It’s very rare that a book offers both sides of an issue with a generous and balanced perspective, rarer still that the balanced perspective comes from one individual who graciously seeks to represent each position, while vulnerably sharing their journey from one position to the other. A War Of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus by David Bennett is such a book, and his is a timely voice on sexuality, more than that, his voice is a voice worth hearing on the Gospel and what it means to be human. For David, this war of loves was an arms race — a battle to determine if satisfaction could be found in the arms of a saviour, or a lover. His account of being pursued and loved by Jesus, even while pursuing meaning and satisfaction in romance is
David, a celibate gay Christian, shares his ‘unexpected story’ of coming to meet, love, and worship Jesus in a way that re-orders his loves, especially his sexual desire. It’s unexpected in many ways, not least of which that he recounts moving from student politics and activism for LGBTIQA+ rights, to pursuing celibacy and advocating for the place of celibate gay people in the church, and in the gay community. It’s unexpected because he recounts his transition from hostile to Christianity, and Jesus, to studying theology in Oxford, training to preach the Gospel and engage richly in communicating the truths he has come to adore. It’s unexpected because his account is, frankly, miraculous — and for many reformed evangelical types the first half of the book, recounting this part of his journey, will present robust theological challenges around the work of the Spirit, and how revelation works.
A War of Loves is profoundly insightful in many ways. David’s stirring, vulnerable, account of his sexuality, through his school years, through relationships, and as his heart was captured by God provides not just a plausibility structure for others making a journey from finding their identity in sex to finding their identity in Jesus (more on the identity thing later), but a unique perspective on how members of the gay community see and experience the church from the outside as a potential barrier to knowing and loving God.
David’s account of his journey begins in high school, where he attended a church school and, as his sexuality became more apparent, his perspective on Christians and Jesus were formed in opposition; if the church stood against his desires then both it, and the God it claimed to represent, were at war with him. Because David writes from the heart, and presents such a coherent account of his emotional and rational state in these progressions through stages in his narrative this ‘war’ is not easy to dismiss; Christian readers are presented with a rare insight into the way our politics interferes with our pastoring and preaching… Too often the political stance we Christians take on an issue presents a barrier to core business; placing walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — and David’s account, though he was equally political is a shot across these bows.
Perhaps the other powerful aspect of David’s account of his pre-conversion years is his description of the inner war being fought at the same time; our reasonably unsophisticated account of human behaviour and identity, in part a product of the us/them distinction means we often fail to consider the experience of people within the LGBTIQA+ community who are all too aware their experiences fall ‘outside’ the cultural norm (even if the pendulum is swinging). David describes the journey he went through to understand his sexual desires, and where they came from:
“A war developed in me about how to understand this part of my identity. The belief that we’re all born this way wasn’t the whole story. I was more confused than ever.”
And then describes coming out to his mother — then an agnostic — but herself on the path to meeting Jesus, in a way that highlights that life for those in sexual minorities isn’t all about smashing Christians and their institutions into the ground…
“She reached over, wrapped me in her arms, and wept. I’ll never forget the feeling of the leather seats, her wet tears on my clothing. And in that moment, I felt peace—real peace—for the first time in years, for the first time since I’d discovered I was gay. And I somehow knew that her tears weren’t about her at all; they were about me. She knew how much harder my life would be as a gay man.”
This is the experiential and emotional context where any Christian politicking is felt and interpreted by ‘the other’… amidst the turmoil of developing his sense of self in the highly contested, or hostile, environment of his school, David does mention a couple of experiences of love from Christians that stood out, transcending the ‘us/them’ divide. He recounts the actions of a teacher who committed to answering all his questions and objections about Christianity — beyond simply the question of his sexuality. This teacher patiently and faithfully persisted in dialogue — including listening…
“It was too evident that he cared. It was the first time I’d felt loved by a Christian. He took each question seriously and wrote back with his opinion.”
David’s journey from paganism to Pentecostalism is, frankly, miraculous. Any movement from the worship of something or someone other than God, and the pleasures this world offers, to life with God for eternity is miraculous, and too often our accounts of such journeys are sanitised; David’s path offers no such luxury. It cannot be flattened or hollowed out of divine activity; I admit, as a non-pentecostal, I was much more comfortable with David’s growing love for hearing the voice of God through the Scriptures than in stories of his relatives prophesying about his future conversion, and even a tarot card reader predicting he would end up as a ‘child of the light’, and yet, without such direct intervention there is little doubt his voice would be heard the way it is. His path through this ‘war’ to Jesus is not the only way; there are other soldiers who have charted different, but no less miraculous paths, and yet, his passionate call to whole hearted worship is prophetic not just for others in the gay community, but for a church that is all to often conscripted to fight a ‘culture war’ not a ‘war of loves’ — and for a church that all too often lacks the imagination to properly empathise with our neighbours rather than seeing them as ‘other.’ His is a clarion call for ongoing reformation in our churches.
“God wants all people everywhere to turn from their ways in order to know him. He wants us all to adopt an entirely different view of meaning, transcendence, and worship. Can you imagine how healing it would be for the church to acknowledge that it is just as broken and sinful as the gay community? Can you imagine the power in store if Christians were to humbly repent of hypocrisy before expecting others to repent?”
David’s story reveals a deep fault line in the church in our ability to imagine that love for God might possibly supplant our own idolatrous view of eros — sex, and marriage, and our own heteronormative assumptions about ‘identity’ and what it means to be human in Christ. And here’s where David provides an explicit challenge to an internal conflict the church is taking, and one where we’ve tended to buy in to the ‘identity politics’ or ‘identity war’ thinking of the prevailing culture, providing thin theological justifications (though often deeply held, and with pastoral concern). There is a war raging about how appropriate it is for Christians who are same sex attracted to use the label ‘gay’ — it’s not a new conflict, but the lines have been more clearly drawn recently around the Nashville Statement and in a debate around a conference in the United States called Revoice, which provided a platform for those occupying the ‘Side B’ position in the conversation; a position David holds, along with the likes of Wes Hill.
“As a gay celibate Christian, I recognize that Christ is my ultimate identity; gay and celibate come second. My identity is first and foremost in Christ, but those other two descriptors tell the redemptive story of God’s grace in my life.”
Identity is a thin concept, a largely modern obsession that must be imported into our theological frameworks with great care; there is no doubt that the answer to the questions ‘who am I’ or ‘what does it mean to be a person’ are important, and that there is a theological account that supplies the important answers; but much of modern ‘identity’ is a constructed concept emerging as the concept of the ‘givenness’ of our humanity, from God, has been evacuating the western framework. As I mentioned in a previous post, the obsession with identity — the projection of our true, inner self — our ‘id’ — into the external reality of our lives, and the idea that we answer these important questions from within, rather than looking to our relationships, and a creator, to supply them, this obsession is a very novel, western idea. It’s perhaps the case that David concedes too much ground to this modern obsession in order to justify his self-description. Early in the debate about terminology, Ron Belgau from Spiritual Friendship, a site run by celibate, gay, Christians, made the point that those who wish to make big claims about ‘identity’ are operating as though the word ‘gay’ is an ‘ontological’ marker — a statement about one’s being, where those who tend to use it (quite carefully) are not making ‘ontological claims’ (about their ‘being’) but ‘phenomenological’ claims (about their experience of life in the world, and about more than simply sexual activity). These are big philosophical words — and the fact that they are confusing, and that even people who are careful about the use of terms might not be aware of these dimensions probably means that words are much less ‘prescriptive’ than those in the ‘ontological’/identity camp might like to acknowledge (there’s a classic modernist v post-modernist division operating behind the sort of theory of words at play here too). It is, frankly, quite ridiculous to attempt to make the case that one position on the use of the label ‘gay’ has the definitive, God-ordained, view if ‘identity’ is such a nebulous, modern, ‘secular age’ connotation; if it is largely a tool for the sort of fragmented ‘expressive individualism’ that has somehow given rise to ‘identity politics’; and if the very nature of language, and how we use it and understand it, is also not able to be settled. People within the Christian community will just continue speaking past one another — and very rarely think about speaking to the gay community outside the church.
Biblically, the ground is much safer if we acknowledge that the ‘image’ we present to the world is fundamentally formed by what it is we worship — the God who made us in his image, and forms us by his Spirit, or the images we make, that then de-form us.
This is where David’s theological framework sings; his ‘war of loves’ is the Augustinian idea of the ordering of our heart and our loves via that which we make ultimate; that which we worship; that love that defines who we are. To take the label ‘gay’ is not, and should not be heart to be, a claim that homosexual sexual activity is the defining feature of a person’s existence or identity, especially when it is so carefully qualified; to suggest otherwise is to judge a person using categories and criteria that come from a world that denies this fundamental aspect of our being (that we are worshippers), and that our identity is ultimately given by the creator. To obsess about ‘identity markers’ — like those who write statements — is ultimately more useful as a political tool to create ‘us’ or ‘them’ than to create conversations and plausible pathways for people from the gay community to discover Jesus, and through him, God’s life-altering love. His use of the label gay is, to some extent, about the re-ordering of his identity around Jesus and the cascading effect that had on his sexual attraction, but it is also about building common ground for Gospel conversations with LGBTIQA+ people.
“Identifying with others in the LGBTQI world can open doors to engage people who need to hear about Christ. It can also give us the chance to speak honestly against the horrible ways Christians have often treated the gay community.”
David’s heart is to see people know this love as he does, and his framework is imaginative and grounded in his own, very real, experience. He asks the questions one can only fantasise about the church having asked before taking any political stances on issues surrounding the LGBTIQA+ community. He is prepared to acknowledge goodness and beauty — the image of God — at work in the achievements of the gay rights movements (law reforms that limit violent crimes against members of minority groups, for example, that uphold the God-given dignity of all people), so long as we keep the real call of God on our lives — and sexuality (that is, for all of us) front and centre.
“The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality. It is holiness. We need to stand for a different way to live in the gay community, and welcome others from that community into the church to receive Jesus’ love, without denying so many of the goods won through the gay rights movement.”
He’s even prepared to challenge us to consider what might be redeemed within gay relationships, should a couple turn to Jesus — to have us asking better questions about what we might do to help others ‘win the war’ and not just find love in Jesus, but to have all their loves transformed by his love.
“There may be aspects of gay relationships or unions that Christians should learn to accept and recognize, such as the bond of friendship and the self-sacrificial love I have seen in many of my friends’ unions. Christianity has room for affirming so much of the good and beautiful there, while still keeping traditional views of sexual expression and love. 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.”
This is an important book, and David joins a growing list of faithful, same sex attracted, voices who have stepped back from our cultural consumption of the ‘sexuality is your identity’ Kool-Aid, to offer us a real path to the one who provides true satisfaction. These men and women are like the desert fathers of the third century who disconnected from the cultural stream they belonged to in order to discern where false worship had taken hold, in order to call the church back to the one who gives living water. The Lord Jesus.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” — John 4:13-14