Mark A. Yarhouse. Bethany House 2010. [218 pages].
“Raise your hand if you are nervous about listening to a conservative Christian speak on the topic of homosexuality.”
Mark Yarhouse begins his book by recalling a statement he once made at the opening of an address to a university group. The nervousness he alludes to is one that plenty of Christians often feel about this subject. It is a topic on which they have found themselves to be on the wrong side of public opinion, and one in which their opinion is more safely kept to themselves. Furthermore, Christian opinions on this matter have too often been tactless or uninformed, and have produced more harm than help both to the morality they promote and to the strugglers they contrive to help.
Mark Yarhouse is a professor of psychology. His research and counselling practice has focused on the dialogue between psychology and Christianity as these relate to sexuality and gender identity. Yarhouse’s book Homosexuality and the Christian includes some challenges for the church in the way that it engages with homosexuality – but not of the kind that would normally be deemed a ‘challenge’ for the church on this issue. Yarhouse affirms orthodox Christian doctrine concerning God and creation and humanity, as well as the roles of different sources of authority in Christian thinking and practice.
But he also offers some probing questions about how we think about this issue and about loved ones who experience same-sex attraction. As its subtitle states, it is a book for parents, pastors, and friends. It is for those who care.
Yarhouse keeps the persons behind the experiences in view throughout his helpful book. Throughout his book, he has drawn on anonymized stories from his own practice which help us see and understand the difficulty and pain from a more firsthand perspective.
Perhaps the most helpful feature of the book are the several paradigm-shifts he offers for reconsidering how we understand homosexuality.
Three stand out.
First, there is the three-tier distinction he makes between experiencing same-sex attraction, having a more permanent same-sex orientation, and self-identifying as ‘gay’ (pp. 41-43). These have been unhelpfully homogenised into the single category ‘homosexual’ by Rainbow advocates and antagonists alike.
Second, Yarhouse provides a useful concept which he calls a ‘script’, by which he refers to the way we understand ourselves and our lives (pp. 48-53).
“Scripts reflect the expectations of our culture in terms of how we are supposed to live and how we should relate and behave” (p. 48)
When a Christian experiences same-sex attraction, there are two scripts that are commonly thought to be the options by which one can understand and live out this experience.
The ‘gay script’ is affirming and interprets these things positively, promoting a pathway of self-discovery and expression of their ‘authentic’ inner self.
Another script which he does not label interprets these things more negatively and easily fosters feelings of guilt and shame. This might be labelled ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ by critics.
Yarhouse proposes a third script as an alternative option. This ‘identity in Christ’ script provides a pathway by which a Christian can integrate their attractions within their Christian identity while remaining authentic and faithful to the Christian faith.
The third paradigm-shift comes in the form of a question (chapter 9, pp. 177-197): What is the church’s response to enduring conditions? This proposes the constructive measures by which Christ’s people can help strugglers go the long haul in the faith – not only those who struggle with chronic illnesses such as cancer, but also those who struggle, indefinitely, with a unwanted sexual orientation.
Another helpful facet of the book is more direct. Part two comprises three chapters covering ‘Honest Answers to Questions Facing Families’, which consider how to navigate the event of either a child, adult child, or spouse announcing a gay identity. These three chapters recognize the urgent and distressing nature of a family member ‘coming out of the closet’, and provide valuable recommendations that draw on the author’s experiences from his counselling practice. The practical character of these chapters will be certainly appreciated by any who are undergoing such a situation.
Thankfully, Christians today are usually more respectful in their language and response than they might have been a decade or two ago. That is my observation, at least, which may be mistaken. The Rainbow movement has forced Christians to learn to speak more carefully – both out a growing awareness and concern for those experiencing same-sex attraction, as well as for the sake of self-preservation.
Nonetheless, Yarhouse’s book is a very helpful contribution for those wishing to understand or even counsel on this issue, or for someone confronted with a crisis relating to this. Indeed, some readers will likely wish something like this was available decades ago. Unfortunately it was not, but it is available today, and will not be found unhelpful for those who grapple with homosexuality and Christian faith.