by Jeff Chu
New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2013.
Hardback, 353 pages.
Reviewed by Lē Isaac Weaver
It used to be that evangelical Christians didn’t have much trouble with LGBT people. There weren’t many of them running around in evangelical circles (at least that anyone knew about). And the few who became visible were quickly escorted out of the sanctuary and into the street, unrepentant sinners left to fend for themselves while the doors slammed shut behind them.
But something’s been happening in evangelical Christianity lately. Gay Christians are refusing to go quietly, instead sticking a foot in the door and asking to talk about hermeneutics and Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. And there are even some straight evangelical Christians talking about how “love wins” and refusing to participate in efforts to marginalize LGBT people, instead opening their own sanctuaries and unlocking the doors.
Gay people started realizing several years ago that what people are afraid of, what people hate, what people feel compelled to retreat from is a caricature of what a gay person is. It’s not about the real people we are but about something else entirely — something like the fictional conspiracy theory of “the homosexual agenda.”
What gay people have figured out is that when we show them who we are, reality replaces the frightening fictions. And with any luck, love replaces fear.
A Rock in the Door
So let’s talk about Jeff Chu and his new book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.
Jeff Chu is a thirty-five year old writer who grew up in evangelical Christianity. As things turned out, Jeff is gay. His family has a problem with that, as does evangelical Christianity. Lately many evangelical leaders are trying to be more compassionate by saying that people just might be born gay, and sure, they can still be Christians, they can still go to heaven. All they have to do is just never act on their orientation. In other words, being gay is a problematic defect, but God and the church are cool with that if you just don’t go through life expressing your love with a same-sex partner.
Jeff didn’t follow that rule. He’s in a committed relationship with another man. But he still identifies as an evangelical Christian even though, as one might expect, Jeff was shown the door. I got the feeling Jeff thinks this all might be a big misunderstanding, one that can be worked out by doing some research and finding a solution. It’s almost as though when he was shown the door he put a rock in it to keep it open, so that once he found the answer, he could get back in to share it with everyone.
In 2005, Jeff set off on what he describes as a pilgrimage across America. He wanted to learn what Christians had to say about homosexuality, so he met and interviewed all kinds of Christians, some gay and some not, some conservative and some liberal, some who come off as admirable loving human beings and some who don’t.
He wrote Does Jesus Really Love Me? about the experience. Unlike one of my favorite books on the subject, one that also asks a question — Is the Homosexual my Neighbor?, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott — Chu ends his book without finding the answer to his own question.
Jeff’s book is divided into four sections: Doubting, Struggling, Reconciling, and Hoping. Each of these sections is divided into chapters, with each chapter dealing with a person, group of people, or particular example of gay Christian culture. There are chapters featuring some familiar names (Westboro Baptist Church, the Gay Christian Network, Metropolitan Community Church, Jennifer Knapp) and some with people or organizations that are probably new to you.
The book has been almost universally praised. It’s well written, as you would expect from an experienced journalist like Chu, who wrote for Time Magazine for seven years. Although his words are carefully chosen, the tone is somewhat businesslike, and there’s not a lot of emotion or poetry to Chu’s prose. Any conclusions or assessments are reserved until after he has finished making his “journalistic” presentation in each chapter.
Different Levels of Understanding
On its most approachable level, this book could serve as a kind of “Gay and Christian 101” for evangelicals. I can only hope that a few people will take time out from worrying about “the homosexual agenda” long enough to quietly download or buy this book and familiarize themselves with the very real people and issues involved. This book will certainly provide more and better information than most social conservatives are hearing from the pulpit or on “their” internet, radio, and TV outlets. And that’s a good thing. I think we can all be grateful to Jeff for providing a book that might bring some people to a more compassionate understanding of the human beings involved.
On another level the book will serve as a source of some reassurance for emerging LGBT evangelical Christians who will identify with Jeff’s forthright honesty about his feelings. He welcomes the reader into his struggle and in doing so makes it possible for those in similar situations to understand they are not alone in the confusion, doubt, and anxiety associated with losing one’s place in family, church, and evangelicalism, all because of the particular Divine image in which they were created.
On a much less apparent level, this book is a voyeuristic look into the messy and gut-wrenching process of a person’s coming to terms with an LGBT identity after a lifetime of being indoctrinated into a theology that says gay people suffer from a shameful defect and will be punished by an angry God throughout an eternity of torment. And this “defect” is not only displeasing to God, but is so threatening that God encourages His people to physically exclude and verbally denigrate any who are afflicted with it. In this way, the book is a blurry black and white snapshot of a person who has come to understand his homosexuality as something fundamental and innate, but who just can’t shake off the threat of meeting an angry God or the need for the approval he used to get by belonging to a group of people so sure of their own salvation.
Jeff writes, “How often did I imagine what hell might be like, wondering, if He didn’t make me straight, what the fire and brimstone would feel like?” (p. 70)
An Emotional Roller Coaster
Some of the things people said to Jeff made me furious. From an ex-gay (or reparative therapy) counselor: “If [one says they] can follow God and yet engage in a gay lifestyle, I cannot in good conscience give them full assurance of salvation.” (p. 126) What person even has such authority?
Other times I felt disappointed, such as when Jeff feels compelled to tell us how he earned a modicum of approval from Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church (p. 64-65), or when he dismisses the Metropolitan Community Church with his comment, that “the MCC is more focused on people than on God.” (p. 297) Chu apparently lacks an appreciation of the historically significant role the MCC has played in ministering to the souls of thousands and thousands of his own people.
But anger and disappointment aside, most of the time the book made me hurt. It kept bringing me back to the numbness and confusion I felt as the careful construction of my life fell away in 1979 when I said those three words to a minister, “I am gay.” In this book I could feel Jeff Chu wanting his family, his church, and evangelical Christianity to stop seeing him as a big orange fluorescent “gay” label, and go back to seeing him how they used to see him, as an interesting, intelligent, and earnest evangelical Christian. I could feel him stretching toward the words he so badly wants to hear, “You are evangelical. You are Christian. You are family. We see that now. You are welcome here.”
But sadly, as a gay man who refuses to live a life of celibacy, Jeff is not welcome.
How It Ends
In the conclusion, Jeff talks about reconnecting with someone he knew from his teens. The man was an evangelical Christian, a married Bible teacher who got fired from the Christian school Jeff attended because his wife caught him with another man, and everyone found out.
Jeff tracks him down for an interview. They meet for lunch. The man tells Jeff his story, and explains how his understanding of God has evolved from the evangelical Christian model of his youth in order to fit the reality of his life as an openly gay man. And he tells Jeff, “I feel integrated now. I feel at peace.” Jeff’s next sentence is, “I don’t believe him.” He continues in the same paragraph, “I don’t believe him because I don’t want to believe him. This is how it ends? I am thinking. Where’s the redemption? Where’s the endurance of the faith? Where’s the perseverance of the saint?” (p. 342)
Jeff, since you’ve been honest enough to show me your heart, there’s something you ought to know.
That is how it ends. It ends with the ongoing and fluid awareness that you are but one of the billions of beautiful children created in the Divine image, all equally worthy of salvation. Your identity as a gay man combined with your history as an evangelical will help you in becoming a deeply spiritual seeker with a tender and precious relationship to a God who is maddeningly hard to explain. Perhaps you will learn to love and honor every single aspect of your own particular Divine image, especially when others refuse to do so. That’s what redemption looks like. That’s what enduring faith looks like. That knowledge is how the saints persevere.
And that rock? The one you put in the door so you could go back to how it was with your evangelical faith, family, and community? It’s gone. That’s just what happens. That door is shut.
And I’m so sorry— and so happy, for you.
There’s plenty about Jeff and his book on the web.
You could start with this New York Times article.
Here’s the official website of the book.
Good interview with Jeff on Religion Dispatches by Candace Chellew-Hodge.
© 2013 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today
Marg, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and reactions. I really appreciate that you took the time to read the book and to write this. Two points of clarification: I no longer identify as an evangelical, and I don’t have any interest in hanging on to that identity. Secondly, I do find the answer to my title question, although maybe it’s not as black-and-white as some people might hope for. As I write in the conclusion: “It depends on whom you ask. If you ask me, I would say that He does, but after my year of pilgrimage, I understand that love differently…” (p. 346) Thanks again for the review!
Jeff, my sincerest thanks for not only taking the time to read the review, but for also providing these important points of clarification. As with any review, one can only write through the lens of their own experience with the words. The printing of words makes everything seem clear and decisive. Conversation, standing in the room and looking someone in the eye, watching them breathe and move, feeling their heart, that’s a lovelier and much more meaningful form of communication. That’s what you did with your pilgrimage, and I, for one, am deeply grateful for your work.
Wow! If Chu’s book is half as interesting as Marg’s review, I can’t wait to read it. Marg has a way of touching the heart with her words.
Marg, Thank you so much for this thoughtful review. Your ending is especially powerful, an affirmation of all that is good and right with the Divine.
Marg, thank you for your engaging review that encourages us to read Chu’s book. Like others, I am especially appreciative of how you integrated your experience into your assessment of Chu’s journey.
I’m deeply grateful for your witness and your wisdom!
Powerful review, Marg! I was especially moved by your person experiemce and your conclusion. Jeff, I’m glad you’ve expanded your beliefs and know that you are fully in the Divine image.