After learning that my younger brother was gay, I was forced to think through my own understandings of homosexuality and my interpretation of scripture. What had once been abstract was now quite personal. Here I was, a pastor with an evangelical pedigree (even if I was on the progressive side of that movement), and though I opposed efforts to discriminate against gays in the broader society, that didn’t mean I supported the ordination of gays or gay marriage. There was, in my mind, a preponderance of evidence that ruled out such a reality. Not only did Scripture seem to rule out an active “gay lifestyle,” but nature itself seemed to be an important impediment to full acceptance. I wasn’t convinced that this was anything but a choice, and a wrong one at that. With this perspective, how should I respond? To say the least, things got turned upside down by this revelation.
My own evolution on this matter began that day nearly fifteen years ago, and one of the places I turned for help was Mel White’s book Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. What I found there was a profoundly personal testament offered by someone whose own coming out had been traumatic, but ultimately successful. This wasn’t a theoretical argument – it was personal – and it was even more personal because the author was the former pastor of a church I had attended during seminary, the very seminary that Mel had served as a faculty member not all that long before my arrival. Here was a committed evangelical, who had gotten married, had children, and had a successful career as a ghost-writer for important evangelical figures. His story is the story told by many who sought to deny feelings, but ultimately have to acknowledge them. I was impressed by his efforts to find a “cure,” even turning to electric shock therapy. Still, nothing worked, and eventually he concluded he was gay and that he had to live life as a gay man. This powerful narrative helped me approach the Scriptures and human life from a different perspective, and that helped me understand what my brother and millions of other gays and lesbians were experiencing.
I believe that Justin Lee’s book Torn can have the same impact for a new generation, as Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate did for an earlier one. And its publication comes at an opportune time, as our society seems to have reached a new threshold of acceptance of homosexuality, while a good part of the Christian community remains resistant. It appears at a time when the church is asking – where should we go? What stance should we take? These are important questions because the surveys suggest that younger generations are walking away from the church in part because they perceive it to be anti-gay. This perceived hostility has become a liability and a stumbling block to receiving the gospel.
Justin Lee’s book stands in the gap, offering what I would call a rather conservative defense of an open and affirming stance. Lee is no wild-eyed liberal who tosses aside the Bible and thinks the church is irrelevant. He loves both church and Bible. He acknowledges the complexity of the issue and the difficulty we have in resolving it in a faithful manner, but his story illuminates a pathway forward that will allow people of faith to welcome into their lives and churches, even as gays are allowed to emerge from closets built in large part by people of faith.
In the course of this thoughtful and well written narrative, we share in his journey from his youth in a conservative Southern Baptist Church that tried to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” He accepted this truism, but that made it difficult for him to come to grips with the reality of his same-gender attractions. Compounding his dilemma was the fact that he was deeply committed to his faith – so much so that he gained the nickname “God Boy,” because of his knowledge of Scripture and the Christian faith. It was clear that he was on a path to be a pastor or teacher in a Christian environment. He knew, therefore, a couple of things about homosexuality – the Bible called it a sin and that it was outside God’s parameters for appropriate sexual expression. He didn’t believe that God hated gays, just that that homosexual practice was sinful and wrong, and that his attraction to males had to be resisted. But, if this was true – that God didn’t want people to be gay, why did he have these desires? He tried everything to quell the desires but they didn’t go away. He reached out to pastors and then to his parents, who were – thankfully supportive even if they didn’t always approve. He dated, even contemplated getting married – surely that would solve the problem. His pastors directed him to ex-gay ministries that tried to cure him, but their efforts were profoundly unhelpful. He quickly recognized that the psychological principles upon which these ministries based their efforts were faulty. He didn’t fit their profile at all. He didn’t come from a broken home nor was he in conflict with his parents. They actually had a very good relationship. That didn’t keep these ex-gay leaders from trying to convince him that he had psychological issues, they just couldn’t prove their case. I think that Lee effectively demolishes the idea that one can be “cured” of homosexuality. One can suppress or deny feelings, but not be “cured.”
The struggle continued on into his college years, but he began to accept the reality that he was gay, even if he wasn’t certain how he should live with this reality. In the course of time he tried to bring evangelical Christians into conversation with gays and lesbians. He discovered that he had a story to tell and this story could be liberating for many. As he began to accept his being gay, he had to wrestle with the biblical story and the passages that seemed to speak against who he was. He was forced to deal with these texts and in a chapter entitled “Back to the Bible” he shares his interpretation of these texts, from the story of Sodom to Paul’s statements about natural intercourse. He takes what I would say is a careful and even conservative direction. He focuses on context and recognizes that to understand these texts we have to understand the entire biblical story. Unfortunately, his study of the texts didn’t answer all his questions. He remained confused and frustrated. He found potential explanations, but even these didn’t take away the perceived negativity. But it was the broader principles of love and grace that he found present in the biblical story that helped him move forward. He discovered that he couldn’t remain quiet, but had to take a step of faith and assist the church in becoming places of welcome and safety for those, like him, who are gay. The outcome of all of this was the formation of the Gay Christian Network, which started out as an Internet community space for gay Christians to gather and support each other. It has grown into a much larger 501 (c) (3) organization that is working to encourage gay Christians and build bridges. It’s not an easy task, but an important one none-the-less.
In a final chapter, “The Way Forward,” Lee offers seven words of wisdom for the journey: 1) Christians will have to show more grace to each other; 2) educate Christians; 3) Move away from the “ex-gay” approach; 4) recognize that celibacy isn’t the only option, but is a viable option that must be respected; 5) “shatter the myth that the Bible is anti-gay (my more liberal friends might struggle here, but if we’re to find a solution disparaging the Bible probably isn’t the best method); 6) “openly gay Christians must find their place throughout the church”; and we must, he writes, “learn how to effectively dialogue.” We must learn how to share our stories in non-threatening but meaningful ways. The question is – will we rise to the challenge? I believe we can and we must.
Justin Lee has written an extremely important book, one that needs to be read widely in the church. It’s readable, understandable, personal, thoughtful, and challenging. Yes, this is the kind of book one can share with persons struggling with the question of whether one can be gay and Christian at the same time. I don’t know that it will convince everyone, but I think those who come to this book with an open mind will go away with a new appreciation for how complex and important this conversation is to the lives of gays, their families, and to the church.