This book, subtitled A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, is a must-read for anyone interested in the deep divide in American Christianity between those who want to welcome gays and lesbians as fully participating members of their churches, and those who believe gays and lesbians must change their orientation or at least remain celibate if they are to be pleasing to God and acceptable as church members. Jeff Chu, himself a gay man with a partner, grew up in a conservative Chinese Baptist home. Like many gay Christians, he struggled after coming out, trying to reconcile his faith with his sexual orientation. However, Chu is also a journalist, so rather than just writing a memoir exploring his own experiences, he set off on a journey across the U.S., interviewing dozens of people — gays, lesbians, fundamentalists, gay and lesbian fundamentalists, Ted Haggard, Fred Phelps … pretty much the whole gamut of people who might have a stake in this issue.
Of course, there are gaps — it’s not meant to be an exhaustive study but a broad sampling. I would like to have seen an interview here with Mel White, founder of Soulforce and author of Stranger at the Gate: Gay and Christian in America, a book that for me was an absolute game-changer in terms of the way I thought about these issues. And from my own selfish perspective I’d love to have seen some mention of Seventh-day Adventists, who struggle with this issue in the same way as do many of the other small, conservative denominations with a strong cultural identity that Chu included in the book, such as the Churches of Christ and the Covenant churches. But I guess that’s the point — many of the arguments, the stories and the struggles are the same across denominations.
“Stories” is the key word here — Chu is not making a theological argument; he’s talking to people and relating their stories. Some stories are triumphant; some are heartbreaking. He interviews and reports on his subjects with great compassion, whether they are pro- or anti-gay, although he makes no pretense of objectivity and often relays his own impressions of people as he’s reporting what they said. But he makes one interesting point that I think highlights how broad the divide really is. Speaking of someone else who’s made a mission out of telling the stories of gays and lesbians in the church, he points out that stories will never convict people whose faith is based on Scripture alone. If you believe the Bible says that homosexual sex is an abomination, then it will never matter how many wonderful, loving, committed gay Christians you know — you’ll never be able to view their religion as anything but a lie, or their relationships as anything but sinful.
The knowledge of this deep divide underlies everything Chu says in this book, which is why it can’t really be described as a hopeful book on anything but the most personal level. Chu ends his journey of discovery with his personal faith in God strengthened, but his faith in the church as an institution almost non-existent. There’s not really one Christian church worshipping one God in America, he concludes: there are many churches each worshipping their own version of God and teaching their own version of truth, and unity on the most contentious issue of our day is not in sight, nor may it ever be. Does Jesus Really Love Me? is a sobering, thought-provoking, well-written book that may help people on both sides of this issue to hear each other’s arguments more clearly and perhaps have a little more respect for each other, but it almost certainly will not bring them any closer to agreement and acceptance. And that’s a sad thing.