[A review of C. Norman Kraus, On Being Human: Sexual Orientation and the Image of God (Cascade Books, 2011)]
Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud
Norman Kraus provides something that has, by and large, been missing from Christian theological discussions about homosexuality—careful theological analysis of some of the foundational issues about how we understand human beings in the image of God.
This short book contains an essay from Kraus that is thoughtful, carefully laid out, and fairly dense, accompanied by several short responses to Kraus’s statement by people representing four somewhat diverse perspectives, though all laudatory of Kraus’s effort. While Kraus and his companions in this book are Mennonites and the book certainly speaks to Mennonite debates and efforts at discernment, it is written in a more general tone that makes the book relevant and useful for a variety of church-related contexts.
As I read it, this book most centrally argues for an understanding of human life where we recognize our creation in God’s image and, from that recognition, appreciate our created need for intimacy with other human beings and, for the vast majority of us, a need for one particularly intimate relationship that involves commitment, mutuality, and sexual expression.
Kraus does affirm, in this context, the moral validity of same-sex intimacy that follows the same moral expectations Christians affirm for heterosexual relationships—fidelity, a livelong commitment, shared life in the context of involvement in a congregation. He does this while giving little attention to the debate about the several short biblical passages that are usually affirmed or debunked as providing churches’ most authoritative guidance.
His main focus is to reflect theologically on the significance of the biblical motif of humanity created in God’s image and how this motif applies in a more general sense to human sexuality. Though taking a stance on the specific issue of the treatment of homosexual persons, Kraus does not mark out a rigid position in the context of recent debates as much as focus on deeper, more foundational issues.
Hence, this book should be useful for people with a variety of positions on the spectrum of current debate. The writing is non-polemical, clear, and well reasoned. All readers with an interest in the theological element of the broader discussion not only of homosexuality but human sexuality more generally will benefit from thoughtful engagement with Kraus’s essay—even if they don’t agree with his specific position concerning same-sex intimate partnerships.
Kraus keeps the book’s main essay quite focused. As a consequence he does not directly interact with perspectives he disagrees with. This is a weakness in the book, but, on the other hand, by being so single-minded, the book may be more useful for study groups. This would not be the only text a group seeking a broader treatment of the “homosexuality issue” would want to engage, but by refusing to be distracted from his core concern of thinking about the relevance of the image of God theme for the discussion, Kraus has done Christians a great service.
Though the writing is tightly reasoned (and thus not well suited for speed reading), Kraus’s care in expression makes his thoughts accessible and relevant—especially should the essay be read in the context of a study group where members can help each other think about and discuss the key points.
The addition of four short responses to the core essay by various writers is helpful. Martin Lehman, a contemporary of the octogenerian Kraus and longtime Mennonite church leader, gives an appreciative and insightful introduction to the book that ably identifies Kraus’s key points and sets the reader up well to engage the argument. Then, following Kraus’s essay, pastor Cynthia Lapp, seminary professor Mary Schertz, and journalist-theologian Richard Kauffman each engage some of Kraus’s main ideas and reflect on how they apply to church life. Lapp’s essay in particular adds helpful perspective.
Over the course of his long career, Norman Kraus has continually been willing to express his love for the church by courageously helping Mennonites and other Christians think carefully and creatively about challenging and even controversial issues. We should be very grateful that he has continued in this vocation with this most helpful book.