And Again…More Thoughts on LGBT Terminology

Here we go again. I might just be a glutton for punishment in bringing up this topic yet again. However, I really think that the inability to at least consider helpful uses of LGBT language has the potential to impede gospel proclamation in certain contexts.

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The specific question that seems to keep coming up is whether it is ever appropriate to use the term “gay” or “homosexual orientation” to describe the experience of a Christian who is same-sex attracted. Is the label “I am gay” ever a wise use of language, or is “a Christian who experiences SSA” the only appropriate wording? These are only some of the words and phrases that are being debated.

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Wait a Minute, A Mixed What?

Mike AllenMike Allen lives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai, China, where he teaches English at a private Chinese school. He volunteers with an international youth group, and he blogs in his spare time about faith, sexuality, and life as an expat in China at Adventure in Shanghai.

To most people most of the time, I’m just married. They see me with my wife and daughter, and just see a normal family. Every so often, however, I mention that I’m in a mixed orientation marriage. Then, the response is usually something like, “Wait a minute, a mixed what?” accompanied by a befuddled gaze. I elaborate, and the person then stumbles awkwardly through the conversation, asking in several different ways if, by that, I mean that although I’m married to a woman, I am gay. Once I’ve confirmed that they’ve understood correctly, the befuddled gaze doesn’t always go away.

It’s hard enough for many people to get past the gay-and-Christian part, let alone the gay-and-married-to-a-woman bit. Most people just don’t have a category in their minds for something like this. How in the world can a marriage even exist under such circumstances? Why would either party want it to? Upon what is such a marriage built?

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A Blessed Feast of St. Aelred to You

Aelred icon

Today is the feast day of Aelred of Rievaulx, often called the patron saint of friendship. The image above is a photograph of an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, that some dear friends of mine gave me at Christmas this year.

And here is my memory of visiting the ruin of Rievaulx Abbey a few years ago:

Rounding the bend in the road from the village of Thirsk in North Yorkshire, your first glimpse of Rievaulx Abbey will take your breath away. One minute you’re on a backcountry lane, charmed by the gentle slopes and the green of the farmlands but unprepared for the sudden sight of gray stone walls and arches. The next minute you’re staring at an eleventh-century Cistercian ruin, enclosed in a wooded dale like an unearthed treasure. Coming from the opposite direction, from the east, you might have the reaction my friend described to me once in an e-mail: “I’ve only ever approached Rievaulx on foot, after the over-the-moors-and-through-the-forest walk from Helmsley, but whenever I go there, I imagine those first monks standing in that valley, with the lovely little river running through it and the low wooded hills to break the wind, and saying, ‘Yes. This is the place.’”

My one visit to Rievaulx was a pilgrimage of sorts to honor Aelred, the abbey’s fourth abbot who ruled the Benedictine community from 1147 until his death in 1167. Known best for his treatises On Spiritual Friendship and The Mirror of Charity, in which he sketched a vision for monastic community, Aelred has become the unofficial patron saint of friendship, owing to his powerful depiction of the spiritual fruitfulness of same-sex love. I went to Rievaulx out of gratitude for that witness. I stood in what remains of the abbot’s quarters—now just a stone outline indicating where the four walls would have been—and said a prayer of thanks for the treatises that say of friendship what we moderns typically reserve for marital love: “See to what limits love should reach among friends, namely to a willingness to die for each other.”

I don’t know how you might choose to mark Aelred’s feast day today, or if you’re even comfortable marking saints’ feast days, but I’d encourage you to try something, be it small or large. I myself am planning to make a simple dinner for my housemates to give thanks for their company tonight. Perhaps you would want to start planning an “anniversary of friendship” trip to celebrate the years you’ve known a particular friend, as a friend of mine is planning at the moment for a longtime friend of hers. Or perhaps you’d want to write a note to a friend, expressing your gratitude with words. Maybe you’d want to approach your pastor or priest and ask him or her to come and pray a blessing over you and your friend. Or maybe you’d want to suggest to your priest that there be a Sunday School class or church retreat on the topic, and you could help with the planning and implementation of it. If you’re in college, maybe you’d want to suggest to your campus minister that there be a small group Bible study on the theme; I know one campus minister who’s just written one for her students, and she tells me it’s been a big hit.

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Bisexuality and the Spiritual Friendship Conversation

Over a year ago, I wrote a post recounting my experience as a bisexually-attracted man. That post was mostly a reflection on my own experience, with some takeaways coming from that. I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a “part two” discussing how this interfaces with questions of the Christian faith and the broader conversation that Spiritual Friendship is contributing to. I recommend reading my first post before this one if you haven’t already.

Given that I do frequently experience attraction, including sexual desire, towards women, marriage is a significant eventual possibility for my life. Although every marriage has its difficulties, I don’t expect that I’d have significant difficulties resulting specifically from being married to a woman. One could describe me as “celibate” on account of the fact that I’m single and sexually abstinent, but my convictions do not point me toward lifelong celibacy as strongly as for others on here. This state in life may well be much more transient for me. So does this mean that the conversation happening on Spiritual Friendship is less relevant to people like me?

I don’t think so. One thing I’ve really appreciated about how Ron and Wes have run Spiritual Friendship is the way they have intentionally cultivated a conversation that is broader than celibacy. Two of our contributors, Kyle Keating and Melinda Selmys, have written about their experiences in marriages to people of the opposite sex. I’ve learned a lot from them, as well as from other people in similar situations, about what healthy marriages can look like when one spouse is a sexual minority.

There is also a great deal I share in common with celibate gay Christians, simply by virtue of being someone who experiences same-sex attraction and has traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics.

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Two bodies, but a single spirit

Today is the feast (at least in the modern Roman calendar) of Sts. Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great. In the West, Basil and Gregory are recognized as Doctors of the Church, while in the East, they are—along with St. John Crysostom—recognized as the Three Holy Hierarchs.

Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs

Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great (left), St. John Chrysostom (center) and St Gregory of Nazianzus (right)

Today’s Office of Readings includes this excerpt from one of Gregory’s sermons about his friendship with Basil:

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All You Holy Innocents, Pray for Leelah

Early Sunday morning a young transwoman, Leelah Alcorn, left a suicide note on Tumblr before walking out in front of a truck. She believed that she would never be able to successfully transition, that she would never be able to live a full life as a woman, that it was impossible for her to live a full life as a man.

Leelah’s mother posted that her “son” had gone for a walk and been hit by a truck. It’s a post that has been reposted, reblogged, tweeted and proliferated all over the internet, and there’s been a lot of hatred poured out on Leelah’s parents. As is often the case in teen suicides, Leelah blamed her parents for her unhappiness. I don’t know whether this is justified in most cases or not. I know that I when I was a suicidal teenager, my parents really had nothing to do with it: I was clinically depressed, and not interested in seeking help.

Leelah, however, was interested in seeking help. As is too often the case in LGBTQ suicides, her parents’ religious beliefs prevented her from being able to access that help. She was taken to counselors, but only to ones who wanted to forward a particular ideological agenda in conformity with her parents’ beliefs. According to Leelah’s suicide note, her parents isolated her from her friends, removed her from school, and prevented her from having access to any network of support from outside of the house.

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Does Your Church *Like* Gay People?

On Sunday, while I was in Denver to see my brother and sister-in-law, I visited House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), one of the most well known queer-inclusive churches in the country, I suppose. But that reputation wasn’t the only reason why I visited, despite my obvious personal investment in those matters and my intense curiosity on that front. Mostly I chose to visit because I’ve been pretty powerfully affected by Lutheran preaching—with its law/gospel dialectic—and HFASS’ pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is preaching some of the most potent Lutheran sermons around these days. I first heard about HFASS and Nadia from this article by Jason Byassee, I think, and then I read Nadia’s book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. Suffice it to say, since then, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to hear this tattooed, foul-mouthed preacher in person, and this last Sunday was my chance.

Now, I disagree with Nadia Bolz-Weber pretty seriously on a whole host of things, many of which I take to be urgently central matters of Christian faith and practice. As a theologically conservative believer who thinks that traditional Christian moral teaching on (say) gay sex can’t be neatly separated from creedal orthodoxy (as if the former were revisable, with the latter able to be preserved intact), I don’t want to offer unqualified praise in this post for what Nadia Bolz-Weber’s ministry is about. Still, though, I find myself agreeing with Rod Dreher that I have something—or more than one thing!—to learn from her about what it means to be a Christian. As I sat there on Sunday night watching her interact with her congregation, and listening to her preach, I found myself wishing that what she models were more characteristic of the conservative churches and communities in which I live and minister. In short, I’m provoked and instructed by her, and I expect to go on learning from her in the coming years.

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What Is “Gay”?

Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.

I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,

It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.

For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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What “Not Reducible” Means

Yesterday, Wesley Hill started a helpful discussion about the way that different people use words like “gay” to mean different things. One reply, given by Denny Burk, is a common one I’ve heard many times before. The basic idea is that talking about a “gay” (or, in my case, “bisexual”) orientation is by definition referring to something sexual, and desires for things like friendship are desires I share with straight people and shouldn’t be lumped together in the same category.

The practical problem I have with this way of thinking is that I can’t always separate my feelings neatly into these two categories of desire. They often seem to arise from the same phenomenon. I think this experience is something I share with many others, and why we talk about how our orientation is “not reducible” to lust or a desire to have sex. This manner of speaking seems kind of fuzzy, but I think this is so precisely because the underlying phenomenon is hard to categorize.

In order to partially get across what I’m talking about with my “orientation,” why that is “not reducible” to wanting to have sex, and why I can’t separate everything out as nicely as people (including myself!) might like, I think it would be most helpful to talk about my experience. Of course, I can’t speak universally for everyone, and others may have different experiences.

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On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.

Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking

is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.

You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”

I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been. Continue reading