Timothy Kurek. The Cross in the Closet. Tacoma, WA: BlueHead, 2012. 331 pp. $16.99.
Timothy Kurek isn’t gay, but after three months of preparation and reading, he came out as such to his family, his friends, his pastor, and to others as a part of an experiment. For the following year he immersed himself in the gay world as a gay man in order to experience firsthand the reality of living with “gay” label. Kurek describes his initial thinking about the experiment:
The idea was simple enough, or so I thought: come out as gay to my family, friends, and church, and see how the label of gay would affect my life. It would be the ultimate chance to test everything that two decades of programming in the Independent Baptist Church has taught me. (21)
The Cross in the Closet, Kurek’s narrative of his yearlong experiment, is divided into four parts: (1) Genesis, (2) the Old Testament, (3) the New Testament, and (4) Revelation. He explains the impetus for this experiment as, first, Kurek’s doubts about the strict white Baptist “brand” of fundamentalist Christianity in which he was raised; and second, the hatred he felt toward a friend after hearing she was gay. Deeply conflicted about his animosity, Kurek decided to “walk in . . . the shoes of the very people I had been taught to hate” (15).
Kurek is an eloquent storyteller who transports readers into his world with skill and competence. Moreover, some valuable insights emerge from his narrative. For instance, standing on a box at a gay pride parade to condemn the participants for their sin may not be the wisest way to witness. Additionally, even though we may not agree with some people, we still must love and respect them as precious image-bearers of God.
Designed in the tradition of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Kurek’s experiment assumes “gayness” is comparable to ethnic identification. In Griffin’s classic, a white man undergoes skin-darkening treatments in order to become black in appearance and understand life as an African American in the late-1950s Deep South. So Kurek comes out a gay man—constitutionally gay in the sense that I am black.
But it’s here, at the level of presuppositions, where I deeply disagree with Kurek. The feelings and inclinations one may experience from earliest memory don’t constitute an inherent identity comparable to ethnicity. Moreover, it’s intellectually escapist to insist gayness, as understood today, was unknown in the biblical world. People experienced same-sex attraction in biblical times just as they do now; this is why God in Scripture commands his people not to engage in same-sex relations. Homosexuality is a behavior; ethnic identification is not. The very premise underlying Kurek’s experiment, then, is wrong—and he reaches some disastrous conclusions as a result.
Though Kurek admits he’s not a theologian, he quotes Scripture and talks a lot about God and Jesus throughout the narrative. If he’s not a theologian, though, why does he try to act like one? Kurek says he's narrating his journey, yet he constantly draws theological inferences that he supposedly lacks the skill and background to make. I say with compassion that at some places his theological ignorance and lack of discernment are truly staggering.
Further, Kurek often uses Scripture selectively. He asserts, for example, that God is only calling him to “love.” This is half the truth, but sometimes a half-truth is worse than a whole lie. Love is the context in which we’re called to speak the truth (Eph. 4:14). Jesus was full of grace and truth (John 1:14); his followers, then, should exemplify both in balance. Truth without grace is legalism, and grace without truth is license.
Moreover, from the way he recounts his experience with Soulforce, an organization “devoted to changing the hearts and minds of religious leaders who engage in anti-homosexual campaigns,” it’s obvious Kruger lacks understanding about the evangelical church’s role in social justice. When he first encountered Soulforce activists as a student at Liberty University, he was angry about their presence on campus, he interacted with a critical attitude, and he left the scene asking himself some good questions: “Was my anger justified, or was it purely hubris? Should I have acted so offensively?” (7) During his experiment phase a few years later Kurek meets Soulforce again—this time at a nonviolent protest on behalf of the gay community. The experience leaves him wondering why his tradition never taught him about social justice.
Of course, the church should be involved in justice issues, ministering in both word and deed. But Kurek can't fault the whole evangelical movement for his ignorance. For example, the conservative African American church has been and remains on the frontlines of justice issues to this day; indeed, the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s was born in the bosom of the African American church. The late Arthur Brazier, former pastor of the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, was a conservative believer, committed to the plain teaching of Scripture and involved in the civil rights movement. However, he never compromised God’s Word to accommodate the mood of 21st-century culture.
“If I was taught to take the Bible and apply it to my life,” Kurek asks, “why was I also not taught that spirituality and social justice are connected?” (127) The question evinces his narrow frame of reference. The answer is obvious: he grew up in a strict, white, separatist world. But Kurek generalizes his narrow experience and concludes it somehow typifies Bible-believing Christians. Again, not all conservative believers grew up in that world. I didn’t! I’m the product of the African American evangelical community in Chicago; activism was always a part of life. Fighting for justice is something many of my evangelical friends—black, white, Hispanic, and Asian—and I have been involved in for years. So to suggest gay activism—the effort to promote sinful living as normative—is the same as fighting for racial justice is to reveal the author's woefully uninformed and theologically naïve perspective.
Kurek maintains his book is “about the label of gay and how the consequences of that label shaped and changed my life” (8). In a chapter titled “Stick and Stones,” Kurek shows through powerful narration how words and labels can blister the soul. However, Kurek himself uses labels when it suits him: “Bible thumper,” “homophobe,” “old white men,” “brand of Christianity,” and so forth. He even gives Jesus a label: “Jesus in Drag.” I’m afraid describing Jesus this way borders on blasphemy—using language, labels, and words to disrespect the person of God.
In the “Jesus in Drag” chapter, Kurek’s lack of discernment looms large. He sees a drag queen leading worship, singing a familiar chorus he learned in his strict church back home. Without biblical and theological anchors, Kurek draws more incorrect theological inferences about God from the experience. Though his conscience objects to a drag queen leading worship, he silences the voice of conscience by giving it a label: “Pharisee.”
God must be worshiped according to his Word, in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Since when should any sin be given a cultural pass and accepted as normative? Is adultery wrong? Is fornication wrong? Is incest wrong? The Bible condemns each of these, yet when it comes to the sin of homosexuality, Kurek conveniently dismisses the scriptural witness as a “brand of conservative Christianity.”
Regrettably, The Cross in the Closet is an example of confusion, bitterness, and theological irresponsibility.
Winfred Neely is professor of preaching and pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.