It's funny. I've known about Dan Savage for a really, really long time. I've seen him on TV and read about him in a million different places. I'm not sure what this says about me, but I could have sworn that I first saw him on MTV, even though he doesn't seem to have ever worked for them. But what I hadn't done before yesterday was read anything he'd written, at least nothing longer than a quotation from him in another article. Well, let me tell you something. The man can write.
Yesterday he had the front cover featured review in the Sunday NY Times Book Review section. He reviewed Jeff Chu's Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.
It's a terrific review, in which Savage explores the book and its topic, broadly defined, namely the question of how and whether Christians embrace gay people in their midst and in our society at large.
Savage begins the discussion by noting the various conservative Christian organizations, ranging from the Family Research Council to the National Organization for Marriage to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Westboro Baptist Church (you know, the ones who most recently tried to picket the funeral of the Sandy Hook Elementary school principal so they could spread the word that the mass murders of 12/14 represented God's judgement on Connecticut's embrace of marriage equality) who, along with politicians, preachers, and media figures have all spread the idea that:
"loving Jesus means hating gay people. [They] have succeeded in making antigay bigotry seem synonymous with Christianity."A book review isn't often the best showcase for a writer's talents, by definition, but Savage explores Chu's writing and the larger context in a deft, thoughtful way. He offers a largely positive review of Chu's 'pilgrimage,' which according to Savage reflects the fact that we are "building toward a cultural tipping point, and as a result, the marriage of Christianity and homophobia is increasingly harming the churches that espouse it." This represents, he argues, a shift from the past where the targets of homophobia were the ones who suffered most. Savage cites the widespread abandonment of religious institutions by people aged 18 to 24 and notes that the homophobia of Christian churches was one reason offered by those who did so.
Toward the end of the review, I saw just why Savage is considered such a strong writer. In the final section, he challenges Chu's take on one individual interviewed in the book. Chu interviewed a man, Mr. Byers, who had taught religious instruction at the Miami high school Chu himself attended. Mr. Byers had a son and a pregnant wife when he was outed as gay. He was compelled to quit his teaching job, left by his wife, hasn't seen his children in over ten years, was shunned by his brother, and condemned by his parents.
In the interview, Mr. Byers told Chu that he is not a Christian any longer, but instead is a pantheist and is "at peace." But Chu doesn't believe him, and ponders whether the "invasive questions" his former teacher had to answer were causing the evident discomfort. This is where Savage offers his own take. After reviewing the gauntlet of blows Mr. Byers was forced to endure, Savage offers that the blows themselves -- rather than being asked about them by Chu -- were perhaps the cause of Mr. Byers' sadness, blows Savage describes as "acts of emotional and spiritual violence, committed in the name of Christian beliefs." A straight punch to the gut, perfectly executed.
In the final paragraph, Savage opens up, both with humor and with powerful and deadly serious reflection, about his own path and the relationship between his Christianity and his homosexuality. (Note: I've linked to the online version, in which this is not the final paragraph).
Chu worries that gay people like Mr. Byers have been “pushed out of the church.” That’s not true for all of us. My father was a Catholic deacon, my mother was a lay minister and I thought about becoming a priest. I was in church every Sunday for the first 15 years of my life. Now I spend my Sundays on my bike, on my snowboard or on my husband. I haven’t spent my post-Catholic decades in a sulk, wishing the church would come around on the issue of homosexuality so that I could start attending Mass again. I didn’t abandon my faith. I saw through it. The conflict between my faith and my sexuality set that process in motion, but the conclusions I reached at the end of that process — there are no gods, religion is man-made, faith can be a force for good or evil — improved my life. I’m grateful that my sexuality prompted me to think critically about faith. Pushed out? No. I walked out.Damn. I wish I could write like that. Of course, I recognize that that writing comes from his experience, the conflict Savage lived through. Being heterosexual has meant I've avoided that particular conflict in my own life. Still, there are tens of millions of gay people in this country and this world, and very few of them write as well as Dan Savage. I'd wager many of them find his writing a source of strength.
On a side note, at the right-wing site NewsBusters (subtitle: "Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias"), there was a post blaring the headline "New York Times Prints 2,000-Word Book Review by Dan Savage."
The post characterized Savage as "the bully who pretends to be anti-bullying." Oh noes. The liberal media strikes again, up in arms my friends! But the post mostly consisted of quotes from the review, and at the end the poster, almost disappointed he couldn't say something different, admitted that "when push came to shove, [Savage] recommended the book, if not the actual creepy Christians who address you in public." I guess he had to be satisfied with that little dig.
PS-Please check out my new book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, published by Potomac Books, where I discuss Barack Obama's ideas on racial, ethnic, and national identity in detail, and contrast his inclusive vision to language coming from Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh and (some) others on the right. You can read a review by DailyKos's own Greg Dworkin here.