Netflix’s latest original documentary, Pray Away—about the reparative therapy organization Exodus International—is yet another thinly veiled attack on Christianity by Hollywood. It’s not surprising that Netflix would seize on a false gospel to surreptitiously proffer a hit piece on Christianity in a lopsided tale of woe. Much of the media can hardly resist glomming on to extremes to further an agenda that denigrates Christians. What is surprising is how poorly made this doc is. Not only does it lack a cohesive and compelling narrative, but it attempts to throw any sort of anti-Christian spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
As someone who worked in Hollywood for decades, I’ve seen firsthand the contempt the entertainment industry has for Christianity. But only after I left my gay identity—in exchange for a new identity in Christ—did I realize the special resentment Hollywood reserves for converts like me. Pray Away is a case in point.
The film opens on Jeffrey McCall, a former transsexual who had a powerful encounter with God and is now transformed by the gospel. The camera follows him on the streets of Georgia offering prayer to strangers. It’s clear the director capitalized on McCall’s lilting and effeminate Southern accent in an attempt to discredit him. Oh, those Bible-belt rubes and their quaint coming-to-Christ stories! But the focus on McCall is an odd choice and, as we see later, seems like a story from another film that somehow got mixed up in the editing room and mistakenly attached to this one.
The narrative inexplicably segues to former key leaders of Exodus International who have since come out as ex-ex-gay. Exodus was born in 1976 at a large conference in Anaheim, California, seeking to help homosexuals who wanted to rid themselves of unwanted same-sex attractions through a series of ad hoc and unscientific therapeutic methods. It’s no surprise these dubious methods failed. Attempts to “pray away the gay” all too often fail, leaving struggling folks not only mad at God or personally scarred but, far worse, in a state of apostasy. Tragically, the baby (the possibility of any change of affections) is usually thrown out with the bathwater (the problematic brand of “change” aimed at in conversion therapy).
Tragically, the baby (the possibility of any change of affections) is usually thrown out with the bathwater (the problematic brand of change aimed at in conversion therapy).
Producer/director Kristine Stolakis seizes on the faulty science—and unbiblical theology—of conversion therapy to castigate anyone who would dare leave, or desire to leave, the LGBTQ community. The message is clear: if you are denying your sexual desires in order to follow Christ, you are just fooling yourself. Those desires are what define your identity, and to tamper with who you really are is dangerous and delusional.
It’s worth noting how this stance represents contradictory doublespeak from the LGBTQ movement, which on one hand insists that gay identity is utterly unchangeable, while on the other suggests sexuality and gender are fluid and that radical self-expression demands we can change our identities on any given Tuesday. Turns out the LGBTQ movement actually is in favor of reparative therapy; it’s just that the only trustworthy therapist is you. If you want to transition from male to female, reparative therapy in the form of hormones and surgery is not only recommended, but practically mandatory.
The film highlights the stories of people like Exodus cofounder Michael Busse, who left the organization in 1979 after admitting to himself that his attractions weren’t changing, and John Paulk, former board president and figurehead of the movement. Paulk ended up marrying an ex-lesbian and had children with her, claiming for years that he was free of same-sex desires. He shares the tragic story of how he had to live that lie in order to be “straight.” His wife divorced him after discovering he was leading a double life. Paulk is currently in a romantic relationship with a man.
Holy Sexuality, Not Heterosexuality
What’s missing from the doc, of course, is a proper understanding of theology and what actually doomed Exodus International from the start. Trusting in Christ as your Lord and Savior does not guarantee that your sinful desires will vanish (although God created the universe and can do anything, including change one’s attractions). Students of Scripture are well aware that God’s grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Just ask the apostle Paul. We are never promised complete deliverance from stubborn vices that lurk in the deep crevices of our hearts. But we are given the Holy Spirit who empowers us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. This side of glory we all struggle with sundry sins, but we are no longer slaves to those sins; we’re slaves to righteousness and we have a righteous master in Jesus (Rom. 6:17–18).
Exodus’s fatal flaw was missing the forest for the trees. As author Christopher Yuan—who like me was redeemed out of a homosexual life—wisely puts it: the goal is not heterosexuality, it’s holy sexuality. Pray Away meanders through a few more stories of ex-ex-gays, including Yvette Cantu, who was a political operative for the organization, and Julie Rodgers, who was deeply involved in the ministry but now lives as a lesbian. Of course, the film ends with a grand wedding of Rodgers and her girlfriend in an ornate cathedral.
The film also tries in vain to tie up the loose end of Jeffrey McCall. Why his story is juxtaposed with the stories of former Exodus leaders is unclear. McCall simply left a life he no longer wanted because he found a treasure hidden in a field that was worth the cost of sexual self-denial (Matt. 13:44). He helps others in the LGBTQ community find that invaluable treasure.
Of course, the secular world will eagerly lap up this one-dimensional film with a side of relish. Misunderstanding and mischaracterizing the Christian life is a favorite pastime of Hollywood—as I know from experience. Faithful Christians are consistently portrayed as buffoons while, in this particular film, the ex-ex-gays are beacons of enlightenment.
Mischaracterizing the Christian life is a favorite pastime of Hollywood—as I know from experience.
But do not be deceived. Eternity will show that those who choose to live according to God’s beautiful purposes for sexuality—rather than taking pride in their own self-made sexual morality, however acceptable it becomes—are the ones on the real right side of history. My plea to those in the LGBTQ community is to realize this before it’s too late—not to “pray away the gay,” but to pray away your pride and repent. The treasure of eternal life with Jesus is worth the struggle of living a wisp of time here with longings unresolved and desires denied.