A month or so ago, I was honored to receive an advanced copy of Jeff Chu’s new book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.
I knew I would like this book right off the bat, because it held the promise of wandering stories stitched together into one. A mosaic of christians trying to figure out faith as best as they can. As for me, I’m kinda burnt out on Christian theology and poll numbers, I like to hear directly from the folks that have some skin in the game. I like to see my story reflected in theirs.
This is Jeff’s pilgrimage across America and he’s trying figure out why so many who worship the same God can have such strong disagreements on the issue. Along the way he starts to understand, for perhaps the first time, what the church really is and what his faith really means.
Yet, he doesn’t make it all about himself. Not really. He approaches this as a pilgrim searching. He allows all of us to get lost in the heartbreak and joy of so many. To absorb them just as he has.
There is a story of lesbian soccer coach at a Christian college, fired from her job after she came out, and then embraced by churches all around town. There is a rather depressing, albeit honorable, story of a celibate gay man in the later stages of life, trying to figure out where God fits into his loneliness. There is a story of a mixed orientation marriage, the gay spouse describing sex with his wife as an, “acquired taste, like olives.” There is renegade LGBT newspaper at a conservative Christian school. There is Jennifer Knapp, there Is Ted Haagard. And there is Mr. Phelps.
Yes, you read that right, Fred “God-Hates-Fags” Phelps.
In the fringe crazy corner of Topeka, Kansas, inside the Phelps family fortress of Westboro Baptist Church, Jeff settles on in. This chapter may be worth the purchase alone. It is utterly fascinating. Particularly how Jeff describes the sheer normalcy of these folks.
“every member of the church we meet, except for Fred, is warm and welcoming. They’re good, easy conversationalists, chatting about everything from the Harry Potter books to photography to the movies. And they can be charmingly self-deprecating. One evening, we go over to Steve Drain’s house for pizza. “Do you want anything to drink?” he asks, opening the fridge to do a quick inventory. “We have Coke, Diet Coke, iced tea, juice, water. But we don’t serve Kool-Aid. It makes people a little nervous!””
Later on, Steve makes it clear to Jeff that he is, in fact, going to Hell.
It’s this stunning jump from man to monster that is so bewildering. Makes me wonder how someone can become twisted and evil and still human and then one day, like Megan Phelps, completely redeemed.
When Jeff and El Capitan Fred Phelps sit down, you see how strange this man truly is. You also get an inside look into who has influenced his beliefs and how he decided that the best way to spread gospel was to protest funerals of American soldiers, slaughtered children, churches and so on. It is crazy and infuriating, but interesting.
Inserted throughout the book are some beautiful gems of story. You hear from these folks directly, in their own words, and you see how God has spoken to them differently. It isn’t always like a testimony, with a world changed at the end, sometimes, it is people living like all of us do, slogging through this life hanging on to some semblance of hope.
Perhaps what I loved most about this book though, is the dignity Jeff gives to each perspective. He argues that most people that strongly disagree with one another are not bigots or Bible defectors, they are people loving in imperfect, sometimes damaging, ways. Their heart may be in the right place, even when their mouth is way out of line. They all are fighting for one another to save one another from the lies they believe the other has bought in to. Sometimes, that effort turns bitterly ugly. Like the Phelps’s who think that carrying signs that say “God Hates Fags” may wake people up to God’s judgment and save themselves. Jeff once refers to the words we use as physical things, like bricks, we can either pave a road or build a wall. (or chuck one at our neighbor’s head, I would add.) An analogy that is fully applicable to today’s conversations.
If you are gay, you will hear your own story in this book, or at least something similar to it. It will mess you up in the way a good book does. You’ll ask more questions, you’ll open palms flat below the sky waiting for answers like manna, you’ll feel a wonderful euphoria of empathy.
But this isn’t just for gay folks. Hardly.
There are stories of pastors wrestling through all the muck. Trying to bridge their beliefs and their commandment to love. Trying to figure out how their jobs, their future plans, their role as leaders is going to change with progress towards equal marriage. Their struggle is important too.
And not to spoil the ending, but…
Jesus loves Jeff.
Just like He loves you .
Just like He loves me.