Karen R. Keen
Eerdmans, 160 pages
Reviewed by Linda Lanam
The debate surrounding the position of the church and its individual members on questions of sexual identity all too often sends what Karen R. Keen refers to as “traditionalists” and “progressives” to opposite sides of the field, sides from which they rarely move. And there is nothing in Keen’s little book, “Scripture, Ethics and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships,” that is likely to finally bring resolution to the contentious issue. However, she offers a balanced discussion of the subject 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 Christian. Framing the topic factually offers a foundation for conversation that may at least tempt opponents to take a step or two toward the middle.
Keen opens with a brief summary of the response of the church to same-sex relationships. Her discussion of the scientific and spiritual approaches taken through the centuries is a useful starting place for the fact-based approach that she takes in the rest of the book. The application of church history and philosophy to an examination of the development of church doctrine on the subject of same-sex relationships is effective in showing what convictions have been articulated in the past and how and why they have changed.
From history and philosophy, Keen moves into what she terms “key arguments” in the debate today. She lays out those arguments from both the traditionalist and progressive points of view, an approach that she follows in much of the book. While it is difficult for a single author to speak comprehensively for two such different perspectives, Keen keeps her points simple and clear and avoids the details that can bog the discussion down into unproductive disputes over terms and times.
The discussion of biblical passages, what is in many cases the heart and the heat of this issue, is brief and looks to the context of the texts and how they have been and are used/misused. Again, Keen maintains her focus on giving her audience information rather than fuel for their fire.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this short book is the one on ethics. Keen lays out not only how ethics are derived from the Bible but also the biblical perspective that should be used in applying Scripture to any human situation or relationship, “with a pastoral eye for the suffering of those involved.” As she puts it in the summation of this chapter, “blindly applying law without discernment violates the very purpose of God’s law.”
Keen continues in this vein through chapters on same-sex attraction and celibacy, looking always to see the questions from the perspective of the people affected. And she concludes by proposing a “new response to the gay and lesbian community.” This approach, which Keen describes as “yes, and,” builds on her own experience. In this final chapter, readers can see a possible way forward to an understanding of the issue of same-sex relationships that is faithful to God’s word and also God’s will for all people.
Keen’s book is neither a scholarly tome nor a personal reflection, but it can serve as a helpful resource for those looking to open or re-open a conversation about faith and sexuality.
Linda Lanam is a ruling elder and serves as teaching assistant in Old Testament, instructor in oral interpretation of Scripture and liturgy, and co-director of the academic resource center at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.