Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: Torn by Justin Lee

2 out of 5 Stars
Author: Justin Lee
Publisher: Jericho Books
Buy Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate
Reading Level: Leisure


Justin Lee not only choose the most controversial topic of the day but his title didn’t provide much wiggle room--“rescuing the gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian debate.” I mean if you’re rescuing the gospel from something or someone then everything about the book has got to be perfect, right? Justin starts with the war weary statistics that suggest most people identify the church as anti-gay. I’ve seen this study so many places I stopped counting. My question is always: Is that a result of the church  bringing up the subject with provocation? Or is it because gay activist are constantly badgering the church and the church is responding? (pp. 1-4) He also takes a step further and says the church is hostile towards gays,
The church’s “antihomosexual” reputation isn’t just a reputation for opposing gay sex or gay marriage; it’s a reputation for hostility to gay people. (p. 3)
However, Linda Hirshman recently published Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. David Murray offers a review which is insightful. In it, Murray reports that Hirshman discussing the early development of the gay movement says
Standing firmly on this “moral foundation,” gay activists identified four major obstacles to achieving their strategic objective: (1) The churches considered them sinful; (2) The state criminalized their sex acts; (3) Doctors – mainly psychologists – thought they were crazy; and (4) The military feared they would be traitors to the nation.
With that being said, it’s fair to say that church has mainly been in defensive mode as the gay activists have continually volleyed attack after attack on the church for even daring to consider practicing homosexuality sinful. This misstep aside there was much I learned in the book and Justin does make some great points. I want to look at those next.

The Good

What Justin does extremely well is convey his story. He understands this. Justin says,
But why should anybody listen to me? I was a nobody. I wasn’t a preacher or a theologian or a scholar. There were lots of things about the Bible I didn’t understand and lots of theological questions I didn’t have answers to. I did have a different take on the Bible passages in question, but I wasn’t ready to go public with that yet. There was just one thing I had that qualified me to address this subject, and it was something no one could take away from me: my story. (pp. 210-211)
His writing flows and is relatable. The struggle in understanding sexuality is familiar to me as an heterosexual male growing up in a very conservative environment. I could empathize with the complexity of having to deal with same sex attractions on top of that. My own environment was one where it was hard to develop a healthy understanding of heterosexuality.

Also, I appreciate that Justin sought to understand his attraction in the context of what Scripture says. This struggle plays prominently in his story and he spends considerable time in two chapters examining the relevant passages and larger hermeneutic issues. And he appears to understand what’s at stake (p. 204).

Finally, he provides the church with a resource for understanding and communicating with people who identify as gay and especially those who grow up in the church. This may be the largest benefit of the book. He strongly urges Christian to reject pseudo-science and methodologies that are less than honest. By being so quick to endorse “gay cures” the church has hurt it’s testimonies and lost its credibility amongst the gay community. Also, anyone who might have to speak about this issue in a public platform should read this book to understand the issues and what’s stake. So that’s the good.

The Bad

What you might quickly notice in my list of concerns is that many of them parallel the strengths I underscored. For instance, the strength of his story and the prominence it plays in his urging churches not to assume all gay’s participate in perverse sexual activity--which is good. But it seems Justin may be normalizing his experiencing and may be forgetting that his might be the exception. He even mentions at one point how out of touch he felt in the gay community. He says,
I had hoped that the outing to the club would help me feel connected to the other gay guys. But instead, it had the opposite effect. I felt more alienated than ever. It seemed like everyone in the gay world spoke the same language, and no one had ever taught me. Worse, their language felt fundamentally at odds with everything I had been taught in the church, everything that made me God Boy, everything that made me me. I wasn’t like the other gay people I had met. I wasn’t having sex. I didn’t want a hookup. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t like to dance. I was just a sheltered Southern Baptist boy who wanted to serve God and couldn’t help being attracted to other guys. (p. 164 also see pp. 158-160)
He does make a point to argue for the diversity within the gay community when he says, “Couldn’t gay people be just as diverse as straight people?” (p. 158). Justin doesn’t interact much with studies that suggest that STD’s and sexual promiscuity is higher within the gay community and typically what you get from the political juggernaut for gay rights is scorn for even suggesting that might be true instead of actual interaction (see the witch hunt against Mark Regnerus).

Also, Justin as stated above rightly is critical of the church in the way it communicates its message. Many of those who speak on this topic know very little about it. He’s also roundly critical of ex-gay ministries. He points out many of the hypocrisies of those who are leaders within the group who have fallen into homosexual interactions after professing to be ex-gays (see chapter 6). I’ll make two points. First, if those who are promoting ex-gay agendas are truly advertising that they have a high success rate of completely removing same sex attractions while still struggling with them and often succumbing to those urges then the church must reject those ministries and their underhanded tactics. It’s a bait and switch to promise a high probability of the attractions being removed when many of those same people are actually still struggling with them. But Justin seems to imply through the book as he’s speaking about these ex-gay ministries that if one has same attractions then one must identify as gay. As if the attraction itself immediately requires identification within the larger gay community. However, if the traditional understanding of the Scripture is correct and gay sex is wrong then why should those who struggle with same sex attraction (SSA) be “required” to identify as gays. For instance, let’s assume someone who is married struggles constantly with attraction and lust for people who aren’t their spouse must they identify themselves by their struggle? Or for those who struggle with the temptation to steal must they identify as such even if they are fighting against such urges? Justin seems to imply that those who don’t identify as gay but struggle with SSA are being dishonest and underhanded. I couldn’t disagree more. He’s assuming his position by doing this which leads to my final and largest concern.

Justin as I said takes the Bible seriously and looks for answers in the Bible through the book. As he examines the passages that address homosexuality for him it’s a stalemate. He understands most of these passages as discourses against pagan idolatry which may have included gay sex and says the language of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 seems at best unclear. He doesn’t find a convincing argument to made against monogamous Christ-centered gay relationships (his term). He relays his struggle,
After going through all the passages, I felt like I was back where I had started, confused and frustrated. Once more, I reviewed the evidence. I was torn. On one hand, yes, there was a potential explanation for each of these passages that meant it wouldn’t apply to a modern-day committed gay relationship. On the other hand, every explicit mention of homosexuality in the Bible was negative. Taken together, the most obvious sense of the passages was to condemn gay sex in all contexts. Even if there were other explanations, at some point it just started to feel like looking for loopholes rather than accepting the plain sense of Scripture. I wasn’t interested in looking for loopholes. (p. 191)
Where he lands next is concerning. He attempts to argue that the command to love your neighbor positively allows Christ-centered monogamous gay relationships from Romans 13:8-10. He expounds,
I thought about every example of sin I could come up with. In every single case, Paul was right: Truly living out God’s agape love for others always led to doing the right thing. Sin always resulted from selfish desire in one form or another.

Surely, I thought, there must be more than that. In the past, I had thought of the Bible as a rule book for life. Yes, we’re saved by grace, but I’d usually thought of righteous living in terms of following rules about what you could and couldn’t do as a Christian. (p. 197)
He proceeds to examine the application of that command in the life and ministry of Jesus and here’s where it gets really muddled. He discusses Jesus healing the man on the Sabbath. He rightly notes that breaking the Sabbath was a big deal but then says
Growing up, I always assumed that Jesus wasn’t really breaking the Sabbath by healing someone, because perhaps God didn’t count supernatural healing as “work” on the same level with cooking or heavy lifting. If I had been Jesus, that’s the argument I would have made: “The Bible says not to work on the Sabbath. I’m not working; I’m healing. This isn’t work for me.”

Jesus doesn’t make that argument. Instead, he asks something that seems like avoiding the question: Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3: 4)

This used to puzzle me. . . .

From a rule-following perspective, Jesus’ argument makes no sense. But from a love-your-neighbor perspective, it makes perfect sense. What’s the most loving thing to do: to help someone in their time of need, or to pass them by? If given the choice between the loving option and the unloving option, isn’t it always right to do the loving thing? If love is the fulfillment of the law, shouldn’t that take precedence over everything else? (pp. 199-200)
According to Justin, Jesus actually broke the law but stayed within the spirit of the law. You see he’s setting us for the finale. But he’s assuming that the Pharisees interpretation of the law was the letter when Jesus’s point was love your neighbor was the letter. If Jesus had actually broken the law he would have been a sinner and unable to save sinners. He’s missed the point of these passages entirely. We all understand the principle Jesus is making in our every day life. For instance, I will teach my children that lying is a sin. But if someone were to breaking into my house and I hid my family and they begin demanding I tell them where my wife and children it’s not sinful in the least to send them on a wild goose chase. The lying is not breaking the law because they’re not lawful recipients of the information they are demanding. Jesus’s point is it was always OK to heal and do good on the Sabbath. He argues the Pharisees have made their traditions the law (see his response when Pharisees ask why his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating). Justin says,
Over and over, Jesus provides examples of the spirit of the law superseding the letter of the law. It’s clear that pulling a child out of a well is work; there’s no getting around that. It’s equally clear that it would be the right thing to do, even on the Sabbath. What loving parent would allow their child to lie in a well overnight in order to follow the letter of the Scriptures? (p. 202).
But the point is the parents who leave their children in the well aren’t fulfilling the letter or the spirit. He goes to say,
I believe the Holy Spirit functions in that capacity for us as Christians. Christians usually understand the Holy Spirit as the “Helper” Jesus promised to send, the indwelling of God in the hearts of all believers. The Holy Spirit knows the purpose of God’s laws and can guide us in interpreting and applying them to our situations, superseding the letter of the law when appropriate, and helping us to fulfill God’s ultimate desire for us on earth: not to be slaves to a set of rules, but to live out God’s unconditional agape love in every moment of every day. (p. 204)
So the Holy Spirit will show us when it’s OK to break the letter of the law and conveniently for Justin he’s done just this as it relates to monogamous Christ-centered gay relationships. Justin wraps it up with this,
But suppose two people loved each other with all their hearts, and they wanted to commit themselves to each other in the sight of God— to love, honor, and cherish; to selflessly serve and encourage one another; to serve God together; to be faithful for the rest of their lives. If they were of opposite sexes, we would call that holy and beautiful and something to celebrate. But if we changed only one thing— the gender of one of those individuals— while still keeping the same love and selflessness and commitment, suddenly many Christians would call it abominable and condemned to hell. (p. 205)
There’s a huge failure in hermeneutic here and even larger misunderstanding of church history, the new covenant (law/gospel), and the character of God (love/holiness). My answer to his question is yes if you change something that Scripture requires even the smallest part then yes we should call that sin. Quick side note: part of the progress of the argument was a misunderstanding love and marriage through out the book. Yes part of marriage is attraction but a large part is covenantal love bounded together by Christ. Justin’s view of marriage and love through out the book is centered around sex and sentimentality (see pp. 101-103)

Finally, this discussion jump starts the final chapters which deal with the organization Justin founded for “gay Christians.” Again there’s a strong preference for any one who struggle with SSA even those who are B side (believing gay sex would be sinful and that Scripture requires celibacy) to identify as gay. It perplexes me that those who are side B (p. 221) would be able to associate with those who consider themselves side A (Justin’s position above). Justin believes this is a matter of meat offered to idols and Christians should agree to disagree (in non-essentials unity, right?). But what he fails to grasp is that those who believe gay relationships and sex are sinful cannot disregard their belief. If they are right and it is a sin then to not say so and to associate with those who believe otherwise in an official church capacity would be sinful. And that’s the crux.

In the End

In the end, Justin doesn’t rescue the gospel from anything. The gospel doesn’t need rescuing. I’m sure it was just a marketing spin to attract readers but it’s an awfully poor choice of words and the book doesn’t deliver on the promise. It’s still important book to read because of the ongoing social, political, and religious conversation happening around this topic. Setting aside the fact it’s a poorly developed argument, it should also be asked secondarily how his hermeneutic might be applied to a myriad of other topics. He’s arguing for a libertarian understanding of Scripture where if there’s no victim and every one is consenting and filled with “godly” love then go for it. The Spirit might just show you that the letter of the law is wrong and can be adjusted.

The church would do well to treat homosexuality as it treats other sins (no special treatment for good or bad) and encourage those who struggle with it to identify primarily as dead and risen Christians united with Christ into his body--not within the larger gay community. She should urge them to dive into the covenant community for the strength and accountability to overcome their urges and desires as other single Christians do (whether the SSA go away permanently or not. I mean if Paul prayed for his temptation to go away three times and God said “no” we might just learn from that). And we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss those who struggle with SSA who decide to marry someone of the same sex. Justin all but dismisses this as an impossibility. It’s almost treated as treason (pp. 91, 101, 235 the last reference may be the worst “In most cases, even those who have married a member of the opposite sex will admit that they haven’t actually gone from gay to straight, that even if they never act on their feelings, they remain attracted to the same sex.” As if the the category of calling oneself straight, if that’s what they choose to do, should solely be based on the primary and maybe solely on their SSA and the positive, daily actions of these men should be disregarded as a sham. So for instance, for men who strongly and daily fight off lustful thoughts about other men and I’m not just talking about your once in a while average staying the course. I’m talking about people who might be considered sex addicts by the secular world. These kinds of people who struggle with this kind of sexual addiction who are faithful to their spouse and put to death these attractions every day, should we not call them monogamous because clearly their primary sexual urges might be for multiple partners although they may never give into that lust or allow it grow in their life?). All of this is pushback and fuel for a conversation that must be had as this becomes an issue we cannot ignore in our current cultural and religious climate.

If you plan on purchasing Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.


Jason said...

Hey Mathew, just found your site tonight. Really enjoying it. Just one comment, not relevant to this particular post. Followed one post over to Gospel Centered Discipleship site and saw your Bio there. I'll definitely be visiting more, but you might want to change your bio.

You go from third person to first person at one point, so it reads like this:

Mathew Sims is an average Joe who works a 9 to 5 and writes on the side at Grace for Sinners. He lives in Simpsonville, SC and love spending time with my two daughters and wife. He has a BA in English/Creative Writing and attended Geneva Reformed Seminary completing nearly 40 hours hours towards an Mdiv. He serves at Grace Church in Greenville, SC. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

So it's "he" is an average joe, "he" writes on the side, "he" lives in SC and loves spending time with "my" wife and daughters. :) I got a chuckle out of that, thought it was worth mentioning. Peace to you bro, I'll be back.

Mathew Sims said...

Thanks for visiting. I was scratching my head until I realized you meant the bio at GCD. I'll have to send um an email to update it. Thanks for pointing that out!