Review: Heavy Burdens

Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church, Bridget Eileen Rivera. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.

Summary: Rather than an argument about what the Bible says about LGBTQ persons, a discussion of the ways LGBTQ Christians, regardless of their beliefs, have suffered under heavy, and the author would argue, needless burdens.

This is not one more book arguing about what the Bible says about LGBTQ issues. Bridget Eileen Rivera, a celibate, lesbian Christian committed to the church’s traditional teaching about sexuality and marriage (often labeled Side B in this discussion) offers a much needed account of how the church often wounds young men and women struggling both with their faith and sexuality, often driving them away from faith, and sometimes to the point of suicide. One of the sobering truths this book talks about is that, unlike any other demographic group, religious involvement of LGBTQ persons actually increases their likelihood to commit suicide. Equally troubling, these burdens have nothing to do with what we believe the Bible says about sexuality.

The first of these is the double standard around celibacy. On the one hand, much of the church glorifies sex within marriage and has little to say about celibacy–except for gay persons–even though the Bible commends both celibacy and marriage.

The second is that no matter what an LGBTQ person does (or doesn’t) do, they are often treated as pathological sinners. Actually, in doing so, the church follows Freud and not scripture, which only speaks about acts rather than orientation. Freud helped construct the idea of “homosexual identity.” Many in the church brand members who simply admit attractions or struggles with gender identification as “perverted,” sometimes banning them from working with children (even though they usually pose no danger to children) or expelling them from families or congregations. We define them as sinners beyond grace.

Third, the church has often branded all LGBTQ people as folk devils and moral enemies when our real enemies are not flesh and blood and we are called always to embody the grace and truth of the gospel. Even more troubling is that many of those so branded and consigned to hell are still teenagers and may not have even acted upon their inclinations. Remember trying to figure out your sexuality in middle and high school? And sometimes we made poor decisions. What if on top of this we were branded enemies of the church and consigned to hell?

Fourth, Rivera shares the complexities in the texts applied to LGBTQ persons that are often described as clear, even while passages referring to adultery, divorce, and the church’s case for or against contraception are often described as complicated. She points to figures like John Piper, who speak of allowing others grace, even though he would disagree with them on matters like divorce. But no grace for LGBTQ persons.

Rather than go into the other burdens in detail, I will note that Rivera discusses issues of how masculinity and femininity are defined, sometimes expressed toward gay men as bullying to get them to “man up,” and the gender essentialism that galvanizes opposition to transexuality, which she argues is rooted in Aristotelianism rather than scripture. Finally, she pleads for as much grace for LGBTQ Christians as is extended to cisgendered straight Christians in all their sexual sins.

I do wonder if there is a tendency toward making the Side A/Side B discussion merely adiaphora–a matter of personal conviction over which Christians disagree and extend grace toward each other. But this does not take away from her powerful witness to the destructive burdens laid upon LGBTQ persons that are not a necessary corollary of the church’s historic beliefs around sexuality and contrary to the gospel.

Rivera and I would agree on our understanding of scripture’s teaching about sexuality, though I suspect her arrival at her convictions was probably harder won than mine. Furthermore, she gives language to my dis-ease about what has seemed an obsession of the church’s focus on the sins of LGBTQ persons, a minority, while blithely ignoring or covering up sexual abuse, pre- and extra-marital sex among Christians, pornography addiction and domestic violence in marriages. She also raises important questions about the extra-biblical material we have imported into Christianity concerning orientation and gender roles. She reminds us that there is much more to the identity and personhood and sexuality of all of us than sex. She touches on something I’ve wondered–what would happen if we began to ask how LGBTQ people may be gifts rather than problems for the church? She leaves me hoping for the day LGBTQ people will not feel they need to leave the church to preserve and find their lives.


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 Fire Within

The Fire Within: Desire, Sexuality, Longing, and God, Ronald Rohlheiser. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of short meditations on human, and particularly sexual desire, contending these come from God and are meant to draw us to God.

With adolescence, we awaken to desire. Much of that is sexual desire and longing for intimacy. About the last thing most of us think of is any connection between our longings and our sexuality and God. Most of us just don’t think of God and sex going together.

Ronald Rohlheiser, speaks candidly of these longings, including his own experience of these as a young man in the novitiate. During a spiritual conference, a speaker spoke of how they must be “jumping out of their skins” and that this was how they should be feeling and it was healthy. As he studied more deeply, he discovered that far from these desires being distant from God, they came from God. He writes in the preface of this work:

“Sexuality is inside us to help lure us back to God, bring us into a community of life with each other, and let us take part in God’s generativity. If that is true, and it is, then given its origin and meaning, its earthiness notwithstanding, sex does not set us against what is holy and pure. It is a Godly energy” (p. xi).

Rohlheiser offers a series of twenty-two reflections expanding on this idea, each about four pages in length. The reflections are divided into two parts. The first focuses on desire and our complex humanity; the second on how we deal humanly and spiritually with desire.

He begins with how longing is at the center of our experience, that this space is a space for God. Instead of using guilt and shame to deal with raw desire, he proposes we help youth see this as God’s creative energy incarnate in our bodies. Our energies are not sinful or evil; only the misuse of them. He compares virgin youth to Jephthah, mourning her virginity. Too often, we demand satisfaction rather than learning to live in the ache of mourning. We are complex in our desires and need to honor and hallow this, learn through it, and live under God’s patience and understanding. Rohlheiser warns of the danger of grandiosity, a type of self-absorption in which desire is turned in on self in pride instead of drawing us to God. Given our complexity and longings never fully to be realized in this life, married or single, we may understand our lives as “unfinished symphonies.’

One of our challenges in dealing with our desires is how easily distracted we are. God’s invitation is to greater mindfulness and attentiveness. Sex is sacramental, filled with spiritual significance. So is everyday life, and we need to have our world re-enchanted. Other essays deal with barrenness, anger, and waiting. Perhaps one of the most illumining are his reflections on re-imagining chastity. He extends this beyond sexuality. The basic idea of chastity is to not force things but to honor their character and rhythms. He uses the example of metamorphosis, which, if rushed, results in a malformed moth or butterfly. Purity is not a matter, first of all of sexual self-control, but of intention, acting in ways that do not manipulate or use others, but align our actions with our commitments. Ultimately, the invitation is into a greatness of soul that can rejoice in the prodigal who returns rather than exacting payback, aware of the mercies we all have received.

It is a good thing these reflections are short because they are filled with insight. These are worth reading one at a time. More important is that they build on a doctrine of our creation as man and woman in the image of God. Our gender and sexuality and desires were created before the fall. Evil doesn’t create anything. It only distorts. Rohlheiser helps us move beyond shame and guilt about our desires to thanksgiving and celebration. From that, it is only a short step from realizing our desires are from God and for God, to wondering how they might be rightly expressed. Chastity and purity are matters of honor and intent rather than restrictive rules or patriarchal control.

One of the challenges facing the church is the articulation of a redemptive vision of sexuality. There is a beautiful story that has been lost in all the rules, the purity culture, the shaming, and the abuses and scandals. Rohlheiser recovers that beauty with both candor and insight. I wish I’d had this book when I was a much younger man, but his insights into our desires and our complexity, and the mystery and wonder of God’s purposes in it all continue to rejoice this heart.


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: Sex and the City of God

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A story of how the decision to choose “the city of God” transformed love, sexuality, and relationships for the author.

At first glance, the title of this book feels like a teaser, playing off the title of another book by Candace Bushnell and the popular television series that followed. But the book really is about one woman’s sexuality and how her choice to live as a citizen of the City of God led to a larger vision of love, healing of her relationship with her father, and a deeper understanding of the meaning of her sexuality. Add to that a heart-warming love story told by a gifted writer, and you have a truly great read.

The story begins with the father, hospitalized and near death. In his last years, he had come to faith, and drawn close to his daughter, the author. Her mind flashes back to the absentee father of her childhood, and her seventh birthday party, a picture of her in a dress he bought her, waiting for him to come home. He didn’t come.

The story moves forward to her graduate studies at Oxford, and the summer at home after she had started following Christ. In the background of that story is TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome) who had shared with her about God, one of the Christians she’d met with but a remote hope for anything more than a good friendship. Back home is Ben, an ex who shows up. A drive in his truck ends at a summer cabin, interrupted by a knock at the door, and a box of books. In the months ahead, she begins to live into not merely a single, but singular life belonging to Christ, a life oriented around Augustine’s City of God rather than the human city.

Through Bible studies at St. Ebbe’s and reading Augustine, she finds her understanding of sexuality reframed, oddly enough through biblical genealogies. The begotten are not merely part of a human family but the created and adopted family of God:

Sex as the template for genealogy is important because sexuality is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. Our relationship to sex speaks of our relationship to God. And because our relationship to God must precede our relationship with everything else, including our own selves, working from this first relationship changes everything. As a result, more often than not in a culture that neglects our dignity as spiritual beings, pursuing this foundational relationship can feel countercultural, though it is God’s norm, for in becoming children of God we become who he intended us to be (p. 63).

It was not as straightforward path. Many frustrating dating relationships. A tempting episode in another cabin with the heat out. Meanwhile, the conversations continued with TDH, who always treated her and other women with respect, was candid in discussion about his own temptations, and his commitment to a chaste life as a Christian. And then he moved back to the States…

The rest of the story, as they say, is a lovely courtship, and then an honest account of marriage with its ups, downs and temptations (including a writing retreat that turns out a walk through the forest from Ben’s cabin, complete with his truck parked in the drive!).

The story ends as it began, with her father, his last voice message and a reflection on how the choices we make in love may well shape who is with us in our last moments. Along the way, Carolyn Weber’s writing draws us into her life, her longings, her temptations and her struggle with them, her hopes and growing faith. Her writing draws us by her descriptions of scenes and places in which we enter into disappointment, into turmoil, into the cold of the cabin, the wildness of a windstorm, the insistent knocking upon a door. This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.


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

Review: Confronting Old Testament Controversies


Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions About Evolution, Sexuality, History, and ViolenceTremper Longman III. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: With a commitment both to the authority of the Bible, and pastoral concern for readers, the author addresses controversial questions about origins, historicity, violence, and sexuality.

This work took a certain amount of courage to write. I suspect there will be a number who read it who applaud what the author says in some places and vehemently disagree elsewhere. Throughout, the author seeks to offer a reading of scripture, particularly the Old Testament that engages the text as a whole and seeks to listen to its overarching  message, that engages scholarship, including scholars, some friends, with whom the author disagrees, and seeks to exercise pastoral care, even for readers who may disagree.

The four issues the author addresses are the controversy of how we read the creation accounts of scripture in light of evolution; whether we can trust that the exodus and Canaanite conquest are historical events, despite claims that they did not happen; how we should think about the claims of divine violence in scripture; and what the Bible teaches about same-sex relations and the pastoral implications of this teaching. My brief summaries of the author’s responses to these controversy should not substitute for a careful reading of his responses, especially if one thinks one differs with the author.

  • On evolution, he both argues against “wooden reading that would lead us to think that it was the intention of the biblical author to provide us with a straightforward description of the how of creation” and equally against those who would deny “a historic fall and concept of original sin.” He contends that the Bible is interested in the who and why of creation while science addresses the how.
  • On history, he affirms the historical reality as well as the theological import of the exodus and conquest narratives.
  • On violence, he believes that attempts to claim God didn’t hurt anyone or that seek to minimize the harm, do not do justice to the biblical text, which, consistent with the New Testament portrays a God who fights against, and finally defeats evil. He actually suggests that the violence of the Old Testament, first against the nations, and later against Israel herself, stand as forewarnings of God’s final judgment.
  • On sexuality, he affirms the historic view of the church affirming sexual intimacy within the boundaries of a marriage between a man and a woman. He thoughtfully deals with key texts and alternative readings. While he holds to what is now called a “traditional” view, he contends he speaks only to the church here and that there are implications of the Bible’s teaching about sexuality that challenge every believer. He opposes crusades against same-sex marriage or the withholding of business services to LGBT persons offered to others.

What I most admired are the gracious ways in which Longman engages and charitably differs with scholars, including one who was a former student, and another who is a close friend. I affirm the ways he shows pastoral concern without compromising theological integrity, modeling a belief that love and truth, story and principle need not be at odds. Finally, I appreciate the thoughtful, nuanced yet concise, responses to four controversies, each of which have been the subjects of multiple complete books. What each have in common are that they represent shifts from historic understanding, arising both from scholarship and other cultural forces. Longman offers a thoughtful restatement of the biblical teaching that weighs the counter arguments and finds them inadequate to justify abandoning historic understandings shared by most of the church through most of its history.

The work serves as a good starting place for someone who wants to read a well-stated “conservative” view (although some conservatives and some evolutionists alike would be unhappy with Longman on evolution) on the four controversies addressed by this book. The documentation points people to the full range of scholarship on each of the questions. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter may help both with personal reflection and group discussion. Most of all, the work models a spirit in desperate need of recovery, that can both speak unequivocally about one’s convictions yet shows charities toward one’s opponents.


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: 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.


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:


Private, Subjective, Relativistic



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?”


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…


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.


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 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.


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.