Gavin Matthews spoke to David Bennett, author of the remarkable book, A War of Loves
SOLAS: So your book is out now?
DB: Yes, released on Thursday the 29th November in the UK, and then mid-December in Australia, but it was out on November 3th in the States.
SOLAS: So has this book been brewing for a long time?
DB: The plan for the book started a year and a half ago when I was with my friend, the late Nabeel Qureshi. He’d written Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and there was something profound about that book in the way it wove-together story and apologetics. I thought that we really needed a book like that which connects arguments for the scriptural view of human sexuality with a real story, and I had that story. So, I saw the huge value of pairing those two things together. I sense that a lot of people are trying to ‘box’ my book in, but I really hope that people will lay their ‘bug-bears’ down and actually consider the story and what has actually happened in my life.
I had just finished writing my book and was reading the manuscript in a coffee shop, sitting opposite a young girl who was a chain-smoking atheist, a very forthright interesting individual. We got chatting and she said, “I completely disagree with you being celibate, I think it’s ridiculous. But I respect you, and I’d like you to read your book to me!” And after reading the book, she said, “I not only understand why you are celibate”, but also “How do I become a Christian?” Which was amazing, and that’s really the reason I wrote the book!
SOLAS: Your book is part autobiography, part theology — an interesting mixture of different things going on.
DB: So the book is trying to bridge the gap between the subjective and the objective, the theological and the personal. I think the question of human sexuality and desire is a profound one to our personhood, in our bodies and in the world. It really requires a different approach than just a statement of belief, it’s something which requires an incarnational, as much as a scriptural response. My book doesn’t say “here’s what scripture says – now go live it”, it says, “here’s what scripture says, this is how I as a human being have lived it.” I think that is so important for gay people that this question doesn’t remain abstract but comes down and dwells with them and relates to them. That’s what I needed when I was going through my own questioning. So I want the book to make people feel that they have ‘company’ and draw them towards intimacy with God. At the very centre of the book is the question, “have you experienced the love of God?”. I really don’t think that the question of who we are, including our sexuality is really answerable until we have experienced the love of God in Jesus. I don’t think you can understand the Christian ethic without knowing Christ. So I wrote this primarily as an invitation to embrace the love of God.
I’m not really celibate today because I’m gay (although that’s part of it). You know, recently, the Lord said to me, “You are celibate, because I’m worthy of that.” This is actually an invitation to worship and to realise how worthy God is. It’s in losing yourself in God that you find yourself and that is the ‘heart-cry’ of the book.
SOLAS: And there’s enough in the autobiographical side of the book to upset those on the more liberal side of the equation and enough in the theology to upset the more fundamentalist… so I suppose there’s enough to upset almost everybody!
DB: That sounds like somebody I know … Jesus!!! I mean, Jesus agreed with the conservatives, with his views on divorce and resurrection but he didn’t agree with the way they lived out the law. He saw that it was hollow, and he reinstated the life of faith, which is living in the dynamic of relationship with Father-God in the Spirit. Jesus steered us back to that relationship in which the moral life actually makes sense and works. I want to walk to the ‘narrow’ Jesus path, and I’m willing to pay a price.
SOLAS: John’s gospel describes Jesus as “full of grace and truth” but sometimes it seems that the Church is always trying to compromise on one of those things or the other — but you seem to be trying to go all out of BOTH grace and truth!
DB: Yes! And how can we claim to worship Messiah-Jesus and not do that? I don’t understand how people think that truth alone will get people there, and I don’t understand how people want to water down grace and make it ‘fluffy’; it’s an insult to his cross. When people ‘watered down’ truth to me, they thought they were loving me, but they weren’t. When people watered-down grace, they weren’t loving me, they were just making it easier for their flesh to feel comfortable with the fact that I was gay. That doesn’t come from God. Whenever a person acts from the love of God, even if they are rebuking you or correcting you, it will always bring life and encourage you to go deeper with the Lord. I hope that in this sexuality conversation, Jesus will be imitated in the church.
SOLAS: Your book is very open, very personal. Were you ever tempted to hide, to just live out your beliefs quietly, rather than publicly?
DB: I deeply disagree with the lack of vulnerability in Christian ministry platforms and the way the Christian world works. There’s a kind of personal authenticity, that I absolutely love about the gay-community and I miss desperately in the Christian community. It’s ironic because I say in the book that I felt a lack of intimacy when I was in various spaces in the gay world. I also have felt more recently a lack of capacity for Christians to have intimacy with one another and be real and honest and authentic; because of the fear of being judged or losing a platform. I am trying to break that and say that the only way to minister Christ to the world is through our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and personal failures. It’s in that space that the glory of God is seen. I think that it is really important to be personally vulnerable and that’s why I put my head above the parapet. Jesus himself, and Paul and the greats of the faith all put their head above the parapet at the appointed time. I feel that God has given me this opportunity with my story. It is scary, and there are times when I think that people will reject me or come after me. I always worry that there will be those people who are just determined to hate, and don’t want to hear what you have to say, or just pre-judge the book from the cover. But my prayer is that people will read the book, allow it to touch them, and that God will speak to them through it. And it’s worth taking that risk, I think.
SOLAS: You got NT Wright to write the foreword! I remember hearing him once say that wherever Paul preached there were riots and people tried to kill him; but wherever he preaches people serve cups of tea! So what kinds of reactions have you had to the book?
DB: Well I had one very unfortunate reaction on Twitter saying that my book would kill people. But that person then apologised and said that they hadn’t actually read it! But that’s probably the kind of reaction you get from someone who had been hurt by the church. However, it’s unfair to judge my book without understanding who I am or my story. My book is far more complex, gritty and real than some clichéd ex-gay narrative. People see “he was a gay-activist who discovered Jesus”. But you have to understand I was an atheist gay-activist! I wasn’t a Christian, in fact I hated Christianity. I was expecting that there would be a backlash but 99% of feedback has been really positive, and lots of people have said that we really need this book for the church and for the gospel. Some have said thank you for being vulnerable. New Christians have picked up the book and said, ‘this is exactly what I needed, God has led me to your book’ sometimes from people living silently in the closet who feel freed by the book. So it’s amazing to see the stories of people who have been transformed by God through it, and I’m humble grateful to God for that. A War of Loves is not a perfect doctrinal statement either. That might follow after I have completed my theological studies, and have more life experience, I’m only 29!
SOLAS: So, tell me about the title: A War of Loves?
DB: I was trying to come up with a title that really summarised the book . An atheist gay-activist has this crazy encounter with God in a pub, and then wakes up the next day! What is that like…?!
SOLAS: I have no idea!!
DB: Not many people have had that experience! I remember saying to God, “I’m an atheist gay activist, I can’t be a Christian!” So it was a war. Who would I stand for, Jesus, or that? The war in me was huge. Do I trust God or don’t I? It got to a point where the evidential threshold was crossed, and I had to follow Christ. But then there was a war for three years about what I did with my sexuality and my romantic life.
But this isn’t just a matter for people who are gay. There is the matter for everyone, with our will and the will of God. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane “not my will but yours be done” which is a war of loves and is the centre of my doctoral thesis. It’s a human struggle that we all have to do the will of God and not our own; including the wrestling of a gay, same-sex attracted person to be a Christian. There is a huge difference between having a desire, the goal or aim of which will never be fulfilled and has to die; compared to a heterosexual desire which could be sanctified in a marriage. When you are same-sex attracted/gay that’s hard, and I hope that’s something that people pick up in the book, that this “War of Loves” is a struggle to follow Christ and to let the war of loves be won. It’s won by God’s love winning over false, idolatrous views of love.
SOLAS: Does that not thrust a spear at the heart of what has gone wrong with Christianity in the West, that we have marketed it like a life-enhancement product for self-fulfilment, rather than looking Christ-like and sacrificial? And that the sort of cost you describe should be the normal Christian life?
DB: I totally agree, and the fascinating thing is being same-sex attracted and gay is secretly a blessing in disguise because I don’t have the option of lukewarm life-enhancement Christianity that is a hobby on Sunday. I literally don’t have that option. I want to say to the church, “Put your idolatry away where it came from. You can’t get away with it, there are people you are actually hurting by not living the full Christian life!” The fact that there aren’t many celibate heterosexual people is a sign that there is an idolatry of romantic love in the church. A young gay man in the book said, “Why can’t we have romantic love? They get to have romantic love and family and kids, and we don’t. How could God be good if that’s real?” And I said, Praise be to God that we have these desires because if we didn’t, we’d sign up to that idolatry and we wouldn’t follow His will. So it is a blessing in that particular sense that we don’t have that option – we have to go for celibacy. It actually forces your hand into a Christian asceticism as there is no other way through for a gay/same sex attracted person.
It’s the same for a heterosexual person, but because of our culture, you can kind of get away with it. I’m hoping that there’s an edge to the book that calls the church to repentance in this area.
SOLAS: I wonder if the church is uncomfortable with your message of high-cost, real discipleship?
DB: I understand that following Jesus isn’t easy and requires a lot of grace to take the step to carry your cross. In my life the people who have blessed me the most have been those loving, stable, Jesus-loving truth-embracing voices who have confronted me or who have sat with me in hard truths I need to accept. So, I wouldn’t want to do anything less for others.
I have had so many responses from people who are not LGBTQI, who have said to me, ‘this book is really helping me in my marriage’ or ‘in my family life’ to actually re-order my loves around God. I hope that this book is doing good work for the Lord’s purposes.
That’s why the stories of gay/same sex attracted people who are living obediently to Christ need to be shared more in the church because they have a prophetic weight. There’s a risk for the church to let them be heard, but I actually think that that God will bless though it. We need more testimonies of people who have come to embrace Jesus’ ethic of sexuality.
There are people arguing that the male-female created order of God doesn’t matter, that we have this new thing in Jesus and that gay-marriage is wonderful in the church. I think that that is such a betrayal of Jesus. He is the creator-incarnate and He made us male and female for a reason. Just deleting that is just impossible. You can’t worship Him as God and delete male and female marriage: that just doesn’t work. So gay marriage will never be at the centre of the church of Jesus. There will only be marriage as God originally intended it, and that’s not even the point in God’s Kingdom. Jesus said there will be no marriage in the future. So God has ratified the created order through Jesus. However, He will transform it in the future into something into which we all have access, are all invited. Of course, people who are celibate are almost starting heaven now! In the sense that they are embodying what the future will be like.
SOLAS: You talk about the difference between “good celibacy” and “bad celibacy”.. is that part of what you mean by “good celibacy”, pre-empting the future in the Kingdom of God?
DB: Exactly! Sarah Coakley’s book A New Asceticism has been a real blessing to me. It’s very careful thinking. She herself is pro-gay relationships in the church, and I completely disagree with that, but I do think that her model of what Christian asceticism looks like is brilliant. The future-orientated vocation of celibacy, is an admirable and honourable Christian vocation. Marriage obviously points to the future as well.
Of course, everyone is invited to be married in Christ! The real marriage we are actually celebrating is the future marriage of Jesus and the bride. Marriage between a man and a woman, or celibacy both celebrate that. In celibacy there is a deep, intense Christian friendship you can experience such as between David and Jonathan, and other biblical characters too. I’m really interested in seeing the church removing the idol of sexuality and experiencing those kind of friendships. I think they are a radical witness to the world, just as a beautiful Christian marriage is.
SOLAS: Our culture exalts sex to a very high place and will misunderstand some of what you are saying as a choice between sexual activity and misery … but you are a joyful person! What is the source of your joy?
DB: I don’t think people realise that God is actually real! I’m not giving my sexuality up merely for an idea! He’s actually real, Jesus is the Messiah, he actually rose from the dead! He rose, and it’s true. Jesus rose from the dead, I have no doubt about it. I have experienced too many of its effects to ever believe otherwise.
God has designs, desires and goals for our bodies and following them is a deep act of worship. Failing to do that is sinning, falling short of the intention He has for your body. That is a pretty big thing, but scripture is so clear that our bodies are not our own.
God’s love actually changes our hearts and desires that fit with His will and purpose though. That has happened with my same-sex desires. I don’t want a gay marriage, or a gay relationship anymore. I want to be completely with God and serve His kingdom. That’s taken a long time, ten years, and there’s been moments where of course I’ve wanted that, but overall you change over time. Once you have ‘tasted’ God, known His presence, you are given a new desire-life which is not orientated around the ‘old man’, but which desires the heavenly future.
Christian joy is so amazing. I am addicted to the joy of God. I think Christian joy is ultimately about union with God, knowing this incredible joy that He has about who we are, or what the creation will be like when it’s finally finished and we can rest in eternal intimacy with Him. And there’s nothing like that. The Bible states that ‘Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him’, and in some sense I know I’m going to suffer but I’ve got this joy set before me …. Christ! It’s hard to describe what it looks like; but I would say that it looks like a human being, fully alive! Which doesn’t require sex, it’s completely independent of sex. Christian joy is more than happiness, and comes through suffering too. That’s a really interesting mystery in the Christian life. The people who have the greatest Christian joy that I’ve seen, are those who have suffered the most.
SOLAS: Thanks for your time, David!
DB: Pleasure. And God bless you!