A Review of Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu

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.

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16 thoughts on “A Review of Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu

        • Belinda, I think that’s an unfair characterization of a chapter that included the reality of my reporting on the MCC some criticism, and some praise. Does it hurt to see even a little bit of unpleasant commentary about one’s spiritual home, whether it be a church or a denomination or a religion? Yes. But I don’t believe it’s responsible journalism to ignore the unpleasant—and I don’t consider it good or compassionate to do so either.

        • When we read the chapter on the MCC (and all other chapters about churches and organizations), we thought the author did a good job of conveying his own experience and impressions while including negative experiences along with positive experiences. Every church has problems of one kind or another because we’re all human. We would agree with the author’s comment that it’s probably not the most honest approach to write only about positive experiences during a visit to a church. One thing that stands out to us about criticism offered about a church or Christian tradition is the criticism’s potential to be used in helpful ways to address problems that may be present. We don’t attend an MCC church so we can’t speak to anything about that tradition specifically, but we understand why it can be hurtful to hear negative impressions of one’s own Christian tradition. Belinda, do you see any ways that the MCC chapter in the book might be useful for people in your denomination to read?

          • I guess its good if that is happening and people know if and they can stop it happening again. My MCC church isn’t that way and it hurts to see bad stuff about the only church that made me feel love.

  1. Sarah and Lindsey, thanks again for this thoughtful critique of the book. I’m grateful for the many kind things you had to say about the work as well as the questions you raise, some of which I’d like to address.

    The most important thing for me to clarify is that I do not intend for Kevin—or any other person in the book—to “represent” an entire cohort. I hope that readers will understand that Kevin’s story is Kevin’s story—one man’s experience. There are lessons we can ALL take from each of these characters, but I’m relying on the reader to have some understanding for my challenge as a reporter. Do I wish there were more characters and hence more nuance? Yes, in this chapter and many others. But it would have made for an incredibly unwieldy and perhaps unreadable book for each chapter to say: And then there was Person B, who made choices C and D, and Person E, who chose C but not D, and Person F, who opted for options G and H.

    The book suffered from one major constraint: lack of time. (Also lack of time’s frequent and annoying companion, lack of money.) In all, I did more than 300 interviews over the course of about a year. I wish I had done 600 or even 900—I am a greedy journalist. But I couldn’t. Also, there were people who didn’t want to open up in the way Kevin was willing to. He was willing to tell his story, and he fit the main criterion for this chapter: he chose, decades ago, to be celibate. I’d venture to say that in twenty or thirty years, if I were to rewrite the book, I’d find many more eager candidates, but you have to concede that for his generation, well, the pool of potential characters was not ginormous. Anyway, his story struck me as compelling, thought-provoking, and humbling. (Oh, and regarding Kevin’s choice of terminology, I think it’s important to be empathetic here and understand that it’s probably largely a generational choice not to use the word “gay.” It meant something different when he was coming up.)

    One other point I want to address, and that’s the assertion that the stories in the book “come almost exclusively from evangelical Protestantism.” Well, I don’t know that this is fair. I have a chapter on the ELCA, a chapter on an Episcopal family (as well as Mary Glasspool’s testimony), a chapter on the MCC featuring a congregation that is definitely not evangelical, and folks from the PC-USA, UCC, Methodist, and other mainline backgrounds. (Catholics are totally underrepresented, though—I had trouble with the reporting there.) If there is more of an emphasis on evangelicalism, it’s partly—if not largely—because that’s where the primary fault lines in the church are right now. Reporters go where the drama and the tension are.

    Anyway, your sense of the intended takeaway is right on: Stories matter. We can argue about theology all day long—and people do! But what we need is gracious and genuine interaction, not the reciprocal volley of Bible verses and sniping about each other’s hermeneutics. To share one’s journey is important; to listen to others’ journeys even more so. It takes courage to be vulnerable as a storyteller and as a listener (and there is an enormous difference between being honest and being vulnerable), but to do so is the greatest gift we can give to one another, because I think it opens the door wide to nuance and humility and, most importantly, to grace.

      • No worries! Sometimes fingers can just get on a roll 🙂 We sincerely appreciate every bit of your feedback.

    • Hello! We’re excited that you’ve stopped by to comment. We feel honored that you chose to leave your perspective on our review.

      Regarding Kevin’s story, we understand it can be really tough to select material for exploring issues. We empathize with the challenge of managing huge writing projects: we’re both writing doctoral dissertations now. It’s so easy for a large project to become unmanageable. We were glad to see Kevin’s story, and we appreciate you seeking someone who had been living celibacy over a long haul. We constantly affirm that people should be able to tell their stories as their stories. We recently wrote a post as to why some people may prefer using terms like same-sex attracted that can be found at http://aqueercalling.com/2014/06/23/whats-in-a-name-lgbt-ssa-and-alphabet-soup/

      Thanks for calling us out on our use of “evangelical Protestant” in the review. It’s not always easy to tell whether certain mainline Protestants identify as evangelical because so many of them do, especially over the last few years. Nonetheless, your point is well taken.

      We appreciate you letting us know that we nailed the main takeaway from the book. As academics, we tend to be critical of everything we read. Our quibbles were minor, and we’d give your book 4.5 of 5 stars. 🙂 Your book has inspired us to continue to share our stories. We plan on recommending your book to others in the future.

      We picked up our copy of your book at the National Book Festival, but we missed your talk there. We’re looking forward to hearing you in Portland at GCN conference. Maybe we could sit across a table from one another and swap some stories!

    • Awesome! We found this book most enjoyable when read a story or two at a time. It’s a great one to read slowly.

  2. About Kevin’s story, it is true that his life did not seem as full as some of those who identify as LGBT celibate. But I think, at the same time, Kevin is much more representative of a large segment of the celibate homosexual community. I suspect I am from the same generation as Kevin. When we were growing up, “gay” did mean espousing a philosophy that approved of same sex intercourse in some manner. So a lot of us did choose to be identified as “homosexual but not gay.” We could either choose to be open and lonely or to be “closeted” and just as lonely. But it seems only recently that the possibility of being openly LGBT, celibate while having social connections has started to become a reality for this generation of young adults. So, as much as it hurt to read Kevin’s story, I do think the choice was a very good one and accurately reflected the choices those of my generation were limited to and the cost we paid for making them.

    • We appreciated Kevin’s story, and in no way do we want to suggest that we are judging Kevin, his life, and how at peace he is with himself. We believe in honoring all people’s stories as their own. It makes sense to us why someone of Kevin’s generation would identify as he does, and he has every right to identify as something other than “gay.” We saw the author’s inclusion of a long-term celibate as important and necessary. We were just curious about why the author only chose to include one story of celibacy, and why the one that was chosen was a person who doesn’t identify as gay. For the record, we would have wondered why there was only one story of celibacy no matter what that story looked like–even if it were from a younger person, even if the story included had been similar to ours.

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