Post Author: Kelly Boubel Shriver
I have an entire shelf of books about sex in my office at church: historical critical analyses of sexuality in ancient Israel and first century Rome, dense volumes of theology and ethics, some psychology, and a distressing number of books about clerical abuse and safe spaces in church. One of my seminary professors instilled in me the practice of “the ministry of the well-placed book,” (thank you, Dr. Dykstra!) and I keep this shelf front and center in my office, hoping the message will be literally seen and figuratively heard: I am not afraid to talk about all aspects of being human, including (but not limited to) sexuality. It’s a bummer that we in the church have such a garbage history of dealing with sexuality that I have to think of creative ways to make this point well with my parishioners.
I’ve consulted this shelf many times over the years as I offer pastoral care, but I’ve never had a book I feel like I can just pull off the shelf and hand to church members to read on their own. The wisdom I’ve found is spread between them, never in one place. Far too many of these books are tomes of theological jargon written for seminary educated “experts.”
But the minute I’m done writing this review, Bromleigh McCleneghan’s book Good Christian Sex (http://www.bromleighm.com/book/) will be sliding into its well-earned place on my sex book shelf. This short read is theologically thoughtful, ethically coherent, narratively interesting, and accessible to an audience who has never set foot in a Systematic Theology 101 classroom. I can’t wait to hand it to members of my church.
McCleneghan sets out to weave a progressive theology of sexuality, and she does so by addressing nine interrelated topics: pleasure, desire, ethics, singleness, vulnerability, intimacy, memory, fidelity, and relational discernment. All of these discussions are grounded in the scriptural warrant and ethical foundation that we love God, love ourselves, and love our neighbor. It’s a very Martin Buber, I-Thou, way of understanding sexual ethics.
McCleneghan’s writing style is conversational and approachable, and her book is filled with personal stories and anecdotes which add substance to the narrative, breed familiarity and trust with her as our guide, and yet never cross the line into being crass or inappropriately vulnerable. She’s clearly in control of the story being told, which I appreciate around such an intimate topic. Her enjoyable writing style belies the depth of her theological engagement. You’re eating your theological spinach without realizing it. I am a Reformed (Presbyterian) pastor, and there were moments where I could see the contours of McCleneghan’s Methodism peeking through, but never in an obtrusive or disagreeable manner. Overall, I found her engagement with major theologians of several eras and traditions of Christian thought to be sharp and approachable. Her perspective is clearly Christian in outlook, however I would hazard to guess that much of McCleneghan’s ethic would be relatable and useful for progressive people of faith from a number of religious traditions.
My one substantial hope for this book which wasn’t realized deals with the audience. I come from a far more conservative Christian tradition than I now choose to inhabit: I was a dyed in the wool, abstinence before marriage, purity ring, I Kissed Dating Goodbye teenager. Even in my teens, I felt uncomfortable with the more Evangelical ethics of sexuality (it felt limiting), but I didn’t have the tools to say why or how. In reading Good Christian Sex, part of me was really hoping for a corrective I could mail back to high-school-aged Kelly (or the modern equivalent). And yes, in parts McClenaghan does try to build a bridge to a more conservative ethic of sexuality, but that’s not the purpose of this book, and to press the metaphor a bit further: the bridge isn’t strong enough to walk across. I think McClenaghan does a wonderful job of articulating a progressive ethic of sexuality for an audience who is already moderate-to-progressive in their orientation.
As a pastor, I needed this book to be good. On my shelf I had a gaping hole, just waiting for a thoughtful, theologically sound, progressive ethic of sexuality; a book that is actually readable by a non-expert audience. I mean this literally: God bless Bromleigh McCleneghan for writing this book! I commend it to you all most highly.
Kelly Boubel Shriver is the pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in West Linn, OR.
Image by: HarperOne
Used with permission