I’ve lost count of starts and stops writing about Shameless, and not because I didn’t love it or that it carries a lot of caution. It’s just that there is a lot to sort out personally and culturally for me and those close to me…
Convergent Books, 2019. Hardcover, 224 pages
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW) writes, Shameless
“is water, I hope, for those planted in the corners. It is for anyone who has had to keep their love life secret. It is for all those who have been good and done everything right in the eyes of the church, and yet still have a sex life minus the fireworks and magic that were promised them if they just “waited.” It is for the parents of the gay son, parents who love and support him because they know he is neither a mistake nor an aberrant sinner, and as a result of that support have become outsiders in their own church. This book is for everyone who ever felt ashamed of their sexual nature because of what someone told them in God’s name. This book is for anyone who has walked away from Christianity and yet still is secretly into Jesus and always will be. This book is for anyone who has passed the traditional teachings of the church on sex to their own kids and now regrets it. This book is for the newly divorced man or woman who desires to be a caring and thoughtful lover, yet wonders: Do the rules I learned in youth group still apply to me now? This book is for the young Evangelical who silently disagrees with their church’s stance on sex and sexual orientation, yet feels alone in that silence. This book is for anyone who wonders, even subconsciously: Has the church obsessed over this too much? Do we really think we’ve gotten it right?
I believe strongly that the church, in general, has absolutely not gotten it right. –“Invocation”
In case you need it: I give you permission to read something someone may have told you that you shouldn’t because the speaker is a woman, a mother, a divorcee, a pastor, uses storytelling, uses profanity, acknowledges the humanity of people different from you, and delves into taboo subjects with an intention to heal not harm. You have a gift of discernment and are capable of using it.
How I recommended Shameless to a friend on Instagram: I’m keen on the invitation she’s offering with this book; and I think the reader has to be ready to consider what she has to say, not reading for affirmation or outrage, but with a healthy dose of curiosity.
NBW is someone I recommend reading for people of a Christian faith tradition who: needs to feel less alone; needs to hear that they were Created and Loved, and to be reminded that they have an inherent worth; suspects the church has gotten sex, sexuality, or gender wrong and that is what they want to address; and/or if they wouldn’t mind revisiting some of those Bible stories.
Of the many things in Shameless, I appreciate NBW’s early offer of an exit:
“I know that there will be those who do not wish to rethink their ideas about sexual ethics, gender, orientation, extramarital sex, and the inherent goodness of the human body. Maybe some people reading this will look at their own lives and in their own churches and see only happy, straight couples who have fulfilling monogamous sex and who glow with the satisfaction of “living in God’s special plan for humanity.” I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t go to your church and I do not live your life. So if the traditional teachings of the church around sex and the body have caused no harm in the lives of the people around you, and have even provided them a plan for true human flourishing, then this book probably is not for you. (Good news, though: the Christian publishing world is your oyster. There you’ll find no lack of books to uphold and even help you double down on your beliefs.)” –“Invocation”
Because it’s written from such a personal place, the reader is invited to their own vulnerability.* It was an invitation I wanted to accept. I spent time thinking about how the book resonated with me and my experiences; following provoked thoughts. If you know me at all, you’ll be unsurprised that when I say provoked I’m not implying disagreement. NBW is one of my familiars. I delight in the fact that she was created and moves about to not merely arouse discomfort or shock people into widened eyes, but to care for the most vulnerable of us with a ferocity that is not just next to Godliness, but is something Jesus does.
The subject matter is one I am quite passionate about, and my levels of sensitivity surrounding it are significant. I admit this to inspire thoughtfulness. I’m usually game to engage on anything for the joy of intellectual discourse, but I carry too many stories of my own and my beloved to pretend this is an issue that happens elsewhere and to other people. I don’t want to talk about sex and the church without consequence. Also, I’m just tired of the bullshit.
It isn’t as though Shameless is going to be easy for those thinking they’ll continue on. And once committed, you really do have to read the entire book. And listen.**
The chapters are set out like essays or sermons to be read in order, but not necessarily in one sitting. And NBW favors a narrative form to elicit empathy, not blind acceptance. It’s a different kind of non-fiction. I think this has proven disappointing to some, those expecting what NBW warns she will not be providing in this book: “I don’t have answers, exactly. I have no updated list of good behaviors and bad behaviors. This book does not attempt to redeem the handful of Bible verses that have been weaponized against us. It is not a systematic theology of sex” (“Invocation”).
NBW is not going to dismiss the part where those weapons-manufacturers were/are children of God either. She doesn’t finger the clit of the outrage addicts,*** but instead considers an approach that would make Jesus blush—with pride. She tries to love the enemies. Whomever Jesus would invite to a table, she is going to extend that invitation, however uncomfortable: “my Christian faith tells me that good news is only good if it is for everyone, otherwise it’s just ideology” (“Benediction”).
NBW’s belief and continual reminder that everyone is made by the Creator and thus has an inherent worth is life-giving. “What God claims to love, do not deem unworthy of that love. What God has called good, do not call anything other than good. What God has animated with God’s own breath and endowed with a soul and God’s own image, do not treat with anything less than dignity” (“Hi, My Name is”).
NBW sets about reminding us of a lot of things. Much of this will require revisiting the Bible and the stories we’ve been told about those stories. Interwoven between the writings are 4 readings of the Creation story in Genesis.
Maybe you, too, are hiding, having listened to a voice other than God’s. But can you hear God saying, “Wait. Who told you you were naked? Who told you that you have to lie to be accepted? Who told you your body is not beautiful and worthy to be loved? Who told you that your sexual expression is something to be ashamed of? Who told you that?”
My money is on the snake. And he’s a damned liar.—Creation III
She’ll visit Exodus, Song of Songs, the Gospels, and consider Parable of the Talents as inspiration for sexual stewardship. Jesus features heavily throughout. Jesus’ own ethic is the source of NBW’s sexual ethic. Note how it literally occupies its center:
“Where sex is concerned, for sexual flourishing to occur we must be guided by more than just the absence of “no” and the absence of harm. That’s why I believe we must also bring concern to our consent and mutuality. Concern moves us closer to the heart of Jesus’ own ethic: love God and our neighbor as ourselves. It requires us to act on another’s behalf. It reframes the choice entirely outside of our own self-interest in a way that consent and mutuality alone do not.” –“Invocation”
NBW invokes a sexual ethic and then spends the majority of the book looking at how it differs from our past/current ethic and how it applies to both the re-construction of our perspective/approach going forward, and how we respond to the consequences of the church’s past perspective/approach.
“We should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.” –“Invocation”
In the tradition of Jesus and Luther, NBW is decentering the Institution in consideration of humankind. She talks about pastoral care, how vulnerable making and individualized it can look (holiness). She interrogates extremism and institutional agendas (purity). She reminds us that holiness and purity are not interchangeable and that “the Greek word for lust, epithymia, is about general desire, not thinking sexual thoughts. If epithymia was a term for sexual desire, it would make some other things Jesus said super weird. (For example, Luke 22:15: “And he said to them, I have had sexual thoughts about eating this Passover with you before I suffer.”)” (“I Smell Sex and Candy”)****
NBW’s use of humor, personal story, profanity may read like irreverence for some, but the work is steeped in reverence. Embodiment is holy work, which will likely result in sweating, panting, crying out, grimacing, bodily fluids, laughter, crying, listening, watching, testing with tongue teeth curve flex bend, un/relenting, heart-racing -rendering, pleasure… Only purity is interested in a sanitary rendering barely informed by reality, a post-coital scene of daytime television, with hair and make-up and bedding intact, the implication being that it was a missionary position with her on bottom. “Holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from” (“Sanctus”). Purity is a dehumanizing agent, as if the creation wasn’t/isn’t good. It’s of interest how Purity culture doesn’t keep us from sexual deviance, but actually creates it.
We think we are keeping them safe from harm. We think we are keeping them pure. And these are noble instincts. But what we’re more likely doing is projecting our own bullshit onto our kids—the fear of our own desires, the peer pressure and cultural norms of our religious community. We are stunting our children by withholding the tools and the wisdom they need for a healthy sexual future, or we are sending them straight to their peers or the internet for guidance. –“The Fireplace”
I loved “The Fireplace” and NBW’s admitted struggle with providing something better for her own children; her conversation with her daughter resonated deeply. “I was afraid of being uncomfortable and of making my kids uncomfortable. Afraid of telling them too much too soon. It’s hard to embrace the sexuality of our kids. But by the time my kids were teenagers, I was determined to do better. And I did, somewhat. It wasn’t easy. But it also wasn’t impossible.” Within contexts of real life being lived, she models a small, but significant way how this her sexual ethic works, “I wanted more for her than just a green light from her mom, more than consent. She deserved concern.”
It’s a sexual ethic that is going to require us to better understand grace.
If grace is a difficult subject, Shameless is going to prove uncomfortable. If the need is to be holier-than-thou, NBW is going to rob the reader of even that, because what it really is about is the need to be purer-than-thou. I can see some coming up against that humiliating realization that they’ve bought into a sham doctrine or political issue and they’ll push back. Shameless includes brief articles and artifacts as part of her evidence. “How Abortion Got on the Evangelical Political Agenda: A History” will be an inclusion of interest and sorrow for plenty.
Another part of “The Fireplace” is how NBW speaks to her and our fear of the dangerous. And in doing so, moves to argue (again) that this is why we should be proactive in human sexual development.
Driving is dangerous, so we teach our kids as much as we can about it, and then we hand them the keys. Chopping vegetables is dangerous, so we teach our children how to properly hold a knife and bend their knuckles just so. Friendships are dangerous, so we teach our children about generosity, boundaries, and self-esteem.
And fire is dangerous, so we teach them to respect it. Yet I don’t know anyone who has not been burned in some way, whether by a hot frying pan, a Fourth of July sparkler, or a curling iron. It hurts, and we heal. Of course, there are those who have been burned so badly, the scars never actually disappear. All of these things are true about fire. And so many things are also true about sex.
Sex can bring warmth, but it can also be chilling. Sex can bring connection and also alienation. Sex can provide insight but sometimes confusion. Sex can empower but sometimes humiliate. And we can teach our kids that every single one of these things is possible in and out of marriage. In straight and in queer relationships. In the young and in the old. Sex shines and flickers, and it rages, lights, warms, and burns.
In “Sanctus” and elsewhere, NBW posits how having sex is a part of self- and relational-development. We learn what our self needs and wants are, and we gain a maturity in knowing how to engage another’s wants and needs during our sexual development—which contributes to our development as human beings as a whole. Reformation will have to involve a reintegration for many of us.
In my pastoral work I’ve started to suspect that the more someone was exposed to religious messages about controlling their desires, avoiding sexual thoughts, and not lusting in their hearts, the less likely they are to be integrated physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually. I’ve also noticed that the less integrated physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually someone is, the more pornography they tend to consume. This is anecdotal evidence and not a scientific study. Nonetheless, I’d like to congratulate conservative Christians on their success in bolstering an industry that they claim to despise. –“I Smell Sex and Candy”
NBW is going to talk about pornography, and I’ve noticed that this is the part of Shameless has elicited significant discomfort. It’s also why you have to read the whole book and remember what she’s been talking about. I believe the fear is that NBW is too permissive. Because she is not going to come down with a definitive one-liner regarding pornography. She writes regarding pornography: “I believe we can apply an ethic of concern here by acknowledging the potential harm without shaming the behavior entirely.” Instead of coming down with an all-encompassing Nope, she’s going to offer the reader what she and her parishioner Sam didn’t have the benefit of growing up in the church: she is going to talk about pornography and practice applying a healthier sexual ethic. She’s going to discuss erotica (in the Bible no less). “There is nothing wrong with the fact that our bodies are created to experience pleasure. There is nothing wrong with the fact that our bodies are stimulated by sexual stories and images. It’s an empathic response.”
A big hurdle for some readers of Shameless is going to be their membership in the cult of certainty. It isn’t that she doesn’t provide declarative sentences. You’ll note more than a few in examples already used. Here are two more:
“I will not indulge in the sin of false equivalency. To admit that both the church and our culture can cause harm is not the same as saying the harm from both is equivalent. It is not. Because as harmful as the messages from society are, what society does not do is say that these messages are from God. Our culture does not say to me that the creator of the universe is disgusted by my cellulite.”–“Invocation”
“But I’m here to tell you: unless your sexual desires are for minors or animals, or your sexual choices are hurting you or those you love, those desires are not something that you need to “struggle with.” They are something to listen to, make decisions about, explore, perhaps have caution about. But struggle with? Fight against? Make enemies of? No.” –“I Smell Sex and Candy”
It’s just that NBW and Shameless isn’t interested in designing a one-size-fits-the-most-deserving interpretation. That kind of righteousness is the only kind of thing a church will provide. Meet Tim from “This Shit is Free:”
“My sister wasn’t harmed at all by the same messages that set me up for failure,” Tim said. “Following the plan worked for her. She is thriving in her marriage and otherwise.”
But here’s the thing much of the church has seemingly ignored: Tim’s sister isn’t thriving because she happens to be righteous. It’s because she happens to naturally be the kind of person the plan describes—cis-gender, heterosexual, feminine, sweet, Christian, and a virgin when she got married. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it doesn’t make her special to God.
To God, everyone is different but no one is special. You’re not special for being straight. Or gay. Or male. Or cis. Or trans. Or asexual. Or married. Or sexually prodigious. Or a virgin. We all have the same God who placed the same image and likeness within us and entrusted us imperfect human beings with such mind-blowing things as sexuality and creativity and the ability as individuals to love and be loved as we are. The church may provide a center-pivot irrigation system for those in the small circle, but God provides rain. We don’t earn rain, and we don’t control it. We don’t get to decide where it falls or in what amount. That shit is free.
Shameless works hard to untangle us from the gnarled cultural equations of sexuality and self-worth and its transactional nature. NBW recognizes that we need to believe we are inherently worthy of a healthier sexual ethic; even as this sexual ethic will deepen said belief. In Shameless, NBW is advocating a reformation through the reclamation of our bodies, our sexuality, our spirits, our holy texts, and our communities.
This is the use of Christian community, as I see it. We help each other silence the Accuser. We tend each other’s wounds, show each other our scars, see and forgive each other’s shortcomings, let each other cry, make each other laugh, and are absolutely adamant about grace for everyone. We insist on freeing each other from the grip of the accusing voice, and we amplify the voice of God. –“Hello, My Name Is”
Shameless closes with a Benediction. She answers the question of what sexual flourishing might look like; and how God is made known. She reminds us that engagement in a conversation surrounding anything worthwhile is going to be messy and vulnerable and thus Christ-like. “Christianity is not a program for avoiding mistakes; it is a faith of the guilty. There is no “right” or perfect way to be. We learn from our mistakes; we extend grace to others and ourselves.”
Where sexual reformation in ourselves, let alone the church, can seem daunting, NBW closing with yet another reminder that we are loved, we are capable, and that we can know real community is powerful. Shameless is only a beginning and I’m grateful for the boldness of a woman pastor who volunteers with a “screw it, I’ll go first.” Nadia Bolz-Weber’s concern for others (and herself) has been life-giving; may we be inspired to do the same.
Take it or leave it, but Shameless is as good a place as any to start on the necessary sexual reformation in the church: read, listen, engage in intercourse.*****
I recommend reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s earlier books; also, Brene Brown’s books and TEDtalks are a valuable companions. Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality makes for interesting reading as well.
*This will prove difficult to plenty and is something to consider when gauging reactions to this book. In considering Dr. Brene Brown’s work and the wake of Shameless, believe that shame spirals will abound.
**I’ve read people’s belief that she’s one of those Liberal Christians who lacks a theology; I’m certain they haven’t been paying attention. I’ve also noticed most of this same “know it all” crowd trends toward “purer than thou” rhetoric, so maybe they just refuse to consider anything they haven’t thought about first?
***besides, as she talks about in the book, overstimulation robs the act of its pleasure.
**** If rumors that NBW is irreverent concern you, I request this consideration: irreverent toward what exactly (please be specific)? what has reverence come to mean or look like for you? I’ve met few living who approach God with as much awe/fear/humility as NBW does.
***** intercourse, n. communication or dealings between individuals or groups. (Oxford English Dictionary)