As much as my generation seems to value and promote dialog, it remains a harsh reality that meaningful, productive dialog is profoundly difficult. One of the elements of the work of The Marin Foundation that originally drew me to the organization was their “Living in the Tension" gatherings, community events designed to foster conversations about difficult topics. In the Love Is an Orientation DVD Curriculum, Andrew Marin explains that the concept came from a line in Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham: “I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Marin goes on to explain their approach in the gatherings: “We’re very intentional about forming these intentional communities that come together from secular gay and lesbian people, to gay Christians, to celibate gay people, to ex-gay people, to liberal straight Christians, to conservative straight Christians, to non-Christian straight people, and we just mix this thing up in one big, holy uncomfortableness and stick Jesus right in the middle and see what happens.” Knowing these difficult conversations are one of The Marin Foundation’s specialties, I was eager to observe and learn.
During our first week in Chicago, we had the opportunity to attend two of these gatherings. I felt apprehensive before each—as someone who doesn’t mind internal tension but chokes in tense conversations, I didn’t know what to expect (or, more accurately, I expected the worst) from an event designed for the very purpose of discussing things people normally know better than to discuss. Fortunately, though, everyone in attendance seemed intent on learning and growing, and the shared attitude of cooperation led to powerful conversations at both events.
Our first Living in the Tension featured Dr. Trista Carr, a clinical psychologist who shared her research on the interaction of religious identity and sexual identity. From what I gathered, Carr’s research found much of its inspiration in her frustrations with the narrow identity outcomes most of the scholarly literature defined for LGBT Christians; basically, Carr recognized that religious and sexual identity are more complicated than the books she was reading wanted to admit. Carr studied a large group of sexual minorities who had at least some history with Christianity and found evidence for no less than nine different identity outcomes, meaning there were (at least) nine broad categories for understanding the interactions of one’s religious and sexual identities. (You can find some notes about one aspect of her research here.)
It may not surprise you that I found Carr’s presentation fascinating. Much of what I’ve written on this blog (here, here, here) has been anecdotal evidence about how differently people perceive themselves when it comes to faith and sexuality, and I’m often begging people to listen closely to how people think about themselves rather than relying on limited stereotypes and assumptions about what it might mean to be a “gay Christian.” It’s simultaneously intimidating and reassuring for any LGBT Christian to realize just how diverse are the ways people define themselves; although it can leave you hopelessly wondering if any label will ever completely fit, it also frees you from forcing yourself into any particular identity box that most definitely doesn’t fit. (On that note, the vast majority of people Carr studied were people who had arrived at “identity achievement,” meaning they had arrived at a place of confident self-knowledge and security.) As it turns out, the relationships between faith and sexuality are as complicated and diverse as the people who navigate them.
Our second Living in the Tension featured Jennifer Knapp, a musician who, after becoming popular in the Christian music scene in the early 2000s, disappeared on a self-imposed hiatus until 2009, when she returned to the stage and formally came out as gay. (You can read a lot more about Knapp’s journey in this interview at Christianity Today.) Knapp gave a concert and told pieces of her story, and because we hosted the event at Roscoe’s Tavern, the audience was thoroughly and visibly diverse. It was fantastic to see the way Knapp’s story connected with people from many different walks of life.
Although Knapp is a talented performer and an engaging storyteller, I found the question-and-answer session to be the most compelling portion of the event. It amazed me how many people’s questions began with a similar introduction: “Your cassettes had a major impact on me when I was in the youth group, and then I was so encouraged years later when I found out you were gay like me/my friend/my relative.” For better or for worse, the “contemporary Christian subculture” (I don’t know precisely what to call it, but I’m talking about that nebulous world consisting of contemporary Christian radio, stores like Lifeway and Mardel, popular Christian books and films, and for whatever reason, Chick-Fil-A) in which Knapp used to reside is enormously influential in the lives of countless Christians, and I suspect many crises of faith have resulted from individuals simply discovering they no longer fit (or, maybe just as often, are no longer welcome) in that subculture for whatever reason—sexuality, life circumstances, etc. While that movement has certainly done substantial good (I, for one, will probably never get rid of David Crowder Band’s Illuminate), it’s also tremendously dangerous when people assume or behave as if a particular cultural approach to a life of faith is the only legitimate approach to faith. What I heard in Knapp’s performance (and what seemed to connect with the audience, regardless of the sexual identities of the people present) was an earnest searching for authentic, genuine faith that resisted easy answers and shallow labels.
If the two events had anything in common, then, it was the acknowledgement that we live in a time in which it’s complicated to follow Jesus as a sexual minority. Legitimate doors have opened for conversation and honest expression, but we’re a long way from arriving at any sort of consensus on the big questions. In the meantime, it’s always refreshing to encounter people willing to live in the tension with us.
Today, I am grateful for individuals who use their positions of influence to engage big, difficult questions with sensitivity and courage.