DOES JESUS REALLY LOVE ME?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. By Jeff Chu. New York: Harper Collins Books, 2013. 353 pages.
The closet is emptying. There may still be much prejudice against gays and lesbians in America, but times are changing. Being gay no carries the stigma it did just a few years ago. Even churches are catching up, though ever so slowly. Marriage equality is moving slowly across the country and could (momentarily) gain support from the Supreme Court. Politicians are switching sides on the issue. We are at a transformative moment, but the conversation continues. People are still wrestling with what all of this means for them. There’s resistance, but it’s crumbling. We don’t know what the future looks like, but it appears that in the course of years being gay will no longer carry that stigma of the past. Marriage equality, and all the rights attendant to marriage, will no longer be an issue. Even churches will be ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. The question is how do we get there?
Many books have been written of late that explore the biblical and cultural and theological aspects of homosexuality. It’s clear that, at least on a surface reading, the Bible speaks against homosexual practice. It doesn’t speak of orientation, because such an understanding wasn’t in existence at the time. There aren’t that many texts to deal with, but they seem to offer clarity, but is this true? Is there more to the story than what we seem to think. Could new information help us to see things differently? Books by Walter Wink, William Stacy Johnson, and my friend Steve Kindle take up that side of things.
As helpful as these studies are, I’m convinced that it is personal stories that transform our understandings. Senator Rob Portman, a Republican who had opposed marriage equality, changed his mind. Why? His son is gay and seeks to be married. Portman’s story isn’t unique. A key administrator and professor at my seminary came out in support because his daughter is a lesbian. I changed my mind, or at least took a new look at the issue, when my brother came out. Since my cousin and my wife’s cousin are gay, we have plenty of family to help us think this through.
Into the mix of stories comes Jeff Chu’s new book Does Does Jesus Really Love Me? Chu is a journalist and a Christian. He’s also gay. He is the grandson of a Chinese Southern Baptist preacher, who imbibed the biblical story from his grandparent’s knees. He also learned many songs, and the one that stood with him over time was “Jesus loves me.” The question that Chu raises in poignant fashion is – if I’m gay is this true?
This wonderfully written book tells an account of a journey, a pilgrimage, that Chu takes across America, seeking an answer to that question. He goes to many different places. He goes to places like the Metropolitan Community Churches, a predominantly gay fellowship of churches, where he finds great acceptance, but he also finds it lacking in biblical/spiritual depth. He also goes to places you wouldn’t expect, places like Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Westboro is known for its hate-filled rhetoric, but we learn that this church is composed of real human beings, who believe (wrongly in Chu’s mind and my mind) that they are doing God’s work. Their rhetoric sounds hateful, but they believe (wrongly) that it is an act of love of neighbor.
Chu takes this pilgrimage as both a Christian – he is a member of a Reformed Church of America in New York – and as a journalist. It’s the latter identity that allows him to go places a non-journalist couldn’t. It gives him access to people, including Fred Phelps, that wouldn’t engage with a Christian gay activist. That journalistic background, however, also gives him perspective into the hows and whys of our disagreements on this increasingly volatile issue in society.
So, off we go on this journey that crisscrosses the country. Along the way we meet up with many persons and communities that stand in between the two poles of Westboro and the MCC. We meet people who are struggling with their own identities and families that are trying to make sense of what they’ve learned about their children and siblings. We encounter stories of places like Harding University, a conservative Church of Christ university that has strongly opposed the inclusion of gays, and yet it faces its own reality that there are gays on campus and faculty that are supportive. Chu visits with people from Exodus International, a group that at least in the past was a strong proponent of reparative therapy. We learn that there is disagreement within the organization as to whether it is possible to change, and the stories of those who have left. He visits with people from the Evangelical Covenant Churches, a small evangelical denomination in which I once thought about pursuing ordination. Ironically it was its looseness on baptism that deterred me, but it’s the ethos of agreeing to disagree that is present in this faith community that is allowing some conversation about this issue.
Interspersed with the primary chapters are a series of personal stories – some of which are summaries of interviews and at other times testimonies. One of the more interesting is the interview with Ted Haggard, who is seeking to emerge from the darkness of his own fall from grace. There is in this interview a sense of denial and yet struggle with identity. In addition there is a series of email conversations with a young gay Christian named Gideon Eads. He’s clear on his identity, but fearful of being discovered (or revealing) that truth to his conservative Christian parents. For his part, Gideon is a conservative, bible believing Christian himself, but he also recognizes his identity. That conversation leads to the final chapter, where Chu meets with Gideon for an interview. We get a sense of the depth of faith, the struggle with identity, and the hopefulness of a different future.
As with Justin Lee’s book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, (Chu visits with Lee and describes Lee’s Gay Christian Network), Chu offers a gentle, generous, invitation to rethink our understandings of what it means to be gay and Christian. There is hopefulness present in this book, but also some frustration. In the conclusion of the book, he shares his own concerns about the way the church at large is dealing with this question. Although he finds communities, like his own, and Highlands Church in Colorado, that bring together a strong commitment to the Christian faith along with openness and affirmation, he has strong concerns. He’s frustrated with pastors, whom he was raised to honor and respect, for their unwillingness – their cowardice – to take the lead on this question. He writes that he has “found pastors to be more sheep than shepherd” (p. 343). He notes that it was difficult to find pastors willing to even engage in an interview. He is concerned about gay Christians who fail to “get the nurture they hope for and need, and then find themselves marginalized from the family of faith, believing there is no place for them to fit in” (p. 344). He’s also concerned about our inability to communicate with each other. We find it difficult to truly speak of love and in love to each other. As he suggests, our words can either be bricks that form pathways or walls. Finally, there are the people, and it’s in the people he meets that he finds hope. But, if we are to move forward, we must understand what it means to be open and hospitable, or we will “continue to alienate and shut off conversation when we should be doing the opposite” (p. 344).
The reality in all of this is that we can’t think in monolithic or monochromatic ways about this important issue that has taken center stage in our country. Change is happening, even in more conservative communities and churches. Younger adults are by and large moving into support of full inclusion of gays and lesbians in society. The question is – where will the church end up?
As I noted at the top, this is a wonderfully written, poignant, compelling, and insightful book. It is, in my mind, a must read for all in the church. As we engage these stories of communities and individuals who struggle to make sense of our sexuality, we might come to a new understanding, one that is an expression of divine love. The title asks the question: “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” Chu believes that Jesus does love him, but the question is – does Jesus’ community love him? Who then is Jesus calling us to love? I must thank Jeff Chu for helping tell the story in a way that will hopefully lead us to a new day for church and society.