“Pray Away the Gay?” a lesson in talking past one another…..

I am late entering the conversation around the Lisa Ling, Our America program entitled, “Pray Away the Gay?” If you haven’t had the opportunity to view the program, you can view it here. The program created a buzz with a fair bit of controversy and criticism. At the risk that my weighing in is “old news”, I have a few good reasons for my late entrance.

The program didn’t air in Canada so I had to wait for the online version. And unlike some folks who jumped the gun based solely on preview clips, I wanted to see the whole thing before articulating my reflections. Then when I did get the link I was on vacation – and my family rightly claimed my time and attention. But finally, I don’t tend to be a quick commenter. I like to allow things to ruminate for a while. I try to pull back to see some of the bigger picture and vicarious threads that become interwoven in the conversation that such a program is simply a catalyst for. In my experience, quick reactions just don’t make for good bridge-building as they inevitably carry more opinion than reflection. And bridging requires some quiet, prayerful reflection. Bridging invites one to quiet the din in one’s own mind and heart and strain to hear the still, small voice of the Spirit who is a trustworthy guide to extending humble respect and dignity across diversity. It takes some quietness and stillness because these conversations at the intersection of faith and sexuality are so complex. Our language needs to be both precise and poetic. What I mean by that is the necessity to ensure that parties across the conversation understand terms in a similar manner – that they aren’t talking apples and oranges inadvertently with one another – but that their conversation together is not so scientifically forensic that it lacks imagination and generosity. That’s where the poetry comes in. Conversation isn’t research (at least not first and foremost). Conversation is about relating, it is about seeing one another’s humanity, listening with a commitment to be fully present. It is connecting to our creativity in opening our minds (where we exercise our intellectual capacity), our souls (the seat of our emotions) and our spirit (where we hear the voice of God).

One of my primary observations is that anytime you tackle this complex of a topic in a one hour documentary (which is really only 42 minutes once you subtract the commercials – which my online version mercifully did), you can take one of two paths. The first path seeks to take a more general approach that introduces the topic to a broad audience. The second chooses one specific question and fleshes that out with the risk of losing some of the audience who lack the basic overview of the subject. Lisa Ling, understandably, attempted the former. The challenge is not having the time and space to ensure clarity in the tagline questions. The title of the program would suggest that Ling is wanting to discover whether or not sexual orientation can be influenced by spiritual intervention. This question is a legitimate one given the confusion of public messages from various sources. Rather than the black and white totalitarian question, “Can you pray the gay away?” exploration of the degree of influence spiritual intervention might have on sexual orientation could have been a helpful program. But, it isn’t a very marketable idea. Nuance rarely is. Rather, with the title as it was, the program invites unreflective polarity. Many will simply say, “of course not” – end of discussion. Others may feel forced to say – “yes” – even though they probably would want to offer a much more multi-faceted response than a simple closed-ended answer.

But the program also asked the question, “Can you be gay and be Christian?” At first blush, this may seem to simply be the other side of the same coin. But I would submit that these are two very different questions – and it comes down to a matter of language. I fear that without precision in our language, it will be very challenging to move forward in this conversation in a manner that embodies postures of peace-making.

I find myself increasingly agitated by the phrase, “homosexuality is a sin”. I am agitated because the concept presents itself as somehow being biblical – when it is quite frankly a projection upon the text. The bible never refers to homosexuality. Rather, it refers to behaviors. One might also argue that it addresses desires and/or temptations. I will accede to that ¬ – although I would suggest that when temptation / desires are mentioned in connection with same-sex behavior the texts are pointing to the arena of lust and not simply the presence of attraction. The bible never addresses same-sex attraction as an enduring reality and aspect of one’s sense of personhood in relation to the world of people and relationships. Likewise, the bible never addresses sexual orientation. Granted, these concepts weren’t part of the language of the day. But by the same token, one ought not to develop a position on the assumption from silence. Certainly, in the Genesis narrative, we see a picture of the first male and female. Again, however, while this describes an experience that if often viewed as normative, has been experienced by the majority, and may be described by many as God’s best, the text itself does not indicate that a variant or difference in experience ought to be viewed as inherently sinful. To assume this from the creation account again projects onto the text a prohibition that it does not specifically articulate. To imprint a sense of gender on God or to further impose an anthropomorphic image of heterosexual one flesh union on the character of God seems to me to be an additional assumption that is not clearly spelled out in the text. We, rather, need humbly confess that we lack the capacity to apprehend the fullness of who God is. We are his image bearers – not the other way around.

The other reality that must be considered is that the bible addresses sexual behavior (and it is hotly debated by scholars and laity alike just what sexual behavior is specifically identified) and lust in relation to same-sex sexuality – but it does not articulate a commentary on same sex relational love. This reinforces my contention that the bible does not address sexual orientation. Same-sex sexual orientation is not to be reduced to a set of sexual behaviors. Rather, when an individual experiences a predominant, persistent attraction to their own gender it is a multi-faceted, integrative experience in how they relate to both their own gender and the opposite gender. This is true for those who are heterosexually oriented as well. Heterosexuality is more than just sexual behavior associated with the opposite sex. So too, homosexuality is more than just sexual behavior with the same sex. Homosexuality ought not be reduced to fantasized or actual genitalized sex acts any more than heterosexuality should.

Additionally, one does need to consider what the biblical narrative actually says about same-sex intimate (non-consummated) love. I invite correction, but given my annual reading through of scripture over the last number of years, I am unaware of any negative story about same-sex relational love. What we do have are incredibly positive accounts of love between David and Jonathon and Ruth and Naomi. I don’t think one can assume consummated relationships in either account, but the reality of intimate relationship cannot be disputed. To assume that same-sex attracted people must guard themselves from experiencing intimacy in same-sex relationships (for the time being, the question of sexual behavior is set aside) as an essential aspect of the journey towards diminishing the reality of their same-sex attractions is not something prescribed in scripture – and, in my observation, not even described in scripture.

I say all of this because I think it unhelpful to get in a pissing match over whether being gay is a sin, if one understands the word gay to mean attracted/oriented to the same sex and desiring to most intimately relate to a companion of the same-sex. So when generalized statements are made like, “Can you be gay and Christian?” I want to pull my hair out. Of course you can be gay and be a Christian. The fact that our popular media is still asking this question proves the abysmal job the church has done in communicating a doctrine of justification that is truly consistent with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and his gift of faith, mercy and grace to those who turn to him.

The significant questions – and the ones I wish Lisa Ling had attempted to tackle are these: 1. Why would someone not want to be same-sex attracted? This, then, is an open ended question that addresses intentions, motivations, attitudes, fears, acceptance, shame etc. rather than a closed ended question like “can you pray the gay away?” or “can you be gay and a Christian?” 2. Why are some Christians who experience same-sex attraction convicted that: a. they should seek to express themselves relationally and sexually as a heterosexual despite the likely potential of lingering / residual / dominant same-sex attractions b. or they should accept the reality of their same-sex attractions but live a life of mastery and abstention from sexual behavior c. or they should receive and celebrate their same-sex attraction as a unique gift from God that invites them to experience intimacy and fidelity within the same godly boundaries as any other human being regardless of gender. 3. What causes such different experiences of biblical conviction? How do these convictions play out in the commitments and relationships of different individuals?

I think these questions would have had the potential to highlight the spectrum of diverse experiences of same-sex attracted Christians with the kind of objectivity that Lisa Ling seemed to be striving for.

Instead, with the snap shot of people presented in the program, viewers were at a loss to really understand the complexity and diverse experiences of authenticity of same-sex attracted Christians. Motivations could not be fully explored in the time allotment. How much did fear play a role? Shame? Where were various people at in the journey to self-acceptance? What was their view of God? How did they understand the bible? All of these things would have been helpful to explore. But ….. such things probably don’t boost television ratings, don’t create catchy tag-lines, and don’t fit in 42 minutes of costly on air time.

I know Alan and Leslie Chambers personally. I’ve seen them together and with their kids. I know they love each other and love being parents. I have zero reason to question or judge the depth of their love, their commitment to each other and their family. I know they view their life as a gift of grace – and frankly – any loving family should receive that reality as a gift of grace. Alan happens to be in the spotlight – some would call him a professional ex-gay. But I know lots of men like Alan who aren’t in the spotlight what-so-ever. They are honest with their spouses, with close friends, confidantes, accountability partners etc. They are same-sex attracted – but are deeply committed to their wives and children. They shape their lives around their commitments to God and their family. Are they living a lie – or are they living the life they want to live in a manner that is consistent with their convictions and commitments? I would suggest that for many it is the latter.

The huge challenge is that I also know many fractured families and deeply distressed individuals. In these cases, despite filial love, Christian commitment, and prayerful motivation, life in a mixed orientation marriage was not sustainable. I have heard the heart-break, the agonized wrestling, the deep grief and disappointment, the shattered dreams. And I will not sit in any judgment seat that presumes to measure whether they tried hard enough or in the right way. That is God’s privileged place and his alone.

I was concerned in listening to both Janet and Christian on the program of their desire to be married to someone of the opposite sex – in how self-centric their focus seemed to be. While Lisa Ling asked about whether they thought they could be attracted to the opposite sex – she did not ask whether they considered what a potential spouse would deserve. Christian marriage isn’t about what an individual wants – it is about what they can give. I’ve had too many straight spouses in my office weeping, feeling the emptiness of not being fully loved or desired to ever recommend mixed orientation marriage. So while I encourage the people I know who are deeply invested and making a healthy and meaningful go of marriage and family with an opposite gender spouse – it seems to me to be like playing Russian roulette with the life of another when you’re in the shoes of someone like Christian expressing that you really want that even though you’re totally into the same sex.