James Brownson – Bible, Gender, Sexuality [Feature Review]

June 21, 2013


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Page 4: James Brownson – Bible, Gender, Sexuality


Much more could be said about this section of the book, but Brownson’s overall analysis notes first the traditionalist reading of Romans 1, which sees lust, impurity, and shame as rooted ultimately in behaviour which is “against nature”, violating divinely intended gender norms. He contrasts this with his own reading, which instead sees impurity, shame, and acts “against nature” as the result of lustful hearts. He affirms a fundamental rejection of promiscuity throughout Paul’s writing and the scriptural vision for sexuality, but doesn’t find the same specific rejection of committed same-sex relationships.

In summary, I found the book fascinating and incredibly helpful. It would be hard to suggest that Brownson is anything other than meticulous, transparent, and authentic in his treatment of the issues and of scripture. That doesn’t mean he’s right, or that there won’t be many who object to his analysis, but I hope at least that readers will appreciate his earnestness. At times it can feel like arguments are over-repeated or clarified throughout the book, but given how contentious the subject matter is and how careful and systematic he hopes to be, it is entirely understandable and in fact helpful to keep revisiting the underlying assumptions that, as Brownson notes early on, traditionalist arguments are so used to lapsing uncritically back into.

I conclude by recounting perhaps the most poignant, albeit brief, passage in the book, which we find in Brownson’s introduction. He explains that he used to hold firmly to the traditionalist view, but was compelled to re-examine scripture when his 18-year-old son announced he was gay. His account is deeply moving: “I realised, in fact, that my former work had stayed at a level of abstraction that wasn’t helpful when it came to the concrete and specific questions I faced with my son. Indeed, the answers that I thought I had found seemed neither helpful nor relevant in the case of my son” (11). With breathtaking honesty, he continues, “I spent some subsequent time in depression, grieving the loss of the heterosexual future for my son that I had dreamed of. […] I decided, from the beginning, that I wanted to discern, as deeply as I could, what the most central and truest message of Scripture was for my son.” (12)

Brownson insists that this book is not a “personal manifesto”, and it certainly doesn’t read like one, but what is profound in this introduction is it shows us that even someone who can write such a book as this, which deeply challenges the traditionalist view, may perhaps require a very personal trigger to open up to a change of mind. With the current debate as fractious as it is, I wonder whether even such a careful and clear laying out of the revisionist case as this is will get the careful reading it deserves. Already I note that many commentators online assume either that Brownson elevates human experience over scriptural teaching, or that he opts for a comfortable love over authentic truth.

Consider these two piercing challenges offered up by Brownson:

“If God is sanctifying [same-sex] relationships, drawing them past lust and licentiousness and into the love of Christ, the church must sit up and pay attention. To the extent that this is happening, the church today will have to wrestle again with the same shocking instruction that Peter received long ago: “What God has cleansed, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15)”” (199)

“Can we imagine a world in which the divine pronouncement at the beginning of creation, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), might find a range of deeply satisfying resolutions, from heterosexual marriage, to celibate communities, to gay and lesbian committed unions?” (252)

To the latter of these, James Brownson’s answer is yes. My personal hope is that his work may help others too find the same answer for themselves.