APRIL 27, 2019
CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE HAS a history of punishing expressions of human sexuality. Adam and Eve were created as a pair — a man and a woman — therefore the biblical interpretation seems to command heterosexual partnerships. Then they saw that they were naked, and shame was introduced, early on, for the rest of human history. Proverbs 31 describes the character of a noble wife, and she is interpreted to be the model for all Christian women. These biblical readings then lead to the formation of certain practices within the church. Writing from his own shame, Augustine enshrined the morality of sexual purity into church practice. Tertullian read the creation story and from it brought us the idea that, by eating the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” Eve destroyed the imago Dei, the image of God, within humanity. For Tertullian, Eve’s actions were a moral failing for all women; men needed to take the reins to avoid any more such incidents. These narratives of purity and shame in Christianity are especially potent because they claim to come directly from God.
There is no shortage of tales of hurt, repressed sexuality, or deeply felt shame from the early experiences of many Christians (or former Christians). When it comes to these stories, though, we often hear only from those who have been hurt by the church and walked away, or those who never experienced adversity within the institution and have only good things to say. Rarely do we get to hear stories from those who have been deeply hurt, and who have also been fundamentally healed by their faith. This is where Lutheran Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber makes an impact in her book Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. Drawing from the dynamic pool of stories from her congregants at House of Saints and Sinners in Denver, Colorado, as well as from her own life, Bolz-Weber constructs the argument that Christianity was never meant to be the religion of purity it has become. Her book aims to be the catalyst of a new Christian ethics, one that includes human gender and sexuality as aspects created in God’s image.
In a conversational style, Bolz-Weber weaves a solidly biblical argument for an alternative to puritanical Christianity, drawing from parables and Bible stories known too well by those of us who grew up in conservative churches. She reads the creation of Eve out of Adam’s rib not as one of heterosexual pairings, or male dominance, but of the divine nature of human relationships. Bolz-Weber takes many stories traditionally used to defend narratives of abstinence and traditional sexuality, and proposes a different telling that focuses on love and care, rather than a nit-picking God watching us at every moment and shaking his head in disappointment.
Early in the book, Bolz-Weber brings the Nashville Statement into the conversation. In 2017, a group of 150 Evangelical Christian leaders signed the 14-article document with a preamble reading, “We are not our own. Our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.” The articles double down on conservative Christian views, denying LGBTQ+ identities as consistent with God’s inspired creation. The document was created just as Bolz-Weber was midway into writing this book, which tells her parishioners’ tales of hurt caused by this very language — a woman who believed God would never give her a husband because she had an abortion at 16, men who were made to get conversion therapy when they were children, transgender parishioners who self-harmed because they were told their identity wasn’t allowed. Alongside her congregants, Bolz-Weber published a line-for-line rewriting of the Nashville Statement, which she dubbed “the Denver Statement.”
In a time when pastors serve as figureheads, speaking from positions of power and authority as if they could hardly do wrong, it is refreshing to see a pastor get in the trenches with her parishioners. In her stories, Bolz-Weber is not above anyone else.
She tells the defining moments of her life, which are often deemed wrong, even when not done by a pastor. When she was 24 years old, Bolz-Weber discovered she was pregnant. She only made $800 a month at her psychic hotline job, and was barely two years sober. She chose to get an abortion. In her writing, Bolz-Weber brings us into her headspace both at the time, as a “sinner,” and now, as a pastor. In both cases, she knows she made the right decision for her. The first time she shared this story publicly, at a religious retreat, it was in response to an older man’s sweeping statements comparing the number of soldiers killed in combat to abortion statistics. She invited to her cabin that night any women who wanted to share their own experiences with her. She was up all night.
The “reformation” Bolz-Weber is calling for is tangible and one with its history located directly within Lutheran theology. Just as Luther called for individuals to go back to the Bible for their faith rather than listening to a religious institution that did not care for their personal well-being, Bolz-Weber’s book is an invocation of the same. She criticizes the pain and hurt Christian institutions in the United States have caused, and appeals to care for humanity above an idea, tradition, or institution. These are not necessarily revolutionary thoughts. But coming from a pastor, they have a different weight.
Bolz-Weber is able to write all of this because she comes from a church body known for its progressive political stance. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was formed by a split from its conservative counterpart in the Missouri Synod of 1988. The conservative sect would not budge on key issues such as women serving as clergy and socio-historical reinterpretations of the Bible in light of modern issues. Even still, Bolz-Weber is pushing the church and Christianity as a whole to go further. It took her denomination until 2010 to finally allow for ordination of LGBTQ+ ministers.
In writing the stories of dozens from her congregation, Bolz-Weber gives voice to those often silenced in discussions of religion and sexuality. The stories shared with her are almost exclusively from people shamed into denial or pseudo-submission in their early lives by overly dogmatic churches. However, these are people who somehow still held on to their faith and have found a church and a biblical interpretation that encourage the identity they closed off for so long. Unlike many books in this genre, Bolz-Weber provides a heart-wrenching account of hurt alongside a real-world example of a structure for embracing a plurality of identities within a church.
Her book, though, is not an advertisement for her denomination, nor is it a call to further reform the progressive churches. She identifies a perennial problem in how the prevailing Christian culture talks about issues of sexuality and gender. Bolz-Weber continually reminds the reader that humans were created “in God’s image,” and therefore sexual quirks of humanity can’t be so easily damning.
Shameless: A Sexual Reformation has gotten its fair share of pushback from authorities within the religious community, but not for any intrinsic shortcomings. Criticisms have come from her campaign to melt down purity rings so that artist Nancy Anderson can refashion the 170 rings sent into a sculpture of a vagina. Some have claimed she is creating another golden calf, an idol now to be worshipped. Others have critiqued her for being a pastor who has had an abortion. But these are surface critiques — there have been no compelling counterarguments against the conception that human sexuality is inherently healthy and good.
This is a book for those who have faith or had faith at some point but felt shamed by their religious institution — Christian or not — either theologically or morally. It’s for heterosexual married couples, just as much as it is for those who fall outside of such standard gender and sexuality roles. It’s a book to show how conservative Christianity’s devolution into purity police harms everyone — LGBTQ+ or otherwise, believers or non-believers. Conservative Christianity is a vocal force in American politics and culture, and through her graceful tour of Christian theological history and its repercussions, Bolz-Weber gives context for those who wish to critically engage in the conversation.
Despite her argument’s cogency, Bolz-Weber is unlikely to convince those situated squarely within conservative Christianity to become more open about sex and sexuality. But that is not her goal. Bolz-Weber has succeeded in writing a book that will help individuals find solace and comfort in the peculiarities of their own identities.