Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation
New York: Convergent Books, 2019.
Most of the books I read are old, and I tend to like it that way. Their time in the zeitgeist has passed so their contemporary value has to be judged on what endures past that episode in time and culture that inspired it. I am an anti-hipster when it comes to books: I like books you’ve probably already forgotten. Still, on occasion something like Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book Shameless comes out and I let myself get caught up in the moment. The controversial nature of her book made it even more tempting.
As I dug into the book I kept waiting for that moment where she fully crosses the Rubicon. I read the introductory chapter and wasn’t struck by anything that inflammatory. “Maybe,” I thought, “She’s wanting to ease into the heresy.” I read the next couple of chapters and felt like she must be really playing the long game. Her reader is going to be lulled into a sense of security in the blanket of orthodoxy before she just sets the whole thing on fire in the last chapters. Clever strategy, Bolz. By the end of the book I was disappointed, in a sense. I never found that point that a lot of her critics seemed to sense instantly where she jumps the theological shark.
Granted, the difference between this book being offensive or life-giving depends in large part on how comfortable one is with people leading messy lives. A life in pastoral care can be helpful in getting over any idealistic notions of oneself or the rest of humanity. A lot of it involves cultivating the ability to deal with the sins, failures, or mistakes in one’s own and other people’s lives without jumping to condemnation or correction, but to first accept them for who they are and witness to the life of God in them. Applied to sexuality, this means being less bothered by the idea that somebody might have a sexual encounter before they are married and more concerned with how it might have affected them—whether it was consensual, whether they feel loved or shamed, how these experiences cultivate wisdom and the ability to make spiritually healthy choices about sex.
And grant also that I found myself disagreeing with parts of the book. I won’t be coy. I find myself much less ambivalent about teens having sex, or of the virtues of casual sex than she sometimes comes across. The sacredness of sex and its astonishing potential to generate joy or pain suggest to me that it finds its proper telos in the vulnerable covenant of marriage or at the very least having an internal logic that thrives on the kind of intimacy and vulnerability that our motivations for pleasure or social aplomb tend to work against. And I also don’t know what kind of pornography she thinks is healthy. She is too vague on this point, and I am inclined to think that most of what could be categorized as pornography is inherently destructive on any number of levels. It must be noted, however, that disagreement or desynchronization in perspective does not mean antagonism, or that what I perceive as a flaw in someone else’s thought does not mean their entire project is doomed, or indeed that I understood them as well as they deserve.
I think Bolz-Weber’s critics often overstate her own position. Nothing in the book led me to believe that she is interested in promoting anything like a life of wanton, prodigious sex, or that what she seemed to endorse about pornographic material went much beyond the kind of erotica that has been a staple of media for some time–the kind that can’t end soon enough when they pop up in movies we watch with our parents. Moreover, contrary to the reactionaries, none of what she says about either of these topics is reducible to a simple, normative ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only witch-hunters will be upset by her reflections on these and other topics in human sexuality. The rest of us will find them intelligent, empathetic, realistic, insightful, and even pastoral.
Bolz-Weber does two things that make this book an important read. First, she refuses simple black-and-white approaches to questions on sexuality. She tries to attend to the complexities of life instead of ignoring them or acting like things, especially regarding sex, are simpler than they actually are. Second, she tries to rethink a genuinely Christian and faithful approach to sexuality outside of the logical foundations of purity culture. This is absolutely key. You will misunderstand what she is doing if you don’t grasp this point. This book is not so much a reformation as a renovation.
Purity culture has its merits. I don’t resent everything my parents and teachers tried to teach me, and I honor their attempt at trying to give guidance and protection in an ever-changing world. I cannot but guess at the many ways my own children will balk at the mistakes I will make in this arena. But a full-blooded purity culture has been incredibly destructive to people’s lives not just socially and emotionally, but spiritually. This is the major starting point of Bolz-Weber’s book. Throughout the book she does not just do the demolition work of tearing down this shaky foundation, but also attempts to rekindle our ability to think about sexuality on a more spiritually and psychologically sound basis. If she comes across as radical or as promoting sexual activity beyond norms that people steeped in Christian culture feel comfortable with, it is because she is thinking on different terms. And she is asking us also to think through whether our assumptions about what sex is and what good sex looks like have to do with “biblical principles” or historically- and culturally-conditioned norms read conveniently back into the biblical compendium.
It is this implicit contest in the book about what faith really looks like and sounds like in terms of our thinking and acting on sexuality that points to the real genius of the book. As I read the book not only did I not find her promoting anything beyond the pale of sexual behavior. Instead I encountered over and over again a deep religious sensitivity in the way she talked about and envisioned faithful sexuality. In the end I felt this book is a work of Christian spirituality with sexuality as its motif. The real accomplishment of this book is that it presents a vision of sexuality that attends to its deepest significance of sex: that it is not just a mechanism for human pleasure or procreation, but that it is central to humanity’s existential grasp of God’s love and salvation.
All the books that championed the purity culture I grew up reading talked a big game about the joys of sex. I think it helps people who are otherwise adhering to a draconian philosophy about sexuality to say nice things about sex because it makes us feel like we’re moving beyond the stodginess of the past. But even in my teenage years when I was reading and hearing these paeans to marital sex I could not shake the sense that something was off, like a 40-something with a soul patch trying to fit in at a college party. The point, I think, is not that marital sex is a bad idea—I’m a huge proponent—it is that it is somewhat contradictory to talk about how reckless and evil sex is in every possible instance except this single one. The overall view of sex that purity culture instills is one of danger, trepidation, and anxiety. The fact of the matter is that purity culture is incapable of realistically and genuinely attending to the extraordinary joys of human sexuality, much less the deeper emotional and spiritual significance of human sexuality.
When I read Shameless, regardless of where it is challenging or uncomfortable, of where I might agree or disagree, the one unarguable fact is that this book helps me to see how sex and sexuality are good—in a way that is believable, nuanced, and, most importantly, not creepy. (People really need to stop comparing the ecstasy of sexual pleasure with some Freudian notion of divine union.) And this is something that purity culture, however ‘orthodox’ it tries to seem, cannot do.
Really the only thing I took any real exception to in this book was her treatment of Augustine and Origen.
But I digress…
Nadia Bolz-Weber calls her book a reformation, I call it a renovation. Either way, it is high time that Christians learn that we have more choices than purity culture or ethical hedonism. This book does a great job at navigating the simultaneously sacred and mundane realities of Christian sexuality in general and in contemporary life in particular outside of those options. But when I recommend this book, I do not recommend it as a new code for sexual ethics—because in so many ways I think that is the very thing this book tries not to be. Instead I recommend it as a more spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally healthy way to think about sex, especially as it relates to the Christian faith.
 If you ask me, (which you probably didn’t), few better things have been written about Christian sexuality than the essay “The Body’s Grace” by Rowan Williams. It can be found online here: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-bodys-grace/10101214 OR in several edited volumes including Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Wiley-Blackwell) and Our Selves, Our Souls & Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God (Cowley Publications).