Review: "I Can't Date Jesus" is a hilarious, thoughtful introspection

by Jordan McDonald | 9/14/18 2:10am

Hilarious, thoughtful and unwavering, pop culture critic Michael Arceneaux’s memoir “I Can’t Date Jesus” tackles the awkward and sometimes painful realities of growing up over the course of 17 essays.

A New York Times bestseller and Arceneaux’s first book, “I Can’t Date Jesus,” explores sexuality, race, religion, love and work with remarkable buoyance. With a writing style that has been likened to Samantha Irby and David Sedaris, Arceneaux articulates his experiences and opinions with masterful innuendo and shadiness. Yet it is this very expressive act that differentiates him from the rest. As he reflects on his life as a gay black man, it is also his identities as a writer, a former Catholic and a Southerner that rise to the forefront of Arceneaux’s work. In conversation, first and foremost, with himself, “I Can’t Date Jesus” affirms Arceneaux’s individuality while honoring the communities he holds dear and the personality that fuels his fire for life.

Having first encountered Arceneaux on Twitter, I gravitated toward his cultural commentary in part due to the unrelenting sense of humor that accompanies his critical voice. For years, his writing has brought clarity and consistency to my timeline. His critiques of the nature of celebrity and pop culture are doused with tactful sarcasm, political awareness and occasional sass. Whether the book focused on Nicki Minaj or Donald Trump, Arceneaux manages to find the pulse of the moment and explain it on his own terms. A fan of his craft, I pre-ordered “I Can’t Thank Jesus” in good faith when the book was announced. I’m happy to say that it was well worth the wait.

Embodying Arceneaux’s infamous candor and wit, “I Can’t Date Jesus,” carries his spirit into the memoir realm and, in effect, turns the critic in on himself for introspection. As Arceneaux narrates snapshots from his life, the world as he sees it opens up. Throughout the book, Arceneaux reflects on the people and places that made him. The city of Houston, Texas and his working-class black family are rightfully situated as the primary influences in his life. His Catholic upbringing, his father’s alcoholism and the sounds of the South help inform the unique world from which he sprang. Compelling and thoughtful, his commitment to self-articulation and integrity ultimately act as a challenge to the harsh social terrain he’s had to traverse over the years.

With geographic and cultural specificity, Arceneaux pushes back against popular representations of the black American experience in the United States, particularly where religion and region are concerned. Too often, regionalism, personal experience and cultural distinctions get lost in narratives of black and LGBTQIA+ communities, erased in favor of overwrought generalizations that obscure the humanity of marginalized people. Resisting this narrative trap, “I Can’t Date Jesus” offers a nuanced and textured perspective on Arceneaux’s own black identity. His family is black, Creole, Catholic and Southern, and this is a world he must reflect, as it is the only one he knows.

Navigating childhood trauma, anxiety and the various setbacks that befall young creatives, Arceneaux remains steadfast in his pursuit to tell the story he wished he’d had when he was younger. Thus, he does not engage in the kind of cultural translation work that typically populates essay collections and memoirs. He is not interested in making others fluent; instead, he riddles the book with references and perspectives that service his truth. If you know what he’s talking about, then you know. If you don’t, you can Google it.

For a collection with 17 essays, “I Can’t Date Jesus” flows effortlessly. The emotional weight and comedic energy of Arceneaux’s storytelling fluctuates naturally from essay to essay. My personal favorites in the collection were “My Lord and Gyrator” and “Itchy and Stratchy.” “My Lord and Gyrator” explains Arceneaux’s love for none other than the world’s most famous Houstonian, Beyoncé Knowles. A self-described “stan” and original member of the BeyHive, he does not shy away from honoring the singer, whom he reverently refers to as his “lord and gyrator.” For Arceneaux, Beyoncé is more than mere celebrity. As he points out, the two share Houston roots and Louisiana Creole ancestry, but most importantly, they have history. A self-proclaimed fan since the release of Destiny’s Child’s first music video, Arceneaux has grown up alongside the evolution of Beyoncé’s career. For him, she is both untouchable and entirely familiar.

“She is the beginning, end, and body roll to me,” he writes.

In “Itchy and Stratchy,” Arceneaux shares his wild experience of catching bed bugs after a bad hookup. He reveals what it feels like to be scarred both emotionally and physically — tragically, he sustains bug bites from the encounter. In this essay, Arceneaux’s range is undeniable. Though his comedic chops are on display, it is his capacity for tenderness that is particularly notable as he thinks through his relationship to sex, love and intimacy.

Though the book covers a wide range of topics and journeys in Arceneaux’s life, “I Can’t Date Jesus” is arguably best described as a book about what it means to have faith in oneself. Whether he is confronted with homophobia, racism, student debt or even bed bugs, Arceneaux’s conviction to follow his dreams and surpass his haters is one of the book’s major takeaways. His confidence is infectious.

“I do believe in God, but more than anything, I believe in me,” Arceneaux writes.