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.

It’s Unclobbering Time!- a book review

When I hear the word clobber, I  always think of  Ben Grimm—the rock-giant dubbed “The Thing” from the pages of Fantastic Four. Ben would arrive on the scene in his blue Speedo, pummel the hoards of evil henchmen and shout, “It’s Clobbering Time!” Ben Grimm or his speedo has very little to do with the book I’m reviewing here.  Colby Martin’s Unclobber was not written as an answer to comic book violence, but to the so-called clobber passages—the six passages in the Christian Bible that directly address homosexuality used by conservatives to prove the sinfulness of the gay lifestyle.

unclobberMartin is the founding pastor of Sojourn Grace Collective , a progressive Christian community in San Diego; yet Martin didn’t start out as a progressive. He grew up conservative  and was ordained as the worship arts pastor at a conservative evangelical Bible church. However, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the traditional view of the LGBTQ community as his passion for justice, mercy and grace grew. Then his tenure at the church ended  because of one Facebook post.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed and Martin expressed joy on social media for what he felt was the end of a discriminatory policy. This sent shock waves through his faith community. Martin was called on the carpet and asked whether or not he believed homosexuality was a sin. He presented the elders with a ten-page paper explaining his position and reading of Scripture. He was fired even though his church had never taught publicly on homosexuality. In the aftermath, the clobber passages were quoted to him ad naseum.

Unclobber is one part memoir and one part exegetical survey. The even-numbered chapters walk through the clobber passages, unclobbering them, and providing an affirming interpretation; the odd chapters describe Martin’s journey from conservative pastor to LGBTQ ally. Martin is still very much evangelical, the Bible bleeds into his story, and his testimony informs his reading of scripture. Martin wrote this book for anyone who has felt the dissonance between head and heart in their response to the LGBT community (i.e. believing the Bible clearly teaches homosexuality is a sin, but feeling affirming toward for LGBTQ neighbors and uncomfortable with some judgmental rhetoric).

Martin is an attentive reader of scripture and it is his reading of the Bible which leads him to the affirming position (when he is fired from the church, he doesn’t actually have any close gay friends). In his handling of the clobber passages he engages in narrative and canonical criticism of Genesis 19 (the one narrative clobber passage), historical criticism, rhetorical criticism and linguistic analysis. The clobber passages Martin discusses are Gen 19, Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10.

I like this book, in part because I like memoirs of pastors getting fired. They make me feel good. Martin’s story is a compelling read, he is funny and vulnerable. Martin also makes several strong cases in his handling of the clobber passages. He does a good job demonstrating Genesis 19 (the destruction of Sodom) has little to say about homosexuality (i.e. gang rape and inhospitality are much bigger issues in the text). He ascribes the Levitical prohibitions to a cultural, covenantal moment where Israel (possibly just the Levites) were  instructed on how to be radically different from the nations by repudiating Canaanite practices (many of the Levitical restrictions no longer apply to us, or at least not in the same way). He sets the Romans passage within the larger argument of the epistle and asserts it is possibly a Jewish quotation which Paul uses rhetorically before addressing where his Jewish readers likewise fall short of the glory of God.  With the other epistles, he discusses the nature of arkenokites and malakos  (the active and passive members of a male gay relationship, or prostitute and the John?) as describing a type of homosexual practice which bears little resemblance to committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. He opens up the possibility that some types of homosexuality are condemned in scripture, though not all.

Martin doesn’t dismiss these clobber passages, so much as offer an account of them which is self-consciously inclusive and gracious. I appreciate his commitment to wrestling with the scriptures he finds difficult rather than simply jettisoning the hard stuff. But conservatives and traditional interpreters won’t likely find Martin’s arguments compelling. He traverses similar ground similar to other pro-LGBTQ hermeneutical approaches (i.e. William Countryman, Dale Martin, Matthew Vines) which conservatives are well aware of. Occasionally I found his arguments convoluted (especially in the case of Romans). I also felt like Martin did a better job with the Old Testament passages than he did with interpreting the Pauline Epistles. Still, this remains an intelligent case for reading the Bible inclusively  from a Bible-believing cisgender, heterosexual pastor. You don’t see that everyday.

This is a worthwhile read whether you agree with Martin’s biblical interpretation or not. Conservative Christians ought to examine these clobber passages and discover what they say (or don’t say) about sexual orientation and gender. To that end, Martin is a good dialogue partner because he takes the Bible seriously and engages these texts. LGBTQ allies will appreciate Martin’s story and commitment to understanding the Gospel of Grace inclusively. Those on the fence will find plenty of food for thought. So put on your blue Speedo and attack this book. “It’s Unclobbering time!” I give it four stars ☆☆☆☆

Note: I received a galley copy of this book from the publisher 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!

All the Good Things & the Bad Things that May Be: a book review

When Christians talk about sex, beware. Popular Christian communicators tend to either fixate on abhorrent sexual practices in our culture or sing horndog-songs-of-praise about the gift of sex. The former use sex as exhibit A in their fear-mongering case about national moral decay. The latter write Christian bestsellers about the joys of marital sex with their ‘smoking-hot-wives.’  There is a dearth of Christian literature  which speaks honestly about the gap between our church’s and culture’s visions of sex. That is part of what makes Redeeming Sex so refreshing.

Debra Hirsch is the wife of ,and co-conspirator with, missional guru Alan Hirsch (they co-wrote Untamed, which may be my favorite Hirsch book). She serves on the leadership team of the Forge Mission Training Network and is on the board of Missio Alliance. She brings to the topic of sexuality twenty-five years of ministry experience to and with the LGBT community. The church that She and Alan planted and led in South Melbourne had about 40% of its members come from the LGBTQ community. When Debra came to faith in Christ, she was living and identifying as a lesbian. This book offers her wisdom and insights (and part of her story) about how to approach the issues around human sexuality with grace.

The first thing to observe is that Redeeming Sex is not about ‘sex.’ That is, if you reduce sex to mechanics, genital stimulation and technique you won’t find what you are looking for here. This is a book about sexuality. It tackles Christian attitudes toward sex, sexism, gender, our approach the LGBTQ community.

Hirsch’s book divides into three parts. Part one, “Where Did All the Sexy Christians Go?” tackles our attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Here Hirsch steers us past prudish repression, fear-based responses and our tendency to elevate sexual sin above other sins. She points to how the life of Jesus, his relationships with men and woman, affirms the goodness of sexuality.

Part two, “Bits, Bobs and Tricky Business” looks deeper at Christian views, especially our approach to gender and same-sex attraction. Hirsch describes eight fumdamentals of sex: (1) the term sexuality names the impulse to genital sexuality and social sexuality, (2) sexuality involves the whole self, (3) sexuality is embodied, (4) sexuality celebrates difference, (5) sexuality is fractured, (6)sexuality is deceptive, (7) sexuality needs a chaperone, (8) sexuality is ageless.  These ‘fundamentals’ describe both the gifts and dangers of sexuality. In the following chapters, Hirsch discusses gender and homosexuality,  Hirsch pleads for dialogue and mutual self understanding of the various positions  on the options available for gay Christians (i.e. healing leading to heterosexual marriage, celibacy and affirmation of gay lifestye). She doesn’t commend a one-size-fits-all approach to ‘healing homosexuals.’ At one point, she observes that heterosexuals are also in dire need of healing in their sexuality because all of us are sexually broken (120).

Part three, “The Mission of Christian Sexuality,” draws these threads together. Hirsch offers a vision of participating in Christian mission in ways that  are cognizant and honor people’s sexuality. Hirsch urges us towards ministry that emphasizes grace, ministry that gets beyond our stereotypes to engagement with real people, affirms the way we all are God’s image bearers,  and ministry that is ‘centered-set’ versus ‘bound-set’ (not seeking to mark who is in or out, but helping people to take steps to follow Jesus in healthy sexuality where they are).

Despite Hirsch’s interest in ministry to the LGBT community and her personal history with it, I am not totally sure of her ‘theological position.’ I know that her church at one point of time worked with Exodus International but became increasingly uncomfortable with their position (Exodus International itself became uncomfortable with Exodus International’s position). She quotes affirming authors and promotes dialogue between conservatives and gay Christians, but this isn’t a book that tells you what your theology should be. This is a book that urges us to greater love and understanding as we reach out in the love of Christ. This is a message both conservatives and progressives need to hear.

I enjoyed reading this book. Hirsch is funny, irreverent and insightful. She doesn’t mince words about where we’ve mussed up a biblical vision of human sexuality AND the gospel of grace. Too often evangelicals are defined in our culture by their views on sexuality (i.e. homosexuality and abortion). Hirsch points us towards deeper love and mission to all who are sexually broken. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily abandon our theological commitments; however it means seeking how to love well. I give this book four stars.

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