TALKING about sex, or religion, can make people feel anxious, Nadia Bolz-Weber observes. Talking about the two, in church, might prove too much for us. And so, beneath the vivid blues of the east window at Southwark Cathedral, she leads us in a breathing exercise. As we collectively take three deep breaths, she recites a mantra she learned from her friend Annie: “Inhale the good shit; exhale the bullshit.”
The premise of her new book, Shameless (Books, 22 February), is that, when it comes to the Church’s teaching on sex, there’s a lot to breathe out. “While many of Augustine’s teachings have been revered for generations, when it came to his ideas around sex and gender, he basically took a dump and the church encased it in amber,” Bolz-Weber writes.
A pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA), she spent 18 months interviewing members of her congregation. It left her convinced that, “It doesn’t feel very difficult to draw a direct line between the messages many of us received from the Church and the harm we’ve experienced in our bodies and spirits as a result.”
Many of the stories feature some kind of fracturing.
“There were so many people who, even if they followed all the rules of the Church and waited till they were married, found they could not on the wedding night suddenly flip a switch in their body and their brain, and go from thinking of sex as dirty and sinful and dangerous to thinking of sex as natural, beautiful, and God-given,” Bolz-Weber tells me. “I just heard a lot of those stories of people being told by the Church when they were young to disconnect from their sexuality, and then to be left with frayed wires later in life, and just not know how to flourish in any way sexually.”
WHILE the themes of Shameless will undoubtedly resonate in Britain, the “purity culture” to which many of the stories testify has gripped American society in a way that is difficult to imagine here. As documented by Linda Kay Klein in Pure: Inside the Evangelical movement that shamed a generation of young women and how I broke free (Atria, 2018), fears about public health and a call to return to conservative values, allied with lobbying from Evangelical leaders, generated public funding for abstinence-only sex education that “catalysed the purity industry” in the 1990s.
In 1994, a year after the launch of the True Love Waits campaign at the Southern Baptist Convention, 20,000 adolescents descended on the National Mall to stake 211,156 signed “purity pledges” on the lawn. It was only in 2008, after a nine-year study showed that pupils who received abstinence-only teaching were no more likely than the control group to have abstained, that federal funding was curbed.
If there was a poster boy for the movement, it was Joshua Harris, who was 21 when his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was published — a best-selling clarion call for a return to marriage-focused courtship, conducted with the close involvement of both sets of parents.
“There’s an entire swathe of America that allowed the wisdom from a 21-year-old to profoundly affect the spiritual and sexual development of an entire generation of young people, which feels a bit short-sighted,” Bolz-Weber observes, drily. Harris himself seems to agree, having apologised for the harms caused by the book.
Last month, weeks after announcing that he and his wife were divorcing, he declared: “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
Bolz-Weber describes his decision as “tragic”.
“He was part of a theological system that believed that Christianity was a sin-management programme, end of sentence — that if you tried hard enough to be good you could sanctify yourself, so that God was pleased with you,” she says.
“That’s the whole system. There is no grace, no mercy. So, if that is your understanding of what it means to be Christian — that you are really good at not doing certain things other people do — then if you don’t believe it’s important to not do those things any longer, then what do you do?
“If we can’t police the sexual lives of people, if we cannot enforce some sort of code of sexual morality, then what’s left? I’m like, ‘Oh Joshua, Jesus is left. I’m so sorry that nobody preached, really truly preached Jesus to you.’”
Born within five years of one another into fundamentalist families, Bolz-Weber and Harris have both come to reject the sexual ethic that they were taught as teenagers. But while Harris has said that he is unable to do so while retaining his faith (“in a way it’s almost easier for me to contemplate throwing out all of Christianity than it is to keeping Christianity and adapting it in these different ways,” he told Sojourners), Bolz-Weber sees setting fire to traditional teaching as part of her duty as a pastor.
The subtitle of Shameless is “A sexual reformation”.
“It is time for us to grab some matches and haul our antiquated and harmful ideas about sex and bodies and gender into the yard,” she writes. “It’s time to pay attention to what is happening to the people around us, and to our loved ones, and it’s time for us to be concerned. And I’m not suggesting we make a few simple amendments; new wine in old skins ain’t gonna cut it. I’m saying: ‘Let’s burn it the fuck down and start over.’”
ABSTINENCE until marriage made sense at one time, she tells me: “When young people married about 20 minutes after they finished puberty, and when there was no reliable birth control, and when you really had to know who your progeny was so that the inheritance of property went down the proper channels of a bloodline. I have no problem with it, with the fact that really made sense when those factors were at play in society.
“That is not the society we live in any longer.” People are marrying 20, or 30 years, after puberty, she points out. Can we really tell people to “disconnect from your response system sexually, from your desires, from thoughts”?
The question is: what comes next? In speaking out against the prevalence of shame in Christian attitudes to sex, Bolz-Weber has many allies, from the Roman Catholic theologian Christopher West, whose work popularises Pope John II’s Theology of the Body, to Evangelical writers such as Dr Beth Felker Jones, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College whose Faithful: A theology of sex (Zondervan, 2015), seeks to offer “an antidote to some of the poison that has seeped into Christian sexual morality”.
Photos Ali Johnson/GreenbeltRelaxing with Russell Brand at the Greenbelt Festival on Sunday afternoon
But while these authors argue that traditional teaching — sex belongs within marriage — should be upheld, Bolz-Weber has set herself the challenging task of starting over. Trying to articulate a Christian sexual ethic that was “not legalistic or shaming”, not “just the updated list of naughty things and nice things”, was “the biggest challenge of the book”, she tells the audience at Southwark, after being asked by one woman, currently trying to date online, how to respond to changing sexual norms.
Shameless is not a “a systematic theology of sex”, Bolz-Weber writes. But reflecting on its composition at Southwark, she cites Martin Luther as an inspiration: his insistence on “upping the ante on the fulfilment of the law” — on the presence of good in addition to the absence of harm.
And so, the World Health Organization’s definition of sexual health — consent and mutuality — is not sufficient for a Christian ethic. “Concern” is also needed, “for yourself and for the other person”. This calls for “a deep attention for yourself, the truth of what you need and want, and what is actually good for you, and what will lead to your flourishing, and attention for the other person as well.”
She provides an example: to have a mutually pleasurable sexual encounter with someone while married to someone else would be to fail to show concern to your spouse. And another: “If I’m in a horrible space emotionally . . . and really the last thing I need is to have a sexual encounter with somebody, but they have my consent and there’s mutuality, if they intuit that I’m in a bad place and probably it’s not good for me, and they have sex with me anyway, they have consent and mutuality but they have failed to show concern.”
This ethic means that “people get to be different”, she explains. “There is sexual behaviour that is perfectly healthy for one person, that is not at all healthy for another person.”
In our interview, I want to explore whether there are risks that come with this model. How do we factor in human fallibility — the fact that we can deceive ourselves and other people? What if we look back and decide that, while we thought something was mutual flourishing at the time, we were being manipulative, or manipulated?
LATER, in her talk, Bolz-Weber will recall a time in her twenties when she was part of an “extremely promiscuous” sub-culture, in which there was “almost an ideology . . . that you weren’t supposed to be possessive, you shouldn’t be clingy, you should be very free sexually and not expect anything from the other person”.
While not carrying around shame about this period of her life, or even regretting it, she does reflect that, “I was not honest about what I actually wanted, because what I really truly wanted was for somebody to fall in love with me.”
In answering my question, Bolz-Weber begins by observing that, while touring to promote the book, she has often been asked: “What if people think that they can just do whatever feels good?”
She says: “I think, in all these years that I’ve been having these conversations, and been in ministry, and just been a human being with a lot of curiosity about other human beings, I have never once in my life met somebody for whom their working ethic was ‘I do whatever feels good’.”
It’s an “imaginary thing that so many people are afraid of,” she says. “So, I would turn around and ask, ‘what is that fear about?’ First of all, have you met someone for whom this is real? And it if is real, what is your fear about people doing this? Because I think it really ultimately has to do with a fear of ourselves: that we think, if we start then we can’t stop; that somehow there is no off switch — so what we have to make sure we do is never allow people to flip the on switch.”
She wants to encourage Christians to “show curiosity about the lives and the belief systems of people who aren’t Christian — just to see that people generally are very ethical. They generally are good people without having the fear of a punishing God be a factor in their decision to do what is right by their neighbour.”
People are “very reticent to let go of the legalism, because it’s quite comforting and there’s something simple about it,” she says. “But I am saying, we should not be more loyal to an idea or a doctrine or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people.
RYAN PAGELOW/DOMINICAN UNIVERSITYNadia Bolz Weber on a visit to Dominican University, Illionois, last year
“I just think the starting point for ethics, the starting point for theology, for preaching should always be actual reality. And in order to assess what the actual reality of people’s lives are, not your fear, not what you’ve been told, but the actual reality of people’s lives, we have to pay attention and we have to show curiosity instead of starting with judgement.”
RUNNING throughout Bolz-Weber’s writing is a confessional streak. She has talked openly about her alcoholism and, most recently, her abortion, and isn’t afraid to own her own failings.
“I don’t have that sort of sweet nurturing, ‘come to me, I’ll co-sign on all your bullshit problems’,” she said in an early interview for NPR. “I don’t have that sort of warm, cosy personality. I am kind of cranky and a little bit sarcastic.”
There is a “deeply theological reason” behind this candour, she tells me. “I believe in grace so much that I have no shame in admitting why I need it, so there are very few things that I really carry shame about in my life. Not that I haven’t: I have, but I just believe in grace.
“I think it makes up for all of those foibles, and those are the entry points for God to do God’s best work; and yet we all want to keep them hidden and pretend we don’t have them. Part of that is the fault of really bad theology telling us that our job as Christians is to progressively sanctify ourselves to the point that we no longer need God.”
She has “never once” experienced hearing other people’s confessions as a burden, she says, emphatically. “No. It is an honour to hear the truth from people, because I know that when they finally are out with it that they are unburdened, and I am interested in freedom. . . Honestly, they are usually quite boring.”
Towards the end of the evening at Southwark, she reads aloud from cards that members of the audience have completed, beginning with the sentence: “I’m ready to be shameless about . . .” or “I’m ready to let go of shame about . . .” After she has counted to three, we are to shout out in response to each one “Let that shit go!” The submissions range from the comedic to the poignant. “I’m ready to be shameless about being a slut!” provokes a storm of laughter.
Bolz-Weber has already set the stage for vulnerability by explaining the back-story to Shameless, reflecting with customary frankness on a sexless marriage to her husband, an “extraordinarily good man” whom she wed quickly, to ensure that they could live together while he completed training to be a Lutheran pastor (“I call those seminary shotgun weddings”).
The lack of “any real intimacy, emotionally or sexually” was “this great hidden sadness in my life”, she says. After an amicable divorce, she started seeing her current boyfriend, with whom she enjoyed “a really intense connection right away, including a sexual one.”
It was “like an exfoliation” — and yet a violation of the policy she had signed as a Lutheran pastor (Vision and expectations), pledging to be faithful in marriage and celibate in singleness.
She describes walking around, “giddy” about this new relationship, but thinking: “Why the hell did the Church make me sign a paper saying I wouldn’t do this when it’s clearly good for me, and with somebody I’ve known for a long time? And I just thought, ‘How is it better for my congregation if I’m not getting laid?’”
In response to an audience question about faithfulness and vows, and reconsidering what they might mean, she observes: “I think a lot of us take vows, til death do us part, and I think there are a lot of forms of death, it’s not just we are not taking air into our lungs any more . . .”
Publishing Shameless was a risk that she was able to take, as an author and speaker not reliant on the Lutheran Church for a living, she notes — for colleagues, also compromised by Vision and Expectation, it would have been “way too dangerous”. Already, there are bishops in the ECLA who are calling for her to be removed from the clergy rosta.
BOLZ-WEBER has previously described a good relationship with the ECLA, telling NPR about a “top-notch” theological education: “Because my denomination trusted me as a theologian, they trusted me as a practitioner.”
The purpose of such an education should be to teach someone “to think theologically and to think pastorally,” she tells me. “Rather than ‘how do you download doctrine into somebody so that they spout it out perfectly? How do you load people up with dead white men — the thinking of dead white men — so that they know what they have to teach now?’ Even though that thinking does not represent the actual reality of the people in their lives, in their parish.”
She is “not against” reading the dead white guys, she says. “Some of it’s quite good; a lot of it’s complete rubbish. But it has to be accompanied with womanist theologians, womanist Bible scholars, with feminist theology, we have to be willing to introduce seminarians to robust theological thinking that helps us make sense of the actual reality of people’s lives right now.”
She’s unwilling to expound on what Martin Luther might have made of Shameless: “I mean, what would he make of anything in 2019? He lived 500 years ago. . . I feel like it’s arrogant to say I know what that would be.”
Having left the House for All Sinners and Saints, the church that she founded in Denver (“I miss my congregation desperately”), she now spends a lot of time speaking, and preaching, in secular spaces. But at Southwark, there is time for an a Capella singing of Amazing Grace — a practice that she first grew to love in the thrice-weekly Church of Christ services that she attended while growing up.
And there’s a final benediction. “God saves us in our bodies, not from our bodies,” she pronounces. “And I want that knowledge to be a blessing.”
Shameless: A sexual reformation is published by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30)