A Review of
Beyond [Awkward] Side Hugs: Living As Christian Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Minister Bronwyn Lea has the diagnosis. “In a hypersexualized world with a limited number of scripts for how men and women are to relate, we just don’t respond well” (17). The western Church has largely responded by setting up rules. If everyone is a possible sex fiend, everyone needs strict legislation. “The Billy Graham Rule,” in which a man refuses to be alone with any woman other than his wife, remains the most prominent of these strictures, recently gaining mainstream attention when Vice-President Mike Pence spoke of his use of it. While that rule has garnered the most attention, churches have their own, often informal, policies. A hug can be a possible pitfall, so we’ve developed the side hug as a proper ceremony. Take no chances.
When explained outside Christian culture, the rules sound absurd. In most of life outside the church, it’s possible to have lunch with an opposite-sex coworker. Or even to have a full-frontal hug with a friend you haven’t seen in a while (or who brought dessert to the party). At the same time, Christians do have a call to purity, and a command to flee temptation. We should expect the lines the church draws to be different from those the secular world draws. But it’s a muddle. When do those new lines heighten our awareness of sin? When do they limit true and proper relationships? Just what are we doing anyway?
Drawing on a couple decades’ worth of ministry experience, Lea has some thoughts, and her new book Beyond [Awkward] Side Hugs addresses the issue by tackling a broad spectrum of related issues. She mixes experience, theology, and research to chart a new course forward. At its best, the book reframes the conversation and then applies it to each of the areas addressed. Each of these subtopics could use further unpacking, but Lea makes a good initial foray into enough areas that the book feels comfortable in its breadth.
Lea’s work hinges on that reframing work. She writes early on that “it is not enough to fear sin and legislate against it. The law and its penalties have never been sufficient to bypass sin and produce righteousness” (17). She begins by clarifying that we are both embodied and ensouled. We exist in our sexed bodies. Sexuality is part of embodiment, but – drawing on the work of Deb Hirsch – Lea points out that that fact differs from our “genital sexuality,” our erotic longing or physical sexual interaction. We should understand that “the role of the Spirit is to restore our desires not extinguish them, and that includes our sexual desires” (33). Origen and his knife got it wrong; we’re not to rid ourselves of desire, but to understand it biblically.
A proper understanding, Lea argues aptly, centers on our understanding of family. We need to explore, first, God’s vision for what we typically think of as our nuclear or extended family, but we need to recontextualize church as a literal family (and Lea makes it clear she means “literal” literally). She describes visiting a church for the first time: “This was not a room of strangers. This was a gathering of brothers and sisters. I just hadn’t learned their names yet” (37). The sentiment charms, but it also clarifies (which is partly why it charms).
Recognizing our church family as actual, literal family with God as our father, Jesus as our big brother, and other believers as our siblings makes all the difference. It allows us to access and apply various sorts of loves (yes, think C.S. Lewis here). Connection then becomes based on family relationships first. When we see other people as brothers and sisters, we can enter a new dynamic. Lea writes, “We need not have fear-based, sexualized patterns of avoidance and hair-trigger regulation because we have the option to choose another pattern – a familial pattern with deep, rich, life-giving ways for us to love one another with a clear conscience” (58). By changing our paradigm, we enable new patterns of behavior to emerge.
From that point, Lea considers how her basic paradigm plays out in a number of areas, such as marriage, platonic friendship, and dating. The second half of the book carries a bit of a catch-22, though. Lea’s not only thought these topics through, but she’s also worked through them in ministry over the years, and she has a wealth of knowledge to offer. Because of that idea, each chapter works well, but it also leaves us wanting more. This book reads as if Lea has a number of other, related books ready to go, but we only get a quick synopsis.
Her chapter on dating compares that part of life to carpooling. She compares marriage to a lengthy road trip, and suggests that dating is like a road test. During a time of dating we should evaluate “partnership potential” as much as “passion potential” (148). The metaphor largely works, but the connection to the church-as-family model feels tenuous. What she needs isn’t a new working metaphor, but just a bit more space. As Lea explains her own experiences and those of people she’s ministered, too, it becomes apparent how much she has to offer on the subject. The road test/carpool metaphor wouldn’t carry a book, but we could use a couple hundred pages from Lea on dating in general. The chapter included her is encouraging, but not fully satisfying, particularly as it could use more concrete applications.
Ultimately, though, her vision carries the day. With a proper biblical grounding for all our relationships, we can begin to develop an approach based not on worst-case scenarios, but on first principles (107). Lea’s vision rejects the current model that seeks to avoid sin first; instead, it seeks for ways to implement God’s plan for living. It’s a positive rather than a negative approach to the whole issue. She rethinks chastity not as a “rule” but as positive “practice,” a rhythm that covers more ground that we’d expect (169-170).
That positive vision should be inspiring to Christians. In the end, she makes a key point, writing that “there is an evangelistic silver lining to all this, for as we live out what it means to be the family of God in every area of our lives – including our sexual formation – the world cannot fail to notice” (179). That aspect of incarnating God’s kingdom should be edifying. Christians aren’t called to live fearful lives in retreat, but we’re to live outspoken lives that share God’s hope for the world. That might come with a side hug or a bear hug as warranted, but it should come in the context of God’s family embracing His way of life rather than cowering before laws we’ve created to fence ourselves in. That approach, rather than creating lawlessness, should lead to us embodying a biblical, edifying vision of life together.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.