Book Review--Epiphany by Michael Coren

The best part of Michael Coren's recent book, Epiphany, is the last paragraph:

Never stop looking at Jesus, as a baby, a child, an adult, a man dying on a cross, a God restored to life, a savior with us until the end of time. Never stop looking at the world as a place of love and never stop embracing and accepting that love. If two men or two women commit to one another in a devoted, sacrificial, committed, faithful marriage, the Christ-centred world of love is made deeper, wider, and better. As Christ Himself says in the first word he utters in the Gospel of Mark, we must open our hearts and believe the Good News. The Greek word used here is actually metanoeite, literally to change your minds but is usually translated as repent or convert. I prefer the more accurate translation and know that a transformation to what is true and good is a gift from God. Being open to change. Yes, that’s it. That is my epiphany, that is my heart and mind changed, a Christian’s heart and mind changed. Pray God we can all accept that splendid reality and this debate will finally be over because it is quite simply unnecessary. God be praised.

Notwithstanding that it comes at the very end of the book, that last paragraph acts as a kind of thesis statement for the particular project that Coren sets out in the book, which is to lay down a marker for an explicitly Christian vision that affirms LGBT rights and dignity.  Until recently, discussions of LGBT issues have been framed mostly in terms of secular categories--rights, equality, fairness, etc.  Not that those ideas do not have religious dimensions, but they are defined in the West in secular, political terms, More importantly, it was taken as something of a given that a purely and explicitly religious (in this case Christian) point of view would oppose LGBT rights. The message to a person of the Christian faith was to weigh their political and social commitments against their religious commitments, and to "put aside" the religious position in favor of the secular values.

Coren is not opposed to this secular case for LGBT rights in Epiphany, but he is mostly uninterested in it.  Instead, he wants to focus on making a self-consciously Christian case for the open and affirming position.  Coren argues that there is no balancing of secular versus religious to be had, because the message of the Gospel welcomes, and even compels, an embrace of LGBT folks without preconditions or provisos.  It's not about the secular versus the religious, but about what version of the religious we are going to stand for.  In doing so, I think the debate becomes reframed in a critical and necessary way.  This is not "Us Against Them," but a dispute between and among Us, including all of the "Us" that are LGBT Christians (a selection of whose stories Coren movingly tells in the book).

This is not to say that Coren is somehow breaking new ground with his observations and arguments, and Coren surely does not claim to be doing so in Epiphany (all of his theological and Biblical arguments are closely footnoted).  LGBT theologians and LGBT Christians have been making this case for some time.  Bishop Gene Robinson has given this perspective a public face and voice.  Presiding Bishop Michael Curry's response to the Anglican primates meeting in January drinks deeply in this idea.  Instead, the value of the book is found in the way it takes those arguments and ideas and packages them in an easily accessible, highly personal format.  Coren uses these ideas as a framework to narrate his own journey, one that travels from being one of the most prominent conservative Catholic media figures in Canada to marching in Toronto's gay pride parade a couple of weekends ago.  Coren's book is primarily for people who are looking to be convinced, who want to see a way to match up their faith with what they see around them and what they know in their heart.  In narrating his own journey, he provides a bread-crumb trail for other people to follow.

Two things in particular jumped out for me in reading the book.  The first was Coren's account of the vicious backlash he received from his former comrades-in-arms.  It is telling that the push-back started well before he publicly declared his support of same-sex marriage, when we criticized the government of Uganda for its criminalization (to the point, in 2014, of attempting to impose the death penality) of homosexuality.  Catholic Answers, an "apologetic" organization affiliated with EWTN, black-balled Coren at that point based on that issue.  My take-away, and I believe I am being fair to Coren in saying it is his as well, is that all of this talk that conservative Christians are "only" concerned with marriage definition is nonsense.  The sine qua non of conservative Christianity in 2016 is that nothing positive or supportive can be said about LGBT people.  No deviation from the party line is countenanced.

This bright line also shows a certain element of paranoia among the conservative wing, as they were trying in the early stages of the story to get Coren to make some sort of public denunciation of LGBT folks as a way of reassuring them of his orthodoxy.  The whole thing had a bit of Maoist cast, to be honest, and once it was clear that it would not be forthcoming from Coren, it turned ugly--online harassment of his children and wife, baseless accusations that he was having an affair (with both men and women, in a multiple-choice fashion), baseless accusations of financial irregularities, etc.  My sense of this paranoia is that it stems from a realization (whether they admit it or not) that they have lost this fight in the broader public sphere, but they think they can keep a hold of the church in its posture of resistance.  But postures of resistance require strict policing to prevent the "enemy from within" from gaining a foothold, and Coren represents the ultimate "enemy from within"--master communicator with a public profile, with no ounce of retreat from his self-identification with Christianity.

Predictable though it may have been, it is clear from the book that the backlash Coren received contributed to eroding his confidence in the wisdom of his previous conservative stance.  I was heartened, though not surprised, to hear Coren describe the contrast between that reaction and the positive and warm response he received from LGBT folks, including many that he had publicly tangled with in the past.  All of this talk on  the Right about the "vicious" and "angry" "gay agenda" seems to me to be pure projection on their part.  I have certainly experienced nothing but support, positivity, and benevolence from the LGBT folks I have encountered.

The second notable thing about the book is Coren's sense of moral clarity.  Once it became clear to him that he no longer believed what the Catholic Church had to say about gay issues, he concluded that he had no choice but to leave and join the Anglican Church of Canada, and so he did.  At one point, he says that he owed it to the Catholic Church to not take Communion from it once he recognized his disagreement. No Hamlet-like waffling on whether to stay or to leave.   I find Coren's clarity to be both inspiring and challenging--as someone who has engaged in quite a bit of Hamlet-like waffling in this space, I felt like I was being strongly, if gently, encouraged by Coren to screw my courage to the sticking place and move on.  After all, if he could do it, in the face of total professional disruption and public attack, I have few good excuses.

Part of that clarity, I think, goes back to the last paragraph that begins this post.  If we are talking about these issues in terms of politics, then they will inhabit the world of politics, with all politics' (necessary) compromise and equivocation.  But if these issues are framed in terms of Gospel values, then a person who takes the Gospel seriously (as Coren clearly does) is under an obligation to act firmly in support of those values.  Coren suggests that the time to think and to talk and to discuss with regard to LGBT questions is coming to an end, and we are entering the period where it is time to do (Kimberly Knight, in a review of a very different sort of book on this topic, echoes that point).  If we believe that following Jesus means embracing "the Christ-centred world of love," then we need to stop talking and start being about our Father's business.

Epiphany is a call to be about our Father's business, and a word of encouragement as we walk the road.  It is the story of one person's journey, but it is also the story of many of us who have been changed by our friends and neighbors, not to mention the Holy Spirit, to see Jesus with new eyes, to embrace this "splendid reality."  God be praised, indeed.


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