Yesterday I spent a rainy Saturday diving into the Kindle version ofThe Cross in the Closet: One man’s abominable quest to find Jesus in the margins, a newly-released book by Timothy Kurek. I had seen Timothy’s intriguing book trailer leading up to the launch this week, and read a few articles about how this young man went from an angry, 20-something “Christian bigot” to a young man who could love the very group of people he was taught to hate. A noble idea, but I knew would have to read through a chapter titled, "Jesus in Drag" for this review.
Should Christians read this book?
If you ever wondered where bigotry came from, or desire to understand how to relate to gay people as human beings who need a Savior, this book could be very helpful. After all, Jesus did not die for a gay cause, but He did die for lost and hurting people. You may not come away with the same conclusions about this issue that Timothy did. In case you're wondering, I will tip my hand: I didn't.
No one wants to be a Pharisee, those rigid teachers of Jesus’ time on earth who had knowledge of The Law but without love. That’s exactly what Timothy was. After years of bullying gay people and acting like a horse’s rear end, Timothy felt called to live as a gay man within the very group he feared and loathed. So he “came out” to his family and friends, and headed off to live, work and relate in the “gayborhood” as he calls his new Nashville community. For one year, he would find out what gay people and their lifestyle was really all about.
I knew going into this book only that he has a compelling story to tell, and I that his story would be consumed ravenously by Christians and everyone else. As a conservative (i.e. Bible-as-Truth-believing) Christian myself, my goal was to find out if Timothy could learn how to lose the anger and hatred toward a people group and become more loving, but without compromise.
Practicing what I advise others to do, I approached this book with an open mind and an open Bible. I try my best to drop my own pre-suppositions when I read books I might potentially disagree with, so I tried not to pay much attention to the glowing endorsements by Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer, and author Greg Barrett, who snarked at those in my group, jabbing, “The Cross in the Closet serves as a blunt reminder and should be a wakeup call to every closeted bigot that dares to thump a bible.”
Yikes. But nonetheless, Timothy is careful to keep his own purpose for the book personal: “This book is about the label of gay and how the consequences of that label shaped and changed my life. What this book is really about is prejudice: specifically, my prejudice.”
You can't help but like this guy. Timothy’s writing style is beautiful, visual and engaging, and he is able to immediately draw readers into the vivid, emotional highs and tensions of his journey.
He's no fake. From the opening scene at Liberty University where then-student Timothy is screaming at pro-gay Soulforce protestors, he describes how his religion began deteriorating when confronted with his brutal unloving character. Describing how he still played the part of the dutiful Pharisee even as he began seeing holes in his own theology, he asks. “Those holes made me feel like an apostate. How could I doubt what I had always known to be absolute truth?”
I specifically wanted to explore what exactly Timothy had been raised to believe, and then compare that teaching with the whole of the Bible. He vividly described his upbringing, from his homeschooling to the strict conservative Christian theology he’d learned at his southern Baptist church.
After hearing how his worldview was shaped, I had no doubt that Timothy had gotten into some pretty awful works-based, graceless theology. Immediately I spotted the lies he’d picked up:
“We were taught that if you didn’t live up to a certain set of guidelines and standards, that God was out to get you. That He hated you, and His vengeance would be swift.”
He was also taught that God hated homosexuals and would continue to do so unless or until they repented of their abominable sins. There is no way of telling whether Timothy learned this from his parents, from his pastor (who, along with his wife, were atrociously rude to him when he “came out”), or whether it was what he thought he heard through his own young interpretation. Whatever the case, it’s apparent Timothy never learned Romans 5:6-11, that Christ died for the ungodly; That God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Perhaps if he had, he’d have saved himself a lot of heartache.
As he begins to question his long-held beliefs, he wonders if he will ever be able to reconcile his faith in God and the homosexual orientation. “If I am damned for asking questions and testing what old white men have taught me all my life, then so be it,” he exclaims at one point.
But instead of opening Scripture and testing what God Himself has written, he gears his resentment instead toward the “old white men,” putting the blame for what he feels is injustice on them rather than on the Author.
“But what if the fundamentalists are right, and being gay is a sin?” he asks.
Says a lesbian friend, “Tim, if God knows my heart, then He knows how much I love Him and want to serve Him with my life. If being gay is a sin, then I’ll just have to trust that when He said that His love covers a multitude of sins, He was telling the truth.”
Losing his religion
Timothy begins to believe that anyone who takes the Bible as Truth is the true hater and enemy of homosexuals, and that goodness, kindness and justice is not compatible with traditional teachings:
“I know this much is true,” he says. “It takes longer for individuals who have been inundated with conservative religion to “come around” than others that have not been taught about the ‘unnatural and abominable’ gay lifestyle or ‘evil gay agenda.’ Lord knows I cannot judge. It has taken a great deal for me to question and realize that things aren’t as I was taught they are, too.” And, “Life is too short to live out two-thousand-year-old prejudices from Leviticus…”
Throughout Timothy’s journey, he imagines his Pharisee self at his side, a foil who constantly questions his motives and accuses Him of compromising the truth of his religion. But trying to annihilate his conservative self isn’t his only challenge. Timothy is brutally honest about the binge drinking night after night in this new lifestyle. His family notices his alcohol consumption along with his new penchant for cursing and blasphemy. “Do you really have to say ‘Jesus Christ’ like that, or is that just another sign that you’ve turned your back on God?” his mom asks.
Timothy sees this statement as rejection rather than correction or accountability. His friend at the bar advised, “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.” To which Timothy agrees, “Our families are captive to a more conservative way of thinking about things. That’s the unfortunate part of this whole thing. We really are slaves to an idea that hurts us.”
An ironic side note: Timothy twice visits a Nashville mega-church with thousands of members spread across several satellite campuses. He describes the main pastor as a young, good-looking guy with spiked hair and trendy clothes.
There, he observes “the band play(ing) their cheesy music, and with every strum of the guitar or head-dip from the drummer ‘getting into the spirit,’ I snicker and sneer and wonder how many of them are living in the closet. I laugh at the keyboard player as he plays the same three ambient notes while the praise leader gives us fortune-cookie thoughts for worship. I smile as he reads scripture passages from his iPhone and drinks his coffee— a true hipster wannabe. I laugh at the lighting and the décor. Why are all of these churches decorated in the same cookie-cutter way?”
Ah, the Seeker-Driven model. Thanks, Peter Drucker. But I digress. What finally chases Timothy from the building is a temptation he wasn’t expecting:
“I am confronted with an overwhelming number of young women wearing incredibly revealing clothing. There are skin-tight jeans, short shorts, short skirts, and short shirts, and midriffs are exposed everywhere. Either I have never seen so much skin in a church before, or I never noticed because women have never been off limits.”
This scene is indeed the sad reality of the postmodern Bride of Christ, and many of us grieve along with Timothy about this. I also wholeheartedly agree with Timothy’s revelation that condemning people from a soapbox doesn’t work. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of repentance, and no amount of moralizing from protesters will do that. He learns, as we all should, to think about love from the standpoint of real, living and breathing people.
But as I read on, it appeared that Timothy still equated Bible-believing Christians to hateful, graceless bigots. His only choice, it seemed, was to forgo the hateful conservative view for a more liberal interpretation of the faith. I was hoping he would learn that Christians can indeed love God’s entire Word including His grace, mercy and love, without compromising the truth about sin. That it’s not about a left or a right wing, but about the narrow path that Jesus spoke of. That holiness is not the same as works, but evidence of fruit.
At one point, Timothy is invited to protest for equality (marriage) with Soulforce, the very group he once confronted, and meets leaders like Mel White and Jay Bakker. As he learns about the gay rights cause, he writes, “I listen in shock. I feel like I am living in the book of Leviticus. I feel the veil being lifted, and scales falling from my eyes one by one by one.” Sadly, while he thinks he’s just throwing off the cloak of his Pharisaical religion, he also began to dismiss the real Truth of Scripture.
Throughout the book, I was waiting and hoping for him to come to the conclusion that perhaps his own faulty understanding of a works-based faith void of grace was causing him to simply exchange one disdainful group of people (gays) for another (conservatives). Finally the breakthrough realization that he had, in fact done this: “This new inability to tolerate Christians suggests that I may have strayed into yet another unhealthy extreme. I am still a bigot, just a different kind this time.”
But as he completes his journey, his faith remained incomplete, and void of spiritual milk. Timothy’s Christian philosophy boils down to: “The gospel really is simple: loving Him means loving each other.”
Actually, this is not the Gospel at all, though many evangelicals teach that it is. Jesus explained that the greatest commandment was to love God with all of our heart, soul mind and strength, and to love one another. And although we all try to keep the Law perfectly, we can’t. Nor can we keep any of the commandments perfectly. That’s where the real Gospel comes in. The Gospel is not Love God and Love one another; it’s that we are separated by our sin from a perfect God, but He sent His Son, Jesus, to be the ultimate atonement for our sin so that those who believe and abide in Him as Savior will be forgiven and have eternal life with God. The Law condemns, the Gospel saves.
But sharing the real Gospel does not even factor into this story. In the end, Timothy does not wrestle with the Scriptural verses in the Old and New Testament, nor does he wonder why Jesus Himself describes marriage as between a man and a woman in Mark 10:7, or that He called adultery a sin and told the woman caught in adultery to “sin no more.” Instead, Timothy seems to pick the verses he is more comfortable with, that fit his new worldview:
“He isn’t lying when He says my only job is to love. That’s it.”
No, it’s that and so much more: Our job is to die to ourselves. To pick up our cross and follow Him. To go to the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.
It’s a faith that includes understanding that Jesus is who He says He is from the very beginning of time, and that He is the Author of the very words Timothy has pushed aside. He is the God who rescued people like Matthew Moore, Mike Levenhagen and Ruth Christian as well as thousands of others from the slavery of homosexuality. And He is the God who inspired Paul to write perhaps the most significant verse for those who have been saved from the severe bondage of sexual sin:
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with mennor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)
If that’s not love, then what is?