For generations, Christians have had an unhealthy obsession regarding sex and controlling the body. As a result, countless people down through the ages have needlessly suffered guilt and shame surrounding these topics. In Shameless, unconventional Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber seeks to shine a light on the toxic messages that the church has conveyed which add fuel to that all-consuming fire of self-reproach. Through stories from her own life and those of her parishioners, she demonstrates the harm that such messages have caused and proposes a new way forward - a sexual reformation - which tears down the antiquated notions that we've been taught about sex, our bodies, and physical pleasure. Along the way, she also offers healing for those who've been confused, angered, or wounded by the church's teachings and hope for a different way of looking at this sensitive issue going forward.
I've been eager to try one of Nadia Bolz-Weber's books for quite some time now, and just hadn't gotten around to it until Shameless was chosen as our latest book club read. I think my interest was piqued by things I read both by and about her online. This six-foot-tall, heavily tattooed, straight-talking, foul-mouthed former stand-up comic and recovering alcoholic is anything but someone you might expect to see wearing a clerical collar and standing behind a pulpit on Sunday mornings. She's certainly not your typical minister and the church she founded and pastored for years is located near one of the seediest areas of Denver and literally welcomes everyone. Her online handle is Sarcastic Lutheran, so I guess I kind of anticipated her books to be rather sharp-witted and snarky. However, when I opened the cover of Shameless, it ended up being like its author, anything but what I expected. Within its pages, I found warmth and beauty, forgiveness and grace that makes it very accessible to anyone who is searching for a new way to view sexuality through the lens of the Christian faith, and by the end, it left me with a full heart.
I think it would be easy for Christians of a certain persuasion to take one look at this book and assume that it provides tacit approval for people to have sex wherever, whenever, and with whomever they want. But that's not what it's about at all. Instead, Rev. Bolz-Weber posits that we need to have more open conversations about sexuality and a sexual reformation of sorts within the church where we take up a new Christian sexual ethic that is less about purity and more about holiness. I found this quote by her in a recent article that I believe was in the book as well nearly verbatim that illustrates what I mean: "The difference between purity and holiness is that purity is always about separation - separating ourselves from people who are less religious, separating ourselves from our sexual natures, from our desires. But holiness is always about connection - to God, to ourselves, to our nature." She also discusses how the church emphasizes purity because it's easier to define and regulate than holiness and because the church views sex as one of its major competitors. While she does feel that the church's teachings on sexuality need to be revamped to show an understanding of the reality of its members engaging in sex, she does express that not all sex is necessarily good for us and that when we are with a sexual partner we should show care, concern and respect (aka holiness) and not just see them as a body to be used for our pleasure, which I felt was a balanced way of looking at things.
The real essence and heart of the book, though, is about helping those who've been harmed by purity culture and the church's teachings on sexuality to find healing. Through the emotional empathy of personal narrative - both her own and those of her parishioners (with their permission, of course) - Rev. Bolz-Weber shows the myriad ways in which people have been damaged by these teachings when they didn't fall into this perfect mold. For some, it's having sex outside of marriage and feeling like they've failed and are used goods, and for others, it may be that they're LGBTQ+. For still others, they may have waited for marriage only to find out that what they were taught about an amazing sex life after is nothing but a myth, or they've buried their sexuality so deeply, they can't get back in touch with it even within the bonds of marriage and find themselves experiencing a variety of sexual and relationship dysfunctions. For all these people and more, the author seeks to help them overcome the shame associated with these things to find a wholeness of life that's been eluding them by reintegrating their sexual selves with the other parts of themselves. But at the same time, she doesn't throw stones at those who've succeeded in keeping to purity culture's teachings and found them to be true. For those, she says do what works, but this book is for the countless others who now struggle needlessly with feeling guilt-ridden.
I'm not sure if I'm doing this wonderful book justice with my review. It's filled with both pain and beauty that I think will be a healing balm to a lot of people who read it. It was also enlightening, in that it helped me to see certain biblical passages from a different perspective, as well as imparting some church history that I didn't know. I wasn't previously aware that some of the teachings on purity that are enshrined in Christian culture to this day were started by men centuries ago who had personal issues with their own sexuality, nor did I know that the origin of the current church position on abortion is linked to racism, both of which were extremely interesting points. But overall, this book is all about overcoming the shame that the church has associated with sexuality and finding a new way forward, as well as helping those who've been harmed in the past to find peace with the choices they might have made. There is so much empathy and compassion within the pages of Shameless that I actually got teary-eyed a couple of times, which I didn't expect. Overall, this was a great book that I would highly recommend for anyone who's struggling with their own sexuality in regards to church teachings or anyone who is looking for a new way to look at sexuality through the lens of faith. I was very impressed with my first foray into Nadia Bolz-Weber's writing and look forward to checking out her other books, as well as exploring her recommended reading in the back of this one.
Note: This book contains strong language which some readers may not expect from a Christian-based book. Also, I've given this book a sensuality rating of 0, because it doesn't contain any descriptively sensual content. However, please keep in mind that it does sometimes talk rather frankly about sexuality and other related topics in a way that could be offensive to some readers.
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