Sex and the Pastor Theologian: a book review

Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand are both pastors at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois (Wilson is the senior pastor). They wrote a book together called The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision(Zondervan, 2015). They bemoaned the division of disciplines between academic theology and pastoral ministry and urged a recovery  “pastor theologians” that were deeply engaged in theology and ecclesial concerns.

8988So, Wilson and Hiestand launched the Center for Pastoral Theologians, and the annual Center for Pastor Theologians conference. Their 2016 conference was on human sexuality. Hiestand and Wilson have edited and published their conference as Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic, 2017). The conference and book are timely when you consider the way sexuality continues to dominate the news cycle and our cultural milieu.

Contributors to the conference included Beth Felker Jones, Wesley Hill, Richard Mouw, Daniel J Brendsel, Matthew Levering, Matthew Mason, Matthew Milliner, Matt O’Reilly , Amy Peeler, Jeremy Treats, Denny Burk, and Joel Willitts (and Wilson and Hiestand). The topics covered range from church history, contemporary culture, transgenderism and gender dysphoria, homosexuality, pornography, abuse and sexual brokenness, marriage, embodiment, selfies, and gender.

Theses essays are organized under three headings:  Part 1: A Theological Vision for Sexuality (chapters 1-5); Part 2: the Beauty and Brokenness of Sexuality (chapters 6-10); Part 3: Biblical and Historical Reflections on Gender and Sexuality (chapters 11-14). 

In their introduction, Hiestand and Wilson state, “The essays are diverse, as was our intention. Not all the contributors would agree on every issue in debates over human sexuality or sexual ethics. But this group would all share a belief in the historic Christian consensus on sexuality” (3).  This means, not just that contributors say ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, so that settles it’ but that each of the contributors seeks to engage and locate their position on sexuality within the historic Christian tradition. Wilson writes:

Far too many good Bible-believers are committed to Scripture but skeptical of tradition. As a result they operate with a bastardized view of the classic Protestant doctrine of Scripture—not sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) but nuda Scriptura (“Scripture in Isolation”). But this emaciated approach can’t stand its ground in the face of the twin challenges of pervasive pluralism on the one hand, and the widespread refashioning of moral intuitions on the other. (17)

Wilson (and his co-contributors), by anchoring themselves in both Bible and tradition, they argue for a recovery of a robust theological vision of “mere sexuality,” to help avert a ‘culturally construed’ neo-Pagan drift within Evangelicalism (18). So while the contributors are not the same, they also aren’t that different. Indeed, of the 14 contributors, all are cis-gender, all but Brendsel are white, all but Wesley Hill identify as heterosexual,  Jones and Peeler are the only females, Levering is the only non-evangelical, and four contributors are named Matthew. All of them hold a conservative position on marriage equality, though (as far as I can tell) Denny Burk was the only one who signed the Nashville Statement.

Pastorally though, there is some real gold here. Hill reflects on his experience as a gay celibate Christian and what it means for him and other gay Christians to give and receive love (chapter 3). Willitts describes the journey of healing from past sexual abuse (chapter 9). Mouw, speaks generously and with uncommon decency to pastoral concerns (chapter 5). Jones’ essay on embodiment also stands out as an important, affirmation of female and male bodies (chapter 2). Milliner’s essay on the icons of Sergius and Bacchus and the critical assessment of John’s Boswell’s Same Sex Unions in Pre Modern Europe was fascinating (chapter 13). On the whole these essays, and others in this volume demonstrate a real sensitivity to sexual brokenness and the wounds people carry. I don’t agree with every or all positions articulated here, but I appreciate that there is a real desire from these pastor-theologians to lead out of compassion.

Pastors and theologians are not typically sought after as experts on sex. However there is a lot of food for thought here about how to live faithfully to the Christian tradition while navigating  our culture (where sex is often disordered, commercialized, commodified and untethered from maritial faithfulness). I appreciate the ways these theologians have attempted to wrestle with issues that is both faithful to the Tradition and pastorally sensitive. I give this three stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

[Edit: a previous version of this review suggested that the contributors regarded any theological development as a slide toward neo-paganism and has been re-phrased to be  more accurate and charitable to their position].

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.

Intended For Counternarrative: a book review

It is always a dangerous thing reading a friend’s sex book. I learned this when my wife and I got married. I confessed to a friend that there was a lot about sex I didn’t know about ands he lent me one of those Christian ‘sex books’ that he and his wife had used after their nuptial vows. We took it on our honeymoon and when we opened it we discovered it was annotated, highlighted and smiley faces drawn in the margins. We closed the book and tried to forget what we saw.

Divine SexDivine Sex is vastly different from my first experience of a Christian sex book. Written (not annotated!) by a friend, it does explore the mechanics and techniques of sex. I knew Jonathan Grant when we were both students together at Regent College and daughters in preschool together and I would often catch up with him at the local coffee shop while we waited to pick them up.  He would be sitting with a stack of books–Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, or whomever. His book Divine Sex is an exploration of how our contemporary context has shaped our attitudes toward sex (and how to recover a compelling Christian vision for sexuality as an alternative to our increasingly hypersexualized culture.

Grant divides this book into two sections. In part one, he explores how our contemporary context shapes our understanding of relationships and sexuality. Chapter two describes how our desire for authenticity and autonomy has caused us to customize our entire lives, including sexual choices, despite what Scripture or spiritual authorities tell us (34). Grant also looks at how through the sexualization of our personal identities, sex became more than something we engage in or abstain from, but the ‘sun around everything else revolved’ (36).  The emphasis on independence, and emotional fulfillment has weakened the bonds of marriage and made multiple sexual partners the norm and sex without long term commitment more normative.

Chapter three explores further how radical individualism impacts our sexuality and relationships. Chapters four critiques the corrupting dynamic of consumerism and how it has bred unreal expectations of sex. Chapter five examines how our hypersexualized age has robbed sex of its mystery and caused it to be seen merely as a legitimate pleasure to be enjoyed, without shame, between consenting adults with no outside moral standard or constraint placed upon it (99). In this hypersexualized age females are sexualized at young ages (100-103) and pornography has become ubiquitous (104). Porn increasingly provides ‘sex education,’ transforming the expectations of (largely) men in their relationship. This all has a major impact on modern relationships with a disproportionate impact on young people because of the way exposure of cyber-porn is processed by those still developing sexually. Finally, Chapter six explores more in-depth how the atomizing of human relationships and loss of transcendence in contemporary culture has impacted relationships inside the Church.

In Part Two, Grant proposes an alternative Christian Social Imaginary (chapter seven). Chapter eight explores the way Christian eschatology, metaphysics, formation and mission provide a vision for Christian sexuality which embodies hope, ethics, spirituality, character, faithfulness, and Christian witness. Chapter nine describes the role of divine desire in Christian formation. Chapter ten explores how living a life that is contrary to the modern script of sexuality helps Christians and the church embody the gospel story for a watching world.

Chapter eleven exhorts us to counter the impact of the wider culture through Formative spiritual practices. Grant summarizes the impact of our hypersexualized culture on the church:

The consumerist mind-set has (. . .) been wheeled in like a Trojan-horse into the sanctuary of our personal relationships. Social media, online dating, and cyberpornography encourage us to be hyperconnected, but these interactions are almost invariably one-sided–we enter into them only as long as they satisfy our “needs.” They offer connection without intimacy, commitment without risk, and companionship without mess. The Online world all too often offers ties that preoccupy us rather than one that binds us to each other (215-216).


Against this mindset, Grant suggests alternative practices which will enable us to not be conformed to our contemporary contexts and cultural understanding of sexuality. These include embodied public worship and the displacing modern social practices by providing a place for singleness as a Christian vocation, courting, encouraging signs of life, communal support and utilizing marriage preparation as counter-formation.

A book like this is long overdue. Grant offers insights into how much we have bought in to a romanticized version of sex. Focus on our own autonomous pleasure and emotional fulfillment has had a negative impact on our marital commitments and relationships. When married people don’t feel in love anymore, divorce has become inevitable. We also dissolve other relationships and friendships when people fail to meet our needs.  The value we place on autonomy, personal fulfillment and our choices have supplanted biblical sexuality, weakening all our relational bonds.

Grant doesn’t deny the power of our sexuality or our longings for relational connection; rather he calls us back to a scriptural understanding of covenantal relationship. Grant draws on the insights of thinkers like Taylor and Bellah, as well as theologians and biblical scholars. The gift of this book is that Grant thinks through the influence of our social context on sexuality from a Christian perspective in a comprehensive way. I can’t point to another book that does this, this well.

Too often Christian premarital counseling presents a biblical standard of sexuality without giving us a compelling vision of how our beliefs about God, desire, sex, relationships constitute a counter-narrative to our cultural script. Sex is more meaningful, relationships are more wonderful, desire is greater, and love is deeper than our contemporary context allows for. Grant showcases a biblical vision of sexuality which is formational and missional, helping Christians live compelling lives characterized by committed relationships.

I came away from reading this book with a deeper understanding of the way our cultural milieu contributes to our relational and sexual malformation. Romanticism, individualism, moral relativism is the water we are swimming in and that has impacted our understanding of sex. The blurring of sex with personal identity has produced an ‘anything goes’ approach to sex and relationships. The Christian story provides the narrative of resistance. As Christians pursue relational commitment, honoring both celibate singleness and marriage, we are able to offer a compelling alternative to meaningless sex, the using of others, and personal isolation. The Christian vision for sex gives us something worth championing. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thanks Johnny!

America’s Childhood Sex Industry: a book review.

Children are vulnerable and need our care and protection. As such, there are few crimes more heinous than the victimization and abuse of children who are trafficked. Alisa Jordheim has written a harrowing exposé on the Childhood sex industry. She explores the issues around victimization, what makes certain children vulnerable (i.e. past sexual abuse, parents in prostitution, addiction issues) and the ways young people are lured into the industry (‘loverboy syndrome,’ familial trafficking, survival sex, gang initiation and kidnapping) and kept there. It is ugly.

Made-in-the-USA-Alisa-Jordheim Made in the USA: The Sex Trafficking of American’s Children doesn’t just describe the problem, Jordhem has enlisted a team of writers who tell the story of victims.  Lindsey Nunn, K.D. Roche, Luke Robert Miller, Stephanie Patterson and Philipa Booyens relay, in first person narratives the story of the victims. Each chapter closes with the victim reflecting, in their own words, on their experience. If there is a ‘silver lining’ to these accounts, it is that each of the victims has escaped or lived through their exploitation and has begun the process of healing.

But this a heart-rending book. In it we meet Tiana, a young lady so abused and used by her pimp that she remains loyal to him even after years of abuse; Kate, a nine-year old girl forced into pornography and prostitution by her uncle; Rich a homeless teen struggling with his sexuality and addiction who falls into prostitution;  Karen, a preteen groomed for the sex trade by a childhood friend; and Deidre, a developmentally delayed youth who is abducted and sexually assaulted.

Some of the details of each of their stories are so horrific they are difficult to believe. How can someone be so evil that they willfully and systematically destroy the life of a child?!  But of course these are not isolated tales and prostitution rings and pornographers routinely prey on the innocent. Jordheim exposes this evil, to raise awareness and to move us into action. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Highway to Hell: a book review

Ten years ago UK journalist Matt Roper published an exposé on the trafficking of children in Brazil. That book (Remember Me, Rescue Me) found its way into the hands of Canadian Country Star, Dean Brody. Wanting to make a difference in the lives of those stuck in prostitution, Roper and Brody travel to Brazil and make the 1,500 mile journey along BR-116–Brazil’s exploitation highway. What they find there is heart-rending.

Highway to Hell: the Road Where Childhoods are Stolen tells of their trips down BR-116 and what they found there. Along that dusty highway whole communities exploit their children. Girls routinely are forced into prostitution by abductors, gangs and even  their parents. Roper tells the horrors these girls face: violence, injustice, sexual slavery, addiction, murder. Some of the girls that he and Brody encounter are as young as ten or eleven years old when they are forced into prostitution.

In a conversation with a woman named Rita Marques, a woman working with the children’s council, they hear just how widespread and culturally permissible child prostitution is in the towns along the highway: “‘Everyone’s happy when a baby girl is born,’ she said not because of the prospect of their daughter playing with dolls or dressing up, but ‘because in abouta decade, they’ll have a valuable source of income'”(24).  Later, Roper observes that along the entire 1,500 mile stretch of highway, he doesn’t know of a single case where ;a girl’s abuser, pimp, brothel owner, trafficker, or even murderer, had been tried and jailed” (216). This is a place where injustice reigns and girls are victimized. As a father of girls, these stories make me sad and angry.

Roper isn’t content to just describe the horrors of BR-116. He shares personal stories of the girls that he and Brody meet along the way. Some of these he has been able to help through Meninadança, a non-profit he started which works with at-risk girls along the BR-116 corridor. They provide residence for girls leaving prostitution and dance-therapy as a way of building self esteem into girls who are used to being devalued, used and abused.  Brody also starts his own foundation to help raise awareness and support for the girls of these communities.

So Highway to Hell provides a ray of hope and a means for connecting tangibly with the work that Roper and others are doing to end child sex trafficking in Brazil. through his organization. I highly recommend this book. It will open your eyes to injustice and break your heart. But it also tells the story of two men who were moved to do something about the suffering and injustice they saw. five stars:★★★★★!

Thank you to Kregel Publications and Monarch Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

How to Get(Stay) Married Forever: a book review

Are you married? Would you like to be married? Still looking for ‘the One’?

In Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After: Preparing for a Marriage that goes the Distance (previously titled Going All the Way), Craig Groeschel discusses how you can you can make love last forever . Groeschel’s first point is that ‘the One’ you are looking for is not a romantic interest but Jesus (see what he did there?). Your spouse would be your ‘number two’ He then goes on to discuss the dynamics and the personal commitments which will nurture a good marriage.

This is the third book by Craig Groeschel I’ve read (I’ve also read Weird and Chazown). In the previous two books, I liked a lot of what he had to say but found his hook a little gimmicky. In this book, Groeschel is much more straightforward in his presentation and says some great things; however I seem to be a little out of Craig Groeschel’s target audience. This is a book for those preparing for marriage. Actually, a good chunk of the book is for people who are still in the dating scene but maybe  thinking about marriage at some point. As someone who is happily married for 10 years, I found this book offered less constructive material for my own relationship (only the last few chapters).

But no matter, it was a fun read and Groeschel has good things to say. I am occasionally asked by single friends if I could recommend a good book on dating  and I think this could be a helpful book for college age singles.  There is a lot of practical advice here about making sure you keep Jesus central, developing a solid friendship as the foundation for marriage,  keeping sexually pure, why cohabitation is a bad idea, how to break up with the wrong person, how in Christ starting over and being healed from past mistakes is possible, keeping your relationship with Jesus and keeping your (future) spouse a priority. Groeschel is a good communicator and he does a great job of encouraging singles to live lives  that are holy, healthy and pleasing to God.

When he does get down to discussing married life, he offers what I would call a soft complementarianism. He believes that husbands were created to be the leader of the home (he bases this on the created order. Men were created first because they are hardwired to be the initiator of things. Just so you know, this is bad exegesis). While he overstates his case for male leadership a little, he is careful to put this in the context of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21) and certainly men need to be encouraged to take responsibility for their relationships rather than passively stand by.  Likewise he has some good advice to wives (or would be wives) to deal with insecurities in their hearts, but much of his discussion of wives is how to submit to their husbands leadership. As an egalitarian, I disagree with how Groeschel is parsing biblical data here, but he makes some constructive points.

One of the best chapters of the book is called Habits of the Heart where Craig discusses the sort of godly habits which will nurture a godly marriage. These include:

  • dealing with your past
  • growing with good people (accountability and mentoring and severing of unhealthy friendships)
  • learning to listen well
  • guarding your own heart
  • facing and resolving conflict well
  • being financially responsible
  • investing in your relationship with God

I think that each of these habits are important for maintaining vitality and health in my marriage (though I need to grow in a few of these).  But what makes this book an enjoyable read is not Groeschel’s good advice, but his humility and good humor. Groeschel is funny and is vulnerable enough to share about past mistakes he’s made. So even though I am the wrong person to read this book, I still liked it.

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.


Surfing for Porn . . .er. . .I mean God: a book review

Cusick book cover Pornography is a real problem. Consider these statistics:

  • 25% of search engine requests are for pornography – 68 million per day.
  • 70% of the hits on Internet sex sites occur between 9-5 on business computers.
  • Over 50 percent of evangelical pastors report they viewed pornography last year.
  • Over 70% of Christian men report viewing pornography in the last year.

And I would say, that as a whole Christians have responded rather poorly to what amounts to a sin epidemic in our culture.  So I am happy to recommend a book which gets at the heart of some of the issues which are tangled up with pornography.  Michael John Cusick is an ordained minister, licensed professional counselor and spiritual director. He is also is a recovering sex addict (living in freedom) who had an addiction to pornography, strip clubs, masturbation and prostitution. He sees the bankruptcy of a life in bondage, but he also knows that men act out in sexual sins because they are broken and wounded.

But before I tell you about this book, let me briefly tell you where I think other Christian approaches get this wrong. One popular Christian book seems to say:

  • Objectifying other women is wrong, just objectify your wife. She is there primarily for your sexual pleasure(based on a reading of Job’s famous ‘covenant with his eyes in Job 31).
  • Women who are not your spouse are sources of temptation and should be avoided at all costs.
  • You should also avoid places like parks, the beach, roads that women jog on, supermarkets, hair salons and shopping malls.

The problem with this advice is that it basically gets guys to modify their behavior, but does not touch the wounding and longing that led them to a pornography addiction in the first place (although to be fair, this approach takes serious the idea of sexual sin and the need for accountability). It is also unrealistic. Only stay-at-home dads can avoid women, who are increasingly colleagues and men’s bosses in all walks of life.

Cusicks approach is much more holistic. He sees pornography and other sexual sins as symptomatic of the deep longing for connection and reality (and yes, ultimately God). By sharing the story of his own struggle (and victory), he  addresses the root issues of pornography, the empty promises and real idolatry, personal brokenness and the cycle of shame, but also the real freedom that is ours in Christ and transformation that is possible and the disciplines which care for your soul. He is also attentive to a very real, spiritual dimension to this struggle and the dynamics of temptation (and its relationship to idolatry). As a counselor he is aware of the ways in which pornography (and other online habits) affect the brain, but also draws hope from the brain’s plasticity. His advice for those lost in sexual temptation online is to unplug, pay attention to your desires and cravings to find out what is happening in your heart, and to practice solitude and centering prayer. Ultimately he wants people to journey from their self medicating numbness, to a relationship with God where desires are rightly ordered and they are attentive to their own soul care (in community, of course).

Nevertheless I think this book has two limitations which I think are significant:

  1. It treats sexual sin and pornography as a personal, individual sin. This needs to be addressed but he never addresses the other side of the equation. Men who go to prostitutes victimize women; men who view pornography, go to strip clubs and seek out adult entertainment,  have participated in an unjust system which truncates the humanity of women (and men) and causes tremendous psychological, physical and sociological damage. I applaud Cusick’s efforts to address the ways sin and acting out come from personal brokenness. I just want him also to address the significant justice issue that is wrapped up with this.
  2. This book is also limited in terms of audience. This is a book written by a man for men, and speaks most meaningfully to men who are married.  Single guys can read this profitably while making adjustments in a couple of places; however, I have friends who are women who also struggle with an addiction to pornography. While much of this advice is applicable to them (solitude and centering prayer, the need to pray through and address woundedness and idolatry), they will find themselves unaddressed by Cusick. When you consider the real shame that comes with sexual sin and that pornography is considered by many Christians a ‘man’s sin, the cycle of shame is compounded for women who are stuck in addiction to porn and sex. This book could have easily been inclusive of both genders in addressing a real struggle which affects both sexes.

But for the particular niche of  ‘men who struggle’ working through their own personal issues, I think this book is one of the best.  This is a book I would use pastorally and found a lot of it personally helpful. So it gets a solid recommendation from me.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.