Ed Shaw. Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Ed Shaw is a pastor in Bristol, England. He has same-sex attraction, but he believes that homosexuality is a sin and has chosen a life of celibacy. Same-Sex Attraction and the Church is about the struggle that he has as a same-sex attracted Christian, reasons that he has chosen celibacy, and possible ways that the church can help Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction.
There are points that Shaw makes that I have read or heard elsewhere: that same-sex attracted people can help alleviate their loneliness by having friends in church; that, even if same-sex attraction were genetic, that would not mean that homosexual sex is acceptable to God; that evangelicalism tends to idolize getting married and having a family, which alienates singles and same-sex attracted people who choose celibacy; and that the Christian life is not about people always getting what they want but entails self-denial. Shaw makes these points his own, however, by sharing his stories and experiences.
Shaw also wrestles with the question of why God wants marriage to be between a man and a woman. His main conclusion is that heterosexual marriage is a preview of the marriage between Christ and the church. Why does Shaw think that marriage needs to be heterosexual to foreshadow that? Because, for Shaw, God’s plan is about the merging of two parties that are different—-the divine and the human—-and heterosexual marriage is between two different genders. When Shaw makes the painful decision to be celibate for the rest of his life, therefore, he is not just thinking about God’s prohibition of homosexual sex; he is thinking about God’s broader plan, which gives him hope in life.
In this review, I will say what I like about the book, what I dislike about the book, and where I struggled in reading this book.
There are many things that I like about this book. First, there is Shaw’s honest account of his own struggle with same-sex attraction, and his empathy for Christians with that struggle. Second, Shaw does well to explore the question of why God wants for marriage to be heterosexual, rather than simply repeating over and over the usual biblical prooftexts, and he does not settle on conventional answers (i.e., marriage should be about procreation). Third, Shaw shares how his same-sex attraction actually makes him a better Christian: it humbles him and makes him dependent on God, and his sexual desire also reminds him of God’s passionate love, as sexual metaphors are often used in the Hebrew Bible in discussing God’s relationships with people. Fourth, Shaw discusses how celibate Christians can make a contribution to life. They can pray, write books, and donate to worthy causes. I myself do not have same-sex attraction, but I am single, and (as one who struggles socially) I often wonder if I will ever be married, so I appreciated Shaw’s discussion here. Fifth, Shaw shares how, on some level, he already has the sort of life that he would have were he to get married and have a family: a life with companionship, intimacy, and children. That was moving, and it also fleshed out what he thinks the church should be. Sixth, I liked Shaw’s references to secular movies, and his point about how even secular movies inadvertently tell God’s truth (i.e., that promiscuity does not make people happy, necessarily).
What did I dislike about the book? I did not particularly care for Appendix 2: “The Implausibility of the New Interpretations of Scripture.” Shaw made some valid points there, such as the point about the New Testament’s affirmation of the Old Testament. But that section came across to me as dogmatic, strident, and cold. Shaw treats possibilities or plausibilities (i.e., the idea that Romans 1 draws from Genesis 3 or Numbers 11; Shaw’s view on why God prefers heterosexual marriage) as iron-clad facts that should be obvious to anyone. Shaw also accuses gay Christian Matthew Vines of polarization, for Vines states that “for gay Christians, mandatory celibacy affirms…the sinfulness of every expression of their sexuality” (Vines’ words). Shaw does not think that is necessarily the case, for Shaw has argued in the book that his own same-sex attraction actually plays a role in his understanding of God and his life as a Christian. Fair enough, but one can get the impression even from Shaw’s book that the God of the Bible wants for people with same-sex attraction to be practically asexual: Shaw believes that homosexual sex is a sin, but also that homosexual fantasies or lust are a sin (like heterosexual fantasies or lust, a la Matthew 5:28). What is left after that, in terms of sexual expression? Moreover, Shaw seems to present Matthew Vines and Justin Lee as manipulators who tell sad stories to sway the reader, when they are actually sharing the details of their lives, with the emotional pain that accompanied that. And Shaw practically likens Justin Lee to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent asked Eve, “Has God said?”
Now for areas in which I struggled in reading this book. First, Shaw sometimes portrays God as a God of grace, who accepts him no matter how many homosexual fantasies he has had. Yet, Shaw also says that he fears that some professing Christians will not be saved because they choose the easy life over suffering and sacrifice, and that people who engage in certain sins will not enter the Kingdom of God. Is God easy on people or not? I suppose one can get both pictures from the Bible! Second, Shaw seems to suggest that God wants Christians to sacrifice. I wonder if that is the case, or if the truth is rather that some Christians have to sacrifice, because society offers them no other choice: Jesus may have been telling his disciples to deny themselves because he realized that society may put them to death for their religious commitments, not because he glorified suffering and sacrifice as a normal part of the Christian life. On the other hand, Shaw does say that we can become more like Christ through suffering, and there are Bible passages that seem to suggest that, so I cannot rule out what Shaw is saying. Third, I have my doubts that many Christian churches will step up and provide the friendship and intimacy that people struggling with same-sex attraction need, since this is a very individualistic culture.
Finally, I was wondering why a same-sex attracted person would want to become a conservative Christian. There are same-sex attracted people who are atheists and agnostics, and they have legitimate philosophical justifications for their positions. Why would homosexuals embrace a worldview that tells them to be celibate for the rest of their life, on the (seemingly) unprovable assumption that they will enter a good afterlife and avoid a bad afterlife if they do so? The answer may be that, for many same-sex attracted Christians who choose celibacy, conservative Christianity offers them something compelling, something that makes their celibacy worth the effort. This is probably an obvious observation, but Shaw’s book made me more sensitive to it.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.