Book Review: Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber
If you've had any kind of brush with evangelical Christianity the past few decades, you may be familiar with what has come to be known as the "purity movement." This is a massive campaign within that religious strand that advocates abstinence before marriage. Depending on what books you read, conferences you attend, or speakers you hear, such "purity" messaging always uses sex before marriage as the baseline, but then may add on any number of requirements up to and including not even kissing or holding hands until you meet your new life partner at the altar.
In recent years, the backlash to this movement has been growing and gaining more traction as people who grew up hearing these messages have been telling their stories. These include tales of awkward physical and sexual interactions between newly married couples once they were allowed to be together, crippling amounts of guilt and psychological abuse, and, from women in particular, observations that this messaging is very patriarchal in nature. Girls suffer the most in this movement as they are treated as objects meant to remain in their virginal packaging, unused until their first night with their husbands.
This backlash has produced some worthwhile reads the past few years. Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan offers an alternative spirituality of sex. Tina Schermer Sellers wrote Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, which focuses on how therapists may best work with individuals and couples struggling to develop healthier sex lives. And Pure by Linda Kay Klein presents stories from a variety of women who had to unlearn the messages of their younger years.
And now, Nadia Bolz-Weber is adding a new volume to this discussion with Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor and speaker perhaps best known for her biting honesty. She has previously written about the imperfect yet dedicated souls who make up her former congregation and her own struggles with life, faith, and vocation. While she didn't grow up in the purity movement, she has seen its effects, and this book is her endeavor to speak pastorally to those who need to hear about a different approach to sexual ethics.
As in previous works, Nadia seems most comfortable when she is sharing stories, and this book has them in abundance. She recounts conversations she's had with people in her church and with friends from elsewhere who either had to deconstruct their own experiences with purity culture or who never felt like that message was really for them. Helpfully, this includes people who identify as LGBTQ+, as purity culture assumes from the beginning that sex should only be between heterosexual married couples. Near the beginning, Nadia gives an illustration of rotational irrigation where the corners and edges of farmland never get watered. This book, she declares, is for those unwatered corners: people who never felt like their lives could adhere to what this abstinence messaging taught.
In Shameless, those corners turn out to be quite large. As mentioned, she includes non-straight and non-cis voices who were excluded in their church communities. She includes those who have ended up divorced and have had to wrestle with their sense of worth. She includes those who have struggled with whether to have an abortion. And she includes those who thought they were doing everything right only to find that they had no idea how to handle themselves or each other once they finally got married.
Much of this book is anecdotal, and that is likely by design. After all, Nadia wrote this while serving as pastor of a faith community and her reflections stem from a pastoral concern for people who aren't being served well by the information--or lack thereof--provided by many churches. As a pastor myself, I could recognize the movements from illustration to Biblical interpretation to encouragement or critique that often characterize sermon preparation. With equal parts care and challenge and irreverence and humor, Nadia is preaching to the large corners in desperate need of a life-giving, affirming, holistic, and holy approach to sexual health.
Shameless releases on January 29th.
(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own.