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 I was a boy and 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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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

On the Expectation of Change

A recent World Magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.

Julie RodgersI was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.

In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.

I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.

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Is It OK for Christians to Identify as Divorced?

A Catholic friend of mine is divorced. He has not sought—and does not believe he could obtain—an annulment. His ex-wife is still living and in good health, so he expects to remain single for the rest of his life.

Moody Radio recently asked the question, “Is it OK for Christians to identify as gay and celibate?” The host’s answer seemed to be no. It would seem, if we follow her logic—and the logic of other critics like her—that it would also be wrong for my friend to ever say, “I am divorced.” Doing so would involve defining himself based on something evil: “I hate divorce,” God says (Malachi 2:16).

For obvious reasons, I don’t follow Christian debates about remarriage and divorce nearly as closely as I follow debates about homosexuality. But I am not ignorant of them, either. And so far as I know, nobody—no matter where they lie on the spectrum of Christian beliefs about divorce and remarriage—has ever argued that people who have been divorced should not say, “I’m divorced.” Most people recognize that there are lots of practical reasons why someone would sometimes want to say that, why saying it would be relevant.

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Thinking One More Time About “Identity” and “Behavior”

I’ve been following the #ERLC2014 hashtag on Twitter, which links me to updates on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2014 conference on the theme of homosexuality.

Many of the folks tweeting have been voicing frustration, anger, and hurt over what’s being said at the conference. I haven’t been watching any of the livestream, but I imagine some of the frustration is warranted. But, then again, I also imagine much of the hostility to the conference has to do with dismay that the SBC still holds the view of marriage that I do—which is that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman and any sexual activity outside of that context is prohibited for Christians. In other words, I imagine many people’s frustration boils down to (a) incredulity that the SBC still holds this view and (b) fervent desire that it would change.

What I was asking myself today, though, was—once again—why the “traditional view of marriage” provokes so much anger in our culture. I can certainly imagine some legitimate reasons for it to do so, since the people expressing that view have often been hypocritical, upholding “traditional marriage” while also getting divorced at roughly the same rates as more “liberal” folk and behaving with shocking insensitivity toward LGBT people. (The latter is something I know from personal experience, having grown up in the SBC trying to keep my own same-sex desire secret.) But, even granting that, why is it that so many people in our culture, even friends of mine who might otherwise be very sympathetic with much of what the ERLC stands for, are so up in arms about Christianity’s traditional stance on gay sex?

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Can the Gay be a Good?

My best friend and I found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of artsy lezzies with our communal gaze fixed on one of our favorite musicians. There was nothing particularly gay going on, but something in the female folk singer happened to draw a certain crowd and that crowd happened to be a bunch of lesbians. My friend and I were both trying hard to be something other-than-gay at that point in our lives, but that night in that venue we felt a freedom we rarely felt: the freedom to stand at ease and release the tension in our shoulders because for one night we could cease to play the straight part and still belong.

We were surrounded by women who knew a slice of our experience: feeling giddy with delight around middle school girls instead of boys, sensing a need to keep it secret if we hoped to be accepted, praying to God to take it away because we wanted so badly to be good, and apologizing for our existence without knowing what we’d done wrong. There was an unspoken solidarity in that space. Just as I was settling into the peace of knowing I was surrounded by others who shared my way of being in the world, I was flooded with a sense of shame. I felt so GAY. The concert brought out my inner lesbian. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I felt guilty because I felt so at home.

As I prayed, studied, listened, and introverted in the months that followed, I began to acknowledge that what I was experiencing that night was something I had experienced (and tried to suppress) throughout my entire life: a sense of peace and belonging when I was around others whose relationship to the world was the same kind of different as mine. We were gay. We had been different for as long as we could remember, and regardless of where it came from or how we would choose to express it in the future, it seemed obvious that the self-flagellation we felt the need to indulge in simply because we felt safe and secure in a group of lesbians was not the path to flourishing.

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Theologues Podcast: Sexuality and the Church

Ron Belgau

I was recently invited to join the Theologues podcast to talk about homosexuality and Spiritual Friendship:

Brandon Peach guest hosts this episode with Stan Patton, Jonathan Balmer and our featured guest Ron Belgau, co-founder of Spiritual Friendship and a gay and celibate Christian on how the Church should approach homosexuality, whether or not homosexuality is a sin, what the Church can do to be present for those who are homosexual in their midst, marriage and our cultural perspective on sex. This was a really enjoyable show and I think you’ll like hearing Brandon passive-aggressively insult our guests as well as about Jonathan’s Lego obsession.

It was a good conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, mostly friendly. Check it out!

Important Legal Notice: While I stand by my recommendations of hard cider, strawberries, and the Boeing 747, as well as my endorsement of Brideshead Revisited and The Cruel Sea, I did not endorse, recommend or in any way promote the Twilight series. I started to tell a story that would have mocked the Twilight series, was cut off by the host, and my intent twisted by the editors. Everyone involved will be hearing from my lawyers.

The Healing Moment of Coming Out

When I started college, I still often wondered if I was a failed Arkansan. I’d grown up in a warmly encouraging, close-knit family, and I never doubted that my parents admired and appreciated who I’d become. (Their tears when they dropped me off at my residence hall couldn’t take away the surge of pride I’d seen wash over them the day before when the incoming freshman class had all been addressed by the college president.) But, by many measures, I was an outsider during my growing up years. I never learned to love sports like my dad, and to this day I don’t really follow any with any religiosity (though I do get inordinately excited about the Olympics and the World Cup). I never took up fishing or hunting, which put me out of step with not only my immediate and extended family but also many of my closest friends. I was decidedly un-athletic and didn’t play pick-up soccer or basketball games with my friends, let alone join a school team. And my reading was increasingly taking me down intellectual byways and toward conclusions I was sure many of even my very closest friends wouldn’t understand or, even if they did, wouldn’t share.

It’s a time-tested plot device to have a young misfit finally come into his own at university (think of Chaim Potok’s remarkable novels, for example), but it really did happen that way for me. When I got to college, I finally realized that I wasn’t so much a mutant specimen of my native culture; I just seemed to belong to a different culture altogether. In my dorm and in my classes, I finally met others who were more or less like me. I remember sitting down to lunch one day during my first week of college with a fellow student who had read all the same theologians I had, and like a smothering fan boy, I nearly asked for his autograph. I was so pleased and surprised to find a fellow nerd who was also, it seemed, rather normal by other measures, that I went a little overboard in expressing my enthusiasm. Our friendship never took off, but within days I’d met a dozen others like him.

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From Sex to Sexual Politics: The Problem with Gay Marriage

Last year, Joseph Bottum wrote an essay for Commonweal entitled, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” With a title like this coming from the pen of a former editor of First Things, Bottum’s article was almost certain to generate voluminous commentary. And it did.

One year later, the commentary continues, with the most recent issue of Commonweal including responses to Bottum’s thesis from two high-profile Catholic journalists. Ross Douthat—a columnist for the New York Timescriticizes Bottum for going too far. Douthat argues that if Catholics “are to continue contending in the American public square,” then “there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be.” Jamie L. Manson, on the other hand, thinks that Bottum does not go far enough. She argues that gay couples should not only be allowed by the secular government to contract civil marriages, but that Catholic teaching should change to recognize “the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage.”

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Reflections on Foundations (or identities)

Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close with this illustration:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27

Jesus lays out what’s of vital importance for His followers to understand: What you build your life upon matters, and what you do matters. The foundation upon which we’re built will shape our convictions and values, which determine what kinds of people we become. When I think about the foundation a person is built upon, I often think about identity. An identity is what internally sets someone apart from others—what defines a person—and it often says something about their values and convictions. It’s how we say to ourselves and others: “this is who I am,” and Jesus seems to be saying that if “who we are” is rooted in anything other than Him and His teaching, then (like the foolish man) we’re building our lives on sand.

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