We’re beginning an occasional series of short book reviews, written by guest writers, on topics relevant to Christians in the academy. The following review is by Tim, a professor at a small private college. Thank you, Tim! If you’d like to contribute a book review, please get in touch. ~ Mike
This year has seen homosexuality in the news more than usual. In March, Vanderbilt University began prohibiting student groups from requiring officers to sign a statement of beliefs, following a homosexual student’s complaint[1. For more on the situation at Vanderbilt from the InterVarsity staff there, visit InterVarsity at Vanderbilt. ~ Mike] In May, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage. In June, Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, the largest Christian group focused on ministering to homosexuals, said he no longer considers it helpful to counsel homosexuals to try to “change” to become heterosexual. In June, comments about homosexuality made by Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-Fil-A, were made into front-page news, and stoked rallies of support and protest around the nation.
In view of this ongoing issue which is relevant to us Christian academics, I recently had the opportunity to read Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends by Dr. Mark Yarhouse and also to hear him explain his research in person. I greatly appreciated his thoughts, and wanted to provide a short review of his book to encourage others to read it also.
First, Yarhouse says that he prefers to discuss the question of identity, rather the question “what causes homosexuality” or the question “whether a homosexual person can change to become heterosexual.” He avoids these questions because, from a research point of view, it is still unclear what (if anything) “causes” homosexuality. He says that it is likely to be a mixture of many factors, including genetics, environment, and personal choices. Furthermore, there are mixed results about whether people can change to become heterosexual (“ex-gay”) following “reparative therapy”. Some people do report permanent changes, while others report unsuccessfully trying to change.
Yarhouse separates “homosexuality” into three aspects: Attractions, Orientation, and Identity. Attractions simply refers to experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction (SSA). Orientation is when a person experiences SSA not just once in a while, but strongly, repeatedly, and for a prolonged time in their life. Identity is when a person chooses to say “I am gay” in the sense of being defined as a person by their feelings of same-sex attraction.
Yarhouse has found through his surveys and interviews that in general, there is a significant group of Christian people who experience same-sex attraction but choose to locate their identity in Jesus Christ, rather than choosing to identify as gay. When faced with the question: does persistent same-sex attraction reflect “who I really am inside,” or instead reflect ”something I have to deal with as a result of the Fall,” these Christians choose the latter.
Yarhouse cited Wesley Hill (author of Washed and Waiting) as an example of a man for whom Christ comes first in defining his identity, while same-sex attraction takes a backseat. All of us have temptations of various sorts, says Yarhouse – some toward gluttony, others toward heterosexual lust, others toward homosexual lust, etc. All of these are simply the effects of the Fall that we have to deal with, and fight against, until we reach heaven and are perfected by God.
I found very helpful Yarhouse’s research and nuanced separation of attractions versus identity. I think we have all struggled with hearing the polarized rhetoric from both sides of the debate, and wondering whether homosexuality is voluntary (“they chose their lifestyle”), involuntary (”we were born gay”), or somewhere in between. Yarhouse suggests that same-sex attractions are generally involuntary, but a Christian experiencing them still has a choice about how to respond — a choice about where to ground one’s identity. His book includes excellent commentary on listening and counseling friends or family members who struggle with this issue. Whether you may end up agreeing or disagreeing with Yarhouse, in my opinion his careful analysis of the research and his clarifying discussions are worth a read.
Did I read correctly that the review states that the author believes a gay gene is likely? Did I also read that in terms of the powerful introductory paragraph to the issue and this book review, that he doesn’t address any of the concerns of the introductory paragraph?
Did I read that the Christian still has choices between SSA, orientation, and identity, and did that imply that the not-yet Christian does not have such choices? So the book is recommended as an individual counseling tool for counselors with an evangelical niche? Lastly, does Exodus International now have a new president or has this ministry fully repudiated itself because of the new views of its president?
To Tim, thanks for this review. I believe in its context of counseling ministry in the evangelical church context that it has value based on what you’ve reviewed. I hope my questions did not come across mean-spirited. I really am curious about the answers. My sense from a re-read and following some links is that the answers to all my questions is ‘yes’ except for the last one. The Joe Dallas Exodus organization apparently has a new President with a gentle but significantly different viewpoint than the organization had in the recent and longer past about the ability to change and a new organization has formed that reflects those prior commitments. I believe that group is called the ‘Restore Hope Network’. Is this correct?
Thanks for your thoughts and questions. Yarhouse would indeed suggest that the Christian has a choice about where to place his/her identity – whether to adopt the “script” of the gay movement and claim “I am gay”, or whether to adopt the “script” of the Bible and consider SSA a temptation/problem/sinful-tendency (due to the Fall) to be fought-against, however long it manifests itself. Yarhouse spent a little less time in the book addressing the not-yet-Christian. That would certainly be an interesting discussion. In Yarhouse’s talk which I attended, he shared how he personally has been interacting with local gay activists (some of whom try to heckle his presentations), seeking to treat them with respect and build friendships with them. Yarhouse’s book did summarize results of many secular studies which included non-Christian participants, so it does have relevance to the broader world outside evangelical church counseling, in my opinion.
Yarhouse’s book was published in 2010, so as you correctly surmise, it does not address the recent developments I mentioned above. I think that Alan Chambers is still leading Exodus International. I had not been familiar with the “Restore Hope Network” or Joe Dallas until you mentioned it, and reading a bit about them tonight.
Your question about a “gay gene” is interesting. I think that Yarhouse would seek to nuance his answer and be careful about the definitions involved. If “gay gene” is interpreted to mean a genetic determinism which forces one to engage in homosexual activity, then he would likely say NO, research does not support such a thing (and the Bible’s teaching would also not support that). If “gay gene” is interpreted to mean that everyone has genetic “susceptibilities” toward different temptations, be they toward gluttony, alcoholism, outbursts of anger, pride, laziness, gossip, marital infidelity, heterosexual lusts, or SSA, then I think Yarhouse might concur. But of course such susceptibilities would not give us an excuse to commit sinful acts.
Tim, thanks for the thoughtful and helpful reply and additional insight and clarifying nuance of the genetic possibilities. Much appreciated.