David Bennett’s memoir, A War of Loves (Zondervan, 2018), tells how he was an atheist, gay rights activist who met Jesus and has struggled to bring together the things he knows are true. He tells how he — gradually — acknowledged that God is real; and not only is God real, but Jesus his Son loves David Bennett, and died for him and wants to be his friend; and not only that Jesus loves him, but that the Bible is God’s truthful word. He also knows, and has known since he was 14, that he is gay.
It is a poignant book. N. T. Wright says in the foreword that this conversion story — which “like all true conversion stories” is complex and hard to summarize — struck him personally and professionally. With regard to the “professionally,” Wright, of course, is one of the world’s greatest biblical scholars. He loves the Bible and has immersed himself in it. And so — easily — he can forget that not everyone experiences the Bible with great affection. Bennett was such a one: he hated the Bible, because it seemed to him to speak of a God who hated him, a gay man. It was for Wright a sharp reminder: “that’s how your stuff makes some people feel.”
Bennett’s conversion develops over time, and with fits and starts. There is the moment in the Sydney pub at age 19 that he “encounter[s] Jesus,” the pivotal moment. He has experiences of the Holy Spirit, of God speaking to him. He has friends who encourage him, and friends who don’t understand. He tries abstinence, wonders about celibacy, gradually is reconciled to the Bible, is torn between “affirming” churches where gays can be married and “evangelical” churches that love the Bible but exclude from marriage people like him.
He comes at last to a personal reconciliation of his loves. The final step is his trusting the Bible and seeing that it is not anti-gay when it teaches (a) there should be no sexual embrace outside marriage, and (b) marriage is for one man and one woman. For the Bible does not teach (as he finds many conservative Christians basically assuming) that marriage is the answer to our deepest human longings. To the contrary, it proclaims that our intimate longings are satisfied by God alone, who marries to himself the church. Our eternal destiny is to be married to God.
The key to understanding David Bennett’s book — and what I judge to be his great gift to the church — is his testimony to experiences of intimacy with God.
Shortly after encountering Jesus in that pub, he found himself speaking in tongues. He was in terror; he feared he had joined a cult. His mother tried to explain speaking in tongues as being perfectly normal — by reading to him from the Bible. He writes in italics: “I’m okay with God and Jesus and even the Holy Spirit, but I hate the Bible!” Nonetheless, he admits to himself, “I loved this intimate presence. … Unlike pleasures of this world, there was no adverse effect. Experiencing the Spirit was entirely safe.”
It did put him between two worlds: a “cultural traitor” of sorts to the gay political world, and an odd Christian who didn’t like to hear casual assumptions that “our values” were under threat by the gay movement. Still he continued to hear assuring words, God in effect saying “don’t worry about the question of your sexuality. Enjoy me.”
He decided to be “single” for a year to give God a chance “to show me his intention in the Scriptures.” He wanted honesty and integrity.
He found help in Paul’s writing (1 Cor. 6:13) that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. This teaching points “to a desire even more fundamental than sex,” which he spells out: our deepest longing is “to be spiritually intimate with God.”
But this understanding of intimacy with God — which is actually friendship — he found little appreciated in the church. “Even in my church, friendship seemed secondary to romantic love.”
It is not easy to be single when romantic pairings are so prized. “Both in the gay community and in the church, what seemed to matter most to people was fulfillment in a partner.” But Bennett sees the proverbial elephant in the room. “Jesus was an unmarried, childless man in a Jewish society of family values, and a celibate in a Roman society of sexual liberation that mocked singleness. In a world of two-sided sexual obsession, Jesus invited others into pure intimacy, modeled loving friendship, and lived in life-giving singleness.” His call is “to value him above everything else, including our sexual desires and our marriage relationships.”
So had Bennett come to believe. But to live this call is not easy. He describes, almost right after this realization, falling in love with a young man named Thomas. They talked and shared deeply. Bennett is torn between his longings for a human partner and his longings for God. Both are real. Thomas says, “I’m getting in the way of your faith, David. I don’t want to do that.” But Bennett replies, “No, Thomas. I love you.” He lay with his head on Thomas’s chest, stroking his chin, and raising his head to kiss.
“No, David. Stop. … You’re a Christian. I won’t let you betray who you are. If I let you do this, you’ll be devastated.”
It was a strange intervention, perhaps the most loving thing Thomas could have done. Bennett writes: “It was as if the Lord himself were gazing back at me through his eyes. I found the fulfillment of my desire for intimacy in its very denial.”
I found the fulfillment of my desire for intimacy in its very denial. This is David Bennett’s insight. It is new, in that it comes to us from him in a gay register, “newish” at least in the sense that gay memoirs are becoming but are not yet fully mainstream. But, of course, it is not new at all. Make one of the parties a woman, and we have a very traditional moment of life-changing decision. One person sees that the other, if they continue this romantic embrace, will suffer the destruction of something deep within him (or her). Even without sharing it, Thomas could see Jesus’ love of David, and David’s of Jesus, and he, Thomas, did not want to break them up.
And in that desire, Thomas became Jesus: by denying David’s desire for intimacy he fulfilled that desire. David felt, in Thomas’s honesty, the intimate love of Jesus.
Married or single, Jesus needs to be our first love. May I add: before and after marriage, as well as during marriage if we have it, Jesus needs to be our first love — or more precisely, our first and last love — and in the end, our only love, with all other loves held within his love.
Marriage remains important and beautiful. Around this time Bennett goes to the marriage of two of his friends, Tristan and Renée, without envy or sadness. He sees that he is not excluded from the “intense, faithful love” of “Jesus and his bride, the church,” which love was being figured before him in the marriage of his friends.
But it is hard to be single; the struggle was not over. While in France, he meets for prayer with a wise and older woman who had committed herself to celibacy (despite three proposals of marriage) for the sake of the work she was called by God to do. She tells him he needs to see that if he follows through with his sexual desires it will inevitably lead to sin. It was a hard word — even then — for him to hear.
Whereupon he runs into Jerome, and falls for him, hard. He tells God he knows he shouldn’t do this, but he really wants to. He wants Jerome more than he wants God. They go into Jerome’s apartment. They begin to kiss. God speaks to him: “David, do not try to give [Jerome] the love only I can give him.” And for the first time, he realizes his love for God is the stronger love. “My heart, I saw, had been too touched by grace to accept broken sexual desires over worship of my beloved, Jesus.”
It was a decision that confirmed character. “It is difficult to describe the depths of intimacy I shared with Jesus Christ after that choice against Jerome as my lover. Jesus was there, as if he were in the room, even as I mourned what I had just lost.”
Celibacy is what it’s all about, and celibacy, I like to say, is for everybody. Bennett grows into it and gives us powerful testimony that it can really be true. “God’s love should displace all others and occupy the primary space in our hearts. It is, simply, what we were made for.” And: “the romance we should most celebrate is the marriage of heaven and earth, between Christ, the Bridegroom, and his bride, the church.” This “is the greatest of all love stories.”
Not all are called to lifelong celibacy, but some fall into it, and all of us are called to celibacy for part of our lives. Bennett would teach us what he seldom heard in church: “the core skills of celibacy — discipline, self-control, choosing a greater love at the sacrifice of a lesser — these are all key Christian skills pointing straight to the heart of Christ.”
Human beings all need the virtues of discipline, self-control, choosing the greater love over a lesser, which are really the old virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and good sense.
I hope many people read this book and weigh it seriously. Not the least of its delights is the appearance of Wesley Hill’s own memoir, Washed and Waiting, which comes to Bennett, almost accidentally, on his birthday. Gay Christians who are committed to celibacy are providentially situated today to summon all Christians to moral seriousness and evangelical courage. The message is ancient but they speak it afresh: in the famous prayer at the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions, “our hearts” — even our souls and bodies — “are restless till they rest in thee.”
The Rev. Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.