July is almost over, and we’re finally getting around to our monthly resource review. More than one reader suggested that we review Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?, and we agreed heartily that it would be an interesting resource to discuss on our blog. After snagging a signed copy at the 2013 National Book Festival, we’ve been reading it slowly over a period of months. We had originally planned to publish this review the week after the Gay Christian Network had announced Chu as a speaker for its 2015 conference. But we decided to take some extra time to reread parts of the book, and we’re glad that we did. We found it an enjoyable read, and are excited to hear Chu speak (and hopefully meet him!) in Portland this coming January.
As usual, we will keep most of our thoughts related to our two focus questions for every review we write: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?
Does Jesus Really Love Me? is a different sort of resource than others we have reviewed so far. It neither takes a theological position on LGBT sexual ethics nor offers pastoral guidance for discussing LGBT issues within Christianity. Instead, it tells the stories of several people with different levels of involvement in the conversation. One of the book’s greatest strengths is the level of respect with which it treats each story. Chu is incredibly compassionate, even when taking on interviews with members of Westboro Baptist Church. It’s clear that in writing this book, Chu needed to step as much as possible outside his own assumptions in order to honor his interviewees’ experiences. Of course it is impossible for any writer to ignore his or her biases entirely, but as we read and remained on the lookout for an overt or hidden agenda, we couldn’t find one — unless you count “share people’s life experiences and perspectives on sexuality and Christian spirituality in America.” Celibate LGBT Christian readers, who often face harsh judgments from both liberals and conservatives, will likely find Chu’s empathic approach refreshing.
Another impressive aspect of Does Jesus Really Love Me? is Chu’s appreciation for the process of coming to terms with one’s sexuality and spirituality. From beginning to end, this book conveys the reality that the concerns of LGBT Christians in America extend far beyond the question of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful, and that no one comes to a place of reconciliation on every possible issue immediately after coming out. Celibate LGBT readers will likely appreciate this point because it opposes the increasingly prominent message that reconciling faith and sexuality is as simple as reading and accepting (or reinterpreting) six Bible verses. The book’s four major divisions — Doubting, Struggling, Reconciling, and Hoping — speak to stages that most LGBT Christians experience in different seasons of life.
One of the more obvious ways that Does Jesus Really Love Me? will appeal to celibate LGBT readers is its treatment of celibacy in Chapter 8. Chu begins the chapter with a brief discussion of Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, which leads into his interview with fifty-seven-year-old Kevin Olson of Minnesota. We were impressed by the way Chu frames this chapter generally, but also had some reservations about how it fits into the book’s overall narrative. Like most people involved in the conversation about Christianity and LGBT issues, Chu seems aware of the assumption that celibacy is just a layover on the way to self-acceptance and sexually active relationships. But unlike those who disparage LGBT celibacy as a temporary state that rarely lasts and almost always leads to despair, Chu has decided to explore the questions: “What are the effects of this kind of long-term chastity? What would life look like for the homosexual who, in his relative youth, chose this?” (p. 180). These are necessary questions for discussing issues around long-term celibacy: its sustainability, its emotional impact, and its meaning for those who choose it and those who do not. We were glad to see Chu’s interest in learning about these aspects of celibacy.
Chu tells Kevin’s story with integrity. He speaks to his respect for Kevin’s faith and asserts that Kevin taught him much about celibacy, particularly that it is a continual series of choices rather than a one-time commitment. He also does a fantastic job of using elements of Kevin’s story to describe how quickly people both inside and outside Christianity reject celibate (and non-celibate) LGBT Christians. However, there are elements of Kevin’s story that some readers might interpret as evidences that celibacy is necessarily oppressive, and is at least tangentially related to the ex-gay movement. For example, Chu chose to include that Kevin considers himself “homosexually oriented” rather than “gay” because in Kevin’s eyes, the term gay means acceptance of a sexually active way of life. He also makes mention of the fact that Kevin’s father did not treat him affectionately. Though we have no doubt that these bits of Kevin’s story are true, we wonder if Chu was aware that they might be interpreted as a statement that all LGBT celibates are really operating from within an ex-gay framework. It doesn’t help matters that Kevin’s story appears in the “Doubting” section — the same major division of the book where Chu interacts with Exodus International. We realize that only so many stories can be included in a work such as this, but we wonder why Chu opted to showcase only one celibate person and why he chose a man who admittedly lives the life of a solitary and does not identify as gay. It seems to us that other narratives of celibates who do identify as LGBT and lead lives full of rich interpersonal connectedness would have fit within the scope of Chu’s project, and would have provided a helpful complement to Kevin’s story.
Though the stories Chu tells come almost exclusively from evangelical Protestantism and rarely from any other Christian context, we felt encouraged by the book’s overall message that sharing one’s story as an LGBT Christian is a good thing. Not only does Chu show compassion and respect for all the people he interviews, but he seems genuinely interested in knowing all the details of their stories and how they got to the points in life where they were at the times of their interviews. He’s willing to learn from everyone, and we see that attitude so infrequently when interacting with culture war topics. Though Chu is a non-celibate LGBT Christian, as we read Does Jesus Really Love Me? we sensed that he is the sort of person who would offer encouragement to celibates interested in sharing their stories. Throughout the chapters, he models vulnerability by offering pieces of his own journey of faith and loss of faith and using what he has learned from the interviewees as opportunities for introspection. His writing sends a clear message that LGBT voices in Christianity matter, and that sharing one’s personal experience is helpful both to the sharer and the listeners. Chu seems to believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on the planet, and there’s a lesson in that for all of us celibate LGBT Christians who speak publicly on matters of faith and sexuality.
Despite some minor quibbles, we had great fun reading this book and believe it makes a meaningful contribution to the current conversation. We recommend it to all our friends and readers, regardless of sexual orientation or approach to sexual ethics. If you haven’t had much personal experience with LGBT Christians, you should definitely read Chu’s work. If you are an LGBT Christian, you might read it and find yourself inspired to tell your own story.
Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.