NADIA BOLZ-WEBER is tired, and angry about what passes for sex education in the American Church. She is a former stand-up comic, a recovering alcoholic, and the founder of a remarkable Lutheran congregation in Denver, Colorado: House for All Sinners and Saints.
Many of her congregation (herself included) are refugees from, and survivors of, strict Evangelical upbringings. They were taught from a very early age, as one trans woman expressed it, “that God’s plan is for everyone to be a heterosexual, cis-gender Christian who never has sex with anyone until they marry their one true love and make babies”.
“If that’s ‘God’s plan’,” writes Bolz-Weber, “then God planned poorly.” Not included in that circle are “divorced people, people in unhappy marriages, people who have sex before marriage, people who masturbate, asexuals, gay people, bi-sexuals, people who are not Christians, people who are gender non-binary.”
She relates the affecting stories of a succession of individuals whose attempts to conform to the rigid “biblical” patterns of sexual understanding and behaviour which they were taught from puberty have led them to malformed ideas of who they are, who God is, and how they make relationships; and these have led not infrequently to self-harm, depression, substance abuse, and despair. “Sexual shame seems to plague most of my congregation,” she writes.
Bolz-Weber’s message, articulated with passion, fury, and theological insight, is that “we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people.” So, for instance, she suggests that the Evangelical absolute insistence on sexual abstinence outside marriage comes from a long-held suspicion of the human body, and that it fails to allow young people to understand their natural desires, explore their sexuality, and develop mature, fulfilling relationships.
Shameless is refreshingly frank, direct, earthy, and human. It is a euphemism-free zone. She takes an axe to the upright tree of the 2017 “Nashville Statement”, written by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and plants the seed of a different and more inclusive sexual ethic. The best thing about this book is that Bolz-Weber is prepared to talk freely and realistically about sex: about how we do, and don’t do, it, and to encourage the Church to join thoughtfully in the conversation.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster and Anglican priest.
Shameless: A sexual reformation
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £14.99