My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus (Arktoi Press, 2012) serves as a clarion call for the spiritually homeless and curious alike. With heart-breaking self-deprecating humor, Kelly Barth lays bare the ugly truth of the ex-gay “ministry” that has for decades shredded the souls of lesbians and gay men the world over, and with incredible bravery recounts one woman’s path back toward the divine within.
In memoir style, Barth, a closeted lesbian most of her life, describes the “thick fundamentalist filter” of her youth and young adulthood. Though born into the more theologically permissive Presbyterian Church, she always felt a stronger pull toward the popularity of biblical literalism and the freedom that afforded her to avoid having to figure out how to be cool. As an eternally awkward child, it wasn’t long before she found herself linked inextricably to the types of kids who handed out scriptural tracts on the weekends for fun. While her true identity was still buried deep inside, Barth knew on a level she would not be able to give voice to for decades that “Jesus had had to die because I was gay, and every time a gay person like me had another gay thought, it killed him all over again.”
Considering the messages Barth internalized as a child, some might picture her close circle to be full of Fred Phelps type hate mongers. In fact, quite the opposite was true. With the type of generosity that often only comes with age, Barth remembers the vast majority of her inner circle in a way that clarifies to the reader that they honestly had nothing but the best of intentions. If you, like Barth, have ever been on the receiving end of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin fundamentalism, you will recognize yourself on nearly every page. Unfortunately, so ingrained was the belief that homosexuality was a parasite- an addiction one must try relentlessly to be rid of -that even finding herself on the receiving end of an unabashedly hateful admonition against her plans to seek legal marriage to her wife drove her to a level of self-loathing nearly deeper than her counselor could pull her out of.
This was pure and classic religious abuse, her counselor would explain, yet for Barth, the roots of the tree of her fundamentalist upbringing remained solidly moored to the ground, despite the fact that the trunk and limbs had long since been cut down and reshaped. By her thirties, Barth had found a small, but loving community of like-minded friends, a church home in which, at least, she wasn’t a pariah and the love of her life, Lisa. Still, confronted by bright and thrilling reminders of the promise of achieving a “normal sexual orientation,” Barth began slipping away once again from her potential for full authenticity.
Imaginary Jesus, Barth’s longest and truest friend, ever loyally shadowing her path had other plans. Though he never guided her steps quite the way the fundamentalist within her would mislead her to believe, he remained her spiritual talisman throughout every single trial. Jesus and Barth’s intuition, her best self, were one and the same. Once she began to realize this truth, her life opened back up. Most importantly, she joined a group of fellow church members through their defection from the church that no longer fit their awakening hearts and the establishment of one that reflected the best parts of each member’s religious convictions. In the final act, she ended up finding that which her younger self would not have dared let her imagine- a community willing to defend not only her right to be her authentic self, but also her freedom to declare the manifestation of that authenticity through the rite of church marriage to her long-time love.
My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus is the type of memoir that speaks truth to power in a way that is impossible to ignore. By simply telling her story, one so many lesbians and gay men can painfully relate to, Barth achieves not only redemption, but contributes significantly to the growing canon of literature detailing the absolutely unnecessary and completely avoidable trauma inflicted by ex-gay hate groups in the name of God. Yet, she does not stop there. She takes it one step further, by proving that it is indeed possible to be a practicing, proud lesbian and a fully authentic Christian at the same time. Further, unlike the profusion of predictable prodigal stories, Barth didn’t actually ever stray that far from the church. As she jokes to her mother when she, in all seriousness, asks her if she has been practicing safe sex with her partner of 12 years, her past has been nothing if not “uncheckered.”
Certainly Barth’s church attendance record wasn’t perfect, but she persisted. This is the point, I believe she intends most earnestly to convey. Our family may disown us. Our child-hood churches are very likely indeed to do the same. Our own hearts may in fact lead us anywhere but beside still waters. Yet, in the face of all this, when we truly stop and listen to what we know deep down inside, we will come to realize that the voice of a loving, redeeming, justice-seeking, radical God has been co-opted and distorted for harmful means. Unfortunately, it is often just as unpopular to be a person of faith in the queer community as it is to be a queer person in most religious communities. In this, her timely and important debut memoir, Barth challenges her beloved community: are we to accept the old faithful tactic of oppression which seeks to have us control the community from within or are we to stand with a brave face and claim our right to a multi-faceted identity? If you lean toward the latter, this book is required reading.