Jenell Williams Paris. The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2011. 160 pages. $15.00.
Other dear friends of mine, knowing about my sexuality and my belief that gay relationships miss the mark of God's intention for human sexual expression, refuse to call me “gay.” They agree with Alan Chambers, president of the most famous “ex-gay” ministry, Exodus International, who wrote recently, “Today many Christians with SSA”-SSA being the popular abbreviation for the term same-sex attraction-“are choosing to keep the gay identity/label. This falls short of God's best because identity matters.” So these friends of mine will talk about my “same-sex desires” or my “homosexual feelings,” but they won't turn those descriptors into adjectives. Still other friends of mine feel that taking on the “gay” label may be a good thing to do-a matter of truth-telling, in fact. After I made the decision to describe myself as a “celibate gay Christian” in my book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010), I heard from one reader who was relieved. “I do appreciate your identification as a gay Christian and your grappling with your dilemmas as such,” she wrote. “It's somewhat refreshing that you do not put too much distance between who you are and homosexuality.”
How should we respond to this welter of opinions? For the first time, there's a full, book-length answer to exactly that question. Written by Jenell Williams Paris, a professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are argues that our current Christian discussion about matters pertaining to sexuality is overly dependent on a contemporary Western paradigm that says our sexual desires define who we are as persons. That message is out of step with the Christian gospel, Paris suggests. “Identity comes from God,” she writes, “not sexual feelings.”
Uniquely, however-while she takes the whole Christian discussion swirling around homosexuality as her point of departure-Paris zooms out for a wide-angle view of the surrounding issues, calling into question the legitimacy of “heterosexuality” as a descriptive category in the same breath as she does homosexuality. “The major problem with heterosexuality, and sexual identity in general,” Paris argues, “is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes.” Some might be inclined to think that Christian faith encourages only those self-identifying as “homosexual” to abandon their label, but Paris insists that the call to renunciation cuts in all directions. Heterosexuals should not negate homosexual identities while shoring up their own. Rather, every group that finds its identity in a particular configuration of sexual desire is summoned by the gospel to lay down this marker of personhood and take up the only one that really matters. What we need, according to Paris, is a “post-sexual identity church” in which “there's no moral high ground for heterosexuals and no closet for homosexuals. There's just people, each of whom is lover and loved.”
When you couple Paris's provocative thesis with her lucid writing style, peppered as it is with revealing anecdotes and an impressive amount of scientific and theological research, the result is a book well worth taking seriously. I'd love to see it discussed not only in psychology and sociology classes at Christian colleges (among other academic venues) but also in Sunday school gatherings, church cell groups, and on pastors' retreats.
Fickle, Conflicted, Out of Control
Paris has done a great service for the church by exposing, from a social scientific perspective, the way in which categories such as “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” are particular interpretative frameworks with which we try to make sense of people's experience of various forms of desire. As such, these frameworks are debatable. They aren't simply given, natural, and neutral-part of the unquestionable, unalterable “way things are”-but are, rather, constructed, often out of perspectives that bear little or no relation to classic Christian accounts of the significance of sexuality. In making that case, Paris takes a great deal of technical reflection from the social sciences and makes it accessible for the rest of us.
What's more, she's not alone in her conclusions. In an essay originally published in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Eve Tushnet wrote: “The view that sexual orientation is intrinsic and constitutive of a person's deepest identity comes from a school of psychology that owes very little to the gospel and a great deal to anti-Christian forms of philosophical materialism.” And in a recent essay for The Christian Century, the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley arrived at a similar viewpoint. Categorizing people into “hetero-,” “homo-,” and “bisexual” groups is, she writes, a “wholly modern” endeavor and one that could be considered “intrinsically secular” (March 22, 2011, p. 39).
Paris taps into this theme and gives it extended reflection, offering readers the chance to think about what it might mean to consider sexual desires not primarily in relation to their human objects but, first and foremost, in relation to God.
Along the way, Paris points beyond “change” as the goal for Christians who experience same-sex desires. If we have already bought into “the sexual identity framework,” in which sexual desire is the determining factor of a person's identity, then we might consider it essential to the Christian growth of “gay” people that they come to think of themselves as “heterosexual” instead. We might attach a great deal of importance to the alteration of their desires, as Exodus and other “ex-gay” ministries often do. When some fail to achieve such change, though, where does that leave us? For Paris, since desire-whether it is oriented toward people of the same or opposite sex-does not define who we are, we are free to claim our status as God's beloved children regardless of how much “change” we can or cannot manage to achieve. “What's ironic is that even though changing sexual desire may seem to be a thoroughly Christian approach,” she writes, “it often eclipses other biblical teachings about desire: that it is fickle, often conflicted and, even for devout believers, not always under our control.” That strikes me as an excellent description of my own Christian experience, and I suspect it is a good account of the experience of many of my fellow believers.
A Label But Not the Core Identity
Nevertheless, I find myself ambivalent about this book's central thesis. Consider the following claim, representative of a number of similar places in the book:
“Homosexuality” is a sexual identity that links sexual desire to sexual identity; who you want sexually is who you are socially. We are enculturated to think of sexual desire in this way: that it is identity-constituting, and that people who experience persistent same-sex attraction are a distinct category of persons in society.
Later on, Paris makes a comparable assertion: “The sexual identity framework labels [a person] 'lesbian,' 'bisexual' or some other category based on the condition of a single item, desire.” At that point, I scribbled in the margin, “Really?” Do labels like “gay” really function for all, or even most, gays in the way that Paris suggests here? Perhaps so, in many communities. But I know an increasing number of Christians-including myself-who have chosen to own the label “gay” and use it to acknowledge the unique circumstances in which they're called to bear witness to the grace of God. As Mark Yarhouse, professor of psychology at Regent University, recently wrote for the Christ on Campus Initiative, there are many young Christians who are choosing to remain celibate but who nonetheless “share a common sense of experience with members of the gay community, and the use of the word 'gay' (as a self-defining attribution) is an honest account of their sexual attractions and reflects the resonance they feel with the gay community at that level.” Surely such use of the word gay is miles away from defining a person's core identity for themselves or anyone else, isn't it?
Christians have long recognized that the gospel's demand and comfort may be contextualized for different groups of people. Consequently, Christians have looked for convenient ways to distinguish those groups from one another. Gregory the Great's Pastoral Rule (c. 590), for instance, aimed to “solicitously oppose suitable medicines to the various diseases of the several hearers”-presenting a gospel for the rich, a gospel for the poor, a gospel for those with political influence, a gospel for those without it, and so on (as quoted in Oliver O'Donovan, Church in Crisis, 106.)
But even before such highly schematized attempts to apply the gospel to specific social groups, the New Testament itself set the agenda for such a project. The same apostle who declared that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28) also wrote, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13). As Paul understood, there are occasions that require emphasizing what we share in common with all-our complicity in Adam's fall and, for those of us who believe, our participation in Christ's atoning work and reception of the same indwelling Spirit. Here, “no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). But there are other times and places where we may wish to address only a specific subcategory of Christians, and here we will have to find language with which to do so.
When it comes to labeling those groups of people whose sexual desires differ from others, Christians may disagree about how that may best be accomplished. Some may prefer to steer clear of what Paris calls the “sexual identity framework,” avoiding nomenclature such as “gay” or “straight” altogether. Others may continue to believe that such labels capture something true and important. For myself, using the term “gay” has enabled me to attain a greater depth of honesty-with myself and with others. It has given me a way to achieve greater accuracy in naming the persistent, exclusive nature of my desires where a term like “same-sex attraction” seems too weak. Furthermore, claiming the “gay” label has allowed me to begin to discern a vocation. To borrow Paul's language in 2 Corinthians 12:7, when I acknowledged that my “thorn in the flesh” didn't seem like something that would be easily removed, that recognition enabled me to encounter God's power in the midst of pain. My unique thorn, I realized, may be the precise point at which I am called to receive and reflect his grace and embody the “perfection” of his strength.
Paris approaches this line of thought when she urges readers to learn “to use sexual identity categories strategically (which sometimes means not using them at all), instead of being (ab)used by them when they tell us who we are, what we're worth and with whom we should associate.” The terms themselves, she hints, may be adopted by Christians-so long as they're put to new use, co-opted for the cause of love and holiness. Those of us who continue to find them helpful should follow her counsel, bending the insights those labels afford to serve the cause of the gospel in the life of Christians.