Jeff Chu’s debut book, “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God and America,” couldn’t be timelier: The award-winning journalist’s story of his journey across America in search of answers about homosexuality and Christianity comes at a time when the national conversation about the role of gays in society—sparked by the Supreme Court’s DOMA deliberations last week—has reached a fever pitch. And yet for its all relevance to the wider discussion about homosexuality in America, Chu’s story is a deeply personal one: In the book he describes growing out of his “childlike faith,” facing personal doubt, enduring adversity in the Christian community and eventually coming to “know faith” for himself. In this exclusive list for Bookish, Chu picks the books on religion and doubt that helped him to understand his own struggles with faith.
Learning from loneliness
During the writing of my book, the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen was my go-to guy whenever I needed to get some perspective. Reporting—especially on matters as personal as faith and sexuality—can be a lonely path, and nobody has chronicled loneliness like Nouwen, who devoted himself to serving handicapped people and constantly doubted his ability to live up to that calling. For those of you who don’t know him: Don’t be scared off by the fact that Nouwen’s a man of the cloth. It’s rare to find a priest—or a person—who is so candid about the pains of the heart and soul. It’s humbling how eloquently he pours himself out on the page, inviting you and me into his work and into his inner life, where he struggles nearly constantly with his perceived solitude, his weakness and his God.
The prices of evangelism
I grew up in a family of Baptist preachers, teachers and missionaries, and Barbara Kingsolver’s depiction of an American family of Baptists in the Congo felt at once exotic and just like home. I read it just after I graduated from college, when I was trying to sort out the Baptist faith taught to me by my family and the sometimes unfamiliar tendrils of belief (and occasional unbelief) growing in my own soul. This book, with chapters told from the viewpoints of different members of the family, was a welcome reminder of subjectivity and the slipperiness of truth. It also testified to how the work of evangelism, well-intended as it may be, can have its costs—sometimes exorbitant, as shown in Kingsolver’s vividly rendered chronicle of the Prices and their African misadventure.
The power of failure
To call Elie Wiesel’s short book about his teen years in a concentration camp moving is almost insulting in its understatement. It’s a masterwork that slapped me in the face with its power. Weisel chronicles his struggle to hang on to some measure of faith. As in the rest of life, sometimes moments of failure are the most memorable. One Yom Kippur when, as others defiantly fasted—”We needed to show God that even here, locked in hell, we were capable of singing His praises,” Wiesel writes—he drank his meager ration of soup as “a symbol of rebellion, a protest against Him.” That passage was a reminder to me that belief is never rational and is always individual. What might drive one person to look heavenward for help might turn someone else from faith altogether.
4. Bird by Bird
Wrestling with doubt through writing
I wish my writing were as sharp, as penetrating, and as funny as Anne Lamott’s. I especially love her because she has always been so blunt about her struggles with two beastly things that I’ve also struggled with: writing and faith. She has written so many great books, but for me, Bird by Bird, in which she discusses both writing and faith, is her best.
Faith can be hard work
By nature, I’m an impatient reader. I want books that grab me instantly and don’t let go. Marilynne Robinson’s meditative book about the reflections of an Iowa preacher man was one of the first that I can remember that forced me to work so hard—outside of a class—but rewarded me for it. It’s not flashy, showy or fast. It’s just really, really, really good. And her choice of framing—a man examining his life in his twilight years—reminds me to think long-term, as well as to persevere.
Is it sad to say that I felt like one of my best friends as a child was Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes”? I grew up with Bill Watterson’s work, and I miss it. Even now, years after the strip ended, Christians and skeptics alike are still debating what faith-related message Watterson was slyly trying to send. Does it matter? As I grew up and as my beliefs have evolved, “Calvin & Hobbes” has remained a touchstone for me. Calvin’s an explorer. He has a child-like faith of his own—especially in his sidekick, Hobbes—and it’s magical to watch him explore the messiness of life through those eyes.
Jeff Chu grew up in Berkeley, California, and Miami, Florida. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, earned a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and received French-American Foundation and Harvard Divinity School fellowships. He has written for Time, Conde Nast Portfolio, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company, winning Deadline Club and German Marshall Fund awards for his work. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.