March 30, 2011

Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian

Thanks to Bethany House for the review copy.

In this book that reflects many years of dedicated thought, counseling, and discussion, psychologist Mark Yarhouse steps right into the controversial waters of a Christian response to homosexuality. In it, he approaches the issue from a number of different angle. The first point in his discussion is a brief survey of the biblical evidence, which includes a helpful discussion of how not to misuse it, and he also helpfully contextualizes the discussion of Scripture in a wider discussion of sources of theology (covering the traditional quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), which helps to make readers aware of how they are approaching this difficult issue and also helps people to understand how others are approaching it. I think this is a helpful move, which helps people to be aware of how others are approaching these controversial questions, and helps us to appreciate the type of reasoning they are using instead of simply dismissing them. And I think this move of driving toward listening and understanding as a key component of dialogue is indicative of Yarhouse's book, which demonstrates that type of sympathetic listening and determination not to jump too quickly to facile conclusions.

The chapter that I think was for me the most helpful is his second chapter, where he looks at sexual identity. He advocates a three-tiered understanding of homosexuality: attraction, orientation, identity. The level of attraction is purely descriptive, people experience same-sex attraction. The second level, homosexual orientation, takes a step beyond attraction to a declaration of a settled pattern of attraction. The third level, gay identity, extends beyond either of the first two largely descriptive categories to a statement of identity formed around the sexual orientation, a self-attribution of who a person is that now integrates and endorses the sexual attractions. In our culture, there is a "gay script," as he describes it, that seeks to draw people from the first tier, attraction, through the second and into the third tier, all the while seeking to show that they aren't really tiers at all but one integrated whole. This script is based on the ideal of "self-actualization" and discovery. Yarhouse, on the other hand, posits the possibility of another more traditionally Christian script, which he describes as "Identity 'In Christ.'" He details this script as follows:

-Same-sex attraction does not signal a categorical distinction among types of persons, but is one of many human experiences that are "not the way it's supposed to be."
-Same-sex attractions may be part of your experience, but they are not the defining element of your identity.
-You can choose to integrate your experiences of attraction to the same sex into a gay identity.
-On the other hand, you can choose to center your identity around other aspects of your experience, including your biological sex, gender identity, and so on.
-The most compelling aspect of personhood for the Christian is one's identity in Christ, a central and defining aspect of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (p. 51)

It is this alternative script that forms the basis for his prescribed response.

Yarhouse, as a practicing psychologist and professor of psychology, is well qualified to speak to the medical issues surrounding the discussion of sexual orientation, and his brief chapter detailing some of the important research demonstrates again that he resists facile conclusions but instead allows sometimes complex data to bring him to nuanced statements. As he discusses what causes homosexuality, he concludes that it likely has many causes, which are weighted differently in different people, and that we must be careful not to blame a person who is experiencing same-sex attraction as though they have chosen to experience it. His discussion of orientation change is likewise nuanced, as he endorses the fact that change can occur, but also cautions that only some people experience change, and most of those are only an incremental change as opposed to a complete reversal.

These chapters form the foundation of the book, and lay the groundwork for the real practical discussions that follow. The second part of the book investigates how to respond to a adolescent child, adult child, or spouse who is dealing with this issue. In the third part, he turns the focus on the church's response. I won't detail these here because my review is already longer than I had intended, but I will simply state that he uses the groundwork he has laid to good effect as he helps Christians to look at this issue from a somewhat different, and I believe helpful, perspective. I do not hesitate in recommending this book. I think he strikes a very warm and irenic tone, even as he seeks to correct people on both poles in this often acrimonious debate. Instead, he puts a very human face on the issues, interspersing his discussion with anecdotes from his own practice and people he has encountered over the years. In the end, I think the question that forms the title for his discussion of the church's response, "Whose people are we talking about?" puts things just the right way, and his answer is emphatically that Christians who struggle with homosexuality are "our people," people who need our support and encouragement as we all the while acknowledge to being fellow travelers on the road to Christlikeness. This doesn't mean compromise of biblical standards of sexuality, but it does mean a different approach toward those who are sincerely struggling. In all, I found this book a great resource, and I have gained a broader and more nuanced perspective that will be beneficial going forward.

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