Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate
by Justin Lee
Jericho Books (2012)
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What do you say about a man who, by his life experience, demolishes all the categories you have constructed in your mind to explain some aspect of reality? That is the question Christians who hold particular views of homosexuality will have to answer when they read Justin Lee’s remarkable new book, Torn.
By all accounts, Lee does not fit the mold. Raised in a conservative, Southern Baptist family, Lee reports that he had a happy childhood, with loving parents that he has always respected and loved in return. He was never abused. He developed a strong evangelical faith, so much so that other students in his high school called him, “God Boy.” He had good experiences in church and was an honor student at school. He had strong friendships with both males and females. His testimony is that he loved God, was serious about his faith, and had healthy relationships with others.
Then one day he realized he was gay.
The word seemed to hold the weight of eternity within its single syllable.
As strange as it may seem, in all the years I had struggled with my sexuality, the idea that I could be gay had simply never crossed my mind. I was a Christian! That was my whole life! And Christians weren’t gay.
As a young man who knew evangelical Christian culture intimately and had only negative conceptions of gays, Justin Lee could not conceive of any way he could proceed as both a Christian and a gay. So he tried a number of ways around his dilemma.
He had a serious relationship with a girl, only to realize that he had no sexual attraction to the female form whatsoever. No matter how good their friendship might be, he could not develop the kind of interest that would lead to an intimate life partnership.
He also checked out many “Ex-Gay” ministries, starting with a clandestine “Homosexuals Anonymous” group in his own church, hoping they could help him “go straight.” The experiences he describes are cringe-inducing to read. Not a single theory being pronounced as “the answer” for why people become gay or what they should do to stop being gay fit or rang true to Lee. Furthermore, he discovered that many of these ministries play a shell game with words. They tell people they can stop being “gay,” but they defined that in a specific way that was not helpful.
Most of the men’s stories followed a predictable pattern. Like me, they had developed attractions to other guys at puberty, but unlike me, nearly all of them had decided to act on those feelings at some point. Many had sordid stories of promiscuous, anonymous sex and/or drug and alcohol abuse. In their minds, these addictive and risky behaviors represented what it meant to be gay, and they had found that lifestyle to be woefully unfulfilling. Somewhere along the way, they had become Christians or reignited their faith, prompting them to feel convicted that the lives they were leading were sinful. With the help of ex-gay groups, therapy, and prayer, they had walked away from their past behaviors.
The testimonies were powerful reminders of how God changes lives. It was largely faith in God that enabled them to overcome a history of sexual addiction and substance abuse. Their behaviors had completely changed, and they were happier for it.
But there was one thing missing in all of their testimonies. None of them seemed to be becoming straight. They had changed their behaviors, sometimes in dramatic ways. Some had not had any sexual contact in years. Others had gone so far as to date and marry a member of the opposite sex. But almost universally, when I asked, they confessed that they still had the same kind of same-sex attractions I did.
“Ex-Gay” ministries may have helped some people deal with certain behaviors and disengage from certain cultural attachments. They had nothing to say to someone like Justin Lee.
These and other experiences led him to a point where he concluded that he simply had to follow God, whatever that might entail. He told God that he would put serving him first, and leave decisions about having a life partner or remaining celibate in God’s hands. However, despite the peace he had received personally, he had another dilemma: what to do about church.
Whether it was his parents, his pastor, or friends, negotiating relationships with other Christians proved to be tricky, disappointing, and sad. Hoping to receive understanding from his minister, he only received assurance that he wouldn’t be kicked out of the church as long as he remained celibate. And then there was the friend who thought he might helping him by discreetly giving him a copy of Playboy magazine to awaken his desires for women. Others simply quoted Bible verses at him or pronounced judgment. Even a Christian chat room banned him. His participation in a Christian campus group took a wrong turn when he learned they were bringing in a speaker from one of the “Ex-Gay” ministries he had found so unhelpful. In every Christian setting, Justin Lee found himself the only gay Christian in the room.
And yet, getting to know “the other side” led to another dilemma. Justin Lee had only negative images of gays and gay culture in his mind, and so felt out of place and disoriented among many of the homosexuals he came to know. His recollection of an experience going with friends to a gay bar, for example, is heart-rending.
I had hoped that the outing to the club would help me feel connected to the other gay guys. But instead, it had the opposite effect. I felt more alienated than ever. It seemed like everyone in the gay world spoke the same language, and no one had ever taught me. Worse, their language felt fundamentally at odds with everything I had been taught in the church, everything that made me God Boy, everything that made me me. I wasn’t like the other gay people I had met. I wasn’t having sex. I didn’t want a hookup. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t like to dance. I was just a sheltered Southern Baptist boy who wanted to serve God and couldn’t help being attracted to other guys. I was a freak.
Justin Lee came to understand that both Christians and gays shared the same cultural dynamic. They both saw the world in terms of “Gays vs. Christians.” He realized that, “You had to pick one or the other, and whichever one you didn’t pick had to be squelched or hidden or forgotten.”
How could this dilemma be resolved?
Going to the Bible didn’t help Lee. He looked at the evidence carefully (and some of his insights and questions are quite good), but ultimately he found the evidence inconclusive. “I realized that I could easily make a clear, compelling argument for either position,” he discovered. Torn again.
However, when Justin Lee stepped back from these specific verses and asked the question about what the Bible taught as a whole, in the light of Jesus, he came to a different conclusion. Further study led him to believe that the “law of love” (as in Romans 13:8-10) should guide us, and Lee saw that his church had gotten this issue wrong. Furthermore:
Whether I was right or wrong in my interpretation of Scripture about gay marriage, one thing was clear: We Christians were failing to show grace to the gay community the way Jesus would. At the very least, Christians ought to be listening to their gay friends, seeking to understand them, to know their joys and their struggles. If we couldn’t do that much, how could we hope to be vessels for God’s lavish grace and unconditional love?
This led Justin Lee to a new sense of vocation. The journey that had started with seeking answers for himself now had turned a corner. From this point on, he felt God calling him to help the church learn grace with regard to the gays in her midst. He began an online ministry that encouraged people to tell their stories and was astounded at the response. He had the opportunity to address the Christian campus group in which he had been disappointed before, and this time was received well. This led to other invitations to speak out and tell his story. He was becoming well known, at times a lightning rod, in the ongoing Gay vs. Christian controversy.
Soon Lee launched an internet community called GCN: The Gay Christian Network, which expanded rapidly. People from around the world, united by their love for Jesus and a conviction that the church needed to do a better job of supporting LGBT people, came together to talk online. Those who did were not in universal agreement about such matters as whether gay Christians should stay celibate or could participate in committed, consummated relationships. They developed a way of talking about these differences using the designations “Side A” and “Side B,” which they had seen used successfully on another site.
We developed some basic rules: Both “Side A” and “Side B” people would be welcome at GCN, and within this space, both sides would agree not to try to convert or talk down to one another. GCN was to be a neutral zone, a place for people to put the culture war aside and know they were among friends.
Torn ends with a chapter called, “The Way Forward.” In it, Justin Lee suggests and discusses seven recommendations for where to go from here:
- Christians must show more grace, especially in the midst of disagreement.
- We must educate Christians.
- We must move away from an “ex-gay” approach.
- Celibacy must be a viable option.
- We must shatter the myth that the Bible is anti-gay.
- Openly gay Christians must find their place throughout the church.
- We must learn how to effectively dialogue.
Justin Lee points to Tony and Peggy Campolo as shining examples of what the way forward looks like. As a married couple, they disagree on the issue of gay Christians. One is Side A, the other Side B. Yet they are able to talk and even give presentations in public together on the subject.
Read this book. Whether or not you end up agreeing with Justin Lee is not the point. This is the most important book available on the issue of homosexuality and how we can think about it and talk about it as Christians. It’s time for us to grow up and learn to listen to others, even when their stories shatter all our comfortable categories.
To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to be torn, there is a time for mending.” It’s mending time.
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Listen to an interview with Justin Lee that aired yesterday on NPR’s “All Things Considered” HERE.
Justin Lee is the director of The Gay Christian Network (GCN), a nonprofit organization serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians and those who love them. Justin is also the director of “Through My Eyes,” a documentary about young gay Christians, and the co-host of GCN Radio, a popular podcast on issues of faith and sexuality. He blogs at Crumbs from the Communion Table.