Review of Torn by Justin Lee
In the song “Take Your Mama” the Scissor Sisters urge their gay fans to ply mama with some cheap champagne and take her to a dance club to “show her what it’s all about.” If mama responded well to that, well, bless her. But for most evangelical LGBTQ folk who want to talk to mom, dad, and friends about being gay, another tack might be advisable.
Top of the list? Hand ‘em a good book to inform the conversation. A couple of years ago Wesley Hill, wrote the beautiful book Washed and Waiting. That book gets beyond the usual Bible-banging arguments about homosexuality and tells the story of coming out to himself and others as gay, struggling with that mightily, and concluding that God wishes him to remain celibate. As Hill tells how his struggle with homosexuality has yielded a costly blessing, his story makes a more compelling argument for the traditional side than any marshaling of proof texts could ever hope to accomplish.
And now there is a book, TORN: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-Vs.-Christians Debate, for evangelical gays and lesbians who take the affirming position. If team Gay Christian had invented a dream guy to promote their position, it would be hard to imagine a man more compelling than Justin Lee. Known as “God Boy” in high school, Justin was a good student, active in his youth group, and had a terrific relationship with both his mother and father.
That last piece of info comes in handy as Lee exposes the psychobabble of many ex-gay ministries. He demolishes the myth that gay sons are the result of distant dads and lesbians a result of distant moms. That alone may be good reason to hand this book to guilt-ridden mamas and papas. In the chapter “Justin in Exgayland” Lee shows how the ex-gay movement engages in Orwellian double-speak concerning the word “gay.” While western culture understands gay as “attracted to the same sex,” Lee charges that ex-gay groups redefined gay as “sexual behaviors they no longer engaged in or a loosely defined cultural identity they didn’t accept.” So the claim to be “ex-gay” is often profoundly misleading.
After investigating ex-gay claims, Justin departs exgayland and finds himself torn.On one hand he is a Bible-toting, Jesus loving, purity-ring wearing (well . . . everything but the ring), InterVarsity going, Christian. And he is gay. When he tries to talk about being gay with Christians he gets fix-it suggestions and thinly veiled condemnation. When he checks out the gay dance club to figure out what gay culture is “all about,” he ends up making a quick exit. Not that he is a prude. He consistently comes across as humble, searching, and mostly . . . in a lot of pain.
It is here that TORN is most compelling. Lee’s story reveals that our sexuality is deeply embedded in our bodies, and that trying to eradicate it in the name of being a good Christian may be as realistic as trying to donate all your blood in an effort to be generous. Lee’s story makes it easy to feel how hard it must have been to live the hostility between gays and Christians in one body, and it’s easy to buy Lee’s vision for understanding and reconciliation between gays and Christians as something important and urgent.
Lee’s proposal’s relies on sensible things like humility, empathy, and dialogue. He also, towards the end of the book, makes the case for the affirming position. In a book so casual and conversational, with examples from South Park and The Princess Bride, Lee’s arguments for the affirming position are surprisingly robust and persuasive. He’s obviously spent hundreds of hours reading, thinking, and dialoguing about the issue. He surveys the relevant Biblical passages, and finding their message ultimately ambiguous (given their context of idolatry and prostitution), he argues for the affirming case by insisting that they be interpreted through an ethic of love.
It’s a strong case. Whether it is adequate or not is a complex question. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that “The ethics of love is often but a cover for what is fundamentally an assertion of ethical relativism.” (For more possible responses to Lee’s case see Richard B. Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament especially his section on why love and liberation are insufficient hermeneutical lenses and Christopher C. Roberts’ Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage in which he argues that the gendered nature of our bodies is part of what God is lovingly redeeming and that we participate in that work by marrying the opposite sex or through celibacy.)
Whether or not Lee succeeds in making the affirming case (I find myself genuinely undecided about a Christian ethic concerning homosexuality), I think that handing Lee’s book to some folks is an act of love. Perhaps it is just that I live in San Francisco, but more and more I meet Christian LGBTQ folk who can’t imagine notseeking a partner. To say something like “Hey, given the Biblical passages that speak against homosexuality, and given Paul’s advocacy of singleness, why not commit to celibacy?” seems almost on par with “Hey, given the Biblical passages that speak against wealth, and given that Jesus was homeless, why not commit to voluntary poverty?” Neither question is unreasonable, but I doubt they should be absolute barriers to following Jesus.
The only question left for many Christian LGBTQ folk is not whether they will become “ex-gay” but rather whether they will become ex-Christian. Justin Lee’s book casts a beautiful vision of how Jesus’ revolutionary message of love especially includes outcasts such as gays and lesbians. He does so within the overall context of a traditional Christian sexual ethic (no sex outside marriage) and he does it in a way that invites reconciling conversation across the gay vs. Christian divide.
This review was originally published on the Englewood Review of Books website.