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.