Book Report: Why Theology Can’t Save Us by John Gustav-Wrathall

I first read about John-Gustav Wrathall on the website of Affirmation and got to know more about his fascinating journey through his blog and Gay Mormon Stories. The short version of his biography is that he was raised Mormon and served in a mission, thriving the community and love he found in the church, but also struggling with the growing realization that he was homosexual. In one of Why Theology Can’t Save Us, And Other Essays on Being Gay and Mormon‘s opening essays, “A Gay Mormon’s Testimony,” he repeats what he believed about himself in those years:

If we were gay, it must be our fault. It must be because we masturbated too much, according to the badly mistitled Miracle of Forgiveness. (I’ve yet to meet a soul who wasn’t plunged into deep depression by the book.) … Or because we’re just plain rebellious, sinful and hateful. …

 

Of course I grew up being taught the same things about sexual immoralitty that everyone was: that it is the worst sin one can possibly commit after the denial of the Holy Spirit and murder, and that devout Latter-day Saint parents should prefer to see their son or daughter come home in a casket rather than be defiled by it. …

 

Elder Boyd K. Packer’s talk in the general priesthood meeting of October 1976, in which he condpned physical violence against homosexuals, had a huge impact on me. Thirteen at the time, I came away from that talk believing almost any punishment against homosexuals was justified.

In “Trial of Faith,” he writes:

[As] I obeyed the teachings of the Church, I found that instead of being healed of my feelings of attraction to men, these feelings seemed only to grpw stronger. I decided to openly acknowledge mu homosexuality both to myself and others after a  period of fasting and prayer, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As I ‘came out,’ I had a powerful sense of the presence of the Spirit in my life, affirming that my move toward greater openness and self-acceptance was the direction God wanted me to go.

After his mission, he came near suicide. “I had taken for granted that God judged me and condemned to me and hated me for being gay. I had never bothered to ask God; and I had never listened for an answer,”  he writes in “Sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato.”

Prompted by the Spirit, he finally prayed with an open heart and listen for an answer. He received confirmation from the Holy Spirit that God created him as gay and loved him as he was. At first, Gustav-Wrathall didn’t know what this meant for the practical details of living. He assumed he should either be celibate for life or marry a woman, but eventually discerned through the good old LDS traditions of pondering and prayer that neither of these was right for him. He received confirmation that he should leave the church for a time (because participating and trying to fit in with church members’ expectations contributed to his suicidality) and pursue a relationship with a man. He sought and received excommunication.

He eventually forgot that he was only supposed to leave the church “for a time” and began to identify as ex-Mormon. In the early 2000s, he was attending a Sunstone conference when he received a nudging from the Spirit that he should return to the church. He also received confirmation that he should remain with his husband. The Spirit told him, “Do not leave your partner. Be faithful to him. Honor your relationship with him” (from the essay “A Clarification”).

If those two promptings seem contradictory to you, you’re not alone. They seemed contradictory to him, too. But that “contradiction,” Gustav-Wrathall’s story says, is a human construct. God can harmonize what we cannot. By following God’s promptings to harmonize, we are rewarded with true happiness and meaning. Although Gustav-Wrathall’s commitment to his husband prevents his return to membership in the church, he has become as involved as possible — attending sacrament meeting and other Sunday meetings, serving others, building relationships with other ward members, praying and studying Scripture daily, observing the Word of Wisdom, and accompanying ward members on visits to the temple. The church is his family and his home. As in all families, its members may struggle with each other and even hurt each other; but at their best, they are a place to learn how to accept and love each other as we are.

Much of Why Theology Can’t Save Us, And Other Essays on Being Gay and Mormon is an exploration of God’s harmony, and his will for his children to learn to embrace and harmonize contradictions. Just as Western tradition has long taught us that being gay and being spiritual are antithetical, it has also taught us that the spirit and body are enemies. But these beliefs are illusions. In “Spirit and Element, Inseparably Connected, Receive a Fulness of Joy,” Gustav-Wrathall writes:

Latter-day Saints understand that the entire purpose  of creation was to enable the spirit children of our Heavenly Parents to progress by receiving physical bodies that some day will be ‘inseparably connected’ with our spirits. (See D&C 93:33-34 and 138:17). … A fundamental task of this life is to perfect the union of spirit and body. …

 

We still see the imprint of body-denial in the majority of Christian churches, especially those strongly influenced by European culture. We see it in theologies that deny the literalness of the physical resurrection, as well as in the demonization of the flesh. When sexual urges in and of themselves are seen as evil, we see this in action. …

 

The [gay and lesbian] journey … specifically means wrestling with the cultural lie that we are demons incarnate and not human beings having both spirits and bodies that require the same kind of harmony that everyone else requires.

 

Living a life that seeks to harmonize man’s contradictions isn’t always easy. “The real temptation,” Gustav-Wrathall writes in “Goran,” “Is to mistake … the approval of others for righteousness. Despite the reassurances [of the Holy Spirit]. it’s painful when the Church and community I feel Spirit-led to align myself with seem so certain that yoking myself with [my husband] means our damnation. All I can do is offer my testimony, and ultimately seek refuge in the Spirit, who has led me this far.”

It is love and harmony – between spouses, family members, and one’s spiritual community – that prepares us for heaven. Mormon cosmology teaches that we do not find salvation as individuals, but as part of a great chain that  connects all people  and families to each other (“Homosexuality and the Mormon Ethic of Body-Spirit Integrity,” “Do Unto Others”). Gustav-Wrathall’s relationship with his husband is as important a part of his life’s work as his relationship with the church. He must approach both with humility, openness, and love.

He has a compelling testimony of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, as well as of church leaders – although he warns against the temptation to idolize them:

It is true that  Church leaders will never lead to the Church astray, but the reason is not necessarily because Church leaders are immune to false thinking, or because God will miraculously strike down or remove an errant leader. Rather, it is because the members of the Church have the gift of the Holy Ghost and are required to use discernment…. Look hard enough at the historical record, and you will find a number of stinky old false doctrines that at one time or another were eagerly promulgated by profits or apostles of the Church. We generally don’t know about these doctors anymore for a good reason. Because they did not survive the test of time or the collective discernment process of the Church. (“Faith Promoting History”) [Blogger’s note: see Doctrine & Covenants 26]

The book’s scriptural and spiritual explorations are deep and broad, applicable to many issues beyond sexual orientation and even Mormonism. Much of what he has to say should resonate with Latter-day Saints, even among those who aren’t comfortable with his marriage. He’s also an astute scriptural scholar (he teaches at a Protestant seminary), so his insights into the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament should be considered by anyone who regards those books as holy.

Why Theology Can’t Save Us, And Other Essays on Being Gay and Mormon  is a profound, thought-provoking read – the kind of book you can go back to again and again and always get new insights.


You can buy  Why Theology Can’t Save Us, And Other Essays on Being Gay and Mormon  as an e-book for  $3.99 on Amazon.com, or join Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited to borrow the book without additional charge.

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