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Post Script | March 6, 2023
On my endorsement of Joshua Ryan Butler's Beautiful Union
Late on Thursday afternoon, I logged onto Twitter and wondered why I had hundreds of notifications.
If you’re not on Twitter, you might not know I’ve been caught up in a controversy about a book I endorsed: Joshua Ryan Butler’s Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything. People found the excerpt of this book, published last week on The Gospel Coalition, deeply problematic, even dangerous, and they’ve called for retractions of the article, the book, and the book endorsements. (The excerpt has since been taken down.)
The question on Twitter is, of course, a question of sides, but I’d like to speak to some things more broadly.
Here’s what I can tell you about book endorsements, taking sides, and my commitments as a Christian writer.
1. On book endorsements.
People speculated on Twitter that perhaps those of us who endorsed the book hadn’t read it. (Some endorsers, who have now retracted, have said as much.) Or perhaps a publicist scripted the blurb for us, and we had simply trusted Josh’s reputation and signed our name. That was not the case with me. I read the book, and the endorsement is mine.
Here it is in full:
“Beautiful Union by Joshua Ryan Butler is a marvel. It simplicity is its profundity, its truth is its love. I finished these pages in tears, my imagination renewed and expanded to consider the pursuing, self-giving love God has shown to his people through Christ. Read this book to understand the meaning of bodies in sexual union. But read this book for another reason, too: because you want to hear the voice of the Divine Lover, calling you home.”
I found it curious that people quoted the endorsement on Twitter and excised these parts:
my imagination renewed and expanded “ . . . to consider the pursuing, self-giving love God has shown to his people through Christ”
“Read this book for another reason, too: because you want to hear the voice of the Divine Lover, calling you home.”
To endorse a book is a difficult task. A book endorsement never represents full agreement with the book, the author’s entire body of work, or other public commitments the author has undertaken. For me, my approach is generally three-fold: I try considering the argument of the book, the attitude of the book (tone), as well as the author of the book.
In the case of Beautiful Union, I considered the sacramental argument as providing coherence to the historic Christian sexual ethic. I agreed with Josh’s indictment of “American sexuality” as a whole. I also found Josh’s attitude sensitive and pastoral to wounded readers. Most importantly, I thought Josh made much of the gospel—the self-giving, pursuing love of God in Christ. These were the reasons for my endorsement.
If I failed to see the harm Josh’s book might cause to survivors of sexual violence, if the theological and exegetical methods he employed were unsound, if the imagery he used was unhelpfully or even dangerously distorted, my endorsement stands to represent my own serious lapse in judgement.
I strongly believe that if one wishes to form a careful, reasonable critique of the book or author, especially to level accusations of the magnitude I’ve seen on Twitter, the book should be read and considered beyond the published excerpt.
2. On “sides.”
Years ago, I read a wonderful novel entitled, Listen to the Marriage by John Jay Osborn. A marriage has fallen apart (fault on both sides), and the entire novel is narrated from inside the marriage counselor’s office.
At one point, the wife asks the counselor, “Whose side are you on?” And the counselor wisely says to her, “I’m on the side of the marriage.”
Whose side am I on in this Twitterstorm?
I’m on our side. On humanity’s side. On the side of what it takes for us to learn to live together as a civil society, even as a church.
Whose side am I against? I am not on the side of false dichotomies, inquisitorial tactics, and crude ideologies. I am not on the side of self-defense, uncharitable criticism, unwillingness to apologize. I am not on the side of the public performance of virtue.
And for those asking, anyone who knows me or has read my work will also know that I am not on the side of predatory language, purity culture, or sexual harm.
3. On my commitments as a Christian writer.
I have tried, as often as possible, to be open to correction. I write to learn. I read to learn. Learning suggests the frame of grace: that neither you, nor I must know everything today. We can learn. We can apologize. We can grow in wisdom. In fact, that’s the nature of wisdom. You can’t have it all at once.
I am willing to be wrong on this one, and I will continue my own learning as I read substantiated, careful responses to the book.
I have not engaged in the social media fray because this has never been my tact. It rarely allows me to communicate in the ways I value, and I sense it to be interruptive to the deep work I am committed to offering. After I publish this letter, I won’t be checking Twitter for at least a week, but I will try responding here to good faith questions and comments. I cannot defend Josh’s work further than I’ve done here, but I can certainly speak more to my own thinking and process. By 9pm tonight, I will close the comments.
As always, thanks for reading.