Review: Torn And Not Mended

This review originally appeared at the Hillhurst Review on April 8, 2013.

Lee, Justin. (2012). Torn: Rescuing the gospel from the gays-vs.-Christians debate. New York: Jericho Books.

It all started with the kid in high school who called me “God Boy.”

Justin Lee, co-founder, director, and public face of the Gay Christian Network, has been building bridges between evangelical Christians and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people since the late-1990s. Torn, his memoir, describes his work as a gay Christian to increase understanding between two communities that have clashed in churches, the media, and the courts.

As Justin explains, his goals for writing and advocacy are to elevate love, transcend too-common battles, and work with individual people. In part because of his focus on the individual—a natural focus for an evangelical whose religious tradition emphasizes personal piety—Justin doesn’t offer much comment on the systems of custom, culture, or law that nurture individuals, shape their beliefs, limit how they read their scriptures, and govern whether they feel free to accept people different from them.

During the first half of the book, Justin describes other Christians in gentle language. Whether they accept him as a peer or patronize him as a special class of sinner, he represents them as well-intentioned, misinformed, and always sincere—never “bad people.” [1] Not until halfway into Torn does Justin start unpacking American Christianity’s approach to human sexuality or LGBT people.

Most readers will appreciate Justin’s stories about his teen and college years and how he integrated his religious convictions and sexuality with his parents’ support. Though some might want to dismiss him as an “activist,” he is never aggressive or rabid; he is only passionate. He narrates calmly throughout, writing as mildly as he speaks. But he is sometimes so charitable that he slips into inaccuracy.

On page 10, for instance, Justin writes that American Christians have been “unwittingly instrumental” in promoting anti-gay sentiment in Uganda and other African countries. In 2009 and 2010, Uganda’s parliament introduced the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” a law that became known as the “Kill-the-Gays” bill because early drafts provided for capital punishment as well as life imprisonment. [2] But Christians like Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, Exodus International’s Don Schmierer, and the C-Street Congressmen have intentionally shaped Ugandan sexual politics. [3] As recently as November 2012, a US Seventh-day Adventist group took their “ex-gay” message to Africa: not only are these international engagements deliberate, not only do groups invite American supporters to fund them as “mission trips” and “the Lord’s work,” but they have continued to happen despite outrage outside the church and from sexual minorities in Africa. Evangelical influence on this climate is not accidental, and it’s not “unwitting.”

In Chapter 10, “Faith Assassins,” Justin turns his attention from the Church’s international issues to its internal ones. Explaining that restaurant wait staffs have come to expect after-church diners to be cheap tippers, he writes:

If our reputation can be damaged by poor tipping, how much more can it be hurt by the perception that we are actively hostile to an entire group of people!
… We Christians can say Jesus changed our hearts, but if our reputation is that of uncompassionate culture warriors, why should [non-Christians] believe us? We can say that God is loving and merciful, but if the church isn’t loving and merciful, why would we be in any sort of position to know that God is? [4]

The “we” orientation in this passage is consistent with Justin’s voice whenever he describes the Church: he identifies strongly with its evangelical wing and has no plans to leave it. This may be why his stories about other evangelicals all have such an authentic ring: these are the believers he knows and resonates most easily with. Even when he challenges the status quo, he’s speaking to his own.

But Justin’s comments on other branches of the Church are more one-dimensional. In one story, Justin describes a church whose preacher interpreted a gospel story without reading its supernatural elements literally. For him, the experience was foreign and unsettling; he interprets it and the wider non-literalist tradition as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and undermining the bible’s trustworthiness. Just a page later, Christians like those in the story are advocates of “one of the earliest heresies of the church.” Lacking doctrinal clarity, they “fail to stand for anything at all,” and risk “losing the things that set them apart as Christians.” At the end of this assumption chain is a mocking chant that begins “O large Person or Persons of whatever gender or branch…” [5] Its source? A comedy routine.

In the context of Justin’s closing thoughts on “the way forward” (e.g. “Christians must show more grace, especially in the midst of disagreement”) this section fails. It doesn’t increase understanding but does reinforce stereotypes, and it also highlights the limits of the author’s personal experience. Do the bridges between gay and Christian communities require all Christians to treat US evangelical doctrine as normative? Justin is clear that he’ll never be “spiritual but not religious” even if some gay people are, [6] so isn’t it curious that Truth matches evangelical beliefs (except for that gay thing!), and not, say, Orthodox or Unitarian Universalist approaches to scripture or teaching? Who set up evangelicalism as the archetype for faithful Christianity? And why would someone so dedicated to respectful dialogue be satisfied with a “heresy” slam or jokes at the expense of others?

Even though I grew up in a religious and cultural community that was as insular as Justin’s, I felt similarly uncomfortable about his descriptions of and dissociation from “gay culture.” [7] I didn’t know any self-identified LGBT people until I’d left home for college either, but it would be unfair of me to credit my early awkwardness with the community to others’ “lifestyle” or “culture” rather than my own limited perspective. “Egocentric carnality” and “anti-intellectual” attitudes aren’t the preserve of any demographic and gender and sexual minorities have no more of a monolithic lifestyle or culture than heterosexuals do. I wish Justin had been much clearer about this.

Overall, I found Torn an important contribution to the gay Christian memoir genre, not only because of its content but also because its author represents a new cohort of young and fully-engaged evangelicals. Like older memoirists Mel White and John J. McNeill, Justin patiently tells his own story while sharing some basic realities that the Church needs to accept in order to be more effective. His most likely audiences are the wider evangelical community that he calls home and the LGBT people, friends, and allies that are part of the Gay Christian Network and its sister alliance-advocacy groups across denominations.[8]

Ultimately, bridge-building doesn’t have to mean that two populations travel more to The Other Place. It only means that anyone who wants to travel across can. While I question Justin’s skill in engaging non-evangelical Christians based on how he described some of them in the book, I understand that some people are better at working out differences in person than on paper. These are yet early days in the US Church’s bridge-building movement and each community involved needs people who can address it in language they understand. Justin is one such person and I support him in his work.

[1] Compare this to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reflection, “The Good, Racist People” (2013). Coates wrote: “In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist.” Similarly foggy thinking hovers over prejudice and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities.
[2] Versions of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill circulated in 2009 and 2010. While threatening LGBT-supportive people and groups in and out of Uganda, the bill created a new crime called “aggravated homosexuality” (sex involving an HIV-positive partner, pedophilia, incest, and “serial [homosexual] offenders” in consensual relationships).
[3] Kapya Kaoma, The U.S. Christian Right and the Attack on Gays in Africa, 2009. Also Jeffrey Gettleman, American’s Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push, 2010.
[4] Torn, pp. 137-139.
[5] Torn, pp. 144-146.
[6] Torn, p. 157.
[7] Torn, pp. 149-151; 158-164.
[8] I think especially of faith-based groups like Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Affirmation, Dignity, Integrity, and the Believe Out Loud community. (I work with SDA Kinship.)


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