It is amazing how, when the church is faced with a new and controversial issue, we often get caught in a two-sided sparring match.
Always Two Sides
Two sides immediately form. There’s immediate tension. We begin to stereotype the other side. They become an object to be defeated at all cost. The situation turns into a win at all cost dilemma. We get caught up in what I have labeled elsewhere the swirl of ideological antagonism.
This almost always leads to a situation where we can not see the good in the other side, the good in the other person in the sparring match. Instead to admit there is something good in the other side is to concede too much. It suggests, we suspect, they might be right entirely.
Yet, there is almost always something good in the other side that makes it appealing and compelling to a lot of people sufficient to make this a major conflict in the first place. Our refusal to dialogue with openness, creates not only more enmity between us, but prevents us all on all sides from learning from each other, and dare I say what God is doing among us? Refusal to dialogue prevents us from learning from each other what God is doing among us Click To Tweet
I reject for instance, that even if I may not agree in the end with those who affirm same sex sexual relationships/marriage as Scripturally normative for the Christian life, that indeed we, who disagree, cannot learn much from each other – both ways – in this current dialogue within the Christian faith.
This is what I so appreciate about Tim Otto’s book Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. Tim, a self-identifying gay man who is celibate and ministering at Church of the Sojourners, lays the ground work in this book for people to learn from both sides of this issue as it plays itself out in the church. He reveals how, by listening to each other, there is much to learn and grow in through the process.
American Protestantism’s Idolized Families
One of the things, and I stress just one, is how the church has made a cultural idolatry out of the nuclear family. I speak here mainly of the conservative and/or evangelical branches of American Protestantism.
Here we have exalted the perfect looking husband and wife (look at the pictures used in a typical promo of a conference on the family) who have children as the archetypal family who can provide all of one’s intimacy and relational needs. In the process, we have crowded any one who doesn’t fit in. Not just those who don’t look like and feel like the perfect male or female, who don’t play the perfect gender role of macho type-A male and perfect maternal but “hot” (in Neo Reformed Mark Driscoll terms) female, but those who come from families who have severely broken patterns of abuse and pain in them. Not just those who do not understand nor know what to do with attractions that don’t fit this perfect stereotype, but all the many people who for what ever reason do not marry or find themselves attracted to people of the same sex. We have so exalted the place of the nuclear family as the ONLY place for our intimacy and friendship needs to get met, and we have made this so central to what it means to be human, that those who do not fit these increasingly narrow (and sexualized) categories, are left to despair, deep depression, feeling no reason to live. We have in essence forced those who don’t fit in to other avenues and then told them ‘No!” We exalted the nuclear family, leaving those who do not fit to despair. Click To Tweet
Ironically, both sides of this debate, in their respective responses, lift up this archetypal family as the goal of life. In Tim Otto’s words, “Ironically, the traditional (non-affirming) and the affirming churches are mirror images of each other, with traditional side worrying that same sex marriages will erode the “traditional family,” and the affirming side demanding that gays and lesbians have access to the “traditional family.” Both sides are assuming our culture’s vision of family rather than inviting the conflict to help us think about Jesus’ kingdom vision of the family. (p. 23.Tim Otto ).
Contradictions on the Left and the Right
Tim tells his own story in this book. He grew up in a church which had got caught in the ideology wars. The conceptual object – the gay or lesbian person – they were told, was a threat to the family. The ‘gay agenda” had to be undermined at all cost. Tim, on the other hand confessed that he had no intention to harm the family. Instead the very source of my pain was my exclusion from family.
Tim’s book reveals how the Christian right blames the “homosexual agenda” for bringing down the family. They locate the “evil” out there wherever those gays or lesbians reside and seek to influence the church. But instead of scape-goating gays and lesbians, Tim reveals how the church needs to explore its own complicity with the powers of capitalism and economics which are working to destroy the family. I would add, these churches need to explore how a false idolatry of particular romanticized version of the family, and the over sexualization of attraction as the basis of that family, has led to a complicity in excluding many from ever participating in the family of God as the source of intimate friendships and deep relationships of life.
But Tim does not just expose the contradictions at work in the religious right, He also exposes the progressive protestants (what he calls the religious left) where likewise the church has bought into a consumerist model of marriage, where a marriage’s function is to meet each person’s felt needs. Each partner is encouraged to seek the spouse as a kind of service provider, who is prompted to meet the others’ needs through carefully honed communication skills. In marriages of this variety, if one person does not feel happy or satisfied, the marital “contract” is broken. (p. 31)
Tim Otto’s book is one of the finest books yet written on the issues facing the church in the world of alternative sexualities that we find ourselves in. It is irenic. It opens space for the dialogues we all need. He opens many possible spaces where the church can make space for dialogue that escapes the never ending antagonism.
It is not perfect. I have a few points here and there of difference where I’d like to pose questions to Tim. Yet this book makes me want a closer friendship with the man.
To me that’s a sign Tim has written the kind of book that accomplished itself what the book is trying to teach me. Way to go Tim Otto. One of the rare books on this subject which is capable of taking the church to a new place of mission in the world in the areas of sexuality.
I highly recommend this book.