How a new book by an evangelical theologian and his gay son models Cascadian Christian family values.
Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son (Zeal Books, 2016) is a powerful book with a transformative message. But before I explore the themes of the book, some disclosure is in order.
I helped make Space at the Table.
I was the book’s editor, taking the manuscript through major revisions, coaching its authors (Brad and Drew Harper), and providing support at nearly every aspect of the publishing process. Whether or not this disqualifies me from speaking about the relevance of the book’s content, I’ll leave to you to decide. I think it’s a unique qualification. (To be clear, I do not benefit financially from the sales of this book.)
When I was first asked to edit the project, I hesitated. I felt rather close to the story, having had Brad as a professor during my undergrad years (at Portland, Oregon’s Multnomah University), and knowing Drew then as a bouncing pre-teen who, in my first impressions, precociously twisted theological terms into show tune-style songs: “PRO-PI-TI-A-TIOOOOOOOON!”
But after only a brief time with their raw manuscript, I knew that I needed to help publish their story.
I cannot remember the last time that I was emotionally moved by a book as quickly and deeply as seeing that first messy draft. I was nearly put to tears.
I cannot remember the last time that I was emotionally moved by a book as quickly and deeply as seeing that first messy draft. I was nearly put to tears. And as I said yes to the contract, I felt that I was helping make something very important.
Important for several reasons. For its peaceable, yet honest, engagement of one of the most divisive issues in the history of evangelical Christianity, certainly. As well, important for its modeling—that shows not just tells how such engagement may be done in close relationships. And important because it feels like a book that, well, could only have happened in Cascadia.
So in light of this importance, what can Cascadian Christians—particularly pastors, lay leaders, families, and neighbors—who are navigating relationships divided by Christian/LGBTQ issues learn from Space at the Table?
The middle ground is not always where the truth lives, but it sure seems to hang out there a lot. It takes work and stamina to maintain tensions—whether intellectual, theological, or relational. Brad and Drew manage to walk all three with grace.
The result is a book that makes every reader uncomfortable at some point—whether an evangelical reader hearing Drew recount his first sexual experience, or a queer or questioning reader hearing Brad maintain his conservative reading of the Bible. But the resulting juxtapositions offer beautiful difficulties—difficulties that ring true for families divided over any issue, but particularly those related to faith and sexuality.
As that tension is maintained, Brad and Drew model loving dialogue—represented creatively in the book through a conversational, back-and-forth style. We crafted the book using font and formatting differentiating the gay son’s voice from his theologian dad. It’s an unusual blend. Memoir mixes with familial advice and gentle theological and ideological considerations. Brad and Drew are both excellent writers—their stories of both everyday and unusual elements of their journey making for engaging, interesting reading that ranges from Missouri to New York, Cairo to Portland.
They listen to one another, have their own biases exposed, and hear the other out, even over points of extreme difficulty and hurt.
The father/son affection comes through in these pages, and it is genuine. They listen to one another, have their own biases exposed, and hear the other out, even over points of extreme difficulty and hurt. The love really does come through, highlighting the importance not just of position on contentious issues, but of posture. It is difficult to not be inspired by their blunt but loving conversation.
Through dialogue, both Brad and Drew show a remarkable readiness to represent their subcultures without apology, yet to understand that their communities are not infallible. Particularly remarkable are the lengths that each goes to express admiration for strong and worthy things in the other’s community.
Brad is at his best in this book when he treats the reader to the remarkable surprise of hearing a theologian with a conservative reading of the Bible not only owning up to past evangelical failures toward the LGBTQ community, but finding much to admire and connect with in that community. Likewise, Drew again and again casts his father’s Christianity in a kind and compelling light. The balance created leaves this a middle-ground book, but not in a tepid way, as many resources that seek to span cultural divides are accused of being.
Integrity and humility
That we ought not to go to one another around our worldviews, but through them, is a principle Brad draws (riffing on the thought of past Christ & Cascadia contributor, and fellow Portland theologian Paul Louis Metzger). And in form as well as content, this is a story that shows such a principle at its best.
Christians in Cascadia have many good things to give to our brothers and sisters around the world, but perhaps the most timely is this—the gift of understanding that we love best when we are most ourselves, not mitigating our distinctives, but moving through them towards others, with integrity and humility. In a word, with love.
This quality is not unique to practicing Christians—Drew’s voice in this book is testimony to that—but it is shown to tremendous effect when the church’s countercultural witness is well lived. I’d argue that no other belief has such vibrant language or such a rich history of love in spite of difference, and as a small part of that great Christian tradition for our day comes this little book.
Space at the Table brings countercultural love to a wide audience without dehumanizing people, diminishing real disagreements, or devolving into empty rhetoric.
Space at the Table brings countercultural love to a wide audience without dehumanizing people, diminishing real disagreements, or devolving into empty rhetoric. It is not an easy book to read, but it is a good one, for anyone interested in walking with grace and balance into this often thorny issue.
I may have helped make it, but Space at the Table is a book that brings me deep hope. Hope that there can be love in spite of disagreement, rich relationship in spite of conflict. Hope that the love of Christ, faithful and ever-countering the wisdom that culture or religion carries, holds power to transform today’s cultural conversations.
Hope that real love is stronger than anything that can divide us.
Watch a video of Brad and Drew talking about their relationship.
You can find a copy of Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son here.