From Purity Culture to Sex Positive: a book review

Sex is a gift from God and yet many of my conservative Christian friends suffer from profound shame in the area of sexuality.  The effects of purity culture, abstinence covenants, kissing dating goodbye and centuries of bad theology have caused many in conservative Christian culture (my tribe) afraid of sex and unable to integrate sexuality and faith. Sex, God & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Tina Schemer Sellers is aimed at helping sexologists and psychotherapists treat clients from conservative churches. Her goal is to help people move forward into healthier expressions of sexuality with a sex-positive religious ethic.

SellersSellers is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a certified sex therapist and the professor of sexuality and medical family therapy at Seattle Pacific University. While her own personal background was mostly sex positive, her academic interest in the effects of purity culture was catalyzed by hearing student’s stories, especially after the year 2000 (257).  She respected for the faith of her students and clients, and their belief in a loving God, but the reality of religious sexual shame in conservative (evangelical) contexts broke her heart.

She wrote Sex, God and the Conservative Church with two groups of readers in mind. First, therapists who work with those from a conservative evangelical context, and secondly conservative Christians who wish to integrate their sexuality and faith commitments (24).  Often Conservative Christians who experience sexual shame find it difficult to discuss in their context but also have a hard time finding a therapist that respects their religious faith. Sellers wants to help Christians and therapists work through the issues in ways that is mutual respectful of individuals and their religious tradition.

The first three chapters diagnosis how religious sexual shame manifests in her client’s lives. Chapter one examines the reality of sexual shame and the religious purity movement that developed in conservative Churches in the 1990s. Chapter two describes  the sexual baggage of two millennia (e.g. NeoPlatonic church fathers who demeaned women, sex and physical embodiment in preference for the spiritual, Augustine and the sexism of the Reformers). Chapter three describes the commodification of sex in an American consumer context and its effects on sexual vitality and body image (with a little help from Wendell Berry).

Chapter four begins to offer a Sex-positive ethic by recovering the sex positive Judeo-Christian tradition (drawing heavily on stories from Jewish tradition). Chapter five explores the sex-positive Gospel by examining the life and ministry of Jesus, positing the centrality of the abundant life connects pleasure with justice, grace and love (25).

Chapters six through eight are more geared toward therapist readers, discussing clinical applications, therapeutic interventions and practices/exercises for individual clients and couples. Non-therapists (like myself) will find this section of the book less accessible, though there are few practical takeaways.  The epilogue is worth a read, because Sellers  shares some of her personal journey with sex and God and her research into the effects of purity culture in conservative churches (especially since 2000). There are anecdotes of clients and students throughout the book

Sellers is writing about and for people from a conservative religious context, so while she does point people to a less ‘black and white’ sex positive ethic and questions some of the underpinnings of patriarchy and purity culture, she does not tackle Christian approaches to LGBTQ issues in this volume.

I am not a sex therapist or a counselor. I am a pastor who has worked exclusively within a conservative Christian context. Pastoring requires a different set of skills than that of a therapist but it also requires being cognizant of the issues.  I also grew up in this tradition. I never signed an abstinence covenant or read Josh Harris’s first book, but I grew up being taught that sex is a wonderful and natural gift that you should never think about until you are married. I didn’t experience brokenness in sexuality to the extent of some of Sellers clients and students, but I was bequeathed a lot of sex-negative ideology. I think this is a good resource for anyone who is from a conservative tradition and would like  a more sex-positive and less shame inducing approach to sexuality, and anyone in the ‘helping professions’ (especially therapists, but also pastors) who work in this context. I give this four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book via SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Suicide Prevention: a book review

‘The World Health Organization has found that for every death due to war in the world, there are three deaths due to homivide and five due to suicide’ (27).  And 84 percent of clergy have been approached for help by a suicidal person at some point in their ministry( 183). Suicide is a significant problem and if you have not encountered it directly, you likely know people who have attempted suicide or loved ones who have died because of it. Personally, friends of friends, classmates and the children of people I care about have committed suicide. I wish that any of their deaths could be prevented.

Karen Mason, associate professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,  wrote Preventing Suicide as a guide for pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors.  While the book is titled ‘Preventing Suicide’ it does more than just give a few tips on how to help those with suicidal tendencies. This is a pastoral care manual which explores the  issue in all its complexity. Mason examines who commits suicide (and why), myths and misconceptions and the variety of theological positions on suicide and theoretical frameworks. She provides practical advise for counseling those in a suicidal crisis, those who have survived an attempt,  helpers and caregivers, the loved ones of those who have died from suicide and their churches.  While you cannot presume pastoral wisdom from reading one book (and Mason wouldn’t want you to), this is a fairly comprehensive resource which will be helpful for anyone who engages in pastoral care to the suicidal and their families.

Mason eschews approaches to suicide which compound the blame placed on the suicidal.  The causes of suicide are various, and suicidal persons often suffer depression deeply.  Trying to scare them away from suicide by threatening eternal damnation, as some Christian theologies posit, only compounds their sense of alienation. Often the hell that they feel and are trying to escape is more real and visceral than the one they are threatened with. Mason gives practical steps on how to empathize with the suicidal and validate the pain they feel, but she points ways to lead them from despondency to hope.  She  encourages attentiveness, taking threats seriously and dealing with them accordingly, and speaking the truth in love.

This is where clergy and pastoral counselors play a significant role. Discussing spiritual things, giving  people reasons for hope and coping strategies for navigating this life, even as we long for God to come in fullness is a bit of what Clergy do. Mason’s book helps pastors utilize the resources at their disposal to help people through a suicidal crisis (or to pick up the pieces of one). This is a significant pastoral care resource and would be valuable to any pastor’s library. I hope to never need some chapters but I am grateful for the skills and insights that Mason imparts. I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.