W & W

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 2)

This is the second part of our interview with Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.  (Click here for Part 1).  His book is a theological memoir about his decision as a gay Christian to embrace what is often called “Side B”—the choice of a celibate lifestyle.  Wes just finished his PhD in New Testament Studies at Durham University and will assume a post later this summer at Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican theological seminary in Pittsburgh.

Hopeful Realism: In reading your book, I was rather astonished to find that three of the most helpful factors in your struggle with sexual orientation are three factors often deemed threatening for many other gays—ecclesiology (the church), eschatology (the return of Christ… which includes some form of a final reckoning), and Scripture (with all those harsh statements about homosexual sin).   For many gay Christians, the church has been found inhospitable; and eschatology, with its associations with divine judgment, is used in many circles as a tool for bludgeoning the sexually immoral.  As for Scripture, straight Christians inhabiting the pews of those accepting churches are often well acquainted and all too keen to cite the biblical texts that decry homosexuality as sinful.  Yet for you, the church, the end of this age, and the Bible are emblematic of hope and beauty.  Can you explain this a bit?

Wesley Hill: Although I am well aware of the church’s failures, particularly when it comes to loving gay people, I’m also aware that celibacy is impossible to maintain, at least as the Christian tradition conceives it, without the loving commitment of a community of fellow believers. And that leads me to seek out that kind of community in church, despite the ways the church can wound people like me, often without even realizing they’re doing it (for instance, by gearing all their programming to families with kids). I recognize that if I’m going to be able to love and be loved as a celibate gay Christian, I have to have friends, and God has given the local church as the place to nurture Christian friendship. Yes, it often fails miserably at this task. But I keep going back, expecting to find grace with all my other sinful spiritual siblings, as we together, straight or gay, look to Jesus for the hope we need to keep going. It’s the ideal of what I once heard an Orthodox priest call “parish celibacy.” As for eschatology, trusting in the promise of a new creation and the resurrection of the body is the only way I know to persevere while experiencing the sufferings and difficulties that come with celibacy. When Paul wanted to encourage believers to endure their various trials and weaknesses, he pointed forward to the eternal weight of glory that would make any temporal suffering pale by comparison (see 2 Corinthians 4 and Romans 8). I find that hope in Scripture — that every tear will be wiped away, that “everything sad will come untrue” (Tolkien) — and that is my encouragement as I seek to live a Christian life on a daily basis.

HR: Let’s talk about the church’s public discourse on homosexuality.  The recent vote on Amendment 1 in North Carolina ignited a great deal of controversy among Christians, some of whom passionately and vocally supported the bill with others denouncing it as a faulty means of public engagement.   Should the church fight social issues through government legislation?  Do you have any recommendations for how the church’s public discourse on homosexuality should change?

WH: Although many of us are agreed on the goal – that we ought to continue to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman – I think Christians will legitimately arrive at different conclusions about how best to work towards that outcome as citizens of the U.S. Some of us will seek to argue persuasively against gay marriage in the public square without appealing explicitly to the Bible or Christian tradition. Others of us may conclude that the best way to advocate for traditional marriage is not by throwing all our energy into the legislative arena but rather by, as Paul Griffiths has memorably put it, “burnish[ing] the practice of marriage… until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.” In other words, we may decide a better strategy is embodying “a more excellent way” rather than seeking at all costs to keep gay marriage from being legalized. Certainly, I think, the primary focus of our efforts should be on “preserving traditional marriage” in the church – and repenting for the ways that heterosexual believers have undermined it far more than gay people have. At the very least, I would like to see the church cease to scapegoat gays and lesbians for the breakdown of “the traditional family” and acknowledge its own failures in this regard. As my friend Ron Belgau has put it, “If Christians want to make any serious effort to promote Christian teaching about sexuality in contemporary Western culture, they will need to begin by recognizing that the sexual revolution is not just a problem out there, caused by secularists, hedonists, tax collectors, and sinners. It is caused, at least in part, by us. We have to remove the log from our own eye before we can help others.”

HR: Back to the issue of the Bible and homosexuality.  Many gay Christians are reading the passages on homosexuality differently from you.  When it comes to homosexuality, are the Scripture texts muddled?  Is there hermeneutical space for differing interpretations?

WH: Those of us who maintain the “traditional” viewpoint on this — that the church ought not to bless same-sex marriages — need to help people see that the historic Christian opposition to same-sex sexual partnerships does not simply rest on a few isolated prooftexts, like Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 (as vitally important as those texts are!). It is, rather, part of the larger fabric of Scriptural teaching on marriage, procreation, child-rearing, celibacy, friendship, etc. So Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, and Ephesians 5 are just as crucial, or even more crucial, for forming Christian sexual ethics than Romans 1 is. Chris Roberts, in his excellent book Creation and Covenant, has shown how all the major strands of the Christian tradition have upheld the significance of sexual difference (our creation as male and female) for the moral theology of marriage, and that that has been the basis of their opposition to same-sex partnerships. If we could help people see this more holistic vision, then perhaps the church’s continued opposition to gay marriage wouldn’t seem to rest on such an arbitrary, flimsy basis. It isn’t just about picking and choosing a few random verses and building a sexual ethic out of such fragments. It’s rather about a coherent vision — a kind of seamless garment — of Christian teaching about our creation in God’s image and the vocations that flow from our creation and redemption.

HR: Finally, an eschatological question.  Jesus once told his questioners that in the resurrection of the dead, there will be no marriage.  Why is this, do you think?  And what are the implications here for those who struggle with homosexuality and have embraced celibacy, as well as for those of us, gay or straight, who are married?

WH: I don’t think I have a good answer for why Jesus said this, but I do think one of the outcomes is that it opens up a way to understand celibacy as a symbol of life in the kingdom of God. If there will be no marriage in God’s future, then singleness can serve as a signpost of our present anticipation of that future. Rodney Clapp has written, “The single Christian ultimately must trust in the resurrection. The married, after all, can fall back on the passage of the name to children, and on being remembered by children. But singles mount the high wire of faith without the net of children and their memory. If singles live on, it will be because there is a resurrection. And if they are remembered, they will be remembered by the family called church.” In other words, when Jesus pictured the coming kingdom as a reality without marriage as we know it, he thereby sanctified the vocation of celibacy — and he showed us how to practice it by pointing us to the hope of the resurrection.

 

To keep up with what Wes is reading and thinking, check out his blog, “Writing in the Dust.”  

 

Other posts at Hopeful Realism on Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

Sex in the City on a Hill: The most fundamental means of promoting an alternative sexual ethic is to practice one.  So how are evangelicals doing when it comes to the issues of abstinence, celibacy, and sexual purity?  How are Christians doing with the sacred model of heterosexual marriage?

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 1): the first part of the interview above.

W & W

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 1)

In Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, he calls his activity as an author “heuristic writing.”  That is, he writes to think, to sort, to wrestle… not necessarily to explain tidily or to make authoritarian decrees.  “Heuristic writing” captures well what we are trying to do with this blog.  Our writing is a discipline of straining to understand, a discipline of lunging forward into the fog.  Every now and then, you grab hold of something in the murk that seems quite solid, beautiful and true.

Oftentimes, you have to call out in the fog to others who may be up ahead of you a spell, hoping to pick up some response and sound out a communal path.  To close this series on “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars,” I am letting one of those voices speak, the voice of my friend Wesley Hill.

This series began when I started trying to evaluate the response to a vote against the legal possibility of same-sex marriage in North Carolina, a state in which I lived and ministered for six years.  The previous posts are exercises in slogging through some of the complexities behind the reaction of younger Christians to the church’s public discourse on moral issues (see below for the links).  Wes has just written a theological memoir about his own journey as a gay Christian (Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality).  Whether gay or straight, when it comes to discerning how the church is to engage our culture with a vision for an alternative sexual ethic, there are few voices we should prefer to hear calling back to our own from up ahead in the dark fog than Wesley Hill’s.  Dear readers: share this interview with folks—it is worth many ears….

 

Hopeful Realism: In Washed and Waiting, you recount the difficult stages of gradually confiding your sexual orientation to friends.  Not only did you “come out” as gay before your friends, but you did so in what is often understood as the most inhospitable subculture for gays, that of evangelical Christianity.  And now, you have produced a public account of your struggles in the form of a book!  How difficult has it been to “own” your sexual orientation personally, and then to share it so openly with others?

Wesley Hill: I don’t want to make it sound as though everything has been happily-ever-after since I came out, but I certainly have experienced a measure of rest and relief that comes from being truthful with myself and others. Eve Tushnet, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer, talks about how coming out can be a step towards freer, truer love of others, inasmuch as it lifts the burden of having to hide and the self-protective fear that goes along with hiding. When we’re trying to hide ourselves from others, we’re not able to love them well. In fact, we may be more prone to hurt others in our efforts to try to preserve our hiding place. And so, even as coming out can be a harrowing experience for many people, it can also lead to blessings.

HR: Horror stories circulate about the hostile reaction of Christians to someone struggling with homosexuality who has decided to come out before the church.  In your own experience, how has the church received you in your gradual openness about your own personal struggles as a gay believer?

WH: My experience in this regard has been mostly positive, with only a few exceptions. I’ve been asked to speak and lead discussions in a variety of church settings, and the most frequently asked question I get, probably, is something along the lines of, “How can we do a better job of loving gay people, whether they’re Christian or not?” I take that as a sign that many Christians, by and large, have an instinct for compassion. Having said that, I talk with a lot of gay Christians who have experienced significant rejection, in one form or another, from their churches. One person told me recently that when he came out to his pastor, the pastor’s initial response was, “Don’t tell anyone else in the congregation.” I’m not sure leaders realize how much an exhortation like that can reinforce the sense of shame and guilt that many gay Christians feel simply for experiencing an unchosen same-sex attraction, regardless of what they choose to do with that attraction. Another friend shared with me his experience of being at an informal church event recently — at a mainstream evangelical church — and hearing multiple “gay jokes.” “That showed me that I still can’t come out to my friends,” he said ruefully. And sadly, I’m not sure how uncommon my friend’s experience is in the evangelical church.

HR: Heterosexual Christians are often at a loss to know how to relate to gay brothers and sisters in the faith.  What are the most common myths straight Christians maintain, even if unwittingly, about homosexuality?

WH: I remember giving a talk about loneliness once and a youth minister came up to me afterwards and said, “Can you help me understand the sense of lack that you feel? Why is it that you feel a deficit in your masculinity, and how can we help fill that?” This puzzled me, because I hadn’t said anything in my talk about feeling a lack of male affection. But this pastor had probably heard the common origins story for male homosexuality that describes same-sex attraction as an attempt to “make up for” the distance a boy feels from his father when he’s growing up. Once the boy hits puberty, that hunger for father-intimacy becomes eroticized, and that’s why (many) men are gay (or so the story goes).  My concern here is that we are so quick to impose one narrative that may, indeed, be helpful for some people on others for whom it isn’t helpful. Among other helpful changes we could make, perhaps one of the primary things the church could do is stop pretending as if one of its favorite “origin stories” were true for all gay men, period. That story doesn’t seem to illumine much of my experience, and I’ve heard other gay friends of mine say the same thing. We need to become better listeners and stop assuming that we can know ahead of time what counsel we need to give. We need to be willing to admit that we don’t know why some people are gay, and therefore we don’t know — apart from the hard work of actually cultivating genuine friendship — how we can best support and encourage and love them on their various pathways.

HR: This seems to be the testimony of some gay Christians: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and began practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  You have chosen a different route, operating with an entirely different logic.  It seems to me as though your testimony could be expressed in this way: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and surrendered any hope of practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  Is this an accurate assessment?  How would you account for the disparity in these two testimonies?  Are both equally valid options?

WH: One of the things we have to face up to honestly as Christians is the fact that behaviors and choices that, on a traditional Christian account of things, are “sinful” are also, nonetheless, liberating and peace-giving for some people. Remember Psalm 73: righteousness doesn’t always lead to observable flourishing! Sometimes when we seek to communicate the gospel, we feel that we need to “unmask” the peace and happiness that unbelievers say they experience before we can talk to them about Christ. “Your life is really miserable,” we say, “so you need to come to Jesus.” But is that right? What if the person replies, “But my life isn’t miserable! On the contrary!” I wonder if Bonhoeffer’s reflections on “religious blackmail” could help us here as we ponder how to speak to gay people about the historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics without attacking their own gay partnerships as just obviously “bad” for them. To someone who is in a loving partnership, that attack will either ring hollow or be profoundly hurtful or offensive. I think of a passage from Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology in which he says that we Christians ought to be able to recognize that some people who are rejecting Christian truth often live quite “healthy” lives, when you judge them by the standard of, say, the mental health profession. “Conversions to other religions or yogas or therapies may,” Jenson writes, “in their own ways be describable as ‘forgiveness’ or ‘liberation’ and so on. To such possibilities the gospel’s messengers can only say: ‘We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do for you — which may well be suffering and oppression.” Applying this kind of perspective to homosexuality, I’d like to say that gay partnerships may provide a measure of “liberation” for some and that following the historic Scriptural teaching on either marriage between one man and one woman or celibacy may be quite difficult and not obviously or empirically “good” for us, even though we trust that, in the long run, obeying God does enable true flourishing — and celibacy can indeed be joyful and life-enhancing, even in the meantime.

[to be continued…. Part 2 will be up on Wednesday]

 

Other posts on Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

Sex in the City on a Hill: The most fundamental means of promoting an alternative sexual ethic is to practice one.  So how are evangelicals doing when it comes to the issues of abstinence, celibacy, and sexual purity?  How are Christians doing with the sacred model of heterosexual marriage?

Divine and Mortal Fatherhood: Thinking About my Dad

As usual, I let a holiday slip up on me so quickly that there was no time to get a gift in the mail.  When it comes to Father’s Day, though, getting my Dad a gift is always tricky—he doesn’t seem to ever need or want anything.  Maybe that’s part of being a good Dad.  So in the absence of anything sailing or flying some intercontinental postal route, I’m writing this post as a bit of a tribute.

When I think about my Dad now, it is not from the perspective of a son, but from the perspective of another Dad.  I’ve four of my own.  Once a man sires children, he can’t think of fatherhood solely in terms of his childhood.

A Dad has no idea what images will remain stuck in his kids’ minds.  It’s a frightful thought, actually—I am hoping mine will have a selective memory.  But here are some of the impressions left in my mind from life as a kid with Dad….

 

My small cowboy boot fitting within the capacious imprint of his own boot in the dirt.  We had gardens on our farm.  I was following Dad behind the gas-powered tiller.  As the clanking machine tore through the hard soil, he pointed the toes of his boots outward.  He was restraining the tiller’s forward torque, but I thought that was how a man was supposed to walk.  I think I had a splayfooted gait for a few years.  The important point is that I liked being in the dirt with my Dad.  You know that scene in Gone With the Wind, when Scarlett cups Georgia dirt in her hand and feels wistfully identity-bound to Tara?  I knew what she felt like.  My Dad reared me in a lot of dirt.  And I love that.  Splayfooted or not.

The smell of cut wood.  Every Autumn we cut trees for firewood.  With my grandfather, we roared in the tractor through the pasture, eventually disappearing from the sight of the house under a canopy of hardwoods.  Dad or Grandaddy would wield the chainsaw.  But I… well, I got the “go-devil.”  That’s the vernacular name of a maul axe, one side blade, the other side sledge hammer, as dangerously blunt as dangerously sharp, honed by the electric whetstone in my grandad’s tool shed.  A heavy implement bearing the name “maul” or “devil” in the hands of an adolescent male risks awakening an ancient warrior spirit.  They let my scrawny arms swing and swing on those blocks of oak and hickory.  Amidst sawdust spraying and the chainsaw buzzing, eventually there would come that internal “POP” after multiple axe swings, the sound of a log’s inevitable demise.  I miss those Saturdays in the woods.  Three generations of men, working hard to stay warm in the winter.

The quiet search for a newborn calf.  Dirt, woods… and fields.  These were the settings of much of my childhood.  And one of the most exciting adventures involved traversing all three in stealth mode.  Somehow, my Dad knew when a cow was about to give birth.  I guess he noticed she was missing from the herd.  He wanted to make sure that momma and calf made it safely through that natural mystery together.  He would let me tag along for the hunt.  I was clueless, of course.  And I think I made a lot of racket with all the evil banditry (er, briars and grapevines) that suffered the fate of my double-edged sword (er, stick).  I remember slipping on a fallen old tree that he had just carefully stepped over.  “Whenever you see wood laying like this out here, it’s probably going to be slick, so always step over it.”

(I passed the same wisdom on to my daughter last evening while we were outside.)

As for the cow and calf, I never remember seeing either of them.  Dad was probably keeping me at a safe distance, knowing a protective bovine was near at hand.  I do remember that we would make the journey home after my Dad would sneak off a ways and peek over brush or around a tree and return with a sense of satisfaction.  I was just glad to be with him in the woods, in the fields, in the dirt.

“Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.'”  All this talk about woods, fields and dirt—all these references to axe-swinging, stick-wielding, and ground-tilling—might give the impression from all this that we were a family locked within some benighted agrarian realm.  But I was reared amidst not only dirt clods and cut logs, but amidst deep logoi… that is, words.  My kids get a lot of Dreamworks and Pixar these days, but I used to get a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Vachel Lindsay.  I can still hear my Dad’s voice reciting in rhythmic fervor words like “tintinnabulation” followed by

…the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

I can hear the beat of dark drums: “boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.”

Now, I was probably too young to process the disambiguation of Richard Cory’s use of a bullet, too young to assess the racial complexities behind “The Congo,” too young to sleep well after hearing of that raven’s tapping and rapping at the door.  But the offer of words that are beyond us can be a powerful gift.  In those poems, my Dad was giving me words that mystified rather than explained.  Explanation can lead to control.  Mystery can lead to wonder.  I fell asleep at night not with visions of green eggs and ham (no offense to Dr. Seuss—his stuff is brilliant and I read him to my kids), but with a disturbing sense that my world of wood and field was somehow mauled and bedeviled and in need of hands larger than my own… and larger than my Dad’s.

 

And I suppose most of us when we become Dads realize that we’ve entered a realm requiring hands larger than our own.  Fatherhood is beyond us fathers.  The formation of tiny humans entrusted to mortal men…?  Now that is an overwhelming mystery.  I am thankful for a great Dad.  And my kids tend to think that I am pretty good at it as well (okay, it depends on when you ask them).  What I am realizing, though—by necessity, almost—is that one of the noblest acts of fatherhood is pointing to a better Father.  When my parents placed me in those pews beneath a white steeple, whether they realized it or not, they were placing me in the presence of Someone perfectly adequate for the mystery of forming a tiny human (or any human).  Our greatest act of fathering is pointing to a better Father.  Paternal mistakes and mishaps can therefore become the occasion for a type of worship.  Our failures can become signposts directing their attention to the One who made them along with the woods, the fields, and the dirt stuck between their toes.

 

Happy Father’s Day, Dad… here’s to being in the dirt together again soon.

 

Sex in the City on the Hill (Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars… cont’d)

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Previous Posts in the series “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars”:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

 

Finding An Alternative to Partisan Politics…

If the politicizing of family values is no longer an option, if legislative battles for moral issues is deemed outdated and offensive, if the church should silence its public outcries that reinforce the stereotype of bigotry, then how should we promote an alternative ethical vision in society?

For the most part, I agree with the outcry within the church against the church’s public outcries.  That is, I agree that the church must rethink its public discourse when it comes to sticky social issues (homosexuality, abortion, immigration rights, et. al.).  Jonathan Merritt has written at The Atlantic that the decline of Christianity in America is to be attributed to the church’s past few decades of partisan politics.  The factors are probably a bit more complicated, but that Christians should find other means of relating to the public square strikes me as absolutely true.

But how?  Those of us disappointed with the way Christians have conducted public discourse on cultural controversies should make some constructive effort toward alternative approaches, right?

Jesus charged his community of followers to exist as the “light of the world,” like a “city on a hill” (Mt 5:14).  The church is called to public visibility.  Jesus’ interpretation of his own charge is this: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

The best way to offer an alternative moral vision in the public square is to live it out.  Demonstration by practice is the most fundamental means of conveying our values.  This approach is less vocal… but not necessarily quieter.  In terms of communicative effectiveness, embodying our values in our daily practices can be quiet loud.

This is not to say that the church must refrain from verbally articulating its moral vision.  But the most basic means at our disposal for publicizing an alternative ethic is to live it out with quiet consistency.  Shouldn’t this be where we start?

So when it comes to issues related to sexuality, celibacy and marriage, is the church a gleaming city on the hill broadcasting a compelling vision of purity and beauty?

Marriage

If we claim that marriage is between a man and a woman, then how well are we displaying a tender concern for the lofty holiness of heterosexual union?

The Barna Group offers evidence that the Christian divorce rate is as high as the non-Christian divorce rate in America (roughly 33 % of adults have been divorced).  Their numbers, however, have come under sharp scrutiny—sociologist Bradley Wright argues that there is actually quite a disparity between the divorce rates of committed, regular church attenders (38%) and those non-aligned with a religious entity (%50).  (But let’s not rejoice too heartily—38% is not exactly a triumphant stat).

The divorce rate is not necessarily the best way to gauge the quality of Christian marriages in our society, of course.  Some Christians may stay married not because their marriage is healthy, but because social pressures coerce them to keep quiet, even in dangerous situations.   And conversely some Christians may feel compelled to leave marriages on legitimate moral grounds because of their strong and rightful convictions.

I suppose one key element demonstrating a compelling theological vision of marriage is how hard Christians strive to preserve and strengthen their marital relationships.  This daily striving is not very quantifiable, but the folks next door (and the kids at the dinner table) will likely see and admire it over time.  Fighting hard for marriage as opposed to fighting hard against one’s marital partner, may be less vocal on the street and in the bedroom… but it is the noble sort of fight that may gradually and quietly inspire others in a society in which divorce is so commonplace.

If marriage between a man and a woman is the biblical ideal the church intends to communicate in society, then it is incumbent on us to do marriage well.  Exceptionally well.  And that takes decades of daily, hourly striving in sacrificial (and joyful!) love.  It is much harder than the newly married or the dreamily single would suppose.

Sex and Emerging Adulthood

If younger Christians are eager to adopt demonstration by practice instead of partisan politics as the primary means of publicly conveying an alternative sexual ethic, then how is that project faring?  How do the sexual practices of Christians emerging into adulthood qualify them as refreshing new harbingers of the church’s moral vision?

Not very well, I’m afraid….

Relevant Magazine’s important article “The Secret Sexual Revolution” compiles statistical evidence showing that younger Christians are almost as sexually active as their non-Christian peers.  Among emerging adults 18-29 years of age, 80% of unmarried evangelical Christians have had sex.

There is a lot of sex in this city on a hill.

Again, the data is complex (for more surveys, see Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults).  But if we are going to criticize older generations for ruining the Christian witness by promoting our faith’s alternative sexual sexual ethic through politics, then we should become drastically more serious about our own personal sexual practices.  What we do in private has public import.  It may not seem that way… until CNN opens an article with “True love doesn’t wait after all” based on that survey you filled out between classes one day.

What is at stake in those moments of sexual temptation is more than personal piety or our own personal track record for saying “no.”  What is more urgently at stake is the capacity of the church to publicly declare beautiful vision of sexuality as a shining city on a hill.

Singleness and Celibacy

Adhering to the church’s teaching on homosexuality is to ask our gay brothers and sisters to adopt the sacrificial path of celibacy.  I would agree that this is not a plea that should be made in society through political propaganda.

But if younger evangelicals are not very keen on heterosexual abstinence as the figures above evidence, then how can we ask gays to embrace the celibate, single life?

Furthermore, whereas the Protestant church has promoted the goodness and holiness of heterosexual marriage, it has not done a very good job promoting the validity and holiness of singleness as a way of life.  I used to work as as Singles Pastor, a title that can make many a single cringe (especially when said Singles Pastor is married!).  I know that many heterosexual singles feel somewhat of a “life-stage persecution” within their local churches—it is as if singleness is simply a transitional phase to be briefly endured before true adulthood ensues with the exchange of wedding vows.  This disparaging perspective must be awfully acute for gay believers who feel perpetually consigned to a life-stage deemed only transitional—and therefore inferior—by their faith community.

Richard Hays writes,

Surely it is a matter of some interest for Christian ethics that both Jesus and Paul lived without sexual relationships….  Within the church, we should work diligently to recover the dignity and value of the single life. [1]

In Sum…

The church is called to serve as a city on a hill, brightly broadcasting a compelling ethical vision grounded in the Gospel and in the identity of our Triune God.  The prominent positioning of this city in Jesus’ metaphor demands public engagement for the church.  Partisan politics may well be a dangerous path, forged perhaps haphazardly enough by our recent forebears that public repentance is required.

But if younger Christians are going to adopt a demonstration by practice approach in offering an alternative understanding of sexuality, marriage and celibacy in the public square, then we have some serious repenting to do ourselves….

 

[1] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 401.

welcome-wagon-precious-remedies

An Interview with Vito Aiuto of the Welcome Wagon

[A new dimension for HR’s new site is a focus on Art, Theology and Culture.  Chris Breslin will be leading our forays into the world of music searching for lyrics and tunes that wrestle with the raw realities of life and faith, and sitting down with artists and practitioners who are doing some of the wrestling…]

Vito Aiuto is one half (along with his wife Monique) of the band The Welcome Wagon, and also the pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY.  The Welcome Wagon releases their sophomore LP, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, today via Asthmatic Kitty Records.

Hopeful Realism: In terms of being a recording artist and a pastor, what amount of attention are you able to give to your music?

Vito Aiuto: That’s been changing over the years. The first record that we did was completely apart from my job. I would take vacation or I would do it in my own time. So at that point in time we didn’t ever really think of it as anything that we would give a lot of energy to, besides just enjoying it ourselves. The more that we did it and then when we put the record out and it was received pretty well, we just fell in love with playing together and playing with other people. Now the elders of the church and our leadership have decided to have me set aside a little time each year to pursue stuff with music. A couple weeks out of the year, I’ll spend recording or writing or putting on a concert, and we’ll probably tour a little bit if we can find a time. But we’re still figuring out what role it plays in my life and the life of my church, and I want to try to have that balance as well as I can.

HR: It seems like your church is really receptive and discerning on this part of your ministry. I think I read on one of your bios that you’ve said the new record has kind of a liturgical structure to it. And I know that you’ve contributed to some projects like Bifrost Arts’ album and Cardiphonia’s Songs for the Supper project, so how much of your music is or isn’t used in your local church?

VA: Almost none at all. That’s something that may be changing as we continue on. It’s not used at all for a couple of reasons. One is, from the beginning we’ve always had a good music director and we’ve always loved what he’s done. And in an effort not to make it be about us or have a show about us, I’ve wanted to keep a distance. So that’s one reason we haven’t used much of our music. Another is, I think that writing congregational songs is a particular kind of art and I never aspired to it, maybe until recently. It’s not something I ever thought of, like what Bruce Benedict does or what Isaac Wardell does with Bifrost Arts, or what Kevin Twit or Christopher Miner has done with RUF, and there are lots of other people, especially at the beginning. Then I found out that some congregations I knew were starting to sing them.

There are a couple of songs, like the one I wrote that was on one of the Cardiphonia things for the Lord’s Supper, which is called “Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord,” I did try and sort of write that as a congregational song and I know some people have used it. But on the other hand, it’s in two different meters. And I didn’t really mean to do that. I didn’t realize till I heard people sing it. I sing it at home, and Monique and I are used to it, but it sometimes lurches from 5/4 into 6/8 in the middle of every verse. I just kind of idiosyncratically write songs and I think you have to be really mindful of how that’s going to sound and how that’s going to play out.

HR: In terms of the album’s shape or aesthetic, it shares a title with a book written by Thomas Brooks. How much did that play into how you conceived this or was it happy coincidence with the “Remedy” cover track?

VA: It’s not directly related to Thomas Brooks. I like that book and I’ve enjoyed reading it over the years. They don’t bear a direct relationship to each other, but one way they are together is that I liked the idea of “spiritual sickness” and “spiritual medicine.” Trying to be healed by something. And he offers a bunch of remedies in there against Satan’s attacks or against spiritual malady, and so our hope really is that our music will be used by God to heal people and I think it has been used to heal us to a certain extent. This is going to sound crazy, but I didn’t really make the connection with the title of the record to the David Crowder cover until it was already all put together. I know it sounds absurd, but it was totally lost on me.

David Crowder invited us down to Waco to do this worship music conference and he was so gracious. I had a couple really great, long conversations with him on the phone and long emails where we would just discuss music and stuff and I got it in my head that when I went down there I wanted to find one of his songs and kind of do with it what I had done with other songs from Isaac Watts like 200 years ago. So I just went online and looked at a bunch of his lyrics without listening to the music. I think I listened to about half of “Remedy,” once, before I wrote a remake of it. I sort of flipped it right off, because I didn’t want to hear at all what he had done with it. We didn’t get it done in time for the performance in Waco. But I sent him a demo and asked if we could use it and he said, “Yes.” He’s one of the most gracious people that I’ve ever met. He was so gracious to us in a number of ways.

HR: Talk to me a little bit about the nostalgia or irony that shows up in your art. I’m also thinking particularly of the packaging of the debut: incredibly ironic, but somehow endearing, still having a kind of honesty to it. How do you approach that?

Image Credit: Asthmatic Kitty Records.

VA: There’s an essay by David Foster Wallace called Television and U.S. Fiction. It’s about how he thinks that irony is destroying fiction and has almost destroyed art in the West. It’s decimating it and has made a wreckage of our ability to interact with art. And at the end, he basically says, ‘Well, I think the next thing is going to have to be sincerity.’ And he says that it’s basically going to have to be a sincerity that goes through irony. Because you just can’t do sincerity anymore because it’s already kind of been ruined. So you have to pick the flower up off the floor and do something with it even though it’s been stepped on. You can’t find something that hasn’t been sullied by irony.

So it’s not lost on us that the packaging of the first record is kind of kitschy. But at the same time, for the first record, every single last piece of art on that record actually came from Monique’s grandmother’s house. She was raised in that, and everything on the record, we believe. It’s not like there is anything on that record that I would disown, or even the packaging. Some of it is overtly earnest and even kitschy, but I am pretty much ready to stand by that stuff. I think this is true of a lot of people; I’m really tired of irony. I’m tired of sarcasm. I’m tired of interacting with my friends, where we make fun of each other to show each other that we love each other. I’m totally scarred by that. I’m tired of it and I don’t want to do it. I really just want to make music that’s really honest and is almost embarrassingly sincere.

HR: I see a lot of parallels with songwriting and preparing as a preacher. In some way you have to crawl inside of the idiom that your congregation will understand and incarnate it in a new way so that that word is effective for them. Have you found that your life as a songwriter and a preacher intersect?

VA: I think I’ve grown as a preacher the more I actually talk to people that I know in my congregation. The more you interact with and talk with and weep with the people in your congregation, the more you’re going to know them and what they need to hear. It takes a long time, because sometimes you know what they need to hear, but you just can’t say it. Or you’re not going to be able to articulate it in a way they can hear it. I think if you ask God, he’ll help you and the longer you’re at it, he just matures you and you can get at it a little bit better.

As a songwriter, it is a little bit different. For me, most of songs I have written have started with music. They all start with chords or a melody line, or it starts to serve something that I’ll just emote or I’ll speak words that don’t mean anything. So I’m kind of starting with more raw feeling than I am with ‘I think my congregation needs to hear this.’ I think there are a lot of parallels there, but I have an easier time talking about it when it comes to preaching because I’ve been doing it longer. Music’s just a little more mysterious. I think preaching is really mysterious too, but there’s something about music that touches people in a way that’s hard to describe. With preaching there’s a heart-to-heart kind of element where you’re just looking people in the eyes and telling them Good News. I want to do that with music, but there’s something mysterious about a pedal steel guitar or one chord sliding into another that says something that’s hard to put a finger on.

HR: Describe some of the relationships you get to grow and experience as a result of your music.

VA: I think one of the things that I’ve fallen in love with in regards to music is that it’s a really communal thing. When you get even two people in a room, let alone, we just played a record release show and there were fourteen people in our band…so everybody has to find there place in that, everyone has to work together, and you’re all gathered around and in this thing. I really love that. It’s a really powerful thing to participate with someone else in.

Getting to do it with Monique is a great blessing. It’s also really hard, because we’re both really pig-headed and prideful, so when we write a song, play or rehearse together it’s an arena in which we’re being tested by the devil and by one another to see, are we going to be generous to each other? Are we going to forgive one another? Are we going to believe all things and hope all things? If she makes a funny face when I present a new song to her or if I snap at her are we going to forgive each other? So music is an arena in which all that happens. For us it’s like a small business and a really awesome hobby and an outworking of our marriage all melded into one. When I was in college I was writing more. I was writing poetry. As a pastor I write a lot; I write sermons. One of the great things about music is that you’re making it with other people and that you have to depend on other people and they have to depend on you. With writing, you can kind of just be an egomaniac; you can just do the whole thing yourself.