Many of the books that have come across my desk in the last couple of months have emphasized religious conversion, new ideas about faith, excommunication and acceptance.

The classic definition of a religious conversion is changing from one religion to another. Looking outside the LGBT spectrum for a moment, a few conversion stories (from my own library) come to mind.

Honey from the Rock
by Roy Schoeman
Ignatius
Paperback, 978158617115, 300pp.
April 2007

There’s the story of Roy Schoeman, a heterosexual Jewish convert to Catholicism who calls himself a Hebrew Catholic.  In Schoeman’s book Honey from the Rock (Ignatius), the author tells the story of sixteen famous Jews in history who converted to Catholicism, including the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Israel Zolli, who after his conversion insisted he was not giving up the synagogue for the Church. “Christianity is the integration, completion or crown of the Synagogue,” Rabbi Zolli insisted.

When it comes to changing religions, the kaleidoscope spins every which way. There are Catholics who convert to Protestantism, Islam or Judaism. There’s prolific gay author, Johnny Townsend, a birth Mormon who converted to Judaism (The Golem of Rabbi Loew, published by BookLocker.com, being his first venture into the world of Jewish storytelling).

Surprised by Christ
by Rev. A. James Bernstein
Conciliar Press
Paperback, 978188821952, 337pp.
May 2008

In the Rev. A. James Bernstein’s book—again, from my library—Surprised by Christ (Conciliar), Bernstein tells the story of how he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from Judaism.  The son of Orthodox Jews, Bernstein went on to become an Orthodox priest, but unlike Schoeman, Bernstein thinks that Orthodoxy, not Catholicism, better represents the continuation of “the synagogue.”

Switch-hitting like this is enough to make David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth thoroughly confused, were he to hunt for the one religious truth that is really true. Bowie’s alien instead would find a world of multiple belief systems and ideologies, all of them convincing in their own way.

If you want proof of this, just Google “conversion stories” and you might come up with the 1999 conversion of a noted Russian Orthodox archpriest, Viacheslav Polosin, to Islam, or the recent conversion of noted Eastern Catholic hieromonk and theologian, Fr. Gabriel Bunge, to Russian Orthodoxy. Bunge’s conversion left his readers and editors at (the Catholic) Ignatius Press scratching their heads.

In addition to widespread conversions, reversions and even a mass exodus from organized religion, the world of Christian theology is far different than it was forty years ago.

The current theological trend tends to consider all religions equal while allowing for differences in worship style and doctrine. Think of this theology as a kind of “European Union” of beliefs and you get the idea.

God is not a Christian, nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu
by Bishop Carlton Pearson
Atria
Hardcover, 9781416584438, 304pp.
March 2010

This new theological impetus can be found in Bishop Carlton Pearson’s book, God is not a Christian, nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, published by Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.

Bishop Pearson, who describes himself as an independent spiritual leader, asks: “What is God? Where is God? Who is the one true God?”

“It is interesting that Jesus’ favorite title for Himself was ‘Son of man,’ not ‘Son of God,’” he continues. “Jesus never attempted to make Himself a god or idol to be worshipped. He seems to have tried to draw people to the divinity within themselves.”

Reading Bishop Pearson is a lot like reading a toned down version of Episcopal Bishop John Spong. Spong, of course, came into prominence in the early 1980s when his life and scripture affirming views of homosexuality were considered daring, cutting edge, and very unorthodox. In many ways Bishop Spong in the 1980s became the Hans Kung of Anglicanism in his radical “redefinition” or interpretation of complex theological issues. (In those days a gay religious friend of mine confided that Spong’s books had almost made him lose his faith.)

Bishop Pearson’s book, which Publisher’s Weekly calls “a stirring and surprising work,” incorporates a lot of New Age and non-Christian components—he quotes Gandhi, Issac Asimov, Marianne Williamson and Flip Wilson—which can be good or bad depending on your point of view.

The gay-friendly but heterosexually married bishop with two children, tells his readers: “…I, too, am more comfortable with marriage remaining a covenant between a man and a woman, but to ‘get real,’ I’d rather see same-gender-loving people enter a monogamous commitment than live the promiscuous and non-committed life in which many people, both gay and straight, engage. How in the world could an increase in stable, loving families in this country be anything but a blessing?”

For some, hesitancy like this might merit casual condemnation, but the good bishop is just being honest. I suspect a lot more “liberal” clergy feel this way but would never say so in print.

Like Spong and Catholic-turned-Anglican priest/theologian Matthew Fox, Pearson believes that too much of Christianity today “has deteriorated into a kind of cult of myths and secret rites of initiation rather than a free and open spiritual consciousness of the Christ Principle and Person.” Christ, Pearson insists, has gotten lost in the mix of doctrinal elitism and exclusionary dogma.

The Choosing
by Rabbi Andrea Myers
Rutgers University Press
Hardcover, 9780813549576, 208pp.
April 2011

In her book The Choosing (Rutgers University Press), Rabbi Andrea Myers, a convert from Lutheranism, tells the story of her path to Judaism and her coming out as a lesbian. If you buy this book, be prepared to be entertained. Myers’ charming, anecdotal style won me over from Chapter One. Not only is she a gifted humorist, but you’ll end up admiring this woman’s courage and zest for life.

As a young college student in Boston (it doesn’t get better than Boston for a college student), Myers already sees herself as Jewish. “Over the years, I have had people tell me that Brandeis made me Jewish and gay. In retrospect, my odds at Barnard would have been the same.” After graduation, she heads to Israel because she wants “to see Judaism firsthand.” She settles in Jerusalem and, in true humorist style, cultivates her passion for falafel.

“The falafel shops hid their condiments when they saw me coming. Food also gave me the opportunity to practice my Hebrew,” she writes. At a local kosher market a rooster, issuing “a terrible shrieking squawk,” runs from an Orthodox slaughter straight into her loving arms. Myers takes the bird and heads for a bus as passengers gawk and two men chase her with knives. Ah, Jerusalem!

“It occurred to me, as I caught my breath, that I had committed some kind of crime. The prospect of being prosecuted for Grand Theft Poultry worried me less than the question of what to do with this chicken,” she writes.

Religious conversions are rarely easy, even for Myers. When she attends an Interfaith Conference in Bendorf, Germany, she’s met at the door “by a burly, red-headed woman from the Ukraine, who informed me in a voice straight out of Rocky IV that I was not to assume any leadership, and that the prayers would be strictly run according to European tradition.”

But Myers sticks it out.

She’s lucky in a sense, because her Lutheran-Catholic family, though generally conservative, comes to embrace her Judaism as well as her partner, Lisa.

“The culture of the family was to integrate whatever came, and silence was a sign of respect. Any conversation about differences was seen as an insult, and any question perceived as a criticism,” Myers writes.

The Choosing deals with Myers’ conversion story in a light hearted way and avoids heavy dives into theological reasons for the switch. I am of the school that prefers heavy reasoning. Conversions, after all, are anything but superficial unless one switches religions to marry or please a lover, so what Myers does not say about her reasons for converting is significant. In the end, I decided that the author is just too good a soul to throw what she might perceive as “dirt” at her former religion, as well as her parents, who remain Christian. She does, however, take a few comedic swipes at certain aspects of Christianity (they have to do with the mystery of the Eucharist), but they are hardly mean spirited, since Myers herself seems to be a shining example of Proverbs 15:15 (as she quotes in her book): “He who is glad of heart, feasts constantly.”

In This Day and Age?!: A Community at the Crossroads of Religion and Homosexuality
by Dr. Isaac Namdar
CreateSpace
Paperback, 9781453749210, 422pp.
October 2010

Conversion in another sense is the theme of Isaac Namdar, MD’s book, In This Day and Age?!: A Community at the Crossroads of Religion and Homosexuality. Dr. Namdar, a New York City resident, hails from a community of Sephardic religious Jews who tend to be conservative because of their Middle Eastern roots.

Dr. Namdar’s story is disturbing because in many social/cultural traditions, most notably in the United States since the 1960s, Jews are generally regarded as being in the forefront of most civil rights issues. They are also generally regarded as being more accepting than “the average Joe” when it comes to issues that divide and lead many down highways of bigotry.

In Dr. Namdar’s story we have the rare and unfortunate true story of conservative Jews thinking along “excommunication” lines, a concept that non-Jews and Christians rarely if ever equate with Judaism. The concept of Jews excommunicating fellow Jews for doctrinal transgressions or “unorthodox” beliefs or behavior might seem like bad science fiction, but this exactly what happens to the author when he’s outed by one of his own Sephardic community members when photos of Dr. Namdar’s wedding to his long-time partner are “discovered” on the Web.

This is not pornography, mind you, but wholesome marriage photos of two men in love celebrating their union.

After the outing, Namdar creates an online discussion board to open up a dialog. While he experiences a lot of support, there are also a lot of self righteous tirades, insults, and even uglier “digs.”

The story is told in a long series of (often painful) emails and phone call transcriptions. Through it all, Namdar manages to stay civil, even when he receives messages that urge him to “leave” the community if he doesn’t like the rules.

“Every office has a boss, every store has its hours, every restaurant has its own menus, you cannot change the way this community operates or demands its community members to act, you can surely disagree but your only choice is to LEAVE and don’t be a part of it,” one person tells him.

“It is so sad,” Kartaqi Guy adds, coming to Namdar’s defense and focusing on the rabbi responsible for the “excommunication.” “Rabbi Levy is such a nice person when you talk to him in person. Maybe it is our dictator-like leaders on the Central Board who are forcing him to do this. And out of fear of losing his very high-paying lucrative job, he has to do what they say. But this is no excuse. Ultimately, he cannot talk bad about another Jew, who is so harmless.”

What Namdar discovers while sorting through the hundreds of emails is the painful fact that most of us already know: Too many heterosexuals reduce homosexuals to sexual practices they find disgusting.  “As seen in multiple references in the Discussion Board, many people allow themselves to discuss the sexual practices of homosexuals in graphic detail openly and publicly in an attempt to delegitimize us. They specifically and intentionally try to evoke disgust in the minds of others in order to make their point.”

In this day and age, unfortunately yes…

Note: Prolific gay author, Johnny Townsend, a birth Mormon who converted to Judaism, has just published his first Jewish storytelling book, The Golem of Rabbi Loew (BookLocker.com, Inc.). Townsend’s books have traditionally concentrated on Mormon stories and issues.



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  • Lambda Literary LitFest!

9 Responses to “Queer Rites: June 2011”

  1. Amos Lassen 8 June 2011 at 11:22 PM #

    I reviewed both Myers (about 3 weeks ago) and Nambdar (several months ago) and loved both books. They are both valuable additions to the canon of religious gay literature.


  2. Marianne Myers 9 June 2011 at 1:02 PM #

    If I was Harvey Firestein’s mom I could not be prouder. There is something fundamentally rewarding about sharing the growth process of a totally together, loving and exceptionally caring daughter who just happens to be a Rabbi. (Go figure.) Her Dad and I are very proud of her and her wonderful family. Go buy the book so she can help support us in our old age.


  3. Cantor Rica Timman 9 June 2011 at 3:22 PM #

    In “The Choosing” Rabbi Andrea Myers shares her life lessons with humor and insight. An autobiographical journey worth reading and sharing with others!


  4. Frederick Roden, PhD 9 June 2011 at 5:12 PM #

    I have to take issue with the review of Rabbi Myers’ book. Most definitely, Rabbi Myers offers delicious wit. But that humor — and warmth — is packaged in a series of beautiful and smart holiday chapters that are each of them life-lessons, if not sermons. This book is more than a memoir of conversion — it is a spiritual autobiography in the tradition of Augustine and Merton, but a lot funnier. I will be teaching this book in an undergraduate senior seminar on that genre this fall at my university. One other point, and this is worth mentioning: I don’t find that Myers takes any “swipes” at other faiths. Indeed, her ability to speak of the faith in which she was raised writes into existence the story of her conversion that the reviewer seems to find missing from the book — and is part of the articulation of her theology. Who said faith can’t be funny?


  5. Amos Lassen 14 June 2011 at 12:25 AM #

    I definitely agree with the above comment about Rabbi Andrea Myers’ book–it is a treasure. However I have several things to say about “Honey from the Rock” which I found to be totally offensive:

    Schoeman, Roy. “Honey from the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ”, Ignatius Press, 2007.

    A Topic Beyond My Comprehension

    Amos Lassen

    I must start this review with a disclaimer—I read this book because the title fascinated me even though I do not understand how someone raised in the traditions of Judaism could possibly leave it to accept Jesus as the son of God and the Messiah. I can already hear the masses saying that I do not live in the modern world. Further I can understand leaving Judaism for agnosticism or atheism but not for Christ. I learned about this book from a review I saw on the Lambda Literary site but I have still not been able to decide where it has anything to do with LGBT issues, Furthermore, we are all aware of the Church’s policies towards us even as their priests continue to sodomize boys and young men.

    We, as Jews, are taught that God formed a covenant with Israel (the Jewish people) and Christians believe that this was fulfilled with Jesus. In accepting Jesus as the Messiah, the prayers of Israel are fulfilled is the claim and that the ancient laws of the Five Books of Moses are transformed by restoration. Those who converted say that they have found completion (interesting, in that I feel complete as a Jew right now).

    Schoeman uses the name Y’shua for “the Messianic son of David” and refers to his mother not as Mary but as Miriam. He further states that they (Miriam and Y’shua) speak to those who long for God. I find this to be a rather broad and absurd statement because, as Jews, we also long for God yet we do not have anyone speaking to us about it. These names are the Hebrew names of Jesus and Mary but how many of us have ever heard mary called Miriam?

    One critic labels the book as a spiritual pathway and each selection is “a stepping stone to transformation”. He further claims that what is contained in this book will “deepen…faith and provide insights into the riches of the Catholic Church”. Have we forgotten how the Church became so rich?—the booty of wars, Crusades and tithes. He goes on to say that Jewish wit and wisdom climaxes “in the radical transformation of conversion”. It should come as no surprise that this was written by a Brother of the Sacred Heart and we are all aware that Catholics, unlike Jews, seek out converts. He also states that he recommends this book for all those who want to learn about “Faith from a Jewish point of view” and I cannot help but wonder if he and I live on the same planet. The Jewish point of view is totally opposite of what Catholicism offers. I find his comments to be embarrassing for a man of the cloth.

    I found the book to be a bit metaphysical in that it says that Jews face restless lives until they can taste the “honey from the rock” and know that Christ is the king of the Jews and that the Roman Catholic Church is the “fulfillment of Judaism”. Now I had to go back and read that line several times because it makes absolutely no sense to me or to any Jew that I know. In fact, it is the most ridiculous statement I have ever read. Now this books looks at sixteen converts from Judaism to Roman Catholicism. These sixteen lost souls found their way to mother church as they call it. The author himself is a Jew who converted and he claims to show what he calls “the clear links” between Judaism and Catholicism and I must say that I see no such links—I see gaps that shall never be bridged and what he refers to as “inspired stories” make me laugh. In fact the entire book came across to me as a sick joke. The thesis is that God promised the Jews at Meribah much more than they were to get when reaching the land of Israel.

    Of the sixteen converts to Catholicism there are former Orthodox Jews, there are some with barely any background in Judaism, some very successful people and some who were poor. What they had in common, the author says, is that they profoundly longed for God and that is what they found in the church.

    I can’t really find a word to describe the way I feel after having sloshed through this. The irony is that it is well written but it is not honest and it gives very false hope based on false premises. Now I have to ask myself about the Holocaust and how the Church could canonize Popes who stood by and did nothing as millions were murdered (including Catholics) and in some cases the Church actually abetted the Nazis. If for no reason than this, Jews have turned their back on Catholicism. What really bothers me is that the book managed to get published. Even more than that, a book that is well researched and well written might not be a good book especially if it is based on ideas that cannot be proven. We can talk about God all we want but can we prove anything? This is a prime example of a book that has good points but is not a good book. I am sure many will not agree with me and to them I say, do a little research and some introspection. And then I read something like this:

    “The Spirit blows where It will in a myriad of ways. When we say “Yes” to Him our life changes. We’ll never be the same. That’s what happened to the 16 people whose stories are told in this book. There’s nothing as exciting as the Lord entering your life. How could there be?? It happened to me over 30 years ago. It’s also exciting to read how He’s done it with others. It warms my heart. Great stories. Ordered 5 copies so far. Wonderful gifts.

    The only conclusion I can come to is that instead of sincerity, this book was written for financial gain. It really says very little and every word in it can be challenged. And the masses will say that I protest too much but I think I do not protest enough.


  6. Bernard Met 16 June 2011 at 11:28 AM #

    It seems to me that the topic of the column is religious conversion, and in this context the mention of the book Honey from the Rock works. We may not approve of a person’s reasons for changing religions (I am Jewish) but we can certainly listen to their stories. The column highlights all kinds of conversions– certainly the biggest conversion story noted in Queer Rites is the Lutheran to Jewish story. Very interesting column and if it generates dialog, well and good.


  7. Amos Lassen 16 June 2011 at 2:22 PM #

    I am a bit curious about why two of the books featured here are even here at all. “Honey from the Rock”, while interesting yet filled with holes, really has nothing to do with our community. I have been carefully researching information about the book and author and have discovered that the only good things said about the book are by people who have done exactly what it talks about—left Judaism to convert to Roman Catholicism, a religion which not only ignores us but actually tries to hinder us. We are all aware of the sexual crimes committed in the church and pedophilia is rampant there. Why should we review books about a religion that does not want to see us exist yet itself seems to be a haven for gay men and women engaging in illegal and anti-religion sexual activities?
    “Surprised by Christ” is also the story of a Jew who converted to “mother church” and the book has a few statements about gay marriage which are the author’s personal opinion and certainly not in accordance with church policy.
    I cannot help but wonder if the reviewer, Thom Nickels, used these reviews to forward a personal agenda which is at odds with the LGBT community at large. Why have these two books been given prominence on the Lambda site? And by the way, I am not convinced that Nickels even read these books because if he had, he would have seen that they have nothing to do with us. Additionally one was written in 2007 and the other in 2008 so they are not new and probably did not come across his desk as new releases.


  8. Thom Nickels 16 June 2011 at 2:37 PM #

    Dear Amos,

    I included these books, HFR and SBC for contrast and to illsutrate the
    unpredictable, wide-ranging world of religious conversion stories. Catholics converting to Islam, to Judaism, vice versa; Muslims converting to Scientology–it is all fair game. I try to read pretty much everything when it comes to religion, and have learned that ideas can be found anywhere, even in the thinktanks of our “enemies.” I don’t have to agree with a book to note it or use it as a reference. I certainly don’t have to agree with an author or point of view to note it or use it as a reference. I am intensely interested in dialogue and the exchange of ideas. I did not review these books but used them for illustration purposes only. I am rather bewildered and taken aback at your suggestions of a secret agenda. Frankly, if there is a secret agenda I am not aware of it. Thank you.


  9. Amos Lassen 16 June 2011 at 5:39 PM #

    Sorry. I suppose I was in error when I assumed that books reviewed and/or mentioned at the Lamdba site dealt with our community..



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