Q & A
Q: Have you read Rosaria Butterfield's work and what do you think of it? Answer
I don't disagree with what she says. And, in fact, most of what she says is very very good. It is, in fact, too bad that a lot of what she says that is very good gets overlooked either in the argument over labels or in people's fascination with her own experience rather than much of what she says.
But it is important to remember that her experience with the Church, coming to it from outside, is very different than the typical same sex attracted member who grew up in the Church. In my experience, those who come to the conservative churches from the “LGBT community” have a much easier time demarcating between a “gay identity” and an identity in Christ. There are a couple of reasons for this.
The person who comes from the outside the faith may experience some negative reactions – and Rosaria herself mentions some. But they generally do not have the history of experiencing negative comments from Christians, especially from Christians whom they respect and admire, about themselves as a person during the vital adolescent years when they were forming their identity. Think for a moment, of the 15 year old boy, experiencing same sex attraction, who hears his pastor and other respected men of the Church make very negative comments and jokes about “those gays.” Now, he knows by “gay” most people simply mean anyone who is sexually attracted to their own sex rather than the opposite. But he does not want to be gay. He hates the fact that he is attracted to other boys. He has prayed fervently to be straight. Hearing the negative comments from Christian adults, he wonders, “is this me? Is this how they see me?” Of course, he can not ask that directly so, often, he will ask his pastor, “I know it is wrong for two guys to have sex. But what about someone who is just attracted to other people of the same sex? Is the desire wrong? Is it sinful just to be gay if you don't have sex?” Now, he is not asking permission to fantasize about other boys. He knows that is wrong too. He simply wants to know if people like him are included in the pastor's disgust of gay people or if, because he is repentant and has faith, maybe he is not one of those “gay” people the pastor obviously hates. (That he even has such concerns should be a huge judgment against ourselves, by the way, for the way we talk about people). Now, because the question behind the question is about identity, if the pastor answers that the desire itself is a sin, backing that up with Matthew 5, he has just told the kid, "yes, i am using 'gay' to mean anyone who is same sex attracted and, yes, you are one of those 'gay' people." He has enmeshed that kid's identity with his sexuality. Incidents like this, which a kid is likely to experience multiple times throughout their teen years, makes the demarcation between “gay” and an “identity in Christ” much more difficult, if not impossible.
Or to put it another way, I think Rosaria's view of the Christian life and identity is spot on. It meshes with everything I have believed and acknowledged since I was in my early teens. My question is, for those of us whose identities were enmeshed with our sexualities by the Church itself, how do we get from here to there? I found myself, reading her work, thinking of when I was a teen and a hike I took to the falls in the canyon outside the town I grew up in. The trail split and the sign pointing to the falls had been knocked down. Consequently, I took the wrong path. I could hear the falls in the distance and every once in a while glimpse them from between the trees. But I could not figure out how to get there. I never did get to the falls that day. Rosaria's description of the Christian life is great – it's like glimpsing a desired destination from a distance. But I found myself constantly saying “But how do I get there...?” Somewhere in her writing it just feels something vital is missing, that one bit of information that would make the path to a Christian identity clearer.
I have done a lot of thinking about what that one thing is that is missing from what she writes. Nearly all the elements I would look for in ministry are there. She does a far better job of talking about Gospel than most pastors speaking on this subject. She is strong but gentle on the Law. Her understanding of the Christian life is superb. So what is missing? I think she comes so close to the missing piece when she discusses the need for community. That community is essential for a Christian identity. But that community has to do something specific among all the other things it accomplishes. That community has to apply the Gospel. It has to say to the LGBT individual, "God loves you." I think this is implied - and maybe she does state it in her third book, the one I have not read. But it needs to be said. I have tried for 50 years to have an identity in Christ. And, yet, I have never been able to achieve it. The Gospel is not a self help tool and an identity is not a do-it-yourself project. You need people, especially a pastor, who will say to you, "this Gospel, this love of God is for you." That Gospel needs to be more than educational. It can't merely be a reminder of divine truth. Nor can it be merely a transition from the 2nd use of the law to the 3rd. Yes, I know the Gospel. I can translate the Greek and the Hebrew as well as any of you. None of that matters. I need you, the pastors of my Church, to say to me "God loves you." I need to see that you spent some time on that, that telling about the love of God is important to you. Nearly all of what Rosaria writes is quite good. Some of it is amazing. But, then, that is true of Christianity in general. But for all of it to have any meaning, especially for us whose identities got all muddled by the Church, we need you, the pastor, to take that information and actually put it into practice and to say to us "this is for you." So maybe what is missing from what she writes is something no book can do anyway, maybe it is just something that can not be done in the third person. Maybe it is not that something is missing from what she says but that something is missing from the Church - and that is the application of the Gospel by a congregation to a particular group of God's children and reading books like hers, that have so many good ideas, simply brings that lack to the forefront.
Q: What do you think of the idea proposed by some gay Christians that “being LGBT” is about more than just sex. That there are some intrinsic, positive aspects to “orientation” that have nothing to do with sex, like the way friendship may be desired or experienced by a gay person differently than by a straight person? Answer
Q: I have a real problem with the argument that heterosexuality is a disability or an aberration of God's good plan in the same way homosexuality is. Heterosexuality seems, to me, to be a good gift of God that is often misused. Answer
I had considered changing that section to make it more palatable. But then I thought, “no – I want the shock factor there.” I want the straight pastor to struggle with that concept for a few moments just as a gay kid struggle for years being told that he is “unnaturally” sinful. I want you, the straight pastor to get, at least in small portion, what the gay Christian teen's life is like being told that he is a disappointment to God, his family and his church simply because he experiences a specific temptation.
That being said, let me offer an apologetic for that may help illuminate what I am trying to say when I call heterosexuality “unnatural” and “a disability.”
In modern times, especially with the advent of psychology and Freud, we accept the basic, overarching categories of human sexuality as based on the direction of sexual desire; heterosexual and homosexual, now being broken down into a bunch of smaller categories depending on to whom one is attracted. This is so ubiquitous in our culture that we find it hard to even question the categorization. Songs, books, poetry and Disney films all emphasize this experience of loss/fulfillment of desire as a basic commonality of human life.
The Church, by accepting these categories as basic distinctions of human sexuality winds up having to defend the one, heterosexuality, as good as it leads to and contains the subcategory of marriage. At the same time the Church must defend the sinfulness of the other since, biblically speaking this can not lead to marriage. This introduces a number of problems. For instance, we have to struggle to defend the nature of male/female marriage, which is difficult to do if the basis of marriage is "falling in love." Secondly, it winds up putting the same sex attracted person in a bind. He can not marry a woman without most people feeling there is something unnatural about his marriage. Nor can he remain single without many in the Church disparaging that. I have heard both Catholic and Lutheran theologians argue that a gay man who stays single is not practicing legitimate celibacy as he did not make a choice between two legitimate options. In fact this is one argument often used against allowing gay men into the catholic priesthood, essentially because they did not choose celibacy from pure motives. Thirdly, the argument for one category as good and the other as bad devolves into a view of the people in each category as good and bad, healthy or perverted.
I think, in the end, this categorization is damaging and difficult to defend.
But what if the biblical categories of sexuality are different?
What if the basic biblical categories are not based on desire but on vocation; marriage (yes, male/female) vis a vis singleness? In this case, the experience of desire is, properly speaking, a subcategory of marriage - not the other way around. Yes, this would mean that all experience of sexual desire outside or before marriage is a deviation from what God designed - or, sin. But I think this is a much stronger position to defend. As, for instance, the Song of Songs is indeed highly erotic. But it also features two people who are engaged and, therefore, legally married. It presents a proper view of the place and function of sexuality as being within marriage rather than outside, before or the basis of marriage. In this view, a same sex attracted man who chose to marry a woman might, actually, be closer to the ideal of marriage than a straight man marrying for love because the gay man married on a more solid foundation than desire and his use and encouragement of sexuality within the marriage could be argued to be more likely sacrificial and centered on his wife rather than himself and his own desires. In this sense, the desire of a man for A woman (his wife) is a very good thing and in no way sinful in itself. But, yes the desire of a man for "women" would be a bad thing and a deviation.
The fact is, I think we have been defending Freud and Disney more than the Bible. And this needs to change.
But it is not going to change as long as Christians insist on thinking of heterosexual temptation as a “good gift that is often misused.” It is not going to change as long as we scold gay people for accepting the wrong categorical distinction while giving straight people a pass. It won't change as long as we tell gay people their identity must be in Christ rather than sexuality while neither giving the means to accomplish that radical identity transformation nor insisting that straight Christians do the same with their sexual identity. And it certainly is not going to happen by arguing for a biblical standard of marriage in a society saturated with a Freudian/Disney view of love – their starting point is so diametrically different than that of the biblical vocation or marriage that what we say will never make sense.
The only way change can happen is if the Gospel is allowed to do its work within in the Church. To undo the false categories, Christians must:
1: Stop seeing gay people as different than themselves and stop treating them as somehow weaker or lesser children of God. In other words, you have really got to show love and the Gospel to gay people!
2: Be willing to really repent of the depth of sin in all sexuality. If you fell in love with a person of the opposite sex in high school, you have to be ready and willing to admit that it was not a “good” or “natural” gift. It was your sinful nature influencing your desires. Bridget Eileen has an excellent post on this very subject at the blog for Preston Sprinkle's Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender. A Celibate Lesbian’s Cold Hard Look at Sexual Immorality in the Church. It is an excellent and hard hitting piece and one I think every pastor should read.
In other words, if we want to undo those categories and return to a biblical paradigm of vocation, we need to stop acting as if those categories are true.
And that is why I do insist we see heterosexuality as a disability and an aberration of God's good plan every bit as much as homosexuality. Until straight people are really willing to see how much sin has influenced their own sexuality, we will not be able to undo the false categories of Freud and Disney.