A de-conversion story

Jules Gomes reviews: Just Love: A journey of self-acceptance

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” writes the poet Keats. A conversion story is a thing of beauty, a joy forever. No wonder, C. S. Lewis titled his conversion story Surprised by Joy. A de-conversion story, on the other hand, lacks the beauty and joy of a conversion story. It cannot be a joy; its asymmetry is unsettling. 

A conversion story has a plot: “I once was blind, but now I see.” No wonder, John Newton, the slave trader, is able to put a song to his conversion story to music in his matchless hymn Amazing Grace. A de-conversion story, on the other hand, has an anti-plot: “I once was blind, then I saw, but now I see even clearer.”

The vastly improved vision of the de-convert is not a description of spiritual growth or theological depth. Rather, the person who now sees “even clearer” complains of a spiritual cataract that distorted their vision when they first claimed to be able to see. Through the process of de-conversion, the person has undergone a radical spiritual surgery and has excised the intrusive body – the cyst in the eye. They might call it a “second conversion” instead of a “de-conversion” – for now, they truly see, while the rest of us who have had only our first conversion, are still groping in semi-darkness!

“De-conversion stories are designed not to reach non-Christians but to reach Christians. And their purpose is to convince them that their outdated, naïve beliefs are no longer worthy of their assent,” writes Michael Kruger. Because “many of those who de-convert have realised a newfound calling to share their testimony with as many people as possible,” there are a slew of books, blogs and podcasts peddled around the postmodern genre of the “de-conversion story”.

Jayne Ozanne is a leading entrepreneur in the “new guard” of de-converts who seem to “have made it their life’s ambition to evangelise the found.” Ozanne’s story Just Love: A journey of self-acceptance, published by Darton, Longman, and Todd, hit the stands in July. Around the same time, Vicky Beeching, a songwriter, worship leader, and poster girl for evangelical Christianity released her bookUndivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame, telling the story of her de-conversion.

Both Ozanne and Beeching tell us how they were once evangelical Christians and adhered to orthodox Christian teaching on human sexuality. Now, after a deeply conflicted personal struggle with what they once saw as sinful, they have been enlightened and have now come to see the error of their ways. Both struggle to reconcile their faith with their sexuality and both want the church to accept them and other homosexual Christians just as they are.

Their vehicle to get their message across is storytelling. Ozanne knows that a good story is worth a thousand theological propositions or a ton of biblical exegesis. Ozanne knows that “our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience” as Hollywood scriptwriting guru Robert McKee so eloquently puts it in his opus magnum Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Ozanne would be right in adapting Shakespeare and claiming that: “The man that hath no story in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet emotions, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.”

I was deeply moved by Jayne Ozanne’s story. I felt I have come to know her as a person, rather than as an activist. I rejoiced with her successes: a skilled violinist, a brilliant student of mathematics at Cambridge, a much sought after executive in the corporate world starting with Procter & Gamble, Head of Marketing for BBC Television, a member of the Archbishops’ Council before her thirtieth birthday, a post-grad student and researcher in International Relations at Oxford.

I wept with her in her painful struggles: from the Prologue where all she can sense is an “endless isolated nothingness filled with continual pain” to her Postscript where she describes how she is “created to be – a Christian woman who longs for a life-long union with another woman”.

In between these painful pages, she led me sensitively and powerfully through the tragedies that would scar her life: the death of her young Sunday School friend Mark Brehaut, the excommunication of her worship leader and his girlfriend from their church, repeated episodes of unrequited love with wonderful women, her struggles with her suicidal feelings, the continuing confusion over her sexuality when she wonders if she has just met her husband – an Argentinean ex-soldier called Ruben, and her gay relationship with Lizzie that blossoms, comes to fruition, but has to end.

Ozanne’s love for Jesus and her desire to depend on him shines through in the book. Her genuinely personal relationship with God begins wonderfully in Guernsey in the summer of 1977. “I first met Jesus on a beach,” she unabashedly writes. She moves through the spectrum of Christianity from a Methodist to a born-again evangelical Christian who has her cherished charismatic experience of speaking in tongues and hearing from God in prayer.

Ozanne is a skilled writer. Her book is a page-turner. Don’t try reading it at bedtime; you won’t be able to put it down. She is one hundred percent authentic. Her delightful personality, wit, warmth, and joie de vivre sparkles like champagne all through her book. It is difficult for the reader not to love and respect Ozanne.

In sheer literary terms, Ozanne’s autobiography is an unqualified success. In theological terms, it is a car crash. The book, undoubtedly, is not intended to be a theological treatise or argument. Ozanne is not making a theological case on the basis of biblical truth for homosexuality. She is making a case on the basis of her personal experience and her struggle and confusion with her own sexuality. Her argument from experience and her argumentum ad misericordiam is subjective and hence cannot be normative.

The title of her book is a dead giveaway: Just Love: A Journey of Self-Acceptance. “We are called to JUST LOVE,” she writes, “JUST LOVE! That’s all.” This is not the gospel of Jesus but a woefully reductionist and simplistic misrepresentation of the Christian faith. Paradoxically, we are also called to hate! “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” exhorts the Psalmist. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” says Jesus. The gospel is NOT about self-acceptance, but about self-denial.

“All you need is love,” sing the Beatles. But what is love? Ozanne does not define love. Is it the gooey feeling brought about by a rush of endorphins, chemicals like dopamine and hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin? Oxford professor of evolutionary anthropology Robin Dunbar calls falling in love “a cheap chemical trick”. He says it’s all about getting us to reproduce and perpetuate our species. Ozanne often conflates her sketches of “love” with “romance” or “infatuation”. The Bible uses three different words and classical Greek uses four words for love!

The Inuit people have 24 words for snow. Snow before a storm, after a storm, snow during a certain season, snow in a certain direction, etc. etc. The reason for this absolute precision of language about snow is that the Inuit live, eat, sleep, work, play and survive in snow. Snow defines their entire existence. But for something that covers our entire lives, we have ONE word with at least 24 different meanings and Ozanne doesn’t tell us what that meaning is.

There is also a problem with Ozanne’s relationships. She is attracted to women. But most of the women she is attracted to are not attracted to her sexually – neither are they attracted to other women. They are heterosexual. As a result, Ozanne is pained about this unrequited love. Does she expect them to undergo “conversion therapy” and develop a same-sex attraction? Wouldn’t that be precisely what she has come to abhor? There is no guarantee that they would be attracted to her even if they were gay.

Pastorally, part of her longing for companionship is not very different from the struggle many women and men are faced with. A relative of mine who is now in his fifties is struggling to find a woman he can marry and have a family with – he suffers from schizophrenia and so cannot find a wife. Besides, as a Christian in a predominantly Hindu culture, he does not wish to be “unequally yoked” with a non-Christian. Over the years, many fine and godly women in my Indian and British congregations have struggled to find men they can marry and singleness has been forced upon them simply because they could not find the right partner.

We live in a world severely battle-scarred by sin and there is no guarantee a fine woman like Ozanne would find a good husband if she were not same-sex attracted. Life sucks. “My primary goal had been to find out who I was, and whether being in a relationship with a woman would make me happy,” writes Ozanne. “I had no doubt now that I was gay, and that yes, it most certainly did make me happy,” she concludes. Does Ozanne not recognise that the walk of costly discipleship is not about being happy! Dietrich Bonhoeffer debunks this myth with devastating force in the first line of his book The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

While Ozanne clearly demonstrates a commitment to Jesus, one is led to ask if this is the Middle Eastern Jesus of the four gospels or a hippie Western Jesus who strums his guitar and sings “Don’t Worry, be Happy”, a popular hit song from the eighties. Ozanne’s Christianity veers dangerously close to what the sociologist Christian Smith has termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. MTD provides therapeutic benefits to its adherents but does not preach repentance from sin, costly discipleship, or building character through suffering and self-denial. It is “centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace,” writes Smith.

In the ultimate analysis, Ozanne’s autobiography is a story of de-conversion not primarily from an orthodox to a heterodox position on sexuality, but a move from costly countercultural biblical Christianity that commends self-denial to a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that affirms self-acceptance and happiness in cheerful collusion with the zeitgeist.

(Originally published in Republic Standard)

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