Monday, May 16, 2016

Coming out Christian: Review of Kaltenbach's "Messy Grace"

The subtitle of Caleb Kaltenbach's Messy Grace is what hooked me: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction. I'm a sucker for interesting stories, and this promised to be a tale wound around one of today's most polarizing, nuanced issues for Christians. As I've mentioned in other posts, my own beliefs about how God views homosexuality have been evolving and are still in process. I can say I believe Jesus would be as likely to hang out with, minister to, befriend and love homosexuals as he would tax collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees and you and me. So I was eager to hear from a mature Jesus-follower, in this case a mega-church pastor, who was intimately connected with the LGBT community. However, after finishing the book, I didn't feel completely satisfied with either the depth of the narrative or the apologetic tone of some of the book's conclusions.

Kaltenbach's story is the reverse of what gay Christians who've grown up in church must experience as they try to reconcile their identities with their church doctrine.  An only child raised by three parents, whom he describes as vehemently anti-Christian, Kaltenbach sets out to infiltrate a Christian youth group, with the intention of arguing with them and showing them the error of their ways. (I know, you couldn't write a better script for the God's Not Dead movie franchise.) To his dismay, 16-year-old Kaltenbach finds that the well-versed, friendly, upbeat members of the group are actually winning him over for Christ. He's attracted by their certainty and steadiness, something he felt he never had. He's flattered by the attention, having spent much of his unusual adolescence tagging along with his two moms to gay pride events and parties.

He asks the pastor's son — a popular, buff footballer, armed with a thick black binder of gospel tracts — to meet with him and tell him more about becoming a Christian. Before the young evangelist gets through his extensive set of materials, Kaltenbach declares he already believes and wants to seal the deal. He experiences an emotionally liberating but hasty baptism, then promptly gets dropped back off at his gay father's doorstep with an "I'm praying for you!" shouted out the window. Score one for Jesus!

Yet the new convert dreads stepping over the threshold. As Kaltenbach "comes out" to his parents about his faith in Jesus, he's met with anger, tears and the silent treatment. Understandably, he tells the story through a teenaged lens. Still, I hoped for some reflection from older, wiser Kaltenbach, perhaps including interviews with his parents, whom he writes were in favor of the book. Instead, he diverts our attention to the good but simplistic counsel from his pastor, who urges him to continue loving his parents.

At this point, I’m craving some insights that only Caleb would have; I'm craving observations that will help readers love his parents too. I get it that a young, extroverted guy would care mostly about having friends, and it seems his upbringing was rather lonely. Yet, with all his talk of loving his parents despite the way they persecuted him, he never showed why he loved them. Surely they were lovable in some ways? Surely as a passionate Christian, he would get a glimpse of how God sees and loves them? The editor in me says "don't tell me you loved and love them, show me the lovable side of your vehemently anti-Christian, pro-gay parents."

Rather than letting the narrative communicate his message, the author frequently pauses to offer pastoral counsel to his readers. Here, his light biblical exegesis provides reassurance for Christians who already view homosexual acts as sin and God's design for marriage between one man and one woman. There was nothing original or particularly insightful here, and I was annoyed to have bible lessons interrupt his story.

In the chapter "Another Way," he addresses Christian LGBTQ readers, making a case that celibacy can be a life of blessing. He also urges them not to judge evangelical Christians too harshly for their shocked reactions at their coming out. I don't disagree with these suggestions, but I couldn't help but wonder if they would be salt in the wound if I was a Christian who had struggled with same-sex attraction and suffered persecution and estrangement from their Christian friends and family.

The story picks up again after Kaltenbach goes off to Christian college: As a young, ambitious bible school student, he volunteers to help a country church, whose dwindling, aging congregation are thankful for his free sermons and sick visits. After several months of pastoring, his mom comes to visit and agrees to attend church with him. As he walks her to the door of the church, most of the parishioners gawk like deer in the headlights at his lesbian guest. Only one couple makes a feeble attempt to greet her. With good humor, his mom bites her lip through the tone deaf singing and sits alone as her son preaches.

Kaltenbach's comment here is that he was happy the visit seemed to pass by without incident. (I know, right? How is that OK?) The following Sunday, the young volunteer preacher returns to the church to meet two bouncers elders at the door. They aren't happy. They threaten to take away his (nonsalaried) position if he ever brings "one of those people" to the church again. Righteous indignation finally kicks in. Kaltenbach declares they can find another preacher for that morning's service and they'd never see him again. While the elders, who don't have it in them to take up the preaching duties, beg him to stay, Kaltenbach agrees to deliver the day's message and takes his leave.

From this point many of the book's pastoral portions take on an apologetic tone trying to gently coax his audience toward decency, kindness and compassion. He seems to aim his appeal toward readers who, like those red-faced elders, have been allowed to cloak bigotry and hatred in some kind of biblical justification for not loving, welcoming or associating with homosexuals. I'm glad he's addressing them, but I'm not sure they'd be reading the book in the first place.

For readers like me, who are heterosexual yet want to be challenged and want to extend love beyond our experience or comfort zone, Kaltenbach does offer solid and thought provoking questions in "Messy Church." His robust list includes questions like: Could a lesbian couple attend a parenting class at your church if their child is in your children's ministry? Would you allow a gay man to go on a church mission trip? Would you welcome a transgendered woman to your women's retreat? Admittedly, these are messy questions. Kaltenbach offers no "clean" answer, but he urges church leaders and members to make a plan. And simply taking the time to consider these possibilities would drive Christians to prayer and seeking out God's wisdom and love.

In conclusion, I praise the author for using his influence to address a hard topic from the perspective of grace. The author and his congregation do know how to love the LGBTQ community in some capacity. As proof, the story ends on an upbeat note. Both of his biological parents let go of their long-held hatred for Christians, accepted Jesus as Savior and joined their son's church. This is a real win for Jesus and for the church. But ultimately, I felt the book held back on the narrative journey of learning to love in "the tension of grace and truth" with which the author earnestly urges churches to grapple. Kaltenbach freely admits to remaining in this tension. Though I seem to have written a largely negative review of his first writing endeavor, his story is much needed in the church. I hope he will continue to write his story as his journey unfolds.

I received a copy of this book from the generous folks at Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

No comments:

Post a Comment