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Christians consider the Bible a fount of ethical teaching—and it is—but some might be surprised at how, well, racy it can get. The Song of Songs is a lovers’ poem and in it the woman says, “I have taken off my tunic—why should I put it on again? I have bathed my feet—why should I get them dirty? My love put his hand through the latch hole, and my body ached for him. I rose; I went to pen for my love, and my hands dripped myrrh…”
The Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan (UNI’01) quotes this passage in her new book, Good Christian Sex (HarperOne, 2016). The title might make you think it’s a how-to manual; it’s not. “Good” here means psychologically and spiritually healthy. McCleneghan, an associate pastor at Union Church of Hinsdale, a United Church of Christ congregation outside Chicago, wants to ditch frumpish finger-wagging for a theology of sexuality that embraces ethics and an openness to nontraditional unions. (The subtitle of her book is Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says about Sex.)
“I think there’s a fear that my work encourages an anything goes approach to sexuality and sexual practice that plays fast and loose with the Bible,” McCleneghan says. “But I totally believe in the reality of sexual sin. I think sin, though, isn’t about offending the delicate sensibilities of God, or breaking the rules, or staying pure. Sin, rather, is about broken promises through infidelity, or harming oneself or others. I think misogyny, assault, and participation in rape culture are sins, but unmarried, consenting adults? Not necessarily.”
Bostonia interviewed her about her book and her views.
McCleneghan: Everybody should buy this book. I do, though, think it could be a particular resource for college students and young adults trying to think about what healthy sexuality looks like and what the components of faithful sexual relationships might be. My hope was to be pretty accessible to a wide range of readers, and I’ve even had old married folks (like me) who have found useful things within its pages.
I think that it can be a resource for like-minded people to share with the older teens in their care, to start conversations they might not know how to have on their own. I also hope pastors will share it with their parishioners who might be preparing to marry, or who have shame around their sexuality, or who are interested in Christian sexual ethics. I hope people will think it is wise and will see me as a trustworthy guide through a complex topic.
I think you’re right that many people, having been taught things about sex by their churches that they found to be untrue or unhelpful, simply divorce their sex lives from their faith lives. But I’ve also found that there are those who were profoundly affected by the shame around sex they learned in their religious communities, and those who simply want a way to understand their sexuality or reflect on their sexual relationships in light of what might be good and true and even holy. They’re looking for theological language or a biblical lens beyond “God doesn’t want you to.” I’m hoping to speak to that need.
I think our sexuality is a part of who we are as created by God. Some folks are gay and some folks are straight and some folks are elsewhere along a spectrum. God, I am convinced, loves variety and diversity. I also think it takes time and practice for us to live into our sexuality, and faithful practice of that wonderful gift is about more than whether or not you’re married. To put it in the language of ethics, marriage is an insufficient norm for good, holy sex. You need consent, and mutuality, and to honor the agency and particular humanity of all participants.
I think God is far less concerned with the physical details of particular acts than the way we treat those with whom we engage in those acts.
I do find that. A few years ago, an article suggested that the Bible is the most popular book never read. But as a pastor, and as a Christian, I think the Bible is a book we have to take seriously, if not literally, as a means of learning about God and what is true and good and life-giving. A good part of my day job in ministry is to interpret the Bible alongside the stories of what God is doing in our lives and in our world now. Christians, in not knowing or interpreting the Bible themselves, cede that interpretive responsibility to others, relying on others to tell them what it says.
My hope in modeling biblical interpretation is to equip Christians to question or critique those who make blanket statements about, say, God’s disapproval of LGBTQ folks or why sex is wrong and desire is dangerous.
While my book speaks from a Christian perspective, I think the ethical commitments to love of self and neighbor, to mutuality and consent, and to healthy understandings of pleasure and desire transcend the particularity of any one religious tradition—or nonreligious community.