Today, we’re delighted to review Emily Timbol’s book entitled, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight Christian Life. In the interest of full disclosure, Timbol sent us a copy of the book. On Twitter several weeks ago, Timbol was sharing about how Christian media outlets found her book inappropriate for Christians to discuss. Our natural response was to read the book and review it here.
As with all of the resources we’ve reviewed, our review of Two Words will focus on two primary questions: 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?
To begin, Two Words doesn’t have any apparent message to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations. It’s a memoir of how one straight Christian learned to love her gay friends. Emily (as she refers to herself by first name throughout the book) became introduced to the LGBT community when her close friend Chris told her that he’s gay. Chris waited a while before coming out to Emily even though they had been friends. Emily was forced to reconsider everything she knew about gay people and directly confront her misconceptions. Her book is full of stories about the questions she began asking herself. Consider this excerpt detailing when Chris came out:
I leaned forward. “Can I ask you something?”
“Were you afraid if you told me, I wouldn’t be your friend anymore, because I was so religious?”
“Yeah,” he said without pause, “that’s probably the biggest reason I never told you.”
His confession ripped through me. How could he ever think I would cut our friendship off over his sexuality? (pg.18-19)
We appreciated how Emily shows love to the gay community by taking friendship as the first principle. We enjoyed learning about how Emily got to know the gay community by hanging out with her existing friends and making new friends along the way. The book is jam-packed with anecdotes of real people, transporting readers with Emily along her journey.
Celibate LGBT Christians might find this book challenging to read after catching a glimpse of Emily’s openness to questioning what she has always been taught. Immediately after Chris came out to her, Emily found herself reflecting on the day she learned her new friend at church, Craig, was gay. Craig recounted his story of trying to pray away the gay, coming out, getting kicked out of his parents’ house, and finding support from friends. Emily records the story in detail and includes this climax:
“After praying, I started to feel God’s presence again. I felt Him tell me He loved me for who I was, and He didn’t want me to be alone. That it wasn’t wrong for me to want to be in a relationship. I was still His child.”
He stopped talking. Leaned his head back against the seat and sighed. Silence filled the car.
My mind reeled, thinking of the implications of what Craig just said. Could it be true? If it was, it went against everything I was taught. But I felt a fluttering in my heart. The one I’d experienced at different times all my life. The feeling that let me know that the Holy Spirit was present. Like God was in the car with us, wanting me to speak.
“Thank you,” I said, “for sharing this with me. I think… God loves you very much, and there is nothing that can tear you away from Him if you want to be in His presence.”
The words came out before I could process the ramification of what I was saying. It was the first time I’d ever spoken a contradiction of scripture. Or rather, my previous interpretation of what the scripture meant. Instead of feeling the urge to take them back, I felt at peace. Almost as if the words hadn’t come from me, but the Holy Spirit. (pg. 23)
Regardless of your perspective on sexual ethics, you might be tempted to stop reading because you’ve heard it all before and you know exactly where Emily is going next. There are various culture war talking points scattered throughout, and most of the stories do have predictable endings. Nonetheless, for readers who can appreciate the stories rather than focus on these talking points, the book is a welcome invitation to move beyond the culture war mentality in order to see that all people have the option to choose to love the real LGBT people in front of them. Following Emily’s journey, readers might find themselves confronted with the reality that loving other people well is incredibly, tremendously, and unbelievably hard. There is a lesson in this for celibates as well as non-celibates.
As celibate LGBT Christians ourselves, we couldn’t help but see that Emily’s commitment to loving her LGBT friends likely extends just as much to us as to her friends Chris, Craig, and Tyler. However, we couldn’t help but notice that Emily did not have any personal story related to an LGBT Christian living out celibacy or discerning the possibility of a celibate vocation. Consider the following exchange with Emily and her pastor Lee with our emphasis added:
I interrupted [Lee]. “Look, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to say that the church is hateful, or bigoted, or bad in anyway. It’s not. In fact, I would feel totally comfortable bringing any of my gay friends here on Sunday. The problem is, most of my gay friends are married, and active in the community and want to serve. So it’s hard to invite me to a church where they couldn’t do that.”
“We’ve never had that situation, ” Lee said.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, like I’ve told you before, we have several gay leaders in the church right now, who believe the best way to serve God is for them to be celibate, but we’ve never had a gay married couple, who were believers, ask to lead.”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t flat out reject them?”
He leaned back in his chair. “I… whew, that’d be hard. If they were married and spiritually healthy? I don’t know, I’d really have to pray and seek advice and wisdom from others. That’s not something I’ve ever thought about.” (pg. 171)
If the church had celibate gay Christians in leadership roles, we wonder why Emily didn’t include any of their stories. It’s possible that she doesn’t know any of these leaders personally. However, it’s also possible that such stories were excluded intentionally for one reason or another. We’re not here to make accusations, but would be interested in learning about whether any celibate LGBT Christians have played a role in shaping Emily’s journey as an ally.
Finally, this book raises two very clear issues relevant to LGBT Christians living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations, and for straight allies who want to support them:
1. LGBT Christians might experience difficulty seeking ways to share their lives more holistically within the Church. Though this book contains no stories of interactions with celibates, unwelcoming circumstances in church are just as present for celibates as for non-celibates. We know that this is a challenge because we’ve been counseled many times ourselves that we should never mention being LGBT, especially in church settings. This book led us to wonder, what might happen if churches helped allies committed to loving the LGBT community connect with their celibate LGBT members?
2. Straight, Christian friends might be more supportive of you, your identity, and your vocation than you might otherwise think. One thing we most appreciated about Two Words is that it lets readers look in on three years of friendship. There are a lot of stories that show Emily’s commitment to loving her friends unconditionally. We think that celibate LGBT Christians who feel disconnected from their church communities might be encouraged by the possibility that one of their straight friends has a heart similar to Emily’s. If you get up the courage to come out as a celibate LGBT Christian, then you might find a friend who is willing to continue in friendship, pray with you and for you, and love you with no strings attached.
In closing, we do wish that more straight Christians would consider sharing the following message from Emily with LGBT people in every kind of life situation:
The point, is how messed up the church is, when it comes to people like Chris. The church is not a welcoming place for anyone who’s gay. And lots of them want nothing to do with the church. It doesn’t really matter what I think about whether it’s a sin or not, because I know what IS a sin. The way most Christians treat LGBT people. That’s what I want my ministry to be. Reaching out to the LGBT community and showing them that God loves them. (pg. 47)
And after reading Two Words, we’d certainly welcome a chance to get to know Emily and her husband Ryan much better.
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