Once upon a time, many of us were taught that there are three topics that are best avoided in polite company: religion, sex, and politics. And yet the fusion of the three has been seemingly unavoidable in recent years. This is especially visible in Christian Churches in the West, where contentious debates have roiled for at least a decade on the status of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and broader questions of gay rights. Last week was just the latest flare-up of this decades old conversation (shouting match?), when the Boy Scouts of America voted to lift their ban on openly gay scouts.
I’m aware that in many church circles, just mentioning these things is enough to get people’s hackles up. This is why Jeff Chu’s new book, “Does Jesus Really Love Me: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America” is making waves. Chu, a former writer at Time magazine, was raised an evangelical Christian and still professes the faith. He is also gay, and married to another man.
The book (excerpt reproduced below) charts Chu’s interior journey as a gay believer, and his physical journey across the American Christian landscape – visiting some of the Christian communities riven by the issue of homosexuality. To be sure, other authors have trod similar terrain in the not-too-distant past. So what seems different about this book?
Two things jump out right away. First, Chu is speaking of and to Christianity from the inside. He was raised Christian, continues to be one by choice, and writes movingly of the role of faith in his life. He speaks fluent in Christian, in other words. In his recent interview on the Diane Rehm Show, Chu recounted his Bible-parsing conversation with Fred Phelps, the lightning-rod pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God Hates Fags” infamy).
In a somewhat different vein, Chu seems to have a somewhat uncanny ability to annoy people on all sides of the current gay rights debate. If some take umbrage at the very idea of a gay Christian, he also manages to irk sex columnist Dan Savage. In his NYTimes Magazine review, Savage confessed to throwing the book across the room on more than one occasion. Depending on your perspective, this fact alone may land Chu’s book on your must-read or never-read list. The two apparently parted quite amicably.
Voices that raise questions about the status of gay people in Christian churches are at times dismissed out of hand. The rationale for such a dismissal is often that the questioner speaks from outside the tradition, is ignorant of it altogether, or has contempt for religion. It is, in other words, a classic case of the “us” and “them” mentality.
Though some may wish it were otherwise, Chu’s book complicates this pattern of thinking. His story, and the stories of the others he meets traveling America, is one of a man sympathetic to the faith who is trying to speak (from the inside) to fellow believers. Religion, sex, and politics may be best avoided in polite company, but what about the church, where all three regularly? At the very least, the book will likely be a canary in the mine about whether “church” and “polite company” are similar things. As to whether they should be…well, that’s a piece for another day.