[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0062428594″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/51TwFzTOfL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”218″]Let’s Talk About Sex
(In Its Wholeness)
A Feature Review of
Good Christian Sex:
Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex
Paperback: HarperOne, 2016
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Reviewed by Heather Caliri
Decades ago in my high school youth group, a young married couple spoke at the yearly sex talk. Before their engagement, and despite both previously losing their virginity, they chose to seek a ‘second virginity’ together, committing to chastity and their faith until they married.
What a beautiful lesson for me as a new, rather conservative Christian: that chastity was a practice for both men and women, that losing one’s virginity wasn’t devastating, and that even unmarried couples should have frank, vulnerable conversations about sex.
And yet: during the same period, my youth pastor was sexually assaulting one of my friends. Our congregation’s senior pastor knowingly turned a blind eye to the predator possibly because of his own extramarital affairs.
From the very start of my faith, then, I’ve seen the stunning contrasts of the church’s relationship with sex: from life-affirming teaching on chastity to stomach-churning abuse.
Now, I’m the mother of two daughters, one approaching puberty. As I write this, I’m thinking about how to teach her about sex. How do I prepare her for its joys while also protecting her from its dangers?
What would Jesus want me to say to my girl?
So it was with eagerness that I read Bromleigh McCleneghan’s Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex. McCleneghan, a pastor from Chicago, had a very different church sex education than I did: largely nothing. Her childhood church’s stance on human sexuality wasn’t really “tied to [her] nascent theology and ethics.” It also didn’t explicitly advocate for chastity.
As a teenager, college student, and young adult, then, she felt free to have sex without worrying about what God had to say about it. Later, though, McCleneghan realized that she yearned for guidance about how to love romantic partners well—even more so when she became a pastor.
In writing the book, McCleneghan hoped to “sort out how Christians can think about our romantic and sexual lives—which are so very vital—in the light of our faith.”
On the whole, I think she succeeds. Diving deep into the full range of human sexual experience—from masturbation to marriage, infidelity to sexual assault, the fun of sex, and its pitfalls, McCleneghan’s honesty, her thoughtfulness, and her call to love one another as Christ does helped me work through my shifting theology of sex.
Within a progressive, liberal framework—she doesn’t clutch her pearls about homosexuality or premarital sex, for instance—McCleneghan tries to establish an ethical, Christian response that doesn’t depend on black and white sexual rules, but instead upon broad guidelines based on “mutuality, reciprocity, and love.”
Often, conservatives pooh-pooh liberal understandings of sex as ‘anything goes.’ They assume that if we don’t forbid traditional taboos that we will no longer have any meaningful guidance.
Good Christian Sex explodes that notion. I’m a goody-two-shoes, but McCleneghan’s questions and ethics made me uncomfortable, exposing areas of unseen complacency. Her chapter on fidelity convinced me that I had room to grow in true commitment to my husband.
For me, the emphasis on wise choices without rigid rules felt truly transformative. McCleneghan’s ideas gave me robust tools with which to think about the complexity of my sex life—and how to teach my kids both to anticipate good sex and protect themselves.
I want to teach my daughters to be engaged, not simply chaste. To pay attention to whether or not they’re ready for sex, whether their relationships have the necessary intimacy for it, and how to tell if potential sexual partners are healthy or predatory. I want to give them language to understand what happened to them if, God forbid, they are sexually assaulted. As McClenahan puts it, “we can’t right injustices if we can’t first name them.”
Of course, were I more conservative, McCleneghan’s book would probably appall me. I don’t think it’s within the scope of the book justify her views for the most conservative reader, but I wish (too wishfully, perhaps) that the Church were better able to talk across the chasms between our theologies.
In addition, part of the subtitle, …Other Things the Bible Says About Sex, would feel disingenuous to many conservatives. McCleneghan carefully explains how her tradition interprets the Bible (hint: they depend on tradition, reason, and experience alongside Scripture), but “what the Bible says” is a phrase many Christians would understand quite differently that she does. Coyness doesn’t help bridge theological chasms either.
It’s that distance from conservatism, I think, that led to my personal frustration with McCleneghan’s otherwise very helpful book. She didn’t grow up in a conservative bubble, so she can’t really identify with those of us who did.
I wish she had a bit more pastoral care for us. We once had clear rules and guidelines but now find ourselves a bit at sea. For example, when McCleneghan blithely asserts Christian ethics don’t prohibit sex before marriage, I found myself disoriented and frustrated. It’s not even that I disagree with her—I am not sure I do—but I can’t so easily drop the belief. I needed her to help me get there with her.
Beliefs can be wrenching to let go of. As much as I’m frustrated by the limitations of my old theology, conservatives communicated something beautiful to me about the value of waiting. In addition, keeping myself set apart for marriage seemed to promise a bit of safety even after I’d learned just how ugly sex could be.
I still love the idea of chastity, even despite knowing those who don’t fit into neat binaries or find partners find it painful. I still love it even though I discovered, once married, that its promise was a bit of a fairy tale.
It’s not that I want McCleneghan to give me new rules to replace the ones I’ve let go of. I simply wish her book included some discussion of the ache that every loss brings—even intellectual and theological ones.
I wish McCleneghan could have helped me grieve.
However, I got the sense that McCleneghan trusts each of us to navigate these tricky waters. She’s taking the reins and putting them firmly into our outstretched, if shaky, hands.
So regardless of my wish for more guidance, I felt empowered after reading Good Christian Sex. I feel challenged to submit my own sex life to God more fully, and to stay more accountable to my husband. I also feel more prepared to talk to my daughters about sex in ways that encourage them to advocate for themselves, make wise and Christ-centered choices, and invite the Holy Spirit to guide them. Together, I think we can discuss sex in its wholeness, rather than simply checking off do’s or don’ts off a Church-supplied list.
But I’ll be honest: for now, I think I’ll tell my girls to keep sex for marriage. Fairy-tale or no, it’s one I’d still like to tell my children.