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Category Archives: Book Reviews, Audio & Video

Marin’s Our Last Option

The new book by Andrew Marin is out. It’s titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility Can Save the Public Square. It is published as an e-book and is a straightforward and accessible read.

imageAs someone who spends a lot of time promoting (and participating in) dialogue among people who view the topics of sexual orientation and identity differently, I found the book extremely interesting. Marin has lived in Boystown (a predominantly gay neighborhood in Chicago) for years and launched The Marin Foundation to promote dialogue between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and the evangelical Christian community. It has been noted that the strengths of Marin’s first book, Love Is An Orientation, were his ideas for how to build interpersonal bridges and enter into more more constructive and meaningful discussions.

So when Marin offers ideas for promoting civic engagement, I think it’s important to read what he has to say. Given the context in which Marin cultivated and practiced his commitment to relationship-building, it comes as no surprise that LGBT issues play a central role in the book. But that topic is illustrative. It would be a mistake to limit the book to that topic. There are many applications and a much larger vision on display throughout.

Marin introduces the reader to his model for civic engagement in a pluralistic culture. He refers to it as the Composite Engagement Model (CEM). It has four principles: 1) A Proper Implementation of Reconciliation; 2) Practice the Countercultural Act of In-Person Interaction; 3) Build Bridges Instead of Armies; and 4) Fidelity Leads to Sustainability.

His opening chapters set the stage. Most of the book is dedicated to unpacking and illustrating each of these principles. The remaining chapters cover models of civic engagement and the application of CEM and religion and CEM and politics.

I hope people will read Marin’s book and consider his thesis, as well as other perspectives that may be a part of moving forward in a diverse and pluralistic culture. After all, many Christians have expressed concern that recent and pending rulings may restrict religious liberties in the U.S. in the years to come. Some conservative religious readers may question if Marin concedes too much in the culture wars. I can hear that concern, but the concern is often expressed by those who believe Christians should oppose each and every instance of divergence (away from a Christian ethic). Marin is at the very least asking Christians to think that through in light of a culture that has changed dramatically.

I believe Christians could benefit from thinking outside the box of the current models of cultural engagement. I was recently listening to Doug Laycock, a respected religious liberty attorney discuss some of the differences in the role of religion and the public perception of religion in the French Revolution and in the U.S. I will not be able to do the argument justice here, but let me say this: In part because religion does not have a positive cultural association in French history (as contrasted with the positive cultural associations in the U.S.), we see a very different contemporary relationship with organized religion in France. If Christians continue to engage in the culture wars as they presently do, will we be at risk of losing positive cultural associations and good will that have long been a part of our history?

If this thesis is right, would Christians benefit from thoughtful reflection on alternative models of engagement? I think it is worth careful analysis, and Marin places a model on the table for our consideration, and it’s one he has tried to live out and apply to a particularly divisive topic.

 

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An Exercise in the Removal of Saccharine

more-reflections-smallI love the exchange between Melinda Selmys and her husband recounted in the opening pages of Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. They are discussing her earlier book, Sexual Authenticity, and he says of it: “It’s shit. It’s fake. It’s saccharine. It’s not honest. It’s not you. Write it again.”

That is part of the backdrop for the book Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections.

Another part of her motivation to offer further reflections was the way in which she and her book had been surreptitiously brought into a larger culture war. Reflecting on one of her first public interviews in which she shared the spotlight with a reparative therapist, she writes, “I felt like a fraud. I’d written a book about how the Culture Wars mentality was wrong, and suddenly I was in the thick of that war, an artillery piece in the battle against the Gay Agenda.”

But Selmys has another personal reaction I have not known:

Moreover, I knew that the politicization of my sexuality was an obstacle to the work that I actually wanted to be doing. I was producing the kind of ex-gay narrative that appeals to good Catholic mothers and father and sisters and brothers who dearly want their loved one’s to be able to achieve a full, vibrant, healthy, happy heterosexuality – the kind of ex-gay narrative that has failed the LGBTQ community so badly because it falls afoul of the real experience of many people with SSA [same-sex attraction]. (p. 37)

selmysI haven’t had this reaction because I do not personally experience my sexuality in this way. As an academic who conducts research on sexual identity, however, I have seen my research used toward political ends in ways that I, too, believe have not been helpful to sexual minorities who are navigating this terrain. I am thinking primarily of the Ex-Gays? study. The reality is that 90% of my research is actually on sexual identity development and the experiences of sexual minorities of faith in Christian colleges and universities, in mixed orientation marriages, and in navigating family relationships. So I appreciated her transparency in sharing this motivation to offer more reflections.

The sections that were particularly compelling to me were her personal accounts of how trying to follow the expectations of others (and their related narratives) did great damage to her and her marriage. It gets into the whole area of what to do with one’s same-sex sexuality. Celebrate it? Keep it at arm’s length? Vilify it? Selmys comes to the conclusion that her same-sex sexuality is not “accidental” to her sense of self or her marriage. That doesn’t mean that her same-sex sexuality is central either. She is committed to naming false dichotomies:

Nor is [my homosexuality] accidental to my marriage. I did a lot of damage, both to my identity and to my relationship with my husband, by trying to conform to some sort of one-size-fits all narrative of sexual complementarity. Because I could not acknowledge the part of me that is “queer” in the early years of our relationship, I withheld that part of me from our marriage and tried to replace it with a simulacrum of “authentic femininity” which was not in any way authentic to me. This was a significant omission in my gift of self. (p. 67)

Readers of her blog will recognize many section of the book. She will offer a post and then reflect on it as she has clearly interacted with readers around significant themes that have shaped her thinking in an area. That may sound like it would be somewhat disjointed, but the book does not read that way at all. It is well-written and flows from reflection to reflection in ways that readers will appreciate. The two things that stand out to me as possibly “difficult” about her book are that (1) Selmys, as a Catholic, engages with Catholic theology and philosophy in ways that may not be as familiar to evangelical Protestants, and (2) she pulls no punches. I found the connections to Catholic theology interesting and helpful. Too often evangelicals limit their connections to what John Piper or Tim Keller have said. It’s not that these pastors and theologians are the concerns–it’s that evangelicals can forget the broader theological landscape that is in front of them.

As for the punches not being pulled, let me offer this as an aside: Melinda helped me with a writing project on gender dysphoria (a workbook soon to be available through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity), and she has no qualms about telling a writer what she thinks about his/her work. Within a matter of weeks, I was fully aware of the sections of my writing that she did not like. It was refreshing and humbling. Well, More Reflections is kind of like that. Her writing is refreshing and honest in ways that are just not that comfortable for the existing narratives for faithful sexual minorities in the church today. Those narratives, of course, are largely “ex-gay”, reflecting a clean transformation into a pure heterosexuality, which has not been her experience (she names and challenges an array of narratives on pp. 56ff). And I don’t think it is most people’s experience, and it is THAT narrative (not any one narrative but dozens and dozens of comparable narratives) that needs to be told for the church to come to a more realistic understanding of what pastoral care to sexual minorities can look like.

When I first started conducting research on sexual identity, I participated in a think tank with many folks on the topic of sexuality and marriage. (Let me say outright that I love think tanks. This one met in Lourdes, France, and…well…we were there to think. Not a bad arrangement in my view.) One of the other participants was the late Fr. John Harvey, the founder of Courage, a ministry to homosexuals in the Catholic Church. I enjoyed Fr. Harvey as a faithful man with a gentle spirit. I would have loved to have had a “beer summit” with he and Melinda to discuss pastoral care to the sexual minority. In fact, these two would not have needed me; I’d be there for the beer. But to have them engage in a thoughtful, honest discussion about the lives of Christian sexual minorities is the kind of exchange that is needed with many Christian leaders to move the church away from the culture wars and toward genuine pastoral care. I did not experience Fr. Harvey as interested in the culture wars, either, but so many Christian leaders today are–and there is an important shift that simply needs to take place.

Pastoral care based on a saccharine-based sexual identity narrative will only offer peace to those of us who do not experience sexual identity conflicts. That’s not pastoral care at all. It’s stress management for the majority while our brothers and sisters suffer in the trenches of a battle they should never have had to face on their own.

I have been encouraged lately by the voices of many Christians who are engaging this topic from the standpoint of their own lived reality. People like Melinda Selmys. People like Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau and Julie Rodgers. Others who write alongside them at Spiritual Friendship. This is a book that will stand alongside others like it and alongside the thoughtful wave of younger, devout Christians who are engaging this topic and the church in a more public and honest way.

 

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Deep Faith

in-search-of-deep-faith_jim-belcherJim Belcher, author of Deep Church, has a new book out titled, In Search of Deep Faith. The book was sent to me from the publisher, InterVarsity Press, as a gesture of goodwill at Christmas. These are always nice gifts, but I tend not to read them. This one caught my eye, however.

I think there are a few reasons why I cracked this book open. The main one was that we were just on sabbatical in Cambridge last year, and the setting for In Search of a Deep Faith has Jim Belcher and his family on sabbatical in Oxford. He had taken his family there for his sabbatical, which is actually a year-long time of rest and spiritual pilgrimage.

The fact that Belcher is there with his family also was a hook. Our children were not exactly keen on Cambridge. They missed their friends, their sports events, their devices… You get where I’m going. Well, Jim faces similar challenges–only for a longer period of time.

Many of Belcher’s  heroes are actually Christians who are heroes to many believers. There is William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, and many more. I had actually read a biography about Wilberforce when I was on sabbatical. I had previously read a bibliography on Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas – and then out book club read it again this year. All that to say: a number of these folks were already on my mind because of the depth of their faith and the life lessons they teach us as Christians.

The reader will find those familiar accounts, but Belcher writes in a way that points out some interesting sights along what may be familiar terrain. I appreciated reading his accounts of Bonhoeffer’s last days and what it means to die well; of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom’s experiences and what it means to find peace in the midst of suffering.

I was encouraged (as a father who is raising three children) to read another father’s account of how these stories serve as life lessons for Christian faithfulness, lessons you want to pass along to your kids. So there is this interesting mix throughout the book of historical accounts, spiritual reflections, and stories of family treks to historic locations and lessons he and his wife wish to teach their children. He summarizes what he hoped the pilgrimage would be for his family and for the reader:

–that the stories and myths and metaphors we were experiencing, the places and people we were encountering, would activate our imaginations and illuminate for us the different realities competing for our affections; that through these stories and encounters we would learn about our roots, understand the journey we are on and recognize the importance of knowing our destination. (pp. 258-259)

Belcher is a good writer. It is an easy book to read, and the whole thesis is one that challenges all of us to live our lives with a greater appreciation for the trajectory we are on, with a greater sense for the end toward which we are all moving.

 

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Liberal Democracy & The Christian Citizen

We are up to Chapter 2 of the book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft by Francis J. Beckwith. I thought I had missed a couple of chapters due to my travel schedule; however, it turns out we did some other readings and held discussions of various presentations in the interim.

politicsChristiansChapter 2 is titled, “Liberal Democracy and the Christian Citizen.” Beckwith wants to answer the opening question: “What does it mean to be a Christian citizen in a liberal democracy in the early twenty-first century?” He begins by explaining a liberal democracy. The liberal aspect is with reference to “the liberties or freedoms” guaranteed by government, including the freedom of speech, assembly, press, religion, and the right to own property (p. 59). The democracy part is about self-governance (representative government) and equality before the law (treating citizens similarly).

Beckwith goes into some background about the importance of a civil society, the U.S. as a constitutional republic, separation of powers, and other way in which liberal democracies can function (as in the case of our friends across the pond).

Now we get to the Christian citizen. Beckwith draws from and discusses principles he sees in Scripture: (1) Caesar’s coin, (2) doing justice, (3) knowing government, and (4) voting for/supporting non-Christian candidates.

The Caesar’s coin part is interesting, as Beckwith observes that most teaching on this is about the different spheres of authority: the church and the government. The church is to be concerned with the things of God, the things God cares about, especially those things (i.e., people) who bear the image of God. The question is not whether we should care for the poor, clothe the naked, etc., but “What is the best way to achieve success in these endeavors?” (p. 64) In his conclusion to this section, he writes: “So Christians in a liberal democracy, because they have the means to effect change, should be concerned about whether the wider culture and/or their government agencies and institutions (such as public schools) are properly shaping, or at least not corrupting, the character of its young people” (p. 67).

In the section on doing justice, Beckwith discusses how liberal democracies afford Christians an opportunity to elect leaders who will do justice on a larger scale–just as we are to do justice as individuals. There is a fascinating discussion over the range of opinions in our society and among Christians in how “doing justice” is applied to debates on gay rights, including how defending one set of rights may foster a kind of hostility toward another group (e.g., members of religious communities whose moral theology may be intruded upon by the state), citing the example of Catholic Charities not offering children for adoption in Massachusetts because they excluded same-sex couples.

The section on knowing your government reflects on the apostle Paul’s use of his own status as a Roman citizen to “ensure that the gospel could be preached freely” (p. 74). It ends with another fascinating discussion–this time of debates about stem-cell research and philosophical anthropology.

The last section has to do with supporting non-Christian candidates. Part of the discussion here is that “non-Christian candidates may have at their disposal theological resources that, although not shared by Chrstians, may help Christians and other non-Christian citizens see that the principles of liberal democracy are integral to the candidate’s worldview and undersatnding of a just society” (p. 86). The other part of the discussion was about whether Christian or non-Christian candidates view their own theology as knowledge (see The Kennedy Mistake on pages 84-86). Is the religion believed and lived by a candidate really to be made private such that worldview considerations shaped by meaningful theological commitments are held at bay? Or do they inform substantive public dialogue and related policies? Great discussion.

We are reading this book to take us outside of our discipline (psychology and counseling) and to look at how integration is done in another discipline (political science). I think Beckwith does a nice job modeling a balanced perspective in his work here. He wants to avoid the two extremes of (1) arguing for and with reference to any one political group (e.g., Republican or Democratic platforms), and (2) arguing for any kind of theocratic state. He is looking for thoughtful, Christian engagement with politics.

In the end, he wants the Christian to think about which policies best support the common good. He draws on biblical principles to facilitate that kind of reflection–considers what it means to love one’s neighbor; to help those who are on the margins; to pursue justice and condemn injustice; and to foster a “rightly-ordered social fabric” (p. 88). He believes both special and general revelation speak to these kinds of concerns–that there is natural reason for caring about these common goods that can be discussed apart from simply citing Scripture.

I don’t have the time to unpack all of the points of discussion and implications, but I will say this: It is interesting to think about current and future debates about religious liberty. There are a number of arguments being made today that threaten or appear to threaten religious liberty. As one person pointed out, it is ironic that some of the very groups behind these arguments owe their movement to the kind of social context that protected the freedom to express dissenting points of view in the first place. Will those groups likewise protect religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the right to hold dissenting views? There is a broader need here that has to do with accommodating freedom of conscience, that recognizes that thoughtful people will disagree on matters of conscience, and that society is better when it recognizes and protects the right to do so.

 

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Book Club: The Devil in the White City

Last night was Book Club. We read and discussed The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. The setting for the book is Chicago in the late 19th c., just at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.

1893fair-29courtIn terms of writing style, it is an interesting juxtaposition of two stories. The first story is the World’s Fair and all of the drama that went into Chicago’s bid for the Fair and the issues the architects and others faced in pulling it off. They had less than two years, I believe, to transform the city, and this was at a time when Chicago was widely known for its slaughterhouses and considered an inadequate venue (contrasted with New York) for something like this. That part of the book alone is fascinating. I was only vaguely familiar with that history, and it was interesting to see the relationships and dynamics that went into that story. Both civic and national pride figured into all of that, particularly as France had hosted the last Fair at which the Eiffel Tower had been introduced on the world’s stage. I added a picture on the right that captures some of what was accomplished in transforming the city of Chicago into the White City (including the use of electric street lights and the use of white stucco on many of the buildings–note the classical architecture). The theme was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. I was reminded of a philosophy of aesthetics course I took from Nicholas Wolterstorff back at Calvin College. We read and discussed city planning and the role of architecture in shaping a person’s experience of the environment/city. Probably what was most interesting to me about this section of the book were just the historical people in town (Mark Twain, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and Disney, just to name a few).

The other events had to do with Herman Webster Mudgett (best known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes)–the nation’s “first serial killer”–and his “Murder Castle,” the building to which he brought/lured his victims. The Murder Castle was elaborate and gruesome (as depicted in the image here), complete with a gas chamber, dissection table, and cremation oven.  murdercastle1, cred 3This story was handled well with few attempts to dramatize any further what was already quite remarkable. The details toward the end of the book were difficult for some of our discussion group. We discussed a Christian view of evil, whether evil is “out there” or within us, the lack of a moral “chip” (Steinbeck) in a sociopath, what it means to not have a moral conscience, as well as what it means to be involved/engaged as Christians. We also discussed whether architecture/buildings are neutral or if they can reflect evil.

Publisher’s Weekly offers the following synopsis:

Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city’s finest moment, the World’s Fair of 1893. Larson’s breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac’s Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes’s relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes’s co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together 0n an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system. This is, in effect, the nonfiction Alienist, or a sort of companion, which might be called Homicide, to Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. However, rather than anomie, Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of “articulated” corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed.

What was most interesting to me, then, was the juxtaposition of human accomplishment at the World’s Fair with the moral depravity of Mudgett’s Murder Castle. I suppose the book could be have been further strengthened by more of a psychological autopsy of Mudgett; I think that could have been worthwhile. But overall it was a thought-provoking book. One of our discussants offered the opening reflection on the book, quoting Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That about sums it up.

 

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The NALT Christians Project

This is going to be interesting. Dan Savage, who created the It Gets Better Campaign has announced The NALT Project. The NALT Project refers to when Christians would come up to him after a talk in which Savage would be critical of Christians and say, “We are not all like that.” The language of “not all like that” is what NALT stands for.

What is interesting about this is that many Christians will want to distance themselves from some of the conservative Christian voices that are often presented (and present themselves) as though the represent the Christian community to the broader culture. The voices are often experienced as harsh and unkind, and their views are often cited as contributing to violence against sexual minorities in the U.S. and in other countries.  Others will not want to stand in the way of civil rights or equal protection under the law (but they might hold to differing views regarding sexual ethics), as noted in the video.Still others will want to be “gay affirming” (language also used in the video), which is a broader category that is open to some interpretation.

In the context of the culture wars, we are often left with the choice between being “pro-” gay or “anti-” gay and that can be defined differently by different interest groups. It will be interesting to see how much complexity will be present in The NALT Project.

There are always Christians you can point to and say, “I’m not like that” with reference to these debates. How many Christians can say that they are “not like” the Westboro Baptist Church? I hope many Christians can say that. But not being like more extreme voices does not necessarily equate to being what others want you to be. So we will see how this project develops and what it comes to represent to those who launched it and to those who participate.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Book Reviews, Audio & Video

 

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Book Club: State of Wonder

stateofwonderOur book club met last night to discuss State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. On her own web site, this is how the book is described: “A tale of morality and miracles, science and sacrifice set in the Amazonian jungle, that is both a gripping adventure and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love.” Ok, that sounds compelling.

Here is a more helpful summary:

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina’s assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina’s research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend’s death, the state of her company’s future, and her own past.

With this summary in view, I would have to say that I had a mixed response to the novel. I like Patchett as a writer, particularly how she has Marina Singh interact with the environment of the Amazon. When Singh gets off the plane, here is Patchett’s description: “every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.” This brings up the Amazon as a character in the novel. Are there cannibals? Sure. How about an anaconda? You bet. But Patchett does not overdo the Amazon here; she presents it as quite expansive and suffocating, a place where a person can experience some genuine  claustrophobia. The heat and the insects — all of it. I read an interview with Patchett in which she described going to the Amazon to conduct her research. She said something like she was there for 10 days, which was about 6 days too many. In other words, you can only do so many days there before you have to get out. She captures that sense of the Amazon in her writing, and so made the novel a good experience for me.

There was also a fascinating discussion of the role of mentors in a person’s life. There is a great exchange between a married couple (one of whom was apparently a former student of the other) about how the husband had looked up to his mentor, including overlooking several personal flaws and infidelity. This had our book club talking about how we view mentors. What struck me here was how much I have benefited from mentors, as none tried to make me in their image. Rather, each helped me develop my potential. I view mentoring similarly — as a process by which a person helps another develop his or her full potential and calling, as understood from the perspective of what God would have that person do and become. The mentor may model some characteristics and personal or professional traits worth emulating, but the mentor does not simply make that person in his or her image; mentoring is not for oneself. But to me mentoring is also not just about the person receiving the mentoring. It is about something beyond both of them. It is tied to transcendent purposes in the life of the one who is responding to his or her sense of calling and vocation. The mentor is also to be humble and obedient to recognize the unique gifts in others, the ways in which God is developing in that person being mentored a path that only that person is going to take.

The other major topic we discussed was actually the role of missions in places like the Amazon. Two of our book club members had been on the mission field more extensively, and they discussed missions in a way that was quite different than anthropologists and others who often look down on missionaries. What I learned is that missionaries like Wycliffe often have a significant impact locally, as they invest in tribal development and, as translators, provide a lexicon that allows for written/documented account of the existence of that tribe that would otherwise be lost. Often the governments support this work, although admittedly they would do without the Christian aspects of it if they could. No one else can do what these groups do, yet they are often looked down upon by writers and anthropologists, and that is picked up in the book, although it is not a major focus at all.

Criticisms had to do with the plot. There were some developments that just didn’t seem to follow, but I won’t go into those details here because some would be spoilers. I’ve read the book twice now — last summer after hearing about it and now this year through our book club. I recommend the book. I enjoyed it and the thoughtful discussion that followed.

Update: We are reading The Space Between Us for our next meeting in August.

 

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Pray the Gay Away – Part 2

In Part I of our discussion of Pray the Gay Away by Bernadette Barton, I discussed her basic approach to researching the experiences of sexual minorities in the Bible belt. I shared that there is a lot of important information and experiences to appreciate here, particularly for those who identify as Christians. I did note, however, that her book was limited in important ways by her approach to data analysis that drew so heavily on Foucault and theories of power and domination. Let’s pick up our discussion.

gayawayIn reading Pray the Gay Away, I was reminded at times of Michelle Wolkomir’s ethnographic study that was published in book form as Be Not Deceived. It was a study of gay and ex-gay Christians. In that study, Wolkomir offered an analysis of how both groups of men had to make a maneuver that allowed themselves to remain Christians. She described how gay Christians who were part of the Metropolitan Community Church utilized a hermeneutic of inclusivity and love to facilitate a way to retain a Christian identity. In contrast, ex-gay Christians who were part of Exodus International affiliated ministries followed a hermeneutic of righteousness–denying themselves same-sex intimacy/behavior–in order to retain a Christian identity. According to Wolkomir, both groups utilized similar strategies, such as small groups, to create the necessary emotional atmospheres that fostered the kind of identity and community needed to make the transition.

In some regards, Wolkomir critiques both groups of men out of a comparable lens (drawing on elements of queer theory). But the steps she took to critique both ways of navigating being a sexual minority and a Christian offered important insights. Neither group was demonized, though she pointed out concerns that she had for both strategies and clearly held to a different worldview altogether.

This reader ended Pray the Gay Away wondering if Barton understands the faith and belief structure of Christians. She seems to understand, identify, and articulate ways in which abuses of sexual minorities can result from specific beliefs held by some Christians and encounters with those who identify as Christian. These stories are powerful and sobering. They need to be heard. But it is unclear the extent to which she understands the beliefs themselves and why they might matter in the life of a Christian or of a church – apart from an a priori commitment to a theory that asserts Christians sustain and protect existing power structures that allow a segment of the population to dominate and control others. I think that would be the result from a different way of conducting the research and analyzing the data, of engaging a region, of participating in the lived experiences of those who identify as Christians, even those who identify as fundamentalist Christians.

Most of you who read this blog know that I am a Christian. After all, this blog is about the integration of Christianity and psychology. I am not a fundamentalist Christian, however. I do know several fundamentalist Christians, some of whom (at least in certain beliefs and assumptions) can be seen in the folks Barton encounters in her book. Others would not recognize themselves in some of the exchanges.So there is likely more diversity and complexity in that region and among even this kind of Christian than is offered, and the reader gets the sense that Barton is aware of that.

Early on in the book, Barton recognizes there are difficulties in defining what she is targeting. There is fundamentalism. There is the Religious Right. There are evangelicals. There are conservative Christians. All of these terms are brought into the discussion from time to time. The problem with this is that by sampling certain experiences with fundamentalists but then muddying the water with all of these other designations, the reader is left with can be a bias against all forms of Christianity that are not explicitly gay affirmative in the way Barton envisions. That is, if a Christian does not view same-sex behavior as a morally good, natural expression of a person’s identity–a person whose very well-being is predicated on such expressions, one is the kind of Christian reflected in the stories of abuse documented here. Yet there are Christian who hold those beliefs and values (that is, a traditional Christian sexual ethic) who are not abusive to sexual minorities. Some may be fundamentalists; many others are not.

“…I now understand that a certain percentage of conservative Christians are unlikely to change their belief systems to accommodate homosexuality no matter what arguments or evidence is offered” (p. 226). Are we speaking, then, of fundamentalist Christians or conservative Christians? Is it the Religious Right? Evangelicals? Conservative Catholics? Well, it’s all of those at this point–but the case is made compelling because of the examples of abuse from some fundamentalists.

A more helpful engagement would have taken the time to reflect on this question: if there are those who adhere to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, why is that? Can the reasons be reduced to power/domination? Is that a true assertion? In other words, it is not an assertion that is argued for; it is assumed, and this leaves the reader with a truncated view of any form of Christianity that is, again, not committed to a gay affirmative position as held by the researcher. The encounters and experiences Barton identifies and (rightly) challenges are those that are abusive to sexual minorities. However, what is ultimately being challenged is not a narrow strip of fundamentalism but a broader expression of Christianity (historic and global) that reaches a different conclusion than Barton about sexual ethics. If we define as abuse any disagreement about complex issues that are tied to broader worldview considerations (such as sexual ethics), then we are not going to have as meaningful an exchange of ideas. That discussion does not occur in this book.

bartonBarton writes: “….some individual and institutions are unlikely to ever embrace homosexuality as part of God’s design…” (p. 227). The focus, then, is not, “What is a Christian sexual ethic and how can we better understand why that matters in the lives of Christians, including gay Christians (e.g., Wes Hill, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet). Nor is the focus on coexistence in a society with diverse view of a complex matter in which people may reach different conclusions (matters of ethics and morality). Rather, the impression I had was that any lack of movement toward Barton’s perspective is the result of a kind of fundamentalism associated with a literal reading of the Bible, belief in Creationism, and violence toward sexual minorities. It is one conclusion that can be reached from the kind of analysis Barton relies upon–an analysis of power and domination–but it is not the only analysis available, nor is it the only conclusion that can be drawn from an intimate knowledge of both the mainstream gay community and conservative Christianity.

This may seem like an aside, but let me also comment on one of the more memorable chapters. It was the one on creationism, which seemed out of place in the book, but I think I understand why it was included. I think it was meant to illustrate the kind of mindset that fuels the very abuses documented in the book. It was fascinating to read the visceral reaction of Barton’s students to the Creation Museum. (I have to say I’ve never visited it, so maybe I would also have a strong reaction.) This was probably the most difficult chapter for me to fully appreciate, and I cannot quite put my finger on the issue. It seemed that the very exposure of the students to this way of thinking (fundamentalist Christianity) was a significant threat to their well-being. (I have witnessed this with other sexual minorities who were not from the Bible belt and were actually in significant positions of influence.) I don’t think there is any one explanation for this; I suspect there could be many contributing factors. The obvious one presented in the book is the power/domination of the form of Christianity on display. I think that is definitely part of the explanation. If a person believes they are condemned in the eyes of those around them, exposure to institutions that represent that power will draw a strong, negative response.

I also wondered if the response is in any way primed when students are taught out of a worldview that frames these exchanges in power and domination rather than other explanatory frameworks. (Yes, I recognize that from the power/domination framework, I will be viewed as simply defending and justifying the power structures under scrutiny, but then there is no possible critique–the power simply shifts to those who keep others silent.) I don’t know, but if there is any possibility of moving forward as a culture, there might be something here worth exploring further. Can we be cued to interpret data as a threat in ways that actually gives that person/institution more power to do greater emotional damage to sexual minorities? Take this as me thinking out loud here. Again, I’m struggling to understand. What I do know is that we are left an important need that has not yet been met: how to talk with one another about these differences, as well as how we create better atmospheres for substantive diversity. I recall one author sharing that substantive diversity will have elements in it that are really difficult for us, sometimes so much so that we experience it as offensive. The way forward, it seems to me, is not to excuse, minimize, or defend abusive actions toward those who are in the minority; nor is it to reduce the diversity by demanding consensus on matters reflecting formed judgments about complex issues such as morality and ethics.

I will close with this: I am frequently exposed to people  who believe that by virtue of being a Christian, I am a bigot. I have seen Christians equated with Nazis (this happens in Barton’s book). I have seen Christians equated with the KKK (also in this book). These are not ways to move society toward greater mutual understanding and respect. Christians would do well to study if there are changes that can be made so as not to contribute to that emotional experience. But critics of Christianity would do well to understand a sexual ethic out of that religion (and many other world religions) rather than reduce it to caricature. We need to find ways to foster the kinds of relationships that can sustain extended discussions of genuine differences in a diverse society. I doubt that drawing on theories of oppression to “unpack the mechanisms of domination” will aid in that process, if that is the only step taken, and if all of our recommendations are derived from that without any consideration for other perspectives. I suspect such a maneuver will do the opposite, that is, it will contribute to the culture wars in ways that have real consequences, such as when religious liberties are curtailed in the name of the tolerance that is being asserted.

That is another topic altogether. It is one worthy of its own post or two. For now, let me bring this to a close by saying I genuinely appreciated reading Barton’s book. It is thought-provoking to say the least. As in any similar endeavor, it is important to identify what can be learned from these kinds of analyses. To reject these experiences out of hand would be a mistake for the church. At the same time, there is much that needs to be done to foster mutual respect and understanding, and everyone is going to need to contribute toward that end if we hope to move forward on these complex matters.

 

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Christian Counseling Ethics, 2nd Ed.

The book, Christian Counseling Ethics, has just been published in its second edition. This is a book edited by Randolph Sanders, former executive director of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS). The opening chapters (by folks like Alan Tjeltveit, Richard Butman, and Horace Lukens) orient the reader to a Christian worldview and engagement with counseling and mental health. This is a greater challenge than it sounds like, as the book is for a broad audience and so takes up psychology, counseling, marriage and family therapy, pastoral care, and lay counseling.

ChristiancounselingethicsThe book then turns to specific populations and issues, such as couples therapy, children, those with chronic conditions, navigating multiple relationships, and working with sexual minorities. I worked with Stan Jones and Jill Kays on the chapter on sexual minorities. Other contributors here included Jennifer Ripley, Ev Worthington, Steve Sandage, Jeff Berryhill, Angela Sabates, James Jennison, and Randy Sanders.

Other chapters address some unique considerations for Christians, lay counselors, and ministry settings. These include chapters on the abuse of power (John Shackelford & Randy Sanders), business ethics (Randy Sanders), pastors and lay counseling (Bill Blackburn, Siang-Yang Tan), the military (Brad Johnson), and member care (Kelly O’Donnell).

Most of the chapters are revised, expanded versions from topics addressed in the first edition. Some are new chapters. However, given the changes in the field, even those chapters that are revised or expanded are often substantive updates. I know that material on working with sexual minorities has grown significantly since the first edition came out in 1997.

Sanders also did a nice job asking everyone to be practical. The most obvious signs of this are the appendices. Various ethical codes are reproduced in the appendix, as are sample forms for release of information, demographics, and so on. But even in the various chapters, authors made a concerted effort to make the resource more practical. In our chapter on working with sexual minorities, we added a lot of suggested language that could be used when obtaining informed consent, for instance.

This book is meaningful to me personally. The chapter I coauthored for the first edition was my first publication. When I contributed to that edition, I was a grad student working for Stan Jones at Wheaton College. It was nice to be able to return to that chapter and to update it for Christians in training today.

Having taught a course in Ethical, Legal and Professional Issues in Psychology for more than a decade, I can say that I have not found another comparable book that delves into the professional ethical issues that arise for Christians and that is written from a Christian worldview. Given that 16 years had passed since the publication of the first edition, it was definitely time for a second edition, and I think the reader will not be disappointed.

 

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Pray the Gay Away – Part I

gayawayThere is a new book out titled, Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, by Bernadette Barton. Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University. The book is the result of a six year ethnographic study of 59 sexual minorities in the Bible belt. This alone had me quite interested in what she would learn about their experiences with conservative Christianity, as I think there is much the church could do differently in this area. At the same time, Barton  acknowledges that she may have oversampled activists in conducting her research, which may be a concern. I think studies of more mainstream (is that the right word?) sexual minorities might have “thickened the plot” a little more.

“…most of the people I interviewed attended conservative Christian churches–i.e., Baptist, Pentecostal, and Church of Christ–and grew up in families in which homosexuality was frequently denounced. Consequently, participants’ identity struggles more often took place under the shadow of a preacher’s voice thundering floridly about ‘homosexuals’ and parents proclaiming that ‘any child of mind that is gay is dead to me’ at the dinner table than in an LGBT center.”

In the Introduction Barton opens the book by recounting an exchange with a neighbor who introduced her to some of the regional flavor by referring to homosexuality as an “abomination” in the eyes of God. This after just learning that Barton was in a lesbian relationship. This sets the context for the lived experiences of those she interviewed.

Some of the most fascinating observations of the region come early on in the book and rely heavily on Foucault and what are “theories of domination and oppression” (p. 20). For example, Barton’s introduces and develops the image of the Bible Belt panopticon, which refers to the late 18th c. design of an institution in which a central office would allow for the constant observation of inmates in the surrounding (circular) structure.

panopticon“…The Bible Belt panopticon, an important element of Bible Belt Christianity, manifests through tight social networks of family, neighbors, church, and community members, and a plethora of Christian signs and symbols sprinkled throughout the region.” (p. 24)

Barton argues that the panopticon is supported by personalism, the willingness to appear to concur with others, to give the impression one agrees even when one does not. In Barton’s view of the Bible Belt, even if a person disagreed with a more conservative sexual ethic, such disagreement is likely to go unspoken, further giving the impression of regional consensus.

It is an interesting take on the experience of sexual minorities in the Bible belt, and one I think is important for people to understand. I disagree with the lens through which Barton conducts her analysis, but I do appreciate how upfront she is about it. I have a fair amount of exposure to scholars who use essentially the same lens but want me and others to believe that they are offering an objective, dispassionate analysis of a topic.

There are painful stories recounted throughout the book. Some of the most painful were experiences with family and with the local church. So while some readers may disagree with many aspects of the book, I think it is important to identify what can be understood from the data, what might help shape how Christians respond to the experiences of sexual minorities.

In discussing some of the consequences of sharing her gay identity with her mother, one woman shared: “I am cut off. I am disowned. My family wants nothing to do with me. I’m dead to them” (p. 54). Another mother broke dishes, “locked herself in the bathroom, and left [her son] to sweep up the racked plates and explain” to their Thanksgiving guests that dinner was off (p. 57). Still another parent reportedly shouted, “had you walked in here and told us you’d murdered someone we would have handled that better than we can do with this!” This is so beyond the experience of most readers, and it offers an important look into the lives of some sexual minorities.

In the church context the stories were also painful. One woman recalled: “The preacher would preach on homosexuality. He would always group us in with the so-called perverts, like child molesters and just awful people” (p. 66).

Can you imagine how it would be for a young teen – say 13 or 14 – who finds himself experiencing same-sex attraction to hear someone in leadership talk about what this teen has questions about in a way that associates it with these other concerns? I doubt most of us can imagine that. So it is important to glean lessons from these stories that will help Christians respond in better ways when they learn that their teen or young adult is either questioning their sexual identity or is disclosing or announcing a sexual identity. Christians could certainly respond in more constructive and compassionate ways.

The challenges that arise in reading books like this have to do with what to do with this information. Solutions offered are often simplistic: have parents affirm their loved one. In some ways, this is absolutely right. Affirm and love without conditions. Speak life into young people. Pour into them.

At the same time, what are parents to do with their conventionally religious beliefs and values about sexual morality? The more simple suggestions often fail to appreciate the importance of those beliefs and how they hang together with worldview considerations. If recommendations are not offered with those worldview and value considerations in view, constructive solutions will often be dismissed out of hand. Nothing changes.

I experienced this awhile ago when I was consulting with a group on how to help religious corrections officers work with sexual minorities in corrections facilities. Many people felt strongly that they should have corrections officers change their religious beliefs/values about moral issues. This is one strategy. However, I think that what happens when those beliefs/values are directly challenged is that people reject out of hand any recommendations from the source that challenged their values. Another option is to demonstrate cognitive complexity and perspective-taking, to understand the experiences of conventionally religious people, why they believe as they do, to value what you can in it, and to draw forward elements of those beliefs that will improve the atmosphere for sexual minorities in corrections. So, for example, things like valuing the worth of all people is inherent in Christian theology (the idea that people bear the image of God). Draw this forward in a way that helps a staff member respond to issues in a better, more professional manner. In any case, there is a lot I could say about that, but you get the idea.

I think it could be helpful to find language for parents who want to demonstrate love and support but who do not believe they can or should change their values as they pertain to sexual morality. In other words, are there resources that meet conventionally religious parents where they are and help them parent better in those moments (rather than materials that are more readily dismissed because the recommendations seem incompatible with their worldview)?

That question may go unanswered for now. Back to the book: there were a couple of missed opportunities in Barton’s approach to the topic, and this may be due to her overall commitment to Foucault et al. For example, early in the book she shares that she attended a large church that holds to a traditional Christian sexual ethic. In an exchange with someone there, she asks if sexual minorities would be welcomed. She is told that the would be, and the church member references another woman who had attended a small group and announced herself to be a lesbian. That same woman apparently had some kind of experience in which “Jesus worked on her heart” (the language of the church member). I thought Barton would have tracked that woman (the self-identified lesbian) down and asked to hear more about her story, where she was today, and so on. Perhaps she did and it’s just not in the book, but I thought that would have been irresistible to a researcher.

In that sense there is not the kind of balance that I was expecting to see in a research study. It is true that Barton recounts her time visiting a faith-based, ex-gay ministry conference in the Chicago suburbs, but that was less about the Bible belt and more about the ex-gay movement, which she then discusses as a part of the fabric of the region. I thought it would have been helpful to reflect more on the theological position that informs the decision by those who attend such ministries–for example, what is a traditional Christian sexual ethic? Why is does that sexual ethic matter in the lives of people who identify themselves as followers of Christ? Why is that sense of morality subscribed to by many Christians across the globe and throughout history? I think that was where I was hoping for more cognitive complexity and perspective-taking.

There is a lot more than can be said. Let’s bring this to a close by calling it Part I. I will continue a discussion of Pray Away the Gay in another post.

 

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