Category Archives: Books

Generous Spaciousness: Whose Space is It?

Earlier this week, i received my Kindle edition of Wendy VanderWal-Gritter’s book, Generous Spaciousness:  Responding to Gay Christians in the Church.  I’m about to start chapter 11 (which puts me a little over halfway through the book), and it’s so far been a pretty good read.  I haven’t decided whether I’m going to do a review of the book itself yet.  I’ll have to wait until I get finished with it and mull over if there’s anything that I want to say about it that other potential readers might find helpful when considering whether to pick up a copy.  (Generally speaking, I think people would do well to pick up a copy, but that statement alone is probably not very helpful to most potential readers.)

As I’ve been reading the book a number of thoughts have come up in my mind.  The one I want to blog about today is related to the question I put in the post’s title:  Whose “space” is it?

From reading the book so far and conversations I’ve had with Wendy1 in the past, generous spaciousness is a concept that is meant to be applied on the personal and institutional level.  On the personal level, it is an attitude of welcome and agreement to live in tension and even disagreement with others.  On an institutional level, it is a formal or informal policy that encourages leadership and members to embody that attitude in word and deed.  The latter, which I’m going to focus on, can be more fully seen in Wendy’s recent OnFaith article about how go engage gay Christian who attend one’s church.  Because the title of that article also points to the one nagging problem I see:  Whose church is it?

While I’m not arguing against the idea that churches need to consider how to be more welcoming of and how to minister to LGBT people, people who are questioning their gender and/or sexuality, or people who are simply wondering what God really says about sexuailty, gender, and same-sex sexual relationships, the very notion of “making space” for such people suggests that the church belongs to a different group of people and not those for whom such “space” is being made.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of how welcoming a space can truly be when the space is controlled by others who get to decide how welcoming to make that space.  Such a space still offers a great deal of comfort, safety, and privilege for those who control it and demands more risk and potential discomfort for those form whom “space is being made.”  Those who wish to truly be welcoming of LBGT people, their supporters, and those who are sorting through questions about LGBT lives and faith journeys need to wrestle with that injustice.  How does one make a space truly welcoming and generous to those who do not share “ownership” or control of a space?

Ultimately, I think that Christians also need to consider that rather than or in addition to “making space” for others in their space, they need to be prepared to completely give up their privilege, comfort, sense of control, and “home field advantage” by humbly2 seeking out those they wish to know in their own spaces, where they can feel safe and truly feel on equal ground or even at an advantage.  After all, trying to meet others only on one’s own terms is not an attempt to meet others at all.  Wendy talks about doing just that in her book when she talks about the first year she attended the Gay Christian Network’s annual conference.

1As an aside, I should point out that I have spoken with, met, broken bread with, drunken wine with, and gotten my butt kicked in a game of Stone Age by Wendy.  As such, my interactions with her do affect how I approach and engage with this book and the subject of generous spaciousness in general.

2As anyone who has maintained or or belonged to any space that caters to and seeks to be safe for marginalized people can tell you, there are different ways for privileged people to try entering and behaving in those spaces.  Some of those ways can disrupt such spaces and even make them unsafe.  Wendy exemplifies one of the better ways to go about this when she talks about how she approached seeking entry to her first GCN conference.

Musings on “Torn”: On LGBT people telling their stories.

[Content Note:  Subtle homophobia and derailing tactics.]

I want to continue to comment on Justin Lee’s suggestions on moving forward in the “Gays and Christianity” discussion that he lays out in his book, “Torn:  Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays v.s Christians Debate.”  A little over a week ago, I looked at Justin’s call for Christians to show more grace, especially in the face of disagreement.  I thought that suggestion was spot on and that people needed to simply understand just what showing grace might look like when dealing with LGBT people (not to mention subtle ways Christians can be ungraceful).  I find the suggestion I want to cover this week more problematic.

We must educate Christians.

The short answer to this is “No.”  The slightly longer answer — and the answer that might cause some readers to stop reading an dismiss everything else to say — is “Fuck that shit!”  My purpose for existing is not to educate other people about the issues that are near and dear to my heart.  To put it bluntly, if they want to understand the issues that are near and dear to my hear — and if they care about me, they want to do exactly that — they need to educate themselves.  Full stop.

Truth be told, there are dozens of resources out there for people to learn about LGBT issues, the things that LGBT people struggle with — both collectively and individually — that these Christians in need of education already have access to.  There are hundreds of LGBT bloggers (in fact, Fred Clarke has created a still-growing list of LGBT bloggers who blog from a Christian perspective, and the count on that list is up over 100 alone.)  Collectively, those bloggers share personal stories, commentary on political issues that affect LGBT people, cover the latest acts of both ex-gay ministries and anti-gay organizations and how they are harming the LGBT community, and dozens of other topics.  All any Christian needs to do to become educated on these matters is open their favorite web browser and submit a few choice words and phrases to their favorite search engine.  They will learn all kinds of things.

And yet, Christians aren’t doing this.  This suggests to me that they don’t want to be (further) educated on these subjects.  So I see no point in wasting a lot of time and energy into doing something for people that those people don’t want — or at least aren’t willing to put any effort into themselves.

Or perhaps some Christians really do want to be educated, but on their terms.  Sparky talked about this phenomenon quite succinctly in his post, “Is There a Duty to Educate?“:

When you ask us to educate you and get mad
when we say no, you are not lost and alone in the wilderness, hopelessly
ignorant without any help you find your way out. You are already wallowing
in all the information you need – you just can’t be bother
to take the effort to read it when you can make one of us spoon feed

If Christians want to be educated — and they should — then they need to quit expecting LBGT people to show up at their churches, behave in a certain way, and act as if it’s some great honor to be invited to come talk to the nice Christian folks.  They can instead come to those places that we LGBT people find some measure of safety and therefore are already sharing our stories there.  They can reach out to us with a humble and honest desire to listen to our stories.

And while they’re at it, they can listen to what we actually say rather than listening just long enough to reconstruct our stories to fit their preferred narrative.  (For more thoughts on that phenomenon, see all Shakesville posts labeled “Validity Prism.”)  Then can fight the impulse to stop listening or “lighten the mood” when the education (or story telling process) causes them discomfort.

So a big portion of my problem with Justin’s advice is not that I don’t think LGBT people should be telling our stories[1] or engaging with Christians.  For the most part, I take issue with the apparent implication that we haven’t already been doing this.  We have.  The Christians who still need to be “educated” simply aren’t listening, either due to lack of desire on their part or an insistence that we do everything on their terms.

[1]  Though I will note that this is a decision that every LGBT person has to make for themselves and I think many LGBT people have valid reasons not to do this.  Sharing one’s story requires a great deal of vulnerability and often has the effect of painting a bright red target on oneself for those who want to take shots, attack, and denigrate.  Expecting any particular LGBT person to do that is pretty demanding, so I do take issue with Justin phrasing this suggestion as an unqualified “must.”

Musings on “Torn”: Christians showing grace

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I want to spend some time examining Justin’s advice for moving forward and away from the “culture war”[1] that he offers in chapter fifteen.  After all, most of the rest of the book consists of him telling his story or explaining his own take on Christian theology in regards to homosexuality and same sex relationships.  The former deserves no response beyond careful reading and the encouragement of others to also read it.  The latter holds little interest to me, as I don’t consider my life to be bound by Christian theology.

But finding a way forward to living peaceful lives with the many Christians that share my workplace, my shopping centers, and the rest of the world with me, that’s something I can get on board with and discuss.  So in this post, I want to consider Justin’s first suggestion:

Christians must show more grace, especially in the midst of disagreement.

In this section, Justin focuses on how Christians approach gay people.  He reminds us of his own exchange with a high school friend that he shared in the second chapter.   He focuses on the fact that his answer boiled down — as Sean pointed out — to the old adage that just about every gay person has heard:  love the sinner, but hate the sin.

In this part of chapter fifteen, Justin reflects on his own experience of people who loved him, but hated his “sin:”[2]

Yes, I know I’m a sinner, as we all are, but something about the phrase feels condescending and dehumanizing, as if I’m now the “sinner” rather than the person’s friend or neighbor, and “loving” me has become the new project they’ve taken on out of obligation to God rather than a genuine interest in my well-being.  For this, it seems I am supposed to feel grateful, as if this were a great imposition on someone who could easily have passed me by and left me in my sinful state.

In addition to the dehumanization of being turned into a “love project,” I’d also note that a lot of Christians who “love sinners but hate sin” have what I would consider some strange ideas of what it means to love other people they consider “sinners.”  You will often hear many Christians talk about “love” in these situations about needing to “lovingly correct the other person,” which often leads to constant streams of preaching about the sinfulness they hate so much.  Not only does this mean once again telling gay people the same things we’ve heard dozens of times before — a reality I noted elsewhere — this kind of preaching about the sinfulness prevents such Christians from getting to ways in which they relate to and show love in more recognizable — and dare I say more traditional — ways.

Love is not an abstract comment.  It’s something that is tangible and can only exist in a real relationship.  And I’d argue that Christians don’t need to just show grace, but need to learn to love in relationship better.  They need to start getting to know LGBT people and knowing what their individuals troubles, concerns, and needs are.  To make an allusion to a popular myth, they need to find out who is actually naked, who is actually starving, who is actually in prison, and act accordingly when dealing with each of those people.  Some needs are somewhat universal among all LGBT people, but can even manifest in different ways among individuals.  Others are more specific to individuals or subgroups within the larger community.  The only way Christians — both as individuals[3] and collectively — can respond to these needs is to become familiar with them first-hand and on an up-close, personal level.

Christians also need to be prepared that meeting LGBT people’s needs may cause them discomfort.  After all, part of loving someone means loving all of them and living with all of them.  That’s the problem with the “hate the sin” part.  Christians who want to “love the sinner while hating the sin” want to conditionally accept some parts of the “sinner” while ignoring the rest.  This does not make for a healthy or desirable relationship.

Over the years, I’ve had a few Christian friends who believe that same sex relationships were wrong.  They loved me — or at least tried their hardest.  We’d get together and talk.  We’d discuss our work, our families, theology (mostly when I was still a Christian), and just about every thing else in our lives.  Then on occasion, I’d fall into a false sense that I really could talk about anything and I’d talk about my love life (or my attempts to find love).

Suddenly, the conversation screeched to the halt at an awkward silence.  The other person would say something rather non-committal, then change the subject.  Just like that, I was reminded that there were just some aspects of my life that were “off limits” for conversation because they were things the other person would rather not think or wrestle with.  If I wanted that friendship to continue, I had to be willing to hide that part of my life — one that I considered (and still consider) extremely important to me.

Needless to say, those friendships faded away over time.  Christians would do will to remember that “love” offered with conditions or limits is not felt as love by those so limited.  That’s a hard truth, but experience teaches me that neither grace nor love are easy.

[1]  I also want to note that in my experience only one “side” refers to it as the “culture war.”  To LGBT[4] people, it’s not a “culture war” so much as a struggle to be treated with the same basic human dignity and allowed to enjoy the same legal protections that heterosexual, cisgender people already enjoy without even having to think about it, let alone worry or struggle.  So I’d say that the way forward would go much greater if Christians would drop the phrase “culture war” and similar rhetoric altogether.

[2]  I don’t accept the idea that same sex relationships are inherently sinful, so I’m choosing to use quotes around the term.  Then again, I don’t buy into the whole theology of “sin” anyway, so there you have it.

[3]  As an aside, I think that an essential key to moving forward is for Christians to stop thinking in terms of “The Church” on an institutional level.  Institutions don’t have relationships.  People do.  It’s why Justin’s point says “Christians need to show grace” rather than “The Church needs to show grace.”  Until Christianity as a whole lays aside the power structures — those structures most vested in seeing things in term of a “culture war,” I suspect the way forward will be treacherous and possibly downright impassable.

[4]  I’m a bit divided on being inclusive in “LGBT people” in this blog post/series or just coming right out in saying “gay people.”  Truth be told, much of the book, while applicable to trans people, focuses on sexual orientation (and gay male sexuality at that) rather than trans issues.  This leaves me torn between wanting to acknowledge other sexual minorities and fearing that by including them in a rather nominal way, I’m belittling their importance and the importance of issues that affect trans people far more harshly than they do me.  Quite frankly, trans people get that kind of treatment enough and I’m still working out ways to do a better job of not contributing to it.

Musings on “Torn”: About these “good people” who keep hurting gay people…

[Content Note:  Discussion of subtle homophobia.]

While reading Justin Lee’s book, “Torn:  Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate,” I began to notice a pattern in the book.  Justin would often describe an unpleasant and even hurtful experience he or another person had with a fellow Christians, then note that the Christian acting hurtfully was really a good person.

I think I get what he’s trying to say here.  I get that he’s trying to make it clear that he didn’t consider any of these people horrible monsters that deserved to be vilified.  I also get that, as he was writing a book that was trying to find common ground and build bridges, it makes sense to affirm and focus on the humanity of those who have done and said hurtful things.

decent-human-cookie.jpgAnd yet, I find it hard to think of someone who has just dismissed what another person has said about their personal experiences as being very “good” in that moment.  I find it hard to think of someone who has just said something — even out of ignorance or misinformation — that deeply wounds and alienates another person as “good,” either.  Certain people may not be Horrible Monsters?, but can we at least acknowledge that there’s a huge spectrum between those two points?

I’m reminded of a recent comment Fannie made on her blog when she was writing about people who denounce and wish to distance themselves the Westboro Baptist Church:

Many bigoted[1] opinions and actions are far more subtle, insidious, and
micro-aggressiony than the rhetoric and actions of either of these
groups. These groups are widely recognized among reasonable people as
being hate groups, extreme, and very problematic. And, for that reason,
opinions and actions that are more subtle than WBC or KKK-style bigotry,
when called out as harmful, are often more readily dismissed and
trivialized (often by those who denounce the WBC) and are therefore more

While I appreciate Justin’s desire not to demonize those Christians who have done and said hurtful things, I do think that calling such people “good” helps keep those more subtle microaggressions[2] invisible.  Enabling people to continue to think of themselves as “doing good enough” — which is what I feel the “good people” tends to do — as long as they meet a very low bar of not actively disowning LGBT children, picketing funerals, shouting condemnations at those attending pride events, and so on is something I find troubling.

On a related note, Justin often suggests that many of these Christians say, do, and believe in the things they do often due to misinformation they’ve been given by certain other Christian leaders.  I also find this problematic.  While I certainly agree that many Christians have been misinformed by wrong-headed and even deceitful Christian mouthpieces, I think there comes a point that every individual needs to take responsibility for what information they accept as factual and solid.

I’m actually rather disturbed by the idea that some Christians take the “expertise” of Christian leaders — many of whom are straight — as authoritative and never check in with gay people, who are most likely the experts regarding their own lives and experiences of gender and sexuality.  Even when listening to ex-gay Christians, who have at least had some experience with same sex attractions themselves, I would think it important to dig into what they are saying and make sure (1) you understand what they are really saying and (2) that their own experiences are truly universal to all gay people.  The first is often not true due to uncommon language uses (e.g. nuanced meanings of words like “change” and phrases like “freedom from homosexuality”) among ex-gay ministries.  The latter is not true simply because of the diversity of experiences that gay people have.

It seems odd to me that people who belong to a religion that claims to value truth — a religion in which the Apostles themselves praised people for testing for themselves everything the Apostles themselves taught and urged them to do so — would simply accept information so uncritically, as many Christians appear to do when it comes to questions around homosexuality.  So while I can certainly appreciate the misinformation they operate under, I’m inclined to hold them responsible for it, whereas Justin seems more inclined to excuse them for it.

It often seemed to me that Justin — and in fairness to Justin, I have seen this tendency in others and no one should take this as me simply bagging on one guy — is in such a hurry to get Christians to build bridges that he’s willing to prioritize making sure their consciences don’t get ruffled too much over the unhelpful and sometimes hurtful things they have done.  Personally, I don’t think that this is a working strategy, as I think that often, the only way to truly change that is to ruffle some consciences.

[1]  I will ask readers not to get hung up on the word “bigotry” in this quote.  This post is not intended to be a forum on what does and does not qualify as bigotry, nor will I allow commenters to turn it into one.  If the word really bothers this much, I would suggest you mentally substitute the phrase “things that make gay people’s lives more difficult or cause them pain or harm in any way” for the word for the purposes of this discussion.  I believe the point both Fannie and I are making will still be clear.

For those of you who really want to know why I have no desire to get into the “what counts as bigotry game,” I will note that it’s partially because I think it’s too often a game played with a stacked deck.

[2]  I will include specific examples of the kinds of things I’m talking about in future posts as I talk about a number of the items Justin discusses in chapter fifteen, “The Way Forward.”

Musings on Torn. A Kindred Spirit.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve been reading Justin Lee’s book, “Torn:  Rescuing the Gospel From the Gays vs. Christians Debate.”  I have a little less than 100 pages (out of the total 259 pages) to read.  While there are some things in Justin’s book that I take issue with — such as his tendency to fall into the trap of focusing on showings how Christianity stands out from all other religions — there is much in the book that I like.

In truth, there’s much in the book that I can identify with.  I can relate to the whole concept of being “God Boy” (though no one called me that and I don’t think I was quite as outspoken as he was) and “having a secret” while growing up.  I resonated greatly when he started talking about his initial reactions when he first started discovering his feelings for other boys.  Justin puts it thus:

At first I had ignored the feelings.  Puberty is a confusing time, after all, so I assumed these attractions to guys were just some sort of weird phase I had to pass through as I matured.  I’d heard Christian authorities such as radio host Dr. James Dobson say that young teenagers sometimes went through a period of sexual confusion, and this seemed to be the proof.

I too remember telling myself that I was just going through a phase when my sexual feelings for other boys first started surfacing.  And yes, I seem to recall various religious experts — most likely including James Dobson — saying things to encourage that kind of thinking.

In some ways, I can also related to his awakening to the realization that he had no sexual interest in girls as a teenager.  Justin writes:

As teenagers, my guy friends had become interested in girls in a different way, and they talked eagerly about their eyes and lips and breasts and legs.  I avoided these conversations, telling myself that the reason I didn’t lust after women was that I was a good Christian boy.  Lust was a sin, so I convinced myself I just didn’t objectify women the way some of my friends did.  That wouldn’t have been Christlike, after all.

I remember a couple of boys in my class that began talking about girls’ anatomy and “humping” them (I’m sure that latter part was all talk) as early as the fourth grade.  And at the time I took my failure to have any interest in such things — like Justin — as simply a matter that “good Christian boys” didn’t think about such things.  (In some ways, I still feel that was true, given just how young we were at that time.)

However, as time went by, I became more keenly aware of just how uninterested I was in girls and just how bizarre this really was.  I remember one night when I was in high school, I lay in my bed and actually tried imagining kissing the female classmate that I was allegedly interested in (in fairness, I did think she was a great person and would have loved to spend more time with her as a friend).  Not only could I not imagine doing so, the thought left me feeling cold and a little bit disturbed.  And that realization left me feeling even more disturbed.
I think that was one of the first times when I really began to wonder what was “wrong” with me.

So in many ways, while there are some things that I don’t agree with Justin on — and there are one or two things I’m still waiting to see how they play out in the rest of the book before I express concerns — there are many ways in which I find myself nodding along as he recounts his experiences.

In many ways, I think that’s a good thing.  One of the central themes of his story seems to be that no one was there who understood, and that’s a theme I can relate to.  I think that’s a theme that many LGBT people — and especially those who grew up within evangelical Christianity — can relate to.  In many ways, Justin’s book is a way of letting those who may now be going through those experiences know that they are not the first and there are those who can relate and understand.

I’m not sure whether Justin’s goal of rescuing the gospel from the “gays vs. Christians” debate will be met, but that sense of offering understanding and camaraderie to those who came after both of us strikes me as something that makes his book priceless.

Exceptionalism, Religion, and Product Marketing

I’ve spent yesterday and today working at my employer’s booth at a trade show.  In the weeks leading up to the show, I was involved in many meetings where we established, reviewed, and refined the key messages we wanted to convey about our products and solutions during the show.  Largely, the conversations were centered around formulating answers to a single question:

What are the features and implications of our products and solutions that make us stand out from our competitors?

Focusing on that question made a lot of sense.  After all, we came to the show specifically to gain increased visibility of our products and solutions.  Highlighting our advantages and benefits over our competitors made good business sense.

What I found more troublesome was when I ran into a similar line of thinking while reading Justin Lee’s book, “Torn,” during my breaks and other down-times at the trade show.  The topic came up most explicitly in chapter ten, “Faith Assassins,” when Justin started talking about more liberal Christians churches that tend to both be pro-gay and take the miraculous and supernatural accounts in the Bible less literally.  Of such churches, Justin offers the following opinion:

Bit by bit, they lose the things that set them apart as Christians.

There are a number of things I could speak to concerning that statement and that section of the book in general.  I could challenge Justin’s underlying assumption that there is a causal relationship between these churches’ choices to be gay affirming and their approach to understanding supernatural events in the Bible, or their approach to the Bible in general.  I could also question Justin’s suggestion that it is the existence of such supernatural events that makes Christianity distinctive from other religions.  Instead, however, I want to focus on the heavy focus on finding ways in which Christianity is distinct from other religions, and why I find this troublesome.

I’ll note that this is not something unique about Justin.  I’ve met many Christians — especially evangelical Christians — who wish to point out how Christianity (or their brand of it) is distinctive from all other religions.  Nor is this a phenomenon that exclusively appears among Christians.  And yet, it is something that seems to me to be quite common and even prevalent among Christians in general and evangelical Christians in particular.

But is it a wise thing to treat one’s religion like it’s a product?  Is it wise to view the process of sharing one’s religion like a marketing effort?  Personally, I don’t think so.  I think it cheapens everything and everyone in the process.  It turns one’s faith into a product rather than a rich source of life, inspiration, and understanding.  (And before anyone suggests that this is what they’re trying to “market,” let me remind them that advertising managers for cosmetics, diet fads, self help books, and many other products would say the same thing.)  It turns other religions and those who would promote them into competitors in the market.  It turns people you’re sharing with into potential customers and consumers.  It continues a model of sharing one’s faith in which the goal seems very much about “making the sale.”

This is not something I personally would want to do with my faith or the process of sharing my faith.  I would rather allow my faith to simply be and share it as it is rather than trying to come up with “eight key features that makes Vanic Witchcraft better than Christianity/Islam/Confucianism.”  And to be honest, anyone who thinks of sharing their faith in that light — even less explicitly — is liable to leave me feeling wary.

Pondering “Out of a Far Country”: Deserving of love

I’d like to draw my discussion of the book “Out of a Far Country” by drawing attention to a single statement that Christopher makes in the final (pre-epilogue) chapter.  I feel this statement deserves a great deal of attention, not only because it says something about the conservative evangelical/fundamentalist Christian approach to homosexuality, but their approach to life, the divine, and spirituality in general.  As Chistopher speaks of the overwhelming sense of welcome he felt as he returned home with his parents, he offers the following phrase:

I was unworthy of my parents love…

Christopher quickly slides past that statement and goes on about the great depths of love that his parents had for him despite his alleged unworthiness.  But I want to pause and really think about that statement.

Christopher felt he was unworthy of his parents love.

Because a child doesn’t deserve the love of parents simply because zie exists.  It’s something that either the child must earn — presumably through proper behavior — or through the magnanimous actions of parents who decides to love zem anyway.  But either way you slice it, a child is not simply worthy of a parent’s love simply because, hey, children deserve to have parents who love them.

I don’t buy that line of reasoning.  Quite frankly, if a parent ever told a child, “You know what, you don’t really deserve my love because [the reason doesn’t matter], but I’m going to love you anyway because that’s just the way I am,” I would not consider that parent loving.  I would consider that parent cruel.  I would suspect that such a parent was being manipulative or otherwise abusive.  If I were in a position to do so, I would watch that parent very closely and see how else zie treats zir child.  I might even have social services on speed dial.

Here’s the thing, many Christians like Christopher don’t just think that this unworthy child with a parent who deigns to love said child anyway as a dynamic between earthly children and their earthly parents.  They see this as the appropriate dynamic between themselves and their heavenly parent.  They see a God who loves not because people deserve love, but sees a bunch of unworthy people and decides to love them anyway because He feels like it.

My view of such a heavenly parent is no higher than my view of a similar earthly parent.  I believe that the Divine loves me because the Divine can do nothing else when the Divine looks upon me.  I believe that Divine love is based in my inherent worthiness to be loved.  I don’t have to earn it.  I don’t have to wait for the Divine to decide to love me anyway.  I deserve to be loved.

That doesn’t mean that I’m perfect.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t need to improve.  The Divine calls on me to do these things because the Divine loves me, not in order to make me (more) lovable.

I feel a great deal of sadness for someone who considers themselves unworthy of love.  In my book, that suggests to me that zie is in a dark place.  And if zie is in that dark place because zir  religion tells zem that’s the zie they should be in, well, I’ll make no apologies for finding that monstrous.

Pondering “Out of a Far Country”: The narrative perspective problem

Because Angela and Christopher Yuan’s book, “Out of a Far Country,” is an autobiography, it engages a narrative voice, just like a work of fiction.  This is particularly helpful in this case, because both Angela and Christopher are describing a transformative journey, a journey that involved transformations of their thoughts and behavior patterns.  As such, the process of narrating their story and telling what was going through their minds at the time enhances and furthers their story and the overall goal of the book.

However, neither author is always clear on whether they are totally narrating from the perspective of their earlier selves — the person who lived through the experience currently being described — or their current selves or both.  As such, it’s not always clear if a given point of view is still valid in their current way of thinking.

The first time this becomes troubling is in the very first chapter, where Angela describes briefly an incident from Christopher’s teen years:

I immediately thought back to when Christopher was sixteen years old and I found out from his brother that he had a sexual relationship with a thirty-year-old man.  Christopher had contacted the man, who then invited him over.  Sure, Christopher may have sought the man out, but no matter how you look at it, this man had used and soiled my son.

Note that Angela does not indicate whether she is speaking as her current self who blames this man for “soiling her son” or her 1993 self, who (as her narrative demonstrates) had a tendency to try and control Christopher and even make excuses for his own choices.  That potential difference makes the difference between Angela telling about her own personal growth and Angela perpetuating the myth that gay men are predators who recruit younger men and boys.

Christopher presents a similar problem when he describes his thoughts when meeting with a retired marine who “‘knew a lot’ about homosexuality.”  Chris writes about part of the exchange as follows:

“Well, for one thing, gay men have a shorter life expectancy than straight men.”  He looked at my mom.  “This has been proven by reputable scientists.”

Reputable!  You’ve got to be kidding.  Was this what you’d call knowing a lot about homosexuality?  Using skewed statistics to “prove” that gay men die sooner than other men?  How could any researcher gather an unbiased, representative sample of gay men, when many don’t want their sexuality to be known and others are still denying even to themselves that they are gay?  Most of those studies only gathered data rom gay men who died as a result of AIDS.  What about all teh other normal gay men?

He continued.  “Did you know that a survey of gay men shows that most have had sex with someone under the age of eighteen?”

Seriously?  Give me a break!  None of my friends slept with teenagers.  Did the survey clarify when it was that they slept with someone under-age?  Most likely they were teens themselves.  And by way of comparison, what were the stats for straight men?

Christopher’s analysis of the shorter lifespan claim is 100% accurate.  Most claims about gay men living shorter lifespan is based on the discredited research of Paul Cameron.  There are plenty of resources explaining how Cameron both distorted his own work to get the results he wanted and distorted the findings of others in service of his claims.  In fact, many of the researchers whose works Cameron has distorted have made very public statements condemning him for it.

I have no hard data on sex between underage boys and men over the age of eighteen, however I will note that this is a standard accusation of the anti-gay movement.  Also, they are quick to link pedophilia with gay men — either explicitly or implicitly — in general despite all the research pointing out that sexual orientation has no bearing on a pedophiles choice of victims.  So Christopher’s dismissal of this man’s arguments is not only reasonable, but based on sound and documented criticisms of such anti-gay rhetoric.

But again, Christopher doesn’t make it clear if present-day Christopher still feels the way that Christopher of 1993 felt.  Given the fact that this earlier version of Christopher is being painted as making poor choices (and many of his choices are undeniably poor) and being generally rebellious, it would be easy for readers to assume that this is another one of those areas where younger Christopher “got it wrong.”  This is especially true considering that present-day Christopher has given some indication that at least his theology, if not his politics and methods, aligns with those who continue to spout such discredited propaganda against gay men and LGBT people in general.  The fact that he does not clarify whether he believes that this is one of those places where his younger self “got it right” in this particular instance is troubling.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Christopher and Angela and their book exist in a certain context, and their book serves the potential to serve the purposes of that context in ways that are potentially less-than-honest.  Assuming that they did not want their book used in such ways, it would have been nice if they made more effort to make it clear where their current-day selves disagree with their younger selves and where they still agree.

Pondering “Out of a Far Country”: The morality question

While I find Christopher Yuan’s life and journey as he describes it in “Out of a Far Country,” I find the way in which that story culminates to his conclusions in the “Holy Sexuality” chapter to be troubling and problematic.  Again, as I alluded to in my previous post, this is where he at least implicitly shifts from telling his personal story to offering a moral prescription for others.  As such, I feel this chapter needs to be directly addressed.

This shift I’m talking about quickly becomes visible when Christopher begins his defense or justification of calling on gay men and women to a life of celibacy.  Christopher offers his realization that there are people in the Bible who lived their entire lives abstinent, noting that both Jesus and Paul were both such men.

The thing note, however, is that both men acknowledged that it was neither an easy calling or one that everyone was suited for.  When Jesus’s own disciples comment that it would be better to remain unmarried, Jesus responded that “not all can accept this,” without any sense of condemnation (Matthew 19).  Similarly Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthian church (chapter 7), he notes that it is better to remain single, but that those who cannot control their lusts should get married.[1]  So as I read Christopher’s insistence that it’s not unfair of God to demand celibacy — especially lifelong celibacy — of certain people, I’m skeptical that his two examples of holy and celibate men would actually agree with him.

But the thing is, Christopher isn’t claiming that God is demanding lifelong celibacy of individuals, but of an entire class of people.  I have no problem believing that God called Paul, Jesus, or even Christopher Yuan to lifelong celibacy.  God places individual callings upon people all the time.  But to say that an entire class of people must remain celibate simply because of who they are drawn to when it comes to sex and romance[2] is an entirely different claim, and I think it’s a position that takes far more defense than Christopher offers.  I also think it takes far more appreciation of what one is claiming God demands of all gay and bisexual people and just how hard a road one is calling others to.

That last statement is pivotal to me.  What I see here is that some — either including Christopher or those who will be further emboldened by him — are trying to tell other people — and entire class of people, in fact — what God’s calling is for their lives.  I maintain that this is not how callings work.  Callings are not placed upon people by other individuals.  No, the things so placed are rightfully called burdens.  Callings are made not to classes of people, but to individuals by a god who draws that individual in, gives the individual a heart and desire for that calling, and fills that individual with a sense that while the calling may not always involve an easy road, it is entirely doable.  This is not what is being offered here in the chapter on holy sexuality.

As I’ve referred to the chapter’s title which invokes the word “holy,” let’s look at the statement popularized by some Exodus leaders and repeated in this chapter:

“The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, but holiness.”

My problem with this statement is that it reduces holiness — a complex and wondrous topic — to a mere question of not having sex or at least not having the wrong kinds of sex.  It reduces the idea of holiness in sexuality to following the right rules, avoiding the right taboos, and so on.  It does nothing to illuminate what makes sex or sexuality holy — sacred to and glorifying of the Divine — which makes it hard to accept the unsubstantiated statement[3] that the holiness of one’s sexuality or sexual activity is affected by the gender of one’s partner(s).

I wish Christopher the best in following what he believes that God has called him to.  But I would ask him not to attempt to universalize that calling for all gay people or allow others to use his story to do so.  It’s simply not his or their place.

[1]  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for marriage as a sacred institution, is it?

[2]  And like so many others, Christopher never seems to acknowledge that same-sex relationships have a romantic side or other aspects beyond the sex.

[3]  Christopher and others might argue that “The Bible says so” should be good enough.  Setting aside that not everyone agrees about what “the Bible says” on the topic, I will note that this underscores an extremely authoritarian approach to morality and assumes and authoritarian God who gives a moral code that is based on nothing more than His say-so.  I am deeply troubled by such an understanding of both morality and God.  Indeed, I think conservative Christianity would be greatly served by the sudden appearance of many more Jobs in their ranks.

Pondering “Out of a Far Country”: Conflating Issues

There’s a part of me that wishes I lived in a different world.  That part of me wishes that I lived in a world where the Yuans’ book, “Out of a Far Country,” existed in a vacuum.  In such a world, I could appreciate the book for its own merits and my discussion of it would be complete with my previous post on the topic and a brief explanation of where I disagree with Christopher’s conclusions and theology and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality I occupy.  In reality, I live in a world where some people — influential people — have invested a great deal of time and money in presenting QUILTBAG people — particularly gay men — in the worst light possible.  There are those who still either explicitly or implicitly seek to link homosexuality with substance abuse, pedophilia, risky sex, and other destructive behaviors.

Such people like men like Christopher Yuan.  They love such men’s stories, because they can point those men’s experiences, generalize them, and say, “See?  This is what all gay men (and QUILTBAG people in general) are like!”  Courageous men like Christopher — and I do not discount his courage or the truly amazing nature of his transformative journey — become tools in the anti-gay political machine’s to inaccurately paint and even dehumanize an entire class of people.

Some may feel that it’s unfair to hold Christopher responsible for how others might misuse his story.  After all, such people are responsible for their own actions some might say.  And in many ways that’s quite correct.  However, I will note that Christopher and Angela are not isolated or separate from the very community that would misuse this book to generalize about all QUILTBAG people.  Indeed, the book makes it quite clear that Christopher and Angela were familiar with groups like Exodus International — which has spent years cultivating the “gay lifestyle = risky sex and substance abuse” narratives. In fact, in the chapter “Holy Sexuality,” Christopher invokes the common Exodus slogan, “The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality, but holiness,” and talks about “gay identity” that is identical to the view expressed by many ex-gay groups and individuals.

As such, I have to assume that Christopher knew how his story would be perceived and presented by others.  I find the fact that he did nothing to address that and point out that his story is unique and not representative of all gay men, let alone QUILTBAG people in general, troubling and questionable.

He spends much of the book talking about friends — friends that eventually abandon him — from the circuit party scene, from the drug scene, from the porn scene.  And I have no doubt that they did exactly that.  But he makes no note that the problem isn’t that his friends were gay, but were part of scenes that are notorious for being filled with the kind of people who are only friends of convenience.  Perhaps Christopher didn’t make any gay friends from other scenes — coffee shops, pub-style gay bars, social groups, or groups that have a political/social justice bent — that tend to be filled with gay people who are more likely to swarm around someone in need.  People get involved in different scenes after all, and I’m not questioning his experience.  But again, as someone who should know what the narrative many conservative evangelical Christians try to push concerning QUILTBAG people, I’m troubled that he put in no effort to make it clear that his friends’ abandonment of him was probably far more influenced by factors other than their sexual orientation.

I find the same problem in the chapter “Holy Sexuality,” which I hope to cover more in a future blog post.  But for now, I’d like to note that Christopher describes the sequence in which he identifies and eliminates his “idols.”  He starts by identifying drug use as an idol and something he needs to live without, which I can certainly agree with.  Then he moves on to determine that dance music and the party scene is idol for him.  He is quick to note, however, that there is nothing inherently wrong with dance music or going to clubs.  He simply points out that he does not believe that he could do these things without falling back into old drug habits.  I can certainly understand this and honor his personal wisdom in realizing what he needs to do for himself in order to keep himself healthy and under control.  I’ll also note that in a sense, he also acknowledges this as a personal struggle and a personal choice of how to deal with it.  He doesn’t try to make it a universal ban on dance music and clubbing for all people.

Then he gets to the issue of sex.  He describes his own relationship to sex as follows:

I had an addiction to sex.  Having several anonymous partners at a bathhouse in the same day had been nothing out of the ordinary for me.

An actual addiction to sex is a serious problem, and I sympathize with Christopher and anyone else who has struggled with sexual addiction.  But Christopher jumps from the above statement right to the question of living without sex at all.  It’s as if in Christopher’s mind, there’s no middle ground here.  A gay man is either celibate or he is addicted to sex.

Perhaps he doesn’t mean that.[1]  Perhaps he means this as a personal decision, that for him, the only way to break free from the sexual addiction he felt was to turn to abstinence.  If that is the case, then I can respect that as another personal decision based on personal struggles.

However, the context of the rest of the chapter doesn’t leave me with that impression.  But my analysis of the rest of his views on holy sexuality will have to wait for another post.  And at any rate, given the tendency of many in the ex-gay/anti-gay movement(s) to conflate homosexuality and sexual addiction/”promiscuity,” I’m still concerned that he either intentionally or unintentionally contributed to that conflation by not addressing the issue.

[1]  Assuming the email I received regarding my last post, Christopher is reading my blog posts concerning his and his mother’s books.  Given that, perhaps he will see fit to clarify what his thinking/intent on this and my other concerns are.