The tag line on the cover - “The unexpected story of a gay activist discovering Jesus” - really does capture this book in a sentence.
David Bennett’s new work is personal, biblical, at times deeply challenging but also impossible to put down. Tom Wright pens the foreword and he rightly comments that David’s account of encountering Jesus in a pub in Sydney is alone worth double the price of the book.
David describes himself as a “celibate gay Christian” - probably too gay for some, not gay enough for others. He is well aware of the importance of language and acknowledges that not all will agree with his choice of words. His self description is challenging, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wright in his foreword - “I greatly respect David’s insider viewpoint and will I hope, continue to learn from him.” (13) David uses the three words “celibate gay Christian” to remind others that his sexuality is now caught up in his worship of God leading him to a life of celibacy.
He describes his upbringing as a young gay boy in Australia and the negative response of Christian friends at school when he came out. The book tells of his growing desire as a gay rights activist to see justice for LGBTQI people, his journey through new age religions and French existentialism, and his university years as a postmodernist. He saw evangelical or conservative Christians as the enemy and hated their constant effort to indoctrinate him with their deluded notion of a Jewish carpenter.
Then, there is an incredible encounter with Jesus in a pub in the gay quarter of Sydney. A friend Madeline asks if David thinks there is a God and few minutes later she is praying for him and he is experiencing a warm sensation running down his entire body like a current of water. He comments, “I was a dumbfounded. I was an atheist gay activist, perhaps the least likely of anyone to ever find Jesus. But in that moment, I knew I had become a new person.” (82)
The journey of discipleship was far from straightforward. David tried various churches, with different positions on sexuality. He experimented with celibacy and dating, struggling with giving his sexuality to Jesus. It took time before he realised his sexual orientation had nothing to do with his righteousness before God, but that sexual behaviour was a different story.
David talks a lot about hearing God speak to him, particularly in relation to his sexuality and celibacy. I have read and spoken to others who say that God has told them that their gay relationships are fine. However, David is clear that we must not put ourselves over scripture, but live under the Word of God (125). He warns against compromising holiness in the hope of church growth that won’t happen. Instead he argues, we need to raise up and embrace those who are sexually faithful and celibate, which will ultimately attract others into the church.
David is now pursuing a DPhil (PhD) in theology at the University of Oxford and is a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. While this is an autobiography, he does discuss theology and biblical teaching on sexuality. His missional heart shines through as he reminds readers that homosexuality is not an evangelistic issue, but a discipleship one. He has been criticised for using the ‘celibate gay Christian’ label, though he makes a strong argument for his position and the limitations of using the phrase “same-sex attracted”. He clearly sets out the various terms and positions in the sexuality debate, highlights the risk of idolatry on all sides and pushes for acceptance but not affirmation. He argues for “celibate gay Christian” as a third way - biblical, missional and essentially conveying his testimony is three words. He also reminds more conservative readers that the “opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality. It is holiness.” (213)
The real issue at the heart of our culture is idolatry. It is a war of worship or a war of loves as the title of David’s book suggests. He is simply someone who encountered the love of God in Jesus Christ and had his life turned upside down (238). His identity as a gay man is a temporary reality that will ultimately be transformed. As he reminds his readers, we must all give up our identities for the sake of Christ.
This is not an easy read. David talks openly and honestly about his relationships and life in the gay community, even after encountering Jesus in the pub. Some will find his raw and explicit story-telling difficult. Others will find his embrace of celibacy and rejection of same-sex practice jarring - he asks if there is a stripe on the rainbow flag for celibate people like him. I was deeply challenged about my own approach to this whole area - it is much easier to work out what holiness looks like for others. David does a great job of reminding readers that we all have parts of our identity that we need to lay down, but also that God’s grace is limitless.
What struck me most, is that David is not trying to win an argument, but ultimately inviting people to consider what is true, and so to encounter Jesus. He tells his story in a way that will be accessible to anyone, gay or straight. He is always pointing beyond himself, asking what is love and who should be the object of our love. He cuts through the various sides in the sexuality debate and again and again points to Jesus. He reminds us of God’s grace and that worship requires us all to lay down our idols - sexuality, family, religion, wealth or power.
I recommend this book to pastors, youth leaders, counsellors and anyone wrestling with questions of sexuality. It will now be required reading for our interns and recommended reading for many others.