A Life of Unlearning
Greg Spearritt reviews A Life of Unlearning: Coming Out of the Church – One Man’s Struggle
by Anthony Venn-Brown (New Holland 2004).
Enquiring adolescents can today be advised on websites such as the Queensland Health Youth Site that homosexuality does not need to be ‘cured’. Whatever your sexual orientation, “It’s okay to be you”.
Is it, though? Apparently up to ten per cent of the population is gay or lesbian. Why, then, can I count the number of people I know personally to be gay on one hand (apart from the fact that I don’t get out enough…)?
Clearly, acceptance of gay people has increased in recent years, but it’s come off a very low base. Not so long ago the only real options for gays were cure (for their ‘disease/sin’), incarceration or an often self-destructive life of denial.
One only has to see the fuss made about lesbian parents appearing in the ABC children’s show Playschool to know that homosexuality in 2004 is still not okay. Or if that fails to convince you, take a straw poll of 11-year olds at any primary school in Australia. The term ‘poofter’ (among others!) is alive and well.1
Thus it is that Anthony Venn-Brown’s new book A Life of Unlearning is still, in 21st century Australia, a shocking and much-needed work.
Within the churches, of course, attitudes to homosexuality (bolstered by what is commonly perceived to be God’s own stated opinion) have by and large been even more bigoted and rigid than in the general populace.
Tony Venn-Brown was not just ‘in the church’, however. He was a successful evangelical preacher in the Assembly of God churches (which makes the dog collar on the book’s cover a bit of a puzzle: artistic license or media cliché?). He was so successful that he managed, where none in Australia had before, to make itinerant preaching his full-time profession.
In his teens, Venn-Brown became aware of homosexual feelings. In keeping with most Australians of the early seventies, he viewed his gayness as a curse. Seeking a cure for it became a driving force in his life, leading him to commit his life to God, to submit to exorcism and brutal cult-like ‘Christian’ treatment, and to repent again and again and again before the God he believed could remove his sinful state. The desperation for a cure led him into heterosexual marriage and starting a family and ultimately into public confession and humiliation before his congregation and fellow pastors.
Time and time again he believed God had answered his prayers and taken away his feelings for other men, only to find himself unable to resist yet another brief, illicit liaison. Shame at what he was, and at the deceit necessary to keep him functioning as a preacher and as a husband and father eroded his self-esteem.
Finally, all avenues for denial exhausted, Venn-Brown encountered some gay men who helped him to quit the charade forced upon him by society and by the church and accept who he is.
It’s an extraordinary life story, and ultimately a positive one. The author comes to a place familiar to many SoF members:
To some degree we are all living a life of unlearning. Unlearning the things we have accepted without question but which have no truth in our lives. For me, the issue was my sexual orientation, yours is probably different. Truth is internal, not external. People often want someone else to tell them what the truth is instead of finding it themselves. (314)
One thing of real value in this book – at least for heterosexuals – is the candid picture it paints of what it’s like to be homosexual. It’s an education. The detail, sometimes sordid, sometimes uplifting, of ‘cruising’ and encountering a new partner; an ‘insider’s’ view of the Sydney gay scene; the extent of homosexuality within even the fundamentalist churches; how it feels to be forced to live a lie: all this promotes understanding and compassion. It is, as the subtitle acknowledges, the story of just one gay man, but that is still valuable.
The book questions a view of God which results in exclusion and judgment. In his final sermon, Venn-Brown says,
I spoke of the need to cease separating people into who was saved or unsaved, who was condemned or redeemed. To no longer judge people by the church’s standards and reach out in genuine love to people, asking nothing in return. To break down the walls that divided the church from the world… Jesus was saying stop focusing on worshipping Him and begin touching lives in need. (225)
Personally, though, I wish the questioning had gone further: throughout the book a very ‘realist’ God is assumed, a God who answers prayer by miraculously providing accommodation or means at just the right time. The ultimate miracle, however – self-acceptance – is achieved through other people, although the author still sees the hand of God in it. The issues of what an interventionist God does not do – such as spare the suffering of innocent victims of war, for instance – are not canvassed by Venn-Brown. At the end, the author is coy about his own belief, but it’s certainly broader than the faith he preached for so many years. I suspect, nevertheless, that it remains supernaturalist.
The book’s subtitle mentions ‘coming out of the church’. I wonder when it might be possible for gays to confidently, and without fear of persecution or alienation, come out in the church – or, indeed, in Australian society. It may not be soon, but I’ve no doubt it’s all the sooner for the publication of A Life of Unlearning.
1. According to a BBC website, 'poof' and 'poofter' are probably derived from ‘puff’, which stems from the phrase 'light as a cream puff', meaning someone who weighs very little - and is therefore, presumably, an easy target for violence.