First Things – What Is Marriage to Evangelical Millennials?

Wedding RingsIn a recent post at First Things, Abigail Rine, an assistant professor of English at George Fox University, writes about her experience trying to teach “What is Marriage” [pdf]. Her Evangelical students not only didn’t like the conclusion, but had difficulty even understanding the authors’ argument. Yet Rine does not place the blame primarily on them, but on their pastors and parents:

While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.

From time to time, my friend Justin Lee—founder of the Gay Christian Network—and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality. Justin and I both grew up Southern Baptist, and we have a lot in common. We also disagree, and have disagreed for nearly two decades now, about whether same-sex sexual activity is ever compatible with God’s will.

Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin “changed his theology” to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology. This is a fairly natural question, and since Justin and I have been friends for so long, I would be as likely to have insight into that as anyone.

However, I think the question actually rests on a substantial misunderstanding. I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.

Justin has to explain away a few verses that deal with homosexuality. But his efforts to explain away do not surprise me. I grew up among pastors who didn’t even bother to explain away the New Testament teaching on divorce as they cheerfully blessed second, third, and even fourth marriages (and yes, I had the misfortune of attending Rev. Ken Hutcherson’s church for a time). However, the connection between marriage and procreation—which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages—was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.

In the most obvious sense, Justin is more faithful to his Evangelical upbringing than I am. I hold a traditional view on same-sex marriage because I rejected the theology of marriage I grew up with, and came to embrace the theology of marriage that used to be defended by Protestants and is still (at least officially) defended by the Catholic Church. That theology has, however, largely disappeared from the daily practice of American Christians, Catholic or Protestant.

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Sherif Girgis: Called to Greatness

Sherif GirgisLast week, I was invited to join Sherif Girgis (coauthor of What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense) to speak about marriage at the University of Notre Dame. This week, Ethika Politika has posted a pair of short essays on how American Catholics should move forward in their witness to the truths of marriage and family.

I’m working on a post that expands on my essay. In the meantime, I think Spiritual Friendship readers will find Sherif’s thoughts on vocation helpful.

Why are we losing the culture wars on family? One simple reason is that for years, young people have been told that our (natural-law, Judeo-Christian) vision of marriage is cruel.

That charge has been internalized. Many LGBT people my age don’t call us cruel for political advantage, or out of trained melodrama; they really believe it. Their belief doesn’t make our message cruel, but it makes their experience one of real pain. And pastorally, that’s what counts.

One thing we can do for these brothers and sisters of ours is to remind them of what they can do for us—of what we need them to do. For while fear of loneliness may give many LGBT youth pause about our ethic (a topic for another essay), I suspect a second common fear is of ennui or despair: the dread of being Christians “consigned” to singleness, with nothing positivedemanded of them, by the Church or the wider culture.

That is, behind the LGBT cry for dignity may be the sense that social standing comes from being needed by the community, which comes from having publicly recognized responsibilities—which nowadays only marriage seems to offer.

Read the whole essay at Ethika Politika.

“Shouting Answers While Running Away”

MattAndersonMatt Anderson is an old friend of mine. We’ve been discussing, arguing (and sometimes joking) about questions around faith, sexuality, and friendship for many years now. He recently tweeted out this quote from his recent book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith:

The fundamentalist Christian stance has sometimes taken shape as an overreaction against a skeptical climate. In the face of intellectual and other challenges, the fundamentalist impulse is to preserve faith at any and all costs. Fundamentalism takes the form of a worry that on some level reason or science will undermine Christianity—which seems to mean ignoring them altogether. In such an environment, “faith” takes the form of holding on to a particular stance as a certainty, such that the possibility of questioning is immediately foreclosed. Such an impulse is often tied to particular views of Scripture or Genesis, but it shouldn’t be. As we have seen play out in culture, the most permissive approaches to Scripture’s teaching about sex sometimes lead to a rigid fundamentalism that endorses a liberal creed. The paradox is that while the fundamentalist’s faith is frequently loud and comes off as very certain, it lacks the prudential confidence to wisely, but truly, face up to the questions that confront it. It is driven by a vague sense of threats that it does not know how to respond to effectively and so ends up being reduced to shouting its answers while running away.

If that whets your appetite, you might be interested in seeing how he tries to address some of the questions Christians face today around same-sex marriage in “The Limits of Dialogue: Q Ideas, Gay Marriage, and Chuck Colson.”

Day of Silence

Spiritual Friendship does not have a lot in common with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). On most questions related to sexuality, we hold positions very different from theirs. It is unlikely that they would endorse our approach, and we do not endorse theirs. But we do share a concern with the way sexual minority youth are treated. Two years ago, Jeremy Erickson wrote a post about the Day of Silence, which also linked to this 2010 Day of Silence post from Disputed Mutability, who is a friend of this blog. Jeremy also recommended Bill Henson’s Lead Them Home and Shawn Harrison’s six:11 Ministries  as organizations that address anti-gay bullying in a way that is faithful to a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

Some Christians have raised the concern that anti-bullying efforts like the Day of Silence can be used to silence Christians. I believe that the most effective way to address that problem is to make it clear that traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics are no barrier to acknowledging and trying to fix the bullying that LGBT youth experience. I think that all bullying is important and needs to be addressed. But in order to do that effectively, it’s not enough to just say “bullying is bad.” We need to understand different types of bullying and make sure that our anti-bullying policies are adequate to address all of the problems that need to be addressed. And that means understanding and specifically addressing the concerns of sexual minority youth.

I am not involved with either primary or secondary education. I am not, therefore, in the best position to make policy recommendations, or even to understand fully what the actual situation on the ground is today. I imagine it is quite different from what it was when I was in high school, but I believe that, in at least some parts of the country, the environment is still quite hostile for LGBT youth.

Dante0097And in one respect, at least, I know that the problem is much worse now than it was in the early 1990s. When I was in high school, I remember homosexuality being mentioned only a half dozen times or so at church. Today, the discussion is inescapable. And as difficult as some of the things I experienced in my teens were, I never had to read a Crisis Magazine comment thread. Internet comments sometimes bring out the very worst in human nature, and if I had read some of those comment threads as a teen, I think it is quite possible I would have been permanently alienated from Christian faith. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6). Many of the comments about homosexuality at Crisis and other Christian publications are a very public expression of the deadly sin of wrath. This calls for a serious examination of conscience and a repentance that is as public as the original sin. Only public humility and repentance can begin to undo the damage to Christian witness done by this kind of public self-righteousness. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that Jesus was not crucified by a conspiracy of sexual sinners: it was the self-righteous religious pundits of His day who plotted to have Him murdered. 

In this post, I want to talk a bit about my own experience, in order to highlight some of the ways that it is difficult to be sexually different in adolescence—especially in a culture like ours, which makes sexuality so central to identity, and is divided by such sharp conflicts over sexual ethics.

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Matthew Loftus on Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship book

SF book coverMatthew Loftus has written a review of Wesley Hill’s new Spiritual Friendship book for MereOrthodoxy. Titled “Material Dimensions of Spiritual Friendship,” Loftus’s essay offers a brief summary of the book, and explores three questions about spiritual friendship, culture, and mission that arise both from his own experience as a doctor in inner city Baltimore and from the challenges Wesley raises in the book.

Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship is not an easy read. It’s short, yes, coming in at under 150 pages. But in that space Hill manages to be disquieting on a subject that is often taken for granted–specifically, the question of how we form and maintain intimate friendships. Part historical survey, part Biblical analysis, and part personal reflection, Spiritual Friendship manages to be informative and insightful but also unnerving and challenging. Rather than a full review, I’d like to briefly summarize the themes in the book and then respond to some of the questions that it raises. Since Wesley grounded his exploration of friendship in his experiences and friendships, I’d like to do the same as I recount some of what my wife and I have learned from our time in inner-city Baltimore.

The first part of the book looks at the situation we are in with regards to friendship, using the author’s own experience as a celibate gay Christian as a jumping-off point for how much more anemic our honor of friendship is now–particularly same-sex friendships– than they apparently used to be. He assigns as much blame for the decline in friendship’s power and privilege to the modern instinct that boils every interaction down to its sexual nature as he does to the reactionary traditionalism that wants to elevate marriage well beyond all other human relationships. What we’re left with nowadays is friendship as purely voluntary, thus making the idea of intimacy and mutual comfort wholly dependent on the whims of our friends. Wesley’s Christianity Today cover story from last year covers many of these same themes in a more compressed fashion, which lead to a great discussion of vowed friendships in particular here at Mere Fidelity.

In the second half of the book, Wesley gets more personal as he looks at how difficult these intimate friendships are to build and maintain. Regardless of one’s stance on questions of gay identity, it is hard not to be moved by the quandary he puts forth: gay and lesbian Christians who choose to honor the Biblical teaching by remaining celibate (and all Christians who don’t marry) are shut out of the intimate companionship that marriage provides–erotic or not–and so far have been left to their own devices to find ways to ameliorate the attendant loneliness and isolation they face. He relates the moving story of how one particular friendship fell apart and concludes the book with a chapter about how his local church has been trying to find ways to foster friendship–and how powerful the Eucharist in particular can be in unifying us as a community. However, these relationships are still incredibly vulnerable to the mobility many of now experience as we transition from wherever we grew up to wherever we study to wherever we find a job thereafter. While never really resolving the tension inherent in this mobility, he emphasizes the importance of friendships that require serious commitment to one another, particularly as they give us the opportunity to suffer together and share in the burdens that come to all believers–not just the celibate.

There’s obviously a lot more in the book than what I’ve summarized above, but I want to emphasize that the book left this reader feeling incomplete, asking more questions than when I started. I suspect that this is by design, though it is a book that stands on its own even as it complements the body of work accumulating at the blog Wesley helped to start (http://spiritualfriendship.org/). The three lines of thought I’d like to explore are: What else has fueled our cultural denigration of friendship besides our changing cultural mores, and can we change these upstream factors? How do we think about intimate spiritual friendships across class lines, and is there a particular call to suffer there? Finally, to what degree does our understanding of the local church and its mission affect how we forge our friendships–or is it the other way around?

Read the full review.

Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Martyrdom

Seventy years ago today, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

There are two distinctly different accounts of his death. Hermann Fischer-Hüllstrung, a Nazi doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s death, wrote that “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Dr. Fischer-Hüllstrung may, however, have been whitewashing a much more brutal scene. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen argues, “Fischer-Hüllstrung had the job of reviving political prisoners after they had been hanged until they were almost dead, in order to prolong the agony of their dying.” Because Bonhoeffer was executed as a political prisoner, he may well have died a lingering, painful death.

Whether Bonhoeffer’s death was a model of peaceful resignation to God’s will, or was drawn out by the horrors of Nazi torture, throughout his life he chose the costly way, repeatedly risking suffering for the sake of fidelity to the Gospel.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.” On the other hand, “Costly grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake the man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ for which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.”

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Faith, Hope, Love…and Loneliness

In high school, I would cry quietly in my bed. I felt like an outsider in my faith community. I felt a measure of rejection from my family. I felt confusion, shame, and insecurity about my sexuality. All of these added up to one simple feeling: I was lonely. So I wept and prayed every night for Jesus to show up, physically, in my room. He never did.

Throughout my twenties, I’ve gone through periods of asking for that same thing. The reasons have changed, as have the pressures and responsibilities of life. But that silent, desperate plea has not. Please, Jesus. Now. You did it for Thomas. Can’t you do it for me? Just for long enough to know that you’re really here; that my life really matters to you; that this painful obedience and denial is worth something immeasurable to you. But still he resists.

Loneliness persists.

Solitary Tree

I’ve had a thousand reasons why I’ve felt lonely over the years. When I was young, my dad left, so I felt lonely when I looked up at the family pictures in my friends’ houses. I played classical music and enjoyed musical theater, so I felt lonely when my friends met up after school for garage band sessions. I knew my sexuality was different, so I felt lonely when I couldn’t talk about that boy in the back of that class with my friends because not only was it weird to them; it was a black mark of a sinful disposition. As kids, our loneliness can feel insurmountable.

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Label Makers

Well, here we are, talking about labels and identity. Again.

[throws taupe confetti in the air]

Among those who think people shouldn’t describe themselves as ‘gay’, the most common objection is that it intrinsically compromises one’s core identity as a Christian (or, in some cases, as a man or woman). The supporting claims are varied and come from a few different directions, but near their center is a belief that saying ‘gay’ identifies one too closely with one’s sexuality or certain possible sins.

The thing is, those of us who are fine with using ‘gay’ as a social label are similarly concerned by the way many people’s self-perception, regardless of orientation, is dominated by their sexuality. The difference, of course, is that as far as we can tell it is this obsession over language and labels that is one of the primary causes of this myopia in churches.

I never feel more defined by my sexuality than when Christians obsess over how I sometimes describe myself. In my current communities, where people are pretty chill and understand how and why I occasionally describe myself as gay, I find my self-perception has much more balance and integrity; I feel like a whole person with various facets held together by my relationship with God rather than any one particular label. Thus I don’t only find the fervent ‘don’t say gay’ movement socially harmful and theologically errant but also practically self-defeating.

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More On Coming Out Part 2: How Open Should You Be?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m often asked by other sexual minority Christians how open they should be about their sexuality. There is no single answer for everyone, so I would like to offer some reflections on the process of discernment. Towards that end, in my previous post I discussed my own story of getting to where I am today. In this post I will offer my advice for others, using the second person for convenience.

Rainier Waterfall Crossing

One thing I want to point out from the beginning is that there are very few cases where I’d say you are actually obligated to discuss your sexuality. About the only case I can think of is that your spouse or even potential spouse, if you have one, needs to know as early as possible. Otherwise, it’s ultimately your own decision how widely you want to open up. As I’ve discussed before, I think you really ought to open up to a few people for your own good, but it’s your decision how broadly to do that.

For my straight readers, I should offer the aside that it’s really important to respect a sexual minority person’s choices about who to come out to. If someone has trusted you with a secret about their sexuality, you need to keep it secret. If you think he or she would do well to open up to a particular person or group, you can encourage him or her to do so, but never do the sharing yourself without permission.

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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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