To the Tune of a Welcoming God (Book Review)

Colin Chalmers

Weiss, David R (2008). To the Tune of a Welcoming God. Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome. Minneapolis MN: Langdon Street Press.

I suppose that, if asked what is the issue leading discussion and controversy in the Churches today, most people would say that of same-sex marriage. It is somewhat salutary to go back to an earlier period where the burning issue was one of simple inclusion of GLBT people in the Churches. Not that this issue has disappeared, with all problems solved. It is still very much alive, as is evidenced in the current controversies within both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. This book is centred on one man’s struggle with the issue of inclusion of GLBT persons in his own Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). What makes the book unusual is that the author is not in the typical run of ‘gay activist’: he is a ‘self-confessed’ straight, happily married man with five children. A Lutheran minister, David Weiss held a number of academic posts in Universities and Seminaries throughout the United States, among which was the bastion of American Catholicism, the University of Notre Dame. The book’s subtitle of “Lyrical reflections…” is a good description of its range. In addition to articles of varying length, there are examples of the author’s poetry and a compilation of his hymns, hymns for which he – God bless him – gives explicit permission to copy for use in worship.

Dating from between 2001 and 2007, each article is headed with a short note as to its provenance. Most often, the articles are transcriptions of sermons which the author delivered at various church services or events. Others are copies of articles written for magazines. Most are centered on the need for ELCA to become a fully-inclusive Church. Many of the articles were written in an attempt to persuade the Church’s Bishops and ruling Synod to approve the ordination to the Church’s ministry of GLBT persons. Whatever, the aim of the article, there is scarcely one which does not have at least one memorable line to be treasured and pondered. Lines such as: “We call God Creator not to acknowledge past deeds but to name part of God’s persisting agenda.” (p 72); “…weakness is not the absence of power but the doorway through which God’s presence moves.” (p 129); “…God’s love never has been and never will be confined to a ‘preferred’ set of people. It’s always reaching out to those at the margins – often in ways that make the rest of us nervous.” (p 140) are sermons in themselves.

The final article of the book (which is followed by the hymns mentioned above), “GLBT Theology: a Travelogue and Personal Reflection” (pp 156 – 163), written originally in 2003, provides an excellent summary of the various issues arising in ‘Queer’ Theology. The author notes that GLBT people are claiming back the word ‘queer’ from its pejorative, sexually-based use. This claiming back of the word is marked by a return to its former meaning of ‘unusual’, ‘out-of-the-ordinary’, ‘non-conforming’. It is in this sense that many theologians are happy to refer to Jesus as ‘queer’. In one of the most devastating critiques I have read of constructing a theology based on the idea of the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ passion and death, Weiss says that Jesus “was killed because he was queer, not because God needed innocent blood.” (p 162) How is this for a critique of sacrifice-atonement theology: “When the dominant theology portrays a God willing to shed innocent blood through violence for the sake of redemption, it is all too easy for the institutional powers that claim to speak on behalf of God to decide where else blood must be shed to preserve that redemption.”(ibid)?

It would be a pity if the often highly specific nature of the provenance of the articles in this book were to put off potential readers who may not share the author’s church-allegiance. For any Christian who wishes to consider the issue of the inclusion of GLBT people in his or her own church, this is a book well worth, not just reading, but pondering over and treasuring.