As a pastor and mother of three, I spent a lot of time talking to them semi-awkwardly during their adolescence about sex, and when to have it and when it might be better to wait, and how to value themselves and how to value others, and attempting to put common sense safer sex practices into a context that reflected my, and I hoped their, faith stance. We are Christians of the liberal/progressive-ish flavor, and they grew up in a small New England city where church-going was on the downturn, so their classmates and friends were mostly not having this conversation through the filter of their faith, and the few who were came to it from the conservative end of the spectrum. I like to think I got my point across, that the idea of employing a love ethic based on the Great Commandment would go a long way toward ensuring good intimate relationships. I wrote in my 2009 blog post, “It’s about a sense that your existence matters deeply to the other person and your coming together is holy because of it.” Bromleigh McCleneghan commented on that post and quoted the line back to me with appreciation. Now she has written a great book expanding on the topic, Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option — and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex (2016: HarperOne).
The grace of being seen and known, of holy attentiveness to a partner, is possible, I’d argue, in any just and loving action toward another, and it’s part of what makes sexual encounters — or good ones, anyway — so pleasurable. (pp. 51-52)
McCleneghan uses her own admittedly privileged experiences as a conversation partner with modern scholars, voices from the Christian tradition, and scripture as she explores pleasure, desire, ethics, waiting, vulnerability, intimacy, fidelity, and the past we carry with us. By making herself vulnerable, she invites readers to lower their defenses. Her personal stories are matter-of-fact without feeling exhibitionist, one of the challenges of writing about sex. She writes about God as the deity well-known to progressive Christians but also intuited by pragmatic believers at many points on the theological spectrum. Somehow there has to be more to the complicated feelings of love and desire than a list of rules; if we reject old-school norms that advantaged men and straight people, we need an ethic for this time and a way to hold ourselves accountable.
Her writing voice is intelligent, pragmatic, humorous, and authentic. Her chapter about fidelity explores what “counts” as lust; in a world in which women who have been assaulted are blamed for tempting men in their weakness, I agree we need some new understandings. McCleneghan wrestles with the admonitions of Jesus, engages the work of Margaret Farley on Just Sex, and considers the philosopher Simon Blackburn. She lands in a place that, I believe, makes Good Christian Sense.
If love is about valuing another and honoring God’s image within her, lust is less concerned with the good of the other than with the meeting of a desire for union. It’s not that no affection for the object exists, just that his needs and wants are not the priority. (p. 191)
I must say, and this in no way diminishes my overall appreciation for the book, that although some of the people she surveyed were LGBTQ, this is a very straight book. It’s not that queer people cannot get something from her narrative or her theology, but they will see very little of their story represented. It’s a relatively young and mostly able-bodied book, but I appreciated the mentions of older couples who cannot marry for economic reasons and the recounting of a story of disability and the challenge it poses for intimacy. It’s also the story of a person who has been, as she names, fortunate in her relationships, her fertility, even her mistakes.
Yet, as a person who married as a young virgin and came out to myself relatively late in life (even after that blog post quoted above), I found that McCleneghan effectively captured something crucial about desire that played a part in my story.
Many women had sex for the first time for love, or because their partner wanted it, or because they had made up their minds that they were old enough and ready — in a rite of passage sort of way — but not because they desired it for themselves. Not because their partner had awakened the desire to share this powerful experience of vulnerability and grace. (p. 57)
McCleneghan is getting pushback from the conservative wing of the mainline church for being forthright. That’s exactly what I love about her writing, even in the passages where I disagree with her conclusions. This is a great book for people who live in the real world, where pastors most often marry couples who already live together, where parents want to guide their teenaged and 20-something offspring, but don’t want to be the hypocrites who say, “Do as I say but not as I did.” This is a great book for anyone trying to put words on a responsible sexual ethic for the 21st century, when we reach physical maturity early and marry late. This is a great book for young people who are trying to figure out how to be real, how to be kind, how to be loving and lovable and loved. I highly recommend it.
I received a free copy of the book after agreeing to participate in a Book Tour, with no promises made in exchange.