Homosexuality, Evangelicalism, and The Danger of a Single Story

My favorite TED talk of all time was delivered by the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” and Adichie, a Nigerian writer, thoughtfully and humorously describes the human tendency to project a single, simplistic story onto groups of people who we perceive to be different than ourselves. 

She uses several examples—the story that all Africans are helpless and in need of white saviors, the story that all Mexicans are sneaking across the American border to steal jobs, the story that all writers must have difficult childhoods to write well, the story that people in poverty are to be only pitied, etc. One of the funniest examples is when Adichie’s American roommate asked to listen to some of her “tribal music” and was disappointed when Adichie produced her favorite Mariah Carey album! 

 “I recently spoke at a university where a student told me it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel,” says Adichie with a wry smile, “I told him that I had just read a novel called ‘American Psycho’ and that it was such a shame that young Americans were murderers.” 

“The problem with stereotypes,” Adichie concludes, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

You really must watch the whole video. It’s the best 18 minutes you will spend today. Trust me. 

It occurred to me recently that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are often subjected to this single-story treatment, both from myself and from other people. 

I bumped up against this recently when a local pastor invited me to attend a lecture by Rosaria Butterfield. Ever since her story was featured in Christianity Today nearly a year ago, Butterfield has become something of a celebrity within the conservative evangelical world, and every time I’m in conversation with someone about the potential dangers of “conversion therapy” (which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation through counseling and prayer), her name invariably comes up. 

“Rosaria is proof that gay people can change!” they say. “If she can change, anyone can!” 

In her testimony, Butterfield describes leaving behind her partner, her feminism, and her liberalism to become a Christian, married to a man. “As a leftist, lesbian professor, I despised Christians,” she said. “Then I somehow become one!” 

Her story left me feeling unsettled the moment I read it, not because I didn’t believe Butterfield, but because I didn’t like that she drew a dichotomy between liberalism and Christianity, feminism and Christianity, and lesbianism and Christianity…as if converting to Christianity requires leaving all those other things behind too.  

But the story appeared over and over again in my Facebook feed, as Christians used it as an example of what it means to convert to Christianity and as definitive proof that all gay people can change their sexual orientation if they just want to badly enough. My friends had taken this single story and projected it onto all gay and lesbian people, and it was unfair. 

Because there are other stories too—like the story of the gay teenager who begged God to make him straight and when his prayers went unanswered killed himself in despair, or the story of the parents who were taught that it was their “fault” their child was gay and were ostracized by their church because of it, or the story of a popular Christian ministry that shut its doors when it became clear that changes in orientation are in fact rare and that “reparative therapy” has no scientific basis, or the stories of gay and lesbian couples who have formed faithful partnerships with one another and remain committed Christians. 

One doesn’t have to doubt the truth of Butterfield’s story to see the danger in projecting it onto all gay people. 

Justin Lee expresses the danger of the single story in his book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate. Justin grew up Southern Baptist and certainly didn’t choose to be gay…and yet, he was (and is) attracted to other guys. Upon first facing this reality, he wrote: 

“I already had an image of what gay people were like. They were sinners  who had turned from God and had an ‘agenda’ to mainstream their perverse lifestyle. I didn’t actually know any gay people, but I had seen them in video footage of Pride parades, where they were dressed in outrageous outfits or wearing next to nothing at all, and I knew that they engaged in all kinds of deviant sexual practices. I had nothing in common with people like that, so how could I be gay?” 

Justin’s own story didn’t fit the narrative with which he had been presented. And this single story proved truly dangerous in his life, as it does in the lives of many other LGBT people who are told by their pastors and parents that their sexuality represents deliberate rebellion against God and that if they would just try hard enough, they can be delivered from this "deviant" lifestyle."  

Justin expresses frustration with many of the testimonies with which he was exposed, where men spoke of being “delivered” from homosexuality—which they tended to define not as same sex attraction, but as engaging in gay sex with multiple partners outside of marriage—only to learn that many of these men were in fact still attracted to other men. But their pictures were splattered across brochures and Web sites as examples of how gay people can change. 

Indeed, my alma mater, a conservative Christian college that has shied away from bold conversations around homosexuality, will be hosting Christopher Yuan as a chapel speaker next semester. Yuan’s testimony is about how he indulged in a promiscuous, drug-fueled lifestyle with multiple same-sex partners and contracted HIV until encountering Christ and turning his life around. 

Now, I don’t want to cast doubt on Yuan’s story; it’s an important one to hear. But I fear that if his remains the only story presented about what it means to be gay…or what it means to have HIV, for that matter….then it will continue to perpetuate the sort of stereotypes that prove seriously unhelpful in this conversation. 

I love it when my friend Kimberly, a lesbian and fantastic writer, posts her “gay agenda” on Facebook. Here’s what she wrote yesterday: “As for the whole gay agenda thing, here's mine for tomorrow: tomorrow my agenda is to get up early enough for a walk with the dogs (plus make breakfast and pack lunches), get to work a little early, eat a healthy lunch (NO FRIES DAMNIT), pick up kids from school, make a nominally healthy dinner, help my wife get ready for travel, watch the day-after episode of The Walking Dead, read a little Nadia, write, pray, kiss my family good night and sleep to be ready to start all over again tackling the big fat gay agenda the next day.

Kimberly's point is that not all "gay lifestyles" look the same.  

Can you imagine if people spoke of the “heterosexual lifestyle” and pointed to footage of women flashing their breasts at men to receive beads at Mardi Gras as the single example? Or if they spoke of the “heterosexual agenda” and used Miley Cyrus as the single spokesperson? 

If it bothers us when atheists use Pat Robertson as evangelicalism’s “single story” or abusive churches as Christianity’s “single story,” then it should bother us when Butterfield’s story is used as the single story of what it means to be gay…particularly when, statistically, changes in orientation appear to be rare. 

Of course, there is always a tendency to highlight and endorse the stories that fit most comfortably into our worldview. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. Whereas conservatives tend to ignore stories that suggest sexual orientation is not usually a choice, progressives tend to dismiss stories that suggest sexuality may be more fluid in some cases. 

But anytime we take a single story and use it to make a statement about an entire group of people, we have to ask ourselves—who really has the agenda here? 

 

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Does the Bible really condemn committed gay relationships?

For a lot of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? 

Most of us who grew up in a conservative church environment are familiar with the texts typically associated with this question—found in Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 & 20, Romans 1, I Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1—and their interpretation from the traditional perspective. 

So how do Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture and who also support committed gay/lesbian relationships interpret these passages? 

I’ve read several books and articles exploring both the traditional and affirming perspectives, but perhaps no one else so succinctly, persuasively, and carefully presents the affirming view than Matthew Vines in his now-famous no-frills, one-hour lecture on the topic, delivered at a church in his Kansas hometown. Upon confronting the reality that he was gay, Matthew, a committed Christian, left college to devote two years to studying the topic. Now he has launched The Reformation Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity. He is currently writing a book for publication by Random House in early 2014.

While Matthew is essentially just presenting the same arguments various biblical scholars have been making for decades, he summarized the position so well, it’s worth sharing for discussion. So I’ve embedded the video and linked to the transcript below.

I know it’s a bit long, but if we’re going to discuss this issue, it’s only fair to familiarize ourselves with both “sides” in the discussion and, unfortunately, what I hear most often from evangelicals is that the Bible is absolutely unambiguous on the topic and that those who would deny that are simply denying the authority of Scripture. I think this shows that there are thoughtful Christians who are both committed to Scripture and unconvinced that all gay relationships are sinful. You don’t have to agree with them to take them and their perspectives seriously and respond to them charitably. 

Here’s the video (with captioning): 

Here’s the transcript: 

The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality

You can read a conservative critique of Matthew Vines’ presentation here and here. 

A few questions for discussion: 

  1. What most resonated with you from Matthew’s presentation? Which points were the strongest, and which would you say were the weakest? 
  2. Which traditionalist response offered the best crituqe? Did the responses adequately address the challenges to the traditionalist viewpoint raised by Matthew? How so? 
  3. How do you interpret these passages and how did you arrive at that posture? What would you say is the strongest point made by those with whom you disagree? What is the weakest? What are you most unsure about? 

[I'll share some of my thoughts in a comment below.] 

Let’s keep the conversation civil and constructive, and please take the time to read/watch before weighing in. (I realize this requires some time commitment, but given the intensity of this debate and the profoundly personal nature of it, I think it’s worth taking the time to seriously consider the various viewpoints—whether through these resources or others; don’t you? I’ll make sure to check the comments throughout the week so you have plenty of time to read/watch before weighing in.) 

 

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From the Wife of a Queer Man...

Today's post comes to us from a friend and fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous. The author attends graduate school and works for a non-profit. She has been a member of the RHE community for a number of years now.

I'm so grateful for her openness and wisdom in sharing her story with us. She will be available for interaction in the comments, but asks for patience as she may not be able to respond to all of them. 

 ***

American Christians are in the midst of a conversation about sexuality. This conversation is important (yet heart-wrenching) to gay Christians for obvious reasons. Among straight Christians (with whom I identify), some of us have the conversation for ministerial reasons. Others have it so that we can know how to better love our friends and family members (which in my opinion, is ministerial!). And then there is a small contingent of us who approach this conversation from a unique vantage point--we are in a heterosexual marriage with someone who does not entirely identify as heterosexual. 

Today, I speak into this conversation as the wife of a queer man.

I don't know how to tell our story. If you know us personally, you probably know it already. We're fairly open about it. (We were conflicted about whether or not this should be anonymous. We finally decided that it would be most loving and protective of certain family members who are ashamed of this part of our story to remain anonymous at this point. We hope you understand.) 

My husband and I were friends long before we dated, and I've nearly always known about his attraction to men. It was part of who he was, but never the defining thing. He was always kind, smart, fun-loving, generous, and more. When we were friends, he was wrestling with his sexuality, and we talked about it fairly openly among our close group of friends. He was a Christian and did not feel at peace with his attraction to men. He felt even less at peace when he was in relationships with men. They were hard, hard years for him. 

It's hard to explain briefly, but here's my best attempt: Our friendship led to a tentative romance. And then our romance led to sexual attraction. (This applied on both counts. I was not aching for him when we were friends.) There were bumps and bruises along the way, but eventually we decided that we wanted to swear off all other romantic and sexual interests for life and commit completely to each other. We were married and have enjoyed an amazing marriage since.

(Now, I want to pause to say this loud and clear: My husband is not all queer men. His story, our story, is unique, and we do *not* want it to be used to guilt, shame, or condemn anyone. If you want to share it with a gay friend/son/brother to motivate him to find a wife, you are not loving him well. This story is intended to explain my perspective as the wife of a queer man, not provide any sort of template for healthy sexuality. Far be it from me.

Today, my husband has come to peace with the reality that he is a queer man. He is attracted to men and me, so he doesn't consider himself gay, nor do I. Our "heterosexual" marriage has provided him a safe space from which he can advocate for LGBTQ individuals who are both inside and outside the Church. He advocates for them because he identifies as one, even though it doesn't appear that way to many outsiders. I am so proud of him for this, yet I also know how hard it is for him at times.

There's a lot I could say about my experiences, but as his wife, I would like to make a few points for everyone to consider as we continue discussing sexuality in the Church:

1) In any conversation, you should not assume that everyone who "passes" as heterosexual is in fact heterosexual.

I cannot tell you the number of conversations we have sat in on that left us clutching each other's hands in frustration. Those judgmental things you say about LGBTQ people, they hurt us both. Those judgmental things you say about people "trapped in false marriages," they hurt us as well.

2) My marriage is real and healthy and blessed by God.

Please do not mock me or it. My husband and I are not in denial, nor are we "just roommates." I hate that I feel the need to tell you this, but, for what it's worth, we have great sex. Just like most of our married friends, we have periods when we have sex every day, and periods when we have "snack" sex between less frequent "banquet" sex. And then there are the times when sex doesn't come so easily--when we're both too busy, I'm struggling through pregnancy sickness, or following a birth. In short, we are more sexually normal than you think. 

3) I am convinced that there are millions of spouses like me, but most live in secret.

I think all of our stories are different. Some of us are Christians, many are not. Some of us found out about our spouse's sexuality before marriage, some after. Some of our spouses are at peace about their sexuality, many are not. Some of us have been lied to or cheated on, many have not. Some of us have happy marriages, some do not. All of these differences create a world of varied experiences. But we are here, even though we don't often speak up. I personally know many wives in a situation similar to mine, but I only know one other couple who lives openly amongst friends as my husband and I do. I wish more of us could. 

4) The "Side A" and "Side B" dichotomy that is often talked about is not exhaustive of the experiences of gay Christians.

These sides can even encourage a false dichotomy in our conversations. I don't want to imply that everyone has other options, because that would be false. But the story I've lived and the stories I know don't fit into "Side A" or "Side B," and it is somewhat frustrating to feel as if our stories not real, recognized, or legitimate. 

5) My husband and I are both convinced, largely because of our experience, that sexuality is more flexible than many people are admitting right now.

We completely understand why there is such vehement rhetoric that people can't change. We do not believe in or support gay conversion therapy. But we have lived a story of flexible sexuality. He was sure he was a 6 on the Kinsey scale before he fell in love with me. But fall in love he did, and it changed him. This observation feels like a betrayal to many people we love, so I don't know what to do with it. But it's the reality of our stories. 

But those observations aside, when you click away from this post, what I want you to hear loudest from me is this: My husband and I are both blessed by our marriage; it is not a burden. I have in no way married a second-rate man, and he has in no way settled for second-rate sex. Christian marriage should be a closing off of oneself to all sexual options save one, and in embracing that reality we have experienced shalom. 

 ***

I'm so grateful for this story. I'm starting to wonder if, because sexuality has become so politicized and such an unfortunate theological line-in-the-sand, we tend to brush aside stories that don't fit our preferred paradigm for fear they will provide "ammunition" to the other side. In so doing, I wonder if we've veered too far from the reality that human sexuality is indeed very complex. It's so tempting to take one person's story and use it to make a point while simultaneously dismissing another person's story because it doesn't line up with my assumptions. This happens on both "sides" (or, perhaps more accurately ALL sides), and I'm not sure how to stop it. What do you think? How do you respond to this story and how can we make more space for people whose sexuality doesn't fit in a box?

[See also: "On Mixed Orientation Marriages: Four Stories"

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Are we there yet?

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Today I am pleased to introduce you to Jeff Chu.  Jeff is the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in Americaa fantastic book that is part-memoir, part investigative analysis. The book, which just released last week, explores the intersection of faith, politics, and sexuality in America in a way that is thought-provoking, well-researched, colorful, and deeply personal without being indulgent. I highly recommend checking it out. 

Over his eclectic journalistic career, Jeff Chu has interviewed presidents and paupers, corporate execs and preachers, Britney Spears and Ben Kingsley. As a writer and editor for Time, Conde Nast Portfolio, and Fast Company, he has compiled a portfolio that includes stories on megahit-making Swedish songwriters (a piece for which he went clubbing in Stockholm); James Bond (for which he stood on a Spanish beach and watched Halle Berry emerge from the waves over and over and over); undercover missionaries in the Arab world (he traveled to North Africa and went to church); and the decline of Christianity in Europe (he prayed). On the wall of his New York office, you'll find a quote from former Senator John Warner, who once told Jeff: "You're a good little interviewer!"  A California native, Jeff went to high school at Miami's Westminster Christian, where he sat behind Alex Rodriguez in Mr. Warner's world history class. A graduate of Princeton and the London School of Economics, Jeff has received fellowships from the Phillips Foundation and the French-American Foundation, and in 2012, was part of the Seminar on Debates in Religion and Sexuality at Harvard Divinity School.  The nephew and grandson of Baptist preachers, he is an elder at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York. He loves the San Francisco 49ers, the Book of Ecclesiastes, and clementines. And he detests marzipan more than he can explain in words.

I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did. 

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Are we there yet? 

By Jeff Chu

 “Jesus will not accept you, because of your hard heart and hate for him.”

“We must treat homosexuals like those suffering a mental disorder, because that is exactly what it is. If anything, we should have pity on these people.” 

“You need a good ex-gay therapist.”

Last week, messages like these filled comments sections of websites where my writing was being discussed. On Facebook, I was informed that I was clearly not saved. My inbox brought warnings that I needed to repent. 

I interviewed more than 300 people for my book, but intertwined with their stories is my own. I’ve never written about my life or my faith before, and naively, perhaps, I didn’t expect this onslaught. The night before my book came out, I sat at my desk in my office and did something that I haven’t done in years: I wept. 

For almost an hour, the tears rained down my face. I held my head in my hands, and I shook. Then, inside, I heard the softest echoes of my beloved late grandmother’s warbly voice, speaking to me in Cantonese as she had when I was 8: “You’re a big boy. Don’t cry. Big boys don’t cry. Crying doesn’t do anything.” 

Well, this big boy does cry—and on that day, it did do something. These were, at first, tears for fears—fears of being judged, fears of being condemned, fears of what might happen when the world saw me, through my book, for who I was and no longer for who I’ve long tried to be.

Then they became tears of grief. In some ways, I felt as if I were being excommunicated from my church—these messages all came from people who would place themselves in the evangelical part of the church that I grew up in. But in truth, they couldn’t kick me out. In soul and spirit, I’d already left those precincts of the church, and I was belatedly mourning that departure. I was also weeping for the loss of certainty—or at least the illusion of it that I once worked so hard to maintain. 

***

When I was a young journalist, I was taught to “kill your darlings.” Sometimes we writers will concoct a pun or a phrase that we just fall in love with. Applaud your own unparalleled cleverness, your unmistakable wit, I was told. Then cut what you just wrote. Your infatuation is also often the enemy of clarity—and sometimes truth.

One thing I had to mourn last week was the killing of perhaps my greatest darling: the persona of the Good Christian I long maintained, under the theory that it could somehow help preserve my faith.

This is, of course, a fallacy: Sometimes we speak as if our faith—and the faith—is unchanging. God may not change, but our beliefs and our understanding of Him do. Faith can’t be preserved, as if it were strawberries in jam or an unlucky beetle in ancient amber. It’s dynamic. It struggles and stumbles, waxing and waning, colored by circumstance, shifted by our spirits, and shaped (we hope) by the Spirit. I think, for instance, of Roman Catholicism, and how the Virgin Mary officially became retroactively and posthumously sin-free in the 19th century. And I think of the denomination I grew up, the Southern Baptist Convention, whose own less-than-immaculate conception was rooted in unfortunate disagreements with their northern brethren over slavery. 

For a long time, I resisted change. Though I felt alienated from the church and culture of my childhood, I played the image game well. I was treasurer of my college evangelical-fellowship group. I mentored younger students, my mouth saying things with far more surety than my heart ever felt. I even had a (shortish) string of long-term girlfriends—wonderful, godly women who, thank God, found much more suitable men to marry.

My semblance of pious normality reflected a Sunday-best mentality spilling over into the rest of the week. I thought that if, perhaps, I did a goody-goody-enough job with the façade, maybe it would percolate into the rest of me, preserving my faith. On some level, I guess I naively thought that I might even be able to fool God. 

I had to kill that person, that darling. I had to stop lying. And when I cried, I guess some of the tears were for that old Jeff. That costume, more comfortable than I’d like to admit even now, was a great hiding place, a cocoon that I convinced myself was safe. It was a big game of pretend, and I was pretty good at it, except that all games get old—or maybe you just get too old to play them.

***

A church of costumes and hiding places isn’t a place I want to be.

What we need, more than ever, is a church where we can shed the pretenses, and bring our doubts, our big questions, and our bigger fears. I don’t think I’m alone in desiring that. What I suspect many of us crave is a church where we can be our whole, ugly-beautiful selves.

This is who I really am: I am not an issue. I am a follower of Jesus. I love my husband like you love your husband. Sometimes I daydream during church, which I feel especially guilty about now that I am an elder. I am afraid to go to India because I don’t know if I am man enough to handle that much poverty in my face. I like to load the washer, but I’m terrible at unloading the dryer. I am really judgmental. I use the F-word a little too much. Sometimes, if I find a very old French fry, I will be tempted to eat it. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I ever have.) I love the Bible, and I believe that sin is a real thing, but I wish I understood better what God meant by it. I went to a Taylor Swift concert last week—for my job—and enjoyed it more than I’d like to admit. I need a good editor.

And who are you? Maybe you laugh too loudly. Or you cry too much. You love, even though you’re not always sure how to show it. You belch when you think nobody is listening. You love justice, but you’re not always sure what it looks like. You question your pastor. You watch too much Honey Boo Boo (which is to say, you watch it at all). You lie awake in bed some nights wondering whether God is as real as you want Him to be. You eat too many meals in your car. You say, “Bless her heart,” when you have no intention of blessing any part of her. 

Can we be these people in church? We must be—and the church that I’m talking about is not a building but the collection of the people who are trying their best to walk with Jesus. It does not end at 12:15 on Sundays. It’s wherever we and our hopes and our complicated, messy lives are. It’s a place where we aren’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” 

Our church is a place where we’re unafraid to acknowledge that we’re always in beta. I was thinking about this during church this past Sunday. In his Easter sermon, my beloved pastor, Daniel Meeter, encouraged us to imagine “the life of the world to come … Imagine always trusting other people, without having to be careful, always being open and candid about yourself without having your guard up, and even knowing yourself with clarity and honesty and peace,” he said. “Well, you are not there yet.”

Indeed. 

Maybe I’ll end up in hell. Maybe I do have a mental disorder. Maybe their Jesus won’t accept me. But I still cling to a Jesus who will meet me—and will meet us all—where I am now. Can we build a church that welcomes our mutual strengths but also allows—and even embraces—our confessions of weakness? Can we be that community? Will you join me on this journey?

***

You can follow Jeff Chu on Twitter. And be sure to check out Does Jesus Really Love Me? which released last week! 



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