Book Review: Does Jesus Really Love Me?
By Vinh Do
Stories of faith and religious experiences are inherently risky. They end up sounding simplistic, cliché, irrelevant or extreme. Rare are the stories that make you sit up and take notice and rarer still are ones that move you.
Jeff Chu’s book on gay Christians, “Does Jesus Really Love Me?,” moves you in unexpected ways. He covers 28 cities in a search across America to interview gay men and women who — in spite of challenges and setbacks —choose to identify with Christianity.
Chu’s coverage is America and his territory is faith and sexual identity. This terrain is fraught with misunderstanding. For example, when people talk about sexual identity, do they conflate that with sex? What do Christians really know of sexual minorities, and what do sexual minorities really know of Christians? Both groups generally congregate on opposites sides of the fence. So how do you tell the story of those who live in both worlds? The author does it by telling unexpected stories of ordinary lives.
Take, for example, the story of a young man named Gideon Eads who lives in the small town of Kingman, Ariz. (population: less than 30,000), where the nearest gay bar is across the Nevada border. The truth is that frequenting gay bars is the furthest thing that gives Gideon joy. His study of the Bible, his self-awareness as a gay person, his solo hikes on the rocky formations outside his home and his assurance that he is a child of God give him joy. It could also be that he derives joy from baking and making fantastical cake creations such as those resembling the house in “Little House on the Prairie” or the characters out of “Toy Story.” His current experiment is making cakes in the shapes of spheres. The author flies to Arizona to interview this young man and ask what is it about this man that is so deviant that the town pastor and counselor would want to straighten him out. Both are literally asking him to study and pray his way out of gayness.
The author himself is gay and grew up in the Baptist tradition in Miami. He now lives in New York City and goes to a fairly liberal church within the denomination of the Reformed Church in America. He has dabbled in the Anglican Church when he lived in London while attending the London School of Economics. The gifts he brings to this book are his knowledge of Christian and Protestant America and his journalistic ability to elicit deeply personal stories from others and tell the stories in a way that holds up the integrity and the personhood of the person telling it. None of the stories in this book are trite and simplistic.
He recounts the story of married couple “Jake” and “Elizabeth” (the names are pseudonyms) who live in some undisclosed city in the United States. Jake is gay and Elizabeth is straight. Both wanted partners who would love God as fervently as the other. Jake doesn’t deny his homosexuality and yet wanted to live a Christian life. Elizabeth wanted a man of quality who was also God-abiding. Both got married, learned to enjoy sex with each other and are hoping for a first child. Described in these six sentences, you might not think they would have what it takes for a durable marriage. Yet in the chapter that was about them, Chu adopts the journalist’s curiosity and gives both space to voice their sides of the story. What you come away with is as a reader is a vague notion that, given time to see the whole story of people’s lives, you can see that what won’t work for others might just work for some.
The space that you give to develop a story and time you invest in knowing your interview subjects are both what exemplary journalists make. Chu does this, reports it and writes well. And intentionally or not, he may be demonstrating in his journalistic craft what is needed in the critical discussion about gays and Christianity today: the importance of seeing the whole story and the totality of a thing. It is simply not productive to separate the gay identity from the Christian one and the Christian identity from the gay one. God intends for lives to be integrated.
This book is neither a polemic nor a treatise of gay Christianity. It is a journalistic collection of mini-biographies of Christians who happen to be gay. And yet in getting his subjects to reveal their faith and their personhood, Chu manages to observe something about religion and it is this: God, the Church, and the people who go to church are not the same things. Simply put, God exists beyond the walls of churches, churches erect walls and people constantly flux in and out of both these entities. Some people posit that churches perpetuate themselves; others would say that it’s the people who define a church.
To that end, the story of Mary Glasspool paints the picture of how people can re-position a church. Mary Glasspool is Bishop Glasspool of Los Angeles. She is the first lesbian bishop in the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. She is second gay person chosen to this seat after Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Her placement to this powerful seat as a woman and as a lesbian has caused rifts of division across the Anglican world (of which the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. belongs). Chu has allowed certain people to speak in their own voices in parts of his book. She is one. She speaks simply and directly. As a woman in her time, she was among the few to be ordained. As a lesbian in today’s time, she continues to minister to the outer fringes of what is considered mainstream: she manages LGBT-related programs and faith works that reach across different religions in the diocese of Los Angeles. Being a woman and a lesbian is a challenge to the status quo. To her, it’s a question of church leaders going to where the people are — not vice versa.
It takes guts to talk about religion. It takes courage to talk about sexual orientation. It takes both to write a book about where religion encounters sexual orientation, and do it in a way that is respectful, truthful and inspiring. Jeff Chu manages to do this.