Monday, November 26, 2012

Review of Justin Lee's Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate

For someone who keeps up a blog on the subject, I don't do as much reading on "Christianity, homosexuality and the Bible" as you might think. Frankly, it's hard to sustain interest when I see the same arguments rehashed on both the traditional and progressive sides of the debate. This presents a problem when I'm looking for something to give my straight evangelical friends. I'd like to give them a book that advances the discussion, but does so by connecting with them, not preaching at them. It doesn't help to belittle people, or tell them that believing the Bible is homophobic or the equivalent of supporting slavery. Most of my Christian friends are smart, sensible, compassionate people who would greatly benefit from someone who can speak to them in their language, who doesn't agree with them on every point but challenges them biblically to stretch their thinking.

Justin Lee is a gay Christian writer and speaker who has done just that. His new book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate is honest, engaging, clear-thinking, reasonable, and very evangelical. He uses the narrative thread of his own life experience to explain what it's like to be gay and Christian in the church, and to be torn between two sides that are at each other's throats in a culture war.

I had trouble putting it down. The pages go fast because you feel like he's just telling you his story. But in doing so Justin also interweaves reflections about what it's like to be gay and Christian that are instructive for the rest of us. As you learn how he struggled to admit to himself that he was gay, how he came out to his parents and pastor, why he couldn't join the ex-gay movement, why he felt misunderstood by straight Christian friends, and how he wrestled through the key Bible passages on homosexuality, your eyes are opened not just to one man's struggle but to the much bigger problem of how the culture war is tearing the church apart and ruining her witness.

Somehow Justin is able to explain all this without being preachy or abrasive. His writing is personal and his tone is gracious. I mean genuinely gracious, not a graciousness that smacks of condescension. As an evangelical I appreciated how well he was able to speak to me in my language. He always seemed sane and sure-footed as he laid out the processes through which he came to his conclusions, even the controversial ones.

For me the real test came when I got to the chapter where he dealt with the Scripture passages. I must confess I was tempted to skip it. I have read so many boring, shrill or unconvincing exegeses of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Romans 1, and 1 Corinthians 6 that I rarely even bother to drag my eyes through it anymore. It says a lot that Justin actually kept my interest, due entirely to his humble, honest and respectful handling of God's word. He never treated the Bible with a cavalier attitude, never dismissed the tough passages with simplistic, one-sided answers. The one criticism I do have about this chapter is that he did not deal with Genesis 1-2, which I consider a key passage. But overall, I can say that I was surprised at how wholeheartedly I agreed with his conclusions. I'll let you find out for yourself what those conclusions are.

This is not to say that the evangelical world will embrace this book enthusiastically. In fact, I anticipate Torn will ruffle plenty of feathers, maybe because Justin has the ability to connect so well with evangelicals. What's more, he is not coming to the church and saying, "This is my story. Please be nice and accept me." Rather, he is challenging the church to rise above the culture war, heed her true calling, and embody the gospel that we claim to believe.

The fact that he does so as a gay Christian will no doubt be irksome to some. They will claim that there is no such thing as a gay Christian, and they will try to dismiss him on that basis alone. But I ask everyone who reads this book to judge for yourself whether you can say that Justin is an unbeliever, that his faith is false, that his submission to the Bible is a sham, and that his "agenda" is anything but a sincere Christian concern for the church he loves. If you've ever had doubts whether gay Christians exist, look here. I can say from my own experience that people like Justin are not rare. The rest of us in the church would be far wiser if we listened to them, and far richer if we embraced them as fellow citizens of the heavenly kingdom.