It was January when I stood in the back of a packed lecture hall at the Gay Christian Network's annual conference here in Chicago. Matthew Vines, a 23-year-old Harvard student from Wichita, Kansas, spent 90 minutes quickly and systematically laying out many of the arguments in his then-forthcoming book, God and the Gay Christian. How the Bible's prohibitions against same-sex relations are concerned with "excess," not "orientation." How committed same-sex unions can and do fulfill God's design for marriage. How the Bible's teaching on celibacy stands in conflict with the implications of a non-affirming position on LGBTQ Christians. It was a fascinating lecture, and I spoke with many other attendees afterward who were equally impressed by our friend Matthew's depth of research and insights.
God and the Gay Christian was just released last week, and reading it this weekend I was reminded why I appreciated Matthew's contributions at the conference last January. The book is every bit as engaging and thoughtful as his lecture was.
But I couldn't help but feel like something was missing from the book. And for the longest time, I couldn't put my finger on it. But when I figured it out, I realized that this missing piece illuminated the very thing that's so significant about this book--both it's biggest strength and it's biggest weakness:
There weren't any laughs.
A funny thing happened in that lecture hall back in January. In a room full of LGBTQ christians, their families and loved ones, in numbers that sure exceeded fire codes for the room, we all laughed. Of course, Matthew wasn't cracking jokes. He was barreling along with excited pragmatism. But the way he applied a high view of Scriptural authority to the affirmation of same-sex relationships was clearly music to the ears of so many in attendance.
Matthew's message spoke to us in a profound way. It was dry and academic, and had this been a roomful of theologians and historians, the material still would have been engaging. But to this group of LGBTQ folks, their family and loved ones, hanging on every word, Matthew's message addressed one of the central question of our lives: Does God bless my expression of romantic love? His answers didn't just provoke thought, it provoked the kind of delight that finds expression in laughter. And a few tears.
And that's what's missing from the book. It's the same message, the same scholarship and insights, only without the context of a community of believers for whom this is more than just some theological postulation to be debated. Don't get me wrong, there is so much value and education to be gained from reading God and the Gay Christian. But I think it's akin to watching the film 12 Years a Slave alone on your laptop as opposed to in the theater with your black friends. Your understanding of the material will be enriched if you're open to the experiences and perspectives of those most affected by it.
If the absence of pathos is the book's biggest weakness, it is also its biggest strength. Unlike so many books on this subject, God and the Gay Christian is very concise. It's a no-frills study of the Bible's teaching on gender, sexuality and abstinence. But in a discussion in which the affirming side is so often accused of elevating the authority of experience above the authority of Scripture, Matthew's book is very deliberate rebuttal. Scripture all by itself, he argues, leads us to an affirming position. In going this route, he sidesteps the danger of what I've called the skepticism of one's own empathy.
So perhaps the element that I felt sadly missing from Matthew's book is the very thing that he was so wise to omit.