A month ago, I ran across an article posted online that was an excerpt from a book, Sex and the single Christian: Why celibacy isn’t the only option. (Also known as perfect clickbait for me, beyond anything Hillary Clinton.) I was hooked and discovered that the author Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan’s book called Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option–And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex was available online. I clearly ordered it immediately and thanks to Amazon Prime I had it two days later.
Now a few weeks later, I have read the book, and a few friends wanted a book review (which this is sort of), but I want to start a conversation about my favorite hot button topic: sex. Welcome to Good Christian Sex Part 1: Theologically Solid + Enjoyable, more of a reflection.
A few of the most enjoyable things about McCleneghan is that she is an ordained pastor in the UCC tradition, has a marriage that I think I may covet in terms of how they work, children, and she is a PK (pastor’s kid) to a Methodist preacher. Her thoughts on sexuality are theologically solid and experiential. There is an interesting balance of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
coming back from sex, shame, & sin
Growing up a girl in America, I was always aware of the shoulds and shouldn’ts of what I could wear, how I should act and more so, how I shouldn’t act: “In our culture, we are often made to understand that women and girls are not sexual beings, and are properly disgusted by sexual displays and acts. Any sexual interest we have is thus unnatural or strange, something to be embarrassed about” (Good Christian Sex, 21). Our culture sets the stage for shame even though that’s not a holistic view of self; Jesus was fully holistic, integrating his humanity with his divinity, both things that I believe we all possess as humans.
“The second-century church father Irenaeus wrote, ‘The glory of God is the human person fully alive.’ Not repressed, shamed, afraid, or lonely” (30). We have been separated from the very nature of our humanity. We are sexual beings, sexual divine human beings if you will. It’s a both/and, not a Madonna or a whore or “a lady in the streets and a freak in the bed”.
McCleneghan defines sexual sin simply. She believes that “sexual sin is about lack of mutuality, reciprocity, and love” (69). Three things any relationship needs with all the different varieties of love. If sin isn’t seen as a laundry list of “bad” behaviors and as something where we aren’t living into our contextually based potential, sexual sin is, then, denying the fullness of mutuality, reciprocity, and love of God, self, and neighbor, something we should all reflect on as Christians who are inherently sexual creations.
being single + sexual with chastity tossed in the mix
One thing I really appreciated was the Singleness, Sex, and Waiting chapter because McCleneghan brings up something that many of us who have had breakups, had divorces, had our hearts more than broken, stomped all over, and/or all of the above need to hear: “There is a legitimate grief that accompanies the death of our experiences for our lives–the passing away of a vision for our lives that isn’t coming to be… But we still expect our singles to be sassy and fabulous and endlessly optimistic, even as relationships end, or doors seem to close; people need the space to grieve dreams deferred and to imagine new ways of being in the world, to carve out new identities” (99).
Being single in today’s society is tough. Going back into the dating scene in the age of online dating and swiping (I never remember the direction, hence my frustration with Tinder) after 5 years off is not fun. Then I’m reminded, oh hey, aren’t you Christian and should be “waiting” for marriage, or believing chastity is so important. For me, in my 30s, not so freaking much.
But the beauty of McCleneghan is that she helped me to reclaim chastity by reminding me it’s about more than just keeping one’s self “sexually pure”: “Chastity is a virtue, related to temperance–it’s about moderating our indulgences and exercising restraint” (103). Then she says, “I’d argue that we can be chaste–faithful–in unmarried sexual relationships if we exercise restraint: if we refrain from having sex that isn’t mutually pleasurable and affirming, that doesn’t respect the autonomy and sacred worth of ourselves and our partners” (103).
being naked: vulnerability leads to intimacy
McCleneghan quotes Karen Lebacquz: “Sexuality has to do with vulnerability. Eros, the desire for another, the passion that accompanies the wish for sexual expression, makes one vulnerable. It creates possibility for great joy but also for great suffering. To desire another, to feel passion, is to be vulnerable, capable of being wounded” (119).
I was in a relationship for years, and after it ended I realized one of the things missing was the intimacy I craved. I had been so afraid of failure I hadn’t been vulnerable and let another person see me for who I really was or could be. There was a sense of shame I carried with me from growing up girl, and I wish I had McCleneghan: “Learning to be naked and unashamed in our sexual relationships is possible, even though that freedom and courage will look different than in the relative innocence of childhood. It is my dear hope that marriages can be safe spaces to do this work–but the institution is no guarantee, anymore than being unmarried is a guarantee of danger and pain” (129).
The last of my favorite quotes about intimacy, something I would argue we all crave and is a part of our human nature is that “true intimacy requires us to eschew those double standards and to transcend our assumptions about others. We cannot read minds; we have to learn to be in conversation with our partners–not just about shared sexual experience, but about our feelings, our hopes, fears, and interests” (152). Funny how this can also translate into our relationship with the Divine.
part 1 conclusion
More so than a book review, this is a reflection leading into another post. I will be talking Good Christian Sex and reflecting on how we can integrate a postmodern sexual ethic that both empowers and emboldens instead of instilling a deep well of sexual shame.