All the Good Things & the Bad Things that May Be: a book review

When Christians talk about sex, beware. Popular Christian communicators tend to either fixate on abhorrent sexual practices in our culture or sing horndog-songs-of-praise about the gift of sex. The former use sex as exhibit A in their fear-mongering case about national moral decay. The latter write Christian bestsellers about the joys of marital sex with their ‘smoking-hot-wives.’  There is a dearth of Christian literature  which speaks honestly about the gap between our church’s and culture’s visions of sex. That is part of what makes Redeeming Sex so refreshing.

Debra Hirsch is the wife of ,and co-conspirator with, missional guru Alan Hirsch (they co-wrote Untamed, which may be my favorite Hirsch book). She serves on the leadership team of the Forge Mission Training Network and is on the board of Missio Alliance. She brings to the topic of sexuality twenty-five years of ministry experience to and with the LGBT community. The church that She and Alan planted and led in South Melbourne had about 40% of its members come from the LGBTQ community. When Debra came to faith in Christ, she was living and identifying as a lesbian. This book offers her wisdom and insights (and part of her story) about how to approach the issues around human sexuality with grace.

The first thing to observe is that Redeeming Sex is not about ‘sex.’ That is, if you reduce sex to mechanics, genital stimulation and technique you won’t find what you are looking for here. This is a book about sexuality. It tackles Christian attitudes toward sex, sexism, gender, our approach the LGBTQ community.

Hirsch’s book divides into three parts. Part one, “Where Did All the Sexy Christians Go?” tackles our attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Here Hirsch steers us past prudish repression, fear-based responses and our tendency to elevate sexual sin above other sins. She points to how the life of Jesus, his relationships with men and woman, affirms the goodness of sexuality.

Part two, “Bits, Bobs and Tricky Business” looks deeper at Christian views, especially our approach to gender and same-sex attraction. Hirsch describes eight fumdamentals of sex: (1) the term sexuality names the impulse to genital sexuality and social sexuality, (2) sexuality involves the whole self, (3) sexuality is embodied, (4) sexuality celebrates difference, (5) sexuality is fractured, (6)sexuality is deceptive, (7) sexuality needs a chaperone, (8) sexuality is ageless.  These ‘fundamentals’ describe both the gifts and dangers of sexuality. In the following chapters, Hirsch discusses gender and homosexuality,  Hirsch pleads for dialogue and mutual self understanding of the various positions  on the options available for gay Christians (i.e. healing leading to heterosexual marriage, celibacy and affirmation of gay lifestye). She doesn’t commend a one-size-fits-all approach to ‘healing homosexuals.’ At one point, she observes that heterosexuals are also in dire need of healing in their sexuality because all of us are sexually broken (120).

Part three, “The Mission of Christian Sexuality,” draws these threads together. Hirsch offers a vision of participating in Christian mission in ways that  are cognizant and honor people’s sexuality. Hirsch urges us towards ministry that emphasizes grace, ministry that gets beyond our stereotypes to engagement with real people, affirms the way we all are God’s image bearers,  and ministry that is ‘centered-set’ versus ‘bound-set’ (not seeking to mark who is in or out, but helping people to take steps to follow Jesus in healthy sexuality where they are).

Despite Hirsch’s interest in ministry to the LGBT community and her personal history with it, I am not totally sure of her ‘theological position.’ I know that her church at one point of time worked with Exodus International but became increasingly uncomfortable with their position (Exodus International itself became uncomfortable with Exodus International’s position). She quotes affirming authors and promotes dialogue between conservatives and gay Christians, but this isn’t a book that tells you what your theology should be. This is a book that urges us to greater love and understanding as we reach out in the love of Christ. This is a message both conservatives and progressives need to hear.

I enjoyed reading this book. Hirsch is funny, irreverent and insightful. She doesn’t mince words about where we’ve mussed up a biblical vision of human sexuality AND the gospel of grace. Too often evangelicals are defined in our culture by their views on sexuality (i.e. homosexuality and abortion). Hirsch points us towards deeper love and mission to all who are sexually broken. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily abandon our theological commitments; however it means seeking how to love well. I give this book four stars.

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

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.

God’s Gay Agenda?: a book review

The ‘gay agenda’ is a familar phrase to anyone who has imbibed their fair share of Christian radio. A 29 minute video produced in 1992 (entitled The Gay Agenda) fueled fear that homosexuals comprised an organized movement determined to undermine the values of society.  The original video used footage from gay pride parades as evidence of the subversive nature of homosexuality. It helped fuel homophobia among conservatives for decades. In God’s Gay Agenda, Sandra Turnbull argues for a different sort of gay agenda–God’s agenda for homosexuals.

Sandras Turnbull is a pastor with evangelical  and charismatic commitments. She speaks of the authority of the Bible and the reality of spiritual gifts and prophecy for today. She also happens to be gay.  She came out twenty-five years ago when she met her life partner through  YWAM in Amsterdam. Like all such stories of LGBT people from conservative religious backgrounds, she struggled with her sexual identity and tried to go straight. When she reconnected with the woman she fell in love with a couple years later, they both studied the Bible and came to the conclusion that homosexuality was not a sin but a God given identity.

In the pages of God’s Gay Agenda she shares some of her own journey,discusses relevant passages from the Bible  and argues for the full inclusion and acceptance of homosexuals in the church.  She has an extended discussion of eunuchs and describes herself as ‘natural-born eunuchs.’  While I did not find Turnbull’s exegesis compelling, this is an intelligent and passionate defense of homosexual inclusion. It is a worthwhile read. Too many pro-gay theologies undercut scriptural authority. Whether or not you buy Turnbull’s interpretation of particular passages, it is refreshing to see the care she takes in trying to understand these passages in their ancient context.

Whenever I review a book like this, I run the risk of alienating my readers. I have friends all across the theological spectrum and this is a divisive issue.  Conservative friends will not buy Turnbull’s thesis and may wonder why I would read this book. My more liberal friends will wonder why I do not endorse this book in every respect.  I think my conservative friends would benefit from reading this book if only to hear Turnbull’s story and know that there are gay Christians sincere in their efforts to live faithfully to the gospel.

But I do think some of her Biblical explanations are overblown. Linking all the homosexual prohibitions to idolatrous practices (i.e. temple prostitutes) is not a new approach, but I don’t think it does justice to the evidence. Other times, Turnbull’s word studies turn up suggestive approaches, but they remain inconclusive. On the other hand, I think her discussion of the sin of Sodom not being about homosexuality, so much as inhospitality and rape is fundamentally correct.

I  give this a three-and-a-half star review. Books like this are important and I think Turnbull does an admirable job of articulating her views in an irenic manner.  With marriage equality as a hot political issue, this is not a discussion that is going away anytime soon and I think knowing how different Christians approach the Bible on this issue is important. Turnbull writes:

Wherever you are with the issue of homosexuality, I would like for us to begin by agreeing on one foundational truth about the Gospel.  Is it not true that anyone who comes to Christ Jesus and believes in their heart and confesses with their mouth that Jesus rose from the dead and is Lord a recipient of God’s grace?  After all, isn’t God’s love inclusive of all people and for the “whosoever?” (6)

Wherever we stand on the issue of homosexuality (sin, orientation, viable option), there are issues more fundamental to the gospel and Turnbull points the way to a more gracious discussion.

I recieved this book from the publisher via Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review.