Retro Book Review: The Returns of Love, Part II

Today we continue examining The Returns of Love, a forgotten but noteworthy anonymous chronicle of homosexual temptation in Christian perspective. In Part I, I put this fifty-year-old work in historical context and introduced its unique authorial voice, which defies simplistic contemporary categorization. Through the literary device of “letters” to a best friend, we are quickly drawn into the inner world of “Alex,” a devout, likable, yet troubled young Englishman who is trying to forge his own conservative Anglican path through the “jungle” of same-sex lust. The results are by turns tragic, comic, unsettling, and moving.

Because Alex ultimately concludes that his same-sex attraction is unlikely to change, self-styled “gay Christian” voices like PCA pastor Greg Johnson have rushed to appropriate his work as counterpoint to their conservative critics. But while Alex’s own judgment isn’t always maximally sound, I’ve been arguing that this is a misappropriation. The move to claim him as a forerunner is predicated on the false dichotomy that one must either embrace so-called “Side B” theology or be sanguine about same-sex attraction change. A whole range of sound orthodox options occupy the space in between. The Returns of Love sits in this space, itself imperfect, but hardly the stuff of which Revoice presentations are made. It’s safe to bet Alex would cringe at the whole notion of a days-long conference where presenters are applauded for broadcasting their “abnormal sexuality” on a public stage. As for positively integrating elements of “queer” identity, to the point of using “queerness” as a hermeneutical lens for doctrinal analysis, Alex’s reaction would be positively thunderous, if his severe rhetoric in this work is anything to go on. 

Still, he has his own frustrations to air, with varying degrees of maturity. Some are legitimate. In one of the first “letters,” he laments the challenge of finding good listeners in the church. Writing in a 1970 Church of England context, Alex is particularly hard-pressed to find emotionally intelligent ministers who can give his sensitive case the sympathetic attention it requires. He rejects out of hand the theologically corrupt “hirelings” who would encourage him to sin, but he is in a sense more frustrated by conservative but practically inept pastors. He desperately wants a minister to whom he can turn on “the bad days, when you could weep with the pain,” who will offer a comforting shoulder and a patient ear without interruption or pat answers:

There is the man who is stocked with correct responses for any situation; they come out pat when you press the appropriate button, and it’s with a sinking feeling that you pick up the little card which pops out of the slot, knowing that it’s been pre-printed and that the rehearsal of your miserable symptoms was largely superfluous—in fact you’d hardly uttered the syllables ‘homo’ before the machine began whirring out its answer. Then there’s the man who is quick off the mark, not because he has no need to hear you out, but because he has no patience to do so. I heard of someone who invented a ‘personal problem’, and took his fictitious tale of woe to several ministers in turn, deliberately to see what kind of help they would offer; and he calculated afterwards that the average length of time which was allowed him to get going on his story before being interrupted was (if I remember rightly) two minutes!

Most Christians, if we were honest, could probably think of ministers we’ve known like this. And, sadly, some of us have lived a significant chunk of life without having ever found a pastor capable, comfortable and close enough to be a confidant for our most painful secrets. This is a particular challenge for those of us who, like Alex, are by personality introverted and private. Our burdens may not be his burdens, but his struggle is not unique. However, dark sexual burdens do place a special demand on a pastor’s resources, resources which might fall short more often than we would like to hope. 

The problem for Pastor Johnson and his Side B colleagues is that they are cutting and pasting passages like this one between two very different sociocultural contexts. Johnson writes from the center of a denominational firestorm around the pastoral eligibility of same-sex attracted men like himself. Alex never considers this question, but it is by no means clear that he would have agreed with the current “gay Christian” consensus that gay men are, if anything, uniquely qualified for pastoral ministry. Indeed, he is deeply distressed to learn that his best friend and confidant, “Peter,” is also same-sex attracted. His theological and practical reflections are subsequently offered to Peter as hard-won insights from one man “lost in the jungle” to another. Granted, by the end he tries to parse that early distress as a form of panicked romantic projection, because he had been so bound up in his emotional affair with Peter. While this might be an accurate bit of self-analysis, one still doesn’t exactly sense that Alex would intentionally seek out a gay pastor to be his wilderness guide, any more than he would intentionally seek out a gay therapist. 

That doesn’t mean he sees no place for men like him to serve and mingle in Christian community. He advises cultivating “a wide circle of healthy friendships” with men, women, “and indeed with children,” observing in passing that homosexuals seem particularly drawn to children, but not in an unhealthy way. He sees the “foretaste of family life” that children offer as an “incentive” to “foster whatever heterosexual elements there may be” in the homosexual’s character, with the wistful hope that they might blossom and flourish towards marriage. Thus, in one poignant flash of insight, he both negates the conflation of same-sex attraction with pedophilia and reasserts his fundamentally heteronormative outlook. This contextualizes other passages which someone might disingenuously try to cite while extolling the unique virtues of a distinctly “queer” vocation. For instance, he cautiously suggests at the end of one letter that there can be an “affection springing from” the “homosexual nature” that one might sublimate “in all kinds of loving service” to a needy world. But it’s one thing for someone like Alex to throw out such a tentative thought for further unpacking as he works out his own salvation. It’s quite another thing for someone like Eve Tushnet to make it an unqualified touchstone of books, conferences, and more.

Meanwhile, Alex relentlessly beats the drum of personal responsibility, refusing to shift blame or make excuses for himself. “A crucified passion, like a crucified man, is a long time dying, and it dies hard and painfully. But crucified it must be… The ‘flesh’ revives often enough, and from its cross cries out for something to satisfy it: ‘I thirst.’ Then let it thirst.” But law is properly balanced with gospel:

God is Law, and he sets his standards fearsomely high; but He is also Love, and in Christ He gives grace and help so abundant that it is no-one’s fault but our own if we fail to measure up to those standards. Law and Love seem to move in opposite directions, but to such lengths do they both go that eventually they meet again on the other side of the globe. Because God’s reach encompasses the whole world of morality, however far His law requires me to go His love will be there to enable me. In the words of the old hymn, ‘the trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet’ is the cross of Christ, but by the same token they also meet in the sinner who has been crucified with Christ; in him too the infinite demands of righteousness are fulfilled by the infinite resources of mercy. 

One especially Lewisian letter suggests a tripartite schema for his temptation, rightly noting how quickly the “aesthetic” can slide to the “animal”:

Self-pity is a fertile seed bed, where homosexual temptation flourishes with deep roots which are not easy to pull up. Idleness is a comparatively simple matter: the weed does spread more widely, but its roots are nearer the surface. Idleness, I take it, includes not merely the unoccupied evening or the spare half-hour. It is also the 3-minute walk down the high street from shop A to shop C, during which time the body is occupied but the mind is not, and between those perfectly harmless establishments the enemy sees to it that there is a shop B displaying books or clothes or travel-posters which will serve to misdirect the idling mind. If I were to analyze the directions in which my own mind moves at such times, I should label them the emotional, the aesthetic, and the animal. The emotional temptation is the same as that into which self-pity leads me; it is sparked off by (say) the picture of a thoroughly nice young man, which makes me think “How I wish I had the love of someone like that”—and there the fantasies begin. The aesthetic temptation is more common, and has to do with one’s appreciation of a beautiful body, its face or figure. The animal temptation is the commonest, centred not in the heart or the mind, but in the loins—a reaction of sheer lust; which is where the others normally end up in any case. This triple assault is what I mean by the weed spreading widely in the soil of idleness, for in self-pity it is only the emotions which are affected. But then an idle mind is a vacuum, and anything will do to fill a vacuum.

For the same reason, though, this problem is comparatively straightforward, and the method of dealing with it is the one you have often spoken of, that of rigorous discipline. A simple method: which is not to say an easy one. If your eye offends you, pluck it out. If you know that a certain shop window, a certain magazine page, a certain television program may be a source of temptation, avoid it, avoid it, whatever its other merits. You must mortify the flesh, put it to death: starve it, smother it, anything.

In light of passages like these, it is highly doubtful that Alex would approve of the current push to normalize “coming out” and create insular communities based on their members’ status as oppressed “sexual minorities.” His modernist English brand of gritty stoicism hardly lends itself to such post-modern victimhood narratives. And he is expressly “not asking for a society which has as its rule number one the public washing of dirty linen,” even though he does long to cultivate “leisurely, unshockable friendships” with a trustworthy “brotherhood” of open-hearted close friends who can handle his secret. While he finds a natural camaraderie in comparing notes with Peter, he’s also well aware that it’s not ideal for Peter to be his sole confidant. The romance, though one-sided, is unhealthy, and the friendship risks becoming codependent as Peter stumbles and falls into his own sin habits. (It’s delicately implied that, unlike Alex, he is not a virgin and is tempted to seek out casual hookups.) 

But experience has taught Alex that it’s very hard to come by the kind of uncomplicatedly close, transparent masculine friendships he so desperately craves. This is tragically driving him to cling to the very man who threatens to become his most immediate stumbling block. For men like Alex, friends like Peter sit in a peculiarly painful liminal space, sometimes providing the natural comforts of ordinary male friendship, other times creating sexual static. This leaves Alex feeling like a creature who passes constantly between land and water, never able to get quite enough oxygen. It’s easy to say he should simply “cut off” Peter, like cutting off one’s hand, but in human affairs things aren’t always so easy. One of the most poignant passages simply and devastatingly captures this ache of loneliness:

Of course you can be preoccupied for a good deal of the time with your work, and find that it really does take your mind off yourself. Even so you can hardly help but have some leisure; and what is to fill that? Well, a whole heap of interests, to keep your time and your hands and your thoughts busy, yes, and your emotions too. But what then? At the end of the most exciting game, or the most enjoyable excursion, or the most sublime concert—what then? You come home to yourself again: the embers are cold in the grate, and the house is empty. 

Friends, then: friends are the answer. There must be folk whom you know and love, who know and love you? Yes, they are the next possibility on the list, certainly. But what Archbishop Lang once wrote has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it: something to the effect that in the loneliness of his bachelor life his great need was not for friends, of whom he had plenty, any more than it was for work, of which he had too much; it was for “that old simple human thing—someone in daily nearness to love.” And that is precisely it. Just as at some point you left both work and hobbies behind, so you leave your friends, too, at the garden gate; and you’re still going to be on your own in the house tonight, and brother, it’s so lonely….

It’s worth pausing here to reflect that this is precisely the need into which the Side B concept of “vowed friendships” is perniciously speaking (and which in fairness Johnson criticizes, though nowhere near harshly enough). These kinds of strange “neither-nor” unions are an attempt to fulfill that desire for “someone in daily nearness to love” as closely as possible without calling it “marriage.” Conservative Side B critics risk glossing over the power of that desire with too much unqualified upbeat talk about the “brotherhood” of church family. Church family can certainly be a blessing, but it still can’t meet an individual’s most intimate practical and emotional needs through all life’s chances and changes. As Alex frames this early passage, he has been unburdening himself to Peter before revealing his homosexuality. Peter’s first reaction, “naturally—and ‘naturally’ is the right word,”  is that Alex needs a wife. “Yes, I do, I do!” Alex exclaims. “Someone to come home to, someone who will be there when the rest have gone, someone to share the deepest joys and the darkest pains, someone who will truly be my ‘other half’. You were absolutely right: the answer is marriage. Which is out of the question.” (By which, of course, he means marriage to a woman. As I discuss in Part I of this review, he reopens this possibility later at Peter’s over-optimistic prompting, in an acutely painful passage that should serve as a red flag for readers in a counseling role.)

Perhaps Alex’s most valuable contribution is the way he gradually proceeds to work out his grief, gradually reconciling himself to chronic mental pain much like a Christian might reconcile himself to chronic physical pain. With refreshing practical intuition, he teases apart the physiological strands from the psychological, the psychological from the spiritual. He has no cure, but he suggests a few temporary remedies. Sometimes it’s meditating on the promises of Scripture. Sometimes it’s useful work. Sometimes it’s just going to bed sooner. 

Ultimately, Alex rests in God’s sovereignty. Yet he acknowledges the dark, bitter moments, the “prayers” which are more like shouted demands for some explanation of why God won’t remove this thorn he “never asked for.” While he writes out of a particular sorrow, his struggle speaks to the universal Christian struggle with the silence of God. Like C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, Alex recognizes that one cannot simply fast-forward through crucifixion to resurrection. He is still determined to find a point in the seemingly pointless, but he frankly confesses he is often tempted to give up the search in despair. The cruelly intimate embarrassment of his homosexuality makes this temptation especially strong.  At one point, he tries to take comfort from an old saying he once heard that when God “attends to make something wonderful, He starts with a difficulty, and when he attends to make something very wonderful He starts with impossibility.” Wryly, he admits that he “can’t imagine what wonderful thing He intends to make out of this particular weakness, or what audience is going to applaud the display of His magicianship in such a private, intimate theater—unless it is the ‘principalities and powers in the heavenly places.’ But that’s His business.” For His own reasons, God seems to be in the business of taking risks, and Alex concludes he must be one of them. At the very least, he can take comfort in being known, in being called by name: “‘Alex—sinful, hypocritical, embarrassed, homosexual Alex,’ He calls; and in doing so He demonstrates both that He knows all about me and that He still loves me in spite of it.”

In the end, Alex understands what anyone who suffers any kind of chronic pain will understand too well—that until we shuffle off this mortal coil, there will always be an element of mystery about the precise means by which God turns our suffering to soul-making. It’s not always clear what suffering “teaches” us in this life, or how we can “learn to trust” God better when the intensity of our pain is so great that “trusting” looks more like breathing in and out than the application of a skill. And so we look beyond what we are to what we are promised we will become, trusting, as Alex writes, “that under the hand of God the finished product will be a splendour for angels to marvel at.” This is no escapism, he asserts. This is the same faith by which Abraham made his dwelling in tents, looking to the light of the city to come: 

So in the light of the next world, I see that the torments which make me rebel, because God won’t explain them, are mere details in the grand purpose which He has explained, the bringing of yet another son to glory along the same path by which the eldest Son went, the path of maturity through suffering.

Isn’t it one of the most wretched things about this condition that when you look ahead the same impossible road seems to continue indefinitely? You’re driven to rebellion when you think of there being no point in it, and to despair when you think of there being no limit to it. That’s why I find it a comfort, when I feel desperate, or rebellious, or both, to remind myself of God’s promise that one day it will be finished—finished in both senses: He will put a stop to the troubles of this life, and He will at the same time complete what He has been doing by means of them. They are neither endless nor pointless.

Unfortunately, these most deeply moving passages are ignored in the work’s only other extended book citation besides Greg Johnson’s, from Brown and Woodhead’s unflattering CofE post-mortem That Was the Church That Was. This was the work which, according to Johnson, nearly went to press with a blunderific attempt to “out” Alex as John Stott. The only remaining vestige of the error is that the authors say the book “highlights the torments of being a celibate gay evangelical minister.” The chapter “Gays and evangelicals” purports to hang the historical frame for a proper understanding of British evangelical homosexuality, in an England where the evangelical demographic and the public school officer class had near-total overlap. Brown and Woodhead’s self-satisfied psychoanalysis of figures like Stott yields some amusing results for the Christian reader. (In one passage, they reason that Stott’s adherence to penal substitution is just the thing one would expect from a product of the old British boarding-school system.) 

From there, Brown and Woodhead go on to analyze Alex with a mixture of pity and subtle contempt. To them, he is the archetypal Repressed 20th-Century English Anglican Gay, compelled not only to abstain from homosexual relations but to hate himself for mingling same-sex lust with “unmanly” emotion. They mock the fact that “his first reaction to the discovery that he is in love with another gay man is to decide they must never meet again.” His stiff-upper-lip embarrassment over the self-described “nauseating slop” of his one-sided romance, they label as “the morbid swelling of the Calvinist ego.” His searing condemnation of liberal “hirelings,” combined with his own eagerness to set his moral compass by the Scripture’s “true north,” they diagnose as tics of the wounded priggish schoolboy behind the man: “at the same time a worm desperately seeking for rules to obey and a kind of aristocrat profoundly conscious of his superiority to the lesser breeds who don’t understand that there is a law at all.”

Wholly missing here, of course, is any good-faith attempt to understand and respect Alex for who he actually is: a young man doubtless flawed and conflicted, but also clear-sighted, choosing his path with both eyes open, and knowing whom he has finally believed.

Johnson, by contrast, is at least able to approach Alex from within their shared Christian frame, so that his engagement is in good faith to that basic extent. But, as I’ve argued, the attempt by Johnson and other Side B voices to “claim” Alex still constitutes a subtle form of misappropriation. (Not to mention that Alex’s humble status as a pseudonymous layman renders this even more off-putting than Johnson’s similar attempts with big names like C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, or Billy Graham.) Where Alex brings real insights, they are hardly the unique purview of Side B writers. And where he seems to experiment with “proto-Side-B” ideas, it is disingenuous to skim them off the top of his project without contextualizing them in his own individual human story. For that is just what The Returns of Love is, in the final analysis: one man’s individual human story.

At the end of his exploring, Alex finds himself in one sense standing at the same place where he started from. He’s still sexually inclined towards men in general and “Peter” in particular, though he is less self-pitying and obsessive (pleasing the Christian therapist who wrote the foreword and perhaps slightly misses Alex’s point that attraction change may not be the point). He’s still lonely. He still has unanswered questions for God. “Why, Lord?” he asks in a postscript after the last “letter.” “Why these years in the wilderness, enjoying neither the pleasures of Egypt nor those of Canaan—why these hungry years?” 

“Listen, child,” he imagines God replying, a bit reminiscent of Thomas Howard’s conclusion to Christ the Tiger. “Listen, child—you who are by the Fall a sinner, yet still by creation a man, and now by redemption a saint: these are wonders I mean to declare before the eyes of the universe. Walk with Me through the wilderness.” 

“Yes, Lord,” he answers.

Alex is an old man now, if he’s still alive. It’s strange to imagine as one reads the workings of his young mind here, so vivid and painful, so intensely earnest. One wonders what became of him, and of Peter, and of their friendship. One wonders how they passed through the history yet to be written as he wrote. One wonders what courses they set, where they landed. Did Peter ever break his addiction, or did he pay the ultimate price for it? Did Alex still know the way? Did his compass still point “true north”?

We can’t know and never will. I only know that in getting to know him, I’ve come to love Alex— sinful, hypocritical, embarrassed, homosexual Alex. And I hope he made it. I really hope he made it.

Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is an American freelance writer whose work has been spotted in outlets on both sides of the pond, including Spectator UK and USA, The Critic, First Things, Plough, American Conservative, and more. She maintains a Substack, Further Up, blogs at Patheos under Young Fogey, and tweets compulsively @EstherOfReilly. She attends a dramatically tiny ACC church in an undisclosed Midwestern location, where the prayers of the 1928 BCP are still spoken and the songs of the 1940 hymnal are still sung.

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