People are regularly asking me to recommend books on LGBTQ+ theology, and I’ve been all too aware that my list of recommendations are almost all authored by men. The only notable exceptions, like Gay & Catholic by Eve Tushnet, which I reviewed here, and Unnatural by Rachel Murr, tend to be more autobiographical in nature.
So despite my overall weariness with the rehashing of this topic in multiple recent books, I was thrilled to hear Karen Keen would be publishing a book called Scripture, Ethics & the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. I was even more excited when I found out she had spent most of her life as a celibate Christian, promoting a traditional theological perspective on sexuality, before becoming convinced of a more affirming interpretation. I had high hopes that this would make her more likely to treat perspectives across the theological spectrum with dignity and humanity, without overgeneralizing, and thankfully, my hopes were realized.
Keen chooses a different starting point than most books in this genre, beginning with a brief history of the church’s perception of LGBTQ+ Christians, from “perverts and criminals,” to “hapless victims needing healing,” to “saints called to celibacy,” closing with today’s hodgepodge of portrayals. This journalistic introduction provides excellent context for the rest of the book, and even people who are immersed in this world (like me) will likely have at least one “aha moment” as she paints this shifting church portrait of queer Christians.
Next, instead of the usual deep dive into the all-too-familiar “clobber passages,” Keen provides a refreshingly concise outline of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman reasons for condemning same-sex relationships, noting that they represent common ground for traditional and progressive interpreters, who tend to agree that these factors influenced the biblical authors. She then brings the conversation back to the 21st century with summaries of four of the most compelling modern-day theological arguments on the traditional side (refusing to water them down, despite the fact that she no longer holds this view), and five from the progressive side, leading to what she describes as the current “stalemate” between them. Even though these arguments were familiar to me, I still found her brief explanations insightful enough to make me pick up my highlighter several times.
From here, Keen describes four progressive arguments of her own, taking a chapter for each of them. Initially these chapters each seemed like separate, unrelated stabs at this complex topic, but looking back, I realized that they built nicely on each other. A chapter about the complexities of applying Old Testament law and biblical mandates provides good foundation for the next chapter’s primer in interpretive ethics, where she shows Jesus and biblical authors interpreting ancient scriptures in new and generous ways, with the interpretive goal of alleviating suffering. This focus on suffering is the diving board into a chapter on forced celibacy, which includes an overview of Christian teaching on celibacy through the centuries. Her final argument takes shape around the origins of same-sex attraction, with a focus on scientific research and the theology of original sin; her distinction between “moral fallenness” and “natural fallenness” was particularly helpful for me.
By the time I reached her conclusion, where she ties these arguments together with her own life experience and issues a challenge for traditionalists to dig even deeper to scripture with a “yes, and” approach, Keen’s book had more than earned its way high up my “recommended resources” list. At only 114 pages, it’s certainly not an exhaustive take on affirming theology. But I, for one, welcome her brevity; I tend to find books that attempt to be exhaustive rather… exhausting. Keen covers impressive ground in this short book, employing every part of the Wesleyan quadrilateral (scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience), whether she realized it or not! I also appreciate that each of her chapters ends with a one-paragraph summary of her central argument and a list of books for further reading.
Whether you’re new to this LGBTQ+ Christian conversation, or eager for a fresh, succinct take that won’t use distorted/straw-man traditional arguments, check out Scripture, Ethics & the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships.
You can follow it up by reading traditional theologian Preston Sprinkle’s critique of the book, and Keen’s thoughtful, patient response (both parties also continue to respectfully disagree in further enlightening responses). Also see this great interview my colleague Jamie did with Karen Keen back in November.
Note: I’m grateful for the copy of the book I received from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.