church culture

have we become the pharisees?

Currently doing some storyboarding for some more fiction I'm working on, but I discovered another piece hidden away in the archives that I had never published (seems like this is a semi-frequent occurrence). As I'm transitioning back to writing some fiction, I've been finding that it's taking me a lot longer to figure out how I want to write things and what kinds of ideas I want to use, but maybe that's more normal than I'm giving myself credit for.

With this piece, the primary idea behind it was conceived through a series of discussions I had at my Bible study where we talked about what it means to actually be a Christian in the 21st century, in 2016 and how we can sometimes read our own biases into the parables and stories we read in the Bible. Oftentimes, this manifests as us, as mostly privileged, American Christians, identifying more closely with the oppressed people groups described in the Bible rather than with the oppressors. However, something that we realized over the course of our discussion and Bible study was that while the Israelites and the entire nation of Israel have typically been the minority ethnic group and minority religion in the majority of eras, that's not really the case for most Westernized or American Christians. What we decided is that more often than not, our actual lived realities align more with those of the oppressing Pharisees than with those of the oppressed Israelites. Interesting food for thought for sure.

have we become the pharisees?

When I was younger and still in Sunday school or just in school for that matter, since I went to a Christian K-12 school for a long time, sitting in a sagging, scratchy couch in one of the many rooms scattered along the length of the Catholic church activities building that my school rented, I always thought that things were pretty straight forward. By the time I left that school after my sophomore year of high school, it was easy for me to assume that I had a lot of things about my faith and about the Bible all figured out, something that remains one of the most false thoughts I’ve ever had in my entire life. One thing that particularly sticks out in my mind is the way that we learned to categorize people in Bible stories. I always used to think that the Pharisees were the bad guys in the Gospels, but something I’ve been realizing is that they really weren’t, at least not at the time. No, quite the contrary, the Pharisees were the good guys in their day, and they were probably viewed as the ones who were as good as anyone was going to get.

The Pharisees knew their Scriptures. They knew the Old Testament law. They could probably recite entire chapters from what they had of the Bible without missing a beat. To make a loose parallel, the Pharisees were the pastors’ kids who were born and raised in the church, the kids that showed up to church every Wednesday and Sunday, the kids that were on worship team and hospitality team and everything else in between. Unlike how we were taught to view the Pharisees in Sunday school, they were the good guys, the good Christian kids of Biblical times.

And Jesus and His disciples? They were probably seen as the rebels of youth group and Sunday school. Jesus was the lone rabbi who may or may not have actually had rabbi credentials who went around Israel with his ragtag group of twelve, give or take a few. As far as we know, Jesus didn’t work during His ministry, instead living primarily off the support of his followers such as Mary and Martha and perhaps His family. When you think about it that way, it’s actually not too hard to imagine why the Pharisees and the other religious folk didn’t like Him.

Jesus was the unemployed fake rabbi wannabe who lived in his parents’ basement and only seemed to stir up trouble wherever He went. He took out the moneychangers in the temple with a whip, he hung out with the other good-for-nothings in Jewish/Roman society like the tax collectors and prostitutes, and he repeatedly broke the Sabbath, which, last I checked, was probably just as central to the Pharisees’ theology as being pro-life and saying that marriage is between one man and one woman are to conservative Christian theology today. On top of all that, he told them over and over again that they were being too legalistic, using all kinds of relatively nasty metaphors to get that message across. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Whitewashed graves. Blind guides. Jesus didn’t hold back when it came to telling the Pharisees exactly what He thought of them.

The more I think about those dynamics, the more I think that perhaps I would’ve been pissed at Jesus had I been living during that time period too, and that’s a scary thought to have, because I think that many of us have been raised and taught to identify more with the oppression and hounding of Jesus and His disciples than with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees responsible when I don’t think that’s the place that we hold in modern Christian circles. I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, it makes more sense to put ourselves in the Pharisees’ shoes than in those of Jesus and His disciples, if we’re being very, brutally honest.

Again, the Pharisees really knew their stuff. They knew what the law said about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath or the regulations stipulating this or that about ceremonial uncleanliness, and I think that’s really reflective of many of us today, myself included. Many of us were raised in the church, and we also know all the Bible stories as well as what they’re supposed to mean and what we’re supposed to get out of them. Along the same lines, we also know all the verses that tell us what’s good and what’s not. We know the verses that supposedly tell us that women shouldn’t be leaders in the church. We know the verses that say homosexuality is an abomination. And we know the verses that “clearly” state every other thing we’ve learned in church or in school, but because of that we’re missing the point, just like the Pharisees were.

Because the truth of the matter is that it’s not about the rules or the law or anything else that makes the world seem like it’s black and white to us. It’s always been about standing out and being different, with radical love as our banner, because that’s what Jesus did, even though it doesn’t necessarily seem to make sense all the time. If you think about it, Jesus didn’t have to heal or do miracles on the Sabbath. He didn’t have to be kind and loving to the tax collectors who were seen as sellouts to the Romans. He didn’t have to heal the Roman centurion’s servant. He didn’t have to do any of it if He really wanted to fit in with the Pharisees and live His days as the good Jewish boy that He could’ve been, but instead He chose to be radical in way that directly opposed many of the religious traditions and norms of His day. He prioritized people and meeting with them, touching them, and loving them individually over religious correctness, and I think that’s crazy. I also think that the saying is true that we would probably crucify Jesus all over again if He walked the earth today, regardless of whether that’s physically, politically, socially, or culturally and that saddens me, though I would also include myself in that statement.

Something else that I kept asking myself as I was going through elementary school and middle school was how all of these people missed what Jesus was trying to do and how they couldn’t seem to understand some of the most basic concepts that He was trying to teach them, but I think I understand now because our American world has become so similar to the world that Jesus lived in, filled with people who know the Bible backwards and forwards, who know theology like it’s their native language, who know facts about God and arguments for this doctrine or that doctrine, but also filled with people who don’t know what love looks like anymore. All of sudden, love looks like being right when it comes to this or that theological question and knowing all the proper motions to go through at church, because you know that your love for God is measured by how often you show up to church, or how good of notes you took at that last sermon, or whether or not you’re on the church or school worship team, or whether or not you support the right political candidate, or whether or not your views on a particular issue align exactly with those of your church. That’s what love and devotion to God look like in 21st century American culture, and I think that’s the exact same kind of religious atmosphere that Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, at least by my reading of the Bible, and that makes us the Pharisees, regardless of whether we like it or not. We’ve become the bad guys that we loved to hate in Sunday school, all without even realizing it, because just like them, we think that we’re the good guys.

In light of that, I think that we need to try and do what the Pharisees failed to do. We need to follow Jesus’ example and start worrying less about being the good guys and more about loving the way that He did, because that’s the only way that we’re truly going to transform and engage with culture, not by being right or good, but by being loving.

when our words kill friendship (part one)

This is the fourth entry in a series of posts on friendship. To find the others once they’ve been published, find the menu button in the upper right corner of the blog and see “Summer Friendship Series.”  

As a writer, you could say that I think about words a lot. Part of both the joy and frustration of writing is being able to find just the right word to express exactly the sort of sentiment you want to convey. For the most part, the English language usually does a pretty good job of supplying words that have the proper nuance, but something that I’ve been thinking about recently is how sometimes we don’t have enough words to capture the depth of some things that we consider to be so basic. Friendship is one of those things.

 

In English, our single word ‘friend’ encompasses such a wide range of meanings that other languages might divide into different words in order to convey the proper amount of nuance behind them. I mean, I think it’s a little strange that we use the same word to describe people that we’re connected to on Facebook, many of whom we might not even talk to or interact with on a regular basis, as well as people that we share our souls with and can call late at night to cry with. It seems almost disrespectful to use the same word for both of those kinds of relationships. After all, many people call their spouses or their siblings their best friends, and yet we’ll still use the same word to talk about that person we might’ve shared a class with freshman year of college or high school and haven’t talked to since.

 

That’s one of the things I loved most about being a linguistics major. By at least rudimentarily studying several other languages, you gain a broader understanding of how other people express different ideas across different languages, and the subtle nuances that those untranslatable words and phrases carry tell you quite a bit about how that language or culture thinks about and treats various aspects of life. With friendship, I think the contrast between English and other languages is quite striking.

 

Friend || English

We’ll start with the English word for friend, because I think that this word carries a lot of underlying connotations that we perhaps don’t consciously think about when we use it in our daily lives. Personally, in observing and thinking about the ways that the majority of people around me use the word ‘friend,’ I’ve realized that this word tends to carry notions of casualness and complacency that other languages’ terms for the same type of relationship don’t necessarily. In English, a friend can span anything from an acquaintance that you’ve met and small talked with to someone you’ve known for years and years and knows some of the most intimate parts of your life. Again, it’s peculiar that English uses the same words for both of those kinds of relationships.

 

The English word for friendship tends to carry notions of casualness and complacency that the same words in other languages don't.

 

The complacency and looseness of the term ‘friend’ comes into play when you start comparing friendship to other kinds of relationships. In American society specifically, I think that we tend to use a hierarchical system when it comes to how we mentally organize the different types of relationships in our lives. The pyramid is structured a little differently for everyone, but what I’ve noticed is that, especially in American Christian culture, we tend to place romantic and marriage relationships at the top, while simultaneously associating friendship with a slightly lower tier, as if friendships are inherently less valuable or desirable than romantic relationships. I don’t think many of us would admit it in those specific words, but I do think that this is how we tend to act when we really think about prioritizing relationships a lot of the time. I know that I’ve definitely chosen to do this before, giving someone that I might’ve been even vaguely interested in priority over my friends or family. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing, because it might not be in every circumstance, but I think it’s definitely something to think about, whether we realize that we might be doing that and whether that’s something we want to continue doing consciously.

 

In American Christian culture, we tend to place romantic and marriage relationships at the top of the pyramid while simultaneously associating friendship with a lower tier.

 

Nakama/Shinyuu || Japanese

Japanese has a number of different words and expressions that are used for friendship depending on what part of the country you happen to be from, and these two are ones that I’ve heard the most frequently in shows and other media when characters are talking about especially close friends. Where we have the word ‘friend’ in English, Japanese would use [tomodachi], which is loosely used to refer to schoolmates or casual friends and acquaintances, people that you enjoy spending time with and doing certain activities with, but whom you’d probably still address using slightly more formal language, which is often a sign of closeness in Japanese culture. This seems roughly equivalent to the way that we usually use the word ‘friend’ in English, but then Japanese has [shinyuu] and [nakama], which express slightly different but similar ideas.

 

[shinyuu] refers to your best friend or your confidant, which is fairly commonplace understanding in English. It’s that person who knows your secrets, and obviously, you know theirs as well. In Japanese culture, these two people might refer to each other using just their given names or with diminutive honorifics, which usually implies a high degree of closeness, especially since honorifics and respectful speech are typically used as a means of social distancing for respect purposes in Japanese culture. For this reason, most people typically address each other by their last names accompanied by an appropriate honorific, or a little linguistic tag that denotes their status in relation to each other.  That’s why the very act of being able to address someone by just their given name signals that closeness in Japanese culture, and thus goes to show the level of friendship between two people meant to be understood by the use of this word.

 

On the other hand, [nakama] refers to friends that you almost no longer consider to be friends at all. When someone is [nakama], it means that person or those people have essentially become family to you, a person who will stand by you no matter what, which is even more significant in Japanese culture than it might seem to us Americans. In the United States, it’s more or less common to know people who consider each other to be family even if they aren’t related by blood. Perhaps they grew up together, or their parents are close, which led to them being close by default. That’s part of what [nakama] means, but it just barely scratches the surface, because family is so much more significant to someone’s identify and social construction in Japanese culture.

 

In Japan, the family is the first social unit that a person is born into and remains the main social unit for the rest of your life. There are a lot of stereotypical ideas about Japanese, or perhaps Asian honor culture in general, floating around the United States, and that’s what this plays into. Family is your biggest priority in Japanese culture, and a large part of your identify comes from how you interact and relate to your family. Anything that you might do will reflect back on your family and the same goes for anything that your family members might do in relation to you. It’s hard to properly describe how significant family is in Japanese culture, being a collective culture, rather than an individual culture like what exists in the United States, but it goes without saying that for a friend to become family in Japanese culture means for that relationship to be on a level above what we would normally consider friends to be in American culture.

 

In Japanese culture, for a friend to become family inherently means for that relationship to be on a level above what we would normally consider friendship in American culture.

 

I’m not sure that I have any true [nakama] in my life quite yet, but I would say that my friend Sheridan is pretty freaking close. We don’t quite reflect on each other in the same way that family members would reflect on each other in Japanese culture, but most people that know us also automatically know the other, or have at least heard of the other. But we definitely will stand by each other no matter what. She knows my secrets (provided that we’ve had time to actually catch up, considering that we’ve found ourselves living across countries or oceans from each other recently), she’s one of the first people that I want to tell when I have news, and she’s my first choice as a roommate once we decide to start trying to adult. She makes me want to listen to better music, eat healthier (and trendier, haha) food, and she’ll call me out on my BS without really caring if I’ll like it or not (because eventually, I’ll come around and realize that I was doing something stupid). She’s one of very few of my friends who I’ve cried with (and loudly at that) in person, and to top it all off, we actually technically weren’t friends for a grand total of three months at one point in time (again, because a certain person was being stupid – read – me), so if that’s not “standing by you no matter what,” then I’m not really sure what is.

 

She’s good for me in more ways than I have time to write about here, but I think one specific thing I will always love about her is that she has an uncanny sense of discernment that I haven’t seen in anybody else in my life. She can get a read on any situation and see through whatever other kinds of mess are floating around in a heartbeat.

 

Now, I’m definitely not the kind of person to overspiritualize everything, but last winter I was going through a pretty dark, suicidal period in life, which most people are familiar with, and she was the first person to point out to me that perhaps part of that cloud of darkness was a form of spiritual attack. It was something that hadn’t even been on my radar before she mentioned it, and frankly, I was a caught a little off guard by that assessment, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. That was the crack in the door I needed to be able to see the light on the other side, and that kind of discernment isn’t something that everyone has.

 

I’m not sure if the two of us will ever quite fit the exact definition of [nakama], just because American culture doesn’t work the same way, but if there was ever an American equivalent, Sheridan would definitely be [nakama] to me.

 

Maybe the reason we have such a low view of friendship in American culture is because we don't have adequate words to fully explain and define what those relationships mean to us.

 

These kinds of distinctions and nuances in how other languages talk about friendship consistently blow my mind, and I’m certain that they help me better understand what friendship really is, because our American view of friendship is so narrow and limited. In linguistics and probably also in psychology, we learn that the way we talk about things influences the way that we then perceive things and treat them. Maybe the reason that we have such a low view of friendship in American and American Christian culture is because we don’t have adequate words to fully explain what those relationships mean to us, and maybe we need to start borrowing some of this friendship vocabulary in order to free us from the cultural chains that bind our preconceived notions of what friendship is so that we can really, truly understand it in all of its beauty.

 

Coming up in this series on friendship: the second half of this discussion on friendship in linguistic terms, covenant friendship and intimacy between friends, reviving friendship by untangling romanticism and sexuality, and some thoughts on a culture that tells us not to really love our friends, among other topics. Subscribe to the blog to get email notifications of new posts and like ‘Jonah Venegas’ on Facebook in order to get updates as posts come out, and let me know in the comments or on social media what you’re thinking about all of this stuff.

when your friends strip you down

This is the third entry in a series of posts on friendship. To find the others once they’ve been published, find the menu button in the upper right corner of the blog and see “Summer Friendship Series.”  

Vulnerability. Intimacy. Authenticity. Those are all pretty popular Christian buzzwords as of late, usually accompanied by an Instagram photo of daybreak from a mountain view or a crashing waterfall in the middle of an evergreen forest with a hipster backpack brand or some sort of “supply company” tagged toward the margins. Cheeky, right?

 

I’m not going to lie. I love a great nature shot or artsy portrait on a curated Instagram feed as much as the next millennial, but I think that perhaps we’ve turned those words into a brand in and of themselves, passing over their actual etymology in favor of a trendy aesthetic. All of a sudden, words like those get commoditized into hashtags and lose their meaning and appeal just as fast as the Billboard Top 40 and cheap gum, the difference being that people still listen to the same overplayed songs and buy $1 gum while we’re quickly losing the ability to actually be vulnerable and authentic.

 

We're quickly losing the ability to actually be vulnerable and authentic.

 

Maybe that’s because real vulnerability and real authenticity aren’t nearly as attractive in reality as the latest pop single or that Instagram photo with hundreds of likes. Most of the time, their true selves look a lot more like confessing dark secrets or having an ugly cry than a landscape panorama or a hand lettered poster of worship lyrics. I think that’s because true vulnerability and authenticity weren’t designed for social media or marketing campaigns. Instead, they fill the dark spaces where the light can’t quite reach past the masks we wear and the defenses we build up for protection against the outside world. They seep into the places where our voices fall to hushed whispers and where our hearts are afraid to even beat, lest someone hears, and oddly enough, they create safe spaces that aren’t guarded by walls, but rather by an understanding voice that says you aren’t alone and offers to cry with you.

 

True vulnerability and authenticity weren't designed for social media or marketing campaigns. They fill the dark spaces where the light can't quite reach past our masks and whisper that you're not alone while offering to cry with you.

 

Perhaps that’s why some of the most loving friends that I know, regardless of whether we’re close or not, are the ones who have had to walk through the valleys with looming shadows on either side. I think that their overflow of love comes from the fact that they’ve experienced the heaviness that comes from chronic pain and struggling. They know what it feels like, that a quick Bible verse or worship song isn’t going to fix the problem (though it could still make you feel a little better), and instead of trying to cheer you up, they take a seat next to you, pull their legs close to their chest the same way you do, and simply be with you.

 

My friend, Jordan, is good at that, and that’s no surprise to anyone who knows her. She’s a future nurse (as in she’s taking the NCLEX in a couple weeks, so if you want to pray for my friend, that’d be excellent), so her job will basically consist of taking care of people and making them feel better, at least in the oversimplified version of her job description, and I think that’s pretty fitting. She’s an incredibly compassionate soul, and I think a part of that can be attributed simply to her nature and another part to the fact that she’s gone through some heavier times herself and come out the other side.

 

Last summer was a particularly stormy period of life, with multiple things going sideways and a terrible attitude towards it all on my part to top it off. Needless to say, I wasn’t quite in a posture of being open to constructive criticism at the time. After one specific night of bomb after bomb being dropped, I was beyond fed up with life. I was taking summer classes at a school that I no longer wanted to be at, I didn’t like the vast majority of the people at this school or in my program, all of my closest friends were miles and miles away, and I really just wanted to bury myself in a hole for a few days and cry and feel sorry for myself. Sometimes you just get to points like that, and it’s completely okay.

 

At that moment, I distinctly remember drying some angry, confused tears with my sleeve and texting Jordan, “How socially acceptable would it be for me to call you and cry right now?”

 

“Pretty acceptable,” she answered in a matter of seconds.

 

"How socially acceptable would it be for me to call you and cry right now?" I asked.

"Pretty acceptable," she answered.

 

So, I did just that. Sitting in the hot, musty basement (because the program I was with was too cheap to actually pay for air conditioning in the summer) of a shoddily maintained dorm building in North Dakota, I called Jordan and told her a little bit of what was going on and cried. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I was glad to have someone there, even in spirit, to just be with me, something that I feel like we don’t utilize enough, the act of just being with another person when they’re hurting.

 

Talking to her the other day, I brought this up and she noted that it was a sad anniversary to be reminded of, but I don’t really think about it that way anymore. The sadness and frustration of those events faded a long time ago (and it’s beautiful really to think about the inability to remember a certain kind of pain from moments past), but what I still remember and will probably always remember is the time I had a friend open up her schedule to just be with me while I cried because of life circumstances. That alone makes that memory worthwhile, and I think it’s also one example of what real vulnerability and authenticity look like. It looks like admitting and being painfully aware that you don’t have everything all together and maybe resigning yourself to crying and being frustrated for a while. It looks like not caring what other people will think of you anymore, in general, but also to the extent that you’re no longer embarrassed to cry on the phone with a friend. The purest forms of vulnerability and authenticity look like an acknowledgement of our own brokenness and darkness and being able to open up enough to share that with another person without fear.

 

Real vulnerability and authenticity look like admitting and being painfully aware that you don't have everything all together, and that's okay.

 

That kind of openness doesn’t feel safe at first. In fact, I can attest to the fact that it feels pretty scary and dangerous. But at the same time, I think it’s another piece of evidence that true love does exist within the bounds of friendship, because love casts out fear, including the fear to be seen as scared, broken, and hurting in a world where so much of our lives and our identities have been carefully crafted to portray a certain kind of persona that’s only a shadow of what our true selves look like.

 

I think that one of the biggest problems that we have in our world today is that we keep slathering on layers of accomplishments, accolades, and achievements in order to protect ourselves from vulnerability while simultaneously aching to be fully known, which isn’t possible when we’re hiding behind masks. I think what we really need is to come out from behind our defenses for just long enough to realize that most of the time, being open about the hard things is usually met with a response that says, “Me too.” And I think that starts with our friends.

 

Coming up in this series on friendship: covenant friendship and intimacy between friends, reviving friendship by untangling romanticism and sexuality, and some thoughts on a culture that tells us not to really love our friends, among other topics. Subscribe to the blog to get email notifications of new posts and like ‘Jonah Venegas’ on Facebook in order to get updates as posts come out, and let me know in the comments or on social media what you’re thinking about all of this stuff.

when christian superstars come out

Perhaps you’ve heard and perhaps you haven’t yet, but Trey Pearson of Everyday Sunday just came out as gay about a day or two ago. This follows similar coming out stories by the likes of Vicky Beeching and Jennifer Knapp who have gone on to lose much of their music careers, with Beeching instead moving on to religious commentary and other projects in the UK, including a book that she’s currently working on. But at any rate, just like those other coming out stories, this one has already generated its own fair share of controversy and reactions from the general Christian populace, both positive and negative, as larger outlets such as Yahoo and Religion News Service have picked up the story. Unsurprisingly, there have been quite a few opinionated responses coming from a handful of Christians, with many lamenting the fact that he has chosen to come out after having married a woman and having children among other things, and this is specifically what I want to address in this post. With more and more people finally acknowledging the basic fact that being gay or lesbian or bisexual is not a choice any more than being straight is a choice, what I’ve seen is that many Christians have instead chosen to go the route of lambasting Pearson for his decision to come out now after having been married to his wife for over 7 years and having had children with her, and I think that perhaps I understand a little bit of where that’s coming from, as misdirected as it might be.

Here’s the thing: I agree that there’s no way for most people to even grasp what kind of difficulties he and his family must be going through right now, and that is something lamentable, just like the fact that his general situation tragically isn’t too uncommon in Christian circles, but I disagree that his decision was the wrong one. I’ve read quite a few stories similar to his over the years, of LGBTQ Christians who have married someone of the opposite gender because the church refused to accept them as they were and essentially gave them no other options if they wanted to be a part of the larger Christian community. The church told them to find a way to be straight, or at least pretend to be straight for a while, or face what basically amounts to excommunication. I even personally know of at least one friend who has experienced this series of events in their own family, whether it was in their immediate family or extended, and it seems to be just as messy as many people on the internet are assuming that it’s going to be for Pearson, because I think that’s true. Whenever this happens, it’s always quite the sticky situation to sort through, and the unfortunate thing is that these kinds of situations can always be prevented, though perhaps not necessarily in the way that you might think.

It’s true that he chose to marry a woman with hopes that perhaps he might actually be able to fulfill his fantasy of becoming straight and fitting into Christian church culture, but I would argue that it’s also true that the entire set of circumstances that led him to that decision were put in place by the church and that we can learn from that.

Think about this. The church is obsessed with marriage, particularly straight marriage. It seems to be one of the unwritten rules of being a good Christian that you will get married someday and that it will be a straight marriage. This is the subliminal message that gets preached in probably every single church in the United States, that if you aren’t married, or perhaps don’t want to be married, that there’s something wrong with you, that you haven’t pleased God enough, that God just hasn’t sent the right person to you yet, or some other kind of old Christian cliché like that. It’s an addiction and an idol, and it’s one that I think maybe the church isn’t aware of yet or doesn’t want to address because it would be too uncomfortable, since marriage is such a good thing, which is what they keep telling everyone.

But this is a problem. This obsession with marriage creates harmful and toxic dynamics and assumptions that blind us from being able to recognize any other kind of close relationships or even singleness for that matter, which I think is something that the church likes to say is good, but also something that the church hasn’t modeled for us. If you think about it, a good number of key Biblical figures were never married that we know of like Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul, and Jesus Himself. And that’s part of the reason why I’m still at a loss as to why the church doesn’t know how to talk about singleness or why the church has such an odd inclination toward marriage when it’s definitely not the most important or central thing that’s talked about in Bible, even though that’s what any outside observer of American Christianity might tell you.

All of that being said, while people keep decrying Pearson for his decision to come out because of the impact that it will have on his marriage, I have to say that while he definitely did make the decision to get married to a woman and to come out, I also strongly believe that perhaps the church environment that he grew up in and that many of us have grown up in has set us up for failure, especially, ESPECIALLY if you happen to identify as LGBTQ. Again, think about it. At the time what else was he supposed to do? It's circa 2007 or 2008 and everything he’s ever heard about being gay is negative, and maybe not even negative but downright toxic and poisonous to his spiritual life and spiritual health. You hear over and over that being gay is an abomination and that God hates you, especially during that time period, or really any of the last few decades and beyond. Reparative and conversion therapy are in vogue and you hear that you can become straight if you just pray enough, if you just believe hard enough, if you just repent hard enough. So, naturally, you think that maybe if you marry a woman that might just do the trick, that it might make you straight, and maybe you even believe it (again, this is just some speculation coming from my own experiences and experiences of others who have gone the same thing since his full story hasn’t been published yet), but after a few years you come to the crushing conclusion that it didn’t work, that you’re not straight. And so what are you supposed to do?

To all of the critics, does that sound like a real, free choice now? I don’t think so. I think it sounds like spiritual bullying and a demand for conformity dressed up with lots of spiritual fanfare.

Beyond that, it might seem that a lot of the same critics are truly concerned about his wife and his children and his marriage, but are they? I’m not sure. I’m not going to be the judge of others’ intentions, but I think that something they’re missing is that perhaps staying in that marriage wouldn’t really be fair to his wife either. If you think about it, she deserves someone who’s going to be able to love her the same way that she loves him, and with the most respect for Pearson possible, that’s not going to be him, because I think that it’s just a fact that his current marriage relationship with her is never going to be the same as a marriage relationship with a straight man who loves her. Now, I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak for the situation with the children, and I truly hope that all goes for the best – God’s grace to them – but I think that if they’re going to separate, I do think that’s the most fair thing not only for him, but also for his wife, because with all the grace that he has attributed to her throughout all of this, I think that without even knowing her, she deserves someone who can love her the same way that she’s going to love him, and I think that’s something that people are missing when they talk about him throwing away his marriage or tearing his family apart. It’s true that his family situation is going to be quite different moving forward from here, but for lack of a better word, it was broken to begin with in my opinion, again, with no ill intent towards him or his wife. I just don't think that mixed orientation marriages can realistically work, and perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s what I also see as being the case here.

In light of all of these reflections, I fully support Trey in his coming out and pray for peace and strength as he begins navigating this new journey, especially with regards to how his family dynamic will likely be changing. It’s not going to be easy or smooth; that’s almost a guarantee, but I do think that he’s demonstrating quite a bit of bravery in coming out now, especially considering all of the different factors at play in his specific coming out story. People might disagree with that, but what he’s done and what he’s doing takes an incredible amount of guts and courage to do, particularly in 2016 when it seems like LGBTQ people, but almost even more so LGBTQ Christians, are a favorite target of the mainstream evangelical church and Christian community, a large segment of people who might never experience the fear, anxiety, and mental stress that come with trying to live a lie and put up a façade day in and day out, all the while praying that you’re doing the right thing and perhaps constantly fearing God’s wrath or what will happen to you if you do accept your own identity, depending on what kind of church tradition you were brought up in.

Something that I’ve thankful for is that Pearson’s story didn’t end in suicide or some other darker alternative that is all too common for LGBTQ people in Christian circles, or perhaps was more common, since that appears to be changing at least a little bit as the years pass. And contrary to what many fundamentalists or critics might be saying, I think that the recent string of high profile Christians coming out is not a sign of moral decay or backsliding within Christianity, but rather, I think that it’s an indicator that God is not confined to the little boxes that we might put Him in or the stereotypes that we might draw around Him. I think that it’s a positive step towards a more inclusive church for both affirming Christians and also maybe for non-affirming Christians who still know how to show grace and respect the convictions of others, which I also believe is an incredibly crucial piece that the church will continue to struggle with in the coming weeks, months, and years.

So, congratulations to Trey Pearson on coming out and being able to accept who you are and perhaps feeling a little freer and maybe even a little closer to Jesus as a result. It’s a scary and nerve wracking thing to do, especially in the spotlight, but I think that this will just help make coming out even more normal, so that people don’t have to feel afraid of it. I hope that moving forward people will see the negative reactions and learn how to be more graceful and loving, and I also hope that people will see the positive responses and know that their faith and their identity are compatible, that they aren’t dirtier or more sinful just because of who they are, that they are still image bearers of the Father of Lights and that they are so incredibly loved.

mark yarhouse talked to my christian college on sexuality and this is how it went

Alright, here's the full, unedited version of the article that was published in the Bethel Clarion earlier this week, detailing my stream of thought about the Mark Yarhouse sexuality event last week. The Clarion staff did a great job editing it, but it definitely read more like a newspaper article (as it should have) than some of my normal writing, so I wanted to stick the original version up on here. Take a read if you weren't at the event or haven't already. I checked the time on my phone as I speed walked through the BC on my way to the Underground. It was already 8:01pm and I was late, having just come from helping lead an exam review session for CWC.  Mark Yarhouse, a psychologist and professor from Regent University, was giving a talk on sexuality and I was going to be there, though a bit reluctant at first. From what I had heard and read of him in the past, I wasn’t incredibly optimistic about the event, but the Underground was relatively full, so I slid into the second row from the front and took out my notebook just as it was beginning.

Over the course of his talk, which consisted of a presentation of his research on sexual minorities at Christian colleges and a Q&A afterward, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how well he handled the topic and how nuanced many of his answers were, a sentiment that I found many other LGBT students in attendance shared following the event.

Among the positives in his presentation, he gave a mildly muddled, but overall helpful explanation of why it’s important to LGBT people to identify as “gay,” “lesbian,” etc., rather than “same-sex attracted” or “homosexual.” This is an important distinction for the Bethel community to realize because using non-standard terminology can often carry dehumanizing connotations for LGBT students, even Christian LGBT students, because they often have roots that go back to ex-gay reparative therapy movements or when homosexuality was still considered a mental health disorder, two things that he also touched on briefly.

In addition, he affirmed several fundamental truths of existence for LGBT Christians that often get glossed over the highly politicized culture wars over LGBT issues. Among these, he made it clear that it is very possible to be gay or lesbian or transgender and also a Christian, defending that those two things are not mutually exclusive, something that is still debated in some Christian circles. Further, he noted that even though he doesn’t take an affirming stance in terms of same-sex marriage or sexual relationships, that doesn’t mean that people who do are necessarily wrong. He explained that many of his LGBT friends hold different positions there, but that doesn’t have any impact on the quality or legitimacy of their relationship, because there are many good Christians who happen to fall on different sides of that spectrum of belief. This is so significant because these types of differences tend to be highly polarized, with either side being alternately considered morally right or morally wrong, so the fact that he also explicitly stated that he never questioned the faith of his friends who held to differing beliefs is a good example of how non-affirming Christians can and should react to those kinds of differences, choosing to maintain relationships with people who hold other perspectives rather than feeling the constant need to remind them that we disagree with them. And this goes for both sides, affirming and non-affirming.

Finally, he also spoke quite a bit on what it might look like to engage with these kinds of issues on Christian college campuses, his main point being that we should strive to create safe spaces where LGBT students can still feel wanted and fully included in those communities. Thus, he spoke against using the phrase “love the sinner; hate the sin,” a popular saying that has been used in reference to LGBT Christians and only serves to reduce those people to their sexuality while simultaneously dehumanizing them. In addition, he indicated that he’s not a proponent of reparative therapy, meant to make LGBT Christians straight, and only reserves the right of sexual orientation change efforts to informed adults who voluntarily seek it out. Rather, he advocated for the climate change on Christian college campuses and support for LGBT students, pointing out that LGBT students have no fewer needs for intimacy than straight students, that coming from interpersonal relationships and social and institutional support among other sources. Thus, while his claims that policy change is probably not the most realistic expectation for LGBT students might upset some and be considered less than satisfactory, his calls for broader and deeper support for LGBT students at Christian colleges are a bright spot and definitely a good starting point for schools like Bethel.

Overall, it was refreshing to hear a speaker that represented our stories more or less accurately, portrayed us in a humanizing way, and helped other students and faculty understand what it’s like to walk the journeys that we do a little better. Though ideally we would be hearing these stories from LGBT Christians and students themselves, the mere fact that this event occurred and that he was willing to engage with the difficult questions many of us raised is a positive step toward the right direction for a place like Bethel, especially for students who still harbor fears of alienation, unacceptance, or backlash related to coming out.

Beyond that, though events like this may be considered to be only baby steps by students who are looking for more sweeping reform and change, they are still strides in the right direction and help raise greater awareness for topics like this at Bethel. It’s my opinion that events like these are the beginnings of creating places of openness and safety where LGBT students can feel comfortable and supported coming out and being a part the community fully, not fearing reprisal, condemnation, or questioning of their faith, but rather feeling wanted, included, and valued.

Obviously, there’s still more work to do, but I personally hope that all the positive progress will encourage more students to come out and share their stories, being willing to help drive the movement to create safe spaces and be the change that they’re looking for, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of students that will come to Bethel in the future. Though it might take a while to get there, the progress and openness that I’ve seen gives me a vision of Bethel possibly becoming a model of how Christian colleges, though non-affirming officially, can become safe spaces that advocate for the humanity and inclusion of LGBT students.