Ted Grimsrud—October 6, 2014
We Christians continue to struggle to embody Jesus’s way of peace in relation to sexual minorities. Surely a necessary part of this struggle is the need to humanize the people this affects. That is, especially, to humanize those we disagree with and those who we may agree with but still perceive as strangers.
Jeff Chu, a professional journalist and gay Christian, has written a fascinating book that helps with this task of humanization. The greatest contribution of the book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America (Harper, 2013), surely is how it helps us see actual people as they struggle and advocate. Chu manages to present people across the spectrum in sympathetic ways and helps these people tell their stories.
Chu writes well and obviously is a solid journalist. He does not come across as a deep thinker and does not seem to be especially interested in the intellectual elements of our wrestling. That lack proves to be a problem, as I will discuss below. But for a look into the hearts of those on the front lines of the current ferment among many types of American Christians this book is worthwhile—and I recommend it for that reason.
Several times in the book Chu is especially successful in helping the reader see into the soul of the struggle. For me, one of most moving of the stories he tells is that of Kevin Olson, a gay Christian in Minnesota who feels the call to remain celibate even as he accepts the irreversibility of his affectional orientation. Now, while we obviously are at Chu’s mercy in how he tells Olson’s story, I do sense a profound respect on Chu’s part for Olson’s commitments. Nonetheless, the picture that Chu paints seems to me to be quite sad.
Olson comes across as sincere and honest. Yet, he also seems lonely and unsettled. He has remained in a Christian subculture that perhaps is trying to accept him and support him—yet at the same time sees something deeply disordered in his orientation. Such a tension leaves Olson at loose ends—for example, he not only resists entering into a romantic relationship, he even avoids close friendships with men so as not to tempt himself or to be misunderstood.
Chu gives a perspective on Olson’s story in the form of reflections on one of Olson’s favorite songs by Christian singer Chris Rice: The song is “so damn depressing. It’s all about wanting this life to be over and the next to begin. It describes how every minute on this earth feels like an hour and every inch of life a mile. It begs Jesus to come soon” (page 159).
However, after this, Chu concludes: “Kevin’s lifestyle was not one choice but an active and constant series of them: the choice to set aside his perceived desire for companionship and closeness with men; the choice to set aside his perceived physical wants in favor of his perceived spiritual needs; the choice to sacrifice his earthly happiness for the eternal joy that he is convinced has been promised to him by his God. To him, celibacy hasn’t been act of fencing himself off; rather, it has been one of opening up, of embracing the sanctuary that he believes his Lord provides” (page 160).
Through his reflections on his own journey that crop up throughout the book, it is clear that Chu, though theologically likely pretty close to Olson, has chosen a quite different path. To his credit, it seems to me, he mostly let Olson’s story stand on its own terms. Olson clearly takes a courageous path, but one with great costs that are not obviously necessary.
As a counterpoint, the final portrait is of Gideon Eads, a young gay man in his mid-20s who lives in a remote and conservative Arizona town. His biological and church families are unalterably opposed to the possibility that Eads could remain, simultaneously, a Christian and self-affirming gay man. Scattered throughout the book, Chu recounts correspondence with Eads, including a deeply unsettling report on Eads’s encounter with a professional counselor. Eads comes across as a remarkably bright, grounded person who has found a path to self-acceptance with virtually no help from family or church.
The book ends with a face-to-face encounter when Chu makes it out to Arizona. Eads plans to continue to live in his hometown and dreams of opening a shop where he would make and custom-decorate cakes. It’s a powerful moment that captures the deep sincerity, heart-wrenching vulnerability, and inner strength of a young evangelical Christian in the belly of the beast, as it were.
In another eye-opening encounter, Chu tells of his sojourn in Topeka, Kansas, with the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. He actually visits in person with Westboro patriarch Fred Phelps, and spends extensive time with the extended Phelps family. To his credit, Chu simply tells this part of the story, highlighting the hospitality he was met with and not playing up the potentially sensational aspects of this encounter.
Jeff Chu is, as I mentioned, a professional journalist. This attribute is apparent in his reporter-like tone and the impression of objectivity that he gives almost throughout the book. Yet, he does have an agenda, even if it times it may not be apparent. The structure of the book reflects that agenda. He starts with the anti-gay stories. Westboro Baptist comes in chapter 3, an account of the reactionary Harding College and its hostility toward attempts to have open conversation on campus in chapter 4, and the account of Kevin Olson’s choice to remain celibate in chapter 8. Then, his report on welcoming Lutheran congregations in San Francisco is in chapter 11, the admirable Gay Christian Network in chapter 12, and the “best” church he encounters (Denver’s Highlands Church) in chapter 16.
I think it would have strengthened the message of the book and increased his potential for being trusted by less than fully friendly readers if Chu had been more forthright about the book’s structure. He ends up with general pleas for Christians to be more open-minded and respectful of each other, but it’s a kind of weak conclusion in what feels on the surface to be mostly a descriptive rather than prescriptive book—but in reality does end up being a work of advocacy, not simple reporting.
Chu would also have served his readers better if he had been more self-aware about his own ecclesial perspective. He writes openly about his background as a fundamentalist Baptist, and seems to be most comfortable in fundamentalist and evangelical contexts. But he doesn’t seem aware of the wide swath of American Christianity that he ignores. Virtually nothing about Catholicism and very little about mainline Protestantism. He does mention the United Church of Christ a couple of times in passing, but does not try to connect with any UCC congregations that have been affirming for at least a generation now. Certainly, he was free to choose the kinds of churches he wanted to visit and this is already a pretty long book. But I would have appreciated some reflection on his process of selection.
I fear that Chu may still operate with a residue of the evangelical narrowness that seems to equate “Christianity” with “evangelical Christianity.” He could have helped his readers by identifying the already existing settings and resources where many Christians have done extensive reflecting on the issues he raises—and put their gained wisdom into action. Or at least he could have done more to acknowledge the existence of those and helped challenge the stereotypes also too often held by non-Christian America that progressive Christianity simply doesn’t exist.
The book’s biggest problem
I, of course, read this book as a theologian (and as one who has worked hard at theological reflection on these kinds of issues). So it shouldn’t be surprising that I would be troubled by Chu’s lack of theological reflection.
At one point, Chu quotes a leader in the Evangelical Covenant Church (a largely anti-gay denomination that he profiles in a sympathetic and insightful way): “The conservative side wants to talk about the Bible. The other side is sharing stories. You can tell stories all day long, and they’re wonderful and they’re valuable, but for people who think the Bible says no to this issue, it’s not going to change anything” (page 195).
Since Chu includes this quote in his book, it seems fair to infer that he, to the contrary, thinks it is a good idea to “tell stories all day long.” Perhaps this is because he thinks debates about the Bible are a dead end. Perhaps he is not expecting to “change anything” with the conservatives (though because of what I mention above about the structure of his book, I find it doubtful that he’s not trying to persuade). And I do think the stories are great, as I have said.
However, what this book fails to do is give us a sense—both practically and theologically—of why these issues have become so extraordinarily conflictual. He presents cracks in the wall of evangelical anti-gay ideology, but he doesn’t really give us clues as to what has created that wall and what keeps it largely in place. This is where theological reflection (and, probably, philosophical, psychological, and anthropological reflection) could be essential.
As it stands, Chu’s book is mostly a feel-good, empathetic, respectful, and perceptive description of the terrain. But scratch the surface a bit (and it’s not like Chu denies or tries to cover this up), and we see profound pain. LGBTQ Christians have suffered mightily because of churches’ hostility toward them. The stubbornness, even cold-heartedness that lurks just under the surface of many of Chu’s stories on the part of the hostile ones must also be a source of great pain for those people themselves.
At some point, we need more help in understanding the sources, the on-going dynamics, the reasons for why Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have drawn such a line in the sand, a line with profound costs across the board, really, for just about all Christians in North America. I don’t mean to criticize Chu for not writing the book I wish he had. What he has contributed is helpful. But he has stimulated me to imagine something more.
That Chu has an intuition about the centrality of theology is perhaps apparent in his comments at the end of his conclusion when he laments what he calls the “Hinduization” of Christianity where we all have different gods. But unlike Hindus, we Christians each insist on calling our god God. I actually think this insistence provides one glimmer of hope in the broader struggle.
I think all Christians would agree that some views of God are better than others. Such an agreement could provide the basis for a conversation about our theology, and help us identify what the actual differences are. Maybe such clarity would simply lead to an honest parting of ways—which may be an improvement over what we have now. But I would like to imagine that such clarity has at least a little potential to lead to some actual metaphysical therapy where we move together toward common understandings of deep theology that could lead to genuine healing.