I read this book because 1) Dr. Johnson is on my dissertation committee, and 2) it's about gays and the church. Although the book seems to be mainly directed toward a "mainline" denominational audience, and perhaps even more specifically, Presbyterians, I found that Dr. Johnson met his goal in making it useful for other possible church audiences as well. What I really mean by that is that I think CofCer's should read this book, and sadly, since our religious reading seems limited to Max Lucado and pop Christian stuff from God knows where, most CofCer's will never know this book even exists. Which of course would be the real reason I'm talking about it here. Hopefully the small handful of readers that I like to believe is out there (a fond dream aided and abetted by the free services of statcounter.com) will be intrigued enough to click here and get a copy.
And so, on to the reviewing.
First, it's a sort of dauntingly thorough task that Johnson sets himself. Not only does he want to speak broadly enough in a religious sense for his analysis to be useful cross-denominationally, but the subtitle is, "Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics," clueing us in that not only is he tackling the theological and ecclesial issues, but the broader societal issues of gay marriage vs. civil unions, etc., as well. He can do this because in another life, apparently, he used to be a lawyer. Thus the book consists of two parts: Part One, Religion, and Part Two, Law and Politics. While I found Part Two extremely informative and clarifying in a number of important ways, I will be concentrating on Part One in what follows.
Johnson is admirably straightforward about his own convictions, stating on page 3 of the introduction, "I argue that same-gender unions should be consecrated within our religious communities, validated within our legal systems, and welcomed within the framework of our democratic polity." (Those of you who disagree, I dare you to stop reading now. It won't make you more pure or righteous. It just makes you closed-minded.) Of course, anyone daring to write about an issue which is currently threatening not only the ecclesial unity of various denominations (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterians, you name it) but also (as Johnson argues) the democratic fabric of our nation, should go ahead and say up front where they stand. But what makes this particularly admirable from Johnson is that he accomplishes successfully the goal he sets for himself: "Even though the stance I take here is one of advocacy for gay couples, I try to positively engage people from across the spectrum."
In fact, one of the most important contributions of the book, IMO, is that he provides a seven-fold typology of current theological stances regarding same-gender relationships, offering not only a practical way of breaking down the harmful either-or, pro- or anti-, rhetoric of the heated (non)discussion now current, but a fair description of each stance, written in a way in which proponents of each category will easily recognize themselves. This kind of respect for the integrity of each stance is invaluable in a contentious debate where demonization and caricature are the rule of the day. Personally, I was able not only to say, "hey, that's me," but "hey, there's Brent," and "hey, there's my dad," and "hey, there's Mom." (And need I add that we were all different categories? Indeed.)
- prohibition: same-gender attraction is a perversion; repentance of gay identity and behavior necessary; solution=return to heterosexuality
- toleration: same-gender orientatation is a tragic burden; repentance of gay behavior, "hate the sin, love the sinner"; solution=acceptance of the necessity of life-long celibacy
- accommodation: same-gender attraction is tragic burden but like all fallen states open to traces of God's grace; gay and lesbian relationships may be "disobedient in form" but "obedient in substance" if monogamous; solution=encourage gay monogamy as lesser of evils & believe nothing is beyond God's redemptive reach
- legitimation: same-gender attraction is no worse than any other sinful condition; gays/lesbians' status in the church therefore no different from any other person; solution=equal treatment, including possibility of ordination
- celebration: same-gender attraction is an essential quality of gay personhood; gays/lesbians should recognize the goodness of their sexuality; solution=repent of internalization of societal homophobia
- liberation: same-gender attraction, like human sexuality in general, is socially constructed; the binary categories male or female are oppressive in multiple ways; solution=acknowledge the complexity of human sexuality
- consecration: human sexuality, including same-gender attraction, is ambiguous; sin is not located in orientation or single behaviors, but in the overall ordering of one's relationships; solution=consecrate human sexuality through the context of marriage
In reading the book I resonated most strongly with Johnson's description of the liberationist stance, although I am in agreement with his conclusions on the desirability of the church's consecration of gay relationships. But what I found even more helpful than having a handy label for myself is that I could trace the evolution of my theological thinking on this topic through the categories listed.Johnson approaches the task of Part One from a theological framework of "the three-part story [of God's relationship to the world] of creation, reconciliation, and redemption" (41). This three-part story provides the analytic framework for examining each of the seven theological viewpoints identified. What is most helpful about this strategy is that it brings to light the differences in theological emphasis between the seven viewpoints: some emphasize creation as the theological locus, others reconciliation or redemption. These differences generally remain implicit or go completely unrecognized during the heat of theological battle, but they are fundamentally significant in that they constitute the reason why 1) everyone is talking past each other, and 2) people can disagree vehemently without either party being necessarily "unfaithful."
Of more interest to the CofC reader, perhaps, will be that Johnson does engage the biblical text thoroughly and knowledgeably, and even provides a separate index for scripture references (326-330). Of course, most CofC readers will disagree with Johnson's biblical hermeneutic, making this an exercise in listening to the voice of the Other for the CofC audience--all the more reason to read it, say I.
Finally, Johnson offers a theological definition of marriage as a "means of grace" which provides the proper context for three basic human needs: companionship, commitment, and community (110). Despite the fact that they all begin with C, these are not arbitrary choices fueled by a predestined conclusion; rather, Johnson spends a great deal of time in the biblical text (Genesis, Leviticus, Song of Songs, parts of Pauline corpus, to name a few), demonstrating how these aspects of human life are acknowledged and provided for by God. Finding that marriage is ultimately about transformation, Johnson concludes that marriage is not "an order of creation," but an "order of redemption" (153); and thus the search for a suitable companion is one defined by this ultimate purpose of redemptive transformation. This means that the suitable companion for a gay person is a gay partner: one who can fulfill the redemptive aspect of relationship within the committed context of marriage. Such a relationship requires and deserves the recognition of the community, and this forms the basis of Johnson's advocacy of the consecrationist position. He is then able to say, in all seriousness, that the consecrationist position he advocates is quite as theologically conservative as is the prohibitionist position, in that it upholds the Christian view of marriage without compromise.
What little criticism I have to offer is this: in his conclusion, Johnson notes, "The main argument made against gay couples is that their love violates certain biblical prohibitions...By and large, these biblical prohibitions were directed at protecting male gender identity in a world in which male superiority over women was sacrosanct; thus they are ill-suited to guide moral or political action in the present day" (225). Do I disagree with this? Not at all--I think he's right on. But what this statement misses, which I find glaringly obvious, is that most Christians who read the biblical prohibitions in Leviticus as universally binding also read the prohibitions in 1 Tim 2:12 as universally binding...and thus Johnson's easy assumption that all will agree that "male superiority over women" is a principle "ill-suited to guide moral action" is not warranted in all contexts--and specifically, not something which can be so blithely assumed in a Church of Christ context.
Why should you bother reading it? Especially if you know that you disagree with the conclusions Johnson tells you at the outset that he's reached? Because even if you disagree, you will recognize your own stance in this book, treated respectfully and engaged with honestly. In return, you will have the chance to learn about what other people might possibly think about gays and why they think the way they do. At the end, if nothing you've read has changed your mind, you will at least have some better understanding of why your neighbor, your daughter, your gay cousin, your non-CofC friend or that lone liberal (or conservative) elder who disagrees with you. And that can only be a gain, for everyone.