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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Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.

As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.

School of Athens

In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.

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Same-Sex Attraction in Real Life

The great evangelical preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “You can be so interested in great theological and intellectual and philosophical problems that you tend to forget that you are going to die.” At the heart of this admonition is, I think, a reminder that ideas and issues and controversies are only relevant as they relate to people, human beings with real lives and real souls.

Nowhere is this reminder more needed in our day than within the Christian conversation regarding same-sex attraction and homosexuality. It is so easy to discuss the “issue” of homosexuality in our culture while forgetting that gay people aren’t simply an “issue” to be sorted out. Furthermore, when we quarantine the conversation to the theoretical realm divorced from the lived experience of folks with SSA, the conversation inevitably becomes blurry, ambiguous, lacking in clarity. This is no knock on philosophy or theory; these things are needed and helpful. But pushing our musings from the realm of hypothetical reflection toward concrete examples of everyday life tends to blow away the haze and bring the fuzzy corners into focus.

Therefore, I want to take many of the ideas often discussed here at Spiritual Friendship and apply them to a real person: me. In doing so, I am not claiming that I have everything figured out or especially that I am representing the views of everyone who writes for Spiritual Friendship. I simply know my own experience best, and my hope is that this exercise will help clear up a lot of what I am and am not saying about SSA.

For this example, I will use a composite of many of my real friendships and combine them into one specific story. That story is about my friendship with Rick (fake name, real experiences).

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Gay, or Nay? A Question of Identity

The demand for an identity, and the injunction to break that identity, both feel, in the same way, abusive.” — Michel Foucault.

Creative Commons Copyright License - Thierry Ehrmann - Cropped borders

From 1979 to 2000 John Shelby Spong was Bishop of Newark in the Episcopal Church. Spong denied that Jesus is the sole savior of humankind and rejected the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. Rubbishing traditional modes of belief in God’s existence, he once claimed that “theism, as a way of defining God, is dead.” Spong was a noted social liberal who affirmed the equal legitimacy of homosexual relationships, though he was not himself gay.

In 2003, Gene Robinson, who is gay, was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson’s consecration precipitated a schism in the Episcopal Church. Why, we might ask, was it Robinson’s consecration, and not Spong’s, that precipitated a schism?

Take another case: In Minnesota last year Catholic school teacher Kristen Ostendorf was allegedly asked to resign after she came out to her colleagues as a lesbian. After refusing to resign, Ostendorf was fired for an “unspecified reason.” Ostendorf’s case followed fast on the heels of the resignation of Bill Hudson—President of another Minnesota Catholic school—after he admitted to being in a same-sex relationship. Elsewhere in Minnesota, at least one Catholic parish appears to be celebrating non-Christian rituals, blessing stones which are claimed to be the bones of the “Earth Mother.” I don’t want to start a discussion about the politics of liturgical inculturation. But its worth asking why Catholic authorities in Minnesota appear much more anxious to remove homosexuals from positions of influence than priests who practice what seems to be a form of paganism (since I cannot imagine that the Archdiocese is keen on either).

Cases like these can be multiplied ad nauseam. It would be easy to posit simple hypocrisy as the explanation. Too easy, in fact. Something more insidious and complex is at play.

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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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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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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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