How I Found Gay Cuban Jesus and became an LGBTQ-Affirming Christian

When I was a senior in college (that is, 15 years ago now), I took a Hispanic literature and film class in which we watched the Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. It was an uncomfortable experience for me.

I didn’t know what to expect from the film because as a fledgling reader of Spanish, I hadn’t made much headway with the short novel that the film is based on (The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man by Senel Paz). For starters, I was a little shocked and embarrassed by a brief but strong (and very hetero) sex scene at the beginning of the film, and I remember surreptitiously glancing around at my classmates, thinking, “Did I really just see that in class?”

What followed left me even more unsettled, but for different reasons: A gay man (Diego) makes a play for a young straight man (David), and through various twists and turns of the plot, the two of them develop a genuine friendship and respect for one another. At the end of the film, they share an emotional embrace as Diego prepares to leave the country because of the communist regime’s repression of intellectual freedom and persecution of LGBTQ people.Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.18.58

It has been 15 years, but I still remember how that embrace bothered me. Despite the bright Cuban sunshine streaming in through the window, the act seemed sinister and threatening. Worrisome. The big bad wolf had somehow managed to get friendly with little Red Riding Hood, and that wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.

I didn’t really understand the film, but I knew that it contradicted what I had been taught: that homosexuality is a sin and that it should not be normalized and promoted, much less embraced. The film got under my skin despite the fact that Diego’s initial ploy to seduce David does not succeed; as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, Strawberry and Chocolate “is not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind.” At the time, I guess I was not quite prepared for either possibility.

This all happened before the term “gay agenda” gained traction, and before a one’s stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage became such an important litmus test in certain circles for whether or not one is a “true” believer and practitioner of the Christian faith. In fact, the topic of homosexuality seemed distant and almost unreal as I grew up in rural south Georgia, far from the epicenters of the AIDS epidemic and blithely ignorant of any gay subtexts in the Queen songs that I learned from listening to the radio with my older brothers.

Homosexuality was a sin, but from my sheltered perspective it was a theoretical one, like making sacrifices to pagan gods . . . who did that? Not anyone that I knew! A year or two into college, I did have a bisexual friend (one of my best, in fact), but I was conveniently spared from having to confront the issue when she started dating a guy shortly after we met.

In this context, I wasn’t exactly homophobic, and I didn’t hate or gay-bash LGBTQ folks (that is, the two or three whom I knew at that point), but nevertheless, when I was suddenly confronted with having to think and write about gay men and their stories (we also read and watched Kiss of the Spider Woman), I was profoundly unsettled by the contradictions between what I believed and what I felt, and I was caught between the impulse to identify with the characters or to keep them at arm’s length as foreign and possibly dangerous others.

So, you could say that Diego was the first (albeit fictional) person to seriously challenge my beliefs on homosexuality and LGBTQ people, and that first time around, I couldn’t identify with him. I couldn’t accept that final embrace.

Several years later and quite a bit farther down the road of my Christian journey, I decided to rewatch Strawberry and Chocolate when I was choosing films for a Hispanic cultures class (mostly, I confess, because it was one of only two Cuban films that I had ever seen).

I was looking for relevant cultural content for my students, but what I found instead was Jesus.

Gay Cuban Jesus, to be precise.

That, and a change of heart.

As I rewatched (and then re-rewatched) Strawberry and Chocolate, I came not only to identify with Diego, but to love and respect him just as David, his young straight friend in the film, does. I learned to see his goodness and passion, and to see the evil of the regime that oppresses him and ultimately forces him to leave the country that he loves. I also noticed something that I think I completely missed the first time around: Diego’s identity in the film is not limited to that of gay man, or even that of passionate, oppressed intellectual.

Diego is also a creyente, a believer . . . one might even go so far as to call him a Christian. Not quite the same variety as most of us, for sure, but a believer nonetheless. When I first saw the film, I hadn’t known what to make of his odd relationship with the statue of his patron saint, or with the troubling and potentially sacrilegious statue of Jesus that is hidden under a sheet in his apartment, waiting to be shown at an art exhibition.

Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.34.01

The statue is a fairly standard representation of Jesus, but it is pierced in several places by the communist sickle, resulting in an image that I originally saw as a statement against Christ and Christianity on the part Diego’s artist friend, who is also gay. Oh boy, did I miss the point.

The statue is more likely a criticism of the communist regime that restricted religious practice and that spied on, discriminated against, and even persecuted people of faith . . . just like it spied on, discriminated against, and persecuted gay men like Diego.

Regardless of his love of Cuba and his desire to contribute to its betterment, Diego is pierced over and over by rejection and censorship. When he takes too firm of a stand for artistic freedom, his life, like the plan for the exhibition of the Jesus statue, is ruined. Diego, like the subversive statue of Christ, is forced to exist in hiding. When he objects, he loses his job and is blacklisted and forced into exile away from the country that he has loved so dearly . . . and that he still loves despite the rejection and persecution that he has suffered at its hands.

Kind of like Jesus, still loving the people who nailed him to a cross.

At one point in the film, Diego insists, “I am a part of this country, like it or not, and I have a right to work for its future! . . . Without me, you’re missing a piece!”

He was right . . . the Revolution lost something when it silenced his voice, when it ostracized him and forced him into exile.

How many LGBTQ people have been silenced or exiled by the church? What suffering have we caused, and what have we lost as a result?

How many times have Christians done the persecuting? How many times have we been the Romans with nails, the ideologues with sickles?

And how many times have we excused ourselves by talking about “sin” when none of us has the right to cast stones?

This is not a post about whether homosexual behavior is sinful or not (if you want to read more on that, check here, here, or here). This is a post, in part, about why “sin” isn’t the point.

The point is that people of faith–gay and straight and both and neither–are all part of the church. We all deserve the chance to be in community and to contribute to the future of our faith. We all lose when we exclude and ostracize others who want to be in community.

The point is also that LGBTQ people are just that, people, who have stories that we need to hear, respect, and find ourselves in. When I took a step back from my ideology and really listened to Diego’s story, I could no longer find it in myself to reject and condemn him. In the end, like David, I was seduced . . . not by “sin,” but by Diego’s quirky, passionate, flawed, and honest humanity. By the person behind the label.

Through Diego and David’s story, I understood how I was part of the regime–how I was the crucifier, not the crucified. I realized that I was on the wrong side.

I finally found the joy of that embrace, a joy which has been translated in my life from the fiction of a film to friendships that I treasure and people that I love.

Thank you for that, Diego. Thank you for being my gay Cuban Jesus.


This post is dedicated to my LGBTQ friends and students, and to the first same-sex couples being officially married in the state of Alabama today. Love wins!  


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On Brokenness: Sin, Human Struggle, and Sacred, Safe Spaces

A few days ago, one of my favorite online people, blogger and Moonshine Jesus Show host Mark Sandlin posted an article titled “Christianity has it wrong – You are not Broken.” Although I don’t I agree with the entirety of the post, I liked it and it set me on a course of thought that led to some interesting reflections.

I agree with Mark that as humans, we aren’t already “broken” or “sinful” right out of the gate as some traditions of belief have claimed. While Mark’s views in the article may cut us a little too much slack, I think they are preferable to doctrines of original sin and total depravity that condemn us from the moment that sperm meets egg (or even before, really), or that claim that without the direct influence of God, humans only have a tendency toward evil and sin.

In addition to doctrines like original sin, I suspect that Mark’s article is also a response to more progressive Christian voices who embrace the existence of “brokenness” in our lives and extol the value of being open and honest about it (Glennon Doyle Melton at Momastery comes to mind). One can debate whether talking about our human struggles in terms of “brokenness” is helpful or not, but essentially, I think this approach is less problematic because it doesn’t necessarily saddle us with automatic evil or spiritual unworthiness, and it potentially creates opportunities for healing and restoration.

I have long thought that human beings have an equal capacity for good and for evil. Mark writes that our flaws and our stumbles are simply part of the process of being human and that they do not make us sinful, unworthy, or broken. I agree that nothing we can do puts us beyond of the reach of God’s love, of regeneration and reconciliation, but I do think that there is a natural human tendency that often leads us to sin, and I think Mark touches on it when he writes that “We are so deeply invested in life that we can, at times, deny the larger good for the experience of the moment.”

Mark says that we are “self-invested” because of “love” . . . but love of what, exactly? I suspect that our capacity for evil stems from our love of self . . . more specifically, from our basic instinct for self-preservation. The need to preserve and protect ourselves (and, secondarily, the people and things that we love or value) is perhaps our prime motivation in life, and it can manifest itself in negative or positive ways.

Self-preservation often leads us to selfishness and to a quest for power, resources, and gratification at the expense of others. I have come to believe that this is at the root of a lot of what we call “sin.” It divides, hurts, and oppresses. It leads us to eye our neighbors with suspicion, to hoard resources when others are in need, and to exchange fairness and justice for the illusion of security and peace (I call them illusions because neither really exist in the absence of justice).

If humans have an innate tendency to evil and injustice, I think this is it. We all have the potential to be selfish and to ignore, exploit, oppress, or marginalize others in an attempt to guarantee our own security and status. We all have the potential to seek comfort and gratification to the point of excess.

And I think that giving in to those tendencies is what often leaves us with a feeling of brokenness and of separation both from God and from others.

Our culture perpetuates selfishness and excess, but God calls us to take a different path and follow our better natures. We all have that instinctual drive toward self-preservation, but God invites us to realize that our needs are best filled in community.

Our best attempts at self-preservation are attempts to guarantee the preservation of others: to promote equality, justice, acceptance, and love. We are all in that “inescapable network of mutuality” that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about; we do not stand alone as independent and unaffected individuals. We belong to each other, and at our best we realize that and we care for each other as ourselves, beginning with our immediate communities and extending out into our world.

If we take the time and effort to create authentic communities, we can serve and be served, and we can meet needs and have our needs met. We can release the anxiety that comes from trying to fulfill all of our needs on our own. We can tear away the veil of self-sufficient individualism and not be afraid to let others know that we have struggles, wounds, and broken places.

I agree with Mark that we are not inherently “broken,” and that Christian culture should not promote theology that leads people to feel unworthy or damaged, or that uses those ideas to control them through shame, guilt, and fear. However, many of us have circumstances in our lives that cause us to experience profound feelings of being wounded or broken: grief, anger, failure, addiction, abuse, anxiety, depression . . . the list goes on. Feeling broken may not be the same as being broken, but when one experiences it, there isn’t much appreciable difference.

Our individualistic “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” and “suck-it-up” culture often encourages us to hide our wounds and cover up our broken spots rather than seeking the support and help that we need. So while some Christian voices may get a little over-zealous in celebrating our “brokenness,” I think that they are still on to something positive. They are encouraging communities where there is less shame and fear of rejection, and where we can be vulnerable and share our weaknesses and struggles with each other. Safe, sacred spaces where we can find affirmation in spite of our imperfections and recover our sense of worth and wholeness . . . where we can remember that we are indeed beloved children of God.


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Irreparable Damage: The Problem of Christian Purity Culture

What we call Christian “purity culture” in America has developed in the last few decades as a reaction against loosening sexual morality, and it focuses not only on refraining from sex (and other acts like fantasizing or kissing) before marriage, but also on strict rules of modesty that are mostly directed at girls and women. It spawned the True Love Waits campaign that was a staple at the Baptist youth conferences and camps that I attended as a teenager in the mid-90s.

In conservative religious circles, purity culture has also prompted the popularity of daddy-daughter dances and dating (I’m all for dads spending time with their daughters, but over-romanticizing it as a ‘date’ is somewhat creepy, as in this video).

Purity balls are even creepier, if not downright horrifying from a feminist standpoint: in one variation of this marriage-like ceremony, a young woman stands up with her father, who gives her a purity ring and pledges to exercise his authority over her, specifically over her purity (i.e. modesty and virginity). Meanwhile, the daughter silently commits herself to remain pure. She does not even get to pledge on her own behalf. 

I have two responses to such ceremonies: the first is “Ick!” and the second is, “What about the boys?”

Well, the founders of the same purity ball described above explain on their website how they provide a supposedly similar experience for their sons, who at age twelve have a “manhood ceremony” in which they are given a purity ring that reminds them to honor God (not the authority of their fathers) and an enormous sword to symbolize “the incredible privilege and responsibility we [that is, men] have to stand courageously as mighty warriors of God.”

So, while girls silently give up all authority over themselves and their bodies to their fathers, boys are given a (very large and phallic) symbol of their incipient manly authority at the symbolic age when Jesus began to speak and ask questions. The founders also invite boys to attend the purity ball to see how their fathers treat young women, which is essentially as passive pieces of property over whom they have authority, most particularly in matters of sexuality.


Featured image

Image: “How to Handle Your Females” by nakedpastor, in response to purity culture.


This is not surprising, considering that a great deal of sexual morality has always been aimed primarily at controlling women and their bodies. Marriage in the Hebrew Bible is essentially an economic transaction in which the wife and her resulting offspring became property of the husband. Strict sexual standards for women ensured that babies born into a family were legitimate heirs, and marriage practices sought to ensure that men had heirs to continue the family and preserve its property (i.e. levirate marriage, polygyny, divorcing a barren wife, or producing heirs using slave women). Men, especially powerful ones, had much more sexual liberty than women, and most rules regarding sexuality and marriage practices were for the direct benefit of men.

Although Jesus and Paul advocated a more gender-neutral standard for sexual morality and a more precise definition of marriage (bye-bye multiple wives, slaves, and concubines), throughout history men in western cultures have been granted much more leniency to have sexual relationships outside of marriage than women have. Thus, we have no female equivalents of popular philandering archetypes like Don Juan or Casanova because such behavior in a woman simply made her a whore.

While I am all for self-control in sexual behavior and for fathers taking an active role in guiding their daughters, purity culture is pernicious because it continues the promotion of double standards for girls and boys. It takes away any authority that girls have over their own bodies and gives it first to their fathers and then to their husbands. It also gives boys and men the idea that they have a right and a responsibility to control female bodies.

Critics of purity culture have rightly linked it to male entitlement and even to rape culture because of the way it takes away women’s autonomy. In addition to these critiques, purity culture can be extremely harmful to women’s spiritual lives (and probably men’s as well, but I’ll leave that aside for now). Here is my take on the reason why:

Purity culture takes sex and puts it into a category of its own so that it seems like the most egregious act that person can commit. It also places an undue burden on girls and women to avoid sexual desire–both their own and male desires that might be incited by their bodies or clothing. It also sends a message to young women that their self-worth is inextricably tied to their sexual purity.

Generally speaking, men have always been expected to have sexual desires, and to be sexually aggressive, while women have been expected to be pure and passive. Consequently, a young man’s sexual transgression is more likely to be seen as a slip up or a mistake that does not detract his inherent worth. This is because men are not understood to be automatically altered or damaged by a sexual encounter.

On the other hand, a woman’s loss of virginity before marriage has been understood as an irreversible alteration of her body and as a permanent stain on her character, and the social and psychological implications of these ideas are still very much with us (for instance, in gender-biased metaphors used to teach abstinence).

Sins can be forgiven, but virginity cannot be restored, which means that if a young woman makes a wrong decision about sex, the feelings of shame and guilt associated with it can become long-lasting and even permanent. The sin may be forgivable, but being forgiven does us little good if we are unable to accept that forgiveness and grant it to ourselves.

Shame hinders the holy work of grace and forgiveness and separates us from God. It can also isolate us from our faith communities because of our fear of condemnation and rejection.

Purity culture attaches so much gravity and shame to one particular act, especially for girls, that if they transgress sexual boundaries, they can end up feeling like they have done irreparable spiritual damage to themselves. Girls need to know that they are worth more than their virginity before marriage, or their purity afterwards.

Christian culture needs to teach self-control in sexual matters, but not in a way that takes away young women’s autonomy and encourages male entitlement over women’s sexuality. Girls need to be given the guidance and then the authority to make positive decisions about their own bodies without a heavy cloud of unequal expectations and potential shame hanging over their heads.


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God is . . . an angry turtle-torturer? Theology and the Limits of Metaphor

Featured imageI once read an “About” section of a blog in which a pastor described how he ended up in the ministry. He referenced an old political joke about a turtle: basically, if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone picked it up and put it there. The implication, of course, is that God took this guy and put him in a position that he didn’t expect to be in and would not have reached on his own.

And that’s fine, as long as you don’t think very deeply or have a particular affinity for turtles.

I happened to have had a pet turtle for 15+ years, and when I read this probably-intended-to-be-cute metaphor, the first thing I thought was “What kind of jerk puts a turtle on a fence post?” Probably unawares, this writer had dragged a bit of animal cruelty and some other unfortunate  political-joke connotations into his ‘About’ blurb.

If you think for about half a second too long about the post turtle as a metaphor for God’s involvement in a human life, it breaks down and calls into question 1) whether the writer has any more business being a pastor than a turtle has being on a fence post, and 2) whether God meddles in our lives like an adolescent boy who would trap, frighten, and endanger an animal just to see what would happen.

I know what you’re thinking . . . of course I’m over-analyzing it. I know this.

But metaphors require interpretation, and like it or not, they often drag with them a host of meanings and associations, both intended and unintended. Metaphors–and words themselves–have a way of getting away from their writers and evolving meanings of their own. As any good student of literary analysis knows, the author’s original intent has to compete with the experience and knowledge that every reader brings to the text. And this reader wants no part of a God who is a jerk to turtles.

In theology, we use metaphors to explain what is inexplicable and even unknowable, whether it be the character of God or the workings of salvation. God is a father, a king, a refuge; Jesus is a shepherd, a sacrificial lamb, a cornerstone; but in a literal sense, neither of them is any of those things. These statements are all metaphors, and no matter how true they may seem, they all have limitations. We use so many metaphors to describe the divine not because they give us the whole truth, but because each one gives us a glimmer of truth.

If you stretch any metaphor too far, though, the parts that are not true overwhelm the part that is and the meaning becomes distorted, just like the unfortunate vision of God that the poor post turtle inspires for me. Metaphors also become problematic when we take one and give it precedence over all others as if it alone contains the sum of all truth.

For me, one of the most obvious examples of this problem happens with our understanding of salvation when some Christians present penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory not as one metaphor for salvation but as salvation itself. If you aren’t up on the terminology, PSA theory is primarily a product of the Protestant Reformation, and it is what many American evangelicals have been taught is the primary (and perhaps the only) meaning of the death of Jesus: that according to God’s divine plan, Jesus was punished on the cross as a substitute for sinners to satisfy the wrath of God against sin and make forgiveness and salvation possible.

The idea that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for us–as unworthy as we may often be–is a compelling one. Progressive Christians who critique PSA theory sometimes forget that it does speak a powerful and redemptive truth to many people (“Formerly Fundie” blogger Benjamin L. Corey had some interesting comments about this recently, and another progressive blogger puts in a good word for PSA theory here).

Even as a critic of PSA theory, I recognize that like many metaphors, it points us toward some important grains of truth. However, it is a human metaphor based on human ideas of crime and punishment, and if we push the metaphor too far (as hardcore reformed folks like John Piper do), then we end up with a monstrous vision of God. Here are some of the problems that emerge when we carry the PSA metaphor to its logical conclusions:

  1. It means that the predominant quality of God is not love, but wrath, because God is either unable or unwilling to forgive without punishment. (Basically, God has an anger management problem and Jesus has to save us from God.)
  2. It means that there is no forgiveness, because someone always pays. A paid debt is not the same as a forgiven debt. (See Bo Sander’s apt debt analogy here)
  3. It means that God is unjust and unmerciful, because there is no justice or mercy in punishing an innocent victim for the crimes of others (Sanders and McGrath both comment more on this).
  4. It means that God is violent and that violence is redemptive, and thus it encourages the justification of violence. (Find a great starter discussion of nonviolent atonement here)
  5. All of the statements above go against the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. They negate the grace of God and the reconciling work of the incarnation.

One might argue that these conclusions are a result of over-analyzing the metaphor, but if PSA theory is presented as THE one and only gospel of salvation (as it often is in certain circles), then all of its implications must stand up to critical inquiry.

And the truth is that they do not. When PSA is over-emphasized, the partial truth that it contains is terribly distorted by the problematic nature of the human crime and punishment metaphor.

The good thing is that there are multiple atonement theories that can hold meaning for us and many Biblical metaphors for salvation. Other metaphors include transformation (being a “new creation”), liberation from bondage, return from exile, light in the darkness, sight for the blind, life to the dead, food and drink, and liberation and forgiveness from sin (list borrowed from Marcus Borg’s Convictions).

All of these metaphors give us a glimpse of both the human condition–our need for reconciliation, salvation, and transformation–and of the God who offers us the hope that those things are all possible.

We should be wary of leaders or communities who try to impose any single, uninterrogated metaphor to represent the truth of God or of salvation because those truths are bigger and better than any language we can devise.

When it comes to theology, metaphors are perhaps best when mixed.


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On the Excuses that Some Christians Use to Discredit the Faith of other Christians

Note: This is a two-part post. “Me and My DCFs,” recounts how I was mocked and insulted during an online conversation with a pastor and his friends. If you want to skip the set up and get right to the conclusions, scroll down to the title “Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (And Why You Should Not Accept Them).”

Me and my DCFs (Dear Christian Friends)

Recently I dove into a debate with fellow Christians because I shared a blog post from David Henson that offers a view of salvation based on the incarnation of Christ rather than one based solely on the crucifixion. I liked the post because I have become much more of an incarnational Christian, with my faith focused on the miracle of incarnation that allows us to know and be reconciled to God and to participate in God’s vision for the world by following Jesus in faith and action.

A pastor friend of mine commented on the post by blasting Henson, who is an Episcopal priest and an earnest Jesus follower, as ignorant and a “false teacher,” and then he reposted the link so that his friends could second his opinion. I will try to recount parts of the resulting conversation without insulting the people who were participating, but in case I am not quite successful, I want to state up front that I consider them fellow Christians who are worthy of respect. I grew up and first came to faith in a tradition like the one that they represent, and although I have come a long way since then, I still value and even love many aspects of that foundation. This conversation left me disappointed that the same kind of good, loving folks that I grew up with could be not only be so rude and disrespectful toward a fellow Christian, but that in the end, they could also pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

I joined the conversation, commenting that there are different ways of understanding salvation that are as valid as the view of my pastor friend (basically, penal substitutionary atonement). Another pastor who has never met me (I’ll call him my DCF – dear Christian friend) showed up to dismiss Henson’s post as part of a “satanic effort,” adding that his response would probably not sit well with “Ms. Leslie.” Nothing like a nice touch of faux formality to make the degree of condescension crystal clear from the start.

Though I let the snark bleed through by suggesting that he could call me Dr. Kaiura (my actual title), I did not attack my DCF’s response by attacking his theology or his faith. However, I did maintain that there are alternate understandings that should be respected when the theology bears good fruit (which is the criteria Jesus gave us for judging the teachings of others in Matthew 7). For my trouble, I was told, “You seem to have a ‘Holy Chip’ on your shoulder that has possibly been placed there by intellectual pride.”

Later on, after I had very seriously (and in a totally snark-free manner) explained how I understand my salvation in Christ, my DCF openly mocked me, writing, “What a blessing it is to sit at your feet of intellectual wisdom! Gods infinite capacity is truly revealed in your propensity to exult in the monotonous intellectual humility you reveal per post.”

Throughout the conversation I was repeatedly accused of being prideful simply because 1) I am intelligent and articulate and 2) I would not agree to every belief held by my DCF and his friends. Furthermore, I got this reaction when I was intentionally refraining from attacking their beliefs because, as I was attempting to explain, I think that Christians should have more respect for the beliefs of others who profess faith in Christ.

I don’t claim to be 100% pride (or snark) free, but another Christian who observed this exchange (and whom I have never met) messaged me to apologize for the way I was treated and to comment: “I didn’t think you were in any way prideful. I actually thought you were the most humble in that conversation. Thank you for being a breath of fresh air and Jesus in that stifling Pharisee-like comment section.”

Nevertheless, I was accused of being prideful while my DCF and his friends felt perfectly within their rights not only in “rebuking” me, but also in questioning my faith and being openly insulting. The coup d’etat was this anti-intellectual and assumption-filled statement: “I have met many like you, ever learning but never able to come to conclusive truth. Maybe this is why Paul stated that ‘not many wise…are called.’ Don’t you know that even your intellect has to be processed through redemption and sanctification as well? Your mind may be sharp but has it been renewed? [. . . ] your unredeemed intellect is not a friend but should be brought under submission to the Spirit of God.”

So let me lay this out. I repeatedly affirmed that I have faith in Jesus Christ and that I believe in the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. And yet because I refused to agree that penal substitutionary atonement theory is the only way of believing or that the Bible is inerrant, I was mocked and relegated to the category of “apostate” (i.e. one who abandons belief and no longer belongs to the group). I had mentioned that I lead book studies at my church, and to this my DCF insultingly replied, as if from one Facebook thread he knew me and all of my beliefs: “No wonder many churches are in the apostate condition they are in…. I personally wouldn’t allow you to teach in the nursery.”

Ouch. Good thing I am confident enough in my faith not to be dissuaded from it by such rudeness and judgmentalism. I worry for those who are not.

Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (and Why You Should Not Accept Them)

I hope that my Dear Christian Friend (who is a lead pastor, remember) is kinder and more respectful to seekers and inquisitive, thinking folks at his church than he was to me. If he isn’t, then I am fairly sure that he has driven some away from the gospel instead of leading them toward it.

Sometimes I am astonished at how unloving and judgmental some Christians can be in their attempts to discredit other faithful Christians. In fact, most of the hate mail and vitriolic commentary received by progressive Christian bloggers comes from other Christians, and that is ridiculous. It is also in direct contradiction to how Jesus commands us to love, adding in John 13.35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Some Christians would do well to learn that objections can always be expressed in a firm but polite way, without compromising one’s own beliefs or insulting or demonizing another Christian (or anyone else, for that matter). (And since I sometimes have a tendency to let my frustration with black & white thinking turn to snark, I admit that I am still perfecting this approach myself.)

One of the final posts in the conversation described above lamented “I just hope an atheist doesn’t come upon this thread.” My DCF’s response reveals a total lack of self-awareness: “I think it is good that an Atheist or an Agnostic would see passionate believers passionately defending scripture.”

I’m sorry, my DCF, but all that a typical atheist would see on that thread is a group of Christians ganging up to discredit and ridicule another Christian who is simply expressing an alternate understanding of the exact same faith that they hold themselves. Not exactly inspirational or admirable. I am a dedicated Christian, and the only thing it inspired in me was a firm desire to never, ever walk into a church pastored by someone like my DCF.

However, the conversation did prompt me to reflect on the excuses that some Christians use to discredit other Christians. I critique some of them here in hopes of helping other earnest seekers and spiritual misfits and encouraging them to not let “well meaning” Christians belittle them or discredit their faith (or their attempts at understanding faith and making it meaningful) with these excuses.

1) The Attribution of Pridefulness: An accusation of pride is often code for “You dare to have a different opinion and refuse to submit to mine” by people who are prideful enough to believe that they are 100% correct about everything. I think that this accusation is probably applied more to women and young people than to others, but we all deserve more respect than that. It is true that we should not be unduly prideful and that we should be open to learning, but simply stating your beliefs and sticking to them (particularly when they are informed and thoughtful) does not equate to having sinful pride.

2) Criticism of Intellectualism: Christians who critique intellectualism or resort to quoting 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”) at you when you are engaging intellectually with faith are trying to force you to abandon your own ability to read, pray, think, and come to conclusions in favor of their conclusions. If a person or community will not honor your own earnest efforts to study (2 Timothy 2.15) and work out your own salvation (Philippians 2.12), then find one who will.

3) Insistence on Biblical Inerrancy and the Impossibility of Interpretation: People like my DCF will not only insist on the inerrancy of the Bible (a relatively recent and problematic belief), but 1) they will also reject the very idea that the Bible can be interpreted (all the while vociferously preaching the interpretations like penal substitution, which is also problematic), and 2) they will make believing in Biblical inerrancy a prerequisite for salvation. My DCF claimed in our conversation that “There is only one thing that produces faith…. The Word!,” and by this he referred to the Bible, not to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In my humble opinion, that is idolatry of the Bible and a deformation of the gospel.

Featured image(Image borrowed from nakedpastor)

Jesus called us to have faith in himself and in God. Don’t let anyone tell you that your faith has to be placed elsewhere to be valid, and don’t let anyone convince you that the Bible cannot be interpreted as a way of shoving their own interpretation down your throat. It is the nature of language that every spoken utterance and written word is subject to interpretation, but that does not mean all interpretations are equal. We can and should seek out faithful and intellectually honest interpretations that shore up and enliven our faith.

4) Claiming that because you interpret the Bible differently, you have “dumbed it down” or made it “easier” to follow for your own benefit. People who claim this are willfully ignorant of the fact that any genuine attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus is hard and requires sacrifice. That being said, if your understanding of Christianity requires no sacrifice or transformation, you should perhaps take a second look at it what it means to follow Jesus.

5) Excusing their own rudeness and lack of love and grace by pointing out that Jesus and Paul rebuked other believers. There is no excuse for insulting a fellow believer (or any one else), particularly when you do not know the person. Assuming that you have a free license to rebuke others in any situation is a mark of pride, not humility or spiritual maturity. When we form loving and supportive relationships with other believers, there is a place for instruction, correction, and at times, even rebuke. In the absence of loving and meaningful relationships, those things are fruitless and often based on incorrect assumptions. Make sure that when you give a pastor, a mentor, or a community spiritual authority in your life that they know how to exercise that authority in a loving and respectful manner that allows you the freedom of thought and conscience to follow your faith.

Final Thoughts

To fellow seekers, I say this: Do not let anyone insult or belittle you out of their concern for your salvation (which usually masks a concern for being right and a desire for you to submit to their often questionable rightness). If you are looking for a vibrant and meaningful faith, there are reputable Christian leaders and mentors out there who will love you and respect you and your journey to faith. Don’t settle for leaders who use excuses to badger you into submission to their authority rather than to the authority of Jesus. Never let anyone shame or guilt you into giving up your quest for an authentic and intellectually engaged faith.

As for me, I have a lot to learn. I have beliefs and ideas that need to be fleshed out, tweaked, and perhaps even reconsidered completely. But I also have the capability to read and interpret scripture and to choose wisely which authorities (theologians, Biblical scholars, pastors, mentors, friends) I look to in order to shape my understanding and my faith. And not only do I have that capability, I have that responsibility.

And so does everyone else. 


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