One of the most controversial workshops at last year’s Revoice conference — in the weeks leading up the conference, conservative Christian bloggers and podcasters criticized it mercilessly for what they felt certain it would argue — was titled “Redeeming Queer Culture,” and you can now watch it here on YouTube.
When the workshop began in a small chapel at the church where the conference was held, every seat was taken. (I made sure to get there early so I could sit near the front.) The presenter — a young evangelical named Grant Hartley who talked about the challenges of growing up gay in the rural Midwest — gave a potted history of gay life in America from the 1950s through the plague years. He insisted that traditionalist Christians shouldn’t give up their belief that gay sex is morally forbidden by Scripture, but he was equally certain that gay history and culture was about much more than sex and unbridled lust. Kicked out of homes and churches, gay people created alternative communities and took care of one another, he said, describing institutions like the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York and The Body Politic, an alternative newspaper. Whatever else marked gay life in the mid-twentieth century, Grant contended that solidarity in the face of bigotry and mistreatment lay near its heart.
Using the theological category of “common grace,” the general benevolence that God bestows on all peoples and cultures, regardless of whether they are Christian, Grant asked his audience what signposts and foretastes of a yet-unknown saving grace might be present already within queer communities — foretastes which might allow for fruitful dialogue and friendship between LGBTQ folks and those Christians who remain alienated from them. The notion of “chosen family” — long prized by LGBTQ people who have lost, sometimes forcibly, ties with their own biological kin — is, Grant suggested, one such signpost or foretaste. Citing Jesus’ own countercultural redefinition of family (“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”), Grant asked, “What could happen if we learned from LGBT people about the intricacies and practicalities of chosen family?” And, vice versa, what might happen if LGBT people could see that this most beautiful aspect of their own lives could find elevation and transformation, rather than simple erasure, through Jesus Christ?
Listening to this proposal, I was struck by just how far removed it is from what Revoice’s critics took it to be about. Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, decried Grant’s workshop (before it even occurred!) with characteristic bluntness: “We cannot now try to sanctify what Scripture presents as ungodly. We cannot marry paganism and Christianity. We cannot think that our fallenness, our depraved condition, is in any way good and praiseworthy.” But that’s a far cry from what Grant was up to in his workshop. Gay sexual sin, like any other sin, will be banished, not salvaged, in God’s eschatological future. But the glimmers of longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful — implanted by God in queer communities, as in every other culture — can be lures that God uses to beckon his wayward children home. Sin can’t be redeemed, but the lives and loves of sinners certainly can be.
After Grant’s session (my favorite I attended at Revoice), I found myself recalling the time from my own evangelical upbringing when my parents read aloud to my siblings and me the now-classic missionary biography Peace Child by Don Richardson. The book tells the story of the Richardson family’s arrival in Dutch New Guinea in 1962 and their subsequent efforts to preach the gospel among the Sawi tribe. While Richardson made progress in learning the tribe’s language and began to try to communicate the Christian message to the Sawi with little initial fruit to show for it, the tribe itself was locked in bitter conflict with neighboring villages, to the point of bloodshed. What eventually led to a truce was a revival of the practice of these tribes’ exchanging children with one another. The gift of a child, quite literally, enacted reconciliation. For Richardson, this represented a breakthrough, a point of contact (as missiologists call it) between an unevangelized culture and the gospel. “The principle we discerned,” writes Richardson, “was that God had already provided for the evangelization of these people by means of redemptive analogies in their own culture,” adding that these analogies served as “stepping-stones, the secret entryway by which the gospel came into the Sawi culture.”
Don Richardson’s evangelism perhaps illumines the significance of Grant’s session at Revoice as much as anything. Paralleling Richardson’s life among the Sawi tribe, Revoice attendees like Grant have come to love queer culture and communities. LGBTQ people are “our people,” we feel. Although our renunciation of gay sex may seem strange to most LGBTQ people today, we aren’t thereby deterred from wanting to go on knowing these friends, learning from them, and loving them — and having them love us back. Our goal isn’t somehow to baptize sexual acts we believe to be sinful; on this we submit to what Nate Collins, the founder of Revoice, calls “the Great Tradition.” What we want, instead, is to talk about how the longing for intimacy that every queer person experiences is fulfilled, not simply overcome, when we put our faith in the One who called himself our “friend” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34; John 15:15). Paradoxically, His love may make us more peculiar — more queer — rather than less.
Wes, thanks so much for writing about Grant’s talk. This workshop has stuck with me daily since that summer, and I’m so thankful we all have access to it now — surely his missiological work will be one of the many queer treasures to endure.
One thing I have learned is that I cannot expect the entire church community to understand let alone sympathize with every dimension of SSA and how that manifests in my life. Everyone responds differently and often times, from what I have observed, when someone responds out of anger or may communicate mistrust through unspoken language, fear is an underlying cause. We sometimes fear what we do not understand. An example of this would be talking about my story and someone’s response could indicate that they perceive me as less ‘Christian’ because of that particular affliction. Through trial and error, I have learned to simply sympathize through the awareness of a shared reality that we all see though a glass dimly. Although others may not suffer so strangely, we all have the freedom to boast of Jesus in our weakness. Just because other’s may not exalt Christ in their lives does not mean that I cannot and experience the freedom of knowing him as a brother and the bestest friend one could ever have. When you press into that, the inward demands of wanting to be understood simply dissolve realizing that He is the one to which I am known. We become givers and not takers because we have—not wanting or lacking in anything. IN His love, we love as he loves, whom he loves and how he loves.
In a way, we are all an alienated people and so we can sympathize with each other—even the people we may feel alienated from.
This was a very good article. Although, my comment is not a response to the main theme. It is more of a rabbit trail, haha.
I just realized I did not provide a context to what I was speaking to in the previous comment. I was speaking to grace for people whose criticism may be out-of-context or not well informed. I am talking about people I love that would not readily attempt to understand my own experience in the way that I like to understand others. I am primarily speaking in a local context with the people I have been involved with in the past five years. For a while, I had grown bitter and resented a ‘Christian’ community that disregarded so much of my own experience. It has challenged me in ways that I would never have chosen. I realized how my anger, no matter how quiet, was connected to everyone somehow because we all affect each other. That is legit. I do not seek to minimize others’ ignorance or lack of detail when it comes to examining one’s own self as if I am offering a concession to be loved or accepted. It is quite the contrary actually.
Most of those men [whom can be very proud] are cultivating a relationship with or really do know Jesus and quite honestly are striving to live above reproach in the best way they know how. As a celibate person in the church, I have found that [one] of my highest devotions is to the body as a person that is undivided. I continually tell my friends, “I like being a participant.” To me that seems quite active and my heart knows the church will thrive better if more people would participate in the fullest sense of what that word means. Consequently, I desire to be graceful toward them even at the cost of my own need to be understood when I feel so literally unfamiliar. I can sympathize with them through the reality that we are all, as a body, aliens in this world. I feel a personal sense of camaraderie in that respect.
Henri Nouwen uses the same cultural hermeneutic at one point in Life of the Beloved. He is talking about social fragmentation and the way that in the modern world we experience our brokenness alone. He writes,
“The AIDS epidemic is probably one of the most telling symptoms of our contemporary brokenness. There love and death cling to each other in a violent embrace. Young people, desperate to find intimacy and communion, risk their very lives for it. It seems that there is a cry reverberating through the large, empty spaces of our society: It is better to die than to live in constant loneliness.
Seeing AIDS patients die and seeing the spontaneous generosity with which their friends form community to support them with affection and material and spiritual help, I often wonder if this horrendous illness is not a clear summons to conversion directed to a world doomed by competition, rivalry and ever-increasing isolation. Yes, the AIDS crisis demands a wholly new look at our human brokenness.” (74-75).
The real key here is that Nouwen extracts information from the realities that gay people have lived, information that can be employed for theological purposes, rather than imposing a foreign theological grid onto gay experiences. As people of the Book we are familiar with this distinction — Nouwen is exegeting gay culture, not eisegeting it. This novelty is the same novelty as Grant’s presentation: instead of framing our evangelism to gay people as “here are the sexual ethics, get with the program” (eisegesis) we should say “here are some real experiences common in gay culture, and only Jesus can bring true fullness to them” (exegesis).