People to be Loved
Preston begins People to be Loved with an extended apology for the way gay people have often been treated by the church. Anything written on homosexuality by someone with a traditional sexual ethic requires this kind of apology: without the apology, getting a hearing is almost impossible.
Next up Preston dives into six chapters covering the biblical passages that mention homosexuality, whether sexual difference is necessary for marriage, and homosexuality in Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. Preston is an outstanding writer and covers this ground with wit and warmth and great pastoral tenderness. This is all the more impressive as there is a great deal of scholarly work underpinning his writing, but that scholarship does not intrude in an off-putting way. This is a very readable book. These chapters culminate in an ‘interlude’ in which Preston summarises nine arguments for traditional Christian sexual ethics. (Andrew has previously posted these arguments here.) Preston is extraordinarily gracious and even handed in presenting revisionist arguments in their strongest form, but concludes, ‘I do not see the Bible affirming same-sex sexual relations.’
The final three chapters are all practical, as Preston explores the nature/nurture debate, whether it is possible to be both Christian and gay, and describes what Christian faithfulness might look like for the gay Christian. A brief section on singleness and the myth of a ‘call to celibacy’ is especially helpful. An afterword gives outstanding advice to churches and pastors who maintain the traditional view about how to respond to gay people.
So far, so good – and ‘Good!’ and ‘Yes!’ are pencilled all over the margins of my copy of the book. Preston’s combination of scholarly depth, pastoral warmth, willingness to engage with people who might not be easy to engage with, and brilliant writing style are a real gift to his readers. As a riposte to Matthew Vine’s dreadful book God and the Gay Christian this is good as it gets. For anyone whose confidence in scripture has been undermined by Vines, People to be Loved offers a valuable antidote. I recommend it strongly.
But – there were some things that made me itch…
A minor point to start: I wonder if where Preston begins People to be Loved plays too much into the strategy of ressentiment employed by the militant gay rights movement. I wonder if we’ve reached ‘peak apology’. The speed at which attitudes towards sexuality are shifting mean that what was once true no longer is. My impression is that in most churches, rather than being treated with hostility, gay people would be welcomed with open arms. (Of course I’m reflecting things in the UK; it may be different in the US.) Rather than the danger being that gay people will be shunned or shamed in our churches, the growing danger is that sexual immorality (of all kinds and orientations) goes unchallenged. While Preston lies awake at night worrying about the harm Christians have inflicted on gays I lay awake at night worrying about Christians who think there are no issues about fundamentally immoral behaviours.
And I wonder if in his admirable desire to be loving Preston gives too much away. His dedication on the frontispiece is to ‘millions of…Christians who daily wrestle with the Christian faith and same-sex sexuality’. Millions? Really? How does he know? While media coverage in the West would suggest everyone is gay, the reality is that the vast majority of people are not. Of the hundreds of people I have some contact with outside the context of my church only a tiny fraction are gay. Perhaps I live in an unusually un-gay place, but even in Brighton, the UK’s gayest town, only 1.29% of households are same-sex (2001 census), with an ‘estimated’ 11-15% of the population being LGBT. Perhaps there are tens or even hundreds of thousands of Christians who are wrestling with their faith and same-sex sexuality, but millions?
I also wonder if Preston is too quick to concede some of the linguistic issues we face when discussing sexuality. Words really do matter and particularly relevant are the terms affirming and nonaffirming. Preston says he doesn’t like them, but, ‘until I find a better pair of terms, I think [these] are the best we’ve got.’ Really? The trouble here is that ‘nonaffirming’ is never going to sound good. How about revisionist and traditional? I prefer those, so that’s what I’ll use.
These are minor quibbles. The more serious critique of People to be Loved is that it doesn’t provide any account for the purpose of sex, and thus no explanation of what marriage is for, and how that relates to same-sex relationships. This is something that Wesley Hill notes in his foreword: ‘I would have liked to see him…putting Augustine’s teaching on the three goods of marriage – including procreation – and the New Testament texts into more conversation with each other.’ (To find that you could read Augustine, or something by Christopher Ash, or even my very inadequate Sex Talks.)
It may simply be that space didn’t allow for this discussion. After all, Christian publishers are not keen on printing long books. But not covering this ground doesn’t just miss out some potentially interesting additional material – it leaves the house Preston is building with no foundation. Without a discussion of the purpose of sex Preston has given us an excellent rebuttal of Vines’, et al, revisionist approach to certain passages of scripture, but that is all. We are left only with the verdict that straight people can get married and have sex, but gay people cannot. To which the obvious response is, Why?
Without an explanation for this the arguments Preston makes lose their power. Deciding to do (or not do) something simply because that is what the Bible says without understanding why it says it is a tall order. It is an order that will not long withstand the question Why? The old school evangelical youth group relationships talk that never went further than ‘you mustn’t have sex until you are married, because the Bible says so’ didn’t work, and it won’t work for gay Christians either. It lacks any vision of why abstaining from sex is worthwhile. That Preston doesn’t face this problem and deal with it left me wondering if he thinks whether or not gay Christians act on their sexual desires is all that important. Which is very odd, considering the huge efforts he has expended in writing this book.
Preston seems to confirm this impression when he poses the question as to whether Christian same-sex relationships are ‘a gospel issue that is a threat to orthodoxy.’ His answer? ‘I don’t think I can chisel my answer in stone just yet.’ Preston’s ambiguity about this logically leads to the question of how 1 Corinthians 5 might ‘apply to people [that is, Christians] who are actively engaging in sexual relations with people of the same sex and have no desire to repent from it?’ He has some good discussion on this difficult passage, and reluctantly comes to the place where he admits there may be occasions when unrepentant actions may necessitate putting someone out of fellowship. The thing is, he is not yet ready to say what that point of unrepentance might be when it comes to same-sex relationships. Which is fair enough, given the complexities of the subject. But it seems odd to write a book seeking to uphold a traditional biblical sexual ethic without having come to a place of resolution on this. (Last year we ran a series of posts on 1 Cor.5 which was prompted by a Preston Sprinkle tweet.)
So I am left scratching my head. This really is an outstanding book, that I in no way want to damn with faint praise. Yet it is also glaringly incomplete, and I don’t understand why a writer of Preston’s abilities would leave it that way. I love the book, but I could love it more. Telling people we love them is necessary but not sufficient. We’ve got to give them some reasons. We’ve got to give them hope.