Booknotes: Does Jesus Really Love Me?

04.23.2013, 7:20 AM

Chu_DoesJesus_coverOn 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.


47 Responses to “Booknotes: Does Jesus Really Love Me?”

  1. Diane M says:

    I read a bit about this book elsewhere and I am hoping I can get a copy at my library. It sounds very interesting.

  2. Matthew Kaal says:

    Anna,

    I am actually reading through Does Jesus… at the moment with the goal of writing a review – you beat me to it. I appreciate Chu’s casting such a wide net in his interviews, and for treating every person he interviews with compassion and understanding (if, at times, some sarcasm) as he chronicles their stories.

    I think this book challenges the notion that the categories anti-gay Christian and affirming Christian are easily definable – as the book is full of gay Christians who are members of very orthodox churches and who feel loved in their chosen spiritual communities, and others, like some of the kids at Harding, who don’t find it all that affirming to be told to abandon their conservative Christian identity as they make their way out of the closet.

    One thing in particular that I am repeatedly struck by in the book is the generational differences in how those interviewed talk about their experiences of same-sex attraction and identity. There is a marked difference in the way gay Christians of my generation are talking and thinking about sexuality, and the way people twenty years older than us are talking about it.

    I think it will find a broad audience with younger Christians (liberal and conservative both) who care deeply about theology, but also realize that theology must be practiced well to be meaningful, and that involves listening to and understanding the experiences of others and knowing how to engage them (something, it is well noted, Christians often fail at). There is an encouraging trend of LGBT Christian voice empowerment afoot in Christian media recently (see emerging LGBT voices at places like Patheos, FirstThings, Relevant) which this book nicely dovetails with, should be interesting to see how it all develops.

  3. Amber Lapp says:

    Thanks for the review, Anna. I’m very interested to read this.

  4. Jeff Chu says:

    I really appreciate this review, Anna. It was intentionally not a book of theology or exegesis. Other people are more qualified to do that than I am. I’m a journalist. I am a collector of stories.

    Matthew, I am finding that there is a generational difference not only in how people I interviewed tell their stories and discuss their faith and sexuality but also in how this book is being received. That’s been a striking thing to me, too. Some older readers have told me that it has made them uncomfortable—especially reading the voices of folks like Westboro—to the point that they don’t want to read it anymore. That echoes something that happened during the reporting, which was that several people of the Stonewall generation, including a leader in a major gay-rights group, refused to be interviewed on-the-record once they found out that I would be journeying across the spectrum. That was fascinating, though a bit disturbing, to me.

  5. Anna Cook says:

    Jeff,

    Thanks for commenting! I hope my review doesn’t imply that the lack of exegesis is a mark against it — as you say, other people have trod this path and your area of expertise is elsewhere. I think sometimes the focus on scriptural interpretation can become a very narrow path (though obviously important; my grandfather was a professor of New Testament theology!), and it is important to draw back and understand how living in the context of Christian communities day in and day out is experienced by people. So thank you again for offering us these range of examples.

  6. Mont D. Law says:

    (That echoes something that happened during the reporting, which was that several people of the Stonewall generation, including a leader in a major gay-rights group, refused to be interviewed on-the-record once they found out that I would be journeying across the spectrum. That was fascinating, though a bit disturbing, to me.)

    This just in, old gay people still pretty pissed about being beaten in the streets, locked in mental institutions, forced into the closet, penalized in every aspect of their existence and condemned to never love anybody they wanted to love.

    Seriously. You saw exactly the same problem with Obama and Rev. Wright. I would suggest you exercise some of the Christian charity I’ve heard so much about.

  7. Anna Cook says:

    Matthew,

    I actually hope you do write a post about this book when you’re finished with it; I’m sure our perspectives are different and you will bring fresh reflections to the conversation.

    Mont,

    It seems borderline uncivil to characterize Jeff’s observation regarding older queer folks and their reticence as lacking in “Christian charity.” A situation can be “disturbing” even if one understands the motivations behind it.

    Yeah, elder queer folks have a lot of reason to be suspicious of the spotlight. When I was part of a research team doing ethnographic work with a lesbian-feminist group formed in the 1970s (so women now in their 50s-70s), because we were coming to the participants from a Christian college many people refused point-blank even though our research group was self-identified feminist, gay-affirming, and ourselves a mix of sexual identities. We respected that decision, obviously, but it was also sad to recognize that people still have legitimate reason to be afraid and angry. It’s disturbing that such scars still exist. And it’s disturbing to think what the lack of those particular stories mean to our research (sample bias!).

  8. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    Dan Savage’s devastating review of this book in the Sunday Times told me all that I need to know. It sounds as though he has a lot of internalized homophobia. I think he is part of the problem. He apparently cares more about the oppressors than the oppressed. Sounds like a lot of conservative Christians I have known.

  9. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    PS: Anna, I think it would be helpful if you would add a link to Savage’s review of Chu’s book.

  10. Anna Cook says:

    Wayne,

    Dan Savage and I have very different readings of this text. He is obviously free to believe what he wants about the author, and to criticize the text, but I disagree strongly with his conclusion that Jeff Chu “cares more about the oppressors than the oppressed.” In my reading, Chu allows each narrator to describe their own relationship with both religion and sexuality while articulating an affirming authorial perspective throughout. He is candid about his struggles in reaching that affirming place, but many of us have struggled to reach a place of self-acceptance and celebration of our sexual selves in this very sex-negative culture.

    I suspect that part of the issue may be Savage’s very different background growing up within the Catholic tradition, and his very different relationship to the church now, which colors his reading of Chu’s work. Again, he is free to dislike and critique the book. But it seems a shame to take his review as gospel truth (if you forgive the pun) and write the work off because of it. But to each his own.

    I don’t feel the need to link to other book reviews in the body of my review, but commenters are always welcome to share appropriate links in their comments.

  11. Mont D. Law says:

    (It seems borderline uncivil to characterize Jeff’s observation regarding older queer folks and their reticence as lacking in “Christian charity.” A situation can be “disturbing” even if one understands the motivations behind it. )

    I am sorry, but I find his comments and yours too, to be frank, to be condescending and disrespectful. Veterans have scars because they fought a war. The young that reap the rewards of that war don’t get to judge those scars as fascinating or disturbing. They don’t get to recast the survivors that made their freedoms possible as crippled victims, irrationally frightened, needlessly angry, blocking their efforts to understand history.

  12. mythago says:

    Mont, you are arguing with things nobody has said.

  13. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    I have a handinjury that makes it difficult to embed links, so I cannot Lind to Dan Savage’s review. But it appeared two weeks in the NYT’s book review and is well worth reading. Savage finds that Chu is contemptuous of gay people who have left or been forced out of churches, while being over solicitous of bigoted Christians. As to a generational divide, S a age points out that young people have abandoned organized religion on droves because of its real or perceived homophobia.

  14. Jeff Chu says:

    I am truly sorry if anyone interprets anything that I have written above as disrespectful or hurtful, especially to the generation of activists and laborers who have helped secure the freedom that I have as a gay man. I meant neither disrespect or condescension at all. I’m especially grateful to the ones who did share their stories with me—and those who have shared their stories with others; I am thankful for that history, and I’ve learned from their testimonies.

    Dan Savage and I have exchanged messages since the review came out. I thanked him for it. He has been kind and supportive of my book. Was Dan critical of several key elements? Yes. Devastating? Hardly. He also called the book “fascinating,” “thoughtful,” and “important,” and says it deserves to be “widely read.” But as with any piece of writing, people will focus on what they want to focus on, and that’s just the way of the world.

    Do I have a lot of internalized homophobia, Wayne? I don’t see how you’re in a solid position to make that kind of diagnosis, especially not having read the book. I am not a shouter, neither in my writing or in my speech. Perhaps some people mistake the absence of strident words as the absence of critique when it comes to the things that are on the anti-gay side of the spectrum (Westboro, Exodus). The critiques are there; I am pretty clear that I disagree with them. But I make a conscious choice not to overplay my opposition, because I think most of my readers are smart enough to see that folks like Fred Phelps and some of the Exodus folks damn themselves with their own words. It’s not necessary, or particularly good or helpful writing, for me to pile on.

  15. Anna Cook says:

    Mont,

    Please don’t put words in my mouth. I have never said, nor do I feel, that my elders within the queer community are “crippled victims, irrationally frightened, needlessly angry, [and] blocking [my] efforts to understand history.” As an historian, I honor the complex and personal reasons that individuals may or may not choose to tell their stories (and to whom, in what context). I also mourn the way in which structural oppression and individual anti-gay words and actions have harmed in the past and continue to harm many individuals. This is not a situation in which previous generations suffered and current generations are somehow magically no longer targets of hatred and discrimination. We are all in this together, working toward a more inclusive future, and I don’t think it is fair or accurate of you to judge me for sentiments I never actually expressed.

  16. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    Please forgive my typos. I am glad that you find Dan’s review of your book positive. Most readers did not find it so. The blogosphere is full of reactions to the review, every one of which considers it negative. Indeed, many supporters of your book have launched vicious attacks on Dan for the review, while many others applaud Dan for what they perceive as a devastating take-down of the book. Having grown up in a homophobic Southern Baptist Church, I know the depth of hatred and intolerance that church fosters.

  17. Jeff Chu says:

    I’ve defended Dan against some of those vicious attacks, which I think are less from the people you label my “supporters” and more from people who just don’t like Dan and think that the NYTimes shouldn’t have chosen an atheist to review the book. (That’s an argument I disagree with, by the way. He was a good choice.) I’m not sure what blogosphere you’re reading, because most of what I’ve read has come away with a more nuanced understanding of the review—and of my book—than you have.

    But here’s a broader and relevant point: I’m not interested in driving people farther to the extremes, whether in their evaluations of the book or in the bigger discussion about equality and faith. We’ve done far too much of that already. I believe we can have a more gracious conversation, rooted in understanding the very diverse journeys of gays and lesbians who either once called themselves followers of Jesus or still do. That’s what I am trying to do with the book—to bring some of these stories to light and to encourage discussion that is more fully informed by the humanity and the struggle of people across the theological spectrum to love as best they can.

    That’s not a conversation that will be palatable to everyone—and this book won’t either. I get that. But I’m eager to those of you who would like to continue having a gracious conversation about a difficult and emotionally fraught topic, and I’m grateful to Anna for creating the space for that with her thoughtful post and follow-ups.

  18. Anna Cook says:

    Folks,

    I ask you all to be gracious hosts in this space toward the author of this book who has taken the time to respond to some of the anger expressed about the book project (from people who, as far as I can tell, have not actually read the book yet — correct me if I’m wrong). Passionate discussion is one thing; trashing someone’s work sight-unseen is another.

    I will be away from the Internet this afternoon, but will check back in on this conversation tonight. Please be mindful of the FSB civility policy and do your best to express strong sentiments in a respectful fashion.

  19. Teresa says:

    Jeff, I have not read your book, but I’m anxious to get it from my local library. At the moment, it’s expected later in May.

    However, I really get the point about the generational divide. Age, at least for this issue, is a biggie. A 30-year-old today will have a pretty different experience and picture of what being gay means, than a 50-year-old.

    I’m hoping you’ll give me some insight from your experience of writing this book on this following question. Personalizing the question first: I’m an older, Catholic, single, gay woman who has chosen celibacy. With that frame of reference, Jeff, I’m wondering what your field experience is of this choice? Is it percolating? Growing? Dying? Spoken about, at all? Seen as anti-gay?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, if any, Jeff.

    BTW, thank you for participating in this Conversation.

  20. Diane M says:

    By the way, Anna Cook, I love that you ask the question who would I recommend this book to? It’s really the most important question but one that book reviews often skip.

  21. Jeff Chu says:

    Teresa, there’s one chapter in the book about a man who has chosen to be celibate for the past 30 years. In more conservative circles (mostly Evangelical but also some Catholic), there’s a growing feeling that one can embrace the word “gay” and also the word “celibate,” whereas in the past, the former had to be either downplayed or not discussed altogether. There’s also more and more talk about the church’s idolatry of marriage and neglect of holy singleness. I think from the outside, this kind of thing has often been seen as anti-gay and as repression, but the fact is, many of the people who are talking about it and living it are the opposite of what I would describe as repressed, because they openly talk about their sexual orientation and about their desires. They simply believe that those desires come second (or not even) in their lives, and they think that their allegiance to God and to a certain theology requires them to set aside sexual activity.

    Wesley Hill, an evangelical who is now in the Anglican Church, wrote a book called “Washed and Waiting” a couple of years ago about why he has chosen celibacy. It’s not a bad read, even if I disagree with some of the conclusions. Wes is thoughtful.

    Celibacy is an incredibly difficult choice to make, rendered harder, of course, by the reactions of others in society. It’s difficult to understand. Often, internalized homophobia is diagnosed by others, sometimes unfairly. It can be lonely (although it doesn’t have to be). But during my reporting, I came to understand why some people make it, and once I spent time talking to those folks, it was difficult to disrespect their thought processes and their desire to do right.

  22. Diane M says:

    @Wayne Wilkinson – I don’t think that’s true. “celibacy is an unnatural choice that stunts one’s life and personality.”

    Celibacy is of course a choice and it involves going against part of human nature. However, it is certainly natural in the sense that it is possible for humans to do it.

    Because we have effective birth control, we forget that people have limited their sexual activity in the past. Intelligence and self-control are also part of human nature.

    It is not a choice I would make and I am sure it is very, very hard, just not “unnatural.”

  23. Anna Cook says:

    I see someone has already moderated Wayne’s last comment. Thank you.

    I think it is important to distinguish between a personal decision to remain celibate (either for part or all of one’s life; many, many people refrain from sexual activities for the short- and medium-term as well as making a life-long commitment) and the decision to advocate for that as a requirement for a certain group of people.

    It’s one thing to feel called to a life of celibacy; it’s another to argue that ALL those with same-sex attractions should not act upon their desires.

    I will speak up in defense of anyone who freely chooses NOT to engage in sexual intimacy in the same sense in which I advocate for the freedom of non-coerced, consenting adults to engage in the sexual intimacies of their choice together.

  24. Teresa says:

    Thanks so much, Jeff, for a very kind and thoughtful response to my question.

    I’m very much taken with this sentence of yours:

    There’s also more and more talk about the church’s idolatry of marriage and neglect of holy singleness.

    I’m not sure, Jeff, I’d use the words “church’s idolatry”, necessarily, because I think that marriage was what most people chose for their life. So, it needs more attention, in my opinion. What I do find troubling is the almost total lack of attention and appreciation for the single state. Near half of America is in some state of singleness, today … transitional or permanent … with or without children.

    I know it’s a relatively new phenomenon, socially; but, the Churches need to acknowledge and address this in a meaningful way to reach out to a no longer insignificant population sitting in their pews.

    Thanks again, Jeff, for your response.

  25. Diane M says:

    If anyone wants to take down my comment where I refer to an offensive comment, that is fine with me. I don’t want to inadvertently repeat the comment that shouldn’t be there.

  26. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    So it is fine for the Roman Catholic Church and its adherents to say that I am unnatural and disordered, but I am not allowed to say something as obvious as that lifelong celibacy is not natural? I have no desire to prevent anyone from making any personal decision they may want to make, but surely the question of celibacy is an issue that can be discussed critically.

  27. Anna Cook says:

    Wayne,

    I don’t actually think it’s “fine” for people to tell specific queer people that our desires are “unnatural and disordered.” And I would similarly challenge anyone on this thread who was making those claims about us. In this instance, it is you making the argument that choosing not to have sex is inherently lesser than choosing to have sex. Particularly in the context of Teresa’s question to Jeff and Jeff’s answer, your assertion was not productive to further conversation.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “surely the question of celibacy …can be discussed critically”? Certainly we can discuss the history of celibacy as a requirement and/or type of (non)sexual practice. But you were not opening up a conversation about celibacy as one of many types of sexual decision-making practices. You were claiming, pre-emptively, that anyone making such a choice was lesser. To me, that is not a civil comment, nor one inviting further discussion. If you wish to rephrase your question(s) about celibacy in a more open-ended way that does not stack the deck in terms of answers, then you are welcome to ask where celibacy fits within human sexual diversity.

  28. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    I have no interest in criticizing anyone’s personal choices, but there is a body of psychological literature about celibacy and its psychological consequences. In addition, there is a political dimension, as I thought was clear in my deleted post, where homosexuality is described as “unnatural” by people who have choices that many of us would consider far more unnatural. Another part of this political dimension is the charge that homosexuality is dangerous because it does not lead to procreation. Less sophisticated people who push this argument say that if ssm is permitted the species will die out. Ironically, these people do not seem to realize that celibacy, which they recommend, is also non-procreative. Indeed, some religious sects that have embraced celibacy as an ideal have done just that. Surely, celibacy is not a very viable family structure. I do not have any desire to ban it, however, only to discuss it in a critical way rather than in the language of piety.

  29. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Surely, celibacy is not a very viable family structure. I do not have any desire to ban it, however, only to discuss it in a critical way rather than in the language of piety.

    The Cathars of southern France actually saw an *increase* in the birth rate during the years that they held sway (in spite of holding that celibacy was the ideal and that procreation was, at least at some level, immoral).

    I don’t think there’s anything remotely unnatural about celibacy, and I think you’re using a different sense of what ‘natural law’ means than the sense that the Scholastics used it. I also don’t think it should be *required* of anyone, but I have the greatest admiration for anyone, gay or heterosexual, who chooses it. Having said that, you certainly have the right to be critical of celibacy, just as we have the right to be critical of any other sexual choices someone might make, and I wouldn’t call you uncivil for doing so.

  30. Wayne Wilkinson says:

    Thank you, Hector. The Shakers and other Millennarian groups were not as fortunate as the Cathars. Perhaps because they actually practiced celibacy, rather than merely recommending it to others. They died out.

    We disagree in that I do believe a deliberate choice of lifelong celibacy is unnatural. I have no desire to prevent anyone from making such a choice in part because since so few people do, it has little social consequence. Howevwe, i do not think that it should be sentimentalized in the way it often is in religious discussions. Nor do I think it should be exempt from criticism as a controversial choice. (I note by the way that many Catholics have criticized the celibacy requirement for the priesthood on the grounds that it often has negative consequences.)

  31. Jeff Chu says:

    Teresa, to clarify: The term “idolatry” is something that was used by others in interviews that I did. Several people I interviewed, both gay and straight, said that they wished that their churches did not place marriage on such a pedestal that they felt like lesser people either because they haven’t yet found the right person to marry or because they have chosen a life of singleness. And more than once, *they* felt that the premium placed on marriage was elevated to the level of idolatry. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I would agree that church cultures—like any cultures—typically favor people who fit the norms.

  32. Myca says:

    Personalizing the question first: I’m an older, Catholic, single, gay woman who has chosen celibacy. With that frame of reference, Jeff, I’m wondering what your field experience is of this choice? Is it percolating? Growing? Dying? Spoken about, at all? Seen as anti-gay?

    Speaking for myself only, I would distinguish between choosing celibacy and teaching that celibacy is the only moral option.

    I don’t think there’s anything anti-gay in your choosing celibacy, and I think that people who give you crap over it need to back off, because life is hard, and we all have our own choices to make.

    I think there’s something very anti-gay in teaching that celibacy is the only moral choice for gay people to make, because life is hard, and we all have our own choices to make.

    —Myca

  33. Mont D. Law says:

    (I don’t think there’s anything anti-gay in your choosing celibacy, and I think that people who give you crap over it need to back off, because life is hard, and we all have our own choices to make.)

    (I think there’s something very anti-gay in teaching that celibacy is the only moral choice for gay people to make, because life is hard, and we all have our own choices to make.)

    These two statements are weird and conflicting to me. Everybody should be completely free to order their sexuality pretty much any way they want. No one should get grief about it. But if gay people make a choice to be celibate based on the anti-gay teachings of their church how can that decision itself not be anti-gay?

  34. Kevin says:

    Abstinence, I get. Celibacy, I totally don’t get. I think the person who takes a vow of celibacy ought to take a good hard look at why he or she would make such a choice, given the enormous paid for doing so.

  35. Kevin says:

    “…enormous PRICE paid….” I mean

  36. fannie says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I’m a guest blogger here as well, and I’ve been on vacation so I haven’t had a chance to comment on Anna’s review until now. But, I’m glad you stopped by to engage commenters about your book!

    I also look forward to reading it myself, as I make my way through the books currently in my queue of books to read. And, because I haven’t read your book yet, I feel unqualified at the moment to comment on it from a substantive standpoint. (However, I have read Dan Savage’s review and would agree with you that it’s a more nuanced and mixed review than “devastating.”)

    I am hopeful that your book presents a more nuanced view to the so-called “culture wars” surrounding homosexuality. I’ve been in many conversations about homosexuality that involve people literally summing up the conversation as “the gay side” versus “the Christian side,” which I think is inaccurate and unfortunate (and it sounds from reviews of your book, and from what I’ve read of your own experience, that you would agree).

    Regarding the conversation on celibacy –

    I’m going to refrain from sharing my opinion on whether gay people choosing celibacy is anti-gay. Teresa has made it very clear in past conversations that people expressing their honest opinions about what does and doesn’t constitute anti-gay-ness or bigotry, even when she directly solicits their opinion, makes her feel unwelcome in this forum.

    I guess all I will say on that point is, I support her (and everyone’s) right to choose celibacy for herself.

  37. Anna Cook says:

    Kevin writes:

    Abstinence, I get. Celibacy, I totally don’t get.

    I will just briefly point out that “celibacy,” as Jeff discusses some in his book, is something of a moving target depending on the tradition and context we’re talking about. Generally speaking, it’s colloquially understood to be a state of being unmarried and abstaining from relational sex. It also has very strong associations with intentionality and religious vows. Priests and nuns pledging celibacy, for example — although historically that could sometimes mean simply a state of non-marriage and not sexual inactivity. Sometimes solitary sexual activity is explicitly included in the understanding of what is forbidden, but not always.

    In most religious structures I’ve had any interaction with, the call to celibacy is taken very seriously and DOES come after a long period of discernment. It is NOT taken lightly. And, building on this framework, I would assume that queer celibate folk who are approaching their celibacy from a religious perspective will have thought long and hard about that decision.

    It is interesting to me that modern-day calls for people with same-sex desires to be “celibate” come without an actual religious framework for such an activity (unless those people choose to enter a religious order). I wonder how formalized such decisions are, and how much discernment mentoring (?) and oversight those folks have — analogous to having monks and nuns overseeing one’s process of taking orders.

    I would hope, for both religious and personal health reasons, that those who are contemplating celibacy as a calling for their lives have mentors and some way to formally consider and mark that decision for themselves. (Perhaps this is just my penchant for rites and rituals!)

  38. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Abstinence, I get. Celibacy, I totally don’t get.

    See, I actually think I ‘get’ choosing celibacy as a lifelong vocation more than I do choosing abstinence until marriage. I mean, I can see the reasoning why people would choose each one. But if the arguments for celibacy are valid, then celibacy is something to be valued *for its own sake*, not just a stage you go through prior to marriage.

    Re: I wonder how formalized such decisions are, and how much discernment mentoring (?) and oversight those folks have — analogous to having monks and nuns overseeing one’s process of taking orders.

    I do know a few lay celibates, who took vows of celibacy under the mentorship of a friend of theirs (a celibate Episcopal priest of my acquaintance). I’m not sure of any of their sexual orientations, but I doubt that all of them were gay. It does happen- and I’d agree with you that it isn’t something to be taken lightly.

  39. Victor says:

    Jeff Chu,

    Looking forward to reading your book. To continue this topic of celibacy, I wonder if you talked about the fact that despite some people agreeing to the celibacy requirement, we hear about policies for “weeding out” gay priests in the seminaries and the continuing scapegoating of the same people for the molestation scandals… Or, for those on the Protestant side of it, I remember a year or two ago there was an article in NYTimes about a priest, who had no hope of finding a pulpit because he was single. (The article and the photo seemed to me to imply he may have been gay.) So, I’m seeing this as a similar sort of thing.

    Thank you.

  40. Teresa says:

    Fannie said:

    Teresa has made it very clear in past conversations that people expressing their honest opinions about what does and doesn’t constitute anti-gay-ness or bigotry, even when she directly solicits their opinion, makes her feel unwelcome in this forum.

    I’ve missed your commenting, Fannie, and wondered where you were. Glad you’re back from vacation.

    Actually, I’ve sorted through that issue of bigotry and the feeling of being unwelcome in this forum. That was my personal response, and certainly not that others told me I was unwelcome here. Quite the contrary was the case. Fannie, no need to parse what you say in your comments.

  41. Kevin says:

    “See, I actually think I ‘get’ choosing celibacy as a lifelong vocation more than I do choosing abstinence until marriage. I mean, I can see the reasoning why people would choose each one. But if the arguments for celibacy are valid, then celibacy is something to be valued *for its own sake*, not just a stage you go through prior to marriage. ”

    I can understand someone abstaining for some reason, such as saving oneself for marriage or because one has a communicable disease. But categorically denying oneself access to sex makes no sense to me. What purpose is served? It is one of life’s great pleasures, it’s a marvelous connection to our least inhibited selves, it is part of any intense relationship, and on and on. You might as well say you refuse to fall in love, or you refuse to use any of your allotted vacation days! It seems like meaningless self-denial. I don’t see the virtue or value in it.

  42. Diane M says:

    Technical point here – the Cathars saw celibacy as a higher way to live and advocated it for their more advanced members. However, ordinary members could marry and have sex. In addition, you could raise a family and then become celibate later on.

    Anyhow, that is why the did not die out.

  43. Matt N says:

    While I do think there’s some complexity in Dan Savage’s review, just from Jeff Chu’s comments here I think Anna Cook probably “grokked” the book a bit better. At one point Savage lays all his cards out and says that surveys have “found that huge numbers of young people were abandoning organized religion. One of the reasons these Millennials gave was the perception that Christianity is antigay. But while Chu is gentle with gay people who are working to reconcile their sexualities and their faiths — straining in some cases to do so — he is far less generous to those of us who are no longer believers.”

    Anyone with a passing familiarity with Savage can see where this is going. He’s missed the point of Chu’s book, which is an examination of all of the different ways people do and don’t conceptualize queer sexualities and Christianities (yes, plural) coexisting. Savage didn’t want a description, he wanted a prescription.

    I haven’t read “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” so I won’t speak to his allegations of bias, but that actually strikes me as ancillary to Savage’s disagreement with Chu (although, of course, I’m just an observer here, so I’ll let Chu chime in and say this is all bunk if he so wishes).

    As for the charges of internalization, I think we’re all carefully sidestepping the elephant in the room here: almost everyone in this conversation was raised by straight people. Even the few of us who weren’t were still raised within a culture that could be described as heteronormative, that is where behaviors, values, and ideas perceived as heterosexual were valued and treated as more reasonable and normal than alternatives. I’d say pretty much everyone in this thread is struggling to overcome those experiences. In some sense we’ve all internalized at least some homophobia.

    A better conversation to have is whether a certain action is actually perpetuating homophobia. We’ve kind of come around to that discussion in the comments, but I just want to draw attention to that to keep it that way.

  44. fannie says:

    Teresa,

    Thanks for clarifying.

    Matt N.,

    I think you raise a good point, in acknowledging that most of us (all of us?) have been raised in culture that privileges heterosexuality and is biased against homosexuality, and that therefore “a better conversation to have is whether a certain action is actually perpetuating homophobia.”

    I think your point also relates to a point Barry has made here, somewhat controversially (although I agree with him), that we all likely possess bigoted beliefs, and that the key is being mindful of that and recognizing when those beliefs are perpetuating harm.

    People don’t make their choices a vacuum, devoid of social contexts and pressures. For instance, in the case of a gay person choosing celibacy, many people seem to make that choice, in part at least, precisely because their religious beliefs teach that gay sex is sinful.

    So, even as I support people’s right to choose celibacy, it’s difficult for me not to see that choice as at least partially coerced by anti-gay religious teachings. That, in fact, seems to be freely admitted, even if people might get hung up on calling those beliefs “anti-gay.”

  45. Matt N says:

    Fannie: “So, even as I support people’s right to choose celibacy, it’s difficult for me not to see that choice as at least partially coerced by anti-gay religious teachings. That, in fact, seems to be freely admitted, even if people might get hung up on calling those beliefs ‘anti-gay.’

    I share that perspective, but I think that it’s important to question what the appropriate response to the coercive attitudes would be. I don’t want to present anti-Muslim sentiment as something easily compared to anti-LGBT* sentiment, but the various laws surrounding the wearing of hijab seem pertinent here.

    There absolutely are women who are coerced, even within European countries, into wearing the hijab, arguably against their will. That’s a destructive, terrible reality that should be acknowledged and addressed. But the response to those instances by the French and Dutch governments has so far been blanket bans on wearing the hijab in certain public spheres. It’s hard to view that as a challenge to the coercive environments many Muslim women find themselves in rather than another layer of coercion they have to navigate. It’s not a solution to the difficulties of some hijabis but an additional problem all of them have to face.

    So I think when it comes to identities that are policed (whether as gendered bodies or queer sexualities), it’s important to identify and address the coercion, rather than focus on the specific self presentation or behaviors that were being promoted. To be clear – I think you’ve very clearly avoided that pitfall. I just wanted to point that out as a general issue.

  46. fannie says:

    Matt N,

    I agree with you, and I like your comparison. I don’t think that passing laws that take away people’s choices is an adequate response to not liking that people make choices due to coercion (or that they make choices that may comply with their own oppression).

  47. Matthew Kaal says:

    I wonder, Matt N., if growing up in a heteronormative environment (which most of us have) necessarily translates to viewing non-heteronormative relationships and expressions negatively or with fear (you use the term homophobia), but rather simply as non-normative. Is the value judgement always implied?

    Fannie and Matt N. -

    I appreciate your points, but I wonder if noting that one’s actions are informed by one’s culture and background, by one’s relation to family and community, by one’s values and conceptualization of metaphysics and so forth – can fairly be reduced to an experience of coercion. Certainly these factors are powerful influences on any decision calculus, but not necessarily the most powerful or compelling.

    To imply that gay Christians choosing celibacy as part of their faith practice are being coerced seems to strip them of any real agency in that choice. Saying they are coerced into their choice, into complying with their own oppression, seems to suggest that they haven’t freely wrestled with and come to a reasoned conclusion about the choices they want to make. It reduces them to victims of their circumstances instead of empowering their voices.