Book Review: “Spiritual Friendship” by Wesley Hill

Wesley Hill is a same-sex attracted (“SSA”) Christian who is committed to celibacy. In this fine book, he makes many good points in an odd way. Reading his book is like speaking to someone who learned English abroad; he’s fluent but he’s not a native! Hill challenges the reader to re-imagine real Christian friendship. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, one cannot help but suspect Hill wants friendship as a substitute for a romantic relationship.1

He denigrates marriage by claiming it cannot fulfill all its promises. Hill asks us to imagine what friendship could be like if it ceased to be “casual,” and became committed.2 Unfortunately, Hill struggles to marshal Scripture to support his theology of robust friendship; certainly not at the expense of marriage. The passages he does cite are rarely substantive or not didactically about friendship at all (Prov 17:17, 18:24; Ruth 1; David and Jonathan; Jn 11:3, 15:13), or are otherwise desperate (Lk 23:26). His best discussion is Mk 3:32-35 and the implications of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood. However, it is doubtful Mk 3 can bear all the freight Hill wishes it to.

  • He cites multiple examples of deep friendship (“sworn brotherhood”) from multiple eras, but this by itself proves nothing.
  • Hill endorses a monastic vision of “spiritual friendship” that’s “a form of same-sex intimacy that sublimated or transmuted erotic passion rather than sanctioning its genital expression.”3 It is difficult to find this sentiment in Jesus’ words.
  • “We are eager for our friends to say to us, ‘I love you because you’re mine,’ without leaving themselves an escape clause.”4
  • “In the New Testament, as we’ve seen, familial language far outweighs the language of friendship when it comes to describing Christian community. Believers are one another’s ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ not (primarily) one another’s ‘friends.’”5

In short, Hill is inescapably and unbearably lonely. “My question, at root, is how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace.”6 He chooses to embrace “gayness” as a badge of self-identity.7 To Hill, his homosexuality is a call to a vocation of male friendship. “My being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less.”8

To him, spiritual friendship involves a covenant commitment just as deep as that of marriage.9 Hill is introspective enough to suspect he’ looking to fill a romantic void by sanctifying friendship.10 His last chapter is full of excellent advice on fostering real friendships in the church.

Hill’s book challenges the reader. It forces you to think beyond the casual relationships we often call “friendship” in our congregations. Speaking practically, his vision is perhaps utopian in its scope and there is only so much an overworked elder team can do in a congregation. However, Hill’s brute honesty makes it a valuable resource for SSA Christians and a summons to the church to cultivate meaningful community. Its strengths in that respect outweigh its weaknesses.

Notes

1 “As someone trying to reconcile his Christian faith with his homosexuality, I have become increasingly drawn to that notion: that there exists, for someone like me, a location for my love. That, by rediscovering ancient, and not-so-ancient, forms and exemplars of friendship, I might be able to rewrite the lonely future I feared would be my lot as a celibate gay Christian. That I too am called to nurture, deepen, and sanctify my love,” (pgs. 21-22). 

2 “Should we consider friendship as always freshly chosen but never incurring any substantial obligations or entailing any unbreakable bonds? Or should we instead—pursuing a rather different line of thought—consider friendship more along the lines of how we think of marriage? Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do? Should we, in short, think of our friends more like the siblings we’re stuck with, like it or not, than like our acquaintances? Should we begin to consider at least some of our friends as, in large measure, tantamount to family? And if so, what needs to change about the way we approach it and seek to maintain it?” (KL 115-131). 

3 Pg. 33. 

4 Pg. 42. To Hill, this “escape clause” is the possibility of marriage and the resulting shift of relationship dynamics.

5 Pg. 60.

6 Pg. 79. 

7 Pgs. 79-80. 

8 Pg. 81. 

9 Pg. 90. 

10 “The danger is that I’ll idealize friendship as a quick fix for loneliness and relational burdens rather than as something requiring substantial burden-bearing itself. Insofar as there is an answer to this problem, I suspect it lies in the recognition that friendship involves just as much of an ascetic struggle as marriage or parenting or monastic vows or any other form of Christian love,” (pgs. 98-99).

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There are 4 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Perhaps instead of wondering whether "Hill wants friendship as a substitute for a romantic relationship", we could wonder whether the romantic relationships of homosexuals often substitute for friendships--especially that with a father--that they lack.  For that matter, a lot of heterosexual fornication and porn use really simply follows a lack of decent friendships.  Haven't read the book, but I'd bet a shiny new nickel he's on to something.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

It's difficult to know what to think of Hill. He is clearly a more emotional guy than I am. He speaks of friendship in a much deeper way than I (and likely most Western males) am comfortable doing. My opinion is that he's looking for a substitute for a romantic relationship. In fact, given the deep angst Hill describes about his friends marrying and "leaving him" and the way he falls for the male friends in his life, I am willing to say it as a fact - Hill looks for friendship to take the place of romantic relationships.

Hill is very wrong about sex drive as a category of conceptual self-identity; which is a place even Sam Allberry won't go.

Hill is worth reading because he writes so honestly about his struggles to find friendship while remaining celibate. My own concern is de-sensetization - is it legitimate to speak approvingly of Hill's warm, honest struggles with a sin the Bible condemns as clearly as homosexuality? If a man wrote a brutally honest book about his struggles with lusting after his mother, would we reactc with some variation of "his honesty is refreshing, and his committment to celibacy is noble!"?

I doubt it. I suspect Christians in the West are far more desensitized to this madness than we realize.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Tyler, I'm thinking that there's no inherent contradiction.  To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, what did he say about his father?  Perhaps I'm being too nice to the author, but part of me says that he's got a great deal of bravery to come out as "having homosexual inclinations" while holding to celibacy.  Even if that's only a pose, that takes some doing these days.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Hill is not "posing;" he does remain celibate while fighting against homosexual tendencies. My issue is with his embrace of "gayness" as a badge of conceptual self-identity. It's dangerous and ill-advised.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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