Review of ‘Same-Sex Marriage’ by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet

Same-Sex-Marriage Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

On September 21, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law, which Congress had passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities (85–14 in the Senate, 342–67 in the House). Section 3 of that law provided a legal definition of the words marriage and spouse for federal laws and regulations: “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled Section 3 unconstitutional by a 5–4 vote. And although DOMA was enacted with significant Democratic congressional support and signed into law by a Democratic president, the current Democratic party platform explicitly endorses “marriage equality.”

The enactment and demise of Section 3 of DOMA illustrate the tectonic shift in U.S. public opinion regarding same-sex marriage particularly and homosexuality generally. Over the past two decades, public opinion has become increasingly favorable to both. The Pew Research Center has tracked public opinion on these matters since 2001. Its polling data show a reversal of fortunes for the anti- and pro-same-sex marriage positions. In 2001, the public opposed same-sex marriage, 57–35 percent. Now it favors same-sex marriage 52–40 percent. Furthermore, the trend line of opinion regarding same-sex marriage is increasingly favorable in every demographic category: generation, religious affiliation, political party, political ideology, race, and gender.

This tectonic shift in U.S. public opinion and law is dispiriting to those of us Christians who affirm the biblical and traditional understanding of marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman. Given the way this understanding has shaped marriage law in America, the rapid shift of opinion represents more than political or legal defeat. It represents a cultural defeat as well.

“In light of this reality,” Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet write in their new book, “Christians should shift their mindset from preserving or conserving to proposing and building. Christians should no longer wish for a massive judicial or political victory to save marriage. When an institution has been culturally compromised the way marriage has been, it cannot be saved. It has to be redefined and reestablished” (pp. 86–87, emphasis in original).

McDowell and Stonestreet divide their book into two parts. Part 1, “What Marriage Is and Why It Matters,” offers biblical and prudential arguments for understanding marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman. Their biblical case focuses on the Genesis creation accounts (Genesis 1–2), which Jesus affirmed as normative for believers in Matthew 19. They identify three “essential characteristics” of marriage: (1) union, (2) procreation, and (3) permanence. Interestingly, they don’t discuss the biblical passages that proscribe homosexual behavior. This is the right move, in my opinion, because marriage can be positively defined without reference to proscribed sexual behaviors.

McDowell and Stonestreet’s prudential case builds on an argument made by Maggie Gallagher: “Sex makes babies. Society needs babies. Babies deserve mothers and fathers” (p. 44). As they explain it, “societies have a vested interest in the process that most often produces children. That’s why every society cares about sex. Societies also have a vested interest in supporting an environment that best rears children. That’s why every society cares about marriage” (p. 45).

If the traditional view of marriage acknowledges the essential connection between sex, procreation, and marriage, the revisionist view of marriage denies it. As same-sex marriage proponent E. J. Graff puts it, “Allowing two people of the same-sex to marry shifts the institution’s message… If same-sex marriage becomes legal, that venerable institution will ever stand for sexual choice, for cutting the link between sex and diapers.” Similarly, Andrew Sullivan writes, “From being a means to bring up children, [marriage] has become primarily a way in which two adults affirm their emotional commitment to one another” (p. 60).

Stated this way, readers should be able to see that the revisionist view predates advocacy of same-sex marriage by many decades. Long before gay activists began to champion same-sex marriage, advocates of the so-called “sexual revolution” were advocating changes to opposite-sex marriage, emphasizing sexual choice and emotional commitment, while simultaneously untying the knot of marriage, sex, and procreation. The results of that emphasis are all around us: sex outside of marriage, widespread use of contraceptives and abortifacients, the prevalence of nonmarital childbirth, no-fault divorce, etc. Same-sex marriage is the fruit of the sexual revolution, then, but not the root of it.

Part 2, “What We Can Do for Marriage,” offers practical suggestions for how the Christian church can go about rebuilding a culture of marriage in America. To me, the most interesting suggestion is the authors’ call to repentance in chapter 9. “If, in response, we spend the next 20 years point out discrimination and lost religious freedoms to the world without addressing concerns in our own community, we will become our own worst enemies. It’s time to take a long, hard look inward, admit our shortcomings and ask forgiveness from God, from each other and, where appropriate, from the gay community. There is no path forward to building a strong marriage culture that does not begin with a revival of God’s people to His design for marriage” (p. 100, emphasis in original).

That revival means we must address the practices of nonmarital sex, cohabitation, and nonmarital childbirth within the Christian community, not to mention of divorce. It also means that we need to address unbiblical attitudes and actions toward homosexual people. What might those be? McDowell and Stonestreet provide a list of questions:

  • Have we told inappropriate jokes that dehumanize gays and lesbians?
  • Have we treated some persons differently because of what we knew or suspected about their sexual orientation?
  • Have we listened as someone entrusted us with his or her deep struggles and sexual identity or behaviors, only to break off the relationship in disgust and fear?
  • Have we slandered others, whether or not they’ve slandered us first?
  • Have we spread gossip?
  • Have we condemned another, using their homosexual sin to justify and coddle our own heterosexual sin?
  • Have we re-tweeted or re-posted harsh and uncharitable words about the gay community on Facebook?
  • Have we physically or emotionally abused someone because they identify as gay? (p. 106)

McDowell and Stonestreet offer many other suggestions for building a culture of marriage in the United States, but their emphasis on repentance is both welcome and the best place to start. Didn’t Jesus himself say, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3–5)?

Same-Sex Marriage is a short book, written to persuade the average Christian and thus ideal for use in Sunday school classes, small groups, and book clubs. Its tone is consistently gracious. It touches on the main points of the argument about the nature of marriage without getting bogged down in details. A short list of books for further reading would’ve been helpful, though readers who want to study the topic at greater length can mine the endnotes for that information.

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Review of ‘The Right to Be Wrong’ by Kevin Seamus Hasson

The-Right-to-Be-Wrong Kevin Seamus Hasson, The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America, 2nd ed. (New York: Image, 2012). Paperback

The story of religious freedom in America is, as Kevin Seamus Hasson tells it, the story of the conflict of conscience against Puritans and Park Rangers. Puritans—named after the Plymouth settlers—“want to use the state to coerce the religious consciences of those with whom they disagree.” Park Rangers—hilariously named after a group of hapless San Francisco bureaucrats (read their story on pages 3–4)—“insist…that only a society that owns no truth at all can be safe for freedom.” Puritans represent aggressive religion, Park Rangers aggressive secularism. While they appear contradictory at first, they make the same underlying assumption: In the public square, one does not have the right to be wrong.

Hasson narrates the 400-year battle of conscience against its foes briskly and humorously. Part One, “Learning the Hard Way,” shows how colonial Americans—with few notable exceptions—persecuted minority faiths, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. In New England, the Puritan establishment persecuted—through exile, torture, and execution—radicals within their own dissenting, Congregationalist tradition (e.g., Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson), as well as Quakers. In the South, the Anglican establishment discriminated against, among others, Baptists. Other colonies—such as Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania—were tolerant with a degree of Protestant diversity, but also drafted laws that legally privileged Protestants over Catholics and Jews.

Part Two, “Groping for a Right,” narrates the evolution of religious freedom from “toleration” to “right.” The former conceives of religious freedom as a grant of government policy. What government gives, however, it also can take away. The latter conceives of religious freedom as something that inheres in the human person, which can be claimed against government policy. In American history, the clearest expression of the latter view—the one that prevails today—is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But, as Hasson notes, in its original context, the First Amendment, while admirable, applied only to the federal government. It left the state’s various established churches intact. Indeed, it was designed to do precisely that.

Part Three, “Authentic Freedom,” traces developments in religious freedom after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. That amendment, passed in 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War, extended both citizenship and “the privileges or immunities of citizens” to “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States.” In ensuing years, the Supreme Court ruled that the privileges and immunities clause incorporated, to varying degrees, the Bill of Rights against the states. The application of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause was straightforward: No government agency (state, federal, county, municipal) could prohibit a citizen’s free exercise of religion. But what does the incorporation of the establishment clause against the states mean when one of the express intentions of that clause was to leave state establishments of religion intact? If you understand that conundrum, you understand much of the confusion surrounding the Supreme Court’s religious freedom jurisprudence.

Part Three also reflects on why it is important for government to recognize religious freedom. There are, of course, theological arguments in favor of religious freedom, those of Roger Williams, for example. But as Hasson points out, theological arguments in favor of religious freedom are persuasive only to persons who share the arguer’s theological assumptions. In the public square, a broader argument for religious freedom, based on widely shared assumptions, is needed. Here is Hasson’s summary of that argument:

The best reason…for recognizing the full scope of religious freedom is that it’s the quintessentially human thing to do. Conscience, as we’ve seen through the book…is our humanity at its best. It’s what drives us to pursue our mind’s quest for the true, and our heart’s search for the good—our quest for God, ultimately—and then insists that we express and live accordingly to what we believe we’ve found. And it’s what entitles us to religious liberty.

In other words, conscience arbitrates what we think to be true and what we feel to be right, and then requires us to live—socially, publicly—accordingly. Allowing people to live according to conscience creates a genuinely diverse society, one where people arrange their affairs according to their best lights, in cooperation with and without coercion by others. Claiming religious freedom as a right for yourself entails that you recognize in others a right to be wrong (at least according to your lights). Only by recognizing this right to be wrong can we end the culture war over religion, in which Puritans try to impose a one-size-fits all religion on a religiously diverse populace and Park Rangers try to scrub the public square of any reference to religion at all.

The Right to Be Wrong is a short read (154 pages of text), but it narrates the history of American religious freedom quickly and neatly summarizes the argument in favor of a broad construal of it. Highly recommended.

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Review of ‘The Radical Disciple’ by John Stott

The-Radical-Disciple John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). Hardcover / Kindle

John Stott died in 2011, but his legacy lives on through his writings. The Radical Disciple is his final book, which he self-consciously wrote as a “valedictory message.” In eight short chapters, simply written but spiritually deep, Stott addresses “some neglected aspects of our [Christian] calling.” They are nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death.

Stott’s concern throughout the book is the discrepancy between Christians’ stated beliefs and their actual behavior. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’” Stott quotes Jesus saying in Luke 6:46, “and not do what I say?” Radical discipleship, then, is “wholehearted discipleship,” a form of following Jesus that is not “selective” about “which commitment suits us” and avoids those areas which are “costly.”

The “neglected aspects of our calling” relate to Western Christians’ practice of the faith. Were Stott writing at a different time or for different readers, no doubt his list would’ve looked different. As it is, the eight aspects he identifies have a prophetic edge to them.

Two chapters in particular struck me with particular force. The first is chapter 5 on simplicity. This is the book’s longest chapter and includes excerpts from “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-Style,” published by the Lausanne Committee in 1980. Americans—Westerners more generally—are among the world’s wealthiest persons by any imaginable metric. We are used to high levels of consumption. Unfortunately, American Christian giving habits have been declining for decades. The solution is a simple lifestyle that minimizes consumption and maximizes generosity.

The second is chapter 7 on dependence. In this chapter, the book’s most personal and intimate, Stott shares the personal indignities he experienced when he fell and broke his hip. Using his personal experience as a window onto Scripture, Stott writes, “I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else…’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others… ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).” This is an apt reminded that none of us can live in isolation from others. We need, and are needed by, family, friends, fellow citizens, and even strangers.

The Radical Disciple is a short book, simply written, and filled with the unique grace that is characteristic of a long-time disciple of Jesus Christ. It is worth reading and will repay re-reading, especially if its wisdom is taken to heart and put into practice.

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Review of ‘QUANTUM MORTIS: A Mind Programmed’ by Vox Day

A-Mind-Programmed Vox Day, Quantum Mortis: A Mind Programmed (Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2014). Kindle

James Jesus Angleton famously described the eternal battle between espionage and counterintelligence as “a wilderness of mirrors.” I thought of that phrase while reading A Mind Programmed, the latest installation in the Quantum Mortis series of science fiction stories. Few people or things are what they seem in this story, and even when you see what they really are, you still have questions.

Here is the plot: Humankind has spread throughout the universe. It is governed by the Ascendancy, which in turn is ruled by the House of Malhedron. Not everyone is happy with Malhedron’s rule, however. Prince Li-Hu of the House of Dai Zhan, for example, aims to challenge its power. So does the Integration, the confederation of man-machine cyborgs existing on the edge of the Ascendancy’s borders.

When agents of Dai Zhan somehow hijack the Shiva-class Navy vessel Rigel, with its sunbuster technology (basically, a weapon that makes a sun go nova), the Ascendancy and the Integration move their best agents into play—Daniela York and Miranda Flare, respectively. Using false identities, hiding their true purposes, ruthlessly working to uncover the location of the Rigel and recover (or steal) its sunbuster before it’s too late.

But just when you think the mystery has been resolved, the plot twists, and you find yourself with a new set of questions.

I’m new to science fiction, but I enjoyed A Mind Programmed. Though a bit dialogue heavy and slow in the middle, the book spun a good yarn and kept my interest throughout. I plan to read the previous and future installments of this series.

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Review of ‘Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul’ by Bill Hybels

Simplify Bill Hybels, Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

This past summer was exhausting. Between work, chauffeuring our son to three sports on four different days, shuttling our oldest foster daughter to daycare and speech care, waking up several times a night to bottle feed our youngest foster daughter, and church and other activities, my wife and I felt tapped out. And so, when Bill Hybels mentioned the words “exhausted, overwhelmed, overscheduled, anxious, isolated, dissatisfied” on page 1 of his new book, he immediately grabbed my attention.

“Simplified living is about more than doing less,” Hybels writes. “It’s being who God called us to be, with a wholehearted, single-minded focus. It’s walking away from innumerable lesser opportunities in favor of the few to which we’ve been called and for which we’ve been created. It’s a lifestyle that allows us, when our heads hit the pillow at night, to reflect with gratitude that our day was well invested and the varied responsibilities of our lives are in order” (pp. 2–3). He goes on to write, “Simplified life requires more than just organizing your closets or cleaning out your desk drawers. It requires uncluttering your soul” (p. 3, emphasis in original).

Hybels shares Bible-based, experience-tested advice about how to do this in the book’s ten chapters. He shows you how to move from

  • exhausted to energized by replenishing your energy,
  • overscheduled to organized by prioritizing your calendar,
  • overwhelmed to in control by mastering your finances,
  • restless to fulfilled by refining your career choices,
  • wounded to whole by practicing forgiveness,
  • anxious to peaceful by confronting your fears,
  • isolated to connected by deepening your friendships,
  • drifting to focused by choosing and then living out your life verse,
  • stuck to moving on by welcoming new seasons in your life,
  • and from meaningless to satisfied by choosing to live now in the light of eternity.

Different readers will be attracted to different sections of this book. At this season in my life—feeling busy and tired all the time—I was especially interested in the first two chapters dealing with energy and calendar. As I read the book, however, I found myself reading the chapter on friendships with closer attention. Could it be that my life has too few deep relationships with non-family members? Whatever your interests or needs, my guess is that several of these chapters will address felt needs in your life.

So, what’s the best way to make use of this book? First, it’s tailor-made for individual use. Each chapter ends with an action step for readers to journal about. Page 311 gives a URL and promo code for online resources that readers can access for 90 days. Second, there is a DVD-based small group curriculum that can be used alongside the book. And third, I can imagine enterprising pastors using the book and DVD curriculum as elements of a multiweek sermon series campaign.

Now that I’ve read the book, I intend to read it again with my wife, working through those chapters that address issues we are experiencing in our current season of life. “We get one shot at this life,” Hybels writes in conclusion. “Choose a purposeful, God-first life, and you will reap rewards for today and for eternity” (p. 282).

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Review of ‘MindWar’ by Andrew Klavan

MindWar Andrew Klavan, MindWar: A Novel (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

Rick Dial has had a bad six months. A truck T-boned his car, resulting in back surgery, crutches, and the end of a promising future in college football before it even started. Topping it off, his college-professor father has skipped town with an old flame, leaving him, his mom, and his kid brother in emotional turmoil and straitened financial circumstances. To cope, Rick closes himself in his bedroom and plays endless hours of video games online.

Which brings him to the attention of a secretive agency within the U.S. government. The agency has been tasked with a project called MindWar, whose purpose is to defeat the Realm, a game-like virtual reality created by a Russian genius named Kurodar. Unfortunately, Kurodar created the Realm so that terrorists could take control of the good guys’ computer systems and wreak real-world havoc. The only way to defeat the Realm is to portal into the game. Who better to win the game than a gamer like Rick Dial?

The deeper Rick goes into the Realm, however the greater the real-world dangers he faces, and the more he realizes that his bad six months—his car accident, his dad leaving home—are not what they first seemed to be.

MindWar is the first book in a trilogy by Andrew Klavan. It is written for young adults and has a faith-based perspective. On the whole, I thought it was an entertaining read, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether it might make for a better graphic novel or movie than a print book. The virtual reality Klavan describes is so intense that showing it might be a better way to go than saying it, if you know what I mean.

Here’s to hoping that some faith-based movie production company picks the MindWar Trilogy up and turns it into a entertaining film series!

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Review of ‘Personal’ by Lee Child

Personal Lee Child, Personal (New York: Delacorte Press, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle 

Lee Child has done it again. With Personal, he has written yet another Jack Reacher novel—the 19th in the franchise!—that is unputdownable. From the first sentence to the last, Child grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go.

Reacher owes a guy a favor. The guy happens to be a one-star general and the protégé of a master spy. To repay the favor, Reacher needs to track down the military-trained sniper who took a .50-caliber shot at France’s president before he tries to assassinate other G8 leaders at an upcoming conference in London.

Here’s the thing, though. Reacher knows the sniper. He put him in prison 16 years ago, and now the sniper has a bullet with his name on it. Tracking him down takes Reacher to London and a game of cat-and-mouse with English and Serbian gangsters, including a psychopath ironically named Little Joey. As always, Reacher gets his man, but not before he discovers that truth is not what it seems and the baddest guys aren’t who he thought they were.

Reading a Lee Child novel is a guilty pleasure. What his books lack in philosophical depth, they more than make up for in tight prose, a whip-smart plot, plenty of action, and pacing that’ll make you want to lose sleep rather than close the book.

The only problem? You don’t know when Lee Child will publish his next book.

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