We don’t attach other modifiers to our Christian faith when the modifier in question originates with sin or natures that are the product of the fall. We should no more endorse “gay Christianity” or “gay identity” than we should alcoholic Christianity, racist Christianity, or slanderous Christianity. We ought not modify our Christian walk with attributes born of fallen desires.
That’s from Andrew Walker’s review of David Bennett’s new book A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. I can’t tell y’all how weary I am of hearing that criticism from my fellow traditionalist Christians.
In the first place, it takes no account of the way we “Side B” folks have qualified — again and again and again and… — what “gay” means to us. David himself qualifies it carefully in his book:
The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behavior, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.
Furthermore, it shows no awareness of the ways that, even in traditional Christian theology that views same-sex sexual behavior as sinful, being gay is crucially different than being an alcoholic, a racist, or a slanderer (the parallels Walker mentions in his review). As I wrote in a previous post,
The traditional Christian proscription of same-sex sexual partnerships does not require us to draw such specious comparisons or to say that there is nothing good at all in gay partnerships. On the contrary, even Karl Barth, who uncompromisingly rejects homosexual partnerships as out of step with the Creator’s intention, writes that such unions are often “redolent of sanctity” (Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 166) because they are about the struggle to give and receive love.
It’s not that I’m unwilling to consider thoughtful misgivings about or arguments for avoiding the “gay” label. Consider, in contrast to Walker’s review, this from N. T. Wright’s foreword to David’s book:
There are, inevitably, places where we will agree to differ. David uses the language of LGBT and a few other initials as well; having lived in a world where those on the margins found a peer group with whom they could share sorrows and fears, he does not wish to turn his back on folk for whom that self-description is something of a lifeline. I have come to regard the list of initials LGBTQI as problematic, since each refers to quite different phenomena, sets of circumstances, assumptions, and challenges, and to lump them all together can, from the outside, look like a way of saying, “We’re just going to live by whatever impulses we feel whenever we feel them.” I stress from the outside: I greatly respect David’s insider viewpoint and will, I hope, continue to learn from him.
Notice the humility here. Wright raises a question — are sexual identity labels an invitation to look for solidarity in the wrong way or the wrong place? — but then tries to imagine what might move someone to want to identify by one of those labels. He considers whether the motive might be merely selfish (“live by whatever impulses we feel”), but he also wonders if there are healthier and holier motivations that must be considered as well (“folk for whom that self-description is something of a lifeline”). More of this from Christian leaders, please.
If I could wave a magic wand and change just one thing about conservative Christian discourse right now, I would make it a requirement that every straight person telling gay Christians “Don’t call yourself gay” would have to expend (at minimum) an equal amount of energy talking about what they, the straight critics, can do to make it seem less necessary for gay people to so identify. As Eve Tushnet has noted in what I still think is the best brief commentary we have on this whole problem, “[T]he abuse suffered by gay people reinforces gay identity.” Things would look a lot different in the church if we worked harder on curbing the abuse and worried a whole lot less about hectoring the sufferers over their choice of terminology.
Reading this post after having been away from my Reader for a long time, I am regretting being away for so long! Thank you for this blog.
Thoughts I am having regarding this specific post: I have no desire to tell gay Christians to stop calling themselves gay Christians, but as a straight Christian in sort of “alternative” pastoral leadership, I am invested in learning how to effectively help people (gay, straight, any other identifier) live out their Christian callings in righteousness. You are asking for “an equal amount of energy talking about what they, the straight critics, can do to make it seem less necessary for gay people to so identify.” Probably you talk about this more in your blog and I should go back and read some more posts, but in the interest of time (at the moment–I may well go back and read some more posts!), could you say more about that? What do YOU think would be beneficial for straight critics to do (or not do) to make it seem less necessary for gay people to so identify? I just have a sneaking suspicion that people outside of a particular group, looking in, might never have even considered that we were doing things that made that group we were looking in on find it NECESSARY to do something we were criticizing–and so we would have even less ability to discern what we could do to reduce that necessity.
The biggest help for any gay/SSA person in the church would be to stop viewing singleness as a form of spiritual failure.
I agree. I attended a church in Chicago different from the one I usually attend. The church sits in a part of Chicago that’s home to a number of professional singles. They probably make up about 50% of the neighborhood. I was disappointed to find that there were no more than about 10 singles out of s congregation of about 250 people. And about half of those were graduate students in their early 20s. Most evangelical churches, even in urban settings, don’t seem to have an interest in attracting anyone besides those who are part of the breeder culture.
I think that applies to straight single people, too (I was single until 40 and had no indication til very much prior to that, that I would ever be married). Thank you for that feedback. You are so right that the church does not have a healthy view of singleness at all—nor a helpful way of embracing single people.
Where are all the ‘gays’ in my church? There are over a thousand in the building on a Sunday. But the church ‘family’ is mostly straight and married. A few scattering of the unfortunate single ones who are pitied and sometimes invited for Sunday lunch by the pious ones.
But where are the ‘gays’? They have no choice but to be gay and at least have a home in that word. Where is the authentic church family of brothers and sisters sans straight or gay? Just family because of Jesus our beloved brother! Where?
This is well said, Wes.
That said, I’ve long since given up on viewing Walker and others associated with CBMW (Burk, Bayly, Butterfield, etc.) as “traditionalist Christians.” This was readily apparent in your ETS debate with Burk, where he rejected the standard definition of sexual orientation and replaced it with a definition designed to support his thesis. Such duplicity revealed the kind of person that Burk is. He’s a con man, at best, and probably worse. He evealed that he is someone who’s more interested in scoring points—even if by duplicity —than in arriving at the truth. After all, you can’t have a genuine debate with people who lie about the relevant facts.
I’m not sure why you’d expect Walker to be any different from Burk, Bayly, and the rest of the “complementarian” lot. I’ve read much of what these folks have published over the course of the past 7-8 years. I’ve not witnessed a single instance in which any member of this crowd has given thoughtful consideration to the phenomenological experiences of those who identify themselves as gay (or trans, or queer, or whatever). They are far more interested in concocting straw men of their own invention, so that facts don’t get in the way of the flimsy conclusions they drew before ever commencing their inquiry.
Also, as I noted in the comments of your piece from yesterday, Walker, Burk, et al. hardly hold to a view on sexuality that one could call traditionally Christian in any sense. In my view, this crowd promotes a folk religion that merely resituates the social practices of middle-class white people in the American South into a narrative that borrows certain elements of historic Christianity. It may be possible to find saving faith within that system the way that a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. But consider the unqualified embrace of men like Donald Trump and Roy Moore by the practitioners of this folk religion. Or consider the recent comments by a white evangelical woman running for Senate in Mississippi, who openly waxed nostalgic about the extra-judicial murder of African-Americans. These people are not Christians, at least not to the extent that one defines Christianity in terms of the gospel preached by Christ and the apostles. They are as much “traditional Christians” as the orange-haired narcissist who sits in the White House.
I appreciate your diligence in continuing to hope that you can break through to this crowd. I just don’t see it happening. They are snake oil salesmen who are basically interested in duping people to join their folk religion instead of something that’s genuinely Christian. What interest would they have in being honest about the shoddy theological foundations on which their house is constructed?
My favorite quote from the book (so far) is: “Following Jesus must lead me to honesty, I thought, or it would not be following Jesus”
Bingo. I don’t think that honesty plays a strong role in motivating the conduct of Burk et al. They seem to be more interested in using religion to preserve a particular cultural legacy.
As I think about it, it is really bizarre that critics of Revoice/Spiritual Friendship can say that it is really wrong to “identify” as being a “celibate gay Christian,” but that it is perfectly fine to “identify” as being a “Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction,” as though the grammatical placement of the modifiers, and the choice of the words themselves somehow makes some huge theological difference.
I mean, I get how some folks might think there is a difference— theological precision is important, after all— so for those folks, I can speak of the latter. But it sure sounds like a way of smuggling in a form of theological justification for keeping “celibate gay Christians” hidden in a corner. Walker is trying to avoid such self-justification in his review of Bennett, but it does not succeed.
I have not read Walker’s _God and the Transgender Debate_, which sounds pretty good, but now I am more suspicious of it.
I don’t see where this is an issue of theological precision. The main difference centers around the question of whether sexual orientation is changeable. While there may be some degree of fluidity in people’s phenomenological experiences, there is scant evidence to suggest that the underlying orientation changes. And given that homosexuality is strongly linked to epigenetic factors, that makes sense. Even so, when we talk about orientation, we’re talking about something that exists almost at a pre-emotive state. It does not necessarily lock one into some particular social script.
This is where Side A (Vines) and Side X (Burk/Walker) talk past each other. Side A correctly acknowledges the unchanged level nature of sexual orientation, but errs in suggesting that this unchangeability locks one into a fairly narrow social script. They err in assuming that a gay orientation necessarily requires one to adopt one of the limited set of social scripts propounded by the secular gay rights movement in the US in recent decades. Side X makes this same error concerning an alleged necessary connection between sexual orientation and social scripting, but makes it in reverse. Side X condemns social scripts that revolve around homoeroticism. They correctly observe that some people have successfully abandoned such social scripts for something that doesn’t revolve around homoeroticism, and therefore conclude that sexual orientation must be changeable.
What attracts me to the Side B position is the fact that it’s the only option that rejects that there is some necessary connection between sexual orientation and a particular set of narrowly defined social scripts centering around either heteroeroticism or homoeroticism. In my view, Side B’s focus ought to be on the revival of non-eroticized social scripts. After all, it’s only in the last century that we’ve supposed that erotic attraction is the supreme basis around which we should be ordering life.
In that sense, I don’t see my affiliation with Side B as requiring me to take any particular position on the ethics of same-sex marriage, except to aver that it isn’t a necessary social endpoint for those who who are biologically disposed to experience greater attraction to the same sex than to the opposite sex. In that sense, I believe that certain proponents of Side B make too much of their ethical objections to same-sex marriage. Obviously, if one objects to the ethics of same-sex marriage, that explains why someone would object to the Side A position. Even so, I don’t see that as the fundamental distinction between being Side A or Side B. It’s a secondary distinction, and one on which people within the Side B movement can reasonably disagree.
So, back to your point… I think that Side B people can be comfortable discussing both biological concerns (which is the focus of terms like “gay”) and sociological concerns (which is the focus of terms like “same-sex attraction”). Walker and Burk object to “gay” because their position falls apart when one delves into a discussion of biology. Vines et al. avoid terms like same-sex attraction because their position falls apart when one delves into discussions of sociology. In a sense, Side A and Side X represent two sides of the same error. The error is the assumption that there is a necessary (and functionally binary) connection between biology and sociology. Side A makes that erroneous assumption, and then proceeds to focus only on biology. Side X makes the same erroneous assumption, and then proceeds to focus only on sociology.
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I was thinking back about this piece as I was perusing Rod Dreher’s blog today. I enjoyed reading Dreher a number of years ago. But he can’t seem to engage in anything approximating rational discussion on the issue of homosexuality. Despite the obvious reasons why arguments against civil same-sex marriage (CSSM) failed,
Dreher still refuses to give credence to the strongest objections to his position. He consistently highlights some ridiculous progressive view on the issue, suggests falsely that such a view is commonly held by all but people like himself, and then proceeds to assert that the world is about to fall into social chaos unless we go back to persecuting the gays. Never once have I seen Dreher give any serious attention to the utilitarian and pragmatic sorts of arguments that actually share most people’s views on the question. In that sense, he seems to avoid the obvious reality that there are indeed credible and rational arguments for permitting CSSM.
Today he seems to taken a step further. Dreher highlights a recently published article in which a pedophile suggests that there are no rational arguments against pedophilia and that religious dogma is all that’s standing in the way. The writer suggested that the same is true for homosexuality. Dreher takes the bait, and runs with it. Dreher uncritically adopts such nonsense, and calls people to resume persecution of gays before our children all become the victims of pedophiles.
Despite Dreher’s histrionics, most people can see a material difference in morality between Robbie Rogers’ relationship with Greg Berlanti and Jerry Sandusky’s relationship with the dozens of boys he raped. And they don’t need to adopt Dreher’s brand of Christian metaphysics to do so. What does it say about the state of conservative Christianity when it’s leading intellectuals are willing to form alliances with pedophiles in order to have one last chance to take a swipe at queer people.
I’ve always viewed myself as a conservative Christian. Even so, a number of conservative Christians—including the CBMW folks and Dreher—are far more conservative than Christian. After all, if you have to distort others’ arguments to arrive at the conclusion you want, then your apologetics is not a Christian apologetics. That’s all the more true when you find yourself embracing pedophiles to help you make your case against homosexuality.
So, I think we need to start making a distinction between gospel Christians (or some like term) and conservative Christians. A “gospel” that requires me to lie or to soft-peddle child rape is not the Gospel of Christ. And it’s time we start taking a more strident approach towards distinguishing ourselves from false prophets like Burk, Walker, Bayly, Butterfield, Dreher, and the like.
While I’m a Side A bisexual Christian, I’ve learned a lot from reading the reflections of my Side B brethren & sisters. And watching this kind of thing go down — over and over and over again — where y’all will explain why you use the terminology you use, only to get shouted down by the language police,— it does my head in.
Just how common is this “don’t-call-yourself-a-gay-Christian” response in conservative Christian circles? I ask, because I have a hard time believing that anyone still using that line gives twopence about LGBT folks.
I suspect that many evangelical churches aren’t on board with this. But the language policy operate like a protection racket. If evangelical leaders openly advocate for a different view, the language police go on the attack and try to discredit and harass those who disagree with them. So, a lot of churches are hesitate to be openly supportive of gay Christians for fear of attracting the ire of the language police and their acolytes.
That’s why I generally view Side A and Side B as having much more in common than either group has in common with Side X (language-police types).
So, you think that a good chunk of the evangelical church is functionally Side B, but won’t acknowledge it for fear of the Theological Boundaries Police (think: Burk, Butterfield, et al.)?
//That’s why I generally view Side A and Side B as having much more in common than either group has in common with Side X//
I strongly agree. Side B folks and I are having the same conversation (“What does it look like to follow Jesus as a queer person?”) and that’s a relief. The reason a lot of folks on Sides Y and X anger me, is that they don’t seem interested in dialogue. Sure, they can deny it all they want, but what I hear much of the time from them sounds an awful lot like “Could you please not exist? You existing in my vicinity makes me uncomfortable. Stop it!”
Yes, that’s what I was intending to say. I suspect that Side X are in the minority in evangelicals, especially outside of the South. But the Side X folks have a tendency to attack and harass those who disagree with them. Consider that some Side X folks tried to crash the Revoice conference to disrupt it, after they were unsuccessful in shutting it down. Even now, they’re taking every avenue possible to try to bring disciplinary charges against the pastor of the church that hosted the conference.
I also believe that some Side B folks make too much of their opposition to same-sex marriage. Side X folks won’t be happy until we are erased socially and forced back into the closet. To me, the question of erasure is far more important than the question of what kinds of committed relationships are permissible for gay people.
I also wonder whether the differences between Sides A and B is merely a theological difference. When I went to GCN, I just felt more comfortable around the Side B folks. But I don’t think it had anything to do with theology. I ducked out of one of the events to watch the Patriots play in the NFL playoffs. The other GCN guys at the sports bar nearly all identified as Side B.