Twenty-nine year old David Bennett, an Australian living in the UK, has just released his first book, “A War of Loves” (Zondervan, 2018). Bennett self-identifies as a gay celibate Christian.
Bennett states, “Identifying with others in the LGBTQI world can open up doors to engage people who need to hear about Christ.” (p. 215) So, in some conservative environments, for Bennett to own his identity as gay, is a bold move.
Bennett wrote the book “to share how God’s love has impacted my life. Rather than attempt to answer every question about homosexuality, I hope to provide in this book’s page a clear picture of how I was reconciled to God. The gay and Christian communities are often seen as polar opposites: one a progressive, inclusive community, the other a community of oppressive, archaic laws. Having stood on both sides, I know the reality is far more complex.” (p. 17)
Commendably, Bennett adds, “I remember those who have deeply struggled or even committed suicide because they felt unable to reconcile their faith and sexuality. I stand too with my same-sex attracted or gay Christian brothers and sisters who are living faithfully before Christ.” (p. 19) Sadly, many in the Christian community refuse to see the link between theology and destructionion the LGBTQ community, nor will they attest to the presence of committed LGBTQ Christians who are living faithfully before God.
In the first eight chapters, Bennett tells his coming out story at age 14, and conversion to Christianity story at 19. Though the subtitle of the book is: “The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus,” I am not quite sure how much history a person can accrue as a “gay activist” and one who “was heavily involved in the gay rights movement” (p. 214) in one or two short years. Many reviews accentuate the “gay activist to celibate Christian” angle. We Christians love those bad to good stories, even when a bit of exaggeration is imbued.
Understandably, when Bennett becomes a Christian, he begins to look at what the Bible says about homsexuality. He concludes: “Scripture is clear that homosexual acts are sinful. (p. 210) He addresses his theological beliefs in an appendix at the books’ end, asking “So what did I discover the Bible really says about homosexuality?” (p. 239) Referring to Romans 1, Bennett calls it “Paul’s famous text on homosexuality.” (p. 225)
I need to step back here a bit to lay some historical groundwork about when and how the word “homosexual” got into the Bible for the first time, and eventually, in Romans 1.
Christian theology about sexuality in general, and with respect to gay people in particular is quite a new concept. Christians had widely avoided discussing sexuality at all until the 1970s. And there was certainly no theology about homosexuality coming from the conservative church during that time.
Further, did you realize the first usage of the word “homosexual” in the Bible was in the Revised Standard Version in 1946 where it appeared in 1 Cor. 6: 9-10? Before the RSV was published, throughout history that Corinthians text had been interpreted and understood as a situation in which a socially more powerful and/or older man imposed exploitative, abusive penetrative sex on a boy, or on a subservient person.
During the RSV translation process of Corinthians in the 1930s and early 1940s, the team decided to join two Greek words—malakoi and arsenokoitai—into one word “homosexual” for ease in understanding. The team had been tasked to update the language of the popular King James, the ASV, and the ESV to more modern English. For the most part, until then, the two Greek words had been a variation on “effeminate” (one who takes the sexual penetrated role of a woman) and “sodomite” (one who penetrates another person, typically with excessive lust and with no intent to procreate). Even in the 1930s, the word “homosexual” carried a different meaning and implication than it does today. Then, homosexuality was wrongly considered a mental illness; not a moral issue, but a pathological one.
It’s even more obvious that the word homosexual as we understand it today (one who is emotionally, romantically, and sexually attracted to the same sex) is a poor conjoining and translation of two words that throughout history had referred to exploitative sex.
The placement of the word “homosexual” in Corinthians went relatively unnoticed for the next 30 years. Historical denominational journals, pastoral counseling magazines, and Christian books reflect this. There was simply no discussion taking places that connected morality and sin to homosexuality using 1 Corinthians. (This is all part of the historical work I am now doing.)
Then in the 1971 The Living Bible paraphrase, the words “homosexual/homosexuality” were introduced in six more places in the Bible for the first time (Leviticus twice, Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, Romans (inferred) and 1 Timothy). Surprising, isn’t it? Still, there was no theology created around homosexuality. The Christian church was not in the fix-the-gays business. The translation notes on this Bible indicate the translations, just as had happened in the RSV, were cultural decisions, not theological ones.
So, this “famous” passage that Paul wrote on homosexuality, has only been famously about homosexuality since 1971.
Back to Bennett’s theology. “For non-Jews, such as those addressed by Paul, it (same-sex relationships) was an obvious issue since every possible kind of sexual expression was well-known in cities like Corinth and Rome, (there is a popular belief just now that the ancients didn’t know about lifelong same-sex relationships, but this is easily refuted by the evidence both literary and archaeological.)” (p. 243) “While there is a general understanding of homosexual acts in the broader Greco-Roman literature of the time as predominantly virile or explicated expressions of power over another, many counterexamples of loving gay romances and gay love poetry that would echo and resemble a gay marriage also existed, including the Greek traditions of writing on homoerotic love.” (p. 244) No, no, no!
Every example of same-sex sex in ancient cultures and literature had at its center a profound age and/or power differential. Paul was NOT referring to LGBTQ relationships as we know them today. The history of the understanding of the progression of human sexuality when it comes to heterosexuality and homosexuality is a fascinating one, and the story of it only began at the end of the 19th century. What Paul witnessed and wrote about was a combination of abusive, excessive and lustful sex where one male penetrated another male who took the submissive sexual role of a female, or the feminine position.
Why are some people homosexual and others heterosexual? Even medical and psychological experts don’t know why yet, but they do agree that human sexuality exists naturally along a spectrum from heterosexuality to homosexuality. Bennett however goes to the Bible for the explanation, “Same-sex desire, like other desires that find root in The Fall, is part of the reality of the broken creation. Same-sex practice was understood by Paul implicitly as a normal part of fallen humanity. (p. 243) And, “Same-sex erotic desires are part of our fallen humanity. They are similar to broken heterosexual desires in that there and can never be righteously expressed in the covenant of marriage.” (p. 250) “We have all been impacted by the Fall.” (p. 212)
The Fall and Genesis are frequently cited by conservatives as substantiation to maintain strict gender binaries in marriage. These same binaries are often used to stigmatized transgender people. Why are there LGBTQ people?—“because of fallen humanity, and The Fall.”
I object to this non-scientific assumption. First, there is no list of “things” that are a result of The Fall. What we cannot explain with the Bible is “because of The Fall.” I don’t use Genesis or the Bible as a science book, or as a template dictating a limited heteronormative binary of human sexuality, and still, I am a Christian, one who refuses to abuse Scripture and use unsubstantiated interpretations created by others to marginalize groups of people that are not like me.
To be a faithful Jesus-following Christian, it seems, we are forced to choose between two alternatives — either choose faith and literal reading of the Bible in intellectual exile, or be intellectually curious and honest and abandon your faith. I choose the middle ground. Incorporating Scripture and science does not diminish my respect for and submission to God’s authority. I can both value the creation story as a different style and intention in writing than say, the New Testament letters and gospels.
I remain safe from a threatened slippery slope toward unbelief in Jesus while using my intellect alongside the Genesis 1 texts to establish a more realistic yet still God-honoring view of human sexuality that also is reflective of what I witness in the lives of LGBTQ people before me and cognizant of the history of the progression of understanding human sexuality.
After his conversion experience at age 19, Bennett wondered if, as a gay man, same-sex marriage might be available to him in the future and asks, “ Could I live out my Christianity as a partner in a gay, sexually active marriage, or was that in conflict with my newfound faith?” (p. 87) Because I know hundreds of married same-sex Christian couples, I actually screamed out “Yes!” as I was reading the book. But, this is not what the author concludes for himself.
At one point, Bennett discusses the idea that the church has made “marriage a romantic idolatry.” (p. 133) I am seeing this line of thinking pop up more frequently lately in the gay celibate/same-sex attracted celibate niche. By yanking the desire for marriage down just a smidge, the distance between the loneliness of being single and marriage decreases. It is just a pattern I am noticing.
Let’s let the LGBTQ Christian community think marriage is not all that wonderful so they won’t miss it so much. And then, let’s tell them this time of celibacy is their shining moment to use all that spare time to serve God and His people. Do you really imagine this is a Balm of Gilead to lonely, must-be-single-and-celibate LGBTQ Christians each day, night, holiday? Cheer up, “Compared with eternity, homosexuality is a momentary desire. It will soon pass away with God’s new creation in Jesus Christ this goes with all other broken desires.” (p. 229) Yay!
Bennett shares his views on celibacy: “Celibacy is neither an easy gift nor repressive burden. It is an opportunity, not that different from marriage, to trust in God’s capacity to provide for our needs for intimacy, forsaking all others.” (p. 166)
What might an LGBTQ same-sex married couple do if they become Christians and then find themselves living contrary to what many conservative Christians, including Bennett apparently, think God would have them do? Bennett writes, “For those in gay relationships or marriages who bravely repent of sexual sin, the solution is anything but simple. It takes time, and many answers are going to be messy. Gay couples often have children and become a family unit. What is their call? Easy answers break down very quickly without the Spirit’s leading and discernment.” (p. 181) Several years ago, John Piper wrote an article responding the this situation. He wrote that the couple needed to walk slowly through a divorce and create a child sharing arrangement. That Bennett would even dip a tiny toe in those waters is horrifying.
Can you be gay and Christian? Yes, says Bennett. But the line he has drawn for himself and suggests for others is that one cannot be in a romantic/sexual relationship, and certainly not a same-sex marriage. These decisions took him time to resolve: “It took me three years before I was willing to submit to God’s clear teaching in Scripture.” (p. 200) “By definition, this new identity cannot live the old way. We must repent and put away the old identity. In a gay person’s case, the old identity is defined by same-sex desire. While celibacy and identifying as gay are in the some sense compatible, staying in a sexually active relationship cannot be compatible with fully embracing a Christian identity. God’s Word reveals that we are called to die to our sinful nature and to pursue holiness, by the power of the spirit. (p. 181) Then adding a commonly overused used trope, “The opposite homosexuality is not heterosexuality. It is holiness.” (p. 213) I have often wondered what the opposite of heterosexuality is.
Obviously, there are other Christian perspectives which support same-sex marriage. Much has been written about the sacredness and Christian possibility for blessing and conducting same-sex marriages. I’ve written an extensive chapter in my own book. I would also challenge those who do not endorse Christian same-sex marriage to perhaps go to my blog (which I cannot link here) and read a series I wrote linked under “MARRIAGE.” I offer thoughtful and scriptural reasoning supporting same-sex marriage. Churches that do not allow same-sex marriages are missing out on what many of us know to be true. The witness, gifts, and richness that LGBTQ couples and their families bring to community and churches is apparent. You may well be missing out!
Another common recurring theme in gay celibate/same-sex attracted celibate Christian books is a suggestion of how the church is to “comfort” those on whom we/our interpretation of the Bible imposes mandatory celibacy and singleness. Bennett, in keeping with his peers, touches on it as well. Christian families should include the single/celibate people of the church within their own families in order to create a family for them. Bennett suggests the church return to the model depicted in the Book of Acts. (p. 231) “It means we Christians must open up our private lives and welcome others into a kind of spiritual families and intimate communities we see demonstrated in the Book of Acts in the early church.’ (p. 232) This is a quite altruistic view, and where is the biblical model for couples taking in the church celibate? My goodness, many of us struggle to love the stranger and the immigrant well, and that directive is in the Bible.
A few more things about the book that irritated me while reading. Dozens of times, Bennett writes an exact recounting of conversations with God, or the Holy Spirit. It comes off as somewhat manufactured.
Along the same lines, narcissism bugs me. Bennett’s mention of “Oxford” forty-four times in the book was excessive. But again, it does fill our need for the Cinderella stories we so crave—smart gay activist becomes Christian. It is a bit overdone.
I struggled between giving Bennett two or three stars. Compared to many books in this genre, Bennett is far more gracious and inclusive of LGBTQ Christians, than say, Christopher Yuan. I do however give great consideration in reviews as to how this book might be used against people. I wonder, would I want a young LGBTQ Christian who is struggling to figure out where they fit into the intersection of faith with sexual orientation and gender identity to read this book? No, I would not.
I do not think Bennett has done the harder work around the context and history of the same-sex verses in the Bible, even though he did go to Oxford. Unfortunately, I think he’s taken the easy route, which for me as a researcher, I find disappointing that a scholar would not do the work required. It has become very apparent to me, that when people dig in and do the hard work, they typically come out affirming.
Bennett recently mentioned that his book “can’t be weaponised for harm.” (Twitter, 11/22/18) Everyone gets to tell their personal stories and testimonies. However, when flawed theology is used as a “clear” foundation for one’s insights and given advice, the book will not be beneficial to the person that once again I am considering— that young LGBTQ Christian who is struggling to figure out where they fit into the intersection of faith with sexual orientation and gender identity.
Conservative leaders, parents of LGBTQ children, well-meaning friends WILL all “lovingly” hand this book to that same young LGBTQ Christian who is struggling to figure out where they fit into the intersection of faith with sexual orientation and gender identity. Bennett with his life of celibacy will be strongly suggested as the role model. And into a prison that young LGBTQ person will walk.
This book is not just a story. Christopher Yuan’s “Out of a Far Country” and Rosaria Butterfield’s “Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert” are “just” their stories of conversation to Christianity and their “leaving homosexuality” narratives. Have those books been weaponized? Oh my goodness, yes, they have.
If Bennett is really serious about not wanting his book to have damaging effects, he needs to be intensely cautious over the next few years. He will be placed on stages and made to be the poster boy the church so desperately needs to continue its control over LGBTQ Christians. People will get hurt, discouraged, and yes, may even leave the faith because they cannot and do not believe in this version of restrictive, inaccurate theology any longer.
While I was reading this book, I kept thinking of my friend Liam Webb who lives in Newtown, near Sydney,
Australia, where David lived at one time. I’ve walked those Newtown streets with Liam and sat over yummy meals having deeply spiritual conversations. Liam too came from a family with no religious base. But then, God got a hold of him. Liam leads Bible studies, is involved in worship and drama at his church, and knows the intricacies and context of the verses that have been used to enslave LGBTQ Christians. He is also about Bennett’s age, and he is single and celibate. But, he is waiting for the right partner and husband that God will bring him in time.
Liam is the person I would love to put up on stages in front of churches. I trust him. He knows the Bible very well. He is a lovely man. His messages and advice will not harm that young LGBTQ Christian who is struggling to figure out where they fit into the intersection of faith with sexual orientation and gender identity. He would love that person I care so deeply about to the Kingdom, and to freedom.
I wish two and a half stars were an optional rating; I would give it. Read this book if you want to hear Bennett’s story. But don’t read it for reliable theology or life-giving advice. Start with Justin Lee’s book “Torn” instead.