Eve Tushnet has written a response to my new First Things piece on all things “gay Christianity” at her Patheos blog. Is it too corny to say, “Ah, Tushnet, we meet at last”? Anyway, we meet at last. As I’ve said, I actually like Eve’s clarity in this area, which means I don’t have to sift through layers of muddle to get to her point—which, more often than not, I find dangerously false, but at least it’s clearly dangerously false!
I also appreciate that she doesn’t just outright ascribe totally false stuff to me, which I’m afraid has been the name of the game as others have circulated the piece around. That, plus some hilarious guesses about my denominational/theological affiliations. Both “of course, she’s Catholic” and “of course, she’s a Calvinist” made an appearance and gave me a few lulz. Anyway, some things really shouldn’t need to be said, but for whatever it’s worth, to everyone who’s not listening and clearly didn’t actually read the piece, let’s do a little housekeeping and get some Things I Obviously Don’t Think out of the way: I don’t think gay people shouldn’t exist. I don’t think people can’t be gay and Christian if by “gay” we just mean “attracted to the same sex.” Along similar lines, I don’t think gay people should be kept out of the church. (I mean, I don’t think anyone should be “kept out of church” who earnestly comes walking through church doors—or is dragged reluctantly through church doors, maybe—to see what’s up with church. Membership is a different conversation of course, but it’s a conversation pastors and priests have to have with literally every non-member.)
I also, incidentally, don’t think Christians with SSA should shrivel up and die lonely and friendless in the closet, which is a real thing someone really said. (The exact phrasing was, “Bethel and our other critics would ultimately desire we go back to our closets, withering away alone and ashamed.”) In fact, at the specific encouragement of the good editors at FT to end on a note of positivity, I closed by quoting B16’s “Letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” and said in about five different ways that people should “befriend and compassionately encourage” SSA Christians. But because I used the phrase “solitary sorrow” to refer to the experience of SSA (as I’ve understood it through much reading and conversations with the friends I apparently don’t have), that was how Revoice executive director Bekah Mason chose to interpret me. Weirdly, she later pivoted to saying my closing paragraph sounded “eerily Side B.” So, lol, idk. I give up.
I suppose there’s something kind of instructive in Bekah’s strange see-saw though, in that it reveals an underlying false dichotomy: You must either 1) be so unable to handle the idea of SSA that you want it out of sight out of mind, and you will probably never speak to your friends again if they tell you they have it, or if you do the last thing you tell them will be “Just hurry up and marry the right opposite-sex partner,” or 2) be super enthused and supportive of all things Side B/Revoice/Spiritual Friendship.
Friends know I never, ever say this, but in this special case, I would tentatively suggest that there might be a… (wait for it) third way. But let me allow this to emerge as I go through Eve’s response here, which will probably take a couple parts because she says a number of things, and this will in turn give me a chance to say a number of things I might not have said before, or might not have articulated in quite all the same ways.
Taking it from the top, first of all I’m a little irked that she starts by telling people they’ll get a good sense of her thinking if they read her whole posts “rather than just [my quoted] excerpts,” as if I’m contriving to ascribe opinions to her that she doesn’t actually have. I strove within a limited word count to give an accurate gist of her work, and I think I succeeded. I don’t find the misrepresentation game particularly interesting or enlightening, so I don’t make a habit of playing it. The reader can be the judge of how accurate my gist was.
She then goes on:
McGrew criticizes a number of practices by which some “Side B” Christians have sought to show solidarity with gay communities or live out a call to love someone of the same sex. This suspicion is a pretty common reaction, and imho it’s a real barrier preventing same-sex attracted Christians from trusting in God’s love. People, with varying degrees of good intentions!, often act as though our goal is to get away with as much sketchy behavior as possible before somebody notices. Because they identify “being gay” with temptation to sin, they believe that anything we do to grow closer to gay communities, find beauty in gay cultures, or express our longings to love and make a life with someone of the same sex must be indulgence in temptation, or the result of rationalizing our temptations.
It’s true that I take issue with various specific ways of expressing solidarity with the broader LGBT community. For instance, I think language and symbols matter, and when certain language and symbols are consistently co-identified with sin in the culture, Christians shouldn’t adopt them. So, e.g., I don’t think it’s good or wise to wear rainbow flag gear. I don’t think it’s good or wise to wear trans flag gear. It’s especially not good or wise to wear gear that mixes symbols of defiance against God’s created order with Christian phraseology like “imago Dei.” It’s trivially true to say that all men and women are made in the image of God, including men who think they’re women, women who think they’re men, and men and women who insist they are neither. But to superimpose an “imago Dei” over a trans flag, as one T-shirt does, is, as I said in the piece, to make a much murkier statement: “Deny my preferred gender identity, deny my humanity.” Christians should refuse to play that game, every time.
Further, I assume that when Tushnet refers to “longings to love and make a life with someone of the same sex,” she’s referring to longings that have as their focus someone who’s, we’ll say, more than platonically appealing—someone whose beauty awakens a response it wouldn’t otherwise awaken. I assume she’s implying there’s a “dirty-minded” tendency among people to her right to reduce all such things to the desire to copulate, or a “response” located in the genital region. Which, let’s be honest, for men, even good men, is generally not lagging too far behind. But there’s nothing intrinsically sexual in the act of, say, holding hands with someone, or indeed holding someone. The key point is that even these things take on a sexual layer between people who are, well, more than friends. I would say between people in a romantic relationship, though I’m aware that Tushnet dislikes the word “romance” and cognates thereof, because she believes it’s nothing more than a “cultural construct.” She can substitute whatever term she prefers, but I can’t imagine she would argue that what the word “romance” names is “just a cultural construct.” Indeed, I know she shares my hesitation to urge people into “MOMs” (mixed orientation marriages), precisely because she understands the flavor of ingredient that can sadly tend to be missing in such marriages. When they do succeed (and we’ve both known them to), it tends to be because the not-quite-straight partner is bi.
Anyway, the point is that a man and a woman falling in love can do all kinds of things with each other that aren’t sins, and aren’t sex, but are, in some sense, sexual. Once again, “sexual” needn’t equal “dirty.” Something could be simultaneously quite sexual and quite sweet, innocent, even. But there’s a reason why we advise young couples that they should be seriously thinking about whether they want to make a whole life together if they do these sorts of things with any frequency—not that they always listen, but one tries. (I’m a high school teacher, lol.)
And, as Christians, the plain fact is that we have no analogous advice to dispense for two men in love, or two women in love. The only wise advice in such contexts is that two people shouldn’t be “planning a life together” if their attractions aren’t rightly ordered. This is not just about sexual intercourse, which may not even be physically possible, depending. Couples share physical and emotional intimacy in all kinds of other distinctly non-platonic ways, all of which constitute at least sins of the mind for
romantically inclined in-love we all know what I mean gay couples—as, indeed, they would be sinful for a straight couple in a morally illicit relationship. The scenario of an unhappily married man who’s attracted to a woman not his wife is, in fact, precisely analogous to the scenario of an unhappily married man attracted to another man. Tushnet’s idea of making “covenant friendship vows” is just as wildly inadvisable in the latter case as it would be in the former.
Incidentally, when I asked her on Twitter if she would still apply the double standard she’s applied before here (not exactly saying that an *unhappily* married man could safely do a covenant friendship with another attractive man, but leaving the “married SSA man does covenant friendship too” possibility open at any rate where she didn’t think it was open for the married straight man), she said yes, because the Bible portrays opposite-sex and same-sex relationships as different. Well, yeah, no kidding, because all the Bible’s models of “same-sex relationships” are just…friendships. By “just,” I don’t mean to cheapen the bonds of friendship. I’m just saying that unless one is trying to “queer” David + Jonathan or Naomi + Ruth, which I’ll assume Tushnet isn’t, jokes about sending Jonathan to conversion therapy aside, these relationships are of no particular illustrative helpfulness to the SSA Christian who finds himself falling in love with someone of the same sex in more or less the same way straight people fall in love with people of the opposite sex. I know she will strenuously argue the opposite. What can I say? We really, really disagree here.
She’s likely already familiar with the old anonymous book Letters of a Christian Homosexual, which I’ve mentioned a lot already, but I’ll go ahead and again link part the first of my review here and part the second of my review here. Briefly, it’s a faux-epistolary work by an anonymous young Christian man (“Alex”) recreating the process whereby he discovered he was helplessly in love with his best male friend and tried to figure out what to do about that. There are moments where he entertains something that could be read as a faint foreshadowing of what Tushnet and other Side B people do, including a passage on biblical same-sex relationships with which I similarly take issue. Yet his own personal story, and various other conclusions he draws from it, are really not at all consonant with the Side B project. None of his own attempts to re-channel his love for his friend in selfless, noble, asexual ways really quite work out the way he hopes, because at the end of the day he still finds this friend very sexually attractive, and nothing he does can wish this away. Some of what he harshly labels sin here, we might more gently say are just, well, circumstances beyond his control. Either way, he is neither David nor Jonathan. This leaves him in a sad place, though not a place devoid of hope, as I particularly get into in the second half of the review. But I’ll let readers browse that at leisure.
As a postscript to this first part of a response that was supposed to be all one post, but lol that didn’t happen (we’ll see if I can make it in two), some of my more conservative readers might wonder whether I’m just giving up all hope of SSA reduction for people who desire it. The answer is “no,” because sexuality is complicated, and I actually do believe some men and women who’ve reported a shift here are not just psyching themselves out. I do think “reduction” tends to be the keyword more than “removal” though. And I don’t know that I’ve really ever heard of a full 180 switch for men, honestly. Maybe there’s a testimony I’m forgetting. In any case, I don’t mean to sound defeatist on behalf of people who don’t think of their SSA as a “gift” and would like to return to sender. I sympathize with them and encourage them to freely explore whatever options they like to that end, as long as it’s not itself immoral or unfair to some member of the opposite sex. Maybe it’ll help! I’m just very, very cautious about getting false hopes up. That’s all.