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A Review of
Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2014
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Review by C. Christopher Smith
*** One of the Best Books of 2014! ***
This review originally appeared in our print magazine (Fall 2014 issue). Are you a subscriber?
Questions about sexuality and marriage are, without a doubt, the most divisive issues facing churches in the early years of the twenty-first century. Some denominations have already split in disagreement over them; others teeter on the brink of splitting, with little hope of resolution in sight. Given this polarized atmosphere, what would it look like for churches of diverse perspectives to prefer our unity in Christ to our stances on sexuality? Is there a third way that does more than steer a middle road, tiptoeing around the deeply held convictions of both traditionalist and affirming Christians? Is there a conversational way forward that is guided by love and respect for all of our brothers and sisters in Christ and that seeks to listen and appreciate rather than to anger and condemn? These questions lie at the heart of Tim Otto’s helpful new book, Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. As a gay but celibate pastor for whom these questions have been deeply personal, Otto is well-suited as a guide for this sort of exploration.
Oriented to Faith is a rich mix of personal narrative and theological reflection that offers more questions than it does answers, leading the reader into a conversational space in which some of the most difficult questions can be addressed with truthfulness and grace. The book revolves around the deep wisdom spoken to Otto by his mentor: “I don’t know what to think about homosexuality, but by faith I suspect it is God’s gift to you–and I know you are God’s gift to [our church community]” (xiii). Otto suspects–and I am inclined to agree–that if our conversations about sexuality were seasoned with the sort of humility and faith conveyed in his mentor’s words of encouragement they would be much less volatile. He writes:
The conflict around homosexuality has been made difficult by our desire to feel superior, important, and god-like. By claiming we have certain access to the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:4) we assert our god-like status, turning the conflict into a shrill, difficult, and divisive debate that is splintering and fracturing the church. (68)
In a similar vein, one of the most striking insights of the book is that the prevailing conflict over sexuality among Christians is driven more by politics than by a desire to follow more deeply in the way of Jesus. Many Christians on both the traditionalist and affirming sides of this debate are driven by the same Constantinian urge to control the public square and to dictate the sexual ethics of the society at large. Following in the footsteps of John Howard Yoder and other theologians, Otto suggests that our priority should not be the politics of societyat- large, but rather the politics of our local church bodies, centered upon “discussing [not] abstract principles, but actual people” (47). He recounts how his own church community struggled to discern the sort of sexual ethics and politics that would give shape to its life together. The community eventually decided “that even though we wouldn’t practice the affirmation of same-sex relationships in our midst, we weren’t making a pronouncement on the morality of homosexual practice” (46), a course that not only had deep implications for Otto himself–if he chose to stay in the community, he would remain celibate– but also for the community as a whole, who “would make the costly commitment to live as family to me and to accompany me along the way” (47).
In addition to challenging readers to reconsider their politics, Otto also offers a survey of biblical sexuality that highlights fundamental convictions about sexuality that would likely be shared by a broad range of Christians, including some from both the traditionalist and affirming camps. Otto emphasizes first of all that sexuality is a reflection of God’s image in us through which we are drawn to deep, loving unions with another human. Furthermore, we are created to know and be known, and our sexuality is an expression of this facet of human experience. Otto speaks compellingly of the sexuality of the single person in this regard:
Although I’m single, I can express my sexuality by committing and connecting myself to others through membership in the church. As part of a church, I join my body with others to form a larger body that is the bride of Christ. The sexual overtones in that language are not just incidental or accidental. (56).
Otto continues this thought with the observation that even though Christians who have chosen celibacy will not have biological children, they can express their sexuality–their innate desire to procreate–by nurturing life in others through acts of service such as extending care to others (as Otto himself does as a nurse) or adopting or mentoring children. The final facet of a basic biblical sexuality that Otto highlights is the imitation of God’s fidelity. Just as God is always faithful, the people of God– regardless of whether they affirm homosexual practice or not–are called to fidelity to their spouse and to sexual practice only within a covenanted relationship.
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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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Great review Chris. The middle way advocated in this book needs to be explored by all people that care about the Gospel.