Learning from our nonChristian friends

(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

I was intrigued by a recent story, published on Medium, by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. Jonathan is a writer in LA who publishes in Vice, W Magazine, OUT Magazine, and other media. He’s skeptical, openly gay, and curious about Jesus. You can read his story here (full disclosure: he uses some language inappropriate for our forum):

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you learn from Jonathan’s story?
  2. What do you appreciate about how RealityLA and Jeremy Treat welcomed him?
  3. What are some practical take-aways for your own approach to loving and serving your neighbors?

Some particularly great quotes:

But that evening, as I reflected on the troubled actress and the psychic brutalities inflicted by the entertainment industry, it occurred to me that I had underestimated Hollywood’s biggest product: lost souls.

I set out to study the success of Reality L.A. in hopes of arriving at a fresh understanding of Hollywood’s spiritual deficit. I intended to approach it as I would any other journalistic assignment: with a dispassionate distance. That was the plan. Yet as I spent more time at the church, I found myself questioning the very foundation of my own identity. A period of unexamined crisis in my personal life — which began in the summer of 2014 and extended into the spring of 2017 — came into sharp relief when I was faced with the existential questions raised by the church.

What I never expected was that my own faith would come into question.

I blush as multiple strangers greet me on my way to the auditorium. This is L.A. — we don’t say hello. And yet I find it oddly refreshing to bask in the warmth of their unsolicited kindness.

For the next hour, Treat weaves a compelling narrative, jumping from the Bible to Rihanna to agnostic scholarship to L.A.-bred anxieties back to the Bible. It feels like listening to a brilliant and engaging podcast, albeit one focused on Jesus. This is not boneheaded Bible thumping — Treat encourages his audience to think philosophically while engaging their hearts.

"Green room” would be a generous term to describe the space in which we settle — it’s more of a glorified utility closet with a mirror sitting above a shelf dotted with Treat’s personal effects. The walls are white and spare, and a shelving unit in the corner houses plastic crates, wires and lighting instruments. Unlike some of his flashier evangelical peers, Treat is concerned with God, not glamour.

For example, social justice is part of Reality’s mission. The church has large and effective outreach programs to fight human trafficking and homelessness both in Los Angeles and around the world.

I want to love the immigrant and the unborn. That’s why I get frustrated with the political setting. When someone talks, you should listen to them, and if you disagree, you can still be respectful. How different would the world be if that happened in the last year?”

Treat practices what he preaches in terms of respectful disagreement. Even as I interrogate his most controversial beliefs, he maintains the same level of gentle listening and kindness. I find myself drawn in by his warmth. Is it possible to like someone who thinks I’m going to hell?

“What would it take to save me?” I ask.
“It’s a preacher’s favorite question,” Treat says with a laugh. “I always say it’s letting go of the grip of your own life to open your hands, to receive from God. And when you put your faith in Christ and make him the Lord of your life, then the Bible says that you’re redeemed and forgiven.”

Cook says he worshipped what many in Hollywood do — fame, sex, and relationships — and like many before him, he became increasingly disillusioned with those pursuits.

Getting acquainted with your mortality is never fun, but it’s particularly miserable when you’re also dealing with the worst breakup of your life. One month prior to my cancer diagnosis, I celebrated my 30th birthday by moving in with my then-boyfriend. Two weeks later, he broke up with me. I don’t love you enough to live with you, was his excuse, and one that left me homeless, devastated, and suddenly divorced from the identity we had formed in what I wrongly assumed was lasting love.

Then came the cancer.

Then I was fired from my job.

I didn’t go through a crisis — I became one.

I worshiped my family, assuming they were a safe existential bet. Perhaps that’s why — when it all disintegrated two years later — I felt unspeakable despair.

“Your father wants a divorce,” my mother said.

I was shocked. Our family was supposed to be different; we were going to be the rare unit that stuck together—no divided holidays or awkward weddings for us. Suddenly, my faith in our family’s story shattered. I felt unmoored — my identity was rooted in fiction.

Meanwhile, I was depressed, in therapy for the first time in my life, and struggling with the most foundational aspects of my identity. But in each pitch meeting, I turned it on — I was the brightest, wittiest version of a person who was secretly crumbling. It will all be worth it in the end, I told myself. I would sell this show, and the resulting validation would act as buttress to my collapsing sense of self; where my family had failed, my career would succeed. In the end, I would be fine — if I could just fix the narrative of my life.

We pitched a total of nine networks. All of them passed.

I plunged deeper into depression and anxiety.

“When do I get to ask you questions?” Treat asks with a smile when he finishes speaking. “I want to hear your story.”

I joke with Treat that my story isn’t usually on the menu when it comes to my reporting. But it is clear, as Treat’s eyes lock with mine, that he cares about it. It contains the keys to my soul, something Jeremy Treat would like to save. My soul has also been on my mind a lot lately, and that’s why, despite my skepticism, I find myself telling my story to Treat, starting at the beginning.

And I tell him all this even though I don’t believe in God or Jesus or heaven. I don’t believe one book has all the answers; I don’t believe that I have to stop being gay to achieve enlightenment; I don’t believe that abortion is a sin; I don’t believe that sex before marriage will cause my ruination. But despite all this, I still feel compelled to open up my entire life for Treat to examine, in the hopes that somewhere within that story there will be an answer: This is who you are; this is why you are.

“This is what life is about: people, stories, learning about each other,” Treat says as I finish speaking. “There’s a lot of beauty in hearing your path.”

“Pray for my family,” I say, before heading back into the lonely crush of Los Angeles traffic and a world filled with questions.

Resources for understanding the transgender movement
(SeanO) #2

The following quotes really stuck out to me because I think they show the contradiction that so many people live in. They want God’s warmth - His love - but simply cannot accept the idea of holiness - it is foreign to them. That one person could hold love and justice together (only Jesus did it perfectly) is a shock to them.

Also, people are always trying to fill their cup - from family to career to party. And one think that strikes me as strange about Jonathan’s story is that he seems to use Treat as just another way of trying to validate his life. He sees that Treat has something, but rather than approaching the One within and behind and above treat - he simply uses Treat like another one of his idols and then goes back out into the city with his questions still unanswered.

The question rattling around in my head right now is - what is really at the root of Jonathan’s skepticism? Is he echoing cultural norms? It sounds like he encountered existential issues at Church that he normally did not think about - so perhaps his views have gone unquestioned. He clearly states he avoids thinking about death - perhaps he avoids thinking about his soul in general?

What is it that kept Jonathan from pursuing the Giver after encountering the gift inside Treat?


I find myself drawn in by his warmth. Is it possible to like someone who thinks I’m going to hell?

I would sell this show, and the resulting validation would act as buttress to my collapsing sense of self; where my family had failed, my career would succeed.

(Jolene Laughlin) #3

Wow - this really provides a lot to think about. Two things stand out to me.

  1. This man, who is somewhat of an activist about his homosexual lifestyle, is one who would be reviled and shunned by many of the members of the churches in my community. And yet, when invited into the community of the church, and treated with love and compassion, he is brought to a point of self-examination and open honesty about the life that the world has to offer, including its pleasures and its disappointments. The write-up is encouraging because we see so strongly the power of the Gospel when it is lived out graciously in community. It is terribly sad because it reminds me so much of the rich, young ruler. He wants Christ and all that Christ offers, but there’s that one thing he just can’t let go of…

  2. It is so very vital for the Christian community to respond this way, to have loving, but uncompromising answers for people who look like they have it all together, but who are desperately seeking meaning and purpose. I wouldn’t have had the first idea of how to speak to a man like this, or how to address his questions regarding same sex attraction and homosexuality, had it not been for RZIM. The story makes me wish that more churches, more Christians, were better educated about these matters and that all were equipped to minister to the lost in this way.

I see that both Carson and Sean chose this as a quote, but it stood out to me too: “This is not boneheaded Bible thumping — Treat encourages his audience to think philosophically while engaging their hearts.”

The fact that he points this out - and identifies the Reality Church as more dangerous than the Westboro Baptists because of it - is highly significant.

Thoughtful piece - encouraging piece. Thanks for sharing.

(Carson Weitnauer) #4

I do think this story provides additional weight to taking the approach of showing fulfillment/failure of our deepest desires. In this case, something like this:

“I see that you are searching for validation. That’s a good desire. I respect you so much for how passionately you’ve pursued such a good desire. From what you’ve shared, I hear that you’ve tried to find validation in family, career, and romance, but that hasn’t worked. What do you think is the best next step? To try harder with family, career, and romance? Or to look elsewhere? Personally, I’ve found a greater validation that I could have imagined in Jesus. Jesus offers to give us ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ inside our hearts - it is a rich metaphor that I’ve found to be abundantly true. That sense of completion we are all looking for can be found in him. Would you be interested in investigating that claim with me?”

(Jennifer Judson) #5

Great comments everyone. What a great article to use for this discussion, very thought provoking.

I was impressed at Jonathan’s willingness to try to be objective. He pretty much admits to having an agenda, but allows what he sees to shine a light on his feelings. It felt very open and honest and not dismissive. Also, the research took some months–it was not a once or twice visiting thing. He dove deep enough to find out if this was really who they were and not just a couple of meetings where he was told what he wanted to hear…or what he expected to hear. To me the article was unexpectedly even-handed.

I agree that more churches should be like this. We can’t tell groups and/or individuals, “come to Jesus or you will spend eternity in hell, just don’t come here.”

My sense of the article was that the experience has softened his hard heartedness toward Christ…somewhat. I feel that important seeds were planted. It may take someone else to come along and water the seeds, but obviously it was an encounter that left a crack in the door.

Carson, I agree with your potential scenario of using this approach for persons searching for validation. I’ve always thought that deep down there’s a part of most people that feels like a phoney–“that if _____ really knew me, they’d find me unlovable.” And we live in that fear of discovery. We long for relationship with someone that we know will love us, no matter what. Granted, our “no matter what” may mean having our own way without changing, but how wonderful it is to know that God can help us change those things we are powerless to change on our own.

It’s silly to bring this up, but since it’s come to my mind I will share it. On a Blue Bloods episode (yup, I love crime shows) a character tells Danny, “you have a public self, a private self, and a secret self.” (May not have that exact but it’s a good paraphrase). That struck me as pretty accurate.