Sometime last year, when I was still going to the Lutheran church, the local bishop asked my pastor to assess what his congregation thought about homosexuality. (This was in preparation for the report that came out later in the year, to general disappointment it seems.) I said something like, “Well, you can decide it’s a sin or that it’s not a sin, but if you get into the ‘reparative therapy’ thing I’m leaving.”
The recent flurry in the blogosphere about Zach, the teenager whose Christian parents are hustling him into a boot-camp-like sexual rehab center, reminds me of why. It’s actually not because I think categorically that homosexuals never change. It seems unlikely that they will, but some swear they have. And perhaps more convincingly to me, some things about myself have changed that I never would have thought possible. So I’m not going to try to dictate what the Spirit will and won’t do.
It’s the way things change, though, that seems at odds with this sort of rehab model. I remember after this discussion about conversion with Dwight I reflected that, whenever the Spirit seems to have done anything to me, it’s usually been when I’m not really trying or sometimes even paying that much attention. It catches me by surprise. And that makes sense actually, because my will seems mostly to just get in the way. If I’m sitting there trying consciously to control or eliminate some aspect or feeling, then like a Chinese finger puzzle it only grips harder. And if someone else is pressuring me, my ornery nature takes away even my desire to do it. Don’t try to change me to make me into what you want, or worse, to just make me normal.
The program Zach describes fairly screams of the quest for normal. It’s less like sanctification than a high-school clique gone berserk. Only listen to Christian music, the rules say — but that doesn’t include Beethoven or Bach. What, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion isn’t Christian? Or his Christmas or Easter oratorios? But I suppose Bach isn’t in the evangelical subculture. And the codes for dress, food, behavior, speech, and everything else seem bent on turning the subjects not just hetero, but into white-bread American conservative archetypes.
There’s no room for the Spirit to move in this sort of hyper-regimented existence. And there seems to be no contingency plan if it fails to work. Another thing I’ve learned from experience is that while some things may unexpectedly change, others stubbornly stay the same. The reparative-therapy movement has imported a number of things from the field of psychology, most of them bad, and one is a tendency towards hubris. In fact, it reminds me somewhat of the case of David Reimer, in which psychologist John Money was convinced he could train a boy to be a girl. Money comes from the opposite end of the politico-sexual spectrum as the ex-gay movement; and yet they share that conviction that one can unravel the mystery of a human being and turn them into whatever one wants. And the fact is, even though science has given people some tremendous powers, it just isn’t that good (or bad). It seems likely that such powers are just not ours to have.
This also makes me think again of Spirit and Flesh, since to a great extent the norms that this camp is trying to enforce are much the same as those of the community in that book. Yet Ault argued convincingly that the system works there precisely because it works largely in that same subtle, unconscious way. If you’re at the point of having to spell out the rules in such detail, you’ve already lost the battle. Those little social mores are the ones that kids pick up by loving, admiring and wanting to be like their elders. If they fail to do so, brutality is not going to help.
But Zach’s situation also reminds me of how the Baptists in the book were working partly against the institutionalization of everything. To them, God’s way of working is personal and interconnected; big faceless bureaucracies like the federal government, big businesses and the public education system are automatically suspect. And to that extent, I sympathize very strongly with them. In fact, this case is a good illustration of the perpetual outsourcing of parenting that’s been going on in the last 200 years. Between school, day care, summer camps, Sunday schools and all the rest of it, parents have come naturally to think that professionals will do a large part of what was once parents’ work. This is understandable in the modern economy. But it also means that children spend their days with each other in their schools while parents do the same at work, and so it’s not surprising that by the time kids reach their teens they and their parents often feel like enemy aliens to each other. Why shouldn’t they? They’ve spent most of their lives in different tribes.
And yet when the kid seems too alien — like Zach — the response is often more institutions, more reliance on outside experts, and therefore more alienation. Zach is, not surprisingly, feeling matricidal, and many of his commenters are offering emotionally gratifying but ultimately counterproductive words of support: “Start a fight and get kicked out!” “Your parents are psychos!” etc. And God only knows what “friends” are telling his parents.
Bringing outside experts in also often brings competition between experts and parents. Ex-Gay Watch highlighted the creepy rules telling the kids to be “open and honest” within the program but not to discuss “therapeutic issues” with their parents. That was, unfortunately, familiar. A therapist I went to in my mid-teens told me to stop talking to my mother about my problems before I brought them to her. I guess she didn’t want my thoughts already processed through someone else, but still, it disturbed me. (I did not obey.)
I’m not objecting categorically to using outside experts and institutions when children have serious problems. But there’s a structural problem here. I expect Zach’s parents feel as helpless as Zach himself, or they would not turn him over to the near-total control of strangers in such a way. There’s a desperate need for healing here, and I can only hope that the Spirit, ever the master of the unexpected, can effect it even where it seems impossible.