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Posts from the ‘Practical Theology’ Category

Gay for the world

Sketching a theological use for Christian Sexuality in the world today.

I

Lunch with my former pastor from high school. He eats a soup. I eat cheese fries. He is on a diet. I am not. We talk about my experience coming out and about his attempts to lead his church into a more compassionate tone on sexuality. In that conversation he backs up and makes a larger point than I expected.

He brings up James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World. We had read this together back when I lived in town. Hunter sorts out four ways that Christians engage culture. Well, three, and the fourth is a proposal.

First, there is the ‘defense against’ strategy. Think Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Sr., or the Religious Right as a political strategy. The goal is to defend the church from a hostile society seeking to destroy the church and everything it stands for. We wage war, cultural war, to keep Christian values established at the national level. Non-Christians and non-Christian institutions are either potential converts, or enemies.

Second, there is the ‘purity from’ strategy. Think the Amish, or to a lesser extent, homeschooling. Since you can’t win the culture war against public schools, you retreat and homeschool, or private Christian school. Rod Dreher has come forward as the leading proponent of this tendency. Instead of trying to win back society, his book The Benedict Option argues we need to begin building institutions for a parallel society which is distinctly Christian. Non-Christian people and institutions are potential contaminants to be avoided.

Third, beyond fight and flight is another option, the ‘relevance to’ strategy. This tendency is to blend in by shedding pieces of Christian faith and practice. Many on the Christian Left attempt this approach. It works for a time but the common logic holds that eventually people stop being recognizably Christian at all. Non-Christian people and institutions are seen as not that different from Christians.

Fight, flight, assimilate. Hunter proposes a fourth route, ‘faithful presence within,’ which he defines with two theological statements:

The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference. For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; to the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point. In all, presence and place matter decisively. (241)

Also helpful for understanding his point is the quote a few pages later:

Faithful presence in our spheres of influence does not imply passive conformity to the established structures. Rather, within the dialectic between affirmation and antithesis, faithful presence means a constructive resistance that seeks new patterns of social organization that challenge, undermine, and otherwise diminish oppression, injustice, enmity, and corruption and, in turn, encourage harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, security, and well-being. In the normal course of social life, the challenge and alternative that faithful presence entails is not so much a direct opposition through a contest of power but, as Miraslov Volf puts it, a “bursting out” of an alternative within the proper space of the old. (247-248)

Here our pose towards the world is not defensive (defense against), distancing (purity from), or naively and uncritically positive (relevance to). Rather, we remain distinctly Christian while living in and for the sake of the world, loving and serving others like Jesus did.

My pastor slurped soup from his spoon. My cheesy fries were long gone. They stood no chance.

That was all background from our conversations over the years. In this meal, my pastor made this point: Far too many Christian leaders view sexuality in church-political categories rather than in pastoral-theological categories.

“Church-political” roughly lines up with defense against and purity from, and “pastoral-theological” could mean in a weaker form a relevance to approach or in a stronger form a faithful presence within approach. That stronger form is the goal.

I’ll give an example. Most conservative churches have done a poor job at pastoral care for gay people who are non-affirming. Even though such a person agrees with the church on how to live the Christian life, just being gay is made more difficult than it needs to be. Different things cause this. Silence. Taboo. Homophobic comments. Homophobic pastors. Unrealistic expectations. Singling out that sin instead of treating it as an equal to other sins. These are bad things, and we could end them without sacrificing our doctrinal stance.

But we can’t have those conversations. For those who view the topic through church-political lenses, straight pastors and ministry leaders should not be criticized. Gay people are the ones who are ‘other’ in a political sense, so they are the ones to be critiqued. Gay people (the distinction between celibate and sexually active gets ignored) are inherently opposed to the social and cultural goals of our church politics. To capitulate is to lose points in the game of church politics. If you acknowledge that there could be reasons why gay people are against the conservative church which were biblically unnecessary all along, you’ve lost the war. Nobody admits any of this, but it defines the underlying logic at work, the deep structure of the conversation. In its worst forms this thinking leads to the explicit denial that gay people “can be” Christians. In lighter form it leads to consistent privileging of institutional and organizational interests against those of gay people. Neither form recognizes the God-given dignity inherent in gay people, and both make the Christian life harder for no good reason.

Such is life when Christian leaders see the world through church-political frames. By contrast, my soup-eating pastor pointed to Wesley Hill as someone whose framing of the topic comes primarily from a pastoral-theological mindset. I would add Preston Sprinkle’s book People to be Loved, which is all about seeing gay people as people and not as ideas, or worse, as enemies.

II

The Amazon pages for Nancy Pearcy’s book Love Thy Body in print and on audiobook have different descriptions.

The print editions have this description:

Why the Call to Love Thy Body? 
To counter the hostility toward the human body and biological facts of life driving many of today’s headline stories. Many people absorb pre-packaged media mantras on watershed moral issues without being aware of their hurtful real-world implications. Consider:

Transgenderism: Activists detach gender from biology. Kids down to kindergarten are being taught their body is irrelevant to their authentic self. Is this affirming–or does it demean the body?

Homosexuality: Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female. Is this liberating–or does it denigrate who we really are?

Abortion: Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection. Does this lead to equality for women–or does it threaten the intrinsic dignity of all humans?

Hookup Culture: On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex. But has it really led to schizoid sex and bodies without meaning?

In Love Thy Body, best-selling author Nancy Pearcey goes beyond politically correct talking points to offer a riveting exposé of the dehumanizing secularist ethos that shapes critical moral and socio-political issues of our day.

Formerly an agnostic, Pearcey was hailed in The Economist as”America’s preeminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual.” Fearlessly and with compassion, she makes the case that secularism denigrates the body and destroys the basis for human rights.

Throughout, Pearcey sets forth a holistic and humane alternative available to all–one that offers realityoriented solutions that embrace the dignity of the human body and provide a sustainable basis for inalienable human rights.

Now, more than ever, we need to learn to “love thy body.”

Then, there are endorsements by Robert George, Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Glenn Stanton, of the names I recognize.

But now look at the description from the audiobook edition:

Are transgender people discovering their authentic self? Is the hookup culture really liberating? Does abortion lead to equality for women? Does homosexuality contradict our biological sex?

In Love Thy Body, best-selling and award-winning author Nancy Pearcey takes on the hard questions about life and sexuality. She offers a respectful but riveting exposé of the secular worldview that lies behind trendy slogans and political talking points. A former agnostic, Pearcey is a sensitive guide to the secular ideas that shape current debates. She empowers listeners to intelligently and compassionately engage today’s most controversial moral and social challenges.

In a surprise shattering of stereotypes, Pearcey demonstrates that while secularism promises much, in reality it delivers little. She turns the tables on stereotypes that portray Christianity as harsh and bigoted, and invites a fresh look at its holistic, life-affirming principles: It is a worldview that matches the real world and fits with human experience.

All along, Pearcey keeps listeners entranced with gripping stories of real people wrestling with hard questions in their own lives – sharing their pain, their struggles, and their triumphs.

This description is not followed by endorsements.

Where the second description is warm and friendly (“a sensitive guide” “fresh look at holistic, life-affirming principles” “sharing their pain”), the first description is hostile and adversarial (“to counter” “beyond politically correct talking points” “Fearlessly” is fronted in the pair with “compassion”). Where the second frames its rhetorical questions as benign, detached ideas, the first pre-loads its rhetorical questions with declarative statements (“Activists detach gender from biology” “Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female” “Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection” “On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex”). Notice the difference. Now we aren’t arguing against ideas, or proposing our own constructive ideas. We are arguing against “Activists” “Advocates” “Supporters [of abortion]” and “Hollywood, the boardroom [or those who this applies to], and the sexual revolution.” Suddenly things seem less compassionate. The stakes are raised. We have an enemy in this fight. Even the tailing endorsements on the print editions scream Tribal Affiliation, but no such endorsements are to be found on the audiobook.

I don’t know whether this is Pearcey’s own doing, or the publisher’s work. My understanding is that authors have control over their body-text and title, and that’s about it. Nor do I fault the publishers for resorting to this type of politcking. It sells. What I notice, though, is that the rah rah lets fight spirit in one description comes at the expense of the calm, wise, compassionate spirit in the other. A “church-political,” defense against and purity from mindset bleeds off the page.

Can we do better?

III

As I try to sketch out the contours of a Christian Sexuality that is faithfully present in the world, I am reminded of this post from a friend last year. (I share this with his permission).

“Cold water! Stay hydrated! Be safe!”
“Oh, thank goodness. How much?”
“Nothing, it’s free.”
“Wait, it’s free?”
“Yep. You need more than one?”
“Uhh, sure. Thanks. Y’all are doing a really, really good thing… Who are you with?”
“We’re just a group of Christians from different local churches, here to make sure folks have some water.”

This conversation happened hundreds of times today. Let it be a parable of free grace for your Sunday. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Had a great time at my first-ever Pride!

@ Downtown St. Louis

I don’t know if you remember that day, but it was nearly 100 degrees and humid. There was talk about cancelling the parades outright because of the heat risk. So this is not mere political posturing — it has real substance. It also declines to antagonize. This small act of grace does not defend against the parade and all it represents, or seek purity from the potentially ‘infectious’ effects of being too close to sinful (gay) people. Nor does it seek relevance to Pride by sacrificing or eliding critical differences between Christian and non-Christian practice. It exemplifies, even typifies, faithful presence within. Loving and serving others to whom we especially owe that love and service. Not recoiling at or restraining from the ‘other.’ Unlike the first description of Pearcy’s book, it does not center our obvious disagreements and reduce gay people to enemy status to score points in our cliques. This small act can teach us what it means to be gay for the world.

When there is no bread

Elijah called for a battle between the Lord and the rival nation’s god Ba’al in 1 Kings 18. The Lord showed in dramatic fashion that he is the real God of Israel. This would normally be good, but the king and queen of Israel had adopted Ba’al as one of their gods, so Elijah had committed treason. The wicked queen raged. She sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “O may the gods do to me also, and even more, if I do not kill you by this time tomorrow!” Elijah takes the hint and flees the country.

Elijah flees to the southern desert. His life seems over. He feels alone. Isolated. Think ‘social distancing.’ He sits beneath a thin tree and asks God to kill him. He passes out.

After this point it is unclear whether the narrative occurs in “the real world” or in a surreal dreamscape. Narrated time will begin to move faster, 40 days and 40 nights will pass in a breath, past and present co-mingling into one timeline, miraculous signs will happen at sacred locations, and Elijah ultimately receives a prophetic Word from the Lord. But before that journey, sleeping under the thin tree, an angel comes to wake Elijah. He looks and sees a flask (sappahat) of water and baked bread on coals by his head. “Arise and eat,” says the angel. Elijah does. He goes back to sleep. The angel wakes him up again. “No, you really don’t get it. Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” Elijah eats and drinks again. With strength from the meal, he travels through the desert to Sinai.

From verses 3-17, the text of 1 Kings 19 enters into so many allusions and echoes of earlier texts that I can only describe it as textual recycling. Think of how Revelation alludes to the Old Testament in every single verse. Ignore the allusions and you end up with a bad Left Behind style interpretation. You miss the point unless you can distinguish what is recycled from what is new, or what is old but used in a new way. Same here.

What few notice in this scene is the textual connection to 1 Samuel 26. There, Saul and his men are put into a deep slumber by God, enabling David to sneak through the camp and steal Saul’s spear. Like before, David is showing off that he could kill Saul, but has decided to obey God instead. We see this connection in three ways.

  • First, the scenes happen in or near the same place: a day’s journey from Beersheeba into the wilderness and the Wilderness of Ziph line up. Because Elijah is from the north, his unfamiliarity with southern place-names makes sense.
  • Second, the word flask (sappahat) is an extremely uncommon word. It occurs in these two passages, and in the Widow of Zarephath, and that is all. Rare words can imply direct borrowing.
  • Third, the placement of the flask. While David sneaks by Saul to get his spear, he grabs Saul’s flask which was “at his head” (m’ra’ashot). Similarly, the sleeping Elijah had a flask “at his head,” (m’ra’ashot) the narrator specifies. At five unique occurrences this phrase is not extremely rare, but infrequent enough to suggest direct borrowing.

The textual connection is clear.

So what? When I encountered this passage in a class last semester, I was unsure where to go. Authors allude to older texts for a reason, not just because. These scenes are completely different. What’s the point of sprinkling details from the 1 Samuel passage into the narrative in 1 Kings? Then I realized that the Elijah story adds a key detail: the bread, baked on coals. Saul has his flask, but Elijah his flask and bread. The author uses textual recycling to frame the story but the key is where the new text breaks from the old one.

Sinai. 40. Wandering. Wilderness. Idolatry of the nation. Righteous prophet who destroys the idolaters. Now, bread. These pieces come together in an even broader textual recycling to evoke Moses’s encounter with God (which Elijah is about to have in verse 10) and the Exodus generation. Together they recall an important lesson from those days: God will provide. God will sustain. God gave the wilderness generation manna in the desert, ‘our daily bread,’ which could not be stored yet would appear fresh every day. God provided exactly what they needed in the barrenness and desolation of those days. Not more or less. Not early or late. God provided Elijah with water and bread, manna, for his journey, and he was nourished. God also provided ‘socially,’ so to speak, by correcting Elijah: he is not alone. There are 6000 in Israel who have not worshiped Ba’al.

Tell me if any of this feels familiar. Elijah felt isolated and lonely. The coming 40 days seemed unbearable. Death threatens the near future. Everything that his country should be was falling apart before his eyes. He resented the inept leadership running his people into the ground. He felt not just physical need but also social need. The parallels to today are clear.

The extreme circumstances that drove Elijah into solitude in the desert caused him to feel these things. But behind those circumstances remained the challenge to trust God. Elijah failed this challenge, calling out “better to die than to live. O Lord, take away my life.” Trusting God was easy when God destroyed the enemy in an outrageous battle and then Elijah got to slaughter all the enemy priests in triumph. That was an easy time to trust God. When Elijah was exiled from his homeland and running for his life, stumbling through the desert, starving, a day out from seeing another soul? That’s hard. Those are times that try a man’s soul.

If you thought you trusted God when everything went well, but fail to trust him now that things look bad, you may be surprised to realize that you have never trusted God at all. You enjoyed the material and social comfort provided by God, and called that enjoyment “trust.”

The recycling of old texts and themes in 1 Kings 19 has a double effect: it brings the main ideas of those older texts into the mix of ideas in the new text, and more generally it causes the reader to remember. Look what God has done in the past. His faithfulness lasts through all generations. See his provision in yesteryear and know that he will provide again. Deuteronomy 8 makes the point, on which we will close:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Doors and Windows

My true personality will be fulfilled in the Mystical Christ in this one way above all, that through me, Christ and His Spirit will be able to love you and all men of God the Father in a way that would be possible in no one else.

Love comes out of God and gathers us to God in order to pour itself back into God through all of us and bring us all back to Him on the tide of His own infinite mercy.

So we all become doors and windows through which God shines back into His own house.

When the Love of God is in me, God is able to love you through me and you are able to love God through me. If my soul were closed to that love, God’s love for you and your love for God and God’s love for Himself in you and in me, would be denied the particular expression which it finds through me and through no other.

Because God’s love is in me, it can come to you from a different and special direction that would be closed if He did not live in me, and because His love is in you, it can come to me from a quarter which it would not otherwise come. And because it is in both of us, God has greater glory. His love is expressed in two more ways in which it would not otherwise be expressed; that is, in two more joys that could not exist without Him.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 67.

BCP and Columbus Day

This morning I proctored a test for the Intro to Philosophy class that I TA. Before we began, I said welcome to class on Columbus Day, our worst holiday, and that I have a theologically subversive prayer from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Here it is:

O God, who hast made of one blood all the peoples of the
earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to those
who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people
everywhere may seek after thee and find thee; bring the
nations into thy fold; pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh; and
hasten the coming of thy kingdom; through the same thy
Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The reconciling work of the Son who preaches to those near (Jews) and those far (Gentiles) confirms God’s creation of humanity as of one blood. Our reconciliation is no more than, and certainly no less than, a participation in the redemptive reconciliation that God has already begun in the death of Jesus and decisively achieved in his resurrection. I don’t have much power, in the world or over my life or at my university, but I do get to pray before Philosophy tests, and the reconciling power of the Gospel can be proclaimed here as well.

Photo by Paula Vermeulen on Unsplash

Triage on Faith and Homosexuality











Al Mohler wrote this in 2005:

A trip to the local hospital Emergency Room some years ago alerted me to an intellectual tool that is most helpful in fulfilling our theological responsibility. In recent years, emergency medical personnel have practiced a discipline known as triage–a process that allows trained personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency. Given the chaos of an Emergency Room reception area, someone must be armed with the medical expertise to make an immediate determination of medical priority. Which patients should be rushed into surgery? Which patients can wait for a less urgent examination? Medical personnel cannot flinch from asking these questions, and from taking responsibility to give the patients with the most critical needs top priority in terms of treatment.

In the same way, Mohler says, when Christians disagree with one another, we perform a theological triage. We stop, evaluate the significance of each disagreement, and remain in fellowship to different degrees depending on how much each issue matters. Because I was raised in the EFCA, this is my default mindset. We call it the “major on the majors, minor on the minors” approach. Doctrine can be sorted into three orders:

  • First-order issues are most important to the core of Christian faith. Mohler lists “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture” as first-order issues. We cannot accept that someone else is a Christian or that their beliefs are Christian in nature if they deny any of these doctrines. If someone believes that Jesus is not divine, I refuse to acknowledge them as a Christian, plain and simple.
  • Second-order issues are issues “believing Christians may disagree on… though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.” Mohler lists the meaning and age of baptism, and the ordination of women. I would add the historicity of Adam, the penal substitutionary atonement debate, and whether and to what degree we should take the Scriptures literally. Mohler rightly points out that these are the most debated topics in Christianity. Nobody is debating first-order doctrines like the divinity of Christ (at least, nobody who I consider a Christian!), and the third-order issues are less central, so the second-order issues get the most attention. Denominations split over these questions.
  • Third-order issues are issues “over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations,” but they not necessarily trivial. Like my denomination as of this summer, Mohler includes “most of the debates over eschatology” in this category, which do matter. Issues are not third-order because they “do not matter.” Rather, third-order issues do not have many other doctrines depending on them, or are highly speculative or unclear, or they regard categories that did not exist in Biblical times (like “undocumented immigrant”), or in some other way are highly disputable. Mohler does not list more examples, but in this debate he included the age of the Earth as a third-order issue (24 min mark). I would include under this label worship styles, some beliefs about spiritual gifts, beliefs about church and politics, and evangelism method.

None of these are unimportant, because all have eventual downstream effects on Christian living and discipleship which can be more or less helpful to a walk with Jesus by being more or less faithful to the Scriptures. Some beliefs may seem “trivial” but wholly depend on other beliefs which are not trivial, and so they are implicated in non-trivial beliefs. All these beliefs matter, even if some are more foundational.

So. Homosexuality. Where is it? Is homosexuality a first-order, second-order, or third-order issue?

This question cannot be answered as asked. “Homosexuality” is an umbrella term that encompasses three different debates in the church right now: marriage, orientation change, and labels. Depending on your answer to these three questions, you will land on one of four sides: A, B, Y, and X. By the end of this post I hope you will understand all four sides and why some of these questions fall into higher and lower levels of theological triage.

First-order debates on homosexuality. There are no first-order debates on homosexuality. Sometimes people leave Christianity altogether over this topic. But few if any are trying to remain within Christianity and support homosexuality by radically revising Christian theology from the ground up.

Second-order debates on homosexuality. There is one second order debate on homosexuality, which is the debate over affirming same-sex marriages. Churches cannot both affirm and not affirm same-sex marriages. They have to decide. When a church decides to be affirming, they make a major division with non-affirming churches, because the latter consider same-sex marriage to be explicitly unbiblical. Both churches will consider the other to be seriously wrong, but at the same time, both can recognize that they agree on all first-order issues. Because affirming same-sex marriage is not a first-order issue, we can continue to have personal fellowship with those who disagree. But because it is not a third-order issue, we cannot have public-ministry fellowship with someone who is affirming or invite them to teach in our churches on this topic. If someone is affirming of same-sex marriage, they are in Side A for Affirming.

Third-order debates on homosexuality. There is one third-order debate on homosexuality. This is whether sexual orientation can change or whether it is a fixed or mostly fixed aspect of a person. Belief that sexual orientation change efforts can be effective or that God regularly does deliver people from homosexuality (or “heal” them, if that’s your language), is a third-order issue. Christians should be able to respectfully disagree and coexist in the same churches. Do not hear me saying “ex-gay theology doesn’t matter.” It does matter, because your answer to this question will impact how your church does pastoral care for gay/same-sex attracted people, which makes a dramatic difference in their Christian living and discipleship. This means that, while individual Christians can agree to disagree and still remain in fellowship, it is wise for leadership at the same church to be on the same page. Those who believe sexual orientations will or often do change are in Side X for Ex-Gay.

Fourth-order debates on homosexuality. Al Mohler does not have a category for fourth-order, so I am inventing one. Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way. There are two fourth-order debates on homosexuality right now, and they track together. The questions are, Should Christians use sexuality labels like “gay” and “lesbian,” or use phrases like “same-sex attraction”? and, Should Christians participate in the broader LGBT community? If you think Christians should not affiliate with the LGBT community and should not use sexuality labels, you are in Side Y for “Why Identify as Gay?” Nobody uses that phrase. I just made it up. But the agreed upon letter is Y. Conversely, if you say yes, non-affirming Christians can use sexuality labels and can consider themselves to have affinity with the LGBT community, then you are in Side B, for in-Between the other positions.

Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way.

To be clear, this triage is contested. Some say that you are not saved if you marry the same sex, so, a first-order issue. Others think ex-gay theology is so harmful that Christians ought not associate with it, and they accordingly place it at second-order. Rosaria Butterfield recently commented that those in the Side B camp are “another religion,” then compared them to Muslims and Jews, and then called for their excommunication as heretics — whereas I put that debate at fourth-order, a squabble, not a significant debate. By contrast, this interview at TGC, while loaded with other problems, at least managed to make its anti-labels point without denouncing those who use labels as non-Christians.

If I were to play which one of these things is not like the other with Sides A, B, Y, and X, the first one to go is none of them. That is to say, before we play that game, we should recognize the common theological core that all Christians share which is not changed by beliefs about homosexuality. Then, playing that game, Side A goes first. Affirming same-sex marriage places churches out of fellowship with one another for the purpose of ministry because it regards as acceptable what the other side considers explicitly unbiblical. Denominations need to have a stand on this question. Then, playing which one of these things is not like the other again, the next to go is Side X, because ex-gay theology changes pastoral care practices within each church. Pastoral teams need to have a stand together on this question, though the congregation does not need to uniformly agree. Then Sides Y and B remain. These are similar enough that many have questioned whether there even is a Side Y, or if everyone who is non-affirming and non-ex-gay is just, by definition, in Between those two and therefore under the umbrella of Side B. (Others contest this.) Regardless, I believe the positions are trivially different.

There are more nuances to the state-of-the-debate, but that should capture the big picture. “Homosexuality in general” cannot be ranked on the theological triage scale because it is not one question but three. Nothing necessitates first-order disagreement. Affirming same-sex marriage (Side A) leads to second-order disagreement. Promoting ex-gay theology (Side X) is a third-order disagreement, one with important practical consequences. The debate over labels and the degree to which it is wise to affiliate with the LGBT community or in what ways to do so (Sides Y and B), is particular enough that all Christians should grant one another glad freedom and warm hospitality to decide where they stand.

Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

Notes on “How Should Christians Have Sex?”

Katelyn Beaty wrote this opinion piece in the New York Times last month. Read it before continuing here.

A majority of adults who came of age in evangelical churches in the 1990s and 2000s were exposed to “purity culture,” a term for teachings that stressed sexual abstinence before marriage. We had our own rituals, such as “purity balls,” and our own merchandise, such as “purity rings.” I had a “Wait for Me Journal” that I kept as a college freshman; created by a prominent Christian pop singer, the journal was designed to hold letters to my future husband. It held out the promise that if I remained pure, then God would reward good behavior with a husband — surely before I turned 30 so that we could have lots of children.

Somehow God and I got our wires crossed, because the husband hasn’t arrived. Twenty years later, I no longer subscribe to purity culture, largely because it never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23. Yet lately, I also find myself mourning the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer. Is consent culture the best that we have in its place?

Since this topic will be my Senior Thesis next year (sexuality education and discipleship in the local church) I am very invested in the same questions as Beaty. She wants to navigate between two failed paradigms. On the right, we have the 1990’s Purity Culture with its shame-based, gender-imbalanced, legalistic tendencies. On the left, a teaching “that simply baptizes casual sex in the name of self-expression and divorces sex from covenant faithfulness and self-sacrificial love.” However, there is a massive gulf between these paradigms. Where, exactly, we land between them will depend on the types of constructive theology we use to think about sex.

Beaty gives a few constructive ideas.

  • Spiritual Covenant. The proponents of purity culture “were trying to offer us the gift of sex within marriage. As Christianity teaches that marriage is not simply a legal bind but a spiritual covenant, so married sex is a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.”
  • Sacrament. “[T]he Christian teaching on sacramentality is helpful. All creation, including human bodies, by grace reveals deeper spiritual truth. In other words, matter matters. So when a person engages another person sexually, Christians would say, it’s not “just” bodies enacting natural evolutionary urges but also an encounter with another soul.”
  • More than Consent. “two people can consent to something that’s nonetheless damaging or selfish. Consent crucially protects against sexual assault and other forms of coercion. But it doesn’t necessarily protect against people using one another in quieter ways. I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent — a baseline, but only that — and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.”

I love these ideas. I think they are all good and they belong in every new constructive proposal of Christian sexuality. I also have some notes of my own. Please take these as tentative, debatable, and yet-to-be-systematized, and feel free to reply with your own ideas. This work is done better together.

First, the teaching, “don’t have sex before marriage” has nothing positive to say about singleness. I get what not to do, but what do I do? Does the church have any remaining advice for me as someone intentionally not seeking marriage? Or have I exhausted the church’s teaching on sexuality? Purity Culture implied that singleness does not actually exist on its own, but rather singleness is only the absence of marriage, like cold does not exist but is the absence of heat. This is profoundly mistaken. There really is a positive content to what singleness can be, but by only “enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce,” the Purity Culture church failed to “pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?” The only accepted form of non-marital relationships in our churches are dating relationships which are aimed at eventual marriage. Until we can talk about non-dating (and therefore non-eventually-marrying) relationships in a Christian way, we will not have any real alternatives to the Get Married Quick / Sin Sin Sin dichotomy that surrounds us. If we had any positive vision for what singleness could consist in, we could implicitly — almost accidentally — solve most of these problems.

Second, the proscription against sex before marriage does not help anyone navigate the bounds of sex within marriage. Once you get married, does ‘anything go’? Beaty makes this point by saying that consent does not stop “people using one another in quieter ways.” We need some type of framework for Christian sex within marriage, not just a prohibition on sex outside of marriage. One of my favorite films at the Chicago Critics film festival last month was Pink Wall. The movie follows a couple over six scenes, each in a different year of their six-year relationship. Things are bad, and they only get worse. Interestingly, though there was no sex shown in the film, at the Q&A afterwords director Tom Cullen commented that Pink Wall is about ‘the ways that sex, even consensual sex in a committed relationship, can be used as a weapon against another person.’ I think this is incredibly telling. Can’t the same be said about “don’t have sex before marriage”? Like “don’t rape,” that basic ethic is necessary, but not sufficient. One example in the film (that Paul also comments on) is sexual deprivation. Sexual deprivation is a major topic within the sex life of a married couple, but what guidance does the church have on it? While (1) a spouse is not “owed” sex on any given occasion, and (2) the other spouse certainly does not have a “right” to sex simply because they are married, and (3) yes marital rape does exist and is evil, and (4) this goes both ways, not just deprivation of the man but also of the woman… there still can be ways to weaponize sexual deprivation with the intent to emotionally scar the spouse. This would be wrong and un-loving, and therefore un-Christian, but does Purity Culture have anything to say about it?

Third, Purity Culture placed a major emphasis on virginity. I argue that virginity is not a “grace concept” because it does not have the possibility of forgiveness and it defies restoration. Rather, we should talk about ‘everyday purity,’ or ‘faithful Christian sexuality,’ or some other term that can continue to exist after it has been broken. When the Christian teaching gets over-simplified even further from “don’t have sex until marriage” to “remain a virgin until marriage,” we lose any hope for someone who loses their virginity and therefore is categorically “unclean” for the rest of their singleness. (Not to mention victims of rape). If a Christian loses their virginity before marriage, and their only ethic is “don’t lose your virginity before marriage,” there is a certain “well whatever, might as well keep having sex” attitude that naturally emerges. This licentiousness is the result of our biblically unnecessary emphasis on virginity.

Fourth, the emphasis on virginity has a simple work-around: oral sex, anal sex, mutual or solo masturbation, and use of pornography are all ways to avoid technically losing virginity. Mark Regnerus in his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (2007, pp. 163-182) makes the point, with qualifications. He found that non-vaginal “technical virginity” practices exist. They are more common in Mainline Protestant and Jewish youth than in more conservative groups. But he also found in the same chapter that more conservative youth were highly reluctant to talk about these practices, often opting to skip the question (especially on pornography use). I suspect, given this silence and the 12 years passed since Regnerus’s study, that this practice is significantly more common now than before, especially among conservative religious youth. I have a shocking story about some comments a few students of mine made in this vein, but that deserves its own entire blog post. My point here is that teaching on virginity and against pregnancy and STD’s as the main issue with pre-marital sex does not cover all or even half the practices condemned in Christian sexual ethics. Instead we need a way to understand these other practices as sex, which I would say is that they are embodied. My friend Matt uses the language of “doing what is fitting” and “fittingness.” There are many other views as well. Much more thinking to do here.

Fifth, one real proposal I have for one piece of a Christian sexual ethic is kenosis. Kenosis is the original word for “emptying yourself,” as Paul writes about Jesus in Philippians 2:7. Christians are called in all aspects of life to imitate Jesus’s humility. He emptied himself in the incarnation and made himself nothing in order to serve others. This is the call to unconditional love, altruism, and self-sacrifice. How often do you think of self-sacrifice when you think of sex? Literally never. The cultural conception of sex we have inherited is defined only by receiving pleasure, never sacrificing it. But Christian sex which imitates the sacrificial attitude of Jesus would never be centered on our own pleasure, only on that of the spouse. I had a professor at Trinity who said (and it was very TMI as a college freshman) that the goal of married Christian sex is to bring the other person to orgasm, not per se yourself. Figure out what they like, and do that, at the expense of your preferences. (This only works if both spouses do so equally). Kenosis in sex is radically different from American hook-up culture, with all its self-gratification, lazy sensuality, and casual disregard for the other person. Again, kenosis would be only one aspect of a broader Christian sexual ethic that needs to be built in the wake of Purity Culture.

Sixth, we cannot have discussions about Christian sexuality as long as the topic remains brutally taboo in Christian spaces. I lament the discipleship that happens in youth ministry because I know it ignores 90% if not 100% of the real struggles going on in students’ lives. As much as we don’t want to overplay sexual ethics to the detriment of our students’ young faith… we do more harm when we leave them without resources to understand the Christian teaching on sexuality and without contexts where they can process these things with other students. I worked with Jr. High students the past two years at church, and both years we talked about sexual purity for 90 minutes each year. God have mercy on us on judgement day when we stand accountable for our failure to shepherd these confused and helpless students. We know — we absolutely KNOW — that parents are not doing this either. But those same parents will claim “parents are the primary disciplers of their children,” which is the almighty trump card in youth ministry in 2019. The students are then left without Christian access to sexual information, and the internet fills the void. What an embarrassment. The problem extends beyond youth ministry, where parents censor the conversations their kids have. In adult-aged ministry, everyone censors their own conversations, because of unhealthy norms around “keeping it rated G” and “having no unwholesome talk.” As a result, sexuality in the church remains one of the only topic/context combinations in America that resembles an honor/shame culture. For the sake of our santification as individuals and corporately, this cannot be so.

Seventh, Beaty is absolutely correct when she writes that “Young women, who were expected to manage men’s lust as well as their own, fared the worst.” The gender imbalance in Purity Culture was no mystery to me as a middle school student. Girls were told not to wear skimpy clothes or they might lead the boys astray. More challenging, but more helpful for my discipleship (I am gay and never cared what the girls wore), would have been the teaching that everyone is responsible for repentance of their own lust. Or consider the words of Jesus, that “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (No, this is not out of context, because in verses 22-23 he includes several sexual sins as well). I cannot imagine the additional weight of constantly self-monitoring to make sure that you don’t trigger others. I have never had to do that, thankfully, and in a new model of Christian sexuality discipleship, girls would not face the total brunt of that weight. Anyways, non-Christians will continue to dress immodestly (by Christian standards), no matter what the Church teaches its people. So it is necessary, inside Christian spaces as well as outside, to begin to condition ourselves to hold ourselves accountable for our sin rather than blaming it on others. Maybe the other person does have some culpability for “causing me to stumble,” but my primary concern should always be to eliminate my own sin, not theirs.

Eighth, any teaching on Christian sexual ethics that functions as Law will be subject to the same critique of the law that Paul gives generally. Paul’s general critique is that the law actually is good, but it produces death in us because we are sinful by nature. Maybe in some hypothetical universe where humans don’t have a sinful nature, the law could have worked out well. But instead, in our fallenness, the “gift” of the law is actually a curse that leaves us worse off than before we received it. Now consider the main purity teaching. Being told, “Don’t have sex before marriage” does not actually help a person to not desire having sex, and in fact tells them exactly what to do in order to break the rule, so you can guess what will happen next. Instead of understanding Christian sexual ethics as regulatory law, we need to reframe the entire discussion in other terms, hopefully terms closer to the NT virtue ethics of life in the Spirit.

Ninth, Christian sex should be totally decentered from the meaning of the marriage relationship and the meaning of any person’s life. I’m afraid that Purity Culture was so emphasized in my church upbringing (while simultaneously not being talked about, almost ever!) that I began to understand myself, consciously or not, as a “sexual being” whose main goal in Christian sanctification was to avoid sexual sin. But we will have no such focus on sex in the eschatological kingdom, where we will be like the angels, neither married nor given in marriage, Jesus says. Our eschatological sexlessness should be great encouragement to those pursuing celibacy that sex is not essential to a meaningful life anyways. It should remind married people that their sex serves the greater purpose of uniting them in relational intimacy, rather than being an end in itself. It should warn unmarried but sexually active Christians that they are needlessly conditioning their earthly bodies against the reality of their heavenly body. The sexless eschatological state also serves as a powerful rebuke of our cultural moment and its relentlessly sexual outlook. In each of these cases what needs to be eliminated is not sex but the total and final significance we place on sex.

Tenth, (and I’m tempted to just dump the entire transcript of this talk by Matthew Lee Anderson here), we need to understand sexual desire in more particular categories than those delivered to us by Freudian or evolutionary psychology. In his talk Anderson comments at length about non-sexual attraction and argues that we need an “inadvertant, sidways point of view” on what constitutes sexual attraction, a view that is “deflationary.” He has in mind a view that sees “the formation of our aesthetic vision as the presupposition and context of our sexual desire.” He and Nate Collins have made this point, that sexual attraction is primarily about seeing, noticing, and observing things about the other person. This maneuver breaks down “sexual attraction” into two parts, a non-sexual “attraction” to what is true, good, and beautiful in others, and then in a second part, a sexualization of that attraction. Thinking this way has been fruitful in my own life the past year as I have considered my friendships and what draws me towards certain people. It decouples the parts of those relationships that must be mortified (because they are sinful) from those parts that must be sanctified (because they are not sinful). This means that, in my case, I can be friends with other men! And in the case of straight Christians, men and women can be friends, given certain prudent boundaries, without the friendship being morally suspect. I think the tension in male-female friendships prevents so much good that could be done in the Church. Like our sexuality itself, this tension will not be found on the Mountain of God.

THESE have been my thoughts, with links to other resources that can help continue the conversation. I have very definite opinions about points #1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, but less definite opinions about #4, 5, 8, 9, and 10. In other words, some of my arguments above are loose, speculative, and in need of further reflection. (If you point out flaws in them, I will back down immediately and disown them). Anyways, I still need to elaborate these points into particular applications, naming exactly what I would change and exactly how. That will be my Senior Thesis.

What do you think? How should the evangelical church continue to think about sex, while avoiding the deficiencies of progressive Christian sexuality and the excesses of Purity Culture?

Photo by Mohan Murugesan on Unsplash

Central Carolina report ignores Non-sexual Attraction

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It is obvious that our brokenness is often most painfully experienced with respect to our sexuality. My own and my friends’ struggles make it clear how central our sexuality is to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. The desires of our body – to be touched, embraced, and safely held – belong to the deepest longings of the heart and are very concrete signs of our search for oneness. It is precisely around this yearning for communion that we experience so much anguish. Our society is so fragmented, our family lives so sundered by physical and emotional distance, our friendships so sporadic, our intimacies so “in-between” things and soften so utilitarian, that there are few places where we can feel truly safe. I notice in myself how often my body is tense, how I usually keep my guard up and how seldom I have a complete feeling of being at home.

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 73.

Compare this paragraph from Nouwen with these paragraphs from the recent Central Carolina Presbytery Report on Revoice. Just before, the Report has established that the Reformed Tradition disagrees with the distinction between desire for sin and actively doing sin. Quoting Bavinck, Calvin, and the Westminster divines, the report settles that desires for sin are themselves sinful. This is standard within Reformed theology, and I don’t take issue with it. But then, they say this:

At this point, some in the Revoice conversation might argue for a qualitative difference between desire and attraction. Anderson, for example, makes this distinction in his category of “aesthetic vision.” Specifically, he says, “It seems to this observer that one thing which remains after the purification of same-sex sexual desires—besides faith, hope, and charity—is the complex set of noticings and attractions toward members of one’s own sex” (emphasis added). While noticing is not the same as desire, it is hard to imagine how “attraction” does not carry some sense of magnetic pull, arousal, or desire. By a simple dictionary definition, to notice is to observe or perceive, while attraction suggests interest and allurement. A mother may recognize that her teenage son is quite handsome or that her daughter has grown into an objectively beautiful woman. These noticings can take place apart from any sexual longing. But if a mother were to experience any attraction to her son or daughter surely we would describe this kind of noticing as illicit, as a perverse response—however unbidden—that should be mortified at all costs. In short, while we distinguish between noticing and attraction, we do not see how attraction and desire are fundamentally different moral categories.

This does not mean same-sex attracted Christians should be full of morbid self-loathing, any more than Christians who constantly battle unwanted heterosexual desires should be consigned forever to the slough of despond. It does mean, however, that when the heart is drawn after an illegitimate end, we must repent of that sinful desire, longing, or attraction and run to Christ for cleanness of conscience and forgiveness of sin. (pp. 7-8).

While I appreciate the report’s attempt to speak in the voice of “some in the Revoice conversation,” they grossly misrepresent at least Matthew Anderson’s position and, from my reading, the position of everybody else involved with Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. Maybe they would have understood Anderson’s position better if they had imbibed the first two minutes of his talk:

Speaking rightly about the Christian formation of sexual desires requires first speaking about something other than sex. Desires are shaped by our theological and communal practices. To consider sexual desire outside this broader context misconstrues it from the outside. I take this to be the heart of the Augustinian legacy on moral formation. Sexual desires are fundamentally about something deeper and more transcendent sex itself. Because of this, chastity requires the reorientation or transposition of the fires that animate sexual passion, rather than their extinction. Pace C.S. Lewis, it is not that the pornography addict’s desires for sex are too strong, but that his other desires are too weak. The intense longing for an immediate sexual consummation is only the lowest form of what is meant to be a more radiant and flowering enduring love. Chastity in our youth allows us to enjoy the full flowering of fidelity as we age, which often looks like a sexless intimacy founded upon years of life together. This form of love is foreign to many of us younger folks — children as we are of the divorce revolution — but it is a deeper and more powerful love than the intensity of sexual passion that occupies so much of our attention and time while we are young. The appropriate formation of our sexual desires then begins in an explicitly non-sexual key. The emergence of the sexual desire for a particular person is the culmination of a long train of reasoning, the premises of which are mostly invisible to us, and the control over which is largely indirect. The path towards ordering such desires towards God’s love begins, then, with posing the question of whether it is sex and its pleasures that they aim at at all — or whether the sexual desire is an echo or a refection of a deeper, a more profound longing for intimacy and love, that sexual union can only imperfectly anticipate. (Emphasis added).

The report authors give such an unclear “summary” of this talk (p. 2) that I am unsure they grasped any of this opening claim. Certainly from their later remarks, they did not grasp it. Anderson’s point is that sexual desires are not, at base, sexual. When he then goes on to talk about “attractions toward members of one’s own sex” he is not talking about sexual attractions. He is talking about non-sexual attraction. This is the value of his and Nate Collins’s aesthetic argument. We first notice things aesthetically: the person’s truth, beauty and goodness. Then, we are drawn to them by merit of these traits. It is only after observing and being attracted to these transcendent traits, in a sinful reflex of the prideful heart, that we spiral these noticings and attractions into lust.

To counter the report’s own example, Anderson is not arguing that a mother’s “attraction” to her children could be both sexual and sinless. Instead he would argue that a mother notices her child’s truth, beauty, and goodness, and then is drawn to them on those grounds (‘attracted’ to them), and only in a third and sinful step would lust after them. I don’t care that in the words of the report “it is hard to imagine” what Anderson means by this distinction. He explained himself, but the report amounts to an accusation that he endorses sin. Instead, Anderson argues for the existences of “a Christian de-sexulaized eroticism,” meaning the last word in the Greek eros for desire-at-large. How much less sexualized need he be then to use the word “de-sexualized”?

There is another word for this non-sexual desire for what is true, beautiful and good in another: love. But the authors of the Central Carolina Report object to that word, too, because someone else has already used “same-sex love” in an affirming book. Yet when Wesley Hill used the term “same-sex love” in his sermon (42:20 and following), he explicitly distinguishes between what he calls “same-sex love” on the one hand and “sexual sin” to which we say no on the other hand. Does it matter how “how most people understand the phrase”? Anderson himself has dealt with this in a similar context:

For [Al] Mohler, though, this is insufficient: “Same-sex attraction is not limited to sexual attraction,” he writes, “but it strains all credibility to argue that this ‘aesthetic orientation’ can be non-sexual.” Mohler doesn’t supply an argument here so much as simply suggest that it is impossible. But why? It strains all credibility to think that someday we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be like the angels in heaven. What we shall be like in the resurrection is indeed impossible to imagine — and yet, one thing Scripture seems to be relatively explicit about is that the particular complex and cluster of sexual desires that so captivate us now will not then. Mohler knows this — but rather than work out Collins’ position along these lines, and so present it in a fair light, he opts to simply dismiss it as defying imagination.

Christian teaching about the nature of same-sex love would shock listeners who bother to hear longer than the phrase itself.

The report also misrepresents Eve Tushnet’s message and makes the same error as before, summarizing that she believes “homosexual desire, though it should not be fully acted upon, can be embraced, celebrated, and redirected.” But the question is not whether homo-sexual desire can be somewhat, partially, fully, minimally, or maximally good. The question is what level of “desire” we are talking about: sexual, or pre-sexual? Because the authors of the Report have an exclusively sexualized understanding of desire, they cannot see past their own “thoroughgoingly Freudian” (Anderson’s term) presuppositions.

I began this post with the quote from Nouwen because he gives another example of the types of non-sexual longing which (through our “brokenness,” though Nouwen is using that word in a specific way) later can become sinful. Like Anderson, Nouwen points to “the deepest longings of the heart” but in addition to Anderson’s ideas Nouwen characterizes the search for transcendence as a “search for oneness” and a “yearning for communion.” These desires are not uniquely sinful. (They may be sinful in the Total Depravity sense that all desires for good which come from a fallen self are sinful. But they are not desires for sinful ends). Because these are not desires for sin, and it is only from our fallenness that we fulfill them in sinful ways, we should find other ways to fulfill them. This is the heart of the Spiritual Friendship project as I understand it: using friendship to fulfill deeper human desires which, if left unfulfilled, will likely lead to sin.

The Central Carolina report (as opposed to the much more thorough Missouri report) made seemingly no attempt to contact the conference speakers, others of whom they have also misrepresented in weak caricature. When one publishes a critique not just on the authority of their own personal blog, or a conference, or a single church, but the Presbytery itself, the standards are necessarily higher. Unfortunately, this level of engagement fails to be the kind of good faith, valuable pushback that advances the conversation.

 

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Henri Nouwen talks about suffering and joy

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The spiritual life radically changes everything. Being born and growing up, leaving home and finding a career, being praised and being rejected, walking and resting, praying and playing, becoming ill and being healed — yes, living and dying — they all become expressions of that divine question: “Do you love me?” And at every point of the journey there is the choice to say “Yes” and the choice to say “No.”

Once you are able to catch a glimpse of that spiritual vision, you can see how the many distinctions that are so central in our daily living lose their meaning. When joy and pain are both opportunities to say “Yes” to our divine childhood, then they are more alike than they are different. When the experience of being awarded a prize and the experience of being found lacking in excellence both offer us a chance to claim our true identity as the “Beloved” of God, these experiences are more similar than they are different. When feeling lonely and feeling at home both hold a call to discover more fully who the God is whose children we are, these feelings are more united than they are distinct. When, finally, both living and dying bring us closer to the full realization of our spiritual selfhood, they are not the great opposites the world would have us believe; they are, instead, two sides of the same mystery of God’s love. Living the spiritual life means living life as one unified reality…

What I most want to say is that when the totality of our daily lives is lived “from above,” that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death. Thus, both joy and suffering become part of the way to our spiritual fulfillment. I found this vision movingly expressed by the novelist Julien Green in a letter to his friend, the French Philosopher Jacques Maritain. He writes: “…when you think of the mystical experiences of many saints, you may ask yourself whether joy and suffering aren’t aspects of the same phenomenon on a very high level. An analogy, crazy for sure, comes to my mind: extreme cold burns. It seems nearly certain, no, it is certain, that we can only go to God through suffering and that this suffering becomes joy because it finally is the same thing.”

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 106-109.

Photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash

I’m pro-life. “Unplanned” is not worth seeing.

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Put aside production quality failures and Unplanned still does not work. Forget issues with lighting, camera angles, editing, pacing, colorization, any of it. Disregard whatever expectations you have of cinematography — because, let’s be honest, directors Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman of God’s Not Dead I & II fame are not trying to make a beautiful or sophisticated film. Meet Unplanned where it is at, which is not a film but a message-movie. Let’s focus only on the message.

I’m going to be generous here.

The argument against abortion in Unplanned is threefold. First, abortion looks gross. Visually you cannot watch it happen. To watch an abortion is to watch something bloody, gory, something alien to our sanitized suburban lifestyles. When you see an abortion on-screen you go, “Eww, gross.” It evokes a negative mind-body reaction. Second, the administration at Planned Parenthood is bad. Planned Parenthood makes profit-maximizing decisions and does not treat their employees well. They compare fetuses to french fries and soda, they speak in strict subject-predicate syntax and never use the passive voice, and they arbitrarily reprimand their employees (and later SLAPP sue them). Third, some people who stand at the Fence on Saturdays are good people who want to support women and provide them other options than having an abortion. Other people at the Fence are mean, but these certain ones treat women with respect and genuine kindness.

That’s all.

Grossness, Meanness, Kindness. These reasons can motivate any given person to become pro-life. I’m not denying that. And they come from Abby Johnson’s personal memoir. I see no real reason to doubt that these three reasons were significant in her conversion to the pro-life cause. (Though other aspects of the narrative are disputed). But they are unconvincing beyond sheer emotional appeal. Unfortunately that was not the case for the pro-choice arguments. As Abby becomes a Planned Parenthood advocate the audience is treated to many of the arguments that convinced her: (1) Women should have the right to choose, (2) Many women are in vulnerable living situations and can’t justify having a child, (3) Many teenagers are too young to responsibly raise children. These arguments can be easily diffused. Watch this: (1) Yes, but choices must be made in the moral-legislative context of democracy, so ultimately, we all must choose what we want our society to look like, whether pro-choice or pro-life. (2) Yes, which is why adoption matters. (3) Yes, which is why adoption matters.

I understand that the arguments are more complicated than this. But these basic argument-objection conversations were 100% absent from Unplanned. The movie didn’t go over any of them, at all. The only ones it attempted to address were that the fetus is a baby and that abortions are medically unsafe. (Neither of these are communicated fully in language, but they do get visually gruesome scenes). However, both of these objections are incorrect given the movie’s own reasoning. The movie depicts a 13 week fetus struggling against an abortion — this is Abby’s big conversion moment — but according to the oft-cited report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the fetus cannot feel pain until 27 weeks, the third trimester, at which point most States ban abortion. The other point, that abortions are medically unsafe, was depicted with a young woman almost dying from a perforated uterus. However, medical complications from abortion are exceedingly rare. Honestly, let’s admit it, abortion isn’t an unsafe operation (for the woman!). Medical safety isn’t why we should reject it. We should reject abortion on other moral grounds — and anyways, if the whole argument is medical safety, then when medical science advances and abortion becomes less dangerous (for the woman!) than it already is, the argument gets even weaker.

So, Unplanned left me with a powerful emotional journey as Abby converted from the pro-choice to pro-life cause. That is an important testimony and a sign of God’s grace in her life, personally, and the power of God to transform anyone, whatever they are “complicit in,” as the movie interestingly remarks. Not “guilty for,” but “complicit in.” This is good language for discussing sin that we did not ourselves commit

Unfortunately, Unplanned failed to say really anything else meaningful about abortion.

Notice that I have avoided mentioning the technical, formal failures in this movie. There are so many. But in order to not look like a film snob who missed the directors’ point, I’ve withheld my specific critiques. And even now I won’t say them. Just watch the movie yourself, you will immediately, and I mean IMMEDIATELY spot them.

The production failure upset me, though, because abortion is a really serious topic. I believe that abortion is killing and that in the vast majority of cases such killing crosses a moral threshold into murder, so far past that moral threshold that it ought to be outright banned in nearly all contexts. We need a ban for the good of society at large and because abortion will have no place on the Mountain of God. This is eschatology in action, that one day all of humanity “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The scalpels, clamps and suction devices used in abortion will one day find a new use in the New Jerusalem, a use that builds rather than destroys life.

So when this movie does such an awful job, cinematically, it upset me. Poor filmmaking makes a mockery of its subject. The directors of Unplanned should have known better, tried harder, and done more with their (honestly good-sized) budget ($6m). Abortion deserves a serious film.

I left the theater not more passionate about my pro-life convictions, but less.

8 take-aways from #TGC19

Earlier this week my friend Matt and I went to The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in Indianapolis. This was our second trip and we both thought it was a great experience. Here are my reflections on the conference, on TGC, on some of the talks and breakouts and books, and the themes in our conversations that arose from it all.

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What my hair is doing I do not know.

• Three of the sermons are worth watching once TGC posts them online. Ligon Duncan, Trip Lee and David Platt had excellent biblical-theological exposition and preached with intensity from the heart. Avoid the John Piper sermon. The other messages fell somewhere between.

• The Gospel Coalition has shifted its target audience and content over the past 2 years. They focus less on nerdy, technical Bib studies topics and now write about everyday living, missional lifestyle, applied theology, cultural apologetics. This is a good shift! Coincidentally though, I have moved in the opposite direction as I have fallen deeper into the black hole of Christian academia. I have become less applied, more technical, and far more nerdy. (At some point we must have crossed paths. Maybe last Spring?) At the conference Matt and I could feel it. I love this change — now it is easier for me to share the website and conference content with others.

• The conference had a refreshing and normalized diversity. Worship, plenary addresses, announcers, breakout speakers, and the conference attendees themselves represented more backgrounds than the white evangelicalism in which I dwell. And it was so natural. I am very over the train of thought which says “why select for diversity when you could just pick the best people.” We don’t need the absolute best person to give announcements or play piano, and anyways there are tons of qualified people from different race and class backgrounds who can do just as fine a job. (It is weird that I have to talk myself out of implicit white supremacy but this is America). In other words it dawned on me that on-stage diversity should not be a goal but rather is prerequisite to doing ministry in globalized, multi-cultural 2019 America. This should not be controversial but standard.

• Jackie Hill Perry. I went to her presentation which was good. In her talk about sexuality she put a huge emphasis on the identity critique. And I agreed with it! Something that really needs to be clarified is that Revoice, SF, WH, Side B etc. also agree to a large extent with this critique but disagree that LGBTQ+ labels imply identity. I have found myself reflexively disagreeing with the identity critique (because I fall on the other side of the label debate), which is unnecessary of me. The real answer is that Revoice’s language is being misrepresented and that they have much more in common with conservatives than they are being credited for. JHP’s talk also showcased some important points about intersectionality. Many more thoughts here.

• One person I follow on Twitter makes fun of Evangelical Thought Leaders™ for being pretentious brainiacs who care more about getting the messaging right than getting the message right. Yikes, that’s me! And yikes, that was on full display at the conference. Maybe we should dial it down. And something to chew on: maybe this impulse in me stems more from my desire to be famous and publicly-smart than a desire to help people understand God, his word and his world.

• Conversely, at this conference I saw less Evangelical Celebrity Culture going on than usual. Somehow these speakers are humble enough (and not fake humble, “fumble”) to not makes themselves into a huge deal. Matt went to a breakout with Tim Keller and apparently someone asked him a question like, “Since you are such an amazing preacher, and everything about you is incredible, how did you come to be like this?” To which Keller replied “Well I don’t really know how to answer that, or want to. Can we get a question in here about Jonah?” The temptation to idolize these speakers is huge and I was feeling that temptation myself with some of them.

• On Tuesday morning I got coffee with another conference attendee who is same-sex attracted. We had a great conversation about our own stories and some of our thoughts about the current debates. More than anything I was blown away by how different our personalities are. As in, besides being celibate and Christians, we have nothing in common. Maybe this is encouraging because it means that one or both of us doesn’t fit “the stereotype.” He was also encouraging to be around, just himself. I could tell that he prays more than me and that he has more compassion than I do, two traits that are not coincidental.

• I bought eight books.
James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series,
Josh Chatrow’s Apologetics at the Cross,
Hannah Anderson’s All That is Good, and
Elliot Clark’s Evangelism as Exiles.

And then there’s the gay books.
Jackie Hill Perry’s Gay Girl, Good God,
Brad Hambrick’s Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk,
Ed Shaw’s Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, and
Preston Sprinkle’s People to Be Loved.

Honorable Mention (books I almost bought):
Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk,
Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body,
Robert Spaemann, Persons,
Trevin Wax, Eschatological Discipleship, and
Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics.