Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Torn: a book people should read

This is not a post about screenwriting. I'm gonna go off topic today and talk about my friend Justin and his book.

Back in middle and high school, I had this friend named Justin Lee. Justin was super smart - Math Counts and all that - at a school filled with smart people. Our high school was the main destination for kids whose parents worked at Research Triangle Park: Raleigh, NC's technology research center, so like half the kids I knew were 1) Asian and 2) Offspring of geniuses. Not having a natural scientific inclination, I latched onto my wonderful French friend and we watched her dad make our science project for us. We got third place. I still have no idea how it worked, but I gladly accepted my A.

Anyway, the point is, smart sciency people abounded at my high school, and Justin was one of them. But Justin also stood out a bit in that he was incredibly religious. Despite being smack in the Bible belt, the fact that our school was so filled with kids raised in the science community meant that religion wasn't a huge factor in most of our lives. But not Justin. He was seriously into Jesus.

I knew other people into Jesus. I lived down the street from The Flanders. They had five kids who went to a private Christian school and they constantly tried to convert me. My parents were DIVORCED! How horrible! And not only did I go to public school, but we didn't even go to church every Sunday. Mrs. Flanders literally forced 8-year-old me to "take Jesus into my heart" one day and sent me home with a psalm book and a cross. Later, she asked for her psalm book back. She also cast me as Mary Magdalene in the annual Easter pageant because none of her kids should play a whore.

So this is how I came to understand Christianity.

Freshman year I ate lunch with Justin and a few others in the cafeteria. We used to get into long debates about Christianity and I was constantly trying to prove something. I didn't know anything about the Bible, but I knew lots of shit didn't sound right to me. Justin never wavered. He had an answer for everything. He once told me "You don't know God like I know God." At the time, I thought that was incredibly pompous, and he'd probably agree that it was, but he also had a point. I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about, and he did.

So I blame Justin for all those religion classes I took in college. I often thought of those discussions he and I had, and I didn't like coming from a place of ignorance. I decided to get educated.

I had a wonderful professor named Calvin Mercer who blew my mind with his vast biblical knowledge and his way of making everyone in the room comfortable with both facts and theology. No matter your beliefs, his classroom was a safe place to talk about Christianity. It launched a lifetime fascination with religion.

I set out to prove that the Bible was full of bullshit. Instead I gained an appreciation for its power and intent. And whenever Christianity came up in my classroom, I modeled my teaching methods on Mercer's. The kids never could guess at my religious beliefs, though they often tried.

Our class president is basically Legally Blonde's Elle Woods, so we had a five year reunion. That's where I learned that Justin was gay.

My thoughts, that I admit with a bit of shame, were as follows:

"Whoa, really? HAHA where did all that religious shit get you now, buddy? See! I WAS RIGHT!"

Because I was still kind of an asshole back then. Not that I'm not still kind of an asshole now, but, you know, I like to think I'm a little classier.

But after the initial reaction wore off, we had a good time talking and I enjoyed the nostalgia - I'm big on nostalgia - and it was clear that Justin was still the smart, kind person he had always been. A lot of Christians are hypocrites. Not Justin. He's the real deal. He's also clearly a better person than I am, because I'm pretty sure he wasn't going through a bunch of ITOLDYOUSOs in his head.

So flash forward a few years, and in one of those cursory Facebook searches I found present day Justin. He's still a Christian, still gay, a spokesman for the Gay Christian Network, and he just published a book called Torn, about his experiences reconciling his faith with his sexuality.

Naturally, I was curious. I was in the middle of researching a screenplay so I was deeply into this boring million-page snoozefest about Blackwater, so I couldn't read his book yet, but I went ahead and got it on my Nook for later.

Then I told my mom. My mom was everybody's favorite middle school teacher, and Justin was once in her class, so I knew she'd want to read his book. She ran out and got it right away, and then she flipped for it. She showed it to everybody. And for the past few months, every single time we talked on the phone she asked me if I'd read it yet.

So the other night, as I was falling asleep AGAIN trying to push my way through this terrible Blackwater book, I gave it up and pulled up Torn. I ended up staying up like three more hours reading until I finally had to force myself to put it down so I could sleep.

It turns out that despite being a math nerd, Justin can really write. And his story is engaging as hell. He starts out talking about high school, which was all giggly for me, because again - nostalgia lover here - but it made me think about how weird high school was.

I was going through shit then. I had major father figure problems. I had a mom who cast a long shadow over me. And at the same time, Justin was trying to fight the growing realization that he was gay. And both of us were trying to pretend we were completely normal. Imagine that, and entire high school of Emilys and Justins, all pretending to be completely normal despite the crazy secret shit we were all dealing with.

If we'd all just confessed our drama, do you think high school would have been an easier place?

After that first year, Justin went off to eat lunch with a much smarter crowd while I ran off to hang out with the hacky-sack/ultimate frisbee types. We didn't chat much anymore, but I always thought of him fondly. I wish I could remember what girl he took to prom.

Anyhow, my point here is, this is a good book. It's largely about Justin's journey, but the bigger story is an analysis of the way our society has split Christians and gays into two camps, constantly at war. You can either be gay or Christian, not both. So what happens if you're a devoutly Christian man who is attracted to other men?

No matter what your philosophy on the issue, this book is well worth a read. I expect to see Justin on The Daily Show any day now after Jon Stewart pours through this thing, and then I'll be able to poke people and go "I remember that guy when he still had hair."

The book: Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs Christians Debate


  1. How cool to read thoughts from an actual person from the book.
    The book touched me SO DEEPLY...
    Thanks for your honesty in this blog.
    Neat to hear that Justin is just as I imagined he would be. A great guy.
    "If we'd all just confessed our drama, do you think high school would have been an easier place?"
    ... or life would be an easier place could maybe said as well.
    Glad for people like you and Justin who aren't afraid to confess your failings as well as your successes.

  2. Thanks for this review. I'm a Christian, just opening my mind to Justin's ideas, and I am learning so much. I love the way you write and wanted to let you know that. You seem very interested in discovering truth. I always love that in a person.

  3. Christ lived in a land of foreign occupation, during a time of rampant slavery and prejudice, no less. Yet Christ never spoke out against slavery, never spoke out against Roman oppression and only touched on the subject of prejudice. Why is this?

    I think it's because Christ was simply not interested in discussing current events. He was interested in discussing the heart and mind of the individual. It actually makes sense, when you think about it. If you love your neighbor as yourself, as Christ taught, your discernment of right and wrong in all arenas will be that much sharper.

    Sadly, however, many people today only view Christ's teachings in the social context of the here and now. The same was true in Christ's own time, of course. In fact, it was the main reason Christ was killed.

    Perhaps, though, if we just read Christ's words without trying to view them as being for or against a particular agenda, we can see their real meaning. It's hard work, of course, but getting to the truth always is.

  4. Going slightly off-topic on your off-topic post -- I've also had to do Blackwater research till my retinas detached -- but I highly recommend "Licensed to Kill" by Robert Young Pelton. Only a third of it is on Blackwater but it gets into the mindset better than anything else I've read. PS: if you don't already have a copy of “The World's Most Dangerous Places" by the same guy I recommend it for any writer who wants to get realistic info on hotspots around the world without the nuisance of being shot at. PPS: I will get a copy of “Torn”.

  5. that's a story, i got some marshmellows and I'm roasting them by the fire.

  6. Thanks for the comments, all. And thanks for the rec, Bruce. I'll definitely check that out.

  7. Loved reading this post! I'll have to check out his book. I've read tons of experiences from gay Mormons, but no non-Mormons yet. There are so many inspirational stories to be heard from guys and gals like Justin. I think the whole concept is fascinating and important.

    I feel like you told me something weird about the word "Fascinating" in high school and now I can't remember what it was exactly. Or maybe it was "fantastic."

  8. Hey Amanda! I had forgotten about that word. Yep, it likely derives from the Roman "Fascinus," which is a word for the divine penis. So when something is fascinating, it is as awesome as a penis.


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