Queer Eye, Blue Like Jazz, and Jesus
This cold, winter week, I’ve been thinking about three separate, seemingly-random things: Queer Eye, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and Jesus. A few weeks ago, my husband and I started watching the widely beloved Netflix show Queer Eye for the first time, a show I’d avoided because I’d assumed it was a revamped version of the TLC show What Not to Wear. What Not to Wear was entertaining for its fashion disasters, but the hosts were notoriously rude and condescending, often forcing fashion choices onto contestants they’d never wear after returning to their real lives.
But Queer Eye isn’t What Not to Wear, and the Fab Five hosts don’t ravage feelings and mock style choices. Through fashion guidance and recipe help, updated haircuts and simple but significant home makeovers, these men help others see the good in themselves and identify their own inner beauty. I’ve teared up watching each episode of average, often working class folks, many who have never had a single conversation (to their knowledge anyway) with a gay man. I try not to think about the reality TV aspect of the show, the possibility some lines are scripted and certain scenes are filmed more than once. Because behind the entertainment and humor and good TV are real people with layered stories and healing wounds.
One episode highlighted a single camp counselor dad who was also a recovering addict. He lived in a filthy cabin and never washed his hair. It was clear he was broken and hurting and trying to focus more on his son and the camp kids than his own needs. The Fab Five didn’t take him shopping at Nordstrom or force expensive, Hollywood styles on this man living in the backwoods. They updated his cabin and took him shopping at REI. And at the end of the episode he said, “thank you for meeting me where I was.”
In Queer Eye, its not just hospitality to miscellaneous contestants (some with truly heartbreaking stories), but hospitality offered to five gay men in red-saturated states. The Fab Five don’t skirt tough questions with the individuals and families they meet. In one episode, God Bless Gay, they visit an active church leader in Gay, Georgia, and talk about church trauma, the cruelty of some Christians and churches towards LGBTQ people (Bobby won’t even step foot in church until the end of the episode). This church leader, a mother and devout Christian, has a tender moment where she expresses how she’d wronged her gay son. She says, “I need to ask you for your forgiveness because mama has not loved you unconditionally.”
It reminds me of a story in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz about his college days. His college was known for raging parties where the campus turned blind eyes to alcohol, drugs, and sex and allowed the students to do whatever they wanted a few times a year. He and his few Christian friends had an idea to create a confessional. It was a joke at first to dress up as monks and build a confessional where students could come and confess their wild actions from the last few nights. But another student offered a different idea: a confessional where the Christian students confess and apologize for the ways Christians have caused and perpetuated harm throughout history, the ways they’ve judged and condemned and lost sight of Jesus along the way. Miller writes of his first conversation in the confessional with a hungover, religious skeptic. As he started talking and apologizing, the student began listening, no longer on edge or defensive. Miller and his friends spoke to dozens of students that day, focusing on their own sins and complicities instead of casting judgment on the partying students. It was radical.
He asks this poignant question: what if we started apologizing for getting in the way of Jesus? What if we started honestly examining the planks in our own eyes instead of warning of culture and partying students and gay people and liberals, etc? What if we started seeing people through different lenses, loving them and meeting them where they are instead of where we want them to be?
Loving better requires humility that does not come easily or even naturally. How can we love the people we’re judging when we don’t take time to get to know them? Fred Rogers was famous for saying: “I like you just the way you are.” He said this to children. But maybe it's easier to like children (at least most children), to accept them for their quirks and imaginations and little personalities. It becomes harder as we grow up and become hardened towards the people we other, the ones we can’t (or won’t understand), the ones we think should be confessing to us when we have our own confessing to do.
During Jesus’s ministry, people unified not over shared political ideologies or upbringings or faith traditions, but Jesus. There’s the famous story of the woman brought to Jesus, the one the religious scholars wanted to stone for her “adultery.” Jesus says, “The sinless one among you, go first: throw the stone.” I imagine it was an awkward situation. These religious men were so certain of their own holiness and her wretchedness. One by one they began dropping stones, maybe looking at one another with sheepish, embarrassed expressions for being called out by the Nazarene prophet.
Jesus looks at the woman and asks: “who condemns you?”
“No one, master,” she says.”
“Neither do I.”
We speak of this story as a reproach. Jesus tells her not to sin anymore and we see it as an invitation to also tell people not to sin. We forget we’re often the ones carrying stones. We Christians are often guilty of judging the ones we perceive to be less righteous, of condemning the ones we claim are living in obvious sins while we harbor our own secret ones.
What if we started apologizing? What if we confessed our conditional love?
Miller writes of his own revelation that he’s not only loved by God, but liked by God. And perhaps this is what we lack in churches and Christian circles. We can speak of love of neighbor, but do we like our neighbors? Do we even try? Do we ever consider Mr. Rogers prophetic words: “I like you just the way you are?”