Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review - "God Believes in Love" by Gene Robinson

God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage is Gene Robinson’s latest book. It was published at the end of 2012 by Alfred Knopf, a division of Random House Publishing. It can be purchased in hardcopy for $13.99. ISBN: 978-0-307-95788-7

This book is long in coming. In it, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson endeavors to make both the secular and religious case for extending the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples. Robinson is renowned in some circles and notorious in others for being the first gay man to live openly in a committed relationship to be consecrated bishop in a major Christian denomination. His consecration in 2003 sparked many conservative Episcopalians—laity, priests, and bishops alike—to make an exodus from the Episcopal Church and form their own Anglican denomination. The tension his elevation has caused in the Anglican commune has had long-lived and far-reaching effects that are felt throughout the world to this day.

Before turning the book’s merits, let’s first address one of the places it could’ve been stronger. Throughout the book, Robinson resorts to facile argument and sweeping statements to justify his claims. In this way, the book leaves something to be desired by those who’ve been embroiled in the debate, both secular and religious, over gay marriage who seek deeper engagement.

Particularly troublesome is Robinson’s engagement of the concept of freewill—which arguably doesn’t exist in our postcausal reality. He writes, “We are free to love God back—or not.” Here, Robinson goes out into dangerous territory because he insists on the power of freewill in our human interaction with God. Humanity cannot fully love God in a way that doesn’t damn our souls to hell—thus, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Humanity is bound to fail in loving God and neighbor time and time again. Acknowledging that each and every one of us—straight, gay, bisexual, Jewish, Christian, European, Asian, or whatever sociological category we find ourselves corralled into—falls short of the perfect love that God envisions for us makes Robinson’s argument for tolerance, acceptance, and love all that much stronger. Instead, he opens himself up to critics’ counterclaim, “If you really love God, you’d keep the command to abstain from same-sex intercourse”—suggesting that apart from Christ we can please God no matter what we do or don’t do. The freewill argument is an important one, and it must be handled gingerly, lest the waters be muddied.

The book addresses a wide range of topics in less than 200 pages—ranging from why straight individuals should care about gay rights to how specific biblical texts have been used and abused in the discussion about gay rights through the ages. In an effort to cover these variegated topics, detail in each seems to have been sacrificed. It’s, in short, a case of quantity over quality.

It needs to be said, however, that quality of the arguments aren’t bad per se. They are in fact all good points, and Robinson should be lauded for handling them in a candid and forthright manner. The way that he weaves secular and religious concerns together to make a cogent case for equality is one of the primary strengths of text.

Particularly important is the question of separation of church and state that he addresses in his chapter entitled “What if my religion doesn’t believe in gay marriage?” The salient point he makes in this chapter—which might be considered the archetypal theme of the book—is that the state has no real interest in barring gay and lesbian couples from wedlock. Should nonetheless continue to preclude them from marriage, the state is in fact infringing on the free exercise of those clergy and denominations that would join same-sex couples in marriage but are barred from doing so by the government. This is an important argument, and it’s refreshing to see it being made by a respected member of the faith community.

The most important strength of Robinson’s case is his honest handling of the biblical texts. He insists that the bible is not a static book that ceased to speak dynamically to the reality of its adherents after it had been written. He believes, justified with Scriptural grounding, that God continues to guide us today, and claims that “this understanding of God as being active in the creation—not just in biblical times, but to this very day—is at the heart of Christianity.”  This activeness of God, in and through Scripture from ancient to contemporary times, is foundational to how Robinson approaches understanding how Scripture speaks to the question of gay and lesbian relationships.

Bishop Gene Robinson endeavors to make both the secular and religious case for extending the right to marry to same-sex couples.
He addresses the few biblical texts related to same-sex intimacy directly and fairly and offers easily understandable explanations for both the Old Testament and New Testament “texts of terror.” And where the text is unclear, or where it finds itself among others that have become culturally and temporally inapplicable to our present-day circumstances, Robinson offers this forceful yet nonetheless truthful and pastoral rejoinder to those who would hold up passages that condemn same-sex intimacy based on the mere fact that they’re in the bible—“Biblical literalists cannot have it both ways, picking and choosing which proscriptions will still be enforced as eternally binding and which may be casually tossed aside or explained away.”

This book is a good one for those who are struggling with the question of faith and society as it regards the question of gay and lesbians who are calling for just treatment under the law. Those who want honest answers from someone who has a personal stake in the debate would appreciate this book. It is not a book that provides a great deal of academic fodder, but it is pastoral and conversational in approach—two things oftentimes lacking from the acrimonious debate regarding same-sex relationships both in the church and in the wider society. I recommend it.

A big and hearty thanks to my friend Josiah for giving me this book for Christmas. May God bless you!


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