Redeeming Sex, Debra Hirsch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015
Summary: Hirsch explores how the church ought engage society around issues of sexuality, discussing the connection of spirituality and sexuality, the nature of gender, orientation and our sexuality, and how the church holds in tension the image of God in people and the ethics of various sexual expressions.
We are in a paradoxical place where sexuality is both one of the easiest and hardest things to talk about, particularly in the church. There is lots of conversation, even argument, and yet often we struggle to talk deeply and thoughtfully and redemptively about one of the most basic aspects of what it means to be human. Debra Hirsch writes this book out of a life of dealing with these questions stretching back to her own experiences with lesbian relationships before coming to faith, to her work in pastoral ministry with her husband, caring for people with sexual histories, varying orientations and gender identities.
The book consists of three parts. The first explores the connection between sexuality and spirituality, and particularly our deep and basic longing for relationship. She opens this section asking provocatively, “Imagine if heaven was like endless orgasm” (p. 22). She goes on to explore how our sexuality is actually a signpost of how we were made for deep, intimate relationship with God. She sets out a distinction between genital sexuality and social sexuality–between physical sexual expression and the broader expression of our sexuality in all our relationships. She explores our fearfulness to talk about this basic and powerful part of our humanness and concludes this section by exploring the sexuality of the incarnate Jesus.
The second section explores the nature of our sexuality and what we are learning about orientation and gender identity. She deals honestly with the struggles we have to integrate following Christ and dealing with sexual desire (quoting, for example, one young man who asked, “I have accepted Jesus into my heart but how do I get him into my penis?”[p. 71]). She particularly observes that orientation and gender identity are not binary entities but much more of a continuum and discusses with stark candor the journeys of LGBT people who come to faith and whose orientation and identity do not “change”. She works through the biblical issues around sexuality, respecting those who reach various conclusions while affirming what would for many be a traditional understanding, with a non-traditional approach of “leading with embrace rather than theology”.
The third part of the book begins from this point and lays out an approach to meeting people in ministry that focuses first on the image of God in all persons and only secondarily around issues of sinfulness, that seeks to center on following and moving closer to Jesus, and builds communities that seeking to be welcoming and mutually transforming (rather than affirming). She believes that we need to welcome people in all their wholeness but that no community can affirm all the things people are or do. Rather, a community committed to growing closer to Christ together is mutually transformative.
Such community is messy. Where some may want to focus immediately on issues of orientation and identity, it may be that growing closer to Christ might entail other things first. Likewise, others may object that some choose celibacy or even embrace a heterosexual relationship after having identified as same sex attracted. What Hirsch contends for is that the redemption of our sexuality can only come with the redemption of our spiritual relationship as we experience the rich and costly grace of Christ. For that reason, she articulates an approach that leads with grace, embrace and affirmation of the image of God in all people, and that believes in the power of Jesus to lead people into all he intends for them. At the close of the book she comments on this observation by her husband:
” ‘You really are pushing grace to just about as far as you can take it.’ Which of course raises the question, How far does grace go? And at the end of the day that really is one of the fundamental questions we are all wrestling with” (p 208).
Whether you agree or not with how far Hirsch pushes grace, you will find that this book poses the questions and deals frankly the realities we must all wrestle with if we, as the church, are not to “duck and cover” in addressing the matters of spirituality and sexuality in our day.