In his classic 17th century defence of freedom of speech and expression – Areopagitica – John Milton wrote these words:
‘Since therefore the knowledge of and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the region of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.’
Milton’s basic point is that to live virtuously, truthfully, we need some knowledge of the opposite – of vice, of lies – so that we can confidently distinguish between right and wrong. And this knowledge is better discovered by reading well than by living badly.
His are words that have encouraged me in my promiscuous reading of all sorts of books (novels, poetry, memoirs, theology and history) from all sorts of LGBTI+ perspectives (both secular and not) as I seek to live as a Christian who happens to experience same-sex attraction.
Now, I’ve never needed much encouragement to read. I regularly consume a hundred or so books a year (another benefit of being single!). But for a long time, I felt nervous of touching anything that might have a hint of sexuality about it, because doing so might either expose my own struggles or increase the intensity of those feelings (or both!).
But now I’ve been very public about my sexuality, and speak and write about issues of sexuality, gender and identity, I’ve changed my mind and practice. So, for example, I bought a recently published novel about a black man’s experience of his sexuality growing up in a conservative, American, religious context. I’ve much enjoyed writings such as the poetry of a young English gay man, and I’m endeavouring to read the growing pile of memoirs by those seeking to revise the Church’s doctrine and pastoral care.
Admitting this to Christian friends has caused them some concern. It’s often not long before those famous words from Philippians are quoted at me: ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things’ (Philippians 4:8). Some of the things I’m reading could not be described using any of those words. But we too often forget that those words were written by an apostle who was willing to visit idolatrous pagan shrines so that he could better connect the gospel to future audiences (see, famously, Acts 17). We are to prioritise the good, but we are not to ignore the missional benefits of wider cultural engagement.
Reading allows you to get into someone else’s heart and mind in a way that few other things do.
And that is one of my biggest aims in reading what I read. I want to understand what my fellow divine image-bearers in the LGBTI+ community are thinking and feeling, so that I can better share Jesus with them. In particular, I need to know what they are saying about Christians, because of the pain that has so often been caused by us, the Church, in the past. My personal experience of the Church when it’s come to sharing my sexuality has been almost totally positive – I’ve needed to know what it feels like when that has not been the case. Reading allows you to get into someone else’s heart and mind in a way that few other things do.
I’ve also wanted to test myself. People often attack me for my sheltered evangelical background and lack of experience of life in the gay community. Reading has been the safest way of exposing myself to different worldviews and to what life in different contexts can be like. I can’t think of something I’ve read that hasn’t significantly challenged me in some way; most regularly it’s been the depth of love and care many have experienced in the gay community – putting many churches to shame.
But, much to my surprise, I’ve yet to read something that has persuaded me to change my beliefs and behaviour when it comes to the ethics of same-sex sexual relationships. In fact, quite the opposite. I can remember being very nervous of reading Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian waiting for the knock-out blow that would show how I’ve got it wrong. Instead, the emotional rhetoric he used to disguise his weak biblical arguments reassured me that the Church down the centuries has understood the Bible correctly (if not always applying it compassionately).
I’ve had similar experiences reading many of the classic gay novels of recent years – the good life they’ve been trying to win me to is in no way better than the one I’m already living with Jesus. It’s actually been spiritually helpful to remind myself that I’m not missing out on anything that matters.
Reading promiscuously like this will not be for everyone. You might not be an avid reader. Or you might be someone whose conscience and convictions would be undermined in disastrous ways. We are all wired differently. But you might find, like me, that John Milton was onto something, that your Christian virtue and commitment to the truth actually increases in the process.
This blog was originally published in True Freedom Trust’s Ascend magazine.