The Story that Subverts the Myth: A Review of Torn by Justin Lee

“For a gay guy, Justin Lee is incredibly straight-laced.” That’s what I kept thinking as I read Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. I realized about half way through the book, that I was waiting and looking for the “edge” that a gay Christian author is supposed to have. I expected him to be super-opinionated, angry, vitriolic even. Why is that? It quickly dawned on me that, even though I was reading this book from a place of openness, I was nevertheless projecting my own stereotypes of gay people onto Justin. Oh how wrong was I. Justin Lee is the nicest, ‘goodie-two-shoes’ you should ever expect to have written a book on such a controversial topic. He couldn’t have had more grace and nuance. He couldn’t have broken more molds.

Does that mean I agree with every conclusion at which Lee arrives? No, not necessarily. But what it does mean is that Torn is not a book that can be easily dismissed. Lee is careful to present his story and his perspective in a very winsome way. One of the reasons Lee’s story is so powerful is because of its clear ring of authenticity. Antagonistic readers will have a difficult time claiming Lee isn’t completely sincere. Lee doesn’t come across as “having an agenda”, like the common caricature of the homosexual community holds. And Lee professes devout faith in Jesus. That is why this book will challenge any reader who thinks their position on human sexuality is unshakable.

Reading Lee’s Story

Torn is mostly Lee’s story, which I think is a brilliant way to present his perspective on a contentious topic. I’d suspect most of Lee’s audience haven’t heard the story of a gay Christian in its entirety. Chances are good they’ve met a gay person at one time, or have a gay acquaintance. But, for the vast majority of Lee’s readers, the idea of a gay Christian is probably an oxymoron. This is precisely the false dichotomy to which Lee points in his subtitle: the “Gays-vs.-Christians” debate. For most conservative Christians in the United States, the idea that a person cannot be gay and Christian is a foregone conclusion. Torn represents a significant challenge to that idea. For starters, Lee spends a good chunk of the book explaining and re-explaining (which is actually more necessary than you might think) that many conflicts over whether a person can be gay and Christian are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of definition. When Lee says he’s gay, he doesn’t mean that he practices homosexual sex, he means that he is attracted to other men. In other words, for Lee, being gay means that he is same-sex oriented. This is in contrast to so-called “ex-gay” ministries, that Lee spends a lot of time talking about. These ministries purport to “cure” homosexuality, by which they mean they teach people not to act on their attraction. However, they market themselves (or at least they did when Lee was involved) as curing same-sex attraction, orientation, altogether. This is shown to lead to their downfall, when many prominent leaders and “success stories” admit they continue to be attracted to the same sex. And many who thought they were “cured”, weren’t. So, for readers, one of the biggest take-aways is clarity around definition. This small distinction alone is a significant piece of the puzzle!

Lee’s story also breaks nearly all the stereotypes, which are a big part of the problem. For Lee, “misinformation” is the root cause of the “Gays-vs-Christian debate”. He believes, and I think rightly, that if Bible-believing Christians would simply hear his story with open minds and hearts, they would see that a lot of what they’ve believed has been incorrect. For example, Lee directly confronts the theories that homosexuality is a result of sexual abuse, distant fathers, overbearing mothers, sinful depravity, or any combination of these. He also attempts to show that there are very good reasons to believe that homosexuality is biologically hardwired from birth. One of greatest marks of Lee’s humility was when he admitted that the science is inconclusive—something that “ex-gay” theorists with far less data supporting their ideas have been reluctant to acknowledge. I found that to be a strong demonstration of Lee’s Christian character.

Lee’s story is not unlike the stories of many, many Evangelicals, who have grown up in suburban, Bible belt, U.S. culture. And in many ways his childhood was a lot more “normal” than many of them! As he recounted all the many privileges he enjoyed as a child, I tried to think of anyone I knew who had it as good as he did, but I could think of no one. The only difference that might exist between Lee’s and the stories of other Evangelicals, is that Lee discovered he was gay. Demolishing the stereotype that gay people “choose” to be gay, Lee walks readers though his agonizing journey to realizing his same-sex orientation. I can’t imagine any readers envying his predicament. And yet, no matter how dark it seemed at times (and for Lee it did get very dark), the one thing that sustained Lee, was his faith. It was perhaps his faith that saved his life!

The ‘Clobber Verses’

In Torn, Lee not only tackles the psychological misinformation and breaks common stereotypes about gay people, but he also the challenges the common understanding of the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to the biblical data on homosexuality. Some call these the “clobber verses” because these are the verses that are routinely trotted out as iron-clad evidence that homosexuality is a sin and against God’s will. In Lee’s own story, he recalls countless times, while he was still in deep inner turmoil over his newly-acknowledged same-sex attraction, when he was in desperate need for Christian love and support. But, instead, as soon as he told his friends and ministers that he was gay—out came the “clobber verses.”

There’s no doubt that the academic Evangelical community will rip Lee’s exegesis to shreds and re-affirm their traditional interpretation. There is no doubt they will say “Lee isn’t a trained exegete.” And they are right! However, that fact actually worked in reverse, much like how the perceived weakness of Jesus was actually his power. Because Lee isn’t a seminary-trained Bible scholar, readers can hear in his account of how he approaches these passages, his reverent fear, not scholastic hubris. In Lee’s section on the relevant Bible verses, I trust that the reader will be struck by the humble and sincere way that Lee approaches the Bible: as God’s word, to which he must submit and obey. Lee is not looking for “loopholes” or “excuses” to be gay. In fact, at one point, after fighting for many years not to be gay, but surrendering to the fact that he is regardless, Lee submits himself to God in prayer in a way that brought this reader to tears. I couldn’t help but think, “If I were gay, would I have the humility and reverent trust to submit myself to God like that?” Lee not only showed me how a gay person submits himself or herself to God, Lee showed me how a Christian submits himself or herself to God.

As you might expect, Lee discovers that the traditional interpretations of the common passages used to condemn homosexuality aren’t as clear cut or straight forward as they’ve been made out to be. This will likely not come as a surprise to anyone younger than 40. We who have developed Christian faith in a postmodern world, have already learned what so many in modernity failed to recognize: Everyone who reads the Bible, interprets the Bible. And our interpretations are always, necessarily, filtered through the lenses of our experiences, our social location, and our prior theological commitments. There is no avoiding this fact. Does that mean that the Bible can mean anything whatsoever? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that if you have never read or listened to the story of a gay Christian man like Justin Lee, you might project your stereotypes about gay people onto the Bible, just like I projected my stereotypes about gay people onto Lee as I began reading Torn.

Critique & Praise

Torn doesn’t end the discussion about homosexuality and Christianity, but I’m sure that wasn’t Lee’s intent. I’m confident Lee intended not to end the conversation, but to advance the conversation beyond empty rhetoric and misinformation. So, that isn’t really a critique. I will say this: I was disappointed in Lee’s reductionistic understanding of “the Gospel”. The few times he does attempt a description, it is apparent that he has fallen prey to a different type of misinformation. Lee’s “Gospel” is a gospel of personal forgiveness and a ticket to heaven. The gospel he articulates is what Scot McKnight calls the “soterion gospel” which he and N. T. Wright have devastatingly opposed in many of their writings, not least of which is The King Jesus Gospel. This disappointment left me with a nagging question: How much more powerful would Lee’s testimony and perspective have been if this whole conversation had been couched in a more robust, theologically-rich understanding of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God? Perhaps we’ll never know, or perhaps another will come along who will offer a perspective on living as a gay Christian with an eye toward the renewal of all things.

I was also a bit disappointed that Lee does not interact with the words of Jesus around sexuality and marriage. For me, Jesus’s words are of utmost importance, since they are the words which called forth the apostles who wrote the other passages Lee covers, and the words of the One who fulfilled the Old Testament. In particular, I would have liked to have heard Lee’s take on the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seems to reaffirm the Old Testament assumption that marriage is between a man and a woman. That would have been nice.

Overall, I thought Torn was brilliantly subversive. Lee uses his own story: the story of a “normal” Evangelical, with all the trappings of that subculture, to show that gay men aren’t as other as they’re made out to be. And he uses his own journey of faith to challenge and subvert the myth that being gay and being Christian are antithetical. If anything, Lee demonstrates that as a gay man, he has had to trust in his relationship with God in many more moments of crises than most straight Evangelicals have had to. And as a gay man, Lee finds himself in beautiful solidarity with the Man who was despised and rejected, acquainted with sorrows. For Lee, being gay is an indispensable part of his faith journey because it is a part of that way God has shown himself faithful to Lee. This is a story that every Evangelical can celebrate and enter into.