Caleb Kaltenbach’s Messy Grace is an argument based on life experience and the Bible, emphasizing conviction over love.
Pastor Kaltenbach grew up between two gay households. During school, he lived with his closeted father, a university professor. Holidays, weekends and summers he spent with his professor mother and her female partner. As a teen, in an attempt to understand and combat Christians’ hate for his parents and their friends, he began to attend a church. His infiltration of the enemy backfired when he converted instead, ironically “coming out” to his parents as a Christian. Now, as a pastor and DMin candidate, he evangelizes gay people.
The book argues clearly and succinctly, in twelve short chapters, each concluding with discussion questions. The message is simple: “Love is the tension of grace and truth.” Grace is God’s unfailing forgiveness and mercy. Truth is Biblical teaching on how to manifest God’s plan in the world. Love is the mess that occurs as people accept God’s grace by living in truth, that is, reconciling sinful acts with discipleship.
This theology is too tidy for a book about messy grace. The title hides a divisive agenda.
The book’s use of “us” and “them” obscures love. “We” engage not only the GLBT community, but any group of non-believers, to direct “them” to God’s side. The “mission” is to “pursue” and not “lose” people. In other words, the book’s argument rests on the premise of a battle its team (the Christians) means to win. Does that sound like love?
Love is further sullied by the way “messy” is used. The messy gospel “isn’t messy actually, but looks messy when it goes to work in messy lives.” A mess that only looks messy but is really a tool to use on people, as though we’re machines, is not convincing. Did Jesus actually offer his body and his blood (his mess) as salvation, or did he just appear to in order to get us on his “winning” side? Real mess matters. At his mother’s partner’s funeral, the author complains that the stories people told about her “were just that: stories. What counted was who she knew on the other side of eternity.” Stories, as this book attests, change people’s lives. Why belittle them? People’s messy stories – our lives – deserve real attention, not God’s work masquerading as a mess in order to appeal to the masses.
The book’s polemical language (“us” and “them,” as well as what’s actual versus “just” a story) undercuts its goal to reach out in love to people outside the church.