Caleb Kaltenbach. Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Caleb Kaltenbach’s mother and father were gay, academic, and skeptical of Christianity. The two of them divorced, and Caleb’s mother then lived with her partner, Vera. What happened to Caleb’s relationship with his parents when he became an evangelical Christian? What is more, what happened when Caleb was preaching a sermon about homosexuality, with his parents in the audience? And what can evangelical Christians learn from Caleb’s experience?
There are things that rubbed me the wrong way about this book, and I will get into that momentarily. But let me first say that the book’s greatest asset is Caleb’s story. His story moved me to tears at some points. Caleb talks about the hurt and rejection that homosexuals have felt from Christians. “Why do you hate us?”, a homosexual asked a belligerent Christian at a rally that Caleb attended with his mother. Caleb also tells about the friendships that he had with homosexuals. I think of Louis, who played video games with Caleb because Louis was bored at a party; Caleb saw Louis die of AIDS. Vera was another person in the book whom I liked. Caleb never felt that Vera accepted him, and Vera was afraid that Caleb would become a homophobe after converting to evangelical Christianity. But, when Caleb’s mother was complaining to Vera about Caleb’s religion, Vera reassured her that Caleb still loved her, for Caleb was continuing to be in their lives. That’s what I liked about Vera: she was a tough, pragmatic woman, able to look at a situation fairly and honestly.
What didn’t I like about the book? Well, let me tell you something else that I liked, and that will set the stage for me to explain what rubbed me the wrong way. Caleb had a section about how NOT to react when a friend or relative comes out to you. He said that a person should not respond by quoting Bible verses or by saying that we’re all sinners in need of grace; the latter approach, Caleb noted, lumps homosexuality together with sins like murder, and that may offend the person coming out of the closet. Moreover, Caleb notes that many homosexuals are aware that there are Christians who interpret the Bible to be critical of homosexuality, so why quote Bible verses at them, as if they hadn’t heard that before?
Caleb in this section manifests wisdom and sensitivity towards the concerns of many homosexuals. The difference I have from Caleb is that, while he would probably say that his advice applies when a person initially comes out of the closet to a Christian, I would say that his advice should apply throughout the relationship. Caleb seems to believe that, somewhere in the course of a Christian’s friendship with a homosexual, the Christian should tell the homosexual that homosexual activity is a sin. The purpose of the book is to encourage Christians to reach out to homosexuals in the hope that homosexuals will become Christians. Caleb denies that he is for treating homosexuals as projects, saying that he is for telling them that God loves them. But one cannot deny in reading this book that he believes that the friendship he proposes does contain a missionary element.
The book did get me thinking. I struggle with what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. I do believe that the Bible opposes homosexual sex, but I do not think that is fair. Why would God, who instituted marriage because he did not think it was good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18), consign homosexuals to lives of loneliness and celibacy? Caleb says that a homosexual can marry a person of the opposite sex, and (contrary to what one might think) he does not suggest that lightly, nor does he maintain that this will usually work out. But that would be like telling me, a heterosexual male, to marry a guy. Some homosexuals have said that the “ick” feeling that heterosexuals have at the scenario of having sex with someone from the same gender is similar to what homosexuals feel about having sex with someone of the opposite gender.
But should not a person be willing to sacrifice anything for Jesus? Well, that depends on where a person is. Does the person believe in Christianity, is the person convinced that homosexuality is a sin, and does the person believe that Jesus is worth sacrificing anything for? Caleb acknowledges that conservative Christians are suggesting that homosexuals sacrifice a lot when they say that homosexuals should remain celibate. I think that a lot of conservative Christians give that piece of advice (or “Thus saith the Lord”) lightly and glibly, without really appreciating what they are asking homosexuals to do.
I tend to have doubts and to vacillate when it comes to my belief in Christianity, but, putting my Christian hat on, what do I think my approach as a Christian should be? I believe that my faith should shape my interactions with all people, wherever they may be. My faith teaches me to love and to respect others, to treat others as I would like to be treated, and doing so is part of my walk with God, and my worship of God. I honor the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the values of love, self-sacrifice, and redemption that it teaches (and, as a side-note, let me say that I did not care for Caleb using that story to guilt Christians into witnessing or reaching out to people, as well-intentioned as he was). I am open to wanting others to become attracted to Jesus, and, if a homosexual becomes convinced that Christianity is true, that homosexuality is a sin, and that Jesus is worth giving up a homosexual relationship for, then I respect that decision. It is a heavy decision, however. It is not one that I can force someone else to make. It is not one that I even want to pressure someone to make. For peace to exist, respecting where people are is often a good policy. I identify, somewhat, with the Christian slogan about just loving others, and letting the Holy Spirit do his work in his own time. Some of my approach may overlap with that of Caleb, and some of it may differ.
I have just interacted with the main substance of Kaltenbach’s book. Let me now note something in the book that I found particularly interesting. Have you ever wondered why Jesus wrote on the ground when people were bringing the adulteress to him (John 8:3-6)? Caleb interprets this in light of Jeremiah 17:13: “O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters” (KJV). Jesus’ point in writing on the ground, according to Caleb, was that the people who brought the adulteress to Jesus to test him were alienated from God. They were valuing power and one-upsmanship over what God valued. That sounds like a reasonable interpretation to me.
I received a complimentary advance reading copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.