19 Nov Boy Erased: An Open Letter to the Gospel Coalition (Guest Post)
Last week, the Gospel Coalition published a review of Boy Erased, a movie depicting the true story of Garrard (Jared) Conley’s experiences at a conversion therapy facility called Love in Action. I’d encourage you to read the review by Brett McCracken before reading the response below. I have much respect for the Gospel Coalition and frequently link to their articles in my blog. However, even respected Christian outlets have blindspots. My prayer is that Brett McCracken and others at the Gospel Coalition would be willing to exercise humility in recognizing their need for growth when it comes to responding to LGBT+ topics and issues. We are all on the same team, and we can all learn from each other. I pray the Gospel Coalition is willing to learn from my friend Henry in his letter below.
Check out these links for additional resources on Boy Erased put out by organizations run by LGBT+ people dedicated to supporting LGBT+ people in life-giving ways:
Dear Brett McCracken/The Gospel Coalition,
I am writing this in response to the article you wrote last week about the film “Boy Erased.” My name is Henry, and I am a gay/SSA celibate man who believes in and adheres to the traditional teachings of the church as it relates to sexuality based on scripture. I don’t know you, but I am familiar with TGC and some of your work. I read your review the day it was published, and while it had several strong points, there were key parts that felt very off to me. A discussion was started on a forum I’m involved with, and I quickly realized that I was not alone in my assessment of the article. I would like to share those thoughts with you now, not as an attack, but as a means for dialogue and deeper engagement on a topic that I think TGC (and the church) could do more work on. I aim to be charitable and graceful with my words, and I pray that this is beneficial to you and anyone else reading it.
One of the first things that stood out to me was the tone found in parts of the article. In the words of one friend, he viewed it as “largely tone deaf and compassionless.” While you did acknowledge that conversion therapy is bad, I believe you glossed over how bad it really is and how toxic those environments can be. Not only that, but there was a tone of unwillingness to accept responsibility on behalf of the Church. The review seemed to rush to be a defense of the church from perceived attack. While the Church does need to stand for truth and speak up against lies being hurled at the Church, this should not have been the first response. The Church needs to acknowledge the harm and damage that members of the LGBT community have experienced from Christians. The Church needs to mourn, repent, and move in humility towards this issue. The timing of your article seemed like a reaction to a perceived attack, and not a careful, thorough, and thoughtful response to the major topic at hand. This film presented an opportunity for real, meaningful dialogue, and I can’t help but feel that was missed. In Ecclesiastes 3, we are told there is a time for everything. In my opinion, this was not the time for that. Another friend said they wished this article would’ve been titled “Boy Erased movie shows the damage done in the name of Christ.” That would have been a very humble and appropriate approach.
A point you made that I really agreed with was the sadness in how the church in the film dealt with Jared. Your words were “Same-sex attracted Christians should be discipled within the church family, along with everyone else.” I am in complete agreement with you there. However, that is sadly still not the case for a lot of SSA Christians who believe in the traditional teachings of the church. To most, they feel tolerated, not accepted. You mention in your article that there are a number of SSA Christians in our churches, following many paths of faithfulness and are flourishing within those churches. To what extent do you know that to be true? Most I know belong to churches but also seek out Christian community elsewhere to receive discipleship, friendship and support. Asking a group of people to stay in our churches but being unwilling to meet their God-given needs in healthy ways is gaslighting. Like you quoted Sam Allberry saying, it is a costly discipleship for SSA people. (I paraphrased the quote here). As believers, following Christ is costly to all of us. We all have our own crosses to bear, regardless of sexual orientation. But this cross is different and must be approached delicately, due to the mistrust LGBT people feel towards the church. Another friend of mine questioned if churches and ministers are actually willing to do the hard work of walking alongside LGBT people, no matter the cost. I often wonder the same.
One of those places that faithful gay/SSA Christians found community was the Revoice conference this past summer in Missouri. TGC published a critique of Revoice BEFORE the conference, a decision I found troubling. While Revoice was not perfect, it was beneficial and life-changing for many, myself included. I attended the conference, and I had one comment for TGC and other critics, “You should ask yourself why 450+ people overwhelmingly felt compelled to go to a conference miles and miles away from their home churches just so they could feel safe, known, understood and valued. Why do gay people who hold to the church’s traditional teachings still feel so much tension? Why are our individual churches failing to handle this correctly?” To me, those are the topics and questions worth devoting time to. I personally belong and serve in various roles at a church that has loved me extremely well without compromising on biblical truth. Unfortunately, my experience is not a common one amongst LGBT Christians, specifically those that adhere to the traditional teachings of the church. It is far easier for me to pretend that because the church got it right with me, they are getting it right with others, but that would be false. And staying in my comfort while my fellow brothers and sisters suffer would be sinful.
You cited the stories of Rosaria Butterfield, Jackie Hill Perry, & Christopher Yuan as examples of Christians who experience SSA but are faithful to the Church’s teaching for encouragement purposes. While their stories can be encouraging and beneficial (to some), they aren’t the only stories out there of Faithful SSA Christians. I know you do not have the time to put all these stories in a single article, it would be unreasonable to expect so. But it is not unreasonable to expect a variety in the stories you cited. The stories you cited are almost all identical in their end result and therefore most conducive to your message. But your message is not complete and, therefore, can come off as divisive. For every Rosaria Butterfield/Jackie Hill Perry, there’s an Eve Tushnet. For every Christopher Yuan, there’s a Wesley Hill and a Ron Belgau. For every you (Brett), there’s a Preston Sprinkle. If you are familiar enough with the stories of Rosaria, Jackie, and Christopher, then you should be familiar with the other prominent stories found in this circle of people. And if you’re not familiar with them, then you should take the time to widen your sphere of understanding before holding only certain ones as examples for SSA Christians to strive for. Again, you mentioned in your article that there are multiple ways for SSA Christians to flourish within the church through its traditional teachings, but by only highlighting examples of one specific way to flourish, you risk sending a message that says, “As an SSA Christian, in order for your story to be valid, it must look that of Rosaria, Jackie or Christopher.” You effectively alienate some of the very same people you are asking to listen to you. Another friend found it ironic that you mentioned that the stories truly being erased are of these faithful SSA Christians, yet you failed to highlight any stories besides the one that fit your mold. Who is doing the erasing? To not include them is insulting to your fellow peers and believers who are further along on this journey than you are.
Another thing I found problematic was the comparison of sexual sin desires to gambling, drinking, or envy. I see how some people can initially find this comparison beneficial, but if you look at it deeper, they’re not quite the same. For example, my best friend John is a recovering drug addict/alcoholic (almost two years sober by the Grace of God!). We have had this conversation many times and while there are quite a few points where we see commonalities in our stories, at a certain point we both recognize that there is a difference in our lived experiences. Putting the two on the same playing field for comparison purposes cheapens both our stories and the unique work God is doing with our individual lives and ends up being a reductionist argument.
I watched Boy Erased six days ago and I took notes on my phone during the movie. In your review of the movie, you failed to critique a scene I found noteworthy. After a basketball game, Jared’s dad (and pastor) hands him keys to a Mustang as a gift so that he and his girlfriend can go to the lake with the other teenagers. His dad winks at him and says, “Maybe I should take your mother to the lake,” and smiles. In this scene, his father and pastor practically gives him permission and the means to engage in heterosexual premarital sexual sin. (For the record, Jared did not engage in this). That might seem like a small thing to critique, but if we are talking about sexual sin and the church, the goal posts must be the same. If we (rightfully) condemn homosexual sin in an article, why are we not also condemning heterosexual sin? At some point, the goalposts have to stop moving in this conversation and in its application.
While most of the things depicted in the movie are not my personal story, it is the story of several people I know. It is a painful story that most are still reeling/recovering from. Your article had some strong points, and I don’t want to negate that at all. As I was reading it with my friends, those are just some of the things that jumped out at us, and I thought it would be beneficial to provide feedback. We live in a fallen world where mistakes happened and will continue to happen. We dialogue, seek counsel from scripture and trusted leaders, and we go from there. As believers, our job is to honor Christ in all that we do, and all that we say, to bring glory to his name. If you are interested in further dialogue, I am happy to do so.
Henry W Abuto.
Henry Abuto is a celibate, gay, 29-year-old, Kenyan man who lives in the states. Lover of Jesus, friendships, hosting dinner parties, music and Texas.