Tim Otto: Reorienting the Homosexuality Conversation

My friend Tim Otto wants to talk about orientation.

And he wants to talk about gay people in the church.

But the orientation he wants to address is not sexual orientation. He wants to talk about the need we all have, across the board, to be Oriented to Faith.

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Do we need yet another book about homosexuality and Christianity? Don’t we have enough already?

Well, yes, we do actually need this one.

This book is a rare voice in the conversation, advocating for a genuine “third way” beyond the polarized either/or debate in which the church is reflecting (and influencing) the culture. It is a book that pulls no punches in pointing out the shortcomings of liberals and conservatives alike, and that humbly suggests that each side has a piece of the truth, at very least, that the other side must listen to.

But the greatest contribution of the book is the way that, by the end, it holds up the mirror so that we can see how the very existence of “sides” itself is a demonstration of our failure to live up to the calling we have in Christ.

Otto begins his discussion by mapping the experience of being gay in the church onto the New Testament notion of “family”– a notion that does not line up with the primacy placed on biological family in our context. Tim Otto Pic

What becomes clear as this narrative unfolds is this: we have not created the kinds of communities that make it possible for single people to live the kinds of lives that the traditional church has called both single and gay people to embrace.

The church has ignored the radical redefinition of family as those who follow Jesus, and has baptized instead the two-parents plus children financial unit as the basic unit of familial support. This goes for the mainline and progressive church as much as the conservative and traditional church.

Tim’s story is one of discovering a church that would be family for him. It is a story of committing himself to celibacy for the good of that family’s mission. It is a story of a person who isn’t convinced that scripture demands celibacy of gay Christians. It is a story of a man who is willing to make costly steps of discipleship in the belief that his ultimate identity is not “gay Tim,” but “beloved child of God.”

Foundational to Christian identity is that we are family, bound to one another, called to self-giving love. Foundational to American identity is that each of us is autonomous, an individual, and a consumer. Otto makes the graciously pastoral case that the American church has baptized the latter in the name of Jesus–and that this very misappropriation of Christian identity makes it impossible for us to faithfully love our gay brothers and sisters.

Anyone who attends to this book with a receptive spirit is likely to find cause of repentance. Everyone is likely to find cause for encouragement.

When we are confronted with divisive issues, it is very easy to take and read from that stack of books where we will find a mirror that shows us how beautiful and wonderful we are.

This book offers a different way.

Better than most any other treatment of homosexuality in the church that I have seen, it holds up a mirror to who beautiful and wonderful the way of Jesus is, and invites all of us to live into that with greater fidelity to the costly obedience that he demands.

Take and read!

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Federal Guidelines stipulate that I have to tell you when I got something for free that I’m reviewing on my blog. I did not get this book for free. I paid my own money for my hard copy. I did, however, get a free pre-publication version that I reviewed and sent back to the author with comments. Also, Tim offers me coffee when I hang out with him and a couple other guys on Wednesday mornings, so you might view that as payment in kind or something.

9 thoughts on “Tim Otto: Reorienting the Homosexuality Conversation”

  1. There is not the third way, it’s misdirection. If there are some people who are Gay and Christian and have made a choice to remain celibate, that’s a choice, like Christianity – being Gay isn’t a choice, sexuality is an innate biological part of whom we are. Most people who are Gay are not religious (although many are spiritual) and all this talk of third-way isn’t appropriate for them. If the right-wing, or left-wing, somehow think they will calm or end the cultural war with some notion that people who are gay should “re-orientate” themselves (sounds like self-administered ‘reparative therapy’) then both sides should just forget it.

    Bullying people in to remaining celibate – not an old idea in right-wing theology (love the sinner, hate the sin nonsense) is still trying to force a particular religious interpretation on others, including those with no beliefs at all. How long before right-wing Christians suggest the law is changed to make people who are Gay celibate by force (as if they hadn’t already tried that for many hundreds of years).

    Bullying is never right, and I sense coercion in this ‘third-way’ cobblers. Ardent right-wingers with an anti-lgbt worldview are never going to ‘accept’ people who are gay, just like they will never accept a women’s right to choose abortion, but they will have to learn to tolerate us, in law, in public, in having equal rights. Some people are Gay, get over it is the actual ‘third way‘.

    1. I wonder if you haven’t misunderstood what I was saying, Jonathan.

      Otto doesn’t say that being gay is a choice. He doesn’t say that people have to remain celibate.

      He is saying that the church has done a poor job dealing with the reality that there are gay people and that those people are among their number–whether those churches are affirming or traditional.

    2. You might want to read Tim’s book. Your comments seem to indicate you are expressing your own frustrations – genuine frustrations – but making assumptions about what Tim is saying. You are very much entitled to your own opinions, but it would be good to at least read Tim and speak out of your own evaluation of what he is saying. Join the conversation – you might have the same things to say, and they will surely have at least something important to offer – but you will be better heard when you speak from knowledge and not merely pre-conceived ideas. And I think you might discover a something new and good. You never know.

  2. Jonathan, traditionally religious folks and conservatives actually DO change their minds. I know. I was one of them. I came to be affirming of LGBTQ brothers and sisters precisely *because* of my religion, because of Jesus, because of the Bible, and because of gay Christians who are willing to speak their truth.

    What you’re not hearing is that the article questions heteronormativity on religious grounds. It’s not about bullying anybody into celibacy, but dethroning the myth of the traditional marriage.

    I know tempers run high, but do listen more generously. I am a part of the family where this family argument is taking place, and it promises liberation. You should encourage that conversation, because people change.

  3. Sounds to me like a good message: I’m all in favor of broadening “family” into something more generational as well as more diverse. But I have to say, naming the American nuclear family a “financial unit” overlooks most of the work that it does. You of all people should know better than to focus on the money.

  4. Your review of this book mirrors so much of what I experienced as I read it. It is such a powerful tool for reconciliation and understanding. I bought 5 copies figuring that persons close to me needed to read it too… five was way too few! Recently I was asked to be a “cyber-pastor” to an underground closeted community outside of North America. This book will be healing and wholeness to them as they come to realize how Jesus’ words to them are not words of rejection and cut off that they have experienced in their faith communities, words and actins that drove them underground and deeply into the closet. Your review is so powerful as well because it catches the very essence of Tim’s marvelous book. Thank you!

  5. I will get a copy of this book, I love two people that I know who are gay with His love. His love is all I feel when i am around them, I am not one to back off from speaking a hard word, but I have never felt that I should speak a “hard word” to them. So, in advance of reading it and just based on the review, “Thank you, Tim, for this book.”

  6. Thanks for featuring this book, Daniel. I’ve been thinking along these lines since I came out of the closet. I, like Otto, am not persuaded that Scripture forbids committed same-sex relationships. And I don’t feel conscience-bound to avoid such a relationship. Even so, I’m not sure that that’s what’s best for me. In that sense, I feel that gay Christians have a unique opportunity to take the lead in helping the church come to a better understanding of how we ought to live as a Christian community.

    Otto appears to hit on one of the key barriers: our obsession with the inwardly-focused, semi-autonomous nuclear family. At best, our church communities are little more than an agglomeration of semi-autonomous family units. Sadly, this is one area where mainline and evangelical Presbyterians have largely found agreement: Both camps have rejected Christ’s radical redefinition of the family. In doing so, the gay Christian is forced to choose between being a lonely outcast or finding a partner to join you in creating your own semi-autonomous family unit.

    There is a second barrier, however, which Joey seems to be referencing: valorizing sexual desire and construing marriage as an institution that is centrally focused on the acceptable expression of that desire. Peter Leithart aptly refers to this view of marriage as “pornographic marriage,” contrasting it with more traditional forms of marriage. It’s no accident that the emergence of “being gay” as a social identity occurred shortly after marriage took its pornographic turn. After all, if marriage centers on the legitimate expression of heterosexual desire, then those who lack heterosexual desire become excluded. Same-sex marriage wrongly accepts the pornographic turn as legitimate, merely broadening the definition of marriage to include further categories of sexual desire.

    Gay Christians have an opportunity to play a unique role in tearing down both of these barriers. First, we have the opportunity to teach the church to construe “family” more broadly and to take seriously as a community Christ’s radical call on our lives. Second, we have the opportunity to teach our fellow Christians to free themselves from the prison of sexual desire and to recover legitimate avenues of interpersonal intimacy that need not find their end in genital-erotic desire.

    That being said, I have no idea where to begin with this. I’ve floated these ideas among a number of friends in the PCA, EPC, ECO, and PCUSA. I generally get the same response: “I think you’re onto something, but we’re just too far gone to recover that kind of community within the church.” If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

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