Side B Christianity: A Post-Mortem

Side B Christianity: A Post-Mortem March 17, 2023

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At First Things this week, I published what I’d like to think is a fairly significant article, concerning the tangled web known as “Side B Christianity” — which, if you’re reading this at all, you probably don’t need me to gloss for you, but just in case, it names a particular kind of approach to addressing the whole cornucopia of “LGBT issues” in the Church, Protestant and Catholic. The piece is really the culmination of most of a decade’s worth of following this stuff, since even before the first Revoice conference was convened in 2018. I guess there’s a sense in which I take pride in having been right this whole time about where this train was headed, especially as a lot of other earnest conservative-minded people were getting confused. It’s just depressing to be right, sometimes. As I look back at this old blog post I wrote in the wake of Revoice ’18, I’m pretty impressed with just how spot-on I already was, and saddened that I ended on a hopeful note that was never quite realized in the way I’d wished. (More on that later.)

I won’t retread all the history the First Things piece covers. It’s designed to be a self-contained way for people who might have only casually followed the debate to catch up and easily grasp the problems—problems which, I argue, were really in the DNA of the project all along. I’ll often see comments about how things have gone “downhill,” how it “started promising but then…,” etc., and while on some level I understand those comments, I really just don’t think the fatal flaws were invisible in early days, if you really looked carefully. I find the writing of Eve Tushnet especially helpful for purposes of illustration here, because for whatever combination of reasons, Tushnet was always pretty frank about what she actually thought, and what she actually thought was always pretty bad. So when she writes on her Substack about how maybe gender transition surgery could be A-OK with Catholic doctrine, or on her Patheos about now being in “a lesbian couple,” which on one hand omits sexual acts but on the other hand is most definitely treating the lesbian component as a feature rather than a bug, I’m not at all surprised. This is just the 2020s version of stuff she was developing in plain sight right here on Patheos years ago. She’s not the only important figure here, of course, and I name plenty of names with plenty of receipts in the piece. Like I said, I just find her an especially instructive representative.

For this space, I’d like to tease out some threads I didn’t get a chance to develop there, and also have a look at some of the reactions the article has already generated. Let’s just say, from my point of view, the right people are mad about it. In lieu of serious reflection and engagement, there’s been a lot of eye-rolling, mockery, sanctimonious outrage, and in Wesley Hill’s case, Twitter blocking. Now to be perfectly scrupulous here, I hadn’t checked the day before this article went live to see if I was at that time unblocked. Hill doesn’t tweet often, so I don’t really have frequent occasion to check his feed. But I’m reasonably confident I looked at it within the year, maybe even as recently as a month ago. We’ve never had any interactions friendly or unfriendly, and I can think of no particular other reason why he’d want to block me, except as a reaction to this piece. So, with reasonable confidence, I offer that as a datum for whatever it’s worth to people who still think Hill is a Serious Person who needs to be respected and trusted and taken seriously, whatever other leaks they admit might have sprung in the Side B boat.

I also note the fact that Wes “liked” this reaction tweet by younger protege Grant Hartley, who smirked that the demise of Side B had been greatly exaggerated but thanked me for quoting his tweets. (Which I found amusing, since Grant himself had long ago blocked not one but *two* of my Twitter accounts.) I found Grant helpful in much the same I’ve found Eve Tushnet helpful, because he often says the quiet part out loud. I can see why, from his point of view, the Side B project is still alive and well, because from his point of view, the Side B project is essentially Side A lite. So in that sense, sure, I concede his point. Side B is doing a fantastic job being a discount Side A. But the question at hand was not “Does Side B make a good discount Side A?” The question was “Did it ‘fail’ by the standards ostensibly being set by its original third-way marketing schtick, as pitched to guys like D. A. Carson and N. T. Wright?” Obviously, that’s a yes. To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that everyone initially helping to make that marketing pitch was a fraud. I think there were a number of sincere people who sincerely thought that’s what they were selling. But, over time, they came to recognize that they were setting the stage for what one of them would later privately describe to me as “a smoke and mirrors show.” So, one by one, they’ve gotten off the train, and they’ve been replaced. Again, people can make what they will of the fact that Wes Hill continues to preside over all this like a benevolent godfather.

Meanwhile, other accusations from Grant’s replies include: the fact that I didn’t first engage in lengthy private correspondence with people in the Side B camp, in which I made sure to get their approval before saying anything critical about them in public; the fact that I referred to ex-PCA pastor Greg Johnson as “openly gay,” even though he himself has repeatedly said he’s comfortable with the “gay” modifier; and the fact that I “misgendered” a Revoice speaker with preferred pronouns “they/them.” (I don’t have much to say about that last one, as it speaks for itself.) Johnson accused me of intent to mislead my readers about whether he’s sexually active, even though I provide a link to a neutral report on Memorial Presbyterian’s vote to leave the PCA that should clarify the context. Someone else complained that your average independent fundamentalist Baptist pastor would automatically assume that’s what “gay” means, whereupon I informed him that hypothetical IFB Pastor Jim is not likely to be reading the premier Catholic journal of faith and culture. (Nothing against hypothetical IFB Pastor Jim.) Because nothing Johnson says is complete without lots of pietistic talk-talk, he went on with more stuff about how I “had my reward” and I must be thanking God I’m not like those Side B people, which, as I noted, is pretty rich, given that Side B’s entire brand has been built on “Lord we thank thee we’re not like those ex-gays and their parachurch ministries.” He also seemed to be under the misimpression that I hadn’t read his underwhelming book, which in fact I have, multiple times. The only reason I never got around to reviewing it is that I kept getting bored (maybe now’s a good time to re-read it again and get that over with). Incidentally, I’ve read quite a few Side B books, and watched nearly every Revoice conference session since its inception. It’s a strange tic some people seem to have, that when one disagrees with them, it is never enough to simply admit that there is a disagreement. The critic must always be painted as ill-informed or in bad faith. All I can say is, I’m sorry to disappoint.

I’m not the first critic to get this kind of dismissal. But I do think, if I can say so, that I’m among the most effective, for a few reasons. One reason is that I just have a lot of accumulated knowledge here. The fact that my brain functions like a small encyclopedia for stuff I’m interested in is a mixed blessing, but it does have its uses. I think I’ve also developed a skill for taking way more information than people want to read, synthesizing it into a coherent whole, and packaging it up in a way they will want to read. Someone thanked me for summing up this whole mess accessibly for her, because she had only sort of followed it over the years. Someone else told me he’d followed the discourse at one point, but his attention had drifted in the last few years, so this caught him up. I think they speak for lots of sincere conservatives here. This particular discourse is draining and divisive, and people have lives. I just happen to have a life that allows me to spend more time than average on draining and divisive discourses.

So there’s that, but I think I have a more substantive edge as well, which I was already beginning to unpack in that old 2018 blog post. And that’s the fact that unlike some of the most vocal critics who banded together under a Reformed umbrella, I was never constrained by the particularities of Reformed theology. In particular, I was never beholden to a Reformed understanding of sin, temptation, and concupiscence. To be sure, the Reformed critics pointed out plenty of red flags besides the fact that Side B people didn’t all adopt a Reformed understanding of concupiscence, but people like Al Mohler did tend to talk about it as if it were the red flag behind which all the others necessarily followed. He said that “a Catholic understanding” of concupiscence was at the root of all the project’s flaws. This always seemed clearly wrong to me. After all, there were Catholics in the Side B camp who had no great love for the phrase “intrinsically disordered.” An inclination could fall in this category without in and of itself constituting a sin, which I believe requires an act of will. That hardly means it should be normalized, as Side B consistently tried to do with same-sex attraction. All sorts of terrible inclinations can be categorized this way. They should be resisted and rejected as signs of the fall. There was no reason why a good conservative Catholic couldn’t have made that case, making criticisms that had overlap with Mohler and other Protestant critics even if they didn’t overlap on every theological particular. Indeed, the Catholic writer Daniel Mattson did engage critically, making many good points. It’s a great and tragic pity that his own guilty past caught up with him and forced him to exit the public square.

But I admit that besides Mattson and the odd Church Militant firebrand like Austin Ruse, I struggle to think of any other prominent Catholic voices who did in fact fill that critical space. There are doubtless many reasons for this, one being that Side B and Revoice tended to be most vocally spearheaded by Protestants in Protestant spaces, and so they largely inspired Protestant reactions. And in general, there isn’t really a single organized “bloc” of conservative Catholic commentators who can mobilize around these discourses in the way Mohler & Company were able to mobilize. I think the same is true for non-Reformed Protestants. We Arminians don’t really have a “club.” We just sort of hang out, blogging at Patheos, getting called Pelagians even though we’re not really Pelagians. (I’m not! Really!)

Fortunately, I do think we are experiencing something of a conservative Anglican resurgence, including both Americans and Brits. I was joined by several of them, including three priests, on a Stand Firm podcast where I previewed some of the ideas I was developing for my First Things piece. All of them remembered really liking Wesley Hill’s memoir Washed and Waiting when it came out way back in 2010, a book which avoided signaling too obviously that it was a harbinger of unorthodoxy (though you could see signs, even then). At least two of them were ex-Episcopalian, so to them, anyone who wasn’t sprinting through the sanctuary with a rainbow flag came as a relief. “Oh thank goodness, a smart Christian with same-sex attraction who’s not peddling outright revisionist heresy! Yes! Co-sign!” I sympathize with this, but I just note it as part of the explanation for why a comprehensive ecumenical rejection of the project has been such a long time coming. And now, ironically, Wesley Hill has become a priest…in the Episcopal Church. (Granted, his stated intentions are to be a moderating conservative presence. LOL. I’m sorry, I have nothing to add there.)

In conclusion, I’d like to say something about the people whose opinions I actually care about in all this, namely Christians for whom this debate isn’t just academic. I do know some, all men as it happens, which is a sign of I’m not sure what, probably just that my writing tends to attract more men than women. In any case, they represent quite a few people who have to manage this particular cross, don’t have any expectation that it’s going away soon, but also don’t want to buy what Side B is selling. It’s ironic that with all the talk of “serving” people like them, somehow they’re never part of the conversation. Some time ago I did a two-part review of an old book (part one here, part two here), alternately called Letters of a Christian Homosexual and The Returns of Love depending on the edition, which, limited credit where it’s due, I actually discovered thanks to Greg Johnson. Johnson, along with others in the Side B camp, tries to claim that its anonymous author would totally have been a Side B guy had he been around today. Having actually read the book, I can confirm this is a ridiculous misread, even though I didn’t think it was perfect. What the book actually does, quite movingly, is present a tragic vision of same-sex attraction. The author is open to change, would welcome it if it came, but is simply not experiencing it. Given that apparently intractable tragedy, he explores ways to move on as a suffering Christian.

It seems to me that this is where many find themselves today. I’m not here to say there’s a magic bullet for them. Life is tragic, and life is unfair. This is just one of many ways the tragedy of life can manifest itself in our bodies and minds. As I told one young friend, I have nothing to sell him here. In reply, he said there was no need for me to sell him anything. My prayers were enough. Please God, they will continue to be.

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