GOOD CHRISTIAN SEX: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And other Things the Bible Says about Sex. By Bromleigh McCleneghan. San Francisco: Harper One, 2016. 240 pages.
Most Christians that I know get uncomfortable when it comes to talking about sex. Yes, sex has become a political football in Christian circles, with debates about abstinence, abortion, same-sex relationships, and contraception often on the table. It’s a live issue in the political realm, but at least in most Mainline Protestant Churches there is rarely a serious conversation about sex. It is as if St. Augustine still patrols the halls, with his discomfort with sex and the related conversation about pleasure. While the church hems and haws, the culture around us has been changing, sometimes radically, since I was a child. I lived through the 1960s, which was the age of sexual liberation, but I came of age in the mid-1970s, when at least in the Christian circles I inhabited, we lived as if little had changed.
Much has changed in the past half century, and the old taboos about premarital sex have largely fallen away. With the rise of contraception, sex has been separated in large part from procreation. So pleasure has become a primary focus. Even in many Christian circles that teach that sex should be contained within marriage, pleasure has replaced procreation as the primary focus. At the same time, growing numbers of Christians, especially younger Christians, have begun to question this older ethic and demand a new ethic, one that doesn’t assume that chastity is the only option. One of those Christians who have questioned the traditional line is Bromleigh McCleneghan, the author of Good Christian Sex. McCleneghan is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School. While ordained a United Methodist minister, she serves as Associate Pastor at Union Church of Hinsdale, Illinois (United Church of Christ). She is also the daughter of a United Methodist pastor, and so she grew up in the church, but in a context that gave more room when it came to sexual matters than I might have been given in my context (and I’m probably of a similar age to her parents).
Why am I reviewing this book? One answer is that I was invited to participate in the TLC Book Tour. I was interested in reading the book because as a pastor I need to be aware of how matters such as this are being understood within the culture and within the church. Whether or not I was completely comfortable at all points is irrelevant. We are where we are in time and place, and we need to have frank conversations and to do that we need to have resources that can open up the conversation. That is what this book does. For some this book will be a breath of fresh air. For others this book will present significant challenges. Still others will find themselves somewhere in the middle, welcoming the conversation and many of the changes, but at the same time wondering how far is too far.
I come to the book from a specific place. I am a white, male, married (thirty-three years), heterosexual Baby Boomer pastor of a Mainline Protestant church who came of age while part of a more conservative evangelical congregation back in the 1970s. I grew up knowing that people had sex outside of marriage, but I was taught that sex should be saved for marriage. Of course, such an ethic led to questions about how far was too far? It appears that the question hasn’t gone away, even as things have loosened up significantly in the past four decades. The question today isn’t whether sex should wait for marriage, but whether sex should wait for love (and a firm commitment)? These questions and many more are addressed with forthrightness and personal testimony by McCleneghan.
If chastity is not the only option, and by chastity we mean refraining from sexual relations prior to or outside of the marriage covenant, then how should we comport ourselves in the company of others (and our own selves). The assumption here is that we as human beings need and seek pleasure, and sex offers pleasure. In fact, our first experiences of sexual pleasure may come early in life as we discover how to pleasure (self-stimulation) ourselves. That’s where the book begins! From there we journey with Bromleigh McCleneghan as she shares her own experiences, from first kiss through first sexual experience (at age 19 during college), through committed relationships and some not so committed ones, and finally to marriage. She weaves throughout the book biblical stories and theological wisdom, especially that of John and Charles Wesley. There is a strong message of grace present in the book, a message that is appropriate in this context. Whether or not we believe that sex belongs in marriage, our sexual experiences can be glorious or not so glorious, and thus grace is welcome. I must admit that I struggled with her story at different points. It might be generational, but it might also be the fact that I came into marriage with the assumption that if at all possible one should save sex for marriage (but then there’s the question of what is sex? Is it penetration? Is it experiencing orgasm? These and other questions emerge in the book and are handled with dignity and grace). What I can say is that in many ways we’re at healthier place in the church, but we have long way to go.
The book is rooted in a very personal story, and I commend the author for having the courage to share her story. It is a story that includes making mistakes, having some regrets, but for the most part comfortable with the path taken. She believes that her story can help others, making this also a word of wisdom for those who are on similar journeys from first sexual awakenings to making firm commitments to one partner. It is important to remember that McCleneghan may not believe that chastity is the only option for Christians, but she believes in fidelity and in fairness. She wants her readers to be properly informed about the power of the sexual relationship. To do this she speaks of playing fair, being vulnerable, and experiencing intimacy. She also speaks of the importance of acknowledging one’s sexual history, and for many younger Christians their history of relationships might be longer than was true for my generation (after all, we got married younger!). In the course of the book she also tackles the myth that marriage makes sex better. Sex can be good outside of marriage, and really bad inside marriage. So, let’s be honest with each other!
The final two chapters serve as an important capstone for the book. Chapter eight speaks of fidelity and what that means for Christians. Fidelity doesn't mean one has only had one partner, but that there will more than likely come a point where one commits to be in relationship with just one person and when that comes, one should be faithful to that relationship. That doesn’t mean one’s commitment won’t be tested, but one will remain true to that commitment. For most couples in this country, that means marriage, which is now legally available not just to heterosexual couples but also same-sex couples. While the hope is that when a couple takes that final step of commitment it will be forever (or at least for as long as both shall live). In chapter nine McCleneghan deals with the reality that sometimes relationships don’t work out. The question is, when is it necessary to end a relationship and how does one do this?
This book serves as a firm recognition that we are sexual beings, and that sex has the possibility of being a wondrous gift. The question is, how do we live as sexual beings as Christians? What does the Bible say and what guidance does theology provide? To what extent does love connect with sex and sex with love. The author notes that they are not one and the same, but they are often intertwined. Finding the right path is not easy, but Bromleigh McCleneghan offers us a foundation for having this conversation. For that we can be thankful, even if the reader is from a different generation with differing expectations.
I’ve been married now for thirty-three years to the same person, so my dating history is quite ancient. It is good, however, to be reminded that even if sex isn’t necessarily better in marriage, it doesn’t have to be mediocre either! I wish I had read this book forty years ago. I might have better understood my own realities, but the good news is that it is available for readers today. Of course, since I just had a bible study guide on marriage published (Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide), I wish I had read this book before I wrote my chapters on sex and singleness. Nonetheless, I believe that both books, along with a number of others recently published or soon to be published, will help stimulate an important conversation in the church about sex, intimacy, commitment, and marriage. That said, I offer my firm recommendation of Good Christian Sex to the Christian public, for even if St. Augustine wasn't sure that the words of the title went together, I'm of the opinion that he was wrong!