Roberts rightly insists that my identity is not something socially constructed, nor is it something I curate or discover for myself. Rather, it is something conferred by God, which defines who I am…Roberts’s treatment of identity is exceptionally rich and helpful because it is shaped by careful reflection on the ten commandments, understood as an exposition of what it means to be created in God’s image—the biblical understanding of the moral law.
I have said more than once that, apart from the Bible, there are no ‘must-read’ books, and that publishers, blurbers, reviewers, and all Author’s friends and relations, should repent of saying that there are. Therefore, in reviewing a book that has the great merit of pursuing its case rigorously, with consistency and integrity, I feel honour-bound to state that this is not a ‘must-read’ book. But I really hope that it finds a wide and attentive readership, not least among pastors, because Matthew Roberts addresses an extremely important—and pastorally urgent—topic. More than that, he has written a book that is clear, fresh and readable, and also rigorous, deep and compelling. I think it’s mostly brilliant, and as far as I know, there’s nothing else like it currently available.
The book’s thesis is easily stated: the ‘underlying driver’ of our contemporary ‘identity-obsession’ (p. 9) is idolatrous worship of the self. In contrast to secular analyses of the current crises and conflicts of identities in the West, Roberts offers a thoroughly biblical analysis, rooted in an understanding that we are what we worship: ‘Since who we are is defined by our duty to worship God, our crisis of identity is at root a crisis of worship. The Christian gospel, being God’s call to worship Him alone, uniquely has the resources to remedy this.’ (p. 16)
The first half of the book unfolds what it means to say that we are ‘Defined by Worship’, with chapters on who we are and who we think we are (ch. 1), the idolatry of self (ch. 2), and the dynamics of desire (chs. 3 and 4). He shows how our idolatrous desires enslave us, and how they are truly sinful to their very roots in our corrupt hearts as sinful children of Adam.
The whole of the first half of the book is superb and presents a far more profound understanding of the roots of sinful identities (including, but not limited to, ‘LGBT+’ identities) than I have come across elsewhere. The chapter on concupiscence (ch. 4) is simply outstanding: if you want to understand what the Protestant understanding of the doctrine is, why it is biblical, and why it matters (as opposed to the Roman Catholic view that is also held by a surprising number of contemporary conservative evangelical leaders), this would be an excellent place to begin.
The second half of the book, ‘Restored to be True Worshippers’ will, I suspect, be far more controversial: loved by some and hated by others. In it, Roberts applies the theological truths of the first half by examining the significance of our creation as male and female, the idolatrous harm of assuming that the contemporary alphabet of sexual identities is valid and inevitable (including the error of Christians identifying themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘same-sex attracted’), and the ‘Redemption of Identity’ in the gospel by which we are re-made as true worshippers of the true God. I have been trying to resist language of sexual orientation and sexual identity for more than a decade, so this was all music to my ears. Others will find it much more uncomfortable reading. But Roberts makes a strong case that sexual desires are not identity-conferring, and that to assume that they are creates significant pastoral problems.
In this half of the book, I was pleased that he was just as critical of the idolatry of ‘heterosexual’ and ‘straight’ identities and orientations. I was glad he exposed the damaging, and sinful, errors of gay ‘cure’ or ‘deliverance’ ministries. I was convicted by the evil uncleanness of my own heart, and the seriousness of my sin primarily because it is an offence against God. And I was moved, delighted and given hope by the grace of God in the gospel, and also by Roberts’s clear explanation that the law of God is good for us: ‘It does not behove Christians to speak or think of what God has called evil as if it were a good thing…Abandoning sin is not part of the cost, but of the blessing, of discipleship…For God’s law is in fact good, and to keep it for His sake is the delight of the Christian’s heart.’ (pp. 159-60)
The whole book takes us deep into the Bible, and models the fidelity, beauty and nourishment of a Reformed confessional approach to Scripture. There are many exegetical highlights, but one unexpected, yet golden, moment, was in his explanation of why the story of Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12) is not a cute illustration of why sermons shouldn’t be boring. I won’t tell you the answer, nor the page number: I want you to read the book and discover it for yourself!
In Part 2, Roberts criticises three ‘false approaches’ to questions of sexual identity: affirming same-sex relationships; ‘healing’/ ‘deliverance’ ministries; and—probably most controversially—the increasingly common idea that while same-sex acts are bad, same-sex identities are neutral or good. In the course of this, he has some very challenging things to say about some conservative evangelical writings on the subject of same-sex sexuality. Nevertheless, he is careful to praise the courage and faithfulness of evangelical brothers with whom he disagrees.
I hope that Pride will not be used simply as a stick with which to beat people and organisations who are criticised within its pages. In these debates, we will need to distinguish carefully whom we are disagreeing with—some are pagans outside the church; some are within the visible church as false teachers and false brothers; some are true brothers and sisters in Christ who are mistaken. We will also need to distinguish the degrees of seriousness of their different errors, and ways in which those we disagree with also disagree with each other.
But I also hope that the arguments of the book will be considered carefully and discussed robustly. And I hope the discussions avoid mischaracterising Roberts as engaging in personal attacks, rather than presenting ideas and arguments for consideration. This is a conversation that needs to happen, not least among British conservative evangelicals. My own view is that, in these pages, Roberts mounts a compelling corrective to some muddled thinking.
I had originally intended this to be a very short and positive review, because my impressions are overwhelmingly positive. But Pride is a serious book, and so it merits critical engagement. Therefore, I decided that it’s worth registering a worry, an error, and two questions. I’m doing so in smaller print in part because I’m unreconstructedly pretentious and find it fun, but also to register that these worries are minor compared to my enthusiasm and praise.