On Friday, while stuck at home due to the “shelter in place” orders here in Boston, I read Jeff Chu’s recent book Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America (Harper, 2013).
Part memoir, part ethnography, part journalistic endeavor, Does Jesus…? is more impressionistic than it is polemical or scholarly. Chu offers a series of portraits, featuring both people (pastors, congregants, ex-Christians, agnostics) and institutions (from the Metropolitan Community Church, overwhelmingly queer in membership, to the Westboro Baptist Church). Across sections titled “Doubting,” “Struggling,” “Reconciling,” and “Hoping,” Chu offers us a tour around America and the religious and sexual-identity spectrum as well, introducing us to individuals and congregations wrestling with the relationship between faith and queer sexuality.
Chu himself has settled into a life of being gay and Christian, he nevertheless draws empathic (if at times slightly baffled) portraits of LGBT individuals who have forged other paths: queer folks who have been driven from the church or simply drifted away, a gay man who has chosen to remain celibate, a straight woman and gay man in a “mixed orientation” marriage. While he features a few high-profile individuals (Ted Haggard, Fred Phelps, Mary Glasspool), more of the voices in Does Jesus…? are unknowns: the Bible teacher fired from his job for a same-sex affair, the closeted young adult wrestling with if, when, and how to come out to his parents and community, the Christian musician who describes with charming self-deprecation her first gig at a lesbian bar.
I found myself thinking, as I read, a very librarian question: to whom might I recommend this book? One of the pastors Chu interviews offers the following observation: she sees anti-gay Christians and affirming/welcoming Christians trying to have two very different conversations in their discussions around homosexuality. The anti-gay contingent, she maintains, is focused on scriptural authority. The affirming group is focused on stories — on personal testimony. If this is true (though I’m not ready to buy the theory wholesale), then Chu’s book will not have much success in convincing those who believe Christianity demands abstaining from same-sex sexual activity. It is not a work of exegesis, of Biblical interpretation. It is not making a theological argument. Rather, Does Jesus…? is offering us a chance to reconsider our simplistic notions of what “Christian” and “gay,” and the assumption that there is but one type of relationship between the two: a repressive or alienated one.
This is an approach that I think might resonate more strongly with the “personal testimony” contingent. With LGBT folks who are, themselves, wondering, “Does Jesus really love me?” Or with queer activists asking how to engage American believers in the LGBT push for equality and acceptance. Or with unchurched/secular-identified queer folks and allies who see the church as bolstering anti-gay sentiment and are baffled why queer Christians seek to remain in the fold.
For example, as a queer woman who grew up in a conservative Christian community (in a region settled by the Reformed Church in America, Chu’s present denomination!) and attended a college with deep RCA roots, one of the chapters which spoke most directly to my own experience was the chapter about Harding University. Or, more specifically, Harding University’s student-published Queer Press zine, created and distributed by queer students and alumni primarily to reach out to other (largely closeted) students on the conservative Christian campus. Not only did the creators face a backlash from the administration, they also discovered that their sectarian struggle didn’t always translate very well before a secular audience:
[Secular] bloggers would praise the zine but add, “Why would you go to a school that doesn’t accept you for who you are?” or “Why not just leave?” These questions reflect a different type of thoughtlessness. For one thing, Harding students are just like millions of others who depend financially on Mom and Dad [to attend college]. Then there’s the fact that, again like millions of others everywhere, these students are in a season of fragility and flux. They’re still wrestling with their identities, their faith, and their homosexuality, which may not even be acknowledge before college. As one puts it to me, “It’s not like someone woke up one morning and said, I’m gay but I’m to go there and make my life suck.”
When queer students and allies at my alma mater were making a concerted effort to get the Board of Trustees to revisit their official anti-gay stance, some high-profile queer-friendly blogs got wind of the struggle and there was a lot of puzzlement over why these students had enrolled in, or remained at, such a hostile institution. Setting aside the reality that secular institutions are not always bastions of acceptance themselves, it seems important for non-Christian LGBT activists and allies to remember that “Christian” is often as deeply-held an identity as “lesbian,” “bi,” or “gay.” To ask a queer person raised Christian why they don’t just quit their faith is profoundly lacking in compassion or understanding for the complexity of the human soul.*
Overall, I highly recommend Does Jesus..? to anyone interested in reflecting on the human face of the culture war (for lack of a better term) over sexual diversity in American Christianity. It might also, given its episodic nature, make for really good Sunday School or Church reading group material.
Related: For those unable to put their hands on a copy of the book, Chu was a guest on the Diane Rehm Show back in March, and it was an excellent conversation. You can listen to the audio or read a full transcript of the interview (your support for NPR at work!) courtesy of WAMU.
*On a side note, I know many feminists who’ve encountered similar disbelief that they choose to reconcile their religiosity and their feminism — often, in fact, grounding their feminist values in their faith. It’s fascinating to me that so many people on both sides (the religious side or the queer/feminist side) view these aspects of self as oil-and-water opposites.