Recently I received review copies of two books, both dealing with one of my favorite topics: the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the Church.
- The first was an Advance Reading Copy of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee, president of the Gay Christian Network. More information on the book here. The book comes out November 13.
- The second was the audiobook version of God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage by Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. More information on the audiobook and an audio sample here. This book was published September 18.
I'm reviewing these together because they cover a lot of the same ground, but I would recommend them to different groups of people.
I recommend Torn if you or someone you know is struggling to accept lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as they are. If the whole idea of someone being gay weirds you out, or you think it's a choice, or you think that accepting someone's sexual orientation is condoning sinfulness, then this is the book to start with. The book is primarily Justin's own story of growing up as an evangelical Christian and discovering he was gay, interspersed with some history lessons, statistics, and other people's stories.
I recommend God Believes in Love if you or someone you know accepts lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as they are, but can't get behind same-sex marriage. This is for people who love their gay friends and family members but are afraid that same-sex marriage will "change the definition of marriage" or infringe on churches' religious freedom. It's for people who say, "I'm cool with him being gay and all, but does he have to flaunt it so much?" or "Why can't gay people just be happy with civil unions? Why do they want special treatment?" It starts out with Gene's own story, but most of the book is a series of questions and answers drawing on Scripture, research, stories, and logic.
What I Liked
The primary reason I would recommend both these books is the gentle, loving approach that both authors take. Neither Justin nor Gene take a hard "Here's why you're wrong" approach. Both of them are part of large Christian communities where they see the struggles that real people are going through related to the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Their books are offered as roadmaps for thinking through these issues in an informed and Christian-minded way.
Justin positions his book as a guide for those who have had a loved one come out and who are receiving no real support from their church family, and who want to understand what their loved one is going through and how to help them in a way that's consistent with their faith. Gene speaks to those who know someone in a committed, same-sex relationship, who have love and respect for this person but don't understand why the person wants to marry their partner, or are unsure if they can reconcile their faith with attending a gay wedding.
Because they both take this approach, these are not books to give to someone who, for example, has devoted their energy to fighting same-sex marriage. Neither book gets into the nitty-gritty of dismantling every possible argument against their point of view. It's a much gentler approach than would be used in a full-on debate. These are books for Christians who are feeling lost and confused, people who never gave much thought to homosexuality or same-sex marriage until it suddenly affected them personally, or perhaps who accepted what they heard in church about gay people until someone close to them came out and didn't fit anything they'd been taught.
Justin's story is compelling because he is essentially the antithesis of every myth and misconception about what makes someone gay; he has loving parents, was never abused, is celibate, even preaches "loving the sinner, hating the sin" himself in high school. His research into ex-gay ministries (the route everyone at his church points him to) uncovers that they don't actually change anyone's orientation; those touted as success stories talk instead about recovering from a life of substance abuse and promiscuous sex, neither of which apply to Justin. It becomes exceedingly clear that the current approach to "dealing with" gay people in the church is misguided at best, and destructive at worst.
Both books also tackle the relevant Scripture passages. And they reach the same conclusion, essentially: that the question of whether the Bible condemns same-sex relationships comes down to the translation of the word arsenokoitai and whether you believe it refers to loving, committed same-sex relationships. Although they both reach the same conclusion about that (that it doesn't), Justin struggles with his conclusion because it means radically transforming his worldview, and in the end he has advice both for people who agree and those who disagree with him on this question.
One of the things I like about God Believes in Love is that Gene also spends a chapter talking about the Gospels. Although I think he goes a little too far with his argument (more on that in a moment), I appreciate that he takes the time to consider questions like "What does it mean that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality?" and "How would Jesus treat gay people, based on what we know of how He treated others?"
Finally, Gene told one stellar story that encapsulates the pervasiveness of heteronormativity. He talks about attending a conference in which everyone was asked to introduce themselves to the people around them with their name and "I'm a gay man" or "I'm a lesbian" and then to avoid doing or saying anything to contradict that statement for the rest of the day. Straight people ended the day exhausted from trying to navigate small talk without mentioning their significant others and with a deeper understanding that far from "flaunting their sexuality," gay people have to exert an enormous effort to try to hide their sexual orientation in day-to-day conversations.
What I Didn't Like
Both authors are gay men, and I think this gives them a somewhat limited perspective. As is too often the case even within the LGBTQ community, "BTQ" (bisexual, transgender, queer) individuals were mentioned mostly as an afterthought and not always in ways that made sense. I particularly noticed this in God Believes in Love because it is about same-sex marriage; Gene ignored the particular struggles of bisexual individuals who are expected to marry a partner of the opposite sex because they "can" regardless of whom they fall in love with, and he also failed to distinguish between sexual orientation and gender identity when talking about the struggles of "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender" people for marriage equality. I would have liked to see issues of gender identity addressed separately or, if they were beyond the scope of the book, for transgender individuals to be left out rather than lumped into the "LGBTQ" acronym.
On a related note, Gene repeatedly refers to "gay and lesbian couples," which I think is confusing; two people of the same gender can both identify as bisexual and be in a relationship with one another, which doesn't make them gay or lesbian. I think he was trying to be inclusive of both male-male and female-female pairs, but "same-gender couples" would have worked as well. I appreciated that he intentionally used no gendered pronouns for God, but wished he would have used a more inclusive "they" for a gender-neutral pronoun for people rather than constantly saying "he or she"; perhaps that was a grammatical decision as the publisher's level.
I appreciated Gene's argument that Jesus did not place as high a value on the nuclear family as the Religious Right would like us to think (an argument explained well in this article by Ben Witherington), and instead surrounded Himself with a family of choice. I do think he went too far in his emphasis on Jesus' special relationship with John, the beloved disciple, saying that he's not trying to imply that Jesus was gay but that He would understand having a close and loving relationship with someone not in one's nuclear family. It was an odd and not well-constructed argument for same-sex marriage, and he then repeated the entire argument again in the following chapter.
Another consideration: While I enjoyed having the audiobook narrated by Gene because I was already familiar with him and like him, it was clear he was not a practiced audiobook narrator and sometimes the words came off a little stilted, unemotional, or pronounced with odd emphasis. Also, if you're recommending the book to someone because of their current prejudices, you might consider whether that particular person would find it more compelling or more off-putting to have the book narrated in the gay author's own voice. Finally, at the end of the audiobook there's a truly bizarre interview with the author in which the interviewer didn't seem to have read the book or prepared much at all and spent a good portion of the time just rambling and not really asking any questions. So those would be some things to consider when deciding whether to read it as an audiobook like I did.
The topics discussed in these books are the issues in America that are currently (1) driving people from church and (2) splitting churches apart. If we as Christians care about loving and ministering to all God's children, then that requires educating ourselves. And I mean that for everyone -- straight Christians have an obligation to truly understand the experiences and feelings of their LGBTQ neighbors, and LGBTQ Christians and their allies have an obligation to try to understand others' concerns, fears, and misconceptions rather than simply writing them off as ignorant bigots.
That is what I think both of these books do well: They bring everyone to the same table and promote compassion and understanding. They spell out what people are thinking but possibly afraid to say. And they do this with the understanding that faith, religion, and the Bible must be considered and respected at all times.
For more resources like these books, I invite you to check out my Resource Guide to Christianity and Homosexuality!