The Cross in the Closet: reviewing one straight man’s gay year
Timothy Kurek is a braver man than I. If spending a year living “Biblically” by obeying every command of the Bible sounds hardcore – imagine spending a year out of the closet as a gay man, when you’re straight. Lying to your friends and family, leaving your old life behind, and immersing yourself in the gay community.
That’s what Tim Kurek did. He wrote about it in a book called The Cross in the Closet.
His paradigm is that Jesus “became something he wasn’t” in the “ultimate act of empathy” – this is incarnational mission on steroids. Only there’s not a huge amount of mission going on, rather, a lot of soul-searching, and an interesting insight into conservative American Christianity, and what it’s like to be part of a gay sub-culture in the Bible Belt.
I’m increasingly passionate about the need for Christians to do much better when it comes to talking about, and to, those who are same sex attracted, and those who are actively homosexual. This means thinking carefully about how we approach the pastoral issue, the political sphere, but most importantly – how we articulate the gospel to our homosexual friends, family, and neighbours, and how we love and care for them in all these areas.
This book was helpful in capturing something of the emotional fragility of those people Tim interacted with. Tim clearly loves people, and especially broken and fragile people who have been hurt by their interactions with others. Others who haven’t loved them like they are called to, as followers of Jesus. But it ultimately, I feel, misrepresented what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means to love people.
It’s a powerful book. It’s moving. Especially when Tim shares a story of his own past as a homophobic bully, who contributed, in a small part to the misery of a homosexual co-worker he hated. It’s an immersive work, a great piece of gonzo journalism, It’s not an experiment I can see being repeated any time soon, so there’s a certain kudos that comes just from denying yourself for your mission that comes with this.
What struck me as I read this book was that while Tim Kurek is an incredibly brave man, I think the experiment would have been more worthwhile if he was a little more emotionally mature, though, paradoxically, a more mature person probably wouldn’t have thought the experiment was a good idea. He’s open, reflective, and honest about his struggles throughout the experiment. It’s raw. But it’s ultimately largely unhelpful.
While he empathises with those he is championing, and tries to present them positively and as a diverse community that can’t be understood monolithically, and makes some attempts to empathise with the tradition he left behind, he tars all “conservative Christians” with the Pharisee brush, and fails to consider any responses to the homosexual issue along the total acceptance/total rejection spectrum. He attempts to empathise with the Phelps family from Westboro Baptist, but can’t truly begin to fathom, past describing through the eyes of another person, how a person who believes in sin, judgment and Hell, while believing homosexuality is sinful, can truly love a homosexual person without fully accepting them, their orientation, their practice, and their homosexual identity.
This whole “issue” of homosexuality is only polarizing because conservative religion dictates the standards of religious people. It controls their motives and their reactions. It especially controls their politics. I hope to see the day when my conservative Christian brothers and sisters realize that separation is not the way of Jesus.
Conservative Christianity teaches us to love everyone; however, that love can take many different forms. It seems to stem from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” biblical perspective, which imposes only two rather limited options: Insist others conform to your spiritual world view, or ignore those who don’t. A friend of mine calls it the “brother’s keeper” method.
He then tosses out the ability for anybody to be right about the Bible.
“I think about those trapped in the closet who see only two options: stay miserable in life or seek peace in the hereafter. And I wonder what Jesus would do. Would he go door to door campaigning for Proposition 8, or would he rebuke the Pharisees who dole out condemnation like a commodity, for missing the point? I think he would do the latter. But do I think that only because I have lost my focus on what my former pastor used to call the “panoramic landscape of the gospel”? My Pharisee said as much. But it just doesn’t make sense. Life is too short to live out two-thousand-year-old prejudices from Leviticus, Greece, or Rome. Either way, I am starting to believe that people have the right to believe as they wish. My finger pointing has to stop, and thanks to Revive, I am starting to see why.”
This is what happens when you put experience in the driver’s seat when it comes to interpretation.
His emotional immaturity comes through in the assessment criteria he applies to the reaction he receives from friends and family. His brother and sister-in-law accept his announcement almost without blinking, but a schism develops when they find out mid way through the experiment that he is lying to them. His mum hugs him. Plenty of his friends turn their backs on him. His pastor tells him he needs to repent, but that he’s welcome at church like any sinner – and he does it by email, sent from his blackberry. Tim is adamant that the pastor should have called him – and he should have. People from his old life largely ignore his birthday. He feels isolated. Cut off. He was hard done by. He was wronged.
But the experiment would’ve been more genuine, I think, if he’d tried to maintain these relationships rather than expecting everybody else to come after him. It’s easy to criticise without having lived the experience, but love and relationships go two ways. And the picture Tim paints of his gay friends who have been hurt by their parents is that in the main they are still keen for old relationships to continue, even if the people they love aren’t. They’re making an effort – Tim didn’t (or certainly didn’t give any evidence of trying). Not with his church friends, anyway who he condemns for abandoning him.
In the eight days I have been out, that fear has permeated every social sphere I have been part of. I have been rebuked in the name of Jesus, lost four friends who refuse to be close to an “unrepentant homosexual,” and I have even been told that Jesus does not love me…
My phone no longer rings with calls and texts like it did only a short week ago. I have been waiting, preparing myself for numerous conversations about my revelation, but so far most friends seem to desire only distance. It is that distance, I think, that has pushed so many people over the edge, the excommunication from believers, friends, and loved ones that disagree and disengage. My news spread like a plague, but I was the only real casualty…
There is a fine line between tolerance and rejection. Waking up to that fact has cost me dearly. In the past three weeks, I’ve received emails and text messages from people whom I always believed loved and valued me. But now I know the truth. Instead of speaking with me in a personal way to understand my decision, many of these people took the easy path of judgment, and they did so using the impersonal and soulless tools of social networks and email to do the dirty work.
Besides, the Christian friends and community I spent years building seem to have forgotten about me. So many people have disappeared from my life that it is almost as though they never existed. Fair-weather friends? No, just people firmly stuck in their bubbles, I think. On the other hand, the people I am meeting now seem to accept me more than anyone ever has. Perhaps that is because the gay men I spend so much time with don’t judge me by my piety but let my actions speak for themselves. If I make them laugh, they like me for my sense of humor. If I am kind, they like that I am sensitive. Those are earned actions. It is nice not to be judged for my gauged ears, or for the fact that I didn’t read as much of the Bible as a fellow parishioner. It is nice not to be judged by how well I can present a righteous façade.
Here’s a passage from when he eventually goes back to his old church, and sees a friend in the car park:
“An old friend sees me standing by my car and runs over to greet me. The smile on his face is enormous, and it warms my heart. “Tim Kurek! How are you doing?” He ignores my outstretched hand and pulls me into a hug. “I’ve missed you, brother. How are you?” “I’m doing well. How are you?” I say, somewhat shocked by his genuine greeting. “I’m doing great. I’ve missed you, man.” He’s always been a good guy, my friend, and standing with him makes me realize how much I have missed him, too. It feels odd, though…wrong, somehow. How can I miss someone who hasn’t tried to reach out to me? How can I feel a connection to someone who thinks of me as an abomination?”
He’s right. Cutting people off because you don’t like a decision they’ve made is stupid – if they’re no longer claiming to be part of your church community. If someone says “I’m gay, I don’t think I can be a Christian anymore” and you cease contact with them – you’re a jerk. That’s a big secret to reveal and it comes at a cost. But the church has to be really careful about how it deals with sexual immorality within its walls, and within the community – Paul’s pretty clear on that (1 Cor 5). He’s also pretty clear that being a Christian transforms our sexuality – be it gay or straight – that it involves a leaving behind of the old, and a realignment of our identity in Jesus (1 Cor 6:9-11).
If you’re in Tim’s shoes though, or the shoes he’s trying to walk in, I’m not sure you can complain about being cut off if you’ve essentially cut yourself off first, and make no apparent effort to continue relationships. Tim’s gay friend Will, who he grew up with, and pursued/persecuted at the request of Will’s mum when Will came out, is more understanding about his mum cutting him off than Tim is…
“I just try to put myself in her shoes. If I believed what my mother believes, and I had a son come out as gay, I would be mortified because that would mean my blood, my offspring that I love unconditionally, was going to Hell. Now think about Hell from a conservative Christian’s perspective. Wouldn’t you do whatever you could to steer your child away from that path? It is simple enough for me. Her belief separates us, but her motivation helps me understand and accept her, even though it hurts me.” Will steps away for a second and makes a drink for another customer.”
His model of incarnational ministry is a bit skewiff, because while Jesus certainly became human, and lovingly lived amongst sinners – he didn’t become a sinner until the cross – and even then the sinner he became was vicarious (2 Cor 5), and doesn’t push us to joining sinners in their sin, but towards a share of God’s righteousness:
20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Jesus identified with sinners. Yes. And Tim summarises it like this:
I have been taught that I need to be Jesus to the people I meet, that I need to live the love and the faith and the commitment of my God, so that others can see Him, too. If it is true that we can be Jesus to each other, then I will never see Jesus the same way again. Tonight… Well, tonight, I saw Jesus in drag, and now I feel incapable of hate.
Being Jesus, for Tim, means not “shoving theology down people’s throats”… when he’s thinking about how he suddenly finds himself not liking the church very much he says this:
Can I truly claim Jesus and be at odds with his children? Are they even his children? I remember the scripture that says “by your fruit you shall know them.” Yes. They are his children, as much as I am his child. Salvation is not a country club, and we do not have the right to deny anyone admittance. People and their relationships to God are their own concern, and no good can come from my shoving my theology down someone else’s throat.
Shoving “my theology down someone else’s throat” is bad. The very notion of “my theology” is bad. But that’s not the same as telling people the great and freeing news of the gospel of Jesus who sets people free from oppression, particularly the oppression of sin. One of the classic texts used in the relationship between Jesus and an “incarnational” approach to evangelism is Luke 4:18-19.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I’d argue that you can’t just proclaim by being, though loving and empathy are part of our proclamation. This is, I think, The Cross in The Closet’s biggest failing.
Tim is clearly angry at the institutional church. He says, after he returns to his church during the experiment:
“It’ll probably be a long time before I’m comfortable at any church again. I will always do my best to follow God with my life, but being part of a brick and mortar church doesn’t appeal to me at all.”
The book paints his progression from “conservative Christian” to “liberal” – in his own words. His contempt for his former self – who he depicts throughout the book as a pharisaical interlocutor – and his former way of thinking, and love for his new found ability to love people for who they are, means he throws a lot of baby out with the bathwater.
He preempts criticism by both adopting the spiritual high ground, through an account of a moving spiritual event where a gay community group sang praise songs along with “Jesus in drag,” and through the recording of a prayer that a gay man prayed when he re-outed himself as a straight man. He also swears off labelling people, saying people should just be seen as people – while depicting himself, and by extension, anybody who articulates the thoughts the Pharisee version of him was thinking, as Pharisees.
Here’s a couple of passages on the power of labels.
Being a second-class citizen feels like being a tenth-class citizen. If I really were gay, I feel like my life would become such an issue for people that I would be constantly exhausted. Gays and lesbians are looked at as different, perverse, and the label alone seems to illicit an association with the lowest dregs of society, morally speaking. No one wants to be thought of that way! Is it really so unrealistic to let people’s actions speak for them rather than the stigmatized label?
“That was the first time since coming out that I heard that word and understood what it actually meant. It means that you are a lesser, a second-class citizen, and an anathema. It means that your life is relegated to a single word, and the details of that life don’t matter. It means that your thoughts, experiences, loves, and struggles should be painted over because you aren’t an equal, that yours isn’t as valuable as other lives. It meant you are hated. Even though I am not actually gay, I felt that hate, and it still disrupted something sacred in me. Faggot denotes rejection and epitomizes unwelcome, and it was a vile epiphany that I came to. Without knowing anything about us, the man walking the pugs told all of us that we were not worthy to be in community with him.”
Here’s how he poisons the well as the experiment ends – so that nobody can possibly impeach his testimony, with the prayer his gay friend Ben prays when he has revealed that he’s been straight all along.
“Ben begins to cry. Tears roll down his cheeks like shiny beads, and his lips quiver. He breathes heavily, but still says nothing. And then, as if in a dream, Ben lightly touches my lips with his hand and begins to pray:
“Lord, be with your servant, Tim. Inspire the words that come out of his mouth as he shares the reality of this news with the masses, and as he shares your love and your grace with the masses.”
He slides his hand to my eyes. “Lord, protect his eyes and what he sees. Help him not to see any hatred, but only love, as he sets out on this journey of grace.”
His hand once again moves, to my ears. “Lord, block his ears from hearing the hateful words directed at him from people in the religious community and from this one. Protect his ears from the words of hate that they’ll inevitably speak.”
His hand moves to my heart. “Lord, thank you for this heart! Thank you for the sacrifices he has made. Lord, bless this beautiful heart with every power you possess. Help him never to change, Lord, to be jaded, to be hurt. I love you, Lord, and Tim loves you. Thank you for letting us love each other. Amen.”
Clearly it’s a moving experience for him. Clearly Ben appreciates what he’s done. And by reporting this third party endorsement of his words, from within the gay community, he can now argue from his own experiences that his position is the most authentic position on the gay issue, perhaps with the exception of the gay Christians he lionises throughout the book. And that’s all very post-modern. But am I speaking hatred by disagreeing with the direction Tim took with his experiment? I hope not. It’s such a binary way of viewing the world. I disagree with him – but I don’t hate him. To frame criticism as hate, and to do it before you’ve even faced the criticism, to delegitimise criticism, is a clever rhetorical move, but ultimately pretty empty.
Perhaps my biggest concern, pastorally at least, is that he tosses any same sex attracted Christian who resists identifying with their sexual orientation under the bus. Not because he takes the “born this way” argument, but because he rejects the view of original sin he was brought up with and over-emphasises the importance of being made in the image of God – or at least, his view of the imago dei has no account for the impact of the fall.
“I am sure of my God, who I believe more than ever sent his Son for me, and I am sure of the reconciliation he offers, whether that be between families split apart over divisive issues, or members of opposing political parties. I am sure of the beauty that all mankind has inherited—a beauty that can never be stripped away by bad words or deeds, or even other humans”
Kurek hates on, dismisses, or jokes about, reparative therapy a few times, and perpetuates the myth that attempting to realign your sexual orientation is harmful.
If my mom tried to shove ex-gay literature at me, I’d probably throw it right back at her. Reparative therapy, they call it. They should call it “repression therapy.”
The only thing close to a longitudinal study on the impact of reparative therapy, by Jones and Yarhouse, concluded that it isn’t always effective, but it’s not really harmful.
It’s horrible that coming out, for some people, results in being disowned and ostracised by their family, friends, and ministers – rather than producing loving concern. But Kurek seems to judge people on their inability to show an empathy, or even sympathy, for others that he isn’t prepared to genuinely extend to people who are struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation with their identity. It’d also be tempting to suggest that he gets a bit of Stockholm Syndrome during the experiment – but I think he actually genuinely loves, and is loved by, the people he lives with for his year. And that’s great. If only it translated to being prepared to love people despite their sin, while still acknowledging sin, and trying to move the locus of human identity to a right relationship with the God who created us all.
I think he’s ultimately right about labels – labels are powerful. They carry stigma. And it’s bad to label people according to their sexuality. It’s bad to let your sexual orientation define who you are. But there are labels that it’s important to own, as a Christian. Adopted. A new creation. A child of God. A follower of Jesus. And adopting all those labels has a powerful effect on your life, and it changes your identity. And it changes your approach to sex and sexuality. I just don’t think Tim quite got there…
But I’m thankful for his experiment, wrong-headed and relationally damaging though I think it was (I think the experiential gains from deceiving his family were minimal, and contributed nothing to the book – especially because they essentially whole-heartedly continued loving him, even though it was hard for his mum). I’m thankful because it did open my eyes to some unthinking prejudices of my own, to times when I might be insensitive to the people around me, to the importance of personal contact rather than hiding behind a keyboard when it comes to dealing with difficult issues, and to the need to keep the love of Jesus for all people at the front of my thinking. And I’m hopeful that as Tim, freed from the shackles of the hatred that constrained him and his understanding of Christianity in the past, will keep looking to the Bible to find out who Jesus is, not just to human expressions of spirituality, I’m hopeful that his experiences will shape him, and others, so that the cross of Christ continues to shape our identity, not whatever closets we feel the need to hide in.