Book Review: A War of Loves

Book Review: A War of Loves December 1, 2018

The cover design for David Bennett’s new book A War of Loves is striking. The reader’s eye is immediately drawn to the rainbow stripes in the background, and in the foreground, a fist closed around a sign bearing the book’s title. A closer look reveals something else: a cross necklace hanging from the bottom of the sign. What does the image mean? You’re not sure, but you’d like to read more. Mission: accomplished.

Bennett’s book is subtitled “The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus,” which signals that this memoir will be a welcome departure from the “My Journey Out of Fundagelicalism” fare that has made shelves groan in recent years. In fact, curiously, Bennett’s journey is nearly the mirror image of these tedious narratives. Bennett grew up in Australia as the child of freethinking agnostic/atheistic parents, who viewed the Christians next door as gullible simpletons. He began openly identifying as gay in high school and became, by his own confession, the worst caricature of an “angry young atheist” you could imagine. Through his college years, angry atheism went hand in hand with hard partying and aggressive LGBT activism. It would be hard to conjure up an unlikelier candidate for a dramatic conversion experience.

However, as Bennett poignantly unfolds, his self-assured, aggressive exterior concealed a deep, unsatisfied heart’s cry for true intimacy. He takes the reader through what feels like at least half a dozen of his youthful trysts with young men who were just as lost and broken as he was. In one striking anecdote, he remembers on a whim writing down the question “What is love?” and passing it around at a party, to see how people would answer it. Nobody really hit the mark. He writes, “In all our films, songs and art, we worshiped love, but no one could define it.”

Yet, while acknowledging the tortured sadness of his younger self, he resolutely refuses to turn away when history shows him as the perpetrator as well as the victim. He was at once the boy losing his virginity to another boy who immediately cast him aside, and the man planning a romantic conquest at every celebration. He was at once the rejected lover and the “other man.” These passages, where Bennett comes face to face with the sinful man he was, are some of the most haunting in the book.

One night, his uncle made a prediction: In three months’ time, David would no longer be an atheist.

Three months to the day later, when a friend prayed over him in a bar, David sensed what he now believes was the voice of Jesus asking him a simple question: “Do you want me?” His very shaky, uncertain answer: “Yes?”

“Shaky” is an apt description for Bennett’s journey in the immediate aftermath of that experience. In the war of loves between Christ and his sexual sin, sexual sin did not go down without a fight. This included a long period where Bennett advocated for the Church to affirm gay unions, believing there was no contradiction with the biblical teaching on sexuality. However, he finally came to reject all same-sex relations as a sinful rebellion against God’s complementary design of man and woman. It is from this clearly non-affirming perspective that he writes today.

Bennett is well-read and well-trained, counting N.T. Wright and Don Carson among his theological influences. He seasons his chapter headings with quotes from the likes of Lewis, Chesterton, and John Stott, as well as some particularly well-placed Scripture. This includes the sober wisdom of Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death,” and a bold application of the serpent’s “Did God really say?” to those who attempt to “baptize” gay unions. He expresses a sincere desire not to “put myself above the text” of Scripture, as well as “deep discouragement” with the growing list of ostensibly “Christian” voices lining up to affirm gay unions. I especially commend this statement: “Simply changing the doctrine of the church is the most unloving thing that can be done for side B Christians like me. It makes an already tough path even harder.” (“Side B” is in-house shorthand for Christians who still have same-sex desires but believe there is no biblical way to deal with them except celibacy.)

Yet, despite his right understanding of Scripture’s prohibition on same-sex expression, Bennett still calls himself a “gay Christian.” From this vantage point, he still believes he is specially appointed to give the Church a course correction on the biblical view of romance and celibacy writ large. And this, regrettably, is where I begin to have problems with the book Bennett has written.

Bennett argues that Christians who are uncomfortable with the phrase “gay Christian” are conflating sexual orientation, which may not be sinful in and of itself, with the sinful acting out of that orientation. For himself and other Christians, it means simply that his sexual desires still tend towards the masculine versus the feminine. Thus, unlike the phrase “adulterous Christian” or “stealing Christian,” it need not reflect the embrace of ongoing sin.

Like Bennett, I also hold the view that it is not a sin to be tempted, and I believe the mere experience of same-sex attraction does not make a Christian unregenerate. I can even see how one might refer to oneself as “gay” for purposes of convenient shorthand. However, like other self-identified “gay Christians,” Bennett hesitates to say explicitly that same-sex attraction is intrinsically disordered in a way that normal heterosexual attraction (as opposed to, say, pedophilia), is not. It may be incorrect to compare SSA Christians to Christians who are actively sinning, but we can compare them to Christians who are afflicted by a besetting mental aberration or deviant compulsion. While we should walk alongside and encourage Christians for whom this is an ongoing struggle, we shouldn’t pretend their unwanted compulsion is not deviant, any more than we would pretend it was not deviant to crave sand rather than food.

But Bennett slams the door on this view. He insists that he “knew” he was gay from age nine, and that was that. This leads to one of my biggest disappointments with the book, which is that Bennett takes any measured attempt to argue that same-sex attraction is uniquely aberrant or deviant and lumps it in with the most ghoulish attempts at reparative therapy. No conservative Christian believes we should perform lobotomies or electro-shock therapy on gay people. No decent person on the planet that I am aware of still believes we should do these things.

But nobody thinks AA meetings are a crime against humanity. Nobody thinks it’s hateful to hope that an alcoholic will reach a point where he no longer desires alcohol, even as we realistically recognize alcoholism may be a lifelong struggle. So it is with SSA. This isn’t about hyping a miracle cure. It’s about a sober, clear-eyed recognition that a romantic inclination to the opposite sex is a natural good, and romantic inclination to the same sex is a tragic distortion of that natural good. I would encourage Bennett to engage with the work of Robert Gagnon, Michael Brown, or Joseph Sciambra (whose own conversion memoir is much more graphic than Bennett’s but ends with healing and redemption, despite Sciambra’s ongoing struggle with same-sex attraction).

Bennett’s “Side B” perspective is also shared by people like Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship movement. “Side A” is shorthand for the affirmative view proposed by theological revisionists like Justin Lee and Matthew Vines. Frustratingly, people who line up on “Side A” are often referred to as “Christians,” as when Bennett’s Unbelievable debate with Justin Lee was framed by host Justin Brierley as “a dialogue between sincere Christians.” Then again, according to the thesis Bennett outlines in this book, people who affirm same-sex unions are no more heretical than conservative churches who “idolize” marriage and romance. They’re two sides of the same coin. In other words, everyone’s a heretic. But if everyone’s a heretic, no one is.

In the Unbelievable dialogue, Lee consistently placed the abstention from homosexual acts in the same category as circumcision, keeping Sabbath, or keeping kosher: supererogatory sacrifices that may or may not be required. Even though Bennett, to be fair, said several times that same-sex acts were immoral and that believers are still called to a standard, Lee still smoothly insisted that he and Bennett “agree on more than we disagree.” Like David, he says that he too cares about “not watering down truth,” even though they disagree “a bit” on what preaching the truth looks like, and that they “could still have a wonderful conversation as brothers in Christ.”

This leads me to conclude that Justin Lee is either stupid or a sophist. I am fairly confident he is not stupid.

Bennett’s own philosophy of celibacy, to some degree, plays into the hands of people on Side A. When he quotes Matthew Vines saying “Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon someone,” his first response is to agree that “we must be careful not to present celibacy as a moral code.” But this language is confusing, since Bennett does rightly say that for SSA Christians, celibacy is the only moral option. He repeated this confusing language in his debate with Lee, adding “I didn’t become celibate because I’m gay, I became celibate because Jesus is worthy.” Yet there is a perfectly reasonable sense in which one could say David did become celibate because he is gay: His sexual attractions were consistently and exclusively disordered, therefore his only options were to have disordered sex or no sex at all. This, of course, is precisely where “Christians” like Lee and Vines are pressing for a deadly compromise.

In fact, the fundamental asymmetry between rightly ordered and disordered sexual attraction means that in a heterosexual context, a deep desire for marriage is not inherently idolatrous, any more than a deep desire for good food is idolatrous. It is therefore healthy and appropriate to grieve when that deep desire goes decades unsatisfied. And because this grief is grief over the lack of a good thing, it is not analogous to bearing the burden of SSA celibacy. But as long as writers like Bennett continue to put heterosexual and SSA singleness into one box labeled “celibacy,” this vital distinction will be lost, and Lee, Vines et alia will not be rebuked and refuted with the sharpness that is needed.

Part of Bennett’s confusion stems from an insistence on viewing singleness as always a calling and never a privation. But the hard, blunt truth is that the vast majority of single people are not “called” to be single. They have found themselves single and are prayerfully making the best of it. There is a difference between humbly offering privation to God and pretending it is not a privation. Can God make something beautiful out of unwanted singleness? Of course. But we need to allow people the space to lament without implicitly accusing them of idolatry.

Bennett doesn’t seem to recognize this, even as he does try to avoid the glibness of presenting celibacy as an “easy gift.” He still says that he feels “excited” to be celibate and that if we truly recognize what Christ calls us to, even in singleness, we can have “nothing but overflowing joy.” There is indeed a fullness of joy that can come with submission to Christ’s will through privation and suffering. However, Bennett’s theology of both these things is lacking.

While not pushing for full affirmation, the SSA Christians in the Spiritual Friendship movement Bennett cites as an influence still believe same-sex romantic desires can be “elevated” or “channeled” into “covenant friendships” with people of the same sex. Bennett describes one post-conversion friendship with a straight man that became intensely awkward when he realized he had inclinations for the friend that were less than perfectly platonic. However, once he had owned up to this, they still decided to take “vows of friendship” to each other. This is an odd practice even when one of the parties is not gay, and I believe it is downright foolish when both parties are. And when one of them is in a mixed-orientation marriage, as Eve Tushnet envisions when she recommends the practice, I would say it is something more than foolish.

Bennett himself persists in the belief that there were “good aspects” of his early homosexual affairs that could be decoupled from their sexual dysfunction, such as “the bond of friendship” they exemplify. This ignores the fact that men can only enjoy deep, healthy intimacy when this intimacy is not filtered through a romantic lens. This is not to say that an SSA man cannot seek or enjoy chaste friendship with another man, but to view such a friendship as in any way a channel of his erotic desire is badly to misunderstand the true beauty of intimate male-male friendship. Painful as this is to say, when a man has spent his prime years laying down neural pathways of homosexual eroticism, it is doubtful that he will ever have the freedom to enjoy that kind of unfettered, unalloyed intimacy with another man again. And if he does, the road to that place will be long and difficult.

One aspect of Bennett’s Christian faith that I haven’t yet touched on is his intense charismaticism. Bennett claims to have received more visions, communiques from the Spirit, and “words from the Lord” since that first vivid revelatory experience in the bar, including visions of Christ himself. While I am not a pulpit-pounding cessationist, I tend to proceed with extreme caution in these waters, particularly when the alleged “messages” from God are of mixed quality. Suffice it to say that while I don’t question David’s sincerity, I remain skeptical.

David’s charismaticism is also intertwined with his framework for worship. He becomes frustrated when he sees less “enthusiasm” in a worship service than he does in reactions to a wedding announcement. To him, this is yet another indicator of the evangelical idolatry of marriage. But why should the amount of outward enthusiasm expressed in worship be our best metric of its depth or sincerity? I’m hearing the wise voice of Rich Mullins in my head right about now, but instead of quoting him at length here, I’ll simply refer readers to this post.

Returning in closing to the positive, I still found this book to be a moving story of a soul truly captured by Christ, and in certain passages a source of real wisdom. David’s story is not easily dismissed. No gay young person who is as he once was can accuse him of “not really understanding.” He has truly seen it all, and he is here unabashedly to say that Christ is that love which casts out all other false loves. I appreciate his heart to proclaim that truth, a truth that our world surely needs to hear. Unfortunately, I fear his utter confidence that he is being almost prophetically guided by the Spirit will create an obstacle to receiving the important correction his thesis requires. I sincerely hope I am proven wrong.

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