Tenderness: A Review

Natalie Heyward
Reviews 3 mins

Eve Tushnet, Tenderness: A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love (Ava Maria Press, 2021)

Tenderness is a packed book. It's just under 200 pages, but it covers everything from covenant friendships to coming out, from how Christianity has been weaponised to taking up your cross when your suffering has been mistreated, from dealing with sexual sin to the realities of living a celibate life. Reading it was somewhat of a roller coaster: I swung from emphatically declaring ‘Yes!’ while circling passages to share later, to confusedly rereading some of Tushnet’s more controversial views and trying to unpick how she got there. Tenderness is so full of ideas and suggestions that it felt like a much bigger read than its length had led me to believe it would be.

The book is divided into four parts.

  1. ‘Hard times’ – A quick look at ‘the experiences that have hidden God’s sweetness from his gay children’ (p. xvi).
  2. 'What if "bad things'' are good?' – An examination of how same-sex love can be considered a good thing. Here Tushnet separates gay love from gay sex. This part includes an affirming view of covenant friendships and celibate partnerships, followed by a chapter on the realities of living a celibate life and the beauty it can hold.
  3. 'The church suffering' – A deeper look at the hardships, shame and theological confusion that gay Christians can come up against. 
  4. 'How to know God's tenderness' – Nine mini-chapters covering a wide range of topics, with practical suggestions for ‘specific practices or ways of thinking that you can adopt in order to know God’s tenderness' (p.xix).

Tenderness creatively begins with ‘The Gay Christian Drinking Game’. Here Tushnet lists ways gay Christians have been poorly treated by both the conservative and progressive church, with tongue-in-cheek instructions to 'Take a drink if…' (p.4) one applies to you. The list is long; reading it was painful, validating and amusing all at once. Tushnet concludes that this list represents ‘lives distorted by shame and despair, by false conceptions of God’ (p.14). This 'game' sets the stage. Redressing these 'false conceptions' and bringing healing to those who have suffered them are the main driving forces behind the rest of Tenderness.

I found myself disagreeing most with Tushnet in Part 2. This is where she lays out her case for covenant friendship and celibate partnerships. Whilst I felt her belief that deeply committed platonic love is undervalued and that same-sex love and gay sex are not the same thing had a lot of merit, I don't think the biblical case she makes for these relationships is strong; the focus of her argument stems from an anecdotal account of a gay couple who chose to forgo their sexual relationship for Christ while maintaining their loving union.

Part 3 is where the main strength of Tenderness is found. This is the section of the book I most densely highlighted. Personally, my favourite chapters were 'Weaponized Christianity' and 'Ambivalence'. As someone who was wounded by the Church in my formative years, the chapter 'Weaponized Christianity' succinctly voiced my thoughts, gave insights into some of the painful disconnects I have felt with both God and the Church, and gently spoke truth into the lies I had unwittingly internalised. The chapter ‘Ambivalence’ is a really honest look at the realities of grappling with the traditional Christian sexual ethic. As Tushnet puts it, 'Christian obedience for gay people is frustrating, countercultural (to the point that we have virtually no models for it), painful and often made harder by those who think they're helping. It would be bizarre if we never wondered whether we were really on the right track' (p.116).

Tushnet’s writing is very down to earth.

Tushnet’s writing is very down to earth; her style feels like you are listening to her externally processing, and that you are coming to conclusions with her in real-time. She also doesn’t shy away from revealing how she is still struggling with many of her own practical suggestions. However, I did at times feel that some of her humour and descriptions of sin could come across as flippant.

It should be noted that Tenderness is written for a Catholic, American audience. While still useful to consider, many of her anecdotes are of situations more common to the experiences of those in the US, and as a non-Catholic myself, some of her theology was hard to follow.

Overall, I thought Tenderness was very real. Tushnet does not shy away from the pain or struggles that gay Christians face or pull her punches with those who she thinks have done harm, but her tone is also gentle, and her insights are useful and considered. She carefully mixes her frustrations at how the Church should be safer, with practical ideas for how that really could be achieved. She offers both honest recognition of and remedy for the pain that many gay Christians feel. I don’t agree with all Tushnet’s conclusions or ideas, but I do love how positively she views her sexuality, her clarity on how being gay has brought her to better relationship with God, and her passion that that be true for all gay Christians.