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.

The Hard Way is the Only Way: a book review

We have a growing entitlement problem in our culture. We expect life to be easy and work out well and we avoid pain and risk. We believe in our own specialness, fail to act responsibly and think the world owes us. We deny our impact on others. The Entitlement Cure: Finding Success in Doing Hard Things the Right Way points us toward a different way. Dr. John Townsend is one half of the duo which brought us the super hit Boundaries (Townsend and co-author Henry Cloud are the Hall & Oates of the Christian Psychology world). Here he draws on his experience as a counselor and leadership consultant to help us fight our sense of entitlement. Townsend advice boils down to this: Do it the Hard Way. By Hard Way he means, “the habit of doing what’s best, rather than what is comfortable, to achieve a worthwhile outcome” (26).

9780310330523_1Townsend doesn’t offer a formula or a magic bullet. You fight entitlement in yourself by doing the next hard thing (NHD), taking an honest stock of yourself (both the positives and negatives and your self perception), minimizing regret, not wasting time, taking meaningful risks, and keeping inconvenient commitments.  You fight entitlement in others by refusing to enable them, and encouraging friends to step out and take risks. This is all fairly common sense.

However, we are all guilty of entitlement to some extent (believing we deserve preferential treatment, expecting things to work well). As a pain-avoidant Enneagram 7 type person, I have sometimes failed to face the ugly stuff in myself and take risks I think are painful. On the whole,  Townsend has great advice and this book is a swift kick in the pants for those of us who look for an easy way out. I give this three-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from the Booklook Bloggers review program in exchange for my honest review.

The Shame in Our Game: a ★★★★★ book review

Shame is  a major part of my own journey. As a kid, I was a classic underachiever, and even today I still hear, in my mind, my parent’s “you have potential” lecture and feel like I’m not measuring up. I also carry the burden of past mistakes, vocational frustrations, and family secrets. I am ashamed for being forty without making an indelible mark on my world. I feel shame acutely when social interactions turn awkward and I feel disconnected from others. Is it me? 

4433Yes, of course it is. But it isn’t just me. Shame is part of your journey too. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson wrote The Soul of Shame : Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves to address our common sickness:

Shame is something we all experience at some level, some more consciously than others. Of course there are the obvious examples: times we’ve felt everything from slight embarrassment to deep humiliation. . . .But many of us also carry shame less publicly, often outside the easy view of even some of our closest friends. Losing a major account at work. The breakup of a marriage. Our child’s seeming disinterest in school. A boss whose motivational tactic is to regularly compare your work to that of someone who is outperforming you. Any of these more common scenarios carry the burden of shame in ways that we work hard to cover up.  And our coping strategies have become so automatic we may completely unaware of its presence and activity (21).

Thompson defines shame as more than  simply ‘just a feeling’ but a belief that: ‘I am not enough; there is something wrong with me; I am bad or I don’t matter’ (24).  This is profoundly isolating and demeaning. Shame is that part of us which tries to destroy our soul and derail our story.

Thompson explores the neuro-biological and psychological roots of shame, and points to the practical and theological resources which will bring us healing in the book’s nine chapters.  Chapter one provides a working description of shame (quoted above). Chapters two and three examine shame from a interpersonal neurobiological (IPNB) approach, discussing how shame works in the brain, and in relationships.  This includes biochemistry, the history of attachment, past experiences, etc. Chapter four explores the fact that we are story telling creatures. When shame reigns unchecked, we inhabit one sort of story. Chapter five examines the biblical narrative, especially Genesis 3 where shame corrupted ‘God’s intended creation of goodness and beauty.’

Chapter six begins to unfold the resources for healing: vulnerability and community. We feel shame in the areas that are most vulnerable; the power of shame is broken in us when we allow ourselves to be known. Thompson’s counsel to one client addressed her shame:

It makes complete sense that you would feel vulnerable. This is the feeling that shame activates and that everyone feels to some degree when they are on the verge of being known in what they anticipate may be an unsafe space. To allow yourself to be known is very hard work. (119)

He calls this ‘the gift and terror of being known.’ There are no guaranteed outcomes in how other people will respond to us, but by learning to share ourselves, the power of shame is broken. In chapter seven Thompson explores how sharing ourselves in community can gives us the strength and imagination to counter our internal shame narratives. Ultimately we need to make the shift from the story shame is trying to tell in us, ‘back to the story that is true, the story God is telling at that moment’ (141).  A committed group of people who will tell us the truth about us, and our behavior, and won’t turn and run from us in those moments when we are wrong, are people who can be used by God to heal our shame (144).

This communal burden sharing which allows us to conquer shame is described further in chapter eight, especially in relation to our ‘primary communities of nurture’: family, church, and schools.  I gleaned some insights here on how to  speak to my own kids without re-enforcing their shame. Chapter nine, explores the new vitality in vocation we experience as we experience healing.

Shame is something of a ‘hot topic’ lately. Many of us have read Brené Brown’s books or seen her popular TED talks. Thompson draws on Brown and builds on her insights, but his approach is different. Brown’s writing is more self revelatory, Thompson tends to share stories from his counseling of others. This is also a self-consciously a Christian, theological approach to  the topic of shame, so Thompson explores relevant scriptural passages and the ways in which church aids in the healing process. This is an integrated Christian approach to shame which makes use of the best insights from neuro-psychology.

Vulnerability and community is sound advice. It is also difficult and risky. There are parts of my soul I had to learn to let people know and was lucky enough to have friends who didn’t bail on me for sharing my twisted vulnerable self. Whatever inner healing I have experienced, it is in this knowing and being known by others. However it still takes risk and I have also learned that not every listening ear honors brokenness. The key to Thompson’s model, is a commitment, loyalty and acceptance. Without these, there is no nurturing community to reveal our deep shame.

This is a compelling read and worth spending some time on. The back of the book has questions for discussion and a bibliography of related resources. I recommend it for anyone who has wrestled with shame from past wounds or has experienced the fear of being found out.  There are plenty of insights on how to nurture healing in others as well. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

Turn that Frown Upside Down: a book review

Nobody wants to be depressed, but millions are, and the number is rising.  By 2020  depression will be second only to heart disease, as the cause of life debillitating illness (1). Chances are if you do not suffer from depression, someone close to you has or does. Various treatments, therapies and medications abound, which help people (or promise help) who struggle under the weight of it.   While healing will look different for different people. there is hope.

Gregory Jantz,PhD., is a psychologist and founder of  the Center for Counseling and Health Resources.  In his book, Turning Your Down into Uphe avers that theres is hope for those suffering from depression. though the journey out for each will be unique.  Jantz examines the various influences which may be the root of our depression (or  a contributing factor).  These include emotional factors, environmental factors, relational influences, physical influences (like diet or exercise), and spiritual influences. By addressing these various spheres, Jantz presents a holistic approach to healing from depression and even gives a three month plan for healing.

I appreciate Jantz approach. I am not personally someone who struggles with long-term depression. I have had sorrows related to circumstance, but I remain fairly upbeat in my approach to life. I do have family members who struggle more directly than I do. I think Jantz offers some wise guidance through depression and helps strugglers pay attention to some of the latent causes of their depression.He doesn’t offer a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to recovery.  In this book he challenges readers to overcome emotional issues through positive self talk and intentional gratitude. He helps readers overcome the detrimental effects of stress and advises they set limits on their use of technology.  By discussing they physical causes of depression, Jantz makes the case for appropriate self care.  He also addresses the underlying issues which affect us in family systems and relationships (including our relationship with God). These are all important aspects of conquering the effects of depression.

There was a lot of good information which I think will be helpful. Each chapter has a workbook section which helps readers work towards their own healing.   Jantz does not discuss in-depth the role of psychotropic medication in healing depression.  I think that most of what he says will be helpful to depressed people in general, but some may require a pharmaceutical boost in order to work through the issues.  I wished that he discussed this more directly, though I appreciate that his section on physical causes allows for a more natural approach.  I just think some people need something stronger.

I give this book four stars and recommend it to those who are wondering if they are depressed or who deal with mild depression.  Even non-strugglers like myself will be challenged to handle their emotions, set healthy limits and avoid unhealthy environments and foods.

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

How Do ‘You’ Pray?: A Book Review

How does your personality affect your prayer life? Do certain temperament types find different types of prayer easier than others? What about your past history?  What are the therapeutic benefits of prayer?  Is prayer just auto-suggestion, conditioned response or childish illusion?  Are all prayers the same? What about Eastern meditation?

Psychiatrist and Bible teacher Pablo Martinez brings his professional insight to bear on the topic of prayer.  In Praying with the Grain: How Your Personality Affects the Way You Pray, he offers biblically sound direction to developing your prayer with keen psychological insight from an evangelical perspective. The late John Stott wrote the foreword for this book (I think the foreword is a carry-over from the book’s previous incarnation entitled Prayer Life, 2001). I certainly appreciated that this book delved  beyond your typical pop-psychology pap with good biblical grounding from an evangelical perspective. Really, I think this is a rare combination in the Christian book market!

This is a short book, composed of five chapters. Chapter 1-3 compose part 1 of this book which address the psychology of prayer. Chapter one focuses on how our personal temperament affects the way we pray. Martinez argues that different temperament types have natural strengths and weaknesses in their approach to prayer. Using Carl Jung’s temperament types he explores how the various types (thinking, feeling, sensation, intuition)  and the proclivity toward introversion or extroversion has real affect on our prayer life. For example, introverts are introspective and turn inward while extroverts are activists who focus on other people and things. Thinking types tend to be rational and methodical in their approach to prayer making them effective intercessors and good at confession  but they aren’t so good at expressing adoration and worship. Feeling types are more relational in their approach to prayer and are more likely to ‘feel’ God’s presence and show concern about concrete situations of social injustice; yet they can tend toward excessive subjectivism.   Intuitive types are the natural mystics and contemplatives and prize freedom in prayer (which means sometimes they aren’t particularly grounded).  The Sensation type addresses God through the senses and tend to relate to God in a childlike way but are sometimes too reliant on external circumstances and never pray for very long. Martinez’s goal is both to help us affirm and appreciate the different ways people experience God but also shore up and develop in areas where we are naturally weak (it is healthier to be nearer the center in each of the temperament types or in terms of extroversion/introversion).

Chapter 2 addresses emotional problems and prayer and difficulties people have when they come to prayer. These include difficulties in the course of prayer such as getting started, not feeling God’s presence, not wanting to be hypocritical, difficulty in concentrating (i.e. anxiety or nervousness, bad thoughts)  and the  inability to pray in public. He also addresses the different content of prayer (adoration and praise, confession, request and intercession) and asserts that a healthy pray life needs to include each element regardless of your natural proclivities.  In chapter 3 Martinez describes the ‘therapeutic benefits of prayer,’  both existentially and in terms of  a ‘psychotherapeutic process” of  a growing  intimate relationship, a cathartic unburdening, providing guidance and discernement, and personal growth.  In both of these chapters Martinez’s psychological insight is helpful for entering more fully into prayer.

In part 2 Martinez provides an apologetic for Christian prayer.  Chapter 4 addresses secularist/modernist criticisms of prayer (i.e.  prayer as self-suggestion,  prayer as conditioned response, or childish illusion. In chapter 5 he examines the differences between Christian prayer and meditation and Eastern style meditation and Platonic mysticism.  I think he does a good job of dismantling psychologically shallow caricatures of prayer and demonstrating that there is real substance to prayer beyond a placebo effect.  He also demonstrates how Christian meditation has a different purpose, method and content than either Eastern meditation or Platonism.  What I really liked about his final chapter is the way he eschews method and technique  (which is the Eastern approach) and proclaims that the Christian understanding of prayer is an intimate relationship.

While I found part 2 interesting and think that Martinez is able to articulate important points succinctly and with insight, I think the real value of this book is helping people develop as pray-ers.  The insight that our  temperament type and personal history provides us with a natural style of relating to God. For a short book, Martinez gives significant space to exploring the difficulties we have in prayer and the strengths and weaknesses we have as a result to our unique shape, temperament and history.  There is a lot here that is of real help to those of us who want to grow at prayer and foster our relationship with God.

Martinez’s evangelical perspective makes him suspicious of some of the excesses of the contemplative and mystical tradition.  He does affirm a lot in the Christian mystical tradition but is suspicious of the ways that Platonism has robbed much of it of its Christian content and thus urges that our approach to meditation should be focused on scripture.  Certainly I can see how people get mystical and strange and become unhinged, but I wonder if there is more merit to some of the approaches to prayer that he criticizes. But this is more of a wondering, his approach to Christian meditation as centered on the word and our experience of the word is in keeping with my own practice, experience and conviction.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.