Lee, Laura. “Angel, Itineris Press, 2011.
When Religion and Homosexuality Meet
I realized just as I was typing the title of this review that religion and homosexuality have always met and that meeting rarely has had satisfactory outcomes. When I see a book on this topic, I usually devour it and unfortunately for us, there are not too many novels written about it. Laura Lee is a brave woman to take this on and if that isn’t enough of a compliment, I will say now that the book is beautifully written. Those of you who read my reviews and/or know me also know that I absolutely love to take religion on mainly because it is so hypocritical.
Here our main character, Paul Tobit, is a minister who has lost his wife to cancer and this has influenced him deeply—so much so that he seems to live by doing things mechanically. His joy of living died with his wife. His life changes when he sees what at first he thinks is a vision. He ventures into the lobby of the church and sees what looks like an angel but is a young man who appears radiant and luminous. Tobit is so taken with what he sees that he almost falls on his “knees”. However he does realize that what he sees is a young man who, in those first moments, steals his heart. Tobit has feelings of lust and feels alive for the first time in a long time. He has a hard time dealing with his feelings but he thinks that this boy is a gift from God and now he must try to understand what God is saying. He does recognize his feelings are not in line with his theology and embarks on a journey that inspires him but that also puts him in a precarious position in his church. He must do some introspection and examine what he believes about his community, love and the beliefs he has embraced.
I would not label this book as a romance. I have to say that the book is a discussion of religion and sexuality. As if we need to be reminded that we are dealing with religion, each chapter has an inspirational quote below the title. The story is told via flashbacks and when we meet Tobit, he is driving a tour bus in Washington State. We learn that he had once been a Protestant minister. We then go back to when he saw the vision that turned out to be a young man named Ian. Paul realized that his attraction for Ian is not because he is a divine revelation from God and Tobit cannot seem to get him out of his mind. This desire is strange to him but he knows that he has harbored thoughts about homosexuality and while he really never considered to submitting to another male, he never really wanted to.
Ian came to Tobit’s church for an AA meeting and Tobit feels that God sent Ian to him so that he could help him eschew alcohol and this does not include having lustful feelings. He does help Ian by getting him into rehab and a platonic friendship ensues. They speak by phone daily and discuss God, love and religion. Eventually a romance develops between them and Tobit did not give thought as to how this would affect his ministry. As he learns more and more about himself, he faces several issues of which the biggest is whether he can reconcile his sexuality with his religion and religious duties and what his community will think of him if the story gets out. His congregation has quite a membership and Tobit knows that several love to gossip and to judge others. He soon realizes that they are vindictive and can hardly contain their anger. I will not tell you how they discovered the affair so you will have something to look for. But Tobit also has to deal with himself and his own thoughts about homosexuality. I think we forget sometimes that a religious leader is dependent upon approval from the board of the institution that he works at.
I once thought I had the whole religion/sexuality issues figured out and for most, there is no issue—do what is preached or find a new way to worship. As one reads, it is difficult not to think about human sexuality and privacy, prejudice and intolerance and the power of the church to control lives. We are forced into thinking and we realize that even though this is not a comfortable book, it is a necessary one that should be read by every member of the clergy and every person who has trouble with accepting difference. Is not a man of God still a man with urges and desires? Laura Lee takes the issue and runs with it and she does not shy away from any aspect of religion and sexuality. Many Christians are told over and over that a Christian and a gay person are miles apart and the Bible is used as ammunition for this. We must remember that we can find whatever we want in the Bible as long as we take it out context as is done with the use of the Levitical verses or the retelling of what happened at Sodom. Is it any surprise that the word so often used to describe gay sex is “sodomy”?
Lee paces the romance of the book beautifully and we sense that we are heading for a typically Christian ending and it is easy to see while love is a thing of beauty, it is not always the best thing for those involved. As we grow to love both Tobit and Ian and hope that all will be fine, we still carry the thought that the relationship between the men is at odds with the way religion sees homosexuality.
This is certainly not an example of gay men’s literature today when writers can incorporate sex into their writings. There is no sex, per se, in this book and as I said earlier, the focus here is on religion and homosexuality and romance takes a back seat.