An overwhelming three-fourths of Americans identify as religious. Listening to some religious conservatives in the U.S., though, one might think believers were a persecuted minority on the verge of extinction. In the name of protecting the sincerely held beliefs of religious Americans, conservative lawmakers and lobbyists have introduced a spate of controversial religious-freedom legislation in recent months. But apparently Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig aren’t the only ones fighting ghosts in 2016. The problems these bills claim to solve don’t actually exist.
In Houston, Texas, a controversial “equal rights ordinance” failed last Tuesday. The legislation sought to ban discrimination based on more than a dozen classes of people, including gender identity and sexual orientation. It was dubbed the “bathroom bill” because critics said it would to offer any person access to a public bathroom whether intended for men or women. At issue, according to supporters was protection for a particular kind of citizen: transgender people.
Christians–particularly those of the more conservative variety–often oppose accommodations like this for transgender persons. But these believers are having a very important conversation in the wrong direction. When trying to understand transgender issues, Christians should start with the personal, not political. When Christians begin by committing to political goals rather than educating themselves on the complicated, sensitive nuances of this matter, they often come off looking privileged, mean, or just flat out clueless.
In 2001, Alan Chambers was hired as the president of the world’s largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International. That same year, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated, “there is no valid evidence showing that sexual orientation can be changed.”
Like most conservative Christian leaders at the time, Chambers considered the countercultural nature of his work a point of pride. During the latter part of the 20th century, Exodus and similar conservative groups promoted the idea that gay people could—and should try to—become straight. Ex-gay leaders traveled to churches and appeared on television news programs citing a litany of examples of happily married “former homosexuals” to demonstrate that sexual orientation is a choice and that change is possible.
But Chambers would undergo a radical change of heart. In 2013, he publicly apologized to the LGBT community for the “pain and hurt” Exodus had caused and announced that the ministry was permanently shutting down. Chambers’s decision effectively delivered the deathblow to the beleaguered ex-gay movement.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Christian right poured money and muscle into promoting the message that homosexuality was a curable disorder. It advocated conversion therapy, which promised to turn gay men and women straight. But last week, when President Obama announced his support for a national ban on such therapies, few voices on the Christian right spoke up in protest. The announcement confirmed the evaporation of support for these approaches among the communities that once embraced them. As Alan Chambers, who once ran America’s largest ex-gay ministry, told me, “sexual orientation doesn’t change.”
It was a shift rooted in the accrual of evidence and experience. After she came out as a lesbian in high school, Julie Rodgers’ conservative Christian parents urged her to join a ministry in Texas to help make her straight. Ministry leaders promised her that if she continued praying, reading the Bible, attending meetings, and of course, refusing to identify as gay, her sexual orientation would eventually change and she could even marry a man. Rodgers didn’t want to go, but she did want the food, shelter, and love her parents offered. So she agreed.
The program worked great—except that it didn’t. After a decade of compliance, neither Rodger’s orientation nor those of her fellow group members budged toward straightness. And worse, the empty promises and feeling that she was “less than” normal left her drowning in a sea of shame.
It’s a sad story, but one that grows gloomier when you consider that Rodgers is one of the lucky ones. Countless LGBT youths have been subjected to much worse, not just in Christian ministries, but also at the hands of licensed counselors who perform what is known as “reparative” or “conversion therapy.” These controversial mental health practices, intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, are ineffective and often drive participants to depression, anxiety, drug use, or suicide.
In recent years, however, conversion therapy has been much maligned if not completely discredited. Almost all major medical and public welfare organizations oppose it, and even conservative Christians—once counted among its strongest supporters—are changing their minds. New Jersey, California, and Washington, D.C., have already outlawed ex-gay therapy for minors. By all accounts, therapies attempting to cure gayness appear to be going the way of the buggy whip.
In young adulthood, Donald Miller skyrocketed to success due to the wide acceptance of his New York Times bestselling “Blue Like Jazz.” But while he was impressing the masses, he wasn’t connecting with anyone. At 40 years old, after another failed relationship, he decided to seek professional help. Miller, now married, is now sharing the details of his struggles to find intimacy in “Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy.” Here he discusses what brought him to the breaking point and the healing he found through counseling.
RNS: Intimacy issues don’t develop overnight. What are the warning signs in that one is becoming isolated or shallow in their relationships?
DM: For a long time, I thought I was good at relationships because I was charming. People liked me. But I was lonely. I think that’s the sign something isn’t right. When we have hundreds of instagram followers who are impressed with us but still feel lonely, it’s because our real needs aren’t being met. For me, that meant starting to get more honest with people about who I really was, flaws and all.
RNS: How did you discover you had issues that needed to be addressed?
DM: I messed up a relationship pretty bad. I broke up with a girl, and it wrecked us both. Some friends reached out and let me know my patterns were damaging. So I got help. My problems were obvious to everybody but me. When I finally admitted it, I decided to get help. I went to a therapy camp and started seeing a counselor. The journey was amazing and healing.
John Ortberg believes many people today have a soul problem. In his new book, “Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You,” says we “live on the planet of lost souls” in which live dis-integrated lives. The secret to remedying this problem begins with recognizing what he calls the nine needs of the soul.
Ortberg is a credible voice on the matter as pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian and the prolific author of such modern classics as “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat” and “The Life You’ve Always Wanted.” (He is the father of RNS’ own Laura Ortberg Turner, which is his real claim to fame.) Here, we discuss how we people can cultivate healthier souls.
RNS: How do you define the soul? Is it different from our “selves” or our “spirits”?
JO: The soul is what integrates separate functions into a single, organic, whole creature. That’s why the search for harmony and integration and connectedness is a “soul” function. The soul is the deepest dimension of our existence. It captures the reality of life before God in a way that the word “self” does not. Think of the difference between the words “soul-ish” and “selfish.”
“Spirit” refers more generally to the power or energy that comes from our wills. This difference is still reflected in current language; we might speak of a “spirited” horse but we would talk about a “soulful” artist—not the other way round.
RNS: What does the Bible say about our souls?
Forgiveness is always difficult, but it is especially messy when family is involved. In “Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate,” award-winning Christian author Leslie Leyland Fields has partnered with psychologist Dr. Jill Hubbard to tell readers how they can begin moving past the bitterness caused by parents to place of health and wholeness. Here, we discuss the myth of the perfect family, how to forgive those who keep causing pain, and whether it is possible to fully forgive a parent who has died.
RNS: The “myth of perfect family” is really a myth, isn’t it?
LLF: Yes, and we’ve got a serious problem with this in our churches, elevating “godly families” and judging “worldly families.” [tweetable]Some families are just better at looking good.[/tweetable] And sometimes when “godly families” have a teaching platform, they prescribe their own family recipe for “success,” which tends to be simplistic and rules-based. There’s not a “perfect” family because we’re all sinners raising sinners. I’ve got great kids and a wonderful husband, but struggle like everyone else. We need to stop passing judgment on one another and pass God’s peace and grace instead.
RNS: You talk about the importance of forgiveness in your book, but how do we forgive those who don’t want it? Those who don’t think they’ve done anything wrong?
LLF: Most parents are aware of at least some of their failings. They hoped to be and do better raising their children, but you’re right, plenty of parents are defensive and blithe to the ways they harmed their children. Nor are they interested in knowing about it later. We forgive them anyway. We don’t limit our forgiveness to those who earn it through repentance and apology.
RNS: And then how do we offer forgiveness to those who continue to cause pain even as we forgive?
It can be a scary thing for a Christian to question their faith or the teachings of their their church. The stakes are even higher when you’re a pastor. Josh Ross knows this firsthand.
In Scarred Faith, Josh writes a frank account of his personal experience with doubt and the grief that preceded it. The book’s subtitle simultaneously conveys the light and dark sides of following God: “This is a story about how Honesty, Grief, a Cursing Toddler, Risk-Taking, AIDS, Hope, Brokenness, Doubts, and Memphis ignited adventurous faith. Here, he shares his personal story of loss and why he believes pain can spur anyone, even a pastor, can follow God when it doesn’t make sense.
JM : What prompted you to write this book?
JR: When I sat down to write much of the content in Scarred Faith, I didn’t have publication in mind. Instead, writing was a commitment I made in the season of Lent in 2011 to work through some of my own pain and brokenness. A year earlier, in January 2010, we decided to sell our home in the suburbs of Memphis and relocate in an underprivileged neighborhood in the heart of the city. Within three weeks of making that decision, we were dealt a catastrophic blow with the tragic death of my older sister, Jenny. She was thirty-one, healthy, a wife, and a mother of a precious nine-year-old daughter. A strand of Strep entered into her blood stream and after eighteen days in ICU, she lost her life on February 22nd. In a weird way, her death inspired us to engage Memphis with even more purpose and intentionality.
So, I sat down to write, because I needed space to wrestle with faith questions. For me, the questions weren’t about God’s existence, but his intervention. This project began as a place for me to heal. It was about midway through the season of Lent when I began thinking that maybe I had a story to tell.
JM: Why do so many pastors fear doubt? Why shouldn’t they fear doubt and questions?