EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

Spiritual Friendship - Finding love in the Church as a celibate Gay Christian
Wesley Hill  Brazos Press, 2015

It is not very often that I would say that a book is deeply moving, but this one is both powerful and profound.

I’ve been thinking for quite a while that as much as we need to defend biblical orthodoxy with regard to human sexuality we also need to say a lot more than that. Wes Hill is among a group of courageous people who have been willing to share their struggle and their responses to being same sex attracted and celibate. With regard to this, Vaughan Roberts and Ed Shaw also come to mind.

Wes was in Melbourne last year and was the main speaker at a very well attended pastoral forum run by Ridley College. He also spoke at three large public lectures. Wes lectures in New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh and is pursing ordination in the Anglican Church. He lives with a married couple and is the godfather to their first daughter.

Wes offers a fresh and unique exploration of ‘friendship’ and takes us to surprising places and people along the way. Wes, as with his first book ‘Washed and Waiting’ is remarkably honest about his own vulnerabilities and struggles. Here is a real person exploring what it means for him to be faithful to God when it involves the challenges of being celibate. It is rare to read a book that is as frank about the pain involved in that predicament. Wes explores friendship as an idea and responds to a range of thinkers over the centuries in relation to this important area in each of our lives. He delves into biblical, theological and historical insights along the way. Hill explores what it is to be involved in committed friendships and to find true friendship in the context of a Christian community.

The book is broken into two parts.  Part One looks at the background and biblical/theological issues and Part Two focuses on the living out of friendship today, especially for same sex attracted believers who accept that they will remain celibate.  Chapter 1 looks at the weak nature of friendship in western culture. Chapter 2 explores how friendship can be expressed in a committed way. Chapter 3 looks at the scriptural and theological underpinnings for our practice of friendship. Does Jesus death and resurrection transform friendship? Chapter 4 looks at the intersection between erotic love and friendship. Chapter 5 asks what it means to cultivate committed friendships and Chapter 6 explores how we can pursue and nurture friendships in the church today.
‘Friendship is a good and godly love in it’s own right, just as worthy of attention, nurture and respect as any other form of Christian affection. That’s what the Christian tradition has said. And that’s what I want to say - from a fresh angle of vision – in this book.

Wes Hill will challenge you as well as help you to think about these issues in unique and very helpful ways. His is a prophetic voice in the church today and he offers hope and positive ways forward for those who are same sex attracted and looking for love and companionship. I strongly recommend this book.

Stephen Hale

The Controversy over the Safe Schools Program – Finding the Sensible Centre
Patrick Parkinson, Sydney Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16/83 Sept 16

Patrick Parkinson is Professor of Law at Sydney University. At the time of the Louden Review he and Professor Kim Oates wrote a lengthy letter to Professor Louden about the research basis for statistics presented in the Safe Schools Program. Unfortunately the Review had to be completed in a short time and “No independent review of the veracity of the statistics cited in this document was undertaken.”

Parkinson’s paper is a critical review of some important aspects of the Safe Schools Program, especially of the research data.
The abstract includes an outline of the scope of the paper:

“This paper seeks to draw attention to various problems in the Safe Schools materials which ought to be rectified if a program like this is to continue to be offered in schools. First, the materials present statistics on same-sex attraction and transgender prevalence that have no valid scientific basis. Secondly, they present sexual orientation as fixed when for school-aged adolescents it is very volatile, and many same-sex attractions are transitory. Thirdly, they present gender as fluid when for about 99.5% of the population, there is complete congruence between sexual characteristics and gender identity. Fourthly, they promote gender transitioning without the need for any medical and psychological guidance and even without parental knowledge or consent. Finally, they offer potentially misleading legal advice to teachers.”

It is refreshing to read a rational discussion of these matters. Parkinson notes, “When a social issue becomes a contested matter politically, or support for, or opposition to, a program is seen as a marker of ideological identity, it is hard to have a rational discussion. Yet a rational discussion is badly needed about the Safe Schools program, based upon evidence.”

One of the values of this paper is that it reports on a wide variety of peer-reviewed research related to statistics and assertions in the Safe Schools material.  Having a collection of data of this kind, in itself, is a great help to those who would like to know reliable information about the numbers of same-sex attracted and other people.

Parkinson begins with a review of the Safe Schools Program, the extent to which it has actually been taken up (not much), and what is really mandated, in Victoria at least. He then clearly and helpfully discusses the five areas noted above. His view is that just about all the statistics are significantly exaggerated and have no valid basis in science. The ideas of fixed sexual orientation and gender fluidity are very helpfully discussed. Parkinson rightly identifies the origins of some of these ideas in philosophy and describes them as  “now quite a widespread belief system, especially in parts of the western world. This belief system is deeply held by some, and has many characteristics of being a religious belief.”

His comments on the fluidity of sexual identity in the period around puberty are very helpful. It seems to me that some of the reported methods of obtaining data by asking children which gender they felt attracted to, for example, was asking questions that weren’t the questions of young people of that age. Not just statistics but methodology also was a problem.

Overall the paper is a reasoned and careful critique, not only of the Safe Schools Program, but of significant aspects of the broader gender and sexual orientation discussion. He also identifies worrying extensions of the unreliable data and belief systems into policies and statements by government education departments.

At a wider level the issues discussed are not just, or even primarily, about valid research data. The issues concern idealogical identities that are not really based in science. In some ways it reminds me of Emma Kowal’s “Trapped in the Gap” which discusses the gap between the ideology of those who want to “close the gap” of indigenous health and the actual reality of a gap that is not closing. Part of her discussion concerns reforming identities. Maybe the ideology of gender and sexual identity may change under the pressure of reality and true data. Or a miracle may happen. In the meantime this is a very helpful and informative paper that ought to be widely read.

Dale Appleby [This paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network Electronic Library at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2839084]

Living the Secular Life
New Answers to Old Questions
Phil Zuckerman
Penguin Press, New York, 2014.


Phil Zuckerman is an American sociologist who 5 years ago founded the Department of Secular Studies at Pitzer College, California. His principal interest is in studying secular people, those who profess no religion, and he is an enthusiastically secular person himself. He is also an apologist for the secular way of life, who engages with the strongly religious elements of his US culture, who might be mistrustful of atheists and unbelievers, and seeks to turn aside their criticisms.

Indeed the chapters of Living the Secular Life can be seen as meeting common suspicions religious people might have about secular people. Chapter 2, ‘Morality’, seeks to counter the thought that atheists have no reason to be moral, and so probably won’t be. Chapter 3, ‘The Good Society’ tries to upend the related idea that a secular society will be a dysfunctional society. Chapter 4 ‘Irreligion Rising’ takes on the notion that religion is natural to human beings and irreligion is unnatural. Chapter 6, ‘Trying Times’ tests the claim that secular people have no true resources to help them face tragedy and suffering; chapter 7, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ challenges the conception that death as final extinction leaves life meaningless and full of dread, and chapter 8 ‘Aweism’ seeks to debunk the feeling that atheism cannot admit a positive sense of wonder, joy and mystery into life and living. So just as the early Christian apologists had to defend themselves against the accusations of the world of Late Antiquity that they were atheists, cannibals or seditious, so Phil Zuckerman, secular apologist, seeks to defend the irreligious from the slurs of the religious.

Questioning Evangelism - Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did
Randy Newman, Kregel Publications: 2004

When I became a new Christian I was taught to memorise a gospel presentation that I could share with my friends to explain the Christian message to them. I was enthusiastic and followed the advice …….and proceeded to spoil a few good friendships through my eagerness to convert them! In every conversation when there was the slightest hint of spiritual openness, I tried to ‘get them over the line’ and to pray ‘the sinners prayer’. There was nothing wrong with my motivation nor with my learning a gospel presentation but there was a good reason why it didn’t ‘work’ with most of my friends.

You see, we no longer live in a time or culture where a simple proposition of gospel truth will convince most people. The plausibility structures required to assent to the truth of the gospel: an acceptance of absolute truth, of reliable historical record, of trust in institutions like the church, of the existence of God - these have been dismantled. This means that our presentation isn’t immediately ‘plausible’ to them. In most cases, we need to do a lot more groundwork before we can present an invitation to faith. The summary style gospel presentation is ideal when a person is receptive and ready for it, but most people simply aren’t.  (Think of the ENGELS scale (see below) – it probably doesn’t go low enough in its scale when describing someone far from God but it still has lots to teach us about pitching our message and manner appropriately for where a person is at spiritually.)

Part of our ground work involves helping people to see that the ideas upon which they are building their lives are wrong. Ideas such as ‘I decide what’s true’, ‘all religions are the same’, ‘religion poisons everything’, ‘there’s no such thing as sin’, ‘God is dead’, ‘anything is ok as long as its not harmful’ – these are the ideas we need to dismantle to pave the way for genuine gospel conversations.

How do we do that? Well first we need to listen to our friends, to find out what they believe and to start to question why they believe what they do. Armed with simple questions such as ‘really?’, “why do you believe that?”, “Can you explain that for me? I don’t see how that can be true…” will help us to do this.
The next time you have a conversation with a friend, try to hold back from telling them what you think. Really. (I know this is hard for most of us!) Instead, listen well, reflect back what they are saying, ask probing questions and be happy to have gotten to know them a bit better and to have left the door open for another conversation the next time you meet with them. This way, sooner rather than later we may find that we are able to question what they think and at some point that they ask us what we believe and why….

The greatest encouragement for this approach comes from Jesus who so often used questions to nudge people further along towards the kingdom. Check out Mark 10:17-22 and ask yourself why Jesus didn’t simply tell the rich young ruler to put his faith in him or to follow him.

These ideas all come from a great book that explains how to ask probing questions in conversation with our friends. It’s called “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman. Kregel Publications: 2004. It would be a great book to use in your parish in training people in personal evangelism using a questioning approach. Newman points out that questions aren’t everything, i.e. we still need to be able to explain our faith and to answer questions and to live out our faith visibly…but questions are a necessary and underused tool for evangelism.
Tracy Lauersen

Redeeming Law
Christian Calling and the
Legal Profession
Michael Schutt
IVP, 2007.

In his book “Reedeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession”, Michael Schutt asks whether (and, if so, how) Christians can serve God in the legal profession. His examination of the state of the legal profession and the Christians who work within it focuses on America and is bleak at best. Thankfully it doesn’t (yet) describe the situation the Australian lawyer finds him or herself practicing in, as the picture he paints is far from what he (rightly) attributes as the Chrisitian orthodox foundation of our legal system.

Schutt discusses vocation and the Christian calling in a general manner, which is thought provoking and perhaps even slightly countercultural. He then addresses how the Christian should think and practice as a lawyer with integrity in the ruthless profession that he describes the American legal profession as being; intertwining theoretical concepts with some practical ideas both for those studying and for those practicing the law as a daily pursuit.

At the very least, reading this book will get you thinking about whether the way that you work and relate to others in your profession is integrated with your Christian faith.