One of the saddest scenes in Boy Erased—a film full of sad scenes—finds protagonist Jared (Lucas Hedges) confronting his father (Russell Crowe) about their strained relationship. Jared has come out as gay, and his father is a Baptist pastor.
“There’s no changing me,” Jared tells his father, who years earlier had enrolled him in a traumatizing conversion-therapy program. “You are going to have to be the one who changes.”
For Jared, there can be no meaningful father-son relationship so long as his dad thinks a gay lifestyle is sinful. “I’m gay, and I’m your son,” he says. “And both of those things are not going to change.”
The father’s fidelity to Scripture’s witness on sexuality, however, is the only variable that can be changed, Jared implies. Change your view, or lose your son. This is the ultimatum implied in the scene—to Jared’s father and to anyone in the audience with LGBTQ loved ones. It’s black or white. Lose your old-fashioned religious view of sexuality, or lose us. It’s your choice.
This is one of many simplistic binaries in Boy Erased, a well-acted and moving drama that nevertheless traffics in the “no shades of gray” neo-fundamentalism of contemporary progressivism.
Based on Garrard Conley’s book Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family, the film is ostensibly an advocacy piece presenting conversion therapy—attempting to change one’s sexual orientation through psychological and behavioral means—as unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous malpractice that threatens the safety of LGBTQ youth. Panned by almost every mental and psychiatric health organization, banned in many countries and at least 14 U.S. states, and increasingly critiqued by evangelical institutions and organizations, gay conversion therapy appears to be a phenomenon on the wane. Films like Boy Erased (which is rated R for language and a scene of sexual assault) seek to put the proverbial nail in the coffin.
When Jared comes out to his father (Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman) in the film, they ask, “In your heart, do you want to change?” Jared, then 19, replies, “Yes.” And he really does seem to desire change. But by the film’s end, having survived the horrors of a Memphis conversion therapy program called Love in Action, but without having his attraction to other men altered, Jared concludes that he cannot be changed. He embraces what he views as the only alternative: wholly embracing a gay identity.
Tragically, the nature of “change” Jared is pitched at Love in Action is not the sort we find in the New Testament, where “new creation” growth is the byproduct of our union with Christ in the context of a community of discipleship. At Love in Action, a supposedly “Christian” organization that was also featured in a 2011 documentary, the desired change seems less about becoming like Christ than about becoming less gay and more manly. Indeed, the behavioral therapy we see in the film is fixated on training adolescent boys like Jared to become more “manly” through things like uncrossing legs, posture (the “triangle” stance is apparently the man’s stance), push ups, handshakes, and baseball swings. With a large American flag in the backdrop, the program at times feels less like Christian discipleship than military boot camp.
Though the program’s leader, Victor Sykes (played by Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film) seems well-intentioned, his tactics are brutal and wrongheaded. In one scene a boy named Cameron (Britton Sear) is literally beaten with Bibles while he hunches over a coffin in a fake funeral for himself. Horrifying stuff. There is physical abuse, verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, and trauma that contributes (in at least one case) to a boy’s suicide. Boy Erased is right to critique these approaches to conversion therapy.
Is Change Impossible?
The problem is the film’s binary posture makes no room for any approach to sexual desire that involves change in any form. The film reflects our progressive secular culture’s oddly rigid view of sexuality as something fixed and immutable—even as this same culture insists on total gender fluidity. So one’s gender can be changed, but not one’s sexual desires? In the end, the LGBTQ movement’s conception of “change” is both internally inconsistent and also experientially depressing.
Boy Erased reflects our progressive secular culture’s oddly rigid view of sexuality as something fixed and immutable—even as this same culture insists on total gender fluidity.
Imagine being told that your unwanted desires to drink or gamble or envy are “just who you are” and that changing your desires is impossible. To suggest an unchangeable givenness to the matrix of desires that constitutes a supposedly fixed “identity” is a truly novel and unbiblical anthropology. It is a notion fundamentally at odds with a faith defined by resurrection and renewal, where to be in Christ is to be a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
By targeting Love in Action-style conversion therapy (“pray the gay away”), Boy Erased finds an easy target to justify its position that attempting to change sexual desire does more harm than good. But the film is wrong to suggest conversion therapy is the main or only way Christians approach discipleship of LGBTQ persons. Thousands of churches around the world are walking with men and women who are same-sex-attracted (SSA), working out the complexities of what discipleship and sanctification looks like for them, without asking or expecting their disordered desires to suddenly disappear. The main concern in discipling Christians who feel tension between their sexual feelings and their faith (which is really all Christians) is not sexual orientation but spiritual orientation. The latter is the root issue, affecting all of our desires and behavior, sexual or otherwise. Indeed, the most important “conversion” in the Christian life involves a changed heart posture toward God.
Garrard Conley’s story is his story, and Boy Erased does it justice. It’s a story Christians should reckon with, listen to, and learn from. But Rosaria Butterfield’s story also exists, as does Jackie Hill Perry’s, and Christopher Yuan’s, and Sam Allberry’s, and countless others who have chosen faithfulness to Scripture and identity in Christ over faithfulness to identity in sexuality. Where are the movies about these stories? Would progressives be willing to reckon with, listen to, and learn from these stories?
Boy Erased leaves the impression of a one-size-fits-all prescription for those with SSA: Don’t fight it. Don’t think it’s in any way wrong. Don’t long to be changed. Just accept who you are and live with pride.
But for many Christ followers, it’s not that simple. Watch the vignettes of Catholics struggling with sexuality and faithfulness to Christ in this documentary. Watch the testimony of Beckett Cook, a Hollywood production designer who left a gay lifestyle behind when he started following Jesus. Watch CCM songwriter Dennis Jernigan tell his emotional story of freedom from a homosexual lifestyle. These stories are out there, though they’re sadly hard to find. Hollywood studios and media gatekeepers don’t like that these stories exist. You won’t see Nicole Kidman starring in a film about the life of Rosaria Butterfield.
If anyone is truly being “erased” today, it is those who fall in the category of pursuing Christian faithfulness despite SSA; those who have chosen the costly path of celibacy or the complex pursuit of heterosexual marriage; those who have embraced the cost of discipleship in choosing Jesus over sexual fulfillment. We need more stories like these, showing how Jesus followers can pursue Christian faithfulness even while living with the challenges and complexities of sexual desires (which are challenging and complex whether you’re attracted to the same sex or not).
Every Christian will at some point feel tension between faith and sexual desires, and films like Boy Erased suggest there is no way to manage such a tension unless one’s faith beliefs are adjusted to accommodate sexual desires. Not only is this a simplistic solution to “resolve” the tension, but it also presumes unresolved tension has no place or value in life. Just as conversion therapy prescribes a too-simple solution to the complex struggle of SSA, so too does Boy Erased, just on the other extreme.
Every Christian will at some point feel tension between faith and sexual desires, and films like Boy Erased suggest there is no way to manage such a tension unless one’s faith beliefs are adjusted to accommodate one’s sexual desires.
Given the dichotomous thinking in Boy Erased (“Your son is not changing, so your faith must”), it’s no surprise when Jared’s mom (Kidman) changes her faith. By the end of the film she no longer attends church regularly, and she sums up her beliefs this way: “I love God. God loves me. And I love my son. It’s that simple. For your father it’s a bit more complicated.”
It’s more complicated because, while Jared’s father (Crowe) loves his son and says so in the film, he can’t just throw away Scripture. Enduring the pain of managing this tension—loving Scripture and loving his son, without assuming the latter requires abandoning the former—makes Crowe’s character the most interesting and heroic of the film, even while he makes mistakes along the way. But Boy Erased casts his “more complicated” journey in a condescending way, as a quaint (if somewhat stubborn) brand of old-fashioned fundamentalism bound to fall apart in time, whenever reason and science prevail.
Indeed, the movie presents faith as a largely anti-intellectual pursuit necessarily in conflict with science. A doctor character (Cherry Jones) says she is a religious woman—“but I also went to medical school . . . I hold science in one hand and God in the other.” This lazy binary (faith vs. science) shows up elsewhere in the film. At one point Jared visits an art exhibit titled (literally) “God vs. Science.” He meets the artist, a gay man named Xavier (Théodore Pellerin), who listens to Jared as he describes his spiritual tension: “I imagine I am Job . . . God and the Devil are having a bet over me.” Xavier neatly resolves the tension for Jared by declaring, “God is in all of us.”
I’m reminded of what Ross Douthat notes in Bad Religion about heresies—that they almost always stem from “a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.” Whether the tension of faith and science or the tension of sexual desires and biblical teachings, the either/or approach is certainly easier. But it is likelier to be heretical.
Whether the tension of faith and science or the tension of sexual desires and biblical teachings, the either/or approach is certainly easier. But it is likelier to be heretical.
Sadly, the tensions felt by Christians like Jared are too easily resolved in Boy Erased. When God’s revelation in Scripture feels harsh or disapproving of one’s feelings, it is replaced with the “revelation” of autonomy and sexual liberation. This is championed in the form of a song, “Revelation,” repeated a few times in the film. Gay singer/songwriter Troye Sivan (who has a small acting role in the film) sings: You’re a revelation / Won’t you liberate me now / From a holy bound . . . It’s a revelation / There’s no hell in what I found / No kingdom shout / How the tides are changing / As you liberate me now / And the walls come down.
But is this liberation “from a holy bound” really liberating? Is the path of choosing self-fulfillment over faithfulness to Scripture really revelatory?
One of the saddest things about Boy Erased is that Jared is sent away from his church in his time of need. He’s sent to a “specialist” parachurch program to work on his temptations in a context far from his local church family. But church members tempted by greed or pornography or heterosexual lust are not sent away to specialist camps to be “fixed.” Why is Jared? Same-sex-attracted Christians should be discipled within the church family, along with everyone else. Their cost of discipleship may look higher than others, but as Sam Allberry has pointed out, the cost is high for everyone:
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The key word is anyone. To follow Jesus, all of us will have to say a deep and profound no to some of our deepest intuitions and longings. Jesus doesn’t put “self” in front of “identity”; he puts it in front of “denial.”
This call needs to be spelled out. Jesus goes on to say that there is a sense of “losing our life” in following him (v. 35), that there will be times when it feels like obedience to him is taking life from us. And yet the glorious paradox is that by going through this loss, we are actually gaining life. By denying self and following Jesus we don’t become less who we are; we become most truly ourselves.
In the upside-down kingdom of God, this is what true liberation looks like. It is the freedom to follow Christ rather than our fickle hearts; the freedom of being caught up in God’s story rather than our own; the freedom of not being slaves to our desires.
God doesn’t promise the removal of same-sex desires, or heterosexual marriage, to those who, like Jared in Boy Erased (at least in the beginning), wish for “change.” God promises himself. To have God, are we willing to say no to our disordered desires?
Contrary to the tragic reductionism of Boy Erased, there are many paths of faithfulness and flourishing for the Christian with SSA. There are certainly paths of unfaithfulness—sanctifying one’s desires rather than submitting them to God; shrugging off Scripture’s authority when it feels confining. But many are walking the faithful paths daily. They are in your church. They are in your family. Their testimonies need to be heard. They need your love and accountability on their journey, just as you need theirs.