Karen R. Keen
Eerdmans, 160 pages
Reviewed by Linda Lanam
The debate over the position of the Church and its individual members on issues of sexual identity too often sends what Karen R. Keen calls “traditionalists” and “progressives” to opposite sides of the field, sides from which they leave. rarely. And there is nothing in Keen’s little book, “Writing, Ethics and the Possibility of Homosexual Relations,” which is likely to finally provide a solution to this contentious question. However, she offers a balanced discussion of the topic, grounded in church history, biblical studies, and Christian ethics, and reflects on her own life experiences as she came to terms with being gay and a Christian. Defining the topic factually provides a basis for conversation that can at least inspire naysayers to take a step or two toward the middle.
Keen begins with a brief summary of the Church’s response to same-sex relationships. Her discussion of scientific and spiritual approaches taken across the centuries provides a useful starting point for the evidence-based approach she takes in the rest of the book. Applying Church history and philosophy to examining the evolution of Church doctrine regarding same-sex relationships is effective in showing what beliefs have been expressed in the past and how and why they changed.
From history to philosophy, Keen addresses what she calls the “key arguments” of the current debate. She presents these arguments from both traditionalist and progressive perspectives, an approach she follows throughout much of the book. Although it is difficult for a single author to speak comprehensively about two such different perspectives, Keen keeps his arguments simple and clear and avoids details that can bog down the discussion in unproductive arguments over terms and deadlines.
The discussion of biblical passages, which in many cases are the heart and core of this issue, is brief and examines the context of the texts and how they were and are used/abused. Once again, Keen remains focused on providing information to her audience rather than fueling her fire.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter of this little book is that on ethics. Keen explains not only how ethics flows from the Bible, but also the biblical perspective that should be used to apply Scripture to any human situation or relationship, “with a pastoral eye on the suffering of those involved.” As she says in the summary of this chapter, “blindly applying the law without discernment violates the very purpose of God’s law.”
Keen continues in this vein through chapters on same-sex attraction and singleness, always seeking to see the issues from the perspective of the people involved. And she concludes by proposing a “new response to the gay and lesbian community”. This approach, which Keen describes as “yes and,” is based on his own experience. In this final chapter, readers can glimpse a possible path toward an understanding of the issue of same-sex relationships that is faithful to God’s word and also to God’s will for all.
Keen’s book is neither a scholarly work nor a personal reflection, but it can serve as a useful resource for those seeking to open or reopen a conversation about faith and sexuality.
Linda Lanam is a senior elder and serves as an Old Testament teaching assistant, instructor in oral interpretation of Scripture and liturgy, and co-director of the Academic Resource Center at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.