Good Christian Sex | Critical Review & Notes

Bromleigh McClenghan. Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option–And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex. HarperOne, 2016. (240 pages)



It is with the topic of sex, the most challenging and taboo of all human phenomena, that we experience one of the most palpable tensions that exist in ethics, doctrine, and theology. One one side of the tension is “purity culture” and its derivatives, the strict adherence to protecting the sanctity and “purity” of one’s body. On the other side of the tension is “liberation,” the casting off of restraint for the embrace of our body’s natural inclinations, the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure within whatever boundaries one wishes to draw for themselves. Both are rooted in different conceptions of power and philosophies of “body.” Both are disdained by the other. Both yearn for the blessings of the other.

While Good Christian Sex is not going to do much to help resolve the problem, it will provoke questions, challenge presumptions, address taboos head-on, and upset a few people along the way. Written primarily as a response to “purity culture,” McCleneghan’s book is bent towards a liberating approach to sex, yet an approach that is meant to be grounded in good (biblical) theology. The “slippery slope” concerns are all exposed here, however, and are valid. However, “slippery slope” critics will also have their work cut out for them, as there is considerable thought put into the constructed theology.

Two specific critiques emerged that I highlighted that expose what I believe are the book’s main weaknesses.

On page 36, McCleneghan writes,

As the story of Onan illustrates, sexual pleasure can be a sinful thing. Obviously. But the sin is usually more about a broken relationship, a harm done to self or other, than the nature of sexual pleasure in and of itself.

The story of Onan is not about “sexual pleasure.” There are religious and cultural reasons for Onan’s transgression (as is mentioned by the “duty/responsibility” that Onan is to perform). In addition, in the New Testament, sexual sin is seen as a vice, the unbridled pursuit of internal passion or lust (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4).

On page 65, McCleneghan writes,

Jesus didn’t come to live among humanity so that we could live our lives afraid of ourselves, our bodies, and others. Jesus came that we might have life–even pleasure–and have it abundantly (John 10:10)

The addition of “pleasure” to this passage, and the general scope and sequence of the Jesus way is going to stretch credulity, appropriating verses for one’s argument. This, I would argue, is a hermeneutical misdemeanor.

And herein lies my overall critique. A more astute study of the actual biblical text is one of the most significant omissions from this, a book that is on “Christian” sex. To be more specific in my critique, it is a common strategy of Christians to combat “bad” Christian teaching with opposite views and perspectives, but with the same general hermeneutical approach. (“You are totally using that verse out of context. Here, let me use a verse out of context to show you how you’re using your verse out of context.”) While McCleneghan does this more subtly, the overall general sentiment is still there. Using Onan from Genesis 38, and Jesus’s quote from John 10, are examples of this.

So, if you’re looking for a provocative read that will spark conversation, concern, furrowed brows, and tilted-head huh?!’s, then this will be a good place to start. The search for a more robust theology and philosophy of “Christian” sex, however, continues.


Introduction: On Sex and Christians

So many churches say and do nothing toward helping people form faithful understandings of what it means to be in relationship with others. … Thus, I had the logistics, but not the ethics; the information, but not the wisdom. (9)

In some ways, that’s what this book attempts to do: to lay out some of the theological and ethical questions that arise in your average, everyday experience of adult sexuality, and to walk readers through those discussions in a clear and engaging way. (11)

As a pastor, as a Christian, I hope the simple acknowledgment that there may be more than one acceptable–holy and just–way to live as sexual beings is a blessing and an invitation to those who have been taught that God’s way is singular and exclusive. (12)

1 “My Favorite Feel”: Pleasure as a Gift from God

In our culture, we are often made to understand that women and girls are not sexual beings, and are properly disgusted by sexual displays and acts. Any sexual interest we have is thus unnatural or strange, something to be embarrassed about. (21)

It’s not just gender that makes the discussion of pleasure complicated. Human beings have long wondered about the connection between our bodies and our souls or spirits or characters. (22)

If sexual pleasure is such a common–nearly universal–human experience, what makes a difference for people, what makes exploring these early theologians’ work important, is how we interpret that pursuit of pleasure. Does it necessarily require turning away from God; does sexual pleasure always incite lust or incline us toward sin? Should we interpret that pursuit as sinful and worthy of shame, or as good and natural? | More pressingly, I wonder about the effects of teaching children that something that is natural and commonplace is sinful. (26)

Pleasure, in fact, is itself a good. Not the good, but a good. (27)

Masturbating–straight-up sexual pleasure–is neither always good nor always bad. It is simply a part of being human that can be used to delight and comfort, or as a means of avoidance and self-harm. But sexual pleasure does not in and of itself harm, anger, or dishonor God. (30)

Chastity provided not just freedom from whatever host of sins you could toss under the umbrella of sexual immorality, but freedom from the potential of disease or death. Chastity was not about limitation for many–especially early Christian women in religious orders–but about new freedoms to live fully into grace. (31)

Contrary to the rhetoric of many Christian groups, however, it’s not simply exposure to sexual material or tending to our desires that causes them. Untreated anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, trauma, substance abuse, loneliness or isolation: these can contribute to unhealthy sexual behaviors, and those behaviors’ growing in importance in one’s life. (32)

Pleasure, though, is not a zero-sum game. … Self and other are not always, by nature, hostile to each other. In fact, every now and again, the pleasure increases when it’s mutual. (35)

The pursuit of pleasure can be used to mask other needs and, indeed, to debase ourselves. But we need not be afraid to know and love our bodies, for they are gifts from God, made for pleasure, made for connecting us to the world and its people. Whatever your experience, past or present, with self-stimulation, a future full of good Christian sex requires coming to terms with the questions posed by sexual pleasure, and an acceptance of oneself as worthy and deserving of that pleasure, as a creature beloved by God. (37)

2 Firsts: On the Whys and Wherefores of Desire

…how do we know what makes a desire good, life-giving, and holy? We are complex people, and our decisions and desires are subsequently equally complex. (41)

| Desire complicates the already theologically complex nature of pleasure, for if pleasure is a “premoral good,” as we saw in the previous chapter, desire raises questions of morality. Is desire, wanting, always sinful, or does it depend on the object of our desire? What desires can rightly be pursued? When? With whom? (41)

…desire, [Sebastian] Moore contends, “is love trying to happen.” … Desire is about us figuring out who we (47) are, and how we can be in relationship with others. (48)

| The desire for pleasure can, as we saw in the first chapter, be a perfectly healthy and holy thing: we need body pleasure. And, for me, the desire for and exploration of pleasure were part and parcel of coming to trust my boyfriend; they were part of falling in love. The desire was love trying to happen. (48)

The experience of good sex–and the delightful things that lead up to it–is one of risking showing and sharing oneself with another, of giving and receiving care and attention, of (48) connection and delight. (49)

Part of falling in love is coming to see another person; part of falling in love is allowing another to see you. (51)

“Acceptance” is late-1940s psychological jargon for grace. (53)

…it should be obvious that “clear” is the last word that should be sued to describe the intersection of our faith, the will of God, and our desires in context. (62)

Desire is a complicated thing. Our bodies can encourage us to pursue things our reason might eschew, but this is an inner conflict. A divided self. Our desires come from within. Our bodies are not forever lying to us, are not evil-tending (63) entities to tamp down and contain until we can safely unleash them into the proper constraints of holy matrimony. Our bodies are us. We are human creatures, which means we are body and soul, made in the image of God, made with bodies. (64)

And, whether our “firsts” came when we were younger or older, for reasons good or bad, the work ahead lies in learning to recognize our desires and examining how (65) they fit (or fail to fit) into a vision of the abundant life. (66)

3 Playing Fair: The Ethics of Good Sex

But sexual sin is less about particular acts or the way they’re carried out than the way partners treat each other; sexual sin is about a lack of mutuality, reciprocity, and love. (69)

In many ways, the same rules apply in the bedroom as anywhere else: love God, love your neighbor as yourself. (69)

Christians have not said the same thing about sex and marriages since the days when the biblical writers first took stylus to papyrus. Neither does the Bible offer a consistent or systematic approach to the subject matter. (80)

4 Singleness, Sex, and Waiting: Theology for the Search

…there are two practices we must give up, particularly in our roles as well-intentioned/passive-aggressive friends, parents, and pastors: first, ignoring the grief, and second, fueling the shame that accompanies life in a culture that idolizes romantic love, married heterosexuality, and the nuclear family. (99)

Singles aren’t dying for a romantic Valentine’s Day, but for a partner with whom they can comfortably ignore the made-up holiday. (99)

That gospel lies in this: The world and its possibilities for goodness are nearly infinite; far bigger than we can imagine. There is enough love to go around. And we participate in it. We are individuals, with selves, located somewhere in the space between matter and memory, and we are holy and good, even if we haven’t found a mate. We can imagine creative ways to engage the contingencies of our universe and the vagaries of American coupling. (100)

American Christians sometimes conflate celibacy and chastity, too, which is a problem. Chastity is a virtue, related to temperance–it’s about moderating our indulgences and exercising restraint. We’re called to exercise chastity in a variety of ways, though the details will vary given our individual situations. (103)

5 Naked: A Theology of Vulnerability

…intimacy is defined not as the collapsing of two selves, but as the relationship between two who are distinct from each other. (114)

Is the human body inherently indecent? (122)

Words are powerful, but the interplay of words and (12) bodies–of literally and figuratively baring ourselves–is perhaps most powerful, and potentially dangerous, of all. (127)

Learning to be naked and unashamed in our sexual relationships is possible, even though that freedom and courage will look different than in the relative innocence of childhood. It is my dear hope that marriages can be safe spaces to do this work–but the institution is no guarantee, any more than being unmarried is a guarantee of danger and pain. (129)

6 We Might Be Strangers: A Theology of Intimacy

The pleasure we take from sex, then, is tied in a number of ways to our ability to feel safe when at our most vulnerable and to our willingness to let go of control and self-consciousness. (147)

Our holiness, our worth, our identity as image-bearers of God, is not compromised through the attempt to grow in love and intimacy with those around us. Our worth is not something we can give away; it’s something we’re supposed to share with others. (151)

7 History: A Theology of Exes and the Things That Once Were

It’s not true hat life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over. – Mark Twain, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Surely there are those who will compare one partner with another–or will use past relationships as measuring sticks by which to evaluate current ones (or, worse, will evaluate real partners based on fictional characters or porn). But I think that’s poor behavior and bad habits more than the necessary consequence of having had more than one relationship. (161)

While I’m fascinated by longitudinal studies, I don’t worry too much about the long-term effects of a lengthy sexual and romantic curve. I do worry about a culture of pervasive sexual violence, of course,… (162)

8 Be Faithful: A Theology of Fidelity

Jesus is (perhaps unsurprisingly) right: you don’t need to actually commit adultery to have sinned against your partner (and probably yourself and God, too). But desire isn’t exactly the same as lust, even if it’s for someone to whom you’re not currently bound in a covenant relationship. (183)

We all share a fundamental need for security, which propels us toward committed relationships in the first place; but we have an equally strong need for adventure and excitement. Modern romance promises that it’s possible to meet these two distinct sets of needs in one place. Still, I’m not convinced. Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and equally fulfilling. – Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity

Attraction is not always sexual, and tell us as much about ourselves as anyone else; chemistry is mutual and not always sexual, but usually awesome, as long as it supports your primary relationship, Arousal is the sexual side of attraction and, similarly, tells us as much about ourselves as anyone else. But it’s not always another person, or something they’re doing or saying, that gets us hot and bothered. (187)

In our lasting relationships, we want closeness, and stability. We experience change as stressful and threatening to the life we’ve built together. But desire, the erotic, the singular focus on our partner and the thrilling feeling of butterflies in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and breathless anticipation: those things require uncertainty, and distance. Not grave, unconquerable distance, but some. How can you breathlessly anticipate the arrival of your lover, when most of the time the greatest distance between you is between two apartments, or (worse!) the kitchen and the bathroom? In a deeply intimate relationship, you share a lot. The erotic asks for concealment, negotiating, back-and-forth. (188)

Love is individual: there is only the unique Other, the doted upon, the single star around whom the lover revolves. Lust takes what comes. – Simon Blackburn

As we frequently understand it, lust is a craving for sexual pleasure without any real affective response to, union with, or affirmation of the other. If there is any love here, it is of oneself, for the sake of which something or someone else is “lusted after.” The objects of lust are in this sense fungible, they are whatever entices one in sexually passionate ways. – Margaret Farley

Blackburn and Farley lead us toward a definition: lust is sinful because it devalues others as individuals. Lust isn’t really concerned with the particulars of another, about his body or her interest or her consent. (191)

Faithfulness doesn’t require so much the policing of our thoughts, an anxious attention to propriety, but a living into the fullness of our promises and relationships. (194)

I believed in fidelity. I’d been surrounded by models of it. But I hadn’t realized that you could feel love for more than one person at once. (194)

But it’s not possible to grow into the abundance of love, to grow more perfect in love, if you’re hedging your bets. (195)

The great cage of our domesticity
kills sex in a man, the simplicity
of desire is distorted and twisty awry

D.H. Lawrence, “Wild Things in Captivity

The problem of infidelity is a problem of lust, because ignoring one’s commitments sacrifices the needs of the partner on the altar of the pursuer’s greed. (197)

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. – Proust

9 The Avoidable and the Inevitable: Theology Around Leaving and Staying

It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Marriage is not a panacea, but it is an institution. (203)

If you share your love with someone who cannot or does not reciprocate, it’s over. | But if you share your love in risk and trust, and that person loves you back with ope and kindness, you’re well on your way. After all, the poet writes, “Many waters cannot quench love / neither can floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8:7). (218)

Afterword: The Nature of Love

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  1. Pingback: I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye | Reflections | vialogue

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