Walking with Gay Friends

As I've posted a couple of times now, we have a "Good Book Group" at church which looks at different "theological" books from time to time. Anyone can come along (though it now seems to have settled on a fixed constituency) so we publish the date, venue and book for the next meeting in our church announcements. Given the authors of a few of our earlier books, some participants were handed other books and magazine articles by some members of the church, challenging the theological "soundness" of the authors we were reading. They never handed me any of the books. Clearly I'm a lost cause, if not a lost soul...
Well, the book we studied this time was "Walking with Gay Friends" by Alex Tylee, and it had been on our "must read" list for some time, but I baulked at it, wary of the response of some outside the group when the title appeared in the announcements. But recently I've explored with issues of sex and sexuality in our Bible Study, so I thought that this was as good a time as any.
However, in reviewing this book subsequent to our discussion of it last weekend, I am again wary of how my responses to it will be heard, not just within my congregation, but also by my own friends in the gay community and the evangelical community... So let me be clear from the outset, these responses are mine and mine alone, and do not explicitly reflect the feelings of anyone else in the group... One of the joys of meetings like our "Good Book Group" are that a huge range of feelings can be expressed without any fear of condemnation, and I'm not about to break that confidence here.
My first response is one applauding the courage of Alex Tylee in writing this book in the midst of what is clearly a painful journey for her (a journey that is not yet finished and will be interesting to chart in the future), and for many, many others. There is also a huge sadness at the fact that she actually has to make a plea for compassionate companionship on that journey to members of the church, and particularly those coming from an evangelical position.
And that is the another dominant feeling that I have regarding this book. Whilst coming from an unashamedly evangelical, largely literalist view of scripture, and a conservative social perspective, it is profoundly different from the prevailing conservative evangelical voices, coming particularly out of the US (and Africa). This is largely because it is written by someone who is openly gay (though attempting to be celibate) and is not claiming to have known "healing" for their "condition" (whether they want such healing or not). Compassion, a key emotion in the recorded life of Christ, is what she is calling for from her brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than majoring on the Biblical why's and wherefore's, and the perception of that Christians (and God) hates homosexuals... She also (unless I missed it) avoids the stock "love the sinner, but hate the sin" line, and indeed does a very good job of unpacking why their sexuality is an important, and at times "in your face" element of a homosexual person's identity.
But (and it was always obvious I was going to have a but on this) whilst I appreciated that she didn't major on the so called "clobber passages" I'm not convinced that was for the best of reasons. If there is a coherent Biblical case to be made against homosexual practice, it can't be properly sustained on these verses alone, and her unquestioning acceptance of the established evangelical exegesis would suggest (whether this is true or not) that she hasn't fully explored the Biblical issue. If you are going to argue this from an authentically evangelical position then it must be from the more nuanced (though equally unequivocal) rationale of John Stott etc, who base their position not primarily on fewer than 20 verses of scripture scattered through the Bible but on the understanding of relationship and personhood that underpins the Biblical doctrine of marriage (which leads us on to a whole different battleground given current challenges to marriage and civil ceremony legislation).
As well as her somewhat casual acceptance of the Biblical case (which she clearly thinks is so clear it is beyond debate) she also bases a lot of her material on origins on psychological theories of attachment and "intimacy deficit" or "unmet love need". This is in no way representative of current psychological theories regarding the origins of sexual orientation, although it must be said that since homosexuality was struck off the infamous list of "psychological disorders", research has pointed in every conceivable direction for causation. It has gone way beyond the issue of nature v nurture, yet even there, she quickly dismisses issues of genetic predisposition (never mind determinism). Is that because she has analysed the increasing evidence and found it to be lacking, or is it due to a more fundamental fear that if sexuality has a genetic component that somehow makes it natural, throwing some of Paul's statements in Romans into question... and also, as she explicitly states "saying that sexuality is something you are born with also implies that a 'cure' for homosexuality is implausible." Neither of these are actually immediate consequences of asserting a genetic/inherited component... Cystic Fibrosis my have a genetic component, but it doesn't make it part of God's plan for us nor, as gene therapy studies have shown, is it untreatable... and indeed there are hopes that in the future it may be curable. But such statements bring us back into the realm of seeing sexuality in the same league as a disease, and that is probably not desirable and certainly not politically correct.
The lack of Biblical and psycho-biological rigour in this book is frustrating, but then it is only 150 pages long... How much can you fit in to 150 pages especially when so much of it is based on snippets of people's stories. This element is, in itself a strength and a weakness... A strength insofar as it is always good to hear people's stories and experiences, particularly with a situation like this when people don't often talk about their own struggles openly in church for fear of condemnation. But it is also a weakness insofar as anecdotes can be selectively chosen to build a case. Alex, however, does go out of her way to give room for people's stories that are not examples of "victorious Christian living" and perhaps that is a reflection of her own journey.
These stories certainly paint a more human and humane face on the evangelical perspective regarding homosexuality, but I would still be wary of recommending that my gay friends read it. Partly because of the shallowness of the Biblical and scientific background, that I mentioned above, but also because it is not only evangelical in tone, but also has strong evangelistic emphases ie. Alex is unashamed in her desire to present the good news of Jesus in a way that is acceptable to others who are struggling with their sexuality. While this is entirely laudable it makes it much more into a primer for how evangelicals should relate to homosexuals inside and outside the church, rather than a book which puts the conservative position on sexuality in a way that is more acceptable to homosexuals. No-one, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual likes to be seen as a target group, whether it be for evangelism or life assurance.
So effectively this book has a relatively narrow target audience, that is, those from an evangelical background, wrestling with the reality of how to build relations with those of a homosexual orientation within and without the church.
She does raise some interesting issues towards the end of the book regarding inappropriate/dependent "platonic" friendships that, as she makes clear, can be an issue for heterosexual friendships as well as homosexuals. Again, however, I feel that some of her caution stems from a fear of "going too far" in friendship, resulting in possible rejection by the friend, or perhaps by the wider faith community. As Christians we are called to a depth of friendship that could be called "dependent" but not exclusive or secretive, which tends to happen with friendships/relationships that others see as undesirable, be that because they are homosexual, adulterous or break other socially acceptable barriers. Whilst the Bible tells us that it is not good for a man to be alone, it's also not good for any relationship to exist in its own, self-contained, bubble. The church should be a network of inter-dependent relationships, within which people should find support and accountability, whatever their sexual orientation or marital status. But for that to happen there needs to be a lot more honesty and openness.
In conclusion, I was glad I read this book, and especially glad I read it with others because of the honest conversations it promoted. Many more, from whatever theological perspective should read it as it is, as the sub-title puts it, an appeal for "a journey of informed compassion." Whether it is well enough informed, as I have already inferred, is a moot point, but I look forward to seeing where the journey goes.


Anonymous said…
A really thorough book review, thank you! Very helpful, actually.

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