3 things I hope critics don’t say about Matthew Vines’ new book
Earlier this week, young author and Christian activist Matthew Vines released his first book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same Sex Relationships, through evangelical publisher Convergent Books.
According to Vines, the book is the result of several years of intensive personal research on the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality. The arguments Vines makes in his book for the full inclusion of Christ-centered same sex couples in the Church are the result of the scholarly works he’s studied over the past few years during an official leave of absence from Harvard University. Vines compiles the results of this diverse biblical scholarship, and comfortably digests it with and for his readers, effectively synthesizing and elucidating the material for a popular audience.
This methodology makes the book readable (yet challenging) and commendable for anyone interested in learning more about this particularly relevant issue. While I don’t intend this article to serve as a review of the book, I’d like to share some initial observations and a few predictions for some of the (irrational) things that those who disapprove of the message of the book might claim.
Here are three things I really hope critics of Matthew’s book don’t say or do:
1. Make comparisons to Rob Bell and Love Wins
It’s striking how quickly the conservative evangelical machine has already mobilized itself against God and the Gay Christian. Several popular bloggers, pastors, and radio show hosts have already thoroughly condemned the work, counting it as satanic lies and heresy. Additionally, on the same day Vines’ book came out earlier this week, 5 Southern Baptist theologians announced their immediate release of a 95 page e-book “rebuttal” of Matthew’s work. One can expect only more ire and condemnation of the book to come. We are already seeing some blowback against the book’s publisher (à la World Vision), and I am particularly looking forward to the official disavowal of the book by John Piper and Tim Keller, once they realize they’ve been liberally (and approvingly!) quoted in several chapters.
The last time many of us in the (post)evangelical movement have seen the system come down as hard against a particular book was perhaps the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins.
I expect this comparison will come up at some point by a clever Patheos blogger or two. However, there are enough dissimilarities between these two book projects and their authors to make me sure of the fact that, no matter what further “farewelling” is yet to come, this comparison is questionable at best. While Rob is a seminary-trained pastor writing for an already established audience, Matthew is a member of the laity speaking into a burgeoning new conversation. While Rob’s book features a remarkable zero footnotes or references for his research and ideas, Vines’ book is replete with over 150 biblical, editorial, and scholastic references.
While both books were certainly written on contentious issues, with the release of Love Wins Rob in some ways deftly lobbed a powerful bomb into an already-charged conversation without any regards for the consequences. But Vines is not ignorant of the consequences, impact, or responsibility of his work, and it shows in that he has taken great pains to construct his argument in a way that is plain, concise, and nothing if not concrete. If Bell is a provocateur and a public controversialist, a creative artist painting ideas in broad, hinting strokes, Vines is an academic debater, dissecting and displaying the intricacies of his position and his opponents’ positions with remarkable clarity. If Bell’s work is an open, nebulous exploration into the realm of the perhaps, Vines’ project is a self-aware, no-nonsense, research-backed argument considering the biblical support for Christian same sex relationships.
These two authors had completely different goals, and they are two completely different public figures. I seriously hope no one tries to make the comparison.
2. Claim that Matthew is either trying to “rewrite the Bible” or “place his personal experience over the ultimate authority of scripture“
These two claims, which I admit I have already begun to hear, are particularly weak. To address the first, please let me make a distinction here that, I hope, will save critics face down the road: Matthew is not trying to rewrite the Bible. This point is quite easy to prove. Unless you can actually show me the biblical passages that Matthew is suggesting we strip and remove from the scriptural Canon, it is unfactual to suggest that Matthew is re-writing the Bible to suit his personal purposes.
Now, the second part of this charge is at least partially plausible: this concern, one that many nonaffirming Christians have, is quite valid — that no matter how powerful the personal stories of queer believers may be, we simply cannot place their personal experiences over God’s clear teaching about homosexuality, as revealed in scripture. This is an important contention, and it is admittedly something that many affirming people are guilty of.
But Matthew is not one of these people.
The core message of God and the Gay Christian is not to “challenge” or “dispute” the Bible itself, or to question whether the text is inspired and authoritative in our lives as followers of Christ. Matthew Vines is not placing his own individual experience as a gay Christian over the truth of the bible, and he is not even challenging the words of scripture because of his personal experience.
Rather – and this is an important distinction – Matthew’s experience as a gay Christian has led him to challenge his own personal, limited, interpretation of scripture.
Again, Matthew isn’t placing his experience over the Bible. He’s placing himself under the authority of the text. At the same time, like the millions of responsible Christians before us who in light of new evidence have reexamined traditional Church teaching on issues like heliocentrism, evolution, and slavery, he is suggesting that new scientific evidence regarding our understanding of sexual orientation should at least bring us to a faithful reexamination of how we interpret what the Bible has to say about homosexuality.
3. Insist on the possibility that gay people can really change!
In his critics’ defense, Matthew does not heavily focus on this aspect of the Christianity/homosexuality conversation in God and the Gay Christian. Matthew spends very little time exploring the possibility that a gay Christian can, through simple prayer and force of sheer will, become a straight Christian.
I expect some folks will eagerly attack this perceived chink in the armor of his argument. But what this criticism fails to understand is that this is because the idea that a gay sexual orientation is changeable through so called “reparative therapy” is no longer a viable part of this conversation. As Vines mentions early in his book, the collapse of international ex-gay ministry Exodus International this past summer revealed the conversion therapy industry for what it really was: a harmful, life-stealing misconception that has negatively affected countless Christians.
Thankfully, increasing numbers of even the fiercest critics of same-sex relationships acknowledge that gay (or “same-sex attracted”) Christians can no more supernaturally become straight Christians than blue-eyed Christians can somehow wake up one day as brown-eyed Christians.
Let me be clear on this: for Christians of all stripes, change of a certain kind is not only possible, but is wholly desirable and necessary – the kind of change Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about, for instance, a spiritual rebirth without which none of us can see the kingdom of God. However, if you personally spend any amount of time walking alongside the lives of actual “same-sex attracted” Christians, it will become clear to you that the kind of change ex-gay advocates used to talk about, a magical change in sexual orientation, is not even within the realm of possibility.
If you are interested in this subject, I can personally connect you with any number of gay Christians (both affirming and nonaffirming) who have spent countless years and thousands of dollars, experienced failed heterosexual marriages, and even gone so far as to nearly lose their lives in the course of pursuing removal of their same sex attractions in search of “heterosexual healing.”
In short, this is not a place to effectively critique Matthew. This is a place to follow the lead of a plethora of medical and psychological associations, to heed the testimony of our fellow lesbian and gay believers, and to remain silent as straight folks until we really begin to understand the horror that was the ex-gay movement.
For this reason, I hope that critiques of Vines’ book do not focus on (or even consider) the lie and the false hope that once insisted that “change is possible.”
Now, I know I said 3 things, but here’s one more just for fun:
4. Invoke the name of Robert Gagnon and claim his work refutes Vines’ position
There’s not a whole lot to say on this last point. Having read a good bit of Gagnon’s work myself, I will say that, as a friend once observed, he has a certain brilliance about his biblical interpretation and application. But in the area of his views on anatomical gender complementarity, he also happens to be in error. Though Vines did not answer Gagnon in full, settling on calling his arguments “speculative,” I encourage critics looking for a response to Gagnon’s work to consider reading James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality, which Vines quotes profusely in God and the Gay Christian. Brownson’s work destroys Gagnon’s aforementioned core argument against same sex relationships, and is uncontested by even Gagnon himself. (Here is a link to my Amazon review on Bible, Gender, Sexuality)
These are my four predictions/thoughts.
What do you think?
What do you hope that folks who are critical of Vines’ book won’t resort to saying or doing in the coming months? Like many of you, I appreciated the tone of Al Mohler and Matthew Vines’ Twitter conversation earlier this week, and I look forward to seeing the same sort of charity, authenticity, openness, and lack of misrepresentation shape this conversation as we go forward.
How about you?