There is an idea, popular among evangelicals, that Christian theology is simply a matter of counting Bible verses. While that simple notion has had a major impact on evangelicalism — for example, it’s the basic method of Wayne Grudem’s bewilderingly popular and very bad textbook Systematic Theology — it is based on a myth.
Theology and doctrine are actually formed by a complex interplay of scripture with received interpretive traditions, informed by one’s personal experience (or narrative), and shaped by rational and moral intuitions and reasoning from those intuitions, and all in dialogue with contemporary culture (with “contemporary culture” encompassing everything from natural science to standards of political organization and commonly received ethical views of the good life).
That’s why Christians can end up with such deep divisions on fundamental theological and ethical questions: different individuals (and communities) work with different datasets. And until we begin to appreciate that fact, we will be doomed to continue talking past one another.
The significance of personal narrative can hardly be understated. From Augustine’s Confessions to, ahem, Randal Rauser’s What’s So Confusing About Grace?, our litany of personal experiences woven together into a (more or less) coherent narrative inevitably shape the way we think in matters of theology as in all else. Thus, if you want better to understand a person’s theological or ethical stance, you’d be wise to begin by listening to their story.
With that in mind, about a month ago one of my students recommended I listen to the podcast Blue Babies Pink: A Southern Coming Out Story. The podcast (also available in readable blog form) was created by Brett Trapp (aka B.T. Harman) as 44 episodes of (approximately) 10-12 minutes each. Since I’m always interested in hearing people’s stories and how it shapes their theology (indeed, next semester I’m teaching a seminar on theological autobiography), I downloaded the show and began listening.
[Note to Reader: In this review, I’m going to summarize the narratival arc of Blue Babies Pink. If you would view that as a *spoiler* to the story, then stop reading the review now and just go listen to the podcast. You have been warned.]
In the podcast, Brett describes growing up in a pious Baptist family in smalltown Alabama, son of a Baptist minister. After some abortive attempts at dating in his teens, Brett gradually comes to realize that he is same-sex attracted. (For years, Brett is careful to avoid describing himself as gay.) Brett never pursues conversion therapy but into his 30s he maintains a commitment to life-long celibacy like that of Wesley Hill.
Needless to say, it isn’t easy: Brett attempts to stave off his loneliness and frustration by being a workaholic; he visits a couple counselors with varying levels of success; finally, he begins to experience a breakdown in psychological and physical wellness which he gradually links to his self-imposed celibacy.
Forty-four episodes is a lot, and I found that the narrative began to get bogged down about two-thirds of the way through amidst a series of vignettes of loneliness, frustration, and struggle. While these various scenes certainly serve the narrative arc, I suspect an editor would have suggested some cutting in this section.
Gradually, the series picks up again and arguably reaches its emotional peak as Brett recounts several occasions of coming out to family and friends as a celibate gay person. (Another emotional peak comes as Brett describes the painful process of losing his father to ALS.) Here, and indeed throughout the series, there are nuggets of wisdom, care and compassion carefully mined from the bedrock of a life lived.
The podcast builds toward the point in 2012 when Brett describes finally reaching a breaking point in which he decides he can no longer live as a celibate gay man. He downloads dating app Tinder (while acknowledging it has since acquired a negative reputation as being a mere medium for soulless hookups) and describes going on his first date with another man. And after some concluding reflections, the series ends.
This brings me to my two biggest disappointments with Blue Babies Pink. To begin with, while Brett candidly shares the reaction of friends and family to his coming out as a celibate gay man, he is largely silent on their reaction to his decision to pursue romantic gay relationships. After investing this much time in a single personal narrative, it is understandable that the listener/reader will expect more candor on this monumental decision, and thus feel let down when it is withheld.
Even more significantly, Brett also provides no explanation of the theological reasoning that supported his final decision to abandon celibacy. Instead, he simply makes passing reference to the fact that others have already argued for a gay-affirming position on biblical and theological grounds. This is certainly true, but again after investing so much time in Brett’s story, I’d really want to hear how he interprets scripture and reasons theologically.
For example, how does Brett now think about the prohibitions of Exodus 18 and 20 and the Torah more generally? Does he take the view that Paul’s condemnations in Romans and 1 Corinthians should be limited to temple prostitution and pederasty? To what degree does Brett believe his own psychological disintegration as a celibate gay man justifies his abandonment of celibacy? Does Brett consider same-sex monogamous relationships to be a divine gift equivalent to heterosexual romantic relationships? Or, as Lewis Smedes argued, would he instead view same-sex attraction as part of the fall and same-sex relationships as a concession to brokenness analogous to couples that are divorced and remarried?
On these and other matters, the listener/reader can only guess as to Brett’s true thoughts. After forty-four episodes, I was hoping for more.
While I was disappointed by the relative brevity of the conclusion to Blue Babies Pink, and the spartan biblical, theological, and ethical reflection, those disappointments do not override my appreciation for the series. Brett is a very capable writer and most episodes end on a hook that pulls the listener/reader back for more. As I said above, the series includes many bits of wisdom. And whether you agree with Brett’s final decision or not, listening to this series will give you far greater insight into the life and struggles of the same-sex attracted Christian.
You can visit Brett (or B.T.) online at https://btharman.com/