James M. CHILDS, Faithful Conversation: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, 132 pp. ISBN 0-8006-3580-9.
Reviewed by William MATTISON, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556

This series of essays was commissioned by the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) as a resource for future church deliberations on whether or not the Lutheran Church should revise its current position (akin to that of the Roman Catholic Church) on homosexuality. The collection is intended to serve as a resource for the ELCA task force due to present its final report on sexuality in 2005 in preparation for a 2007 Church statement on the topic. Though this book is distinctively Lutheran with the riches of that tradition evident in each of its articles, the volume explicitly purports to be of service to all Christian denominations struggling with question of homosexuality.

Editor James M. Childs Jr. introduces the book by observing that the different articles by the Lutheran seminary professors invited to contribute each treat a different source, or focal point, of Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, culture, and science / experience / reason.

Mark Allen Powell's piece on Scripture surveys Biblical texts that address homosexuality, acknowledging ambiguity in certain passages on homosexuality, but recognizing that the Biblical record on the whole regards sexual activity between same-sex persons as "unnatural and sinful" (35). Nonetheless, he asks whether a "merciful exception" (38) might not be warranted in response to God's observation in Genesis 2:18 that it is "not good" for one to be alone (34).
James Arne Nestingen's piece on tradition examines traditional Lutheran resources (such as the law / gospel and two kingdoms distinctions), as well as more contemporary Lutheran social thought, to concur with a quotation from Pannenberg: "a church that rejects the traditional teaching on homosexual practice can be neither evangelical nor Lutheran" (57), for such a rejection would be (in Childs' words on Nestingen) "tantamount to rejecting the lordship of Christ in our lives" (13).
In Richard J. Perry Jr. and José David Rodriguez's article on the cultural aspect of the homosexuality debate, they espouse a more multicultural approach to the question and target ethnocentrism, understood not as positive pride in one's culture's contributions, but rather "the assumption that the dominating culture is the standard for judging the morality of all others" (88). While warning against "culturally-conditioned" interpretations of Bible prohibitions of homosexuality, these authors struggle to explain why churches of people of color generally maintain a traditional view on homosexuality consistent with the "dominant culture's" (90).
As for science / experience / reason, Damiel L. Olsen's piece entitled "Talk About Sexual Orientation: Experience, Science, and the Mission of the Church" is actually less about recent research on homosexual orientation (which Olsen briefly surveys and finds inconclusive on such questions as the cause of said orientation), and more on how to "talk about" this sensitive issue. His treatment of the latter issue is addressed below, but note first one more contribution to the volume, Martha Ellen Storz's "Rethinking Christian Sexuality: Baptized into the Body of Christ." This hinge piece departs from Childs' four source typology and examines the question of homosexuality from the vantage point of baptismal discipleship. She cautions Christians to give primacy to their identity in Christ, and warns against succumbing to the wider culture's idolization of sexuality. She argues that sexual relationships, hetero- or homo-, are grounded in Christian baptism when they are non-idolatrous, promise-keeping, faithful, and directed toward service and generativity.

Though the pieces are all well-written, those familiar with the homosexuality debate will encounter few new arguments in this book. The major contribution of this volume, articulated by Childs in the Introduction and exemplified by each of the contributors, is the way in which it models conversation that is faithful, not only to Scripture and tradition but also to each other and the "opposing side." Mark Allen Powell's piece on Scripture is a fine example of such discourse. His via media approach, recognizing Biblical disapproval and yet exploring whether Biblically grounded "exceptions" might still be possible, will dissatisfy those seeking an unequivocal rejection or affirmation of homosexuality. But his even-handed treatment of both "sides" makes his piece an invaluable tool for university teaching. Similarly, while clearly supporting a revision of Lutheran teaching, Storz is equally emphatic in decrying sexual idolatry and noting how seemingly helpful language about the "gift" of sexuality can lead people to see it as an entitlement and not another facet of human existence where we are simul justus et peccator.

Olsen's work is outstanding in carefully describing obstacles to faithful conversation (mix-ups in listening styles, anger). He also offers a rare theological argument for unity among Christians struggling with a divisive issue. He recounts the reasons for Jesus frequent prayers for unity among disciples as not simply so that disciples might enjoy each other's company, but so that the world may know that the Father sent the Son (Jn 17:23,28)! With the help of the Holy Spirit, Christians can sustain unity in the midst of vigorous discord and thus become the light of the world they are called to be. Olsen finds two practical guidelines for maintaining such unity in the work of Luther: maintain healthy suspicion of one's own motives, and interpret the actions and motives of others in the most favorable light possible (107). Olsen's piece is a vital resource for teachers who will address hotly contested issues in their classrooms.

While exemplifying charitable discourse, the volume at times tends to emphasize a mode of conversation rather than the contested questions at issue regarding homosexuality. Its estimable, more procedural, focus must not eclipse attention to the matter under discussion: the moral status of homosexuality. An easy way to maintain unity is to avoid discussion of the points that truly divide people on this question. For example, Nestingen's strong rejection of homosexuality does not follow directly from his foray into Lutheran tradition. Storz beautifully reminds Christians of their baptismal commitments, but spends just several lines skimming the relation of sexuality to procreation (or "generativity" - 76). This is not to say that the endeavor to converse charitably is fruitless. To the contrary, it is modeled by all authors here, and particularly well analyzed by Olsen. But an even greater act of faith in Spirit-sustained unity would be to engage particular points of discord in the homosexuality discussion (such as sexuality's relation to procreation, and discrimination and injustice toward homosexuals) in a faithful, point-by-point manner, trusting in the Spirit of Truth to guide the debate toward resolution in Wisdom.


Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books