Review: Beauty, Order, and Mystery

Note: Perhaps I should prepare my readers for the reviews I will be posting today and tomorrow. The writers of the book I am reviewing today endorse what they would describe as the church’s historic consensus about human sexuality while attempting to deal thoughtfully and sensitively with contemporary issues in this contentious space. Tomorrow, I will be reviewing a book on intersectional theology, in which the co-authors support an “open and affirming” stance with regard to LGBTQ persons. I will understand if some of my readers decide to opt out of one or both, perhaps for good reasons because even summaries of the books and discussion of them may not feel “safe” given the reader’s personal experience. There is much I found in each book that I appreciated, and matters about which I had questions, or even disagreements. I suspect you will as well, and we may differ in our appreciations, questions, and disagreements. At least this blog won’t be one more “echo chamber.”

beauty, order, and mystery

Beauty, Order, and MysteryGerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson, editors. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers given at the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians conference exploring various aspects and contemporary issues concerning human sexuality from the perspective of the church’s historic consensus.

The editors of this work begin by advancing the idea of “mere sexuality” which they hold to be the church’s historic consensus on the meaning and appropriate expression of human sexuality. They argue that this has been a time of sweeping change with the upholding of marriage equality and transgender rights, as well as the predominance of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the ease of divorce, and the separation of sexual intimacy and procreation because of birth control. Some see this as sweeping away that consensus, others as evidence that there never really was one. The attempt of the contributors of this book is to articulate in fresh terms the church’s historic understanding of human sexuality, not only addressing contemporary questions but seeking to articulate a vision of the beauty of human sexuality, how a proper ordering of sexual love leads to human flourishing, and the meaning that underlies it for creatures made in the image of the triune God and the incarnate Son who calls the church his Bride.

There were several essays that I found especially helpful in articulating this vision. Beth Felker Jones writes about the goodness of embodied gender and sexuality, and challenges “cultural assumptions about femininity and masculinity [that] may interfere with Christian discipleship.” Wesley Hill, a celibate, gay, Anglican theologian, sensitively engages the work of Eugene Rogers and Robert Song, who both are “affirming” theologians. He carefully discusses Matthew 19:1-9 arguing that Jesus not only reaffirms the creation order of male and female marriage, but in his teaching about divorce, announces the redemption of this order. At the same time, he challenges readers to consider how LGBTQ persons may be gifts to the church rather than problems to be solved, people to be loved and wanted for who they are.

Joel Willitts offers what I found to be a courageous and vulnerable account of what it was like for him to struggle with a history of sexual abuse, pornography use, struggles with intimacy and the futility of the quick fixes often dispensed in the name of pastoral care. He shares, in an email with a woman struggling with porn, a woman abused from age 6 who became pregnant at age 12:

“…if you ever do come to the point that you can give up porn, it will not be because of contempt or fear or guilt or shame or self-discipline. If you ever give up porn it will be because you have come to know God’s kindness at the deepest level of your heart. Start being kind to yourself now because that is exactly how God will treat you through eternity. No sense waiting until then:)!”

Matthew Mason draws upon 1 Corinthians 15 and the work of Oliver O’Donovan to address the resurrection hope as it applies to those dealing with transgender identity and gender dysphoria. Amy Peeler explores the revelation of God’s glory in male and female worshiping and prophesying together as God intends in 1 Corinthians 11. Matthew Levering, a Catholic scholar, introduces us to Thomas Aquinas and the ordering of our sexuality that allows for human flourishing. Daniel J. Brendsel, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, explores “selfie” culture and its implications for the culture’s understanding of sexuality. All these essays, I found quite helpful and reflected theological engagement and imagination.

The one essay I struggled most with was Denny Burk’s on “The Transgender Test.” After invoking “biblical inspiration and authority” I felt he, without exegesis or an engagement with what is known about gender dysphoria, equates “biological sex and gender identity.” My assumption is that he defines biological sex in terms of genitalia. He does not acknowledge the cases where this is ambiguous, and dismisses neurobiology and gender identity (what he calls “brain-sex theory”). While neural pathways are less visible than genitalia, they are no less biological. Instead, we are told that the Bible gives us all we need for life and godliness, that we need to accept that we were made male or female, and that is that. I thought this essay was not up to the level of the others, and question how helpful the “pastoral theology” found here will be to transgendered individuals.

On the other hand, I found Richard Mouw’s closing reflections on the conference filled with wise counsel for the church, from how he counselled a lesbian student as a seminary president, to our needs to think with the global church on these issues. This raises a criticism I would have of this collection of essays. As far as I can tell, these are all by white, North Americans (twelve men, one of who identifies as gay, and two women,). There are no voices of people of color, or theologians from outside North America. I hope that the Center for Pastor Theologians will heed Mouw in composing future conference speaker slates (an issue at many Christian conferences).

Nevertheless, I found much fresh and careful thinking in this work. Nowhere was this more typified that the closing essay on “What Makes Sex Beautiful?” Matt O’Reilly explores the beautiful bookends of the Bible in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 and how both occur in a garden, have imagery of a temple where God dwells and involve a wedding. He writes:

“My argument is that sex derives its beauty from the marriage relationship, which is designed by God to uniquely embody and magnify his creative and redemptive love. When sex is celebrated in the context of that relationship and as its consummative act, it magnifies the beauty of the triune God.”

It seems to me that this touches on the heart of the discussion. All of our sexual ethics flow from the meaning of our sexuality, and here, as elsewhere, Christians cannot answer this apart from the loving triune God and the incarnate Christ, the Bridegroom who will come for his spotless bride.

Review: Consent on Campus

consent on campus

Consent on Campus: A Manifesto, Donna Freitas. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An argument that current approaches to consent education as an approach to combating sexual assault on campus are inadequate both in the time devoted to deal with the complexities of sexuality, and the absence of campus leadership, faculty, presidents, and other university leaders, from the discussions.

Much has been made in recent years of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, with statistics indicating between 20 and 25 percent of women will be subject to assault, and smaller numbers of men, during their collegiate years. Colleges and universities, under pressure from the federal government and Title IX enforcement, have stepped up their efforts at “Consent Education” with programs like “Sex Signals” and “Partying with Consent.” These programs, often part of an hour long session in new student orientation, allow campuses to check the box that they have exercised due diligence in consent education. The other side is Title IX enforcement when a student or other member of the university community files a sexual assault complaint, with mandatory reporting requirements when university officials learn of a sexual assault, opaque investigative processes, neglect of due process for the accused, and pressures on the accuser, depending on who the perpetrator might be.

Donna Freitas, who has been studying student sexuality and the hookup culture on campus for the past ten years since publication of Sex and the Soul, believes these institutional responses to be utterly inadequate. She begins with a preface directed to all university presidents, and it is her hope that they all read this book. Their personal engagement, and not simply written statements, is vital in communicating that campus leadership prioritize thoughtful, honest discussion of sexuality on campus.

She surveys the landscape of campus efforts to deal with sexual assault. She offers a helpful explanation of how Title IX works, the “Dear Colleagues…” letter in 2011 that has triggered the growth of Title IX offices, reporting, and enforcement, and the failure of a campus-wide approach to address the sexual culture on campus that is implicit in Title IX proceedings. She also describes the thin efforts at consent education that fails to deal with the complexities of what “yes” means. Particularly, this is problematic with the party culture of campus and the complications alcohol bring to consent for both male and female students.

It goes deeper though and perhaps one of the most important part of Freitas’ book is the exploration of the inherited “scripts” that shape student behavior, often pressuring them to act in ways that are far from sexually free. Women have to project an air of indifference toward men, that sex doesn’t really matter that much, to avoid any sense of appearing “needy” or “clinging.” Men face pressures to perform sexually, even when they don’t want to. Their masculinity is at stake. Hookups are defined as over when the man “comes” (no real consideration of the woman’s experience). Women also face pressures around body image and various forms of “slut shaming.” All of this, in combination with the presence of alcohol, undermines any real giving and receiving of consent, as well as destroying any sense of sex as something deeply intimate, powerful and empowering for both partners. These inherited scripts are problematic, and often supported by a prevailing assumption on campus that “everyone is doing it” that doesn’t support those who wish to abstain, or wait for a different kind of relationship.

Freitas advocates for a concerted, widely owned effort to re-write these scripts, shared between students, student life personnel and faculty and university leadership. She observes that students often have high ideals of social justice and human dignity, but have never been able to connect those ideals to their sexual and partying behavior with each other. Freitas argues that any sexual encounter is an ethical act. She suggests using campus mission statements, which often are intended but rarely applied as expressing the ideals to which the community aspires. She contends that both existing scripts need to be codified, and critically examined, and that alternative, “interruptive” scripts need to be enacted. She sites the example of Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, an assault survivor who raised campus awareness by carrying her mattress with her wherever she went, which became a senior thesis, “Carry That Weight.” Most of all, she pleads that discussions of sexuality not be confined to large, one hour orientation sessions led by over-burdened student life personnel, but be integrated into classroom discussions. She challenges the value of intellectual detachment, proposing that where course content is relevant, that discussion on how this bears on students personal lives and behavior is appropriate and needed and that faculty and university leaders actively engage what happens after the classroom hours as well as during them.

I found much to be commended in this “manifesto” that “named the elephant” lurking on every campus. I appreciated her contention that what is needed are not trigger warnings but honest, even painful discussion (while never forcing students to share personal experiences they are not ready for). I appreciated her descriptions of Title IX and existing consent education efforts and their inadequacy. This needs to be honestly faced, and she helps us do that. I was glad for her contention that student beliefs and choices not to engage in the campus hookup culture need to be affirmed for whatever reasons, including religious belief, that they embrace these choices.

At the same time, she writes dismissively of  “values voters” and conservative “one size fits all” ethics in a way that seems to suggest that this is the only alternative currently on offer to hookup culture or her own “script rewriting efforts.” The truth is many campus religious communities are having thoughtful discussions of the kind she writes about that go beyond “what not to do and who not to do it with” to explore the meaning of sexuality, the significance of our gender and identity, how we deal with desire and respect and honor others. She leaves this group out as potential allies, despite their influence with a significant percentage of students on many campuses.

Finally, in urging greater faculty involvement, I wonder whether she reckons with the institutional support necessary for such conversations, from training of what is and is not legal and appropriate in classroom discussions, access to counseling when discussions raise unresolved issues for faculty who also have sexual lives and histories, and good linkages between faculty and student services personnel who might follow up with students in need of further counsel.

This “wake up call” comes as another cohort of students is preparing to arrive on campus. The matters she raises are urgent. Will this next cohort face the same depersonalizing sexual scripts that have prevailed and receive the same thin gruel of consent training? Will both men and women feel strong pressure to conform to the gender stereotypes that prevail in campus sexual culture? And will 20 to 25 percent of these women conclude their college experience not only with a degree but a sexual assault? Much of the answer depends, in Freitas’ view, on whether university leaders, faculty, student life personnel and students come together to disrupt that culture. Her book is probably one of the best playbooks I’ve seen for doing just that.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Freitas’ earlier book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy was reviewed at Bob on Books on November 24, 2013.

Review: Love Thy Body

love thy body

Love Thy Body, Nancy R. Pearcey. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Traces how a two story view of reality has led to a dualistic way of viewing human beings, splitting body and person, and traces the working out of this around our understanding of human life, sexuality, orientation, gender, and marriage.

Often Christianity has been accused of prudish attitudes with regard to the body and its functions in contrast with the wider culture’s celebration of the body. What if the truth were just the opposite and Christians, in fact, had a truly high view of our embodied life, and the secular world in fact denigrated and reinforced a fallen alienation from our bodies? This is part of what Nancy R. Pearcey means in the title to her new book, Love Thy Body.

Pearcey, who was strongly influenced by the work of Francis Schaeffer, believes one of his most valid insights was the two storied view of truth and reality that prevails in the modern world which might be portrayed as follows:

THEOLOGY, MORALITY, VALUES

Private, Subjective, Relativistic

————————————————————–

SCIENCE, FACTS

Public, Objective, Valid for Everyone

Pearcey contends that this bifurcated view of reality has extended to our concept of the body, where instead of a Christian view of embodied persons, we separate the idea of the person and the body, whereby our understanding of what it means to be human is separated from our biological existence. For example, life is defined not when an ovum is fertilized by sperm but by when the fetus becomes a person. The trouble with this is it is not clear when this happens, either before or after birth, or what level of genetic fitness qualifies one to be a person and thus worthy of life. The issue arises at the other end of life as well, where personhood, rather than embodied life define when life should be ended.

Then in successive chapters Pearcey shows how this divided view of reality works out in our understanding of sexuality, orientation, and gender. A hookup culture divorces physical pleasure from mental and emotional bonding (often resulting in great pain when we cannot carry this off). Strangely, at the same time, sex becomes divorced from the body in its obviously procreative function. Sexual orientation becomes an instance where a psychological, autonomous self imposes its own interpretation upon the body, denying the telos of one’s biology. Likewise gender is a fluid product of social forces rather than the physical constitution of the body. Furthermore, marriage is reduced to a contract rather than a covenantal relationship where the union of our bodies expresses the union of our lives and the formation of new families.

In the course of her discussion, Pearcey chronicles leading thinkers from Freud to Foucault, and various educational and governmental policies that have supported the divorce of persons and bodies. At the same time, she writes as a professor who has counselled students and her own children as they wrestle with these realities. So she writes with both conviction and compassion. In her chapter on transgenderism, she writes of Brandon, who still considers himself a girl on the inside, and yet recognizes that surgery will not change who he is, and that much of the problem has to do with how gender is defined.

The breadth spanned by this book to underscore its central thesis means that there is much left to be worked out, and many particular situations that only are cursorily addressed. Yet the common origin of all these issues in a bifurcated view of truth is worth noting for understanding where the real difference lies.

Pearcey’s argument for the unity of the human being and the value of the body will not satisfy those for whom the social construction of personhood, gender, and orientation are defining. What Pearcey does is articulate a theology of the body as good and that our biology must not be denied in our understanding of the person, but truly celebrated. She articulates compassion and conviction held in tension, something rare in today’s discussions. She also suggests a vision of truth as a seamless garment and a life where what we do as embodied beings shapes the persons we are becoming. In a climate where Christians often are accused of hatefulness, she poses a most challenging question in asking, “who really loves the body?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Way of Hope

the way of hope

The Way of HopeMelissa Fisher. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Through a narrative of her own experiences, the author proposes ways in which the church might offer hope to LGBT persons without condemning or condoning.

“I used to want to be a boy.

Seriously, literally, have the surgery. Change the name. Live from the new identity. Be a boy, not a girl. That’s what I wanted.

It seemed to make sense with how I felt on the inside. At that point in my life, my feelings had been all over the map. After all, I grew up in the church, left the church, dated boys, then left the guy scene and ended up in the same-sex lifestyle, and a same-sex marriage. Somewhere, in the midst of all of that, I contemplated becoming a boy.”

This is Melissa Fisher’s introduction to her life journey. It is one that begins with a response to shame of perfectionism–“pretty is as pretty does.” She learns to keep secrets, about witnessing her mom’s affair, about sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult, about the pain of her parents divorce, about discovering pornography, and more. She describes the “monster” of dating guys and then falling in live with one of her girlfriends, the struggle to deny her attraction to women, her attempts to medicate herself against her struggles, and her surrender to them. She marries a woman, has what seems an ideal life as an athletic coach, and then comes to an end of herself when she loses it all in an impulsive affair. On a car trip near the Arkansas border, she stops in tears and comes to the realization that even though she doesn’t want God or church in her life, she does.

She describes her struggle to even show up at church, and eventually a small group, which is important for any church to understand that is committed to ministering with LGBT persons. She finds one, Gateway Church in Austin, a church that was committed to a ministry that neither condemned nor condoned around issues of sexuality, but loved people and allowed them the space to struggle and take steps at their own pace toward God. They offered community to the isolated. She narrates her steps to believe that first one woman, Karin, really wanted a friendship with her, and then that she could be part of a community of PBM’s (Pottery Barn Moms).

Later chapters chronicle the further work of coming to terms with her past, her perfectionism, her secrets and shame, and all her strategies of dealing with these, including her drive to perform could be laid aside as she learned to behold and believe in Christ, and allow him to shape the way she lived. She writes, “if I never felt safe enough to be a girl, I would never feel safe enough to do the more work needed to become a healthy woman.” Yet as she did so, she found herself opening up to the possibility of being with a man (although she is careful to not make herself a norm or example for others). Like several other LGBT writers like Greg Cole or Wesley Hill, she talks about all this in day by day terms of trusting God in this day.

The epilogue is fascinating because it includes interviews with her mother, her father, and her former spouse, Kristi. Life isn’t all put together in any of these situations, but there was really healing, and real reconciliation. What is striking throughout the narrative of this book is Melissa’s honesty about herself, whether she was exulting in a same sex marriage with Kristi, or struggling to put life together. Equally striking was the church she found and the loving way they cared for people like Melissa, neither condoning their choices nor condemning them, but loving them, and providing a space where they could encounter and behold Christ, where they could be as honest as they were ready to be, and where change was something that was not enforced from on high or by social pressure, but allowed to occur from within if and when the person was ready.

Others who identify as LGBT may not struggle with their orientation or identity and may be critical of Fisher’s narrative, and may contend that she is self-deceived. Perhaps the practice of a kind of golden rule here may help in honoring the narratives of others as you would have them honor yours. She joins a growing number who tell a similar story, and of churches that have made a safe and good place for them. Perhaps rather than arguing with them, we might learn from them, whether we agree or not.  Perhaps even this may be a first step on the way of hope…

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Single, Gay, Christian

single gay christian

Single, Gay, ChristianGregory Coles. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017 (forthcoming August 22, 2017).

Summary: An autobiographical narrative of a young Christian who becomes aware of his attraction to other men, his struggles against this within a Christian context, his experiences of “coming out,” and how he has decided to follow Christ through all of this.

This book had me at the first page. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t quote so extensively, but I know nothing better to give you a sense of Gregory Cole’s story, and of his exquisite writing:

“Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other.

I promise to tell you my story. The whole story. I’ll tell you about a boy in love with Jesus who, at the fateful onset of puberty, realized his sexual attractions were persistently and exclusively for other guys. I’ll tell you how I lay on my bed in the middle of the night and whispered to myself the words I’ve whispered a thousand times since:

“I’m gay.”

I’ll show you the world through my eyes. I’ll tell you what it’s like to belong nowhere. To know that much of my Christian family will forever consider me unnatural, dangerous, because of something that feels as involuntary as my eye color. And to know that much of the LGBTQ community that shares my experience as a sexual minority will disagree with the way I’ve chosen to interpret the call of Jesus, believing I’ve bought into a tragic, archaic ritual of self-hatred.

But I promise my story won’t all be sadness and loneliness and struggle. I’ll tell you good things too, hopeful things, funny things, like the time I accidentally came out to my best friend during his bachelor party. I’ll tell you what it felt like the first time someone looked me in the eyes and said, “You are not a mistake.” I’ll tell you that joy and sorrow are not opposites, that my life has never been more beautiful than when it was most brokenhearted.

If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me.”

In succeeding chapters, Coles unfolds, often in a self-deprecating yet not self-hating fashion, his growing awareness that he was gay, his silence and attempts to cover this up by dating girls and even of trying to awaken heterosexual desires through them. He describes the scary and wonderful moment he comes out to his pastor, who listens, and loves, and keeps on loving.

We trace with him his journey to reconcile his faith, his orientation, his understanding of biblical teaching, weighing but rejecting “affirming” interpretations, which precludes for him acting on his gay attractions by pursuing intimacy with another man, and what it means for him to believe that God has nevertheless made him good.

He helps us hear what is often said in churches that affirm a “traditional” view from the perspective of a gay person. I cringed here as I read things I’ve said. He also leads us into a broader conversation about sexuality and how the fall has affected it for all of us, gay or straight.

He speaks about his choice to live single, both the heartache, and the joy. He raises the question of views of discipleship that never involve suffering or self-denial. He casts a vision for a life that is full, and has a unique capacity for relationships because of who he is as a gay man. Where the church often sees LGBTQ persons as a threat, Greg helps us see persons like himself as a tremendous gift.

Coles speaks with a voice of conviction without dogmatism. He speaks for himself and his own journey, allowing that others might conclude differently. As he writes in his introduction, he tells us the truth about himself, and lets us decide.  He doesn’t see himself as any kind of role model but simply as a “half-written story.”

I deeply resonated with his comments about encountering the “are you side A or side B?” question. He writes, “I didn’t want to be reduced to a simple yes or no. I wanted a new side.” I find myself deeply in sympathy with him. And perhaps this book might take us a step closer to that new side.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Sensitive Preaching to the Sexually Hurting

sensitive-preaching

Sensitive Preaching to the Sexually HurtingDr. Sam Serio. Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2016.

Summary: Explores the different kinds of issues that arise around sexuality in our post-sexual revolution society, and how pastors and others extending pastoral care might counsel and preach with sensitivity that may open the door to the healing of sexual wounds.

Sam Serio proposes that pastors are often out of touch with the issues around sexuality of the people sitting before them each Sunday. Married couples who have not had sex in the recent past. Someone who is struggling with same-sex attraction. A daughter who “checks out” of the Father’s Day sermon because of her past history of being molested by a father. The wife who has discovered sexual abuse between her husband and one of her children. The pro-lifer trying to atone for the abortion she had in her youth. The college student who is a date-rape survivor.

Serio begins the book with a list that includes these and many other instances of woundedness around sexuality that people in our congregations or parishes may be struggling with. He contends that often we preach and speak in such a way to preclude most of those who struggle from ever coming to us for help. He writes:

    “Most ministry leaders usually do one of two things when it comes to this kind of delicate preaching on these most difficult topics–we are either negligent or negative. We either say nothing or we say mean things. We ignore, or we abhor. There is rarely a happy medium….Do you have that rare biblical balance? Do you preach truth and grace? Do you preach love and law? Facts and feelings? Proclamation and consolation? When is the last time you actually smiled as you preached about sex and offered hope and restoration, healing and wholeness, forgiveness and transformation?”

Serio recognizes that many really don’t know what this looks like. After helping pastors assess their own and their church’s readiness for this ministry, and a brief chapter on the Bible and sexuality pointing out its frankness about the things we often are reticent to discuss, the next chapters address the different kinds of issues pastors may need to address in preaching and pastoral care. First he opens with a chapter titled, “How You Can Preach About Sex, and Still Keep Your Job.” His subsequent chapters discuss pastoral considerations that help one enter sensitively into sexual wounds of members and then gives texts and language he has used to preach on each of the following topics:

  • Casual Sex
  • Abortion
  • Sexual Assault and Rape
  • Childhood Sexual Abuse and Molestation
  • Pornography
  • Same sex attraction and homosexuality
  • Sexless marriage

The facts and sensitive counsel he gives under each of these topics was, I thought quite helpful. It may just be me, but his own distinctive voice in the language sections just felt different from mine and sometimes the connections to the passages felt exegetically forced. However, the example of candor and charity that invites people to healing conversations was refreshing. I would have liked more focus on sexual and physical abuse between partners, which also must be named and is startlingly prevalent in our congregations. The concluding challenges to churches are one a church leadership board should consider as well as every pastor. One I found particularly striking was to ask about sexual history and behavior in any counseling situation. The extent of woundedness in our post-sexual revolution culture warrants this and often is a significant contributing factor in many of the issues we confront.

As Serio says, it is far too often that we ignore or abhor. Instead we need to sensitively care for and pastorally restore the sexually hurting. This book helpfully connects preaching and pastoral care for those ready for this ministry.

This book was the winner of the 2016 The Gospel Coalition Book Awards in the Ministry category.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

The Month in Reviews: December 2015

I finished the year reading a variety of well-written books from Beowulf to the fiction of Ann Patchett to my son’s new techno-thriller. I worked my way through John Frame’s magisterial treatment of western philosophy and theology, as well as two very different but thoughtfully written books on sex.  I read a collection of essays on the greatness and the goodness of God, and a description of the wonder of the human body from an evolutionary perspective that left God out of the picture. I read two books with very contrasting perspectives on the state of the American academy and mind. It seemed a month, at least in some cases, where my books argued with each other and I was the richer for it. So here are the books I reviewed in December with links to the full reviews:

Bel CantoBel Canto, Ann Patchett. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. An international group gathered in a South American country for a dinner party to celebrate a Japanese industrialist’s birthday are taken hostage in a failed attempt by a revolutionary group to seize the country’s president. When months pass without a resolution a strange, an oddly wonderful community develops among hostages, and captors, one strangely forgetful of the inevitabilities of a hostage situation.

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.

State of the American MindThe State of the American Mind, Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow eds. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2015. The contributors in this volume chart the factors contributing to and consequences of what they see as a declining intellectual life in the United States.

God is Great, God is GoodGod is Great, God is Good, William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. This collection of essays provides thoughtfully reasoned responses to the leading challenges to Christianity posed by the New Atheism.

FrameA History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015. A survey and critique of the major philosophers and theologians of the West beginning with the Greek philosophers and early church fathers up to the present day, written from a reformed perspective.

LiberalWhat’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, Michael Bérubé. New York: Norton, 2006. This is a spirited defense of liberalism and the liberal idea by a literature professor against accusations of “liberal bias”. The argument includes extensive description of the author’s own classroom practice.

SurrealitySurrealityBen Trube. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. The murder of Franklin Haines in virtual reality is paralleled with the real theft of $80 million from him. A prostitute is missing, a deadly gang that operates in both cyberspace and the real world threaten murder and mayhem, and Detective Dan Keenan, his real world and virtual world partners and a penguin named Tux work together to find the real criminal behind this web of crime. [Ben Trube is my son.]

Redeeming SexRedeeming Sex, Debra Hirsch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 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.

church for the fatherlessChurch for the Fatherless, Mark E. Strong. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. Mark Strong chronicles both the crisis of fatherlessness in our society and the vital role the church can play in equipping fathers and caring for the fatherless.

beowulfBeowulfunknown, Seamus Heaney (translator). New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Seamus Heaney’s translation of this Old English poem, the heroic narrative of Beowulf’s confrontations with three deadly foes.

divine sexDivine Sex, Jonathan Grant. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. Jonathan Grant argues that a powerful “social imaginary” shapes sexual expression even within the Christian community and only communities that live and articulate a “thick” alternative vision can hope to have a formative influence on the lives of Christian disciples.

incredible unlikeliness of beingThe Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, Alice Roberts. New York: Heron Books, 2014. An evolutionary account of human embryological development from even before conception through birth  and of human anatomy and its evolutionary antecedents.

Best book of the month: Beowulf gets the nod just barely over Bel Canto. I was captured by the power of Seamus Heaney’s translation as well as the profound richness of the story itself.

Best quote of the month: Again, I am going to go with Beowulf. Hrothgar’s warning to Beowulf is one all of us do well to heed:

“O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.

On the TBR pile: Among the books I’m reading or anticipate reviewing in the coming month are Wallace Stegner’s fictional biography of Joe Hill, an early labor organizer, John Walton’s book on Genesis 2 and 3, R.C. Sproul’s book on Matthew 24, an account of the eruption of Mt. St Helens and a memoir of theologian Tom Oden and Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush.

Thanks again for following the blog in 2015 and, if you get a chance, let me know about something good that you have read!

 

Review: Divine Sex

divine sexDivine Sex, Jonathan Grant. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

Summary: Jonathan Grant argues that a powerful “social imaginary” shapes sexual expression even within the Christian community and only communities that live and articulate a “thick” alternative vision can hope to have a formative influence on the lives of Christian disciples.

Often, when I talk with various people in leadership in the Christian community about issues related to sexuality, there is a sense of not knowing what “hit us” and not necessarily liking the result nor knowing how to address it. What I think this important book by Jonathan Grant does is parse out the cultural revolution that has occurred that forms the sexual desires of all of us, and articulates a path forward for the church that goes much farther than the negative messages of “what not to do, when not to do it, and who not to do it with” that has often summarized teaching around sexuality within the church.

Grant draws heavily on the ideas of Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith. He argues that there is a secular “social imaginary”, a vision of reality, that fundamentally shapes our sexual attitudes, whether we are Christians or not. In particular, and he draws on Smith here, we are desiring creatures, and this social imaginary shapes both what we desire and how we think those desires may be fulfilled. He develops a cultural analysis of this social imaginary in the first part of the book. Its leading characteristic is an expressive individualism committed to radical authenticity in relationships. With regard to sexuality, there is both the longing to find one’s “soul mate” and yet preserve one’s own sense of autonomous individuality. It results in  a ‘definitely maybe’ culture where people long for intimacy but struggle with commitment.

He explores the surprising reality that increasing numbers are deciding to “go solo”, living alone, while either engaging in a series of casual relationships, or substituting cyber-porn for real relationships. This leads to a focus on the consumeristic aspect of modern sexuality, where media has created a feminine (and perhaps masculine) ideal, and where, through online dating, there is this myth of infinite choice, where one is always wondering if there is someone more perfect than the one you are with. He chillingly chronicles the rise of cyber-pornography and how it rewires the brain and renders its users less capable of engaging in real relationships that fail to conform to video fantasies. All this leads to a hyper-sexualized self, where, as one person interviewed put it, “sex has no mystery.”

The second half of the book begins to look at what the author thinks the church must do, drawing on his own parish experience. He believes in the development of a Christian social imaginary, a compelling vision of sexuality within the life of a Christian disciple. It is a vision that is eschatological, understanding ourselves as the betrothed of Christ preparing for our union as the Church with him. This situates sexual desire within the framework of being a sign of something so much larger and really good for which we were made. It is a vision that is metaphysical, recognizing that it is as male and female we image God. We do not complete each other, and so singleness can be honored and fulfilling, but the marriage union does image something of the Creator. It is a vision that is formational and missional. It emphasizes faithfulness and service of fulfillment and the autonomous self. All of this focuses around shaping our desire for God, recognizing that our longing for intimacy is met most deeply in God and all other intimacies point us toward, and are meant to reflect that intimacy.

So much of this can happen only in a community that is living out the story of a gospel that calls us into redeemed relationships marked by commitment, service, and self-giving love. Desire is shaped by examples, as friends, singles, and couples, model a new way of living and desiring that spans generations. He concludes with thoughts about various formational practices of such a community including embodied worship, that celebrates our physicality and churches that are courting communities, not in the sense of the singles “meat market” but as a place where men and women can serve and work together and have the chance to explore who the other is in the context of a supportive community.

The book is an elegantly written and thoughtful cultural analysis that avoids the easy nostrums of so many books while putting forth a rich vision of sexuality as both gift of God and harbinger of so much more. He speaks into a culture that has made sexualty little more than a pleasure function, even while so many who have been caught up in the secular social imaginary find themselves asking, “is that all there is?” Grant points the way to a different vision that would suggest that indeed there is so much more.

Recently, this book was named one of Christianity Today’s Books of the Year in the category of Christian Living/Discipleship.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Redeeming Sex

Redeeming SexRedeeming 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.

Review: To Whom Does Christianity Belong?

To Whom Does Christianty belongTo Whom Does Christianity Belong?, Dyron B. Daughrity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Summary: This book argues that when one speaks of “Christianity” this must be understood in global terms in all of its diversity of expression and not simply in the forms we Westerners are most accustomed to.

I’m still surprised how often in conversations about matters of faith people will categorize Christianity as a Western, Euro-American faith and distinguish it from belief systems in other parts of the world. Not only is this inaccurate as to both the origins and history of Christianity, it is wildly inaccurate in terms of understanding Christianity today, when it can truly be argued that Christianity is a global faith. The Pope is from South America. The most rapidly growing churches are in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Increasingly missions, and migrations, are bringing the message of Christianity back to Europe where a vibrant Christian presence has given way to secularism.

That and more is the contention of this book. The author, in a sweeping, readable survey of Christianity around the world, contends that “Christianity” doesn’t really belong to any single group or part of the world. Some of this has to do with the diverse understandings of what Christianity is. Who gets to define this? Is it the apostolic fathers, the growing house church movement in China, the Dalits of India, or the liberation theologians of Latin America?

He turns to the “theological loci” of the church and here as well notes the distinctives to be found in ideas of the church in different parts of the world, such as the Kimbanguists of Africa, ideas of Jesus, the rise of Pentecostalism and new ideas about the Holy Spirit and teaching about the afterlife. Daughrity gives examples from various Christian movements around the world to illustrate this diversity.

He considers the church in the world looking first at Rome and the changing face of Catholicism and its various expressions throughout the world. He considers the Protestants, continuing to split and express their faith uniquely. He weighs the impact of secularization, for now a movement that has most deeply touched Europe, and wonders whether North America will follow. And he talks about the new face of missions, where as in the beginning of the church, the gospel often goes along paths of people migrations as much as through intentional activity, although now from Europe, Asia, and Latin America to the rest of the world, including the secularizing west.

The last part of the book considers contemporary themes or issues. First there is the contested ground of marriage, gender, and sexuality where the secularizing west is at odds with the majority cultures of the world–and surprisingly, Orthodox eastern Europe and Russia. Similarly, there are diverse understandings of the role of women in the family and the church. Finally, the author considers the emergence of indigenous styles of music and worship where Christians are singing new songs in many tongues.

In the end the author doesn’t answer the question of the book’s title, except to infer that it might belong to those you would not have thought of, and to a far broader swath of humanity than we might credit. The closest he gets to an answer is at the very end where he suggests that it belongs to all, who in their need, and their sufferings for righteousness seek the risen Christ. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

There are some who will object to what might seem a “relativizing” of the Christian message. I would contend that what the author does is to resist the temptation to harmonize the diverse and even divergent strands of Christianity and gives us rather this global mosaic in all of its complexity. I also appreciate the combination of a broad and thoughtful account presented in a highly readable style. I would recommend this for anyone who wants to get a good picture of global Christianity today.