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?