IS GOD ANTI-GAY? & WASHED AND WAITING (FAN AND FLAME Book Reviews)

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Sam Allberry. Is God anti-gay? And other questions about homosexuality, the Bible and same-sex attraction. United Kingdom: The Good Book Company, 2013. 88 pp. $7.99.

Wesley Hill. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010. 160 pp. $14.99.

There has been a steady stream of books about homosexuality published in the last few years, but two in particular from evangelical authors have received a lot of attention. The two books I am speaking of are Is God anti-gay? by Sam Allberry and Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill. And they should receive attention; they are great books. Besides being great books, they also have many other things in common. For example, both books are short and evangelical. Additionally, they are written by Christian men who struggle with same-sex attraction, but yet—and this is so important—believe that God calls them to forsake acting on these feelings and to live celibate lives.

Maybe you can already see why they have received so much attention.

In this post, I am going to point out some of the strengths of each book. Then I am going to discuss one difference between the authors with respect to the terminology they use to describe their lingering homosexual feelings. Finally, I’ll offer a few comments about what Christians mean and don’t mean by “change.”

But before I do all of that, let me make a disclaimer: I am primarily writing this post for Christians that already hold to a traditional understanding of the Bible and sexuality. In other words, I’m not primarily writing this to convince the unconvinced.

Is God anti-gay? by Sam Allberry

Sam Allberry is the author of the first book, Is God anti-gay? And other questions about homosexuality, the Bible and same-sex attraction. He is a pastor in England and has also authored Connected: Living in Light of the Trinity. Here are a few of the strengths of his book.

First, Allberry includes the content of gospel message very early in the book (7-10), and he explains how this message changed his life. I consider this a great benefit because I suspect that many people who know very little about Christianity will be drawn in by the book’s provocative title. And speaking of starting with something, before Allberry dives into all of the Bible’s “Thou Shalt Not’s,” he first begins with God’s positive design for sex (13)—also very helpful.

Second, Allberry frequently, and helpfully, places the struggle with homosexual practice within the larger, general struggle with sin that is common to all followers of Christ (11-12). I mention this because too often in the church we tend to single out homosexual practice, even among other sexual sins. To a point, I understand why this is done, but it’s not entirely helpful either. Every prohibition against homosexual practice that’s in the Bible occurs in the context of a list of many different sins. That’s worth remembering.

Third, Allberry’s treatment of the biblical passages relating specifically to homosexuality is clear and compelling (25-38). I’m not saying that everyone who disagrees with the traditional view will be won over, but I am saying that a strong case is made for it.

Finally, the book is eminently practical for those that have objections and questions. Examples include things like the following: “Surely same-sex partnership is OK if it’s committed and faithful?” (39-40); “Jesus never mentions homosexuality, so how can it be wrong?” (40-41); “What are the main struggles for a homosexual Christian?” (54); and “My non-Christian friend has just told me they’re gay. How should I respond?” (74). These are real objections and real questions, and Allberry, with humility and grace, gives real answers.

Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill

Wesley Hill is the author of the second book. The full title is Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. The title comes from two verses that Hill believes are foundational on this topic, namely, 1 Corinthians 6:11 (“You were washed”) and Romans 8:23 (“we wait eagerly”).

Hill completed his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College, and received a masters and PhD from Durham University in the UK. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry just north of Pittsburgh, PA. His most recent book is Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.

Comparing Washed and Waiting with Is God anti-gay? is a little like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges—sure there are a few similarities, but fundamentally they are just not the same. Let me share a few of the strengths of Hill’s book, and hopefully that will help you grasp how the two books are simultaneously similar and different.

First, the book reads much more like a memoir than all of the other books I have read on the topic of homosexuality. This is because, in many ways, it is just that—a memoir. In the book, Hill shares his own story, but also included are chapters on the lives of two other Christian authors who struggled with homosexual desires, namely, Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins (both now deceased).

In this way, Hill’s audience is rather specific. Up front, he tells readers, “I’m writing as one homosexual Christian for other homosexual Christians” (16). Perhaps that is a narrow market—a gay Christian writing for other gay Christians. However, the special, captivating power inherent to memoirs has most certainly expanded his audience. And by “special, captivating power,” I mean this: memoirs have a way of inviting believers (in this case, some who have homosexual desires, others who do not) to live vicariously in the struggles and victories of another saint, which is a wonderful and soul enlarging exercise.

Second, the prose of Washed and Waiting is beautiful. Hill has a strong command of language. Additionally, he fills his book with eclectic references to the arts in general and literature in particular. References to paintings, poems, plays, and prose are employed in the most natural of ways. For example, in every chapter expect to see quotations or allusions to a dozen authors, people like H.W. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wendell Berry, William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Anne Lamott, and of course, C.S. Lewis; yes, lots of Lewis.

Finally, Washed and Waiting articulates the questions of broader culture that seem to clash with a traditional Christian understanding of sexuality, love, and “good news.” That these questions are given a voice will no doubt make some uncomfortable, especially because in just a few places it’s not always immediately clear whether these questions continue to be Hill’s questions (or only were his questions). However, the careful reader will see that in and around the questions and questioning, there is a deep sense that questions about homosexuality do have answers, and these answers are beautiful and biblical answers, which Hill himself affirms and loves.

One Difference between the Authors and Their Terminology

As I said above, these two books are similar in many ways, but fundamentally not the same. I hope you’ve gained a sense of this from the above discussion of their strengths. There is one difference, however, that would be helpful to point out explicitly. You may have already noticed it, but the difference has to do with the way terminology is used to describe on-going homosexual desires.

Sam Allberry tends to speak in terms of “same-sex attraction,” or especially with respect to Christians, in terms of “struggle with same-sex attraction.” You can see this reflected in the subtitle of his book (And other questions about homosexuality, the Bible and same-sex attraction). Wesley Hill, on the other hand, is far more comfortable continuing to use the terms gay and homosexual, although I should point out that Hill often qualifies the terms slightly by adding the word “celibate” (e.g. “a celibate gay Christian”).

For many, this difference is far more than a semantic one. Our understanding of what we believe to be the highest and most fundamental aspects of human identity is at stake. Allberry writes:

In western culture today the obvious term for someone with homosexual feelings is “gay.” But in my experience this often refers to far more than someone’s sexual orientation. It has come to describe an identity and a lifestyle. When someone says that they’re gay, or for that matter, lesbian or bisexual, they normally mean that, as well as being attracted to someone of the same gender, their sexual preference is one of the fundamental ways in which they see themselves.

And it’s for this reason that I tend to avoid using the term. It sounds clunky to describe myself as “someone who experiences same-sex attraction.” But describing myself like this is a way for me to recognize that the kind of sexual attractions I experience are not fundamental to my identity. They are part of what I feel but are not who I am in a fundamental sense. I’m far more than my sexuality. (10-11, emphasis original)

Do you hear what he is saying? Allberry argues that speaking of someone, specifically a Christian, as “gay” or “homosexual,” simply gives too much weight to just one aspect of what it means to be human, namely our sexuality. Sexuality is important, but biblically speaking a person’s sexuality is ancillary to who they are, not foundational and ultimate.

And what does Hill believe about all of this?

In fairness, I’m pretty sure he agrees with all of it. Yes, from the very beginning of his book he does use terms like “gay” and “homosexual,” or even “gay Christian” and “homosexual Christian,” but he also clarifies that he doesn’t mean what most might mean when using those terms. Let me quote him at length from pages 14-15:

My story is very different from the other stories told by people wearing the same designations—“homosexual Christian”—that I wear. Many in the church—more so in the mainline denominations than the evangelical ones… tell stories of “homosexual holiness.” The authors of these narratives profess a deep faith in Christ and claim a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit precisely in and through their homosexual practice…

My own story, by contrast, is a story of feeling spiritually hindered rather than helped by my homosexuality. Another way to say it would be to observe that my story testifies to the truth of the proposition the Christian church has held with almost total unanimity through the centuries—namely, that homosexuality was not God’s original creative intention for humanity, that it is, on the contrary, a tragic sign of human nature and relationships being fractured by sin, and therefore that homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially those who trust in Christ. (14, emphasis original)

More sections from Washed and Waiting could be quoted to address terminology (especially on page 22), but the real question is this: why would Hill tend to speak this way?

I’ve listened to audio recordings where Hill answers this question explicitly. I’m thinking especially of a Q&A at a conference on human sexuality put on by the Evangelical Free Church of American where Hill was one of several keynote speakers (here). The answer to the question to why Hill speaks this way, in short, is this: to gain a hearing from those who would immediately tune him out if he telegraphed his traditional Christian moorings too soon with phrases like “same-sex attraction.” (And remember, in an above quote, Allberry admitted the phrase is a “chunky” one.)

As a pastor, I get this. As soon as I tell people that I am a pastor, the conversation invariably changes. To be aware of this dynamic does not necessarily mean that I am ashamed of my vocation or fearful of identifying myself as a follower of Jesus. I’m not ashamed or afraid. But I can say that in my own life I have learned that there can be a God-honoring motive in delaying the revelation that I’m a pastor. The same is true, I believe, for Hill. Using the terminology of a “gay Christian” is not a way to hide his Christian beliefs indefinitely, but rather a way to help them be heard.

Don’t Christians Change?

Before closing this issue of terminology, it might be helpful to back up and talk about what Christians mean and don’t mean by this word “change.” A few years ago, I remember talking with a mature Christian about this very issue. The person was initially very shocked and disturbed by the thought that there might be gay men and women who genuinely become Christians, but yet continue to struggle with same-sex attraction. This is a startling proposition, one that many Christians have never thought through before. “What—doesn’t becoming a Christian fix this?” some ask.

Well, yes, it does, but that depends on what you mean by “fix” and what you mean by “change.”

Christians most certainly do change, but this doesn’t mean people live with perfect obedience to Jesus right away or that temptations to sin disappear. Consider for a moment sins like pride, heterosexual lust, or explosive anger. Do these fall away immediately upon conversion to Christ, or even shortly thereafter? Sometimes, but not most of the time. And in some cases the temptations never go away.

It can be jarring the first time you think of homosexual feelings this way, that is, as something that might not go away, at least until Heaven. However, when we consider the specific struggle with same-sex attraction in the broader context of the struggle that Christians have with all sin (which both Allberry and Hill do so aptly), it begins to make more sense.

This is not to say that no one will ever experience a fundamental shift in their attractions to the extent that they marry someone of the opposite sex. This happens. If you’d like to read a helpful account of this, you can do so in the book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield. For Butterfield, it happened. And when this kind of change happens, we should praise God for it. However, we should also be willing to heartily acknowledge that God can be—and is!—glorified in the life-long struggle to reject sin on account of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ. This certainly is a type of “change,” even if the final outworking of the struggle is not completed until we are glorified.

Final Recommendations

For all of the similarities of these two books, I hope you can see that they are actually two very different, but very helpful, books.

If you are a person that is less familiar with the issues involved, especially the issues around the biblical texts, then I would suggest you first read Is God anti-gay? The book is more than a primer on the topic, but it is a least that. If, however, you are more familiar with the issues, and are looking for more of a narrative sweep, then I would suggest Washed and Waiting.

But my hope is that you won’t simply choose between them, but rather read them both.

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