Torn Book Review

I recently received the book Torn by Justin Lee. Justin is the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN). Torn is his account of discovering his same-sex sexuality, what it was like to share that with his parents and others within both the Christian community and the gay community, and his desire to rescue “the gospel from the gays-vs.-Christians debate” (from his subtitle).

The strength of Lee’s book is that he has an engaging writing style that invites the reader into his personal struggle with his sexual identity in light of his religious identity. It is in that context of struggle that the reader gets to meet Lee’s parents as he shares with them his experiences. We join Lee as he goes to his university Christian ministry, as he enters into an ex-gay ministry, and as he goes for the first time to a gay bar with his friends. These are engaging stories, and we read about his struggles and the internalized battle (i.e., Torn) between the gay and Christian communities.

Lee also shares his take on research in two key areas: causation and change. I agree with his conclusions on causation; that is, scientists do not know what causes sexual orientation, homosexual or heterosexual. He perhaps puts more emphasis on biology than environment, and he does not entertain for any length of time possible environmental contributions. He feels strongly that the parent-child deficit theory that is tied to reparative theory/therapy is not a particularly accurate or helpful explanatory framework, despite its popularity in evangelical Christian circles. I tend to sympathize with him here.

The discussion on change is not a research review but centers primarily on Lee’s experiences with an ex-gay ministry, as well as his recounting of the history behind Exodus International. There is much more to the change debate–both in ministry circles and in professional therapy–and so there is more to say about the research, but Lee is telling his story, and his story intersects with an ex-gay ministry and the messages often encountered there. Ultimately, the ex-gay ministries become the antagonist in Lee’s story, and I want to return to this later.

As Lee knows growing up in a Southern Baptist family, much of his argument rests not on science, experience, or Christian tradition, but on Scripture. He unpacks his understanding of several passages often identified as central to the conclusion cited by many evangelicals that same-sex behavior is immoral. Many readers will appreciate the questions he raised for further consideration. However, the reader is also left with additional questions that go unanswered. First, some readers will be curious why Lee didn’t address the overarching themes from Scripture that have been cited in support of male/female relationships, such as the creation story, as well as Jesus’ reference to the creation in his answer to a question about divorce. Secondly, while Lee introduces theologian Robert Gagnon as “the foremost authority” among traditionalists in his discussion of Scripture, Lee only cites Gagnon in agreeing with him that “the circles out of which Leviticus 18:22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution…” In other words, Lee does not engage Gagnon’s scholarship again, despite developing his own thoughts/questions on Romans 1, Genesis 19, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Lee concludes this most important section by sharing his preferred interpretive lens, which is agape love. This is likely where scholars like Gagnon will disagree with Lee–not necessarily with the idea that agape love is the correct interpretive lens, but with the meaning of agape love in the context of these cultural and ecclesiastical debates. In other words, what does it mean to love another with an agape love? This is where Justin Lee departs from those who uphold a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

The book ends with several appeals and suggestions for moving things forward. They include showing more grace in the discussions and debates, educating Christians (e.g., on what is volitional), learning how to dialogue, elevating celibacy (as a truly meaningful option), and so on. The two recommendations which will likely be more points of discussion are to “shatter the myth that the Bible is anti-gay”, by which Lee means that those who uphold a traditional Christian sexual ethic often come across in their zeal as “hostile to gay people.”  Although many traditionalists will not disagree with Lee on God’s love for the person, framing it as he does will draw some attention. The other recommendation that will likely draw criticism is “We must move away from an ‘ex-gay’ approach.”

I mentioned above that I would return to Lee’s experiences with ex-gay ministries. What I will say at this point is that Lee extends a tremendous amount of grace to people on both sides of the gay-vs.-Christian debate. I think this is why people are so drawn to him and to his organization. He can be remarkably gracious in exchanges that would bring out the worst qualities in other people. However, there are times when he seems to struggle with what that grace looks like in discussions with ex-gay ministries. They do come across as more of the “enemy”, even though it is hard to imagine Lee identifying any group in those terms.

Lee’s response to ex-gay ministries may reflect his interactions with leaders associated with those ministries at a time when Exodus was politicized in a more extreme way. Exodus today is not the same as it was in the late 1990s, when various leaders cultivated relationships with organizations that had political rather than pastoral interests in mind. Exodus is exploring a new “brand” today, and the current model does not seem to match Lee’s experiences interacting with ministry leaders some years ago.

I tend to feel some ambivalence about ex-gay ministries. I realize the history (which I believe is cited accurately in Torn), and I see historical examples of some people living double lives. However, there are people who have been faithful to what these ministries have stood for, and some who have experienced meaningful changes (of behavior, of identity, and, for some, attractions and/or orientation, at least by self-report). These are unlikely to be categorical changes of orientation, according to research I’ve conducted, and we would do well not to hold that out as an expectation for people. So I can appreciate and sympathize with Lee’s desire to move Christians away from such an approach. However, I think it is important to extend to these ministries the same kind of grace Lee extends to so many others in these debates, to leave room for them while finding points of connection and common ground.

All in all, I think many readers will enjoy Torn. They will appreciate Justin Lee’s personal account of his own quest for truth, as well as his desire to navigate his sexual identity in light of his faith commitments.

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