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: 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: Spiritual Friendship

Spiritual FriendshipSpiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

Summary: This is an exploration of the place of friendship in the life of the Christian, particularly its importance for those who chose, either because of sexual orientation, or other reasons to live celibate, chaste lives.

The idea of a celibate, chaste, single life is scorned today not only because of the myth that one can only live a fulfilled, fully human life within the context of a sexually intimate relationship. Perhaps more fundamentally, if less openly acknowledged, this seems a terrible choice for those who are single, gay or straight, because it is a call to loneliness. Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian contends that the greatest gift the church could give to those like himself, and indeed to all of its members, is a renewal of the idea of friendship–of voluntary, non-sexual relationships of deeply knowing and being known by another.

Given this premise, this book is bound to be controversial or even challenging to many. It will be challenging to all, gay or straight, who disagree with Hill’s contention that:

“There is a divine ‘Yes’ to marriage and sexual intimacy between a man and a woman, premised on their bodily difference that seemed to gesture toward (albeit faintly) the transcendent difference of Creator from creature. But that ‘Yes’ also seemed to disclose a corresponding ‘No’ to sexual intimacy in any other context.” (p. 18)

But equally it is challenging to a church that focuses so heavily on the nuclear family that those outside one are left with shallow interactions and a profound sense of loneliness and alienation even while supposedly affirming the “communion of the saints.”

Hill’s book is divided into two parts, the first laying out the historical and theological basis for the idea of friendship, and the second talking very honestly about the lived experience of friendship. The first part begins by talking about the eclipse of the idea of friendship in a sexualized culture.where any deeply affectionate and caring relationship between human beings is concluded to be sexual, something especially difficult for the gay celibate Christian for whom a deep non-sexual friendship may be a lifeline. Hill argues that it was not always this way, citing the examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge and Aelred of Rievaulx Abbey and the idea of “vowed friendships”, friendships bound by vows similar to that of marriage but non-sexual in their expression of love.Christians have had a complicated relationship with the idea of friendship throughout history, believing that the gospel call to agape love that loves even one’s enemies relegates friendship to a lesser category. Yet Hill points to the relationship of David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, and ultimately Jesus and his disciples who he call “friends” as counter examples and that what the gospel does is transform friendship from ‘we two’ to ‘we two who welcome a third and fourth’ in an outward looking community of love.

The second part is more personal. He begins by discussing an issue I’ve wondered about; can friendship and romance be sealed off from each other, particularly when friendship is with a person whose gender one is attracted to. Hill contends that it is not, but that our sexual orientation, even if gay, is in fact a gift in relationships if offered up to God, a gift that brings unique sensitivities and blessing to another, if there are others willing to receive and enter in. The next chapter is the most vulnerable in the book where Hill speaks of what it is to love and lose in friendship. He describes a relationship with a male friend who subsequently enters into a romantic relationship with a woman and the deep sense of loss and hurt this meant for Wes. Friendships end. Sometimes friends die. To love deeply is to be willing to suffer, which is perhaps why we hang back from such love, knowing what it will cost. However he does not end here but rather in a chapter on the ways a church might begin to recover friendship and what it could mean not only to individuals but to the quality of community. Among his challenges is one to mobility. This probably touches me most, because I know of those I’ve bonded deeply with at various points in life, who moved away. There are times when moves are right, and we’ve moved ourselves on two occasions. Do we ever consider that refraining from moving for the sake of friendship and community may sometimes be right?

I would have liked Hill to address the differences between healthy, deep relationships and unhealthy, co-dependent or manipulative relationships. I also wonder about how these deep friendships work out in the context of relationships with a person who is also married and is in that vowed relationship. It is apparent that he has enjoyed relationships with couples and it would be interesting to tease out these dynamics further.

I will be thinking about this book for some time. I find deeply compelling, for Christ-followers, the idea that our sexuality is not ultimately something to be fixed or satisfied, gay or straight, but offered to God. Hill’s vulnerability challenges me with my own self-protectiveness that does not want to suffer, but in the end settles for the superficial. Might this not be the same challenge we face in the church?


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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”