How Not to Sin is the third book in Susan Hawke’s Lovestrong series and I think the best thus far. The story focuses on Pastor Gabe and his ongoing battle with a homophobic deacon. Gabe discovers that even though it was understood he was bisexual upon his being hired, the church elders never thought he would start a relationship with a man since he hadn’t before now. Gabe is rather upset that they wanted little more than a “poster boy” for inclusivity, and he fights against a small but vocal movement to move the church from the current more liberal sect into one much more oppressive.
Things only get more complicated when Gabe meets Seth Thomas and their instant attraction means Gabe is diving into the deep end of dating a male for the first time ever. With Gabe wooing Seth, it opens a whole new can of worms, including his role as Pastor and whether he should be engaging in sex outside the marriage vows—male or female partner making no difference.
Meanwhile, the small group that is unhappy with their openly bisexual pastor garners support from a local hate group and as things devolve into picketing, rock throwing, vandalism, and the like, Gabe realizes just how serious the matter has become and pushes to remove the conniving deacon who is known to be organizing the hate campaign against Gabe from the governing board. A lot is thrown at poor Seth and Gabe and their new relationship is either going to stand up to the test, or crumble before its given a chance to strengthen and grow. Now the two men must decide if their attraction can flourish amongst the hate.
Dealing with some very real modern day issues, How Not to Sin explores several topics, including the idea that a clergyman should be held to a higher standard than his flock when it comes to pursuing sex outside the constraints of marriage. It doesn’t help that Gabe is attracted to a man who follows holistic healing, complete with the belief in crystals and essential oils aiding said healing of the body and spirit. But it really comes down to how Gabe grapples with the accusations of impropriety from a known homophobe that becomes a key moment in this novel. It actually becomes a strong plot point and one that made this story much deeper than one that might deal with the normal theme of homophobia in the church today.
Instead of just having the reader understand what has become a recurring theme in most stories that deal with those on the spectrum and organized religion’s typical hateful response to them, author Susan Hawke has us reflect on what the role of a sexually active pastor plays in being the role model for the congregants he serves—particularly the youth of his parish. I thought this was a brave and interesting arc for the story to pursue and its done well with Gabe struggling with the idea overall. How he and Seth ultimately handle that dilemma may seem to be a bit contrived, but I felt the story warranted their response and kept it from being totally unbelievable, even though I admit it was a bit of a stretch, reality-wise. As to the rest of the novel and how it dealt with the very real dilemma of a church dedicated to being inclusive only if the pastor doesn’t openly “act gay”, I thought this was spot on. Many organized religions actually go this route—hiring a gay pastor and then forcing them to be celibate. It’s something I have seen in a former church I once attended—its despicable and the author makes sure to expose just how unfair and homophobic a practice it is.
Lest you think that this is the only theme running in this novel, I want to assure you that there is a nicely done love story as well. Gabe and Seth are, in many ways, polar opposites and yet they find such joy in being with each other. Theirs is a teasing, light hearted, and happy relationship that is lovely to watch unfold. I really liked Gabe and felt such sympathy for him as he struggled with his place as the head of the church and as Seth’s lover. Never once did I feel as though the author was getting preachy or too religious and yet I will forewarn you that she doesn’t shy away from discussing biblical truth when it comes to treating each other with love and respect. I admire how she drew a very clear line between being religious and being a Christian today and how one is not necessarily the same as the other. With humor and lots of communication, Hawke had her two men wade through some fairly heavy topics, but kept them from overwhelming the romance aspect of this story.
How Not to Sin was a novel that made me think and yet managed to entertain as well. I enjoyed this installment of the series and felt it was overall the best of the books to date. I look forward to reading more by this author.