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The New ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’

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Does Jesus Really Love Me? Jeff Chu  2013 • HarperCollins (harpercollins.com) 368 pages, $26.99, hardcover
Does Jesus Really Love Me?
Jeff Chu
2013 • HarperCollins (harpercollins.com)
368 pages, $26.99, hardcover

Can the conflict between fundamentalist Christianity and homosexuality be resolved?
by Kit van Cleave

Americans have long been fascinated by the individual’s search for spiritual epiphany—that moment when truth is found and commitment possible. Literature of this sort dates back to early pagan texts. The 1678 publication of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan in England, along with the arrival of this nation’s Pilgrims and Calvinist Puritans seeking a purer form of Christianity, are all evidence of people seeking religious direction to ease their doubts—an idea firmly embedded in the American psyche.

After last month’s celebration of the nation’s birth, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the repudiation of DOMA by the Supreme Court, and the remarkable Wendy Davis filibuster of an abortion bill in Austin, Americans surely feel a sea-change coming in their quest to make the early ideals of this country become reality. After all, if one had to boil “American culture” down to two traits, they might well be Americans’ love of having lots of room around them and their distaste for taking orders.

In reading through Jeff Chu’s book Does Jesus Really Love Me?, I sensed yet another journal of a classic American spiritual quest, akin to the Knights of the Round Table riding into misty myth seeking the truths of the Holy Grail. Chu’s book looks for confirmation that the conflict between fundamentalist Christianity and homosexuality can be resolved, thus giving him peace.

The grandson of a Baptist preacher in China, Chu grew up in a strict Southern Baptist religious home with parents who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1969. He attended Westminster Christian School, went to chapel weekly, and was assigned to read the Bible and other books that described “how demons are everywhere.” Eventually, he felt it was all “like reading someone else’s mail . . . ultimately secondhand and indirect.”

What Chu wanted, he writes, was “to know faith for myself.” Standing in his way was a familiar barrier—he already knew he was gay and would therefore be considered an outsider in many churches and religious gatherings. So he set out, as both pilgrim and journalist, on a quest to understand how people who read the same book and followed the same God could have so many conflicting beliefs about Christianity and homosexuality.

His early research, completed before he set out on the road, found that “about three-quarters of Americans identify as Christian,” though only a third of those say they’re regular churchgoers (a precipitous decline in attendance since the 1990s, when one study found that about half of Christians reported regular attendance). So Chu decided “to embark on a year of travel, asking the questions that have long frightened me. My hope was to find some answers at last, to crisscross America as well as the spectrum of American Christianity.”

As a Southern Baptist, Chu went first to Nashville, which he calls “the Protestant Vatican,” where he found that Belmont University, a private Christian institution, had just fired varsity soccer coach Lisa Howe after she came out. Howe, then, provided the first interview in his book. More bemused by her predicament than enflamed with activist zeal, Howe discussed how people not only attacked her and her partner, Wendy Holleman, but also their daughter, who was denounced by “Christians” even before she was born.

Chu then sought out Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who had “talked his way to prominence in right-wing Republican politics.” In his interview, Land was particularly fierce on sexual morality, equating homosexuality with promiscuity and leaving Chu with the chilling statement, “There is no crueler trick played by the devil than to have it called ‘gay.’ My observation is that it’s obviously a pretty sad lifestyle.” Once again, the subtext here is that being gay is a choice, and not inherent in an individual’s personality.

Chu goes on to interview a wide variety of people struggling with the religious and political blowout from the conflict. He meets with Westboro Baptist Church leaders (yep, the “God Hates Fags” folks), goes to Metropolitan Community Church services, and gets insulted by Ted Haggard, who clearly has continuing unresolved issues of his own. As page after page flew by, I felt Chu’s book was a sad litany of people whose lives had been disrupted, and sometimes destroyed, by the teachings of churches pretending to be supportive and loving.

The American gay writer and critic Dan Savage, who reviewed this book for the New York Times Book Review, excoriated Chu for letting the Westboro people slip by with little criticism, while complaining about “an older man at MCC who winked at him” and “another who hugged him a moment or two longer than necessary.”

Savage continued, “If encountering a couple of creeps in the [MCC] pews means an entire church can be dismissed, what do we do with the Roman Catholic Church, where ordained creeps have molested countless children?”

But Savage also credits Chu with having written “a fascinating, thoughtful, and important book,” published at a time when “the issue of what to do with LGBT people is tearing Christian denominations apart.” While I both agree with Savage and sympathize with Chu, this is a journey that will never end once one is on the path. It seems to be utterly impossible to even try changing the immovable and politically useful right-wing position that gays are bad people who make poor life choices. It will take more than “spiritual seekers” to sort things out; any attempt at change will require tough political organizing.

But Chu’s book did make me appreciate a cartoon that appeared in the Houston Chronicle a few days after DOMA was set aside. An angel is peeking down at Earth over the side of clouds as God sits behind him. The angel reports, “The sanctimonious are in distress, calling on you for lightning bolts.” God replies, “Sorry. Today I only have rainbows.”

Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.

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Kit Van Cleave

Kit Van Cleave is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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