Deb Hirsch's book Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations about Sexuality and Spirituality has only been on the shelves a couple of months, and already, it is impacting the Christian conversation around sexuality and making waves. For many, they've been waves of relief--a collective exhale. For those of us who hate the way sex is generally discussed in church circles, she has given a new language and license for a more compassionate and honest conversation.
Amazon reviewers have raved over the book, and Relevant Magazine named Redeeming Sex as one of 11 essential summer reads, explaining, "Hirsch draws upon her own experience in and around the LGBT community to write this gracious exploration on sex and the Church. Hirsch calls for churches to extend hospitality and embrace the LGBT community, but stops short of arguing that churches should affirm same-sex marriages. This book demonstrates an unwavering Christ-like love for all humanity and carves out a space for open conversation about sexuality. It flies in the face of the escalating culture wars of our day and invites us to imagine a Church of the future that is shaped by the Gospel virtues of love and unity."
While much of the book does directly engage the conversation around LGTB sexuality (so very important, whether are processing questions around sexual orientation or questions around the church's best respond to the LGTB community), there is also a good deal of conversation around heterosexual sexuality and the way the church has moved away from a healthy view of our sexuality. I found Redeeming Sex to be both freeing and encouraging. Since so much has been written around the book's approach to homosexuality, I thought I'd center mine around the broader conversation around healthy sexuality:
De-stigmatizing Sexuality in the Church
This week I had a conversation with a couple who, though they've been married for years, still feel unsure around expressing sexuality within their marriage relationship. They grew up in very conservative Christian homes, where sexuality was considered dirty and shameful. And of course, after marriage vows are exchanged, sexuality is necessary for babies! Just like that, the switch is supposed to flip, but for them, they're not sure exactly HOW to flip the switch. And even though the strong message from the church is "Babies are good--get going," they're not sure who to turn to for an honest conversation and freedom to ask questions. Sex may be great after marriage, but it still feels taboo to discuss it.
I have had this conversation with dozens of people over the years, and it makes me feel grateful (at least in this area) that I didn't grow up in the church!
To quote Deb, "We have to simply admit that Christian spiritual traditions of the West have not formed us well in this area. It is as if we have been left stranded on the shores of the twenty-first century as underdeveloped, oversexed adolescents attempting to navigate adult bodies in a deeply sexualized context."
In her introduction, she explains, "We need to move beyond the largely moralistic, disgraced, traditional dualistic suppression of the body (and the soul, for that matter) that has marked Christianity in the Western tradition. We need to (re) apply to our sexualities the radical grace and salvation that we all must find in Jesus." And then she carefully and intentionally does just that. She builds a case that our sexuality does in fact come from, and even express the image of, God. As I read her words around healthy sexuality, I repeatedly found myself saying, "Yes! This!" and "Of course--why haven't I seen that before?"
A New Paradigm for Friendship across the Gender Line
Deb's book also gave me language around the difficulty that I sometimes experience as I live and lead and connect as a woman in the church. Because our sexuality is seen as primarily dangerous, I occasionally find it something of a tightrope walk to pursue spiritual friendships and express authentic identity in the context of church community. Because of the "it's complicated" status of male-female relationships within church community, women are often relegated to both leading and being known within specific women's ministries. Even outside of a separate-but-equal type of solution, though, I often find myself bumping into invisible, de facto barriers to collaboration and connection.
Deb addresses this area with care. "Our sexuality is indeed a powerful force. It can lead us to something of an experience of either heaven or hell, depending on our ability to orient it toward God or not. This is why it not only needs to be understood and integrated into our spirituality, but also handled with great care--and why it's imperative for Christians to talk more openly about it."
It's tempting to "handle with care" by avoiding the danger, but she warns us away from the rules that are often imposed on men and women in churches: "In most cases, these types of rules are coming from a sincere place, and in certain settings may be appropriate. But let's not be naive as to what messages they are communicating. First and fundamentally, they effectively reduce the totality of human sexuality to brute sex. Second, they suggest that all men and women are always attracted to one another. Third, they assume that people can't help themselves, they simply have to indulge temptation at every possible opportunity."
The obvious byproducts of this kind of thinking is underdeveloped self control and missed opportunities for collaboration within the kingdom, not to mention the damage inflicted on women who sometimes feel objectified and unseen by the most well-meaning of men. Deb further explains that these rules don't "help [people] to learn to navigate relationships meaningfully--an activity we actually have to do every day of our lives," and that "adults need to be able to make meaningful decisions for themselves, not jsut acquiesce to rules imposed from the outside."
But what is the alternative? We need a third paradigm! Let me explain:
Deb leans into the teaching of Brennan Manning as she processes why the church fails so miserably in promoting healthy social and professional relationship between men and women: "Brennan suggests that the two dominant narratives told in Christian communities have held captive our understanding of friendship. The first is the 'marital/romantic story,' and the second is the 'danger story.' ... Where are the redemptive stories in evangelical culture--stories of healthy nonromantic cross-sex friendships? Brennan proposes the brother-sister metaphor found in Scripture (Mark 3:35) as a third way for men and women to connect in nonsexual intimacy. This vision is a powerful alternative to the prevailing fearful approach to cross-sex relationships."
She goes on to explain that by anchoring our policies around male-female connection in fear, we are thinking primarily about what we hope to avoid, and not about what we hope to encourage and develop. "A proper sexual ethic," she claims, "doesn't deny the fact that we are sexual beings; it develops a framework for the good expression of our good sexuality." Amen!
These passages are just the tip of the iceberg.
If you haven't yet picked up a copy of Deb's book, please know that these are just slivers of the ideas presented. There is so much more to enjoy! Much of the book gives language and license around a compassionate, clear conversation around LGTB sexuality, a conversation we all need to navigate better. But even if that is not a topic you're looking to dig into, there's fantastic content around healthy sexuality, healthy friendship, sexuality within celibacy, and more. If you are a sexual being (hint: you are), there is something in this book for you.
Here are some links to get you started:
About the Author
Kimberly Culbertson serves our tribe as the Associate Director of Forge Austin, and loves coffee almost as much as she loves Jesus.