Hello Darkness My Old Friend: a book review

I have not personally suffered from mental illness, but I have loved ones who have. It is hard to understand their pain. In the face of their struggle, I have no words. And the church hasn’t always responded well to mentally ill people. Sometimes this is due to a mistrust of psychology for its secular underpinning. Other times, profound emotional struggle is seen as evidence for a lack of faith. The result has been a good deal of isolation of and insensitivity toward the mentally-ill. Come Lord Jesus.

9781587433726
Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight

Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote Darkness is My Only Companion to offer a Christian response to mental illness, especially bipolar, the Illness she herself struggles with. Greene-McCreight is associate chaplain at Yale, a priest and theological writer. Her book is part memoir, part theology and part practical advice for people personally facing mental illness or clergy offering support to those navigating these waters. This second edition has a new forward from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and has been revised and  expanded to reflect more recent treatment and statistics than the 2005 edition, and to answer questions  readers had of the original edition. Continue reading Hello Darkness My Old Friend: a book review

Intended For Counternarrative: a book review

It is always a dangerous thing reading a friend’s sex book. I learned this when my wife and I got married. I confessed to a friend that there was a lot about sex I didn’t know about ands he lent me one of those Christian ‘sex books’ that he and his wife had used after their nuptial vows. We took it on our honeymoon and when we opened it we discovered it was annotated, highlighted and smiley faces drawn in the margins. We closed the book and tried to forget what we saw.

Divine SexDivine Sex is vastly different from my first experience of a Christian sex book. Written (not annotated!) by a friend, it does explore the mechanics and techniques of sex. I knew Jonathan Grant when we were both students together at Regent College and daughters in preschool together and I would often catch up with him at the local coffee shop while we waited to pick them up.  He would be sitting with a stack of books–Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, or whomever. His book Divine Sex is an exploration of how our contemporary context has shaped our attitudes toward sex (and how to recover a compelling Christian vision for sexuality as an alternative to our increasingly hypersexualized culture.

Grant divides this book into two sections. In part one, he explores how our contemporary context shapes our understanding of relationships and sexuality. Chapter two describes how our desire for authenticity and autonomy has caused us to customize our entire lives, including sexual choices, despite what Scripture or spiritual authorities tell us (34). Grant also looks at how through the sexualization of our personal identities, sex became more than something we engage in or abstain from, but the ‘sun around everything else revolved’ (36).  The emphasis on independence, and emotional fulfillment has weakened the bonds of marriage and made multiple sexual partners the norm and sex without long term commitment more normative.

Chapter three explores further how radical individualism impacts our sexuality and relationships. Chapters four critiques the corrupting dynamic of consumerism and how it has bred unreal expectations of sex. Chapter five examines how our hypersexualized age has robbed sex of its mystery and caused it to be seen merely as a legitimate pleasure to be enjoyed, without shame, between consenting adults with no outside moral standard or constraint placed upon it (99). In this hypersexualized age females are sexualized at young ages (100-103) and pornography has become ubiquitous (104). Porn increasingly provides ‘sex education,’ transforming the expectations of (largely) men in their relationship. This all has a major impact on modern relationships with a disproportionate impact on young people because of the way exposure of cyber-porn is processed by those still developing sexually. Finally, Chapter six explores more in-depth how the atomizing of human relationships and loss of transcendence in contemporary culture has impacted relationships inside the Church.

In Part Two, Grant proposes an alternative Christian Social Imaginary (chapter seven). Chapter eight explores the way Christian eschatology, metaphysics, formation and mission provide a vision for Christian sexuality which embodies hope, ethics, spirituality, character, faithfulness, and Christian witness. Chapter nine describes the role of divine desire in Christian formation. Chapter ten explores how living a life that is contrary to the modern script of sexuality helps Christians and the church embody the gospel story for a watching world.

Chapter eleven exhorts us to counter the impact of the wider culture through Formative spiritual practices. Grant summarizes the impact of our hypersexualized culture on the church:

The consumerist mind-set has (. . .) been wheeled in like a Trojan-horse into the sanctuary of our personal relationships. Social media, online dating, and cyberpornography encourage us to be hyperconnected, but these interactions are almost invariably one-sided–we enter into them only as long as they satisfy our “needs.” They offer connection without intimacy, commitment without risk, and companionship without mess. The Online world all too often offers ties that preoccupy us rather than one that binds us to each other (215-216).

 

Against this mindset, Grant suggests alternative practices which will enable us to not be conformed to our contemporary contexts and cultural understanding of sexuality. These include embodied public worship and the displacing modern social practices by providing a place for singleness as a Christian vocation, courting, encouraging signs of life, communal support and utilizing marriage preparation as counter-formation.

A book like this is long overdue. Grant offers insights into how much we have bought in to a romanticized version of sex. Focus on our own autonomous pleasure and emotional fulfillment has had a negative impact on our marital commitments and relationships. When married people don’t feel in love anymore, divorce has become inevitable. We also dissolve other relationships and friendships when people fail to meet our needs.  The value we place on autonomy, personal fulfillment and our choices have supplanted biblical sexuality, weakening all our relational bonds.

Grant doesn’t deny the power of our sexuality or our longings for relational connection; rather he calls us back to a scriptural understanding of covenantal relationship. Grant draws on the insights of thinkers like Taylor and Bellah, as well as theologians and biblical scholars. The gift of this book is that Grant thinks through the influence of our social context on sexuality from a Christian perspective in a comprehensive way. I can’t point to another book that does this, this well.

Too often Christian premarital counseling presents a biblical standard of sexuality without giving us a compelling vision of how our beliefs about God, desire, sex, relationships constitute a counter-narrative to our cultural script. Sex is more meaningful, relationships are more wonderful, desire is greater, and love is deeper than our contemporary context allows for. Grant showcases a biblical vision of sexuality which is formational and missional, helping Christians live compelling lives characterized by committed relationships.

I came away from reading this book with a deeper understanding of the way our cultural milieu contributes to our relational and sexual malformation. Romanticism, individualism, moral relativism is the water we are swimming in and that has impacted our understanding of sex. The blurring of sex with personal identity has produced an ‘anything goes’ approach to sex and relationships. The Christian story provides the narrative of resistance. As Christians pursue relational commitment, honoring both celibate singleness and marriage, we are able to offer a compelling alternative to meaningless sex, the using of others, and personal isolation. The Christian vision for sex gives us something worth championing. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thanks Johnny!

Friends and Lovers: a book review

Wesley Hill self identifies as a gay, celibate Christian. That is, he is same-sex attracted but his theological convictions preclude him from joining in a romantic, sexual partnership with another man. His early book, Washed and Waiting (Zondervan, 2010) tells of his journey of seeking to follow God with his Christian faith and sexual orientation in tension. In his new book, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, he explores the importance of friendship in the Christian life, especially for those in the LGBT community. Hill is bookish and thoughtful. He is also vulnerable about his struggles to form deep non-sexual friendships with other men. Despite the heartache he feels in pursuing the ideal of Christian friendship, he sees it as a gift to gay Christians. And us all.

This is a short book, consisting of six chapters, divided into two parts. In part one, ‘Reading Friendship’, Hill explores the necessity of friendship in the Christian life. Chapter one explores some of the ways that friendship has been marginalized and eclipsed in contemporary culture (6). Hill weaves together a narrative of himself naming his need of friends (on the eve of his confirmation) with theological reflections from Benjamin Myers, C.S. Lewis and seveal literary references. As a gay Christian, he feels the need for friendships acutely but the lack of cultural space for friendships impoverishes everyone.

Chapter two explores deeper the special dispensation of friendship and the cultural history of it. Hill points to Bethge and Bonhoeffer’s friendship and how they saw how fragile friendship was and the ways it was not recognized by others (25). A later readings of Bethge and Bonhoeffer’s relationship claim that it was ‘really a homosexual partnership’. Whatever the nature of that relationship (text and subtext), it does speak volumes that later audiences can’t conceive of such a close, male friendship without speculating about their sexuality (25,26). Hill  delves into the Christian tradition, exploring the insights on Spiritual Friendship in the writings of twelfth century Cistercian, Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred wrote On Spiritual Friendship (which this book’s title alludes to) and described the value and same-sex, celibate friendships with the context of monastic life. And of course C.S. Lewis’s reflections on love, friendship (and homosexuality) are woven through these chapters. Chapter three explores the language of friendship (and family) in the New Testament.

Part two explores the practical side of ‘living friendship.’ Chapter four describes some of the challenges to developing friendships (especially the challenges to those who are same-sex attracted). Chapter five discusses suffering in love and relates a particular difficult loss of a friendship for Hill (when a heterosexual friend got engaged). Chapter six gives six concrete suggestions for recovering friendship as a Christian discipline:

  1. Admit our need for friends.
  2. Start renewing the practice of friendship with the friends we have (not the idealized friendships we want).
  3. Remind ourselves that friendship flourishes best in community.
  4. Realize that friendships strengthen communities.
  5. Imagine specific ways friendships are doorways to the practice of hospitality and welcoming the stranger.
  6. Look for ways to avoid the lure of mobility–staying put and investing in relationships with people where you are.

It should be evident from this list that Hill sees the importance of friendship for everyone. It would be impossible to read this book and not feel the call to deeper friendships. Hill is realistic on both the joys and sorrow, blessings and difficulties involved in cultivating friendships. Hill is in tune with how his sexual orientation informs his call to friendship, “I want to explore the way my same-sex attractions are inescapably bound with my gift and calling to friendship. My question, at root, is how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace”(79). He also writes, “My being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to more of a friend, not less”(81).

This is a great book for the way it roots the challenges and blessings of friendship in Hill’s own experience as a gay Christian. Too often sex is seen as the ultimate expression of human love, leaving those who are celibate (by choice or circumstance) feeling less than human. I think many traditional Christian apologetic of marriage and heterosexual love are pastorally insensitive on this point, describing the virtues of marital love as God’s design but declaring it off-limits to gay people. Hill presents a vision of friendship that is not ‘second best’ but considers orientation, vocation and love together. This commendation to friendship is not a ‘less-than’ proposition but is every bit as life-giving and challenging as marital vows. Those of us who hold to a more traditional stance on marriage need to have this sort of compelling alternative to offer to those who don’t have that option.

But this is not a book about gay friendships as the subtitle implies. This is a book about friendship. Hill thinks through the implications from his own perspective as a gay and celibate Christian, but friendship is necessary for us all to thrive in our Christian life whether we be single, married, gay or straight. There is so much here! I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Brazos Press in exchange for my honest review.