Fundamentalist religion and homosexuality have never been on especially good terms. In Kelly Barth's debut memoir, My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus, the tension between being Christian and being gay results in a personal implosion. In the book, Barth, who studied writing at the University of Montana, immerses herself in the ritual self-hatreds of right-wing religion while attempting to find distinctiveness as a lesbian and a writer. The result is a fascinating chronicle of guilt, doubt and transformation.
Imaginary Jesus begins during Barth's childhood in a suburb of Kansas City where her religious fervorin the form of Presbyterianismeven eclipses that of her devout parents and siblings. She wiles away her formative years trying to glimpse her imaginary friend, Jesus, as she attends Sunday school. She identifies with the masculine stereotypes of the Old Testament. Meanwhile, she grows ever more frightened by her burgeoning sexual inclinations.
Everything about the book is provocative without trying to provoke. Humor and honesty are the memoir's mainstays as Barth describes her awkward attempts to be normal, straight and a conservative Jesus freak to the strictest degree. Highlights include embarrassing accounts of Presbyterian Bible camp, being prevented by her parents from joining an all-girls choir and latching onto an extremist group called Youth for Christ where she is indoctrinated into the fold through scary cautionary tales of non-Christians. That's just the first section of the book.
I'm not a lesbian, a woman or a believer, but Barth's book had me riveted from the first page. Unflinching and funny, the book concerns itself with the seeming impossibility of coming out gay in an extreme Christian milieu and, at the same time, coming out Christian in an increasingly secular era. Barth picks her tongue-in-cheek moments, saving them for her most absurd anecdotes: her disastrous engagement to Royall, a boy she meets via a Christian singles group, and her experience at Living Waters, a mortifyingly sectarian seminar on overcoming homosexuality. But this isn't just a droll coming-out story; it's a serious expose of organized intolerance, which explores antagonism and social issues of dignity.
It is also a call for equal rights. Barth's straightforward prose sparkles with tales of her ambivalent lifestyle, but it also starkly illuminates an entire subculture of homophobia from the intimate viewpoint of the insider, while remaining refreshingly non-polemical. Outside of all the melodramatic episodes and chatty asides, the book is a primer on acceptance and forbearance. It's a rough sketch of the hypocrisy of blind faith, and the discontent that it inspires among reasonable followers.
Barth's path away from zealotry comes in many forms: finding her partner, announcing her concealed identity to her parentsan unexpectedly affecting scene of warmth and clipboardsand her involvement in helping to outline the doctrines of gay marriage for a new church. This isn't about a magical conversion or a swift instance of clarity. Even these moments are filled with self-denigrating snark, musings on theological weirdness and the right balance of belief and non-belief for the atheist and the Christian to appreciate equally. The fact that the complexities are never fully ironed out makes the story that much easier to buy into. "Trying to find Jesus is one of the first things I remember doing," Barth notes. Over the course of her tell-all, that quest to pinpoint the voice of a tiny imaginary deity turns into a hankering for a voice of reasonone that seems to resemble her own.