I want to start this post by naming my bias I have against books in the Christian marketplace; I recognize the problematic nature of this bias, since I am a writer who has always worked with Christian publishers, and have read many excellent books by other authors who identify as Christian. But when Bromleigh McCleneghan’s agent wrote, asking if our blog would consider doing a review of her book, Good Christian Sex, my initial thought was “oh boy, this promises to be all kinds of horrible.”
Maybe it was mid-summer optimism that made me say yes to writing a review. Or maybe it was the book’s subtitle, Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says about Sex. Whatever the case, I am grateful for the opportunity to read what is, in my mind, the best book I’ve encountered about Christianity and sex, and I’m hopeful that her ideas can begin to shift the ways Christians talk about sex and sexuality.
McCleneghan uses her own observations as a pastor, as well as her personal experiences, to develop a sexual ethic that especially resonates with me because it doesn’t turn immediately to the polar extremes with which too many Christians tend to view sex. Instead, she explores the nuances of sex and sexuality, hoping that, fundamentally and in all things, “we know love, joy, holiness, and pleasure in these lives God has given us.”
Good Christian Sex begins to dismantle some of the deeply entrenched views Christians tend to have about sex, including the contradictory notions that sex outside of marriage is deeply shameful, but sex within the bounds of marriage will always be amazing, pleasurable, mind-blowing. We tend to swim through a stew of mixed messages about sex, not even aware of how pervasive shame and confusion about sex and sexuality cloud our worldview.
Case in point: I realized that having a book titled Good Christian Sex seemed a bit embarrassing to me, especially given the cover image of two hands seemingly on the cusp of intimacy. I found myself obscuring the book’s title while I read, not really wanting others to know I was reading a book about S-E-X, even if it was the good Christian kind. (And oh, the mortification: here I am, writing a review about a sex book!)
Clearly, I need an author like McCleneghan to help me untangle my many complex and contradictory thoughts about good Christian sex, and gratefully, she delivers. McCleneghan wades into difficult territory, with chapters on masturbation, vulnerability, desire, intimacy, and fidelity, among other topics. But instead of providing quick prohibitions against such acts as self-pleasure and sex outside of marriage, the author takes time to consider what the Bible says, what church tradition has said, and how Christians can live rightly in a sexual ethic that recognizes and loves, rather than objectifies, the Other.
Indeed, the central claim around which she builds her case is compelling; McCleneghan suggests a theology of sexuality should focus on a “single norm”: “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” She considers Martin Buber’s I and Thou, noting that the world is structured by two relational dynamics: I-It and I-Thou. When we relate as “I-It,” we are relating to something as an object, to be used; when we relate as “I-Thou,” we relate to the other as someone who we value and, she writes, we “understand them as we would ourselves: as subjects, as actors and agents; people, complicated, living people, just like us.” Because God is the “Eternal Thou,” both the Other and God can only be known through a moving, changing, dynamic relationship, unlike our connection to an object, to be used for our purposes.
Seen through this lens, good Christian sex is not about prohibition and limitation, and is not a list of rigid rules through which we see and relate to the other, because in that rigidity, the other ceases to be a complex person, but merely an object by which we measure our own righteousness. Instead, McCleneghan challenges readers to check their motives to assure that every encounter with another is based on justice: on doing what is fair and right for and desired by the Other. This is hard work, she reminds us, and sometimes a list of sexual do’s and don’ts is far easier to navigate.
Perhaps this is one of the many reasons I like McCleneghan’s book so much. Rather than resorting to the easy catalogue of what monogamous Christians should or should not do during intimacy (or even, whether only heterosexual people can have good Christian sex), McCleneghan does the important work of calling us to consider the value of sex, and also the significant ways we are created for relationship. She argues well that sex can be holy and sacramental, fun and pleasurable, capable of healing and of destroying.
Good Christian Sex challenges me to consider intimate relationships in different ways; perhaps more significantly, McCleneghan has helped me to consider how I will talk about sex and sexuality with my boys, now only minutes away from adulthood and from learning what it means to love another person, wholly, completely, intimately. McCleneghan says loving another in this way is “terribly simple; it’s harder than it sounds.”