Review of Andrew Marin's 'Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community'

Review of Andrew Marin, Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community

IVP USA, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8308-3626-0

by Andrew Goddard

I have to confess that over recent years I must have read dozens – no, let’s be honest – probably over a hundred books relating to homosexuality. The situation was such that even seven years ago, our then probably 8 year old daughter clearly unsettled the shop assistant in a bargain book store when - as I handed over the book I was buying – she asked in a loud voice “Is that another book on homosexuality, daddy?”. The answer, for once, was thankfully “No – it’s a Time Guide To the House of Commons”!

Needless to say, in terms of the value of each new book read, diminishing returns set in some time ago. That is until I discovered – through looking at the IVP website for information on their other important book (hopefully soon to be reviewed on Fulcrum) Ex-Gays? – this unique and challenging book by Andrew Marin, founder of The Marin Foundation.

As the identity of the publisher signals, this is a book particularly written for and from the evangelical constituency. But it is a book like no other I know, a book which desperately needed to be written, a book which sadly very few people could write, a book which every Christian – or certainly every evangelical - who wants to learn about homosexuality and a Christian response to gay and lesbian people – should read.

The book is, however, really not ultimately about homosexuality. It is at heart about mission and in particular about what it means to be Christ-like towards a community which Christ’s followers have hurt and alienated, towards people we think we can tell the truth about and to but whom we basically do not understand, and towards an important cultural sub-group who have become in many ways our social and political enemies and we are therefore especially called to love. It is a book about how – incredibly and miraculously (as a radio host confesses in a story at the end of the book) - a committed young evangelical Christian has been sharing his life and the gospel with the GLBT community in a major American city. It is a book which, in ten chapters and 200 pages, is packed full of wise insights, memorable stories (both sad and joyful) and helpful guidance about how to build bridges between Christians and GLBT people.

In recent years I have sought to explain, commend and defend the “traditional” Christian understanding about human sexuality. I have also tried to listen to and learn from those Christians who cannot accept this understanding and who are seeking and developing alternative patterns of discipleship. In relation to the former Marin says little directly. In relation the latter, I found that Marin powerfully expresses much of what I’ve begun to learn (and warns against much I continually have to un-learn) but also made me aware how much more I need to learn - intellectually, experientially and spiritually. In particular, his book showed me how narrow and in-house my listening – and probably most of the (admittedly limited) evangelical listening to GLBT people - has been, focussed as it has been on the church debate. It has left me wrestling with whether and how I can participate in that debate from a traditionalist position and also find a way of doing at least a small part of what Marin has been doing by going beyond the confines of the church and its political battles and seeking and sharing Christ in the GLBT community.

For the growing number of evangelicals who are aware of – and embarrassed by - the scandal caused by evangelicalism being identified simply as “anti-gay”, who know they cannot line up behind some of the public face of evangelical responses to sexuality debates, who are eager to really understand and share the gospel with GLBT people and who want to work out what it means to welcome them with integrity into the church and refocus the whole debate and controversy that plagues the church, this book provides what until now we have lacked in terms of evangelical wisdom rooted in Scripture and practical experience of God’s mission.

As with any book, every reader will find inadequacies and things to disagree with in Marin’s work. It surprises me, for example, that although he offers an introduction to the “revisionist” reading of Scripture, he says very little about the biblical and theological rationale for the view he obviously believes most of his readers will hold. Given the subject matter, many will likely struggle in their reaction to much in Marin’s story and proposals. In the words of one brilliant review -

“It is a book that will put most of you into an immediate struggle. You are going to read what Marin says about the situation between Evangelicals and the Gay community with intense appreciation, but part of your ingrained evangelical training will be talking to you the whole time, telling you to stop thinking about anything other than the abomination of Gay sex and the verses that apply. You’ll want to shut it and you’ll want to keep reading. You’ll know you need this and you aren’t hearing it anywhere else, but part of you will say you’re slipping into squishy, emerging liberalism. You aren’t. You are applying the Gospel”.

Indeed, given the polarised and emotive nature of the situation, I wouldn’t be surprised if some even question Marin’s evangelical credentials and seek to rebut his teaching and undermine his testimony. If so that would simply be a sign of just how far we all need to travel if evangelicals are in any sense going to be Jesus-like people with good news that can be received by GLBT people.

I’m still not sure what Marin’s work means for me or for evangelicals as a whole here in the UK and the Church of England. I am however sure it must have an impact. My hope and prayer is therefore that – despite the fact it may not get much attention here as it has an American publisher and clearly comes from an American context - the book will get a wide readership. Even more importantly it needs a wide followership of people who will explore together various ways of making its vision more of a reality.

What follows below tries to outline the book’s structure and some of what I saw as its main themes but of course the only way to do it justice would be to buy it, read it yourself and begin to work out how we can “elevate the conversation with the gay community” and show that indeed “love is an orientation”.

Outline and Summary of book

Andrew Marin opens by describing how over three months his three best friends came out to him – “a straight, white, conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical male….raised in a Christian home in a conservative suburb of Chicago…[who] wanted absolutely nothing to do with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community” (16) - and how God then led him to living and ministering to that community and founding The Marin Foundation. The rest of the book comprises his account of that journey and reflections on what God has taught him through it.

The opening chapter helps readers get inside what it likes to discover one has same-sex attraction. It introduces John who at 15 “finally understood what was making him so different from every other boy his age: he was gay” (25). Describing how he wrestled and prayed to change, Marin writes, “What happens in the long run to a person who prays the same prayer every night and wakes up every morning not having that prayer answered? If John lives to be 75, he could look forward to 21,915 consecutive mornings of wondering whether there really is a God, or convincing himself that he’s condemned to hell because of attractions he can’t figure out” (27). Marin’s challenge is clear – “Christians need to start wilfully planting themselves in the middle of some very uncomfortable places – making a conscious commitment to stay in that place with the GLBT community” (27). He proceeds to summarise (31-2) nine main concepts that lead GLBT communities, whether secular or religious, to fear conservative evangelical Christian churches and people and then shows how the church has failed them. He is clear what is needed – “Christians must be the first to apologize, and admit that we have wronged people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender…Until we come to the realization that we don’t understand the GLBT community, nothing substantial can occur…Stepping out of what we know in order to comprehend their life from their perspective is the only way we can ultimately begin to learn how to productively reach out and build a bridge” (33). His call from the start is for empathy and for validation (different from affirmation) as “an essential starting point to take gay people at their word” (35).

The second chapter opens by vividly capturing the evangelical problem – he explains that we seem to believe there are three options for connecting faith and sexuality – “be heterosexual, be celibate or live in sin” and “once Christians have presented these three options to a gay person, most consider their job effectively complete as it’s now up to the gay person to either embrace or reject this truth” (36). He proceeds to show how we misunderstand issues relating to behaviour and identity (“The easiest way we can start to change these negative perceptions is to remove ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ from our vocabulary…” (47)) and how our focus on causes of homosexuality is unhelpful. He starkly contrasts our attitude to GLBT communities to that towards other “unreached groups” and is blunt in identifying a major problem – “Christians have given the gay community the impression that only their sexual behaviour is worth discussing” (43). This is illustrated with a horrendous story of a closeted gay man’s conversation with his conservative Christian friend and the testimony that “over the years many people in the GLBT community have told me about the lasting impact from a conversation they once had with a Christian – a conversation that Christian acquaintance probably doesn’t even remember” (44). His proposal is “to start moving past our default responses toward the GLBT community”, think relationally and build trust – “it’s time to pay more attention to living out what we believe instead of always trying to say it” (45).

Turning to the GLBT experience in the broader culture, Marin’s chapter three explores the impact of stigma, shame and politics and the experience of being a minority. He argues Christians can change attitudes that see gay people as deviant and horrid by “offering hope and compassion to a people who have been burdened with a thick dose of stigma and shame in all aspects of their life” (53). Sketching something of gay history and traditional Christian responses, he shows why Christians are viewed so negatively and notes that “in real life both Christians and the GLBT community are imagining themselves in the same role: each as the underdog who has to fight their way out of the corner. Both believe they are David and the other is Goliath. Two oppressed mindsets fighting each other will never be able to win the same battle” (57). Describing the spiritual damage caused by shame and again using powerful stories of real-life people he challenges the impression Christians give that “GLBT people have to be fixed”, warns against using “homosexual” (“instead use words like gay, lesbian, GLBT, gay and lesbian community” (60)) and shares three lessons he has learned over the years: get past our own issues regarding the GLBT community, do our homework (“we have to go to the culture before we know the culture”) and “prepare ourselves to not say or do anything that would be contrary to our intent to learn or serve…” (63).

The fourth chapter is almost the only part of the book that is near to what you might find in most other books on Christianity and homosexuality as Marin describes his encounter with what might be called a “revisionist” Christian perspective. But even here his contribution is original. Most Anglicans will be struck by his sheltered evangelical background as he describes “the words I never thought to hear from a pastor” who “told me that he intentionally disregards entire sections of the Bible…” (67). He then goes on to recount “the words I never thought I’d hear from God” – “What if every professing gay pastor or gay Christian you ever meet for the rest of your life is exactly like that pastor? Does that make what I have asked you to do any less relevant? Now go and do as I have commanded” (68). Marin describes how in response to this word from God he set up meetings with every gay pastor and church he could find in Chicago so as “to learn about their beliefs and figure out how to somehow get involved” (68). Lest readers think it is only “liberals” who are “gay Christians”, Marin proceeds to uncover the large number of hidden gay Christians in conservative churches (a situation that unquestionably exists here in the UK too) with powerful and disturbing stories:

a very well-known church in the Midwest employs three gay Christians in key positions and they don’t even know! Those three people regularly talk to me because they don’t know where else to turn. I find that to be quite the unfortunate oxymoron – these three people all work at a church they still don’t have anywhere to turn” (69)

He claims that “most gay Christians live in so much fear that they have learned how to proficiently blend in to their conservative surroundings” (69). Through the story of Tim he identifies some questions about what it might mean to be or to call oneself a gay Christian but notes “these are all questions for Tim, not for those of us who do not feel same-sex attractions. Christians should not be answering these questions for them, but living life with those who have them” (72). He then proceeds briefly to outline seven elements of the pro-gay theological hermeneutic (being clear “I am not asking you to agree with their beliefs, but I am asking you to humbly learn their views from their perspective” (72)) and follows up with Mel White’s helpful eight premises which form his biblical responses to why he is a gay Christian. His summary of what is needed is clear and concise – “we need to seek out conversation partners and talk through these key points knowing that both partners will be committed without knowing where the conversations will ultimately lead them” (78). How that is done is simple – in theory:

find a gay church with a gay pastor; ask to get together with them so you can listen and learn…invite GLBT people to your church…if the body of Christ is to truly make a difference you must first drop the overt argument mindset…Until the body of Christ believes that peaceful productivity with gays and lesbians is actually an option, how can we ever expect it to happen? (78-80).

The practice, as Marin’s own testimony here shows, is much more challenging and unsettling.

Having set out some of the challenges, chapter five develops the image of bridge-building by exploring “the GLBT Quest for Good News from God” and honestly describing the cost of such bridge-building. This involves what Marin calls “elevating the conversation” by “moving the starting point of the conversation to the starting point of the conversation partner” (83). He argues that what the GLBT community is looking for is validation and we need to recognise that “only God can truly validate and judge anyone or anything” (84) and so we need to introduce people to an intimate personal relationship with God. In one sense that should not be contentious but

Christians look at a gay or lesbian person and see a potential behavioural change instead of a person longing to know the same Christ we seek. If we could only release control of what might happen down the road in a GLBT person’s life when Jesus enters, I promise that God loves his children enough to always tell each of them what he feels is best for their life (85).

This means that “the way forward with the GLBT community is not a debate on the Bible’s statements about same-sex sexual behaviour but a discussion of how to have an intimate, real, conversational relationship with the Father and Judge” (87). After confessing his own past homophobia, Marin proceeds to remind heterosexual Christians that we cannot take our sexuality as a birthright and asks us to consider such questions as “Why was I not chosen to have a same-sex attraction?...Why have I never had to entertain the idea of being celibate for my entire life?” (93). The challenge is powerfully captured in the story of Ron who at a well-known evangelical church watched a video taken of a man a few months before he died in which he said “the five best days of his life were the day he met his wife, the day they got married and the day each of his three children were born”. Ron then went tearfully to his pastor and said – “If I continue to live the way that you’re suggesting that I live [celibate], then I’ll never experience any of the five best days that man experienced before his death” (94). The central challenge is summed up in the closing paragraphs – “Gays and lesbians are searching for what we long for the most – good news from God. Christians have to rely on the process, the journey, the nomadic discovery of searching for the Truth through God, alongside gays and lesbians…” (96).

To rise to that challenge requires what Marin explores in chapter six and gives the book its title – love, in the form of “measurable unconditional behaviours”. Evangelicals need to reach beyond the small proportion of gays and lesbians interested in changing their orientation. The problems with our focus on this are challenged head-on with Marin reporting how a Christian who was very involved in ex-gay ministry and claiming as high as a 67% “success rate” was challenged about the 33% who “failed” and finally admitted what happens with the “failures” – “Nothing – we don’t have any follow-up and we don’t know what happens to them after they leave [or fail]” (100). No wonder the recent study UnChristian found that 91% of 16-21 year-old non-Christians viewed Christians as “anti-gay”!

After yet another powerful story he offers an ideal that differs from marriage, a gay relationship or celibacy –

it’s OK to be yourself before God and not conform to any of the other three ways that seem ideal to the outside world…an ideal focussed on an identity in Christ rather than behaviour – straight, gay or celibate – as the judge of one’s acceptability…an ideal existence […] that does not have to accept or conform to any sexual personification that mainstream society (secular or religious) deems as the only means to a normal existence (103).

This way forward is simply to “allow people to consider God unencumbered by the blinders of a forced sexual identity – in either direction” (103) but it requires changing the questions and so the conversation. And that requires – like Jesus - refusing simple one-word answers to the standard closed-ended questions. Drawing again on his own ministry, he shows us the power of simple Bible study, the need to treat the gay and lesbian community as God’s children and the need to help them connect with God. The principle is one from Billy Graham – “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love” (108). And that love has to be unconditional: “the only way for gays and lesbians to believe what Christians profess about love is through tangible, measurable and unconditional behaviours that speak for themselves” (108). That means things like “a nonjudgmental safe place” and saying and showing that nothing will make us give up on people. It means that “lives change with Jesus, and if a GLBT person says that God has indicated that it’s OK to be gay, the Christian community has to deeply trust and rely on the knowledge that we can never know the end to God’s best journey for someone else’s life” (110-1), a principle powerfully illustrated by the story he tells of Rob.

The final four chapters seek to encapsulate the principles he has learned in what he terms “the big five” principles (chapter 7) that are then fleshed out in sixteen commitments (chapters 8-10). The five principles for a more constructive conversation which are discussed in chapter seven focus on the five main texts at the heart of the exegetical and hermeneutical debates: Gen 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9-11 and 1 Tim 1:9-11. But Marin reads these not to see what we might learn about homosexuality but about “the overarching lessons about what is being described about God and his will for our lives…eternal principles on how to seek God more intently”. He concludes that “what had always been used as the same old ‘gay-bashing’ passages can instead build a bridge that allows GLBT people to draw near to God” (118). I have to confess that while I liked this approach and found elements in his five principles helpful and sound, I wasn’t always as convinced by his framing of them or his attempt to ground them in these texts. So, what are the “big five”?

From Genesis 19 the “mind-frame-shift principle” looks at Lot’s wife and warns us that “until people (straight and GLBT) learn to shift their own mind frame from earthly issues [he later relates this to “debating orientation, sex or politics”], there can never be any forward movement in a personal relationship with Jesus” (121). The Holiness Code in Leviticus provides the “crossroads principle” – “Am I to make a wilful, knowledgeable and cognizant decision to live distinctly for God or just blend in to all facets of daily life” (126). The third, “oneness principle” from Romans 1, flows from that choice for distinctive living and leads us to recognize what positively or negatively affects our individual oneness with the Lord. For GLBT Christians he argues that “As gays and lesbians choose for God, they begin the process of integrating their faith with a daily life that is permeated by God. God meets them, speaks to them and hears them, personally and individually telling each of his beloved children what he feels is best for their life” (129). Turning to 1 Corinthians, Marin argues for the principle of “the Great Christian debate” which focuses on when a Christian should release responsibility for someone else’s life and so asks “When do gays and lesbians have the right to be their own person in Christ, regardless of whether a Christian agrees with their conclusion…?” (133) while also remaining unconditionally there for people as Paul was for the Corinthians. Finally, from 1 Timothy 1, Marin develops the “think-big-picture principle” in which we trust God, stand firm and persevere convinced that each person “has until their very last breath to accomplish what God has set forth for their life” (134).

From these five principles, the Marin Foundation has developed sixteen commitments which relate to the foundation (ch 8), approach (ch 9) and implementation (ch 10) of a way of life which builds a sustainable bridge between Christians and the GLBT community so that there can develop “a peaceful, productive and sustainable relationship that makes a significant impact for the kingdom” (139).

The basic foundation is summed up in the recognition at the start that of the eighth chapter that we must neither lie to people nor leave them. Marin spells this out in relation the need for commitment and an approach marked by boldness but not confrontation (illustrated by not protesting against Gay Pride marches but instead getting alongside those on them and representing Jesus “who we think would be productively immersed in the community” (145)). He then applies each of the “big five” principles with a mix of further biblical reflection and vivid and honest stories of his own ministry, of some GLBT people he has met and of God’s work in their lives. He also gives some responses to those who think he has sold out and is soft or a heretic. His final story of Rich and his death-bed plea - “Can you be here for me now and tell God that I am truly sorry for ignoring him?” – powerfully supports his contention that “the bombardment of doctrine or the pressure of a decision is not what is needed to get an eternal point across. Presence is more than enough” (160).

The penultimate chapter explores the need to build a bridge by asking the right questions, offering a three-fold commitment to an inquisitive approach (that is clear it does not have all the answers), to transparency and truthfulness (and so to honesty and vulnerability) and to not being scared to be yourself. Here again there are many pearls of wisdom – asking open-ended questions like “what’s it like to be you?” which “owns the reality that heterosexual people can never fully identify with the life experience of gay people” (163) – and powerful stories. There is also the stark and perhaps for some readers shocking testimony that “I have never met a more loving community in my life than the GLBT community” (166).

Finally, in his closing chapter Marin gives six commitments to help us cross the bridge such as “Don’t No them, Know them” and the need to recognise God’s timetable because – alluding to the book’s title - “a journey on God’s timetable allows Christians to intently focus on their love as an orientation” (173). This is then spelled out in simple but challenging terms:

Love is an orientation that doesn’t scrutinize; rather, it observes. It doesn’t pick GLBT people’s lives apart, call down judgment on them or, conversely, give them dispensation to be and do whatever they want. Love doesn’t dismiss bad behaviour or even outright falsehood, but love actively, concretely seeks the best for another…The body of Christ is being petitioned to stand receptive, yearned after as God longs for the moment when his children allow their grasp of love to be outlined by him – that we might once again return to Jesus’ original call to his disciples, as we continue on in the GLBT community loving one another on his timetable as God has so done with us (173-4).

That means we must see we are not the solution and let God be God and seek to build our credibility with the GLBT community even if we face criticism from other Christians who think this is compromise or affirming the GLBT worldview. Here Marin again reflects on his experience and that of the Marin Foundation in the light of Scripture and Jesus’ pattern of ministry. Finally, we must be committed to answering the tough questions and Marin concludes by identifying the recurring five (Are gays and lesbians born that way? Is homosexuality a sin? Can a GLBT person change? Can you be gay and Christian? Are GLBT people going to hell?), exploring how Jesus in the gospels responded to such closed-ended controversial questions and mapping out how we can follow his pattern in developing creative and faithful responses and “stop asking and answering closed-ended questions in an attempt to determine if someone is on “our team” or “their team”” (185).

The book’s conclusion (followed by a short appendix with more testimonies from the gay community) is yet another powerful, tear-filled story of Marin’s encounter with a GLBT person and with God when he – a conservative evangelical Christian - was invited to speak to a large GLBT conference. His final sentences capture and sum up his passion, calling and challenge to the church, and particularly to evangelicals:

All God needs are willing hearts to extend his unconditional love for all of his children – gay and straight. This is our blessing. This is our bold calling. This is our orientation (189).

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