How Do Evangelical Churches Talk About Homosexuality?
Jeff Chu describes himself as gay, partnered, relatively politically conservative, and a member of a relatively liberal New York City congregation in a relatively conservative denomination (Reformed Church in America). He is far from his Southern Baptist upbringing but, once in a while, finds himself wondering "whether my homosexuality is my ticket to hell, whether Jesus would love me but for that, and how good a Christian could I be if I struggle to believe that God loves me at all." For Chu, and for many Christians of all sexual orientations, homosexuality is a "spiritual wedge issue," one of those topics or teachings that "gnaw at us and what faith we may have left."
Chu is also a journalist, and the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America (Harper Collins). The book chronicles a year-long pilgrimage devoted to exploring homosexuality in U.S. churches. On a more personal level, Chu is confronting "the ghosts who still haunt my heart." The book is a unique mix of journalism, memoir, and religious commentary, a style that is sometimes persuasive, but other times confusing, when journalist turns commentator, or spiritual seeker turns interviewer. He visited dozens of churches in various denominations, but all described are Protestant. He misses Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and most (but not all) Protestant mainline groups, favoring a wide variety of evangelical and/or conservative groups and people. He interviewed dozens of people, some of them everyday folk, others more in the public eye, including Ted Haggard, Jennifer Knapp, Mary Glasspool, and even Fred Phelps.
The book is organized in four parts: doubting, struggling, reconciling, and hoping. The first three seem to contain the Christians and churches that display that approach to homosexuality. "Reconciling" is clear enough as a category, but "doubting" and "struggling" seemed both to include Christians who find homosexuality to be contrary to God's will, and express that theology in various ways. The difference between "doubting" (doubting what?) and "struggling" (struggling with what?) isn't clear. It's also not clear why Westboro Baptist Church and Harding University (a conservative Christian college with a "queer underground") belong in the same category, nor in what respect Fred Phelps and his followers may be described as "doubting" (they express none whatsoever in their interviews with Chu). The fourth section of the book, "hoping", completes the story of Gideon Eads, a young Christian who chronicles his coming out in real time over the course of Chu's pilgrimage.
Part One describes churches and Christians from Tennessee, Maine, Kansas, and Arkansas, all of them confident that homosexuality is against God's will. That belief is expressed very differently, from Fred Phelps's hatred to Harding University's attempts to foster open, civil campus conversation. Chu's declaration of open-hearted spiritual pilgrimage falters here; his personal quest lacks stakes, other than emotional ones. He doesn't seem open to overhauling his theology, sexual orientation, personal life, or church affiliation, especially in response to conservative theology. This is fine, certainly, but the book's title and opening imply a deeper level of questioning than is evidenced in the narrative. This section reads more like a journalistic inquiry than personal pilgrimage, which works well enough; Chu is mostly even-handed in his descriptions of various Christians, and is able to facilitate long interviews and repeated interactions with people whose beliefs and actions are disagreeable or even aggressively offensive. Unfortunately, at times he can't resist referring to conservative beliefs or even individuals as "weird" or "bizarre," labels that he doesn't dole out to the group of "reconciling" churches and people.