I said somewhere in the introduction to my book People to Be Loved that the book represents part of my journey into the LGBTQ conversation. The “journey” language has scared some people. God forbid I might might change my mind on some things I’ve written in my book. But I meant what I said. When I write a book, I don’t intend it to be my last word on the topic, and I never stop thinking about the topics I’m written on just because I turned in a manuscript for publication.
I have, in fact, continued to read and research topics related to sexually and gender, and I continue to befriend LGBTQ people any chance I get. This is why I was thrilled to finally devour Robert Song’s critically acclaimed book, Covenant and Calling: Toward a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships. It’s been hailed as one of the best—and most neglected—theological defenses of same-sex relationships. I was quite skeptical at first. Are there really any new arguments out there? Yes, actually there is. And Song’s argument deserves to be reckoned with.
Robert Song is Professor of Theological Ethics at Durham University (England)—a university that’s been home to some of the best New Testament scholars in the world: C.E.B. Cranfield, James Dunn, John Barclay, Francis Watson, and though N.T. Wright wasn’t formally connected to the university, he served as the bishop of Durham for a number of years. All that to say, you don’t get away with a sloppy thought in Durham. And there are no sloppy thoughts in this book. Well—not too many, anyway.
Song approaches the topic from a rather conservative position, demonstrating a high view of Scripture and a low view of experientially driven, self-focus, Oprah-like arguments for same-sex relations. He begins by saying:
“I do not…argue for a principled methodological privileging of experience over Scripture, tradition or reasons, nor do I interpret reason as a realm of self grounded truth standing autonomously over against Scripture or tradition” (pg. xii).
He goes on to criticize those who assume that we all have rights toward sexual expression:
“Talk of ‘my right to sexual self-expression’ is not likely to be the language of choice for those who have come to know that they have been bought with a price, and that their body is not their own (1 Cor. 6.19-20)” (pg. xiii).
I was honestly shocked at Song’s steady pushed backs against some of the popular affirming narratives I’ve heard over the years. As I was reading, I kept flipping back to the front cover to make sure I was still reading a book that affirms same-sex relationships! Indeed, he does. But here’s the catch: Song does not argue in favor of same-sex marriages. Marriage, Song believes, should always be between a man and a woman, because marriages should be oriented toward procreation. “Sexual differentiation is therefore justified within marriage, but it is only justified because marriage in creation is oriented to procreation” (pg. 48). Put differently, Song argues that “the fundamental division is not between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but between procreative and non-procreative relationships” (pg. xi). Since marriage is—or should be—oriented toward procreation, then marriage necessitates sex difference. And yes, Song does answer all the objections like contraceptives, infertility, sex in old age, etc. (see esp. pp. 54-61).
So how is this an affirming book? Song argues not for affirming same-sex marriages, but for same-sex covenant partnerships (esp. pp. 23-37). Keep in mind, Song is a theologian and not a biblical scholar. The two fields aren’t kept in separate rooms, and there’s plenty of Bible in his book. But Song is more focused on exploring how theological themes in Scripture could open up a so-called “third vocation” alongside marriage and celibacy.
Song argues: even if same-sex relations shouldn’t be called marriages—since marriages are by definition oriented toward procreation—perhaps they could be considered covenant partnerships, which, for what it’s worth, operate much like marriage except for producing biological children. He identifies a trajectory in Scripture that begins by viewing marriage (and therefore procreation) as the goal of human relations, as seen most clearly in the Old Testament. However, the coming of Christ has brought a shift in relations that are less focused on procreation and marriage. “Human flourishing has been given a profound reorientation: full humanity, full participation in the imaging of God, is possible without marriage, without procreation, indeed without being sexually active” (pg. 18). Indeed, in the resurrection there will be no marriage and offspring. Perhaps, then, there is room “in addition to celibacy” for “forms of non-procreative committed relationship that may also function as a kind of eschatological witness” (pg. 28)—a witness to the non-procreative relationships of the resurrection.
Song goes on to explore the possibility of same-sex marriages in chapter 5, but it is just that: an exploration. His main point is not to argue for same-sex marriages, but for same-sex covenant partnerships (that are sexual in nature).
I almost didn’t want to review this book here, since I don’t want you to read this blog in place of the book. There’s no way I can do full justice to Song’s argument. You really must read this book for yourself. It’s pretty short (100 pages) and fairly easy to understand. I mean, it’s not a fluffy Christian Living book. It’s richly theological and must be savored and digested. But it reads more like a theological conversation, not a dissertation.
Despite the many challenging points in the book, I believe Song’s thesis is flawed for several reasons. I’ll explore these in my next blog.