Searching For a Sexual Ethic

Review of "Shameless: A Sexual Reformation"

JIM: I’ve appreciated Nadia Bolz-Weber’s books, blogs, sermons, and much of Shameless. But as a semi-retired, white-privileged pastor, I risk cultural (mis)appropriation, poking around in lives of people in ways that could harm – not help.

You, though, Sara, working with university students, have a closer view into their lives and issues of sexuality. So, thanks for discussing this book together. How did Shameless affect your own life and work?

SARA: Thanks for the invitation to collaborate, Jim. I picked up Shameless on the urging of a campus ministry alumnus. I hadn’t read much by Bolz-Weber, though I was familiar with her perspective and brazen style.

Since starting in campus ministry over 12 years ago, sexuality, purity and relationships have been among the most-discussed topics with both graduate students and undergrads. So parts of Shameless resonated deeply – particularly the stories she tells from her vulnerable parishioners’ lives.

JIM: Well, I hesitated to write this. Not that I’ve lost verve for Bolz-Weber’s edgy pastoral and literary work, but having read Shameless I find my boundaries falling in different places from hers.

SARA: To be honest, I expected I’d concur with Bolz-Weber in content and just take issue with her radical tone, given what I knew of her before. Based on pastoral work with young adults, I agree that much needs to change about how the Church teaches, discusses and models sexuality. Yet I filled my book’s margins with both exclamation marks (resonance) and some question marks.

JIM: Though she’s no longer pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints Evangelical Lutheran Church, that congregation’s life and ethos still play a variation on the melody of Shameless. But here Bolz-Weber modulated to a more dissonant melody than in two previous books.

SARA: Most of this book emphasizes the harmful Christian posture toward sexuality that Bolz-Weber is fighting against and less her proposal to replace it. It’s not absent – the first and last chapters include some beautiful suggestions of a Christian sexual ethic that sees “someone as a whole person and not just a willing body” and adds concern to the secular ethic of consent and mutuality. But I’m not completely on board with her invitation to “burn it the f*%& down and start over.”

JIM: In many ways Shameless is more of what I’ve come appreciate about Bolz-Weber’s books. As in Pastrix and Accidental Saints, she offers fascinating glimpses into the lives of people in her daring ministry.

SARA: Those stories of parishioners who suffered abuse, shame, and rejection from churches, and Christians who impose their sexual ethic without grace or compassion and with ignorance and hatred, resonated most. I heard echoes of stories of students I’ve pastored. I share both Bolz-Weber’s rage and her deep compassion for them; I’ve seen the harm caused to people I love.

JIM: Bolz-Weber’s description of the Purity Movement is revealing, though scary. She exposes it as a male-chauvinistic tool to keep women from expressing sexuality in any supposedly tempting way. Meanwhile, females carry “purity’s” burden with ZERO corresponding rules for males to control lust.

SARA: I grew up adjacent to that Purity culture in the 1990s-2000s. As a teenager I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and wore a “True Love Waits” ring! I now pastor young women who are processing their shame and confusion emerging from the same purity culture.

Overwhelmingly, the questions young women raised in churches (especially evangelical) long to discuss are: the creational goodness of women’s bodies, how our bodies work, female desire, healthy boundaries (not just physical) in romantic relationships, and the gendered power dynamics that often lead to abuses of power in churches (which most have encountered personally).

They may have received some education from parents, churches, or schools about the biology of sex (how to put on a condom, what intercourse and menstruation are). But they long for and usually lack a nuanced, articulated, holistic sexual ethic that both embraces the God-given goodness of bodies, desire and sex, and is compassionately clear about healthy boundaries within which these good things might flourish. Singleness and sexuality also come up often; most students are single and data suggests this generation will be single far longer than their parents.

JIM: Bolz-Weber writes about the torment her friend Cindy experienced. While younger she attended “purity retreats” for women to “transcend their sinful bodies.” Yet later she fell into an affair with her pastor’s wife while married to the church’s worship leader. That story alone exemplifies the shame of sexuality that has historically bound the Christian church. What struck you?

SARA: I found compelling Bolz-Weber’s phrase “sexual stewardship.” Based on her reading of the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-20), she tells of a couple who “followed all the rules” – abstaining from sex until marriage and practicing male headship. She argues the couple “buried their innate sexual development in order to please the master” like the wicked servant buried his master’s money. Both servant and couple expected rewards, but instead experienced pain, loneliness, and broken relationships. I question this comparison, but “sexual stewardship” may be a fruitful idea.

I also appreciated her discussion of sexual desire and pornography, particularly her take on ways that our consumer culture over-saturates us with pleasurable taste. Using sugar as an example, she suggests this double excess might dull our appreciation of natural goodness. “I wonder if the cost . . . is a loss of pleasure, not an abundance of it. Can we enjoy the pleasure of our middle-aged spouse’s body after consuming two straight hours of internet porn featuring impossibly perfect, hairless, willing, youthful actors?”

JIM: Bolz-Weber’s subtitle proposes a “sexual revolution.” Thoughts?

SARA: Much must change in ways that people discuss, create, and embody a Christian sexual ethic in and outside of churches. On that I completely agree with Bolz-Weber. I’m not convinced, though, that her “burn it down and start over sexual revolution” is the answer.

Some holistic, faithful, image-bearing resources from Scripture and Judeo-Christian tradition remain helpful – though they may need to be reclaimed or revised. Feminist interpretations of the Song of Songs and the long history of women Biblical interpreters have subverted and opposed male interpretations of Scripture. Amanda Benckhuysen’s recently released The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation is an example.

What was your response to her proposed “sexual revolution”?

Nadia Bolz-Weber meeting Jim Dekker in 2016.
Nadia Bolz-Weber meeting Jim Dekker in 2016.

JIM: I have two reservations. First, Bolz-Weber describes her own recent transitions and seems to apply them to principles for the “revolution.” She writes poignantly about her own abortion many years ago, describing the emotional and spiritual hurricane she survived. If there were a personal argument for abortion, this episode in her life would carry weight.

SARA: That’s where I put one of my question marks. Sometimes it feels like this book is Bolz-Weber’s form of therapy, exorcising, sometimes justifying the troubling parts of her story. I can’t agree with her bold statement that to this day she believes her decision to have an abortion was “the right one,” even though I have compassion for the terribly difficult position she was in then.

JIM: I was jolted by Bolz-Weber’s telling of how she left her husband Matthew a few years ago because it was a largely sexless, boring union. That version differs considerably from an article she wrote years ago about meeting and marrying Matthew. She now enjoys sexual fulfillment with Eric, a former lover, though mentions nothing of intent to marry. Does she traverse her own life changes mostly to cast off historical mores of fidelity for the sake of sexual pleasure. How long can that last?

My second caution applies to other writings, namely her combative, one-finger-salute style. At first it’s fun to laugh along with her profane insults. But three books, many blogs, and interviews in, the raunchiness cloys. Her rhetoric reminds me of the gross excesses in Martin Luther’s, John Calvin’s and others’ polemics. Worse, though, the tone comes perilously close to the rawness, rudeness and vulgarity of U.S. political discourse, modelled so damagingly by Donald Trump. Such rhetoric will persuade no one who doesn’t already agree with her.

But I’m hopeful. That old saying is accurate for everybody: “The Lord is not finished with me yet.” I believe, as one friend told me, that Nadia Bolz-Weber’s sexual revolution hasn’t reached the last station. Where she will keep going is uncertain, but some time she will have to offer principles and boundaries for commitment instead of what appears a “Just do it” ethic.

SARA: I applaud Bolz-Weber for boldly pushing back against a Christian sexual ethic that has done harm to many, and has shrouded sexuality and desire in a cloak of shame and secrecy in the church. I’m thankful for her openness and studied rejection of what has come before. On the other hand, if this book fully describes the revolution she’s starting, I hesitate to jump on this bandwagon. How about continuing to wrestle with Scripture, culture, and tradition, learning from and with those who are on the margins?

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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