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space at the table book

Review: “Space at the Table” by Brad & Drew Harper

In this book, subtitled "Conversations between an Evangelical Theologian & His Gay Son", pastor Brad Harper and his son Drew converse in short letters to each other about their differences of opinion regarding same-sex attraction. Whilst Brad holds to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, Drew has left his biblical faith and embraced an LGBTQ lifestyle.

What ensues is not a disaster, but a miracle. As father and son eloquently engage and respond to each other, and occasionally also ponder life from their own respective corners, the reader is invited into a dialogue that is part sordid family history and part testimony to humility and perseverance. Though father and son disagree deeply on the ‘gay’ issue, they have, over the years, discovered how to love each other profoundly and meaningfully, without abandoning any of their deeply held principles or expecting the other to desert theirs.

What emerges in the telling is a gentle, charitable and often very humorous recollection of one family's life in the 1990s and early 2000s, told from two perspectives. On the one hand, we have Brad’s take as a conservative preacher, who senses early on that his bright, aesthetically sensitive and bullied son might be different in the ‘wrong’ ways and wants to help him. On the other, we have Drew’s perspective on faith and social rejection and striving to please his father, even to the point of embracing conversion therapy in his early teens. The story has all the makings of a tragedy, and though Brad and Drew do experience real calamities, both together and apart, father and son hold one thing in common throughout: a commitment to love each other, to respect each other despite their differences, and to keeping lines of communication open. Both learn from their mistakes along the way, and both are better for it. “We don’t see the world the same way”, Drew tells his father in one particularly poignant exchange. “But I can’t imagine my world without you in it” (p.190).

Their shared story offers much to Christian parents confronting the reality of a same-sex-attracted son or daughter who has ‘come out’ and left the faith. Threaded through Brad and Drew’s narratives are short informative sidebars bylined by either Brad or Drew on such ground-floor topics as homophobia and AIDS, misconceptions about the causes of homosexuality and specific mistakes to avoid while making space for each other. For example:

‘“Can’t I just ‘love the sinner but hate the sin?” At Stonewall [in June 1969], LGBTQ people did not protest for the right to their sexual orientation. They protested for the right to be open about it as public citizens. Thus, for many gay people, to condemn their behavior simply communicates condemnation of them. Christians can argue all day long that that is not what we are doing, but it will still feel that way to gay folks. So, if we want conversations to be productive, we should stay away from this line of reasoning’ - Brad (pp.145-46)

It seems to be a book that a parent and child could read together, confident that its purpose is not to sway the other’s view, but rather to help both parties learn strategies to stay close and see the best in each other without diminishing either one’s convictions. The book is also broadly applicable to navigating today’s culture, as it could be read as a model for developing compassionate dialogue on virtually any contentious issue.

The book's message - that a traditional Christian parent can accept and even embrace an LGBTQ child in love (and vice-versa) - is a challenging one for Christian ethics and is the reason the book did not immediately find a willing Christian publisher. This is not, after all, a book intended to convince an LGBTQ child to ‘become straight’ or to choose Christian celibacy. But the fact that the book preaches neither for nor against embracing an LGBTQ identity is its greatest strength. It encourages its readers, Christian or not, to come to the table as partners, ready to talk and, most of all, ready to listen. 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the Summer 2023 edition of Ascend