Sometimes, I read books and wonder WHY they were even on the bestseller’s list (such as ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by JD Vance), and sometimes I read books and wonder why they WEREN’T on the best seller’s list; Jeff Chu’s ‘Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America’ was one of those books. Normally, this would not be the kind of reading I’m attracted to, but my school sponsors a reading challenge in which you fill out a Bingo square with different titles and genres, so I picked up this one to fulfill my LGBTQ square, and I’m so pleased that I did. Not only is Jeff Chu an excellent writer (I loved annotating his alliterations and sentential adverbs and polysyndetons), but he also left me pondering and entertaining a few thoughts
How do we define things?: As a rhetorician, I loved that Chu spent so much time discussing the nature of words and how words influence thought. He writes, “humans are expert box builders. It’s what we do to make sense of the world”. Many of the conflicts he explores stem from the different interpretations of how we define concepts; how we define ‘slave’, how we define ‘marriage’, how we define ‘homosexuality’, how we define ‘gay lifestyle’, how we define ‘intimacy’; how we define a concept is inevitably going to change how we enter into conversations about it, how we approach it in therapy, how we create laws based on it; while I did not 100% agree with all of the viewpoints in the book (which you won’t, because Chu does an excellent job of exploring a plethora of them), after reading how some of these concepts were defined, and the logic behind the reasoning, I could better understand why someone might think that way.
What makes a successful marriage?: In the section “The Freedom to Marry”, Jeff Chu interviews Jake and Elizabeth Buechner; they are married, and Jake happens to be gay, and as I read their story, I began pondering to myself–what makes a successful marriage? Someone tells Jake, “you’d make a great husband”, but why does ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ have to be genderized? The couple did not appear to be unhappy and they seemed to have worked out a system and a schedule that works. We have these notions of a marriage being romantic, but what if marriage can also be utilitarian? That, perhaps we get together with someone in which we can share a space with, someone that we can solve problems with, someone that we can divvy up the work with–they do the dishes, we vacuum the stairs, they grocery shop, we cart around the kids–and with all of that, we complete a successful marriage union. One person says, “I want to be married…I long for that small kind of intimacy where you wake up next to a person you’ve pledged your life to, and then you brush your teeth together, you read a book in the same room without necessarily talking to each other, you share each other’s small joys and heartaches”…in achieving this, by definition, could this also not be a successful marriage?
Are we able to change radical opinions?: Jeff Chu masterfully begins his pilgrimage with the more radical views of homosexuality in Christian faith, and journeys towards the less radical views (obviously, I loved that he included a church in Denver)–on a side note, last weekend, I was driving in the car with my mom and we were having a conversation about the wealth distribution in my hometown (which, actually, there is no wealth distribution because everyone sits well above poverty line), and I realized that my beliefs on this subject were so different than hers (to which we all have a right to our own opinions), and I began to ponder how likely I was to actually change her opinion through this one instance of dialogue? Probably very unlikely. In the case of Chu’s pilgrimage, it was also probably very unlikely that he was to change some of these radical, fundamental beliefs as well. So, then what’s even the point of arguing?
What are my own fundamental, radical beliefs? So, then this got me thinking: what are my own fundamental, radical beliefs that, no matter what kind of evidence people presented me with, I probably would never change my viewpoint? (Right now, I’m still exploring this question–the only beliefs I will probably never bend on are school vouchers, and that St. Bernard puppies are the cutest puppies, but I’m sure I will think of more)
How well do we actually know people?: I really appreciated the spectrum of beliefs that Chu included; these ranged anywhere from, “homosexuality is a sin in the Bible”, to, “support groups for sexual healing”, to, “everyone is a sinner”, to, “the church is about meeting the needs of the community”, etc., and as I read these viewpoints and these stories, I began to think about the people that I interact with in my everyday life; surely, some of them carry these beliefs as well. I think it’s actually very difficult to actually know someone intimately. In order to adapt to the social world, we are really good at covering up our reactions and keeping our personal beliefs to ourselves, because it is not tactful to share those kinds of things in public, but how many people are hiding their own fundamental beliefs? And, how sympathetic have I actually been to these? (Honestly, probably not very)
How do we isolate wounds?: The book largely focuses on the pain of hiding ones’ sexual orientation because it prohibits the true nature of ones’ identity from being expressed. Although, as a heterosexual female, I’ve never experienced some of these points of suffering myself, the stories his interviewees shared were heartbreaking. And, most of these identity-crisis stories also included stories about addictions, about painful relationships with parents, about not feeling accepted in social settings, about financial problems, about diseases, etc.–and I began thinking–how do we isolate one’s wounds? How can we say definitely that this issue sprang from this issue, and is not connected to this other issue?…because, in the case of being human, all of these things seem to be actually pretty connected to each other.
Mike Burek once described ‘adventure’ as any time that you learn something new about yourself; this book definitely challenged some of my own viewpoints and therefore, made me learn something about my own self; I can’t say that I have any definite answer to the questions posed above, but they are certainly ruminating in my thought space. According to Mark Tidd, this is the purpose of religion; that we must question in order to know; he says religion is about figuring out, “what does love mean to me? how is ‘justice’ interpreted? what cultural biases do I impose when I read about biblical rules about women, or laws about food, or regulations about sex? what societal mores existed then?” And, I think this is what Jeff Chu wanted us to get out of it: to ask questions and to figure out where our stances are (Unlike ‘Hillbilly Elegy), I don’t think he is force feeding an ideology to us–he never comes to a conclusion about IF Jesus really does love him, and, albeit a few instances, (unlike Capote in ‘In Cold Blood’), I think he does a nice job of presenting an unbiased and understanding account of his pilgrimage; rather, I think Chu is just asking us to think deeply about our own beliefs and to consider how the beliefs of someone else may shape their interactions with others.
As I read the book, and found myself disagreeing or questioning some beliefs, I began asking myself, “If I were sitting with this pastor right now, would I be able to civilly and progressively hear them out?” I think, as a people, it is important for us to learn how to have civil and progressive dialogue with each other. Chu quotes Tony Jones and says that homosexuality in the Christian faith is one we stay away from because “abortion is one step removed for most people…creation is three streps removed–it’s almost theoretical. But when it comes to [your sexuality], well, that’s real.” But, maybe we do live in a time where this dialogue can now civilly and progressively be opened.
So, if you are looking for a book that provides some lingering, philosophical questions, that challenges your thinking, gives you a new perspective, I’d recommend this one (plus, I give it my stamp of approval for being well written, which is a very rare stamp to have).