TWO YEARS AGO, Jeff Chu found himself at a crossroads. Like many gay Christians, he felt disconnected—condemned by a wide swath of his fellow believers because of his sexual orientation, questioned because of his faith by some in the LGBTQ community who have been pushed out of the church by the words and actions of many Christians. To top it off, there was that lingering doubt, so common among those raised in evangelical households: Does Jesus really love me?
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To answer that question, Chu—an award-winning writer for Time, The Wall Street Journal, andCondé Nast Portfolio and the grandson of a Southern Baptist preacher—took off on a yearlong cross-country pilgrimage, “asking the questions that have long frightened me.” What he encountered was a divided church, “led in large part by cowardly clergy who are called to be shepherds yet behave like sheep.”
Many of the pastors Chu contacted for the book refused to speak with him, citing their suspicion of him as a member of the so-called “‘liberal media elite’” or stating bluntly that engaging on such a controversial issue might jeopardize funding for a pet project. After speaking with Richard Land, then-president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and David Shelley, a Baptist minister from Tennessee affiliated with the Family Research Council, Chu concludes that they “devote much more time talking about legislation than about love.”
Then there are those he interviewed who are known more for screaming than talking. In meeting with members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, Chu does not shy away from controversy—or his own fears. “Some nights before my departure,” he recalls of the days before his trip to Kansas, “I had nightmares, and many mornings I’d wake with my jaw tight and teeth clenched.” His encounter with Rev. Fred Phelps, the grizzled, homophobic pastor of the church, is perhaps the most riveting of the book, culminating in a surreal, grudging offer of friendship from Phelps.
Chu is a skillful writer, treating these individuals with compassion and complexity on the page and offering them a measure of grace that they themselves have denied the LGBTQ community. Yet he also explores the effects of their conservative theology on Christians such as Kevin Olson, a middle-aged Minnesotan who identifies not as gay but as “homosexually oriented” and has opted to remain celibate.
Does Jesus Really Love Me? is a poignant, disturbing book, a necessary reminder that even now—a time with a majority of Americans supporting same-gender marriage, the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the chance that the Defense of Marriage Act will be struck down by the Supreme Court—the pews of many churches across the country continue to be unfriendly territory for many.
Yet there is also cause for hope, Chu finds, in believers such as Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network; Right Rev. Mary Glasspool, the first openly lesbian consecrated bishop in the Anglican Communion, who declares that “God has given us more love than our hearts can hold”; and Gideon Eads, a 20-something from Arizona who is summoning the courage to come out to his conservative parents and church family.
While Chu examines the discourse of the modern church around the subject of homosexuality, writing in compelling prose about the opinions and experiences of his fellow believers, Does Jesus Really Love Me? is ultimately a personal story, a chronicle of his own struggle between faith and doubt.
Yes, Jesus loves him, Chu declares in the end, echoing his favorite childhood song. He’s just not so sure about the rest of the church.
Jason Howard is the author of A Few Honest Wordsand coauthor of Something’s Rising. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Revolve, and on NPR.