Book Review – A War of Loves, David Bennett

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In A War of Loves, David Bennett has written a stimulating book that will challenge many different segments of the church over the question of human sexuality and identity. A War of Loves is not the book that many people (from all across the spectrum of opinion) will have wanted to read but, because of that, it might be the book that they need to read.

In A War of Loves, David recounts his dramatic story, from early years exploring new age religions and French existentialism to his university life as an atheist. Following surprising encounters with God, he embarked on a journey of not only seeking to reconcile his faith and sexuality but of discovering a greater call to love God with all of oneself.

A War of Loves demonstrates God’s abundant, prodigal grace for all people and investigates what the Bible teaches about sexuality. Above all, David describes how, through the joy and intimacy he found in following Jesus, love has taken on a radically new and far richer meaning.

David has had a rising profile amongst more conservative Christians who welcome his counter-narrative to those who push a revision of Christian theology of sex and marriage. He’s been prepared to take a public stand on this. Here, for example, he takes part in a BBC News segment on the topic.

It’s clear even from those brief few minutes that David is “one of us”, he’s seeking to be faithful to Jesus without trying to explain away Jesus’ clear words on human sexualityA War of Loves recounts his journey from being an atheist student at a church school in Sydney, through coming out and getting involved as an activist for gay rights, all the way to his conversion, battles with his desires and a final self-identification as a “celibate gay Christian”. His passion for telling his story is clear to the reader and the autobiographical section flows quickly and engagingly (albeit with a few clunky moments – more of that below).

Having related his own experience he then moves into a later section of theological engagement where he helpfully interacts with what he sees as the main questions and debates in this topic. It’s a helpful balance of approaches. Overall I want to recommend the book, even though at the same time I found myself frustrated in a number of areas.

What I Liked

David’s story is well told. He walks us through those first moment of realising that he was attracted to men without pandering to his audience. He is also very very honest about the deep antagonism he felt towards Christian things and, especially the Christianity he was surrounded with at the private school in Sydney he attended. He also speaks with obvious affection for those that reached out to him (both students and faculty) at that time despite the animosity he expressed while it was all happening.

The same honesty is seen when he comes out and enters into a world of advocacy and campaigning. He’s not afraid to name the elephants in the room, wherever they may lie. This will be uncomfortable reading for many on all sides of this debate. For every reminder of how very poorly we Christians understand gay people and their struggles there is also a reminder of the regular shallowness of the gay community that he found himself in. What David writes against in both camps is hypocrisy – different bodies holding out one thing and yet then failing to live up to it. Ironically, in both instances that thing is deep deep fulfilling relationship. It seems none of us can get it right, no matter what ribbon we tie the parcel up with.

While he’s pointing out our failings, David circles back a number of times on the idolatry of marriage amongst evangelicals. It’s a helpful reminder as he points to so many of his peers who seemed unnecessarily obsessed with finding a partner. We criticise the “lust-led” homosexual culture but we can be equally absorbed ourselves.

The second half of the book contains more theological engagement. Having told his story, David moves to explain it and to address some of the contentious debates that Christians have in this area. In particular he is not afraid to ask questions and provide his own answer around labels (p204).

The word “gay” does not necessarily refer to sexual behaviour; it can easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behaviour, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more.

That is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase “gay Christian” with adding the adjective “celibate,” meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a “celibate gay Christian” specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out”.

Now, you may not be totally satisfied with that answer but it is good to have an answer to the question. Bennett is clearly grappling with this issue and wants to think it through in a helpful way.

Perhaps even more useful is the insistence that the solution he is proposing is not a “cure” but a common medicine whatever our sexuality – Christ himself. What comes through clearly is that David is captured by Jesus. In this War of Loves it is quite obvious that there has been a victor; Jesus. The book is not so much a story of a man walking away from homosexuality but towards Jesus. So David is careful to deal with questions of “healing” and “cure” in this context, showing us helpfully that there are many many Christians (himself included) who do not experience any change in their attractions but nevertheless seek to live faithfully. This is, of course, David’s own testimony. He is honest about his repeated desire to be with particular men and yet he also tells us of that greater love of and from Jesus that helps him stay the course and which, ultimately, intrigues a number of those potential partners.

Where I Struggled

Despite how much I enjoyed the book, I found several aspects of it difficult. The first and most obvious issue is the flip side of something that makes the book so engaging. David’s testimony is just that; a testimony. Time and time again, rather than show us something from the Bible he would explain how “God explained to me” or “God said to me”. This way of describing things is entirely consistent with his powerful conversion and discipleship experience within a Pentecostal community and yet as a more conservative evangelical I found it almost grating. I was longing for him, at times, to just tell me what the Bible says.

But, at the same time, I’m acutely aware that David is not writing for me so much as for those currently outside the church. For them, experience is so often authority. We live in a world that is saturated with the narrative of personal experience. God’s word in the Scriptures is rejected as something external and imposed, but a personal experience cannot be questioned. I know from speaking with David about this that he has been intentional in how his story was told and I do suspect that it may be more effective because of it. It is also a powerful counter-narrative to the many “Christian” stories we hear of “coming to terms with my sexuality” which are really people seeking to justify their own sin. At the end of the day what I’m really grappling with is coming across a Charismatic Christian whose experience and therefore language are different to my own. I would have not written a book in this way, but then I’m not David and I’m not the main audience he’s writing for. Either way, this shouldn’t stop you reading this book, just be aware that it’s going to be confronting.

There were also occassional moments where the recounting of dialogue felt artificial, almost as though I was hearing David’s voice from both sides of the conversation. I fear this slightly undermines the effect of authenticity.

The final area I want to touch upon is the vexed question of labels. I’ve already pointed out above that David bravely ventures into the debate and lays out his own position. I appreciate that he’s done that but I still remained not wholly convinced. When David writes (p204),

So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behaviour, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more.

I don’t think it fully answers the challenge. Yes, it is clear how David is seeking to use the term “gay” (and especially with his preference of adding the adjective “celibate”); he’s clearly not saying “it’s ok to be gay”. And yet something still nags away at me. It’s this statement from Jesus:

Matt. 5:28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus teaches us that sin is something internal, whether or not we act upon it. So, I don’t think it’s right to say “”stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behaviour” (see above). If I read Jesus correctly in Matt. 5:28, a “stealing Christian” is someone who wants to steal something, whether or not they actually carry out the act. Of course, there is still a debate around whether sin “in the heart” is really sin but I take it that it is, given that Jesus will say this a little later:

Matt. 15:19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.

So the label “gay” sits uncomfortably with me, even as I have deep appreciation for what David is seeking to do with it. It is certainly true (as he recognises) that labels such as “same-sex attracted” are unhelpful in the wider debate. These terms “alienate” and “sound medical, like a diagnosis” (p207).

I raise these issues not to push against the book but simply to let the reader know that they may be challenged. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It could be that these are the “wounds from a friend” that we actually need to hear and trust (Prov. 27:6). Even if they’re not, they come from a friend who has lived out his faithfulness to Christ in a very costly way and has had the courage to share much of that cost and pain with us.

A War of Loves is an important contribution to this hot topic. In writing it, David has served us well – not least in challenging many of our assumptions, habits and even hypocrisies. It is a profoundly Christocentric book, and this is its greatest feature. We might quibble about various theological matters but what keeps coming through is that David loves Jesus because David is loved by Jesus. Buy it. Read it. Give it to your non-Christian friends when they want to talk to you about this issue. And then be ready to talk yourself about just how wonderful Jesus is. Perhaps some of us will read it simply to be reminded that we are in danger of losing our own war, loving other things more than Jesus.

I’ll leave the last word to Bennett (p230).

Will you join me? I invite you to come into the Father’s loving arms where our most desperate battles are won, and where you, through following Christ, will forever become the person you were created to be.

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