EMBRACING LOVE: MyJourney to hugging a Man in His Underwear. By Nathan Albert. Foreword by Andrew Marin. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2016. Xxv + 260 pages.
It is clear that when it comes to acceptance of homosexuality things are changing quickly. Even in evangelical circles, which have been the most resistant to change, change is happening. As more and more people come out of the closet, we discover that family and friends are gay, lesbian, transgender. Churches across the spectrum are adjusting to the changing times, and those that resist likely will struggle in the future, even if they seem to be successful at the moment. Pressure is coming, largely from younger Christians. Time will tell where things will land, but with last year’s SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage across the country, it is no longer if the law will change but how should we respond. Accompanying these changes is a growing number of books written by Christian authors, many of them evangelical, that speak to the changes and offer testimony and guidance for those taking the journey for the first time. So, whereas just a decade in the past there were few resources from Christian authors and publishers, especially those that were welcoming and inclusive, now my shelves are overflowing with new books. While there is much overlap in these books, each has its own message and emphasis.
Among this year’s batch of new books is Embracing Love by Nathan Albert. It is a word to the church from an evangelical pastor and counselor in support of his friends who have often been excluded and hurt by the church. It’s also a word to those in the gay community who feel excluded, offering an invitation to reenter or enter for the first time the realm of faith. The book is part memoir, for it is a very personal book, and part explication, explaining terms and experiences so that bridges can be built. Albert is by confession an evangelical minister who welcomes fully into his life and into the church persons who are LGBTQ. He is an advocate, but he also seeks to build bridges between communities. He understands both communities, having lived in one (evangelical) and interacted with the other (LGBTQ) in a variety of ways.
What makes this book so valuable is the personal nature of the story. The author shares his own journey as a straight Christian toward full inclusion. What makes Albert’s story somewhat unique is that while he grew up in a conservative Christian context, he spent his early adulthood in the theater, which happens to be a place where many LGBTQ folks have found safety and acceptance. It was in this context that he became good friends with people whose sexual orientation and gender identity experiences were different from his. Since relationships tend to open one up to movement toward inclusion, he had a head start before going off to seminary and embarking on a ministry career.
So, Albert is straight. He's Christian. He's welcoming. He has been affiliated with the Marin Foundation, where he served as Director of Pastoral Care. The Marin Foundation mission is focused on working “to build bridges between the LGBT community and conservatives through scientific research, biblical and social education, and diverse community gatherings.” This book is an expression of that mission.
As is true of most books like this, Albert takes a look at the biblical texts that are used to exclude LGBTQ Christians from the church, sharing the alternative interpretation. There's nothing new here, but the way in which he introduces the texts and deals with them makes the book a good entry point for those who are entering the conversation for the first time. He offers both sides in a way that respects both sides of the issue, even as he embraces what many would call the progressive interpretation. One of his main concerns is that people respect each other so as to have a fruitful conversation. He does this without giving up his own principles.
One of the most helpful chapters comes near the end. It's titled "Holy Moments," and it explores the process of coming out, which he describes as a holy moment. He gives advice to those who are coming out -- do it gradually with those who love you and then move outward from there; don't broadcast on Facebook. Then there's a word to family and friends. Don't ask questions, just listen. Don't get hung up on the sex, consider the person and their lives. After all, none of us really wants to talk about our sex lives. He concludes the chapter by offering some guidance to LGBTQ persons concerning coming out. Have a plan he says, so that you’ll be prepared for all eventualities.
The good news in all of this is that minds are changing. Hearts are opening. We have more and more guides to the process, as well as words of welcome and encouragement. As for where this book fits. I think it is an excellent first book for those who are wrestling with how to move to a welcoming position. They may not be ready to "affirm" but they want to include. From here, a book like David Gushee's Changing Our Mind: A call from America's leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church (Read the Spirit Books) is a good next step.
As one who has changed my mind and become an advocate for inclusion, I know that this journey can be difficult. I have heard the stories of abuse and exclusion, which often leads to an abandonment of faith. I’m hopeful that a new future is at hand, which means we need to read books like this prayerfully as we continue the journey to wholeness. For Nathan Albert that journey included attending a Gay Pride parade where his apology for the church’s message of exclusion led to an embrace by a man dressed only in his underwear! For those of us who read the book, we're offered a way of gentle movement forward.