Saturday, June 29, 2013

Gay and Christian in a Changing America

Jeff Chu, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America

Society’s mass realignment regarding sexual identity and gay rights leaves religious believers in turmoil. If God’s Law is the same yesterday, today, and forever, how do we cope with a world whose morality looks more malleable? What does it even mean to believe in a transcendent, redeeming Lord as a gay American? As someone with one foot in each camp, journalist Jeff Chu set out to unpack the diverse answers.

Protestant theology believes all sins are equal in God’s sight. White lies make us as culpable as murder, because any sin puts us outside God’s grace. Yet in the early 21st Century, we’ve made homosexuality a litmus test of Christianity. While mainline denominations race to be the most inclusive, evangelicals double down on Levitical prohibitions, making homosexuality the great unforgivable sin. This theological absolutism boggles observers’ imaginations.

Early on, and incrementally throughout his narrative, Chu stresses that nobody reads Scripture “just as it is,” much less in an unbroken arc throughout history. Everybody brings their unique experiences and suppositions to the Bible, and the lessons we draw meld ourselves with the text. He demonstrates that passages in Leviticus, Romans, and elsewhere that demagogues claim have invariable meanings, in fact possess surprising shades of implication.

These differences become problematic when churches, or church leaders, claim one inviolable position, and brook no dispute among loving believers. Chu speaks with several fellow travellers who, unlike him, could no longer stomach belief when plagued by Christianity’s polar divisions. Some just became agnostic and abandoned the fight, while others—he cites the first gay ’zine at Arkansas’ largest Christian university—become outright adversarial.

Too often, we judge one another without first knowing one another. For instance, many Americans, even good Bible-believing Christians, see Westboro Baptist Church as a seething cauldron of blasphemy and pietistic evil. But when Chu sits down with Fred Phelps, he discovers a remarkably warm, affable grandfather with a quick laugh. Westboro’s actual religious motivations prove more complex, subtle, and markedly familiar than Chu could have ever predicted.

From across the sexuality divide, events prove even more remarkable. Jennifer Knapp, whose gospel folk-rock helped define Clinton-era pop Christianity, found herself an outcast when she couldn’t deny her inclinations any longer. This rejection has dug a trench between her and the Church, but she has found herself closer to God on the outside. And she’s provided many dedicated believers the chance to venture beyond their insular fortresses.

The lengths some Christians travel to reconcile Biblical faith with homosexuality become, at times, epic. Chu spends an extended sojourn with Exodus International, America’s largest ex-gay therapy organization. He witnesses a morass of moral and scientific contradictions, which demands the question: is this any better than nothing at all? (Months after Chu wrote these chapters, Exodus shuttered its doors and officially apologized for its own existence.)

But rather than fleeing the problem, some people, remarkably, make it work. Chu meets one husband and wife who’ve enjoyed several years of happy marriage and joint ministry, despite his professed homosexuality. (He claims no attraction to women overall, but intense attraction to his wife. He says.) Another man, after much prayer and contemplation, decided to simply remain celibate, no small decision in modern sex-obsessed culture.

Others believe nobody should have to make compromises on their identity, even when it makes traditionalists uncomfortable. Metropolitan Community Church, the largest denomination organized by and for gays, has grown to become a competitive force in American Christian discourse. But when Chu worships at MCC, he discovers: an explicitly gay church can inadvertently privilege “gay” over “church,” losing sight of their founding mission.

Why does anybody think they can define whom God excludes? As Chu notes, Jesus never dealt with homosexuality. But consider whom he considered worthy of his ministrations: tax collectors, Samaritans, widows, prostitutes, adulterers. Given the choice, Jesus shared his inmost secrets with those outside power, not those goody-two-shoes who claimed they had God’s direct line. If he came back tomorrow, Jesus might have many gay friends.

Chu’s wide-ranging exploration of gays and Christianity matters not for moddish concerns or Supreme Court decisions, but because how we treat “the least of these” counts. Future Christians will look back on our time and wonder, not whether we kept the letter of the Law, but if we upheld the spirit of the Gospel. And we need to decide what that means, soon. Because in these last days, God’s people too often think we know our Father’s mind, and have stopped listening for His voice.

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