat, Greg helps us see persons like himself as a tremendous gift.

Coles speaks with a voice of conviction without dogmatism. He speaks for himself and his own journey, allowing that others might conclude differently. As he writes in his introduction, he tells us the truth about himself, and lets us decide.  He doesn’t see himself as any kind of role model but simply as a “half-written story.”

I deeply resonated with his comments about encountering the “are you side A or side B?” question. He writes, “I didn’t want to be reduced to a simple yes or no. I wanted a new side.” I find myself deeply in sympathy with him. And perhaps this book might take us a step closer to that new side.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible and the Church

Two views

Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible, and the ChurchPreston Sprinkle (ed.), William Loader, Megan K. DeFranza, Wesley Hill, Stephen R. Holmes (contributors). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.

Summary: Four biblical scholars and theologians, two holding a traditional understanding of human sexuality, and two holding an affirming stance, but all taking the biblical testimony about human sexuality seriously, articulate the basis on which they hold their positions, and respond to the statements of the other three in gracious dialogue.

I don’t think anyone will contradict the assertion that recent discussions around sexuality both within the culture and the church have been fraught with bitter rancor and contention. Denominations have fractured and hurtful attacks have been made on those holding either of the two major stances, traditional and affirming. There are books demeaning those holding one or the other of these views while arguing for their own.

If for no other reason then, this book is a welcome alternative. Four scholars argue for variants of one of the two major stances in a dialogue that is unrestrained in the rigor in which one or the other view is held while speaking respectfully of the contributions of others, even those in disagreement. Furthermore, all four care deeply about the biblical witness on these matters, although they part ways in their interpretation of that witness. Strikingly, three of the four, including one of the affirming scholars would contend that the biblical witness precludes same sex unions but reach differing conclusions on how this might be applied in the contemporary context.

The four scholars then in the dialogue and the basic positions they hold are:

  • William Loader, a scholar who has studied sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity holds that the Bible prohibits all forms of same sex relations, but that this must be weighed against findings in biology and other fields related to sexuality and gender not available to the biblical writers, and thus he arrives at a position affirming same sex unions.
  • Megan DeFranza is a theologian whose research on intersex persons (those whose physiology is neither clearly male nor female) challenges the assumption that all people are born exclusively male or female. She notes the recognition of eunuchs in scripture as a biblical example contrary to this traditional assumption. She also argues that the prohibition passages have to do with exploitative forms of sexuality related to slavery, trafficking, and power differences and do not focus on loving, monogamous same sex relationships.
  • Wesley Hill, a celibate gay biblical scholar who shares something of his own narrative, contends that the prohibitive passages preclude any same sex relations and argues that these must be understood in the broader context of the Bible’s affirmations about sexuality, marriage, and procreation. Both he and the next scholar draw on Augustinian theology as the best resource for articulating a biblical synthesis on matters of marriage and sexuality. Hill also eloquently argues for the place of “spiritual friendship”–deeply committed, non-sexual friendships between two same sex persons as well as the full welcome of same sex persons committed to the traditional view within families, sharing his own experience of being invited to be the godfather of a couple’s children and thus drawn into that family.
  • Stephen Holmes is a theologian who argues that the prohibitive passages are actually secondary (though important) to the biblical passages teaching about marriage. He also draws on Augustinian theology, despite its acknowledge defects for its formulation of the three-fold goods of marriage: children, faithfulness (a God-graced experience of learning selflessness), and sacrament (revealing the mystery of Christ’s relation to the church). Holmes, while not advocating same sex unions, explores the possibility of some kind of accommodation for same sex couples who come into the church, along the lines of the church’s accommodation for at least some who divorce and remarry, or those made in mission contexts for polygamous unions.

Each of these scholars sets forth his or her own understanding and their reasons for that understanding–rooted significantly in biblical, cultural, and contemporary research as well as pastoral concerns.

The essays underscore several things:

  1. With some exceptions, the question is less what scripture says than what this is taken to mean for the church and how this is appropriated pastorally.
  2. While the tone of these discussions was irenic, the disturbing reality was the support this gives to the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” scholars like Brad Gregory and Christian Smith level against Protestant Christianity. At the same time, these scholars model a serious effort at engagement that looks for common ground, and perhaps in the future, a reconciliation of their differences.
  3. The essays and responses all model pastoral concern and compassion and respect for the dignity and character of LGBT persons as well as the challenge all in the church are faced with by the scriptures calling for integrity in our sexual lives.
  4. Both Hill and Holmes press a corollary of traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality that is neglected in much Protestant discourse, the good of procreation and children.
  5. Loader and DeFranza do raise an important hermeneutic question of how in other areas (for example, our understanding of the cosmos, a heliocentric solar system, the age of the earth) many in the church have accommodated their understanding of scripture to these findings in science. Is there similar warrant in matters of sexuality? Hill and Holmes would argue that there is no basis for such a warrant concerning homosexuality, and arrive at different hermeneutical outcomes.

Preston Sprinkle, editor of this work makes similar observations and also helpfully frames the discussion at the start, and points toward future work to be done. The need for this is clear. Often, the disputes of the church have taken a century or more to resolve. The discussion of justification, grace, faith, and works is five hundred years and running, with significant recent explorations of common ground between Catholic and Protestant. It occurs to me that a resolution will take further work along the lines of what these scholars done.

I also believe the conversation needs to be expanded to listen to scholars and theologians from non-Western backgrounds. While this discussion included a woman and a self-identified gay person, it was a discussion among four white scholars. One of my own concerns in this discussion is the exclusionary and culturally imperialistic consequences of how the church in the West has often deliberated and acted in these matters and sometimes spoken pejoratively of the views of believers from other parts of the global Christian family. Their voices must also be heard and honored.

Review: Speaking of Homosexuality

Speaking of homosexuality

Speaking of HomosexualityJoe Dallas. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: A point by point refutation by a former gay activist of the arguments against the church’s traditional view of homosexuality.

I feel that I should begin this review with something of a “trigger warning.” In coming months I will be occasionally reviewing books on the discussion going on between what might be called the “traditional” and “affirming” camps within the Christian community with regard to homosexuality. The warning is that probably no one who follows this blog will agree with all or even any of the books reviewed on this subject. Truth is, I probably won’t either, or will not agree with all that I read. I don’t read only things with which I agree. For some, this is a matter associated with deep and complicated emotions and experiences, and if this is too sensitive, it’s OK to take a “pass” on these posts.

Now, down to the review of this book. Joe Dallas, its author is a self described “former gay activist” who, because of his faith in Christ turned from homosexual activity, eventually married, is the father of two children and in his writing and ministry deals with homosexuality and others issues related to sexuality from a traditional Christian perspective. I would characterize this book, unlike some others, as less pastoral and more polemical. Dallas writes and formats the book to address the arguments against a traditional view of homosexuality and respond to them. Each chapter follows a format of statement of a traditional view, what he calls “revisionist” arguments against that view, then traditional responses, and concludes with talking points. It reminds me a bit of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica!

After an introduction that talks about misconceptions and presumptions both traditional and “revisionist” communities have of each other and the need, and difficulties, of moving beyond politics and rhetoric to relationship, he has two more chapters that lay groundwork for what is to follow. One is to identify who he is speaking to:  militants, millenials, those in the Mainstream, Revisionists, friends and family. In reality, I suspect it is mostly other “traditionalists” who will read the book. The other is to identify his “rules of engagement”: speak clearly, appropriately, empathically (1-3), concede what’s true, consider what’s possible, watch the apologies, recognize and point out diversions. On apologies, he would say we should own our own sins against LGBT persons but not apologize in vague terms for the whole church.

Then he takes up a series of issues that often arise in arguments against the traditionalist position:

  • Are people born gay?
  • Sexual orientation cannot be changed.
  • Same sex marriage and the Bible.
  • Homophobia, Hate, Hypocrisy, and Harm
  • Can someone be gay and Christian?
  • What was Sodom’s sin?
  • Homosexuality and Leviticus
  • Jesus and Homosexuality
  • Paul and Romans
  • Paul and arsenokoites

I cannot summarize the arguments of each chapter in ways to do them justice. He would contend that whether people are “born gay” or not is immaterial to the validity of the traditional teaching. Not all our inborn tendencies should be indulged. Perhaps more controversial yet is his argument that some forms of change therapies, voluntarily pursued by the person and not under pressure, should be permitted. Perhaps most telling is his rhetoric against homophobic and “hate” labels. He believes that to think a behavior is wrong does not necessarily imply fear or hate if no signs of fearful or hating behavior accompany these beliefs.

The last five topics turn to the biblical arguments, stating both traditional and “revisionist” arguments with good citations of their works. Dallas provides a relatively concise summary of the discussion, albeit one that favors his view strongly, as one would expect.

My sense is that Dallas’ book is a recognition that, given the shift in cultural opinions, and the wide acceptance of LGBT sexuality in society, anyone who still holds a traditional view and who affirms this personally or publicly needs to be able to clearly and compassionately give reasons for those views, if given the opportunity. Negative prescriptions of “what not to do and who not to do it with” just don’t cut it.

At the same time, I just don’t think the argument format of a book like this cuts it with millenials, even if they would agree theologically with Dallas. The tone, albeit a compassionate one, feels very much like the conversation those of the boomer generation have had (mostly within traditionalist circles) for thirty years around these issues. It seems to me that there is a relational dimension for millenials who have grown up around “out” LGBT persons, and a differing understanding about sexuality more broadly to which this feels a bit tone deaf.

The question in the end, of course, is who is right in these matters? If the traditionalist position is right, as Dallas argues, it cannot be minimized as a “non-essential” because in the end this leads to the adoption of revisionist theology, which he sees happening not only in mainline but also in evangelical communities. To shift to a “revisionist” or “affirming” understanding may just seem to be conforming to the wider culture and an expression of compassion, but it also means a break with twenty centuries of orthodoxy, as well as the convictions of much of the church in the majority world. That is no small thing, and calls not merely for sentiment, but good arguments where people listen to scripture, each other, and the Spirit of truth. Whether you agree with Dallas or not, given his personal narrative, and experience working with these issues, his arguments are important to heed as part of this larger conversation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.