In Can You Be Gay and Christian? the popular Christian apologist and radio broadcaster Michael Brown takes on one of the most controversial topics in the church today. The issue is not only important on its own terms, but also as a watershed topic for a range of issues pertaining to scripture, revelation, ethics, and contemporary culture. I am grateful to Dr. Brown for sending me a complimentary review copy of the book.
A Brief Summary of the Book
The book is divided into ten chapters. The first three chapters introduce the topic with discussions of love of neighbor (chapter 1), the importance of ethical judgment (chapter 2) and the charge that Christians are prejudiced against homosexuals (chapter 3).
This clears the way for the heart of the book which addresses the biblical teaching on homosexuality. It is often said that homosexuality reduces to a scant six verses in the Bible. But in chapter 4 Brown turns the tables by arguing that “The Bible is a Heterosexual Book”. Next, in chapter 5 he addresses the Levitical prohibitions of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. And in chapters 6 and 7 he addresses the teaching of Jesus: chapter 6 looks at Jesus’ teaching on the nature of marriage while chapter 7 debunks an apparently popular pro-gay reading of the healing of the centurion’s servant. Finally, in chapter 8 Brown looks at Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6.
In the final two chapters Brown draws the book to a close by arguing that homosexuality produces bad fruit (chapter 9) and then challenging the reader always to speak the truth in love (chapter 10).
A Very Brief Reaction to the Book
I was originally intending to do a single-installment review of Can You Be Gay and Christian? However, a couple factors conspired against it. To begin with, I enjoyed the book and found it to represent one of the best articulated presentations of the traditional Christian position that I’ve yet encountered. That alone makes it worthy of engagement.
At the same time, I found that for all its strengths the book’s argument also had some weaknesses, the reflection on which could provide effective catalysts for further exploration of the issue of homosexuality and the Bible. With this in mind, I will be exploring some of these issues the book raises.
Does pro-gay theology produce rotten fruit? Or is Brown just picking cherries?
In this first installment of the review I’m going to focus on chapter 9, “Everything Reproduces After Its Own Kind.” As I noted above, in this chapter Brown argues that homosexuality produces bad fruit, both in the church and the wider culture. He argues his case by amassing several examples such as provocative seminar topics from homosexual conferences and bad (and often shocking) biblical interpretation from gay theologians.
For example, Brown spends three pages (193-95) critiquing the book Radical Love by gay theologian Patrick Cheng. The example was well chosen to make his desired point as the examples Brown provides of Cheng’s argument are indeed appalling. For example, Cheng suggests that gay Christians should think of anonymous sexual encounters as acts of radical Christian hospitality (194-5). Further, Cheng suggests that Christian sexual orgies should be recast as “a manifestation of church as radical love.” (195) If Brown hadn’t provided the citations to the book I might have assumed he was parodying Cheng’s argument. From the perspective of mainstream Christian ethics, this fruit is bad, indeed. And Brown provides several additional examples.
While Brown’s argument will play well for a receptive audience, it invites the obvious rejoinder that he has merely cherry-picked examples of bad gay theology. But this doesn’t warrant the conclusion that gay Christians are all obliged to endorse Cheng’s anonymous sexual encounters and orgies. Indeed, one reviewer at Amazon.com gave Cheng’s book Radical Love one star (out of a possible five) and wrote: “Though I am gay and proud of it, I see no need for a book to practically justify promiscuity. Why is monogamy such an issue in the gay community in particular?” This gay reviewer appears to endorse traditional monogamy and reject Cheng’s advocacy for anonymous sexual encounters and sex parties.
Despite such vocal dissenting opinions, Brown insists that the perspective represented by theologians like Cheng “is the inevitable trajectory of ‘gay Christianity,’ given enough time.” (198) Perhaps, but I don’t see that Brown has demonstrated this. And I am quite certain that the one star reviewer of Cheng’s book would strongly disagree with Brown. So how does he escape the charge that he is merely cherry-picking some admittedly bad examples without demonstrating that those examples are the necessary fruit?
Brown is aware of the cherry-picking charge. At one point he defends the content of another book he wrote titled A Queer Thing Happened to America as follows: “the material was reflective of what was commonly found in gay biblical interpretation. It was not cherry-picked to make ‘gay Christians’ look bad. It was found in work after work that I read and researched.” (192) Brown clearly understands chapter 9 of this book in the same light. He believes the examples he provides do demonstrate the necessary trajectory. But I still don’t see why exactly we should accept Brown’s position rather than that of the one-star reviewer.
Reading chapter 9 reminded me of John MacArthur’s 1993 book Charismatic Chaos. MacArthur is a cessationist (i.e. a non-charismatic) and in his book he collates an endless list of examples of charismatic excess and naiveté … like the woman who describes God healing her flat tire. MacArthur seems to reason in a manner similar to Brown, with the assumption that these various examples illustrate the rotten fruit (and thus the rotten root) of charismatic Christianity.
I note this example in particular because Michael Brown describes himself as a charismatic who speaks in tongues (194). And I am guessing he would reject MacArthur’s cavalcade of charismatic ignominy by retorting that charismatic Christianity should not be characterized by the excesses and naiveté of some charismatics. But then why can’t the gay Christian say the same with respect to the ignominious examples like Patrick Cheng? (See 197 where Brown anticipates more conservative gay Christians making this kind of response.)
So far as I can see, Brown’s best attempt to establish that the link to bad fruit is both natural and necessary comes as he critiques the underlying method of gay theology which draws upon experience as a normative criterion for theological reflection. As Brown puts it, gay Christians begin with their gay identity and then read the Bible through the lens of that experience. He concludes,
“And so, rather than starting with the sure foundation that God and His Word are unchangeably true while everything else–including our sexuality–must be interpreted by God’s standards, ‘gay Christians’ interpret God and His Word through their sexuality, whether consciously or unconsciously.” (198)
And so we have the problem: once experience becomes the norm for theological reflection, one loses any practical restraint that might otherwise keep one from sliding down the slippery slope into worse and worse debauchery.
The problem with this kind of argument is that charismatics also draw upon experience in theological reflection, in particular the experience of the Holy Spirit. From its origins on Azusa Street in 1906 Pentecostal Christianity (the progenitor of contemporary charismatic Christianity) has been characterized by its experience of the Spirit as the catalyst for developing novel doctrines such as the notion of a post-conversion Spirit baptism that is identified with the gift of speaking in tongues.
Consider a concrete example of how experience shapes a charismatic’s reading of the Bible. Imagine that a self-described cessationist (one who believes sign gifts like speaking in tongues have ceased) is at a prayer meeting when he suddenly finds himself speaking in tongues. That experience will now frame the way he reads passages like 1 Corinthians 12-14. For example, prior to the experience, he might have read 1 Corinthians 13:8 (…where there are tongues, they will be stilled…) as indicative of the cessationist position. But after the experience he comes to read that passage differently: his experience of speaking in tongues leads to a different reading of the text.
The fact is that charismatic Christians and gay Christians both draw upon particular experiences as they read the text. Brown may believe that the charismatic experience illumines the text while the gay experience obscures it. That may be. But Brown cannot base his argument in chapter 9 on the illegitimacy of the gay appeal to experience as a theological criterion when charismatics likewise appeal to experience.
You can order Can You Be Gay and Christian? here.