Three books about Christians and Sex, with tamales

A Review:

Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Tina Schermer Sellers (Routledge, 2017)

Shameless: How I Lost My Virginity and Kept My Faith by Dani Fankhouser * (ReadThisNext Publishing; 2017)

Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity by Gregory Coles (IVP Books, 2017)

One Friday night, around a table littered with the remnants of homemade tamales and half empty bottles of Modela, a Mexican-American woman in her early 40s asked me about desire, about pleasure. I was always told it was wrong, dirty. God – God is about purity, and holiness. But you’re trying to tell me it’s okay to want; it’s not shameful. It’s not unnatural, as a woman, to want sex?download-3

She’s a wife, a mother. To teenagers.

To her right, another woman reported that she went to Catholic school for twelve years, and never heard a word from her mother about sex. Not a word, until she came home pregnant and her mother called her a whore and threw her out of the house.

When Gregory Coles was a teenager, he heard a lot about sex, desire, and God. He heard about the terrible sin of lust, in church youth groups and from his older brothers: the sin that would transform his wonderful friendships with girls into something base and demeaning, the sin that would be forever tugging on his imagination.  When he first noticed that he seemed to be spared from the teeth of that dark force, he felt lucky.  Only when he finally started realizing that it wasn’t his girl friends that he lusted over did he start to worry.

The youth pastor at Dani Fankhouser’s church preached regularly on how sexual purity set Christians apart: “If you’re drinking, or doing drugs, or having sex, you are NOT a Christian!” [he] would declare, his voice raised, during especially passionate parts of his Sunday sermon to junior high and high school students. I wondered if any of my fellow churchgoers were actually drinking or having sex, or if the youth pastor was trying to atone for his own pre-conversion behavior.” Despite this line of questioning, young Dani knew that even fantasizing about sex was sinful: “I prayed that I could stop—but it was hard to control my thoughts. When I got older, I started saying no to my crush in the fantasies—before we inevitably still had sex— because at least then, I wasn’t daydreaming about willingly taking part in sin, although it didn’t seem like a very good solution to fantasize about my crush as a perpetrator of rape.” (20)

This fall has seen a deluge of outings of serial sexual harassers and abusers; women who have been victimized are bravely raising their voices and their hands, proclaiming “me, too.”  For those of us who are privileged to receive people’s stories about sex – about abuse and desire and silence and pleasure – these revelations are far from shocking, but when considered in light of Christian conversations about sex, they aren’t even surprising. Christians are habitually terrible at talking about sex.

Three recent books are trying to course correct, with varying degrees of success, and offer important insights for Christian leaders

Fankhouser’s very short memoir is impressionistic and engaging. I read fully half of it while just checking to make sure the ARC had downloaded correctly. Fankhouser grew up an extremely conservative member of a California bible church and went to a conservative California Christian college where she and all her classmates pledged not to drink, dance or have any sexual relationships. As she grew older, went to grad school, moved to New York and widened her social circle, she began to question the assumptions of her upbringing. She’s a bit of a unicorn for progressive Christians: the evangelical young woman who engages in Bible study, theological and ethical inquiry, and critical reflection on her experiences and finds liberation from shame and a deeper, broader faith.  One wishes she’d say a bit more, connect a few more dots; but Shameless is an important reversal from the countless Christian memoirs that start with the marginally Christian young woman who sleeps around before deciding that, in fact, her God requires celibacy.  That story’s already been told; Fankhouser boldly (and, it should be noted, through self-publishing) offers new wisdom.

Gregory Coles, alternatively, is a unicorn for Intervarsity and their ilk. His brief, engaging memoir does important (and brave) work.  Despite growing up in community’s that speak routinely of homosexuality as a sin and offer both prayer and heterosexual relationships as a potential cure, Coles knows that he is as God created him to be, gay.  No more a sinner than anyone else.

But — and this commitment is what makes his such a useful testimony for IVP — Coles, from his study of the Bible, from the depths of his prayer life, also hears that sex is for marriage and marriage is uniquely for men and women, and that the only faithful future for him is a celibate one.  See? We aren’t bigoted or hate-filled: there’s just a different vocation for gay Christians…

 Coles is a gracious narrator – he wonders if it’s better to be monogamous and loving and gay or promiscuous and straight; he refuses to judge.  But, frustratingly, he cannot imagine the limits of a theology or hermeneutic that insists on a God who would lovingly and intentionally create gay people and yet also dogmatically strong arm someone into a “vocation” of lifelong singleness.  Coles can’t see that in his desire to show his deep and self-sacrificial love for Jesus, he’s limiting the divine love for gay, single him. Coles doesn’t fall prey to the shame so many Christians do around their sexuality, but he’s managed that by completely cutting himself off from sexual intimacy. That doesn’t really seem like much of a solution.

In both of these memoirs, and in the lives of the women at the Friday night book club, religious leaders offer limited help if not outright harm in navigating shame and intimacy. Sex, God and the Conservative Church, by Seattle-based therapist and professor Tina Schermer Sellers speaks into that void, shedding light on various threads throughout Christian history and weaving those threads together with stories from her practice and teaching and insights on practices for individuals and couples.  The reading Schermer Sellers gives of Christian history and theology is a bit cursory; her periodic incredulity is sometimes grating.  But Schermer Sellers has nevertheless assembled an incredibly useful volume, which should be read by any pastors who do premarital or marital counseling, those who work with young adults, and those who grew up in conservative congregations who are looking for a way to cast off shame while keeping the faith.  Pastors should, in most instances, heed the adage to “refer, refer, refer” but this resources will prove profoundly helpful in setting the context in which many adult Christians seeking intimacy find themselves.

As that book group discussion – the one with the tamales and the modelos — drew to a close, I asked what the women wanted their kids to know about love and sex.  Would they teach their kids the need for absolute abstinence out of marriage? Would they teach them to be afraid of or disgusted by their desires? Would they try to shame their kids into abstinence?  I just know we have to do better, one woman said with certainty.  We have to do better by our kids.

*Full disclosure, edited: I’ve been on Dani’s podcast and I share a mutual friend with Tina, too. The pond of fabulous Christian women writing about sex is not that big.

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My twitter tagline is "Fiercely interested in most things." Writer, mom, pastor, spouse, daughter, sister, citizen -- not in any order, and usually all at once. Nearly life-long resident of Cook County, IL, for better and for worse.

2 thoughts on “Three books about Christians and Sex, with tamales”

  1. Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers says:

    Hi Bromleigh – Thanks for the review. I don’t have a podcast, so we’ve never spoke, but I did get a chance to read your book. I appreciated what you brought to the conversation. Our mutual friend, Danae Ashley, who worked on the project shared it with me. It was clear from reading it that the Episcopal community over the last 30+ years has been a bit kinder than the evangelical community to youth around sex. Perhaps this is why some of the stories or stances I present can be grating. They too often bear the symptoms of sexual trauma. Thanks for your work in perpetuating and propelling this conversation in the direction of health. TSS

    1. Bromleigh says:

      That’s right! I thought maybe you were on the Thank God for Sex podcast, too. I think your work is so important, and believe mainline pastors would benefit from it immensely, because while we tend to think we do a better job talking to people about sex than our evangelical counterparts, our silence and limited theological reflection has created its own wounds. I didn’t mean to offend. — BJM.

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