Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community
Published: March 2009
If you were to meet Andrew Marin (and providing you have some experience with Evangelical culture), it might strike you that he looks, acts, and talks like the epitome of a twenty-something Evangelical guy. His hair is cut pretty short. When I heard him speak, he was wearing long khaki cargo shorts and an oversized striped polo shirt. He is effusive and outgoing in mannerisms, and when he speaks, he loves to interject words like “awesome” and “pumped up” into his emotional-wallop-packing anecdotes and series of simple, Bible-verse backed points. Stock Evangelicalish phrases seem to work their way un-self-consciously into every other sentence.
In his own words (paraphrased from what I remember), he is what his large Evangelical church in a (quite) affluent Chicago suburb raised him to be: an outgoing, straight, conservative, Bible-believing alpha-male. And he doesn’t just appear to be this. He truly is this, and he fully claims it.
So… this has all been just to set up some tension over everything else I want to say about Andrew Marin, his eight year of work in the GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered) community, and especially his new book published by Intervarsity Press, “Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community.” For those who don’t know me, I grew up very Christian and very Mennonite, went through a lot of pain figuring out my sexual orientation, am gay, and currently approach the church and the Bible with a lot of ambivalence over whether they’re fundamentally good or bad (and whether they lead one toward Christ or kill any possibility of actually encountering Christ.) Add that to the tension.
Let me give you the one-sentence-ish summary of Marin’s biography (which takes most of a chapter in the book): he grew up a homophobic Christian who called everyone a fag; best friends came out of the closet and shocked his worldview; moved into Boystown (neighborhood where many gay boys live/hang out in Chicago) and started spending all his times with gay people in gay places; hasn’t stopped doing so for eight years. He started the Marin Foundation to do something that seems to have never been done (at least, never for real) in the Evangelical church before: approach GLBT people to learn about their lives and build a lasting, committed relational bond for talking about God. The rest of the book tells you stories about the people he met, lessons he learned, and a number of principles the church has to adopt to move from violent non-productive opposition to the GLBT community into productive, fruitful, authentic, relational, and loving sharing of the Gospel with GLBT people - and by “sharing” he doesn’t mean “telling” as in “I know something you don’t”, he means “you’re experiencing this and I’m experiencing this.” You know - sharing. (If you can’t tell already, I believe Marin is doing something truly extraordinary in his work and in this book. I think it’s going to be very important in Evangelical and conservative-ish Christian circles.)
If you are someone who care about the church and also longs for any sort of progress in a positive direction on the church’s obsession with the gays (or… maybe I should say… overwhelming amount energy focused on the issue) I would put this book at #1 on your priority of books to read.
I won’t directly summarize the book - and I don’t want this review to be taken as a direct representation of exactly what Marin’s thoughts are. Rather, this is my version of the core of his message. By some coincidence, he happened to be speaking at a nearby Mennonite church the week after I finished reading the book, so my impressions are also based on his presentation that I heard there. If you’re interested in the specifics, read the book.
He recognizes a poisonous situation in the current state of affairs between the Evangelical church and the GLBT community: one of two polarized sides, each with certain rigid orthodoxies, typified by certain simplistic answers to simplistic questions (”Is homosexuality a sin?” “Can homosexuals change?” “Are they born that way?” “Does the Bible teach homosexuality is wrong?”) which serve as markers of tribal identity for immediately placing a stranger into their appropriate tribal identification. For someone who might on a superficial level seem to communicate in streams of Evangelical cliches, his analysis of the linguistic manifestation of this polarized state is very subtle and quite astute. One of the pillars of his approach is to destabilize the basis of these simplistic polarizing questions. There’s an interesting analysis in the book of Jesus’s answers to close-ended questions. WWJD.
He calls on the church to take upon itself responsibility for ending the cultural war between itself and the GLBT community. He calls on the church to use the true, freedom-in-Christ-centered Gospel as its tool to end the war. He even, I think, calls the church to take responsibility for being the originators of this culture war: his thinking goes - “since we have spent so many years defining entire humans beings by the singular aspect of their sexual behavior, is it any surprise that they have formed identities based on their sexual behavior?” He calls for an entirely new way (new in GLBT/Christian relations) of defining others’ identity, one based on claiming that all people’s true identity is in Christ.
He has a list of points/lessons/principles for the church to follow in making a transformation. To be honest, I don’t have the book nearby right now, and I don’t really remember many of them. If I was working as a Christian trying to understand and relate to the gay community (which I’m not), I’d go back and look at them. I can tell you these things for sure:
1) Andrew Marin, more than any other straight conservative Christian who believes in a literal interpretation of scripture I’ve ever known, has a true understanding of GLBT people and their lives. Maybe he’s spent too much time with us gays, actually - at his talk, some of his off-handed remarks about gay/Christian interactions were so straight-to-the-heart my partner and I spent half the time shaking with laughter, while all the sweet presumably straight Mennonites around us only smiled or mildly chuckled in a bit of vague confusion.
2) He’s committed his life to building a bridge between the GLBT and the Evangelical communities. He’s spent all of his post-college life so far working with GLBT organizations, churches, and communities. Check out his foundation’s website (google “Marin Foundation”) for all the stuff that they’re up to.
3) His book is powerful.
Some of his ideas are fundamentally Anabaptist: I think he even uses the exact phrase of “an upside-down kingdom”. However, his ideas are also VERY refreshingly non-Anabaptist on another front: he has no instinctive obsession with making sure the church is a pure place that only the pure can inhabit. He think people should be at church because it creates a place for them to practice and experience God’s love while they’re learning and allowing God to change their lives.
Okay. This review is long. But, now that I’ve talked as much as I can about Marin’s book and his ideas, I’d like to say what I truly think about him and his life. I think the reason Marin stands out isn’t necessarily just because his ideas and language are fresh. I think there’s this authentic spiritual core that he is living from - his words and ideas are only the fruits of this core. He’s this very normal person, as I tried to describe. Yet, in contintually submitting to what he understands as God’s calling to live as a link between two deeply polarized communities - and through empathizing with all the pain and suffering he’s witnessed in GLBT people’s experiences in the church yet contintuing on in hope and not despair - he has identified his own life and own path with Christ. That was my main impression, overall. He’s someone who is in the process of being transformed by following the path of Christ, the path of suffering, of being continually misunderstood, the process of giving up whatever he thought his life was and accepting instead the reality of what God is in his life. I suspect that there are elements of his biography that are more complex and are darker that the breezy, simplistic stories he shares in the book - times of true despair and of having to give up his own identity. Maybe this whole GLBT/Christian divide isn’t just a calling outward for him to change the word, but has also served as his own inward calling, to force him into identification with both the suffering and the love of Christ.
Maybe these are just words that don’t mean much either, this talk about giving up one’s life. Thinking about it, I’ve heard these words before too, and usually they don’t mean too much. So whatever. Get the book. If you’re into Evangelical-type things, it’s a major one, and people will be talking. If you think a lot about the place of GLBT people in the church and all the current brouhaha over it, definitely pick it up. Also - if you’re just really interested in someone doing something very unexpected, and exhibiting the beginnings of a truly amazing spirituality, look at it for that. That’s most of what I want to say. I have a lot more personal thoughts about what this book might mean for the church and for the GLBT community, but I’ll save those for the comments.
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