Good Christian Sex, Introductory Chapter--Mrs. Powell's Religion Class and Its Aftermath

Bromleigh McCleneghan begins her book Good Christian Sex by describing how she came to understand sexuality.  It is a pretty typical story for folks raised in moderate-to-liberal homes in the 80s and 90s.  She was given open access to as much factual information about sexuality as she wanted, had parents that communicated an amorphous sense that they would not be thrilled with her having lots of sex as a teenager or young adult while being careful not to communicate shame around sex, and otherwise left her alone to figure things out for herself.  By her account, she did not receive or internalize any religiously-oriented messages about sex--no particular moral rules, no spiritual approach to sex.  In fact, McCleneghan locates the origin of the book in a call she received in college from a friend who wanted help in walking through whether to have sex with her boyfriend from a Christian perspective, and realizing that she didn't have any particular Christian perspective on the topic to provide.

What is interesting about that last fact, and something that gets mentioned in every review of the book I have read, is that McCleneghan is the daughter of a Methodist minister.  Many people have a reflexive assumption that a person raised in a Christian environment is going to receive a focused and insistent message that sex before marriage is immoral, same-sex sexuality is a sin, etc.  But as McCleneghan makes clear, this was not the case.  She received a steady diet of messages about structural social justice issues, as well as (one presumes) the basics of Christianity, but nothing about sex, leaving that to the prevailing culture and its focus on technical questions and safe sex.  McCleneghan doesn't view that approach as wrong so much as it is incomplete:

I knew to always use a condom and makes sure my partners and I were regularly tested for STI's, but I didn't always know what other criteria might help me make emotionally and spiritually healthy decisions.  These limitations have much broader impact than the ordering of my early relationships.  There's the general way mainline churches can seem out of touch with the personal battles of many member's lives, and there is also a somewhat irresponsible tendency to leave the discovery of needed resources, emotional and informational, to fate, and to implicitly suggest that those who need help can't ask for it from the community.  So many churches say and do nothing toward helping people form faithful understandings of what it means to be in relationship with others.

Said another way, the project McCleneghan lays out takes as a given the wisdom and appropriateness of all of that factual, secular-oriented sex education and then enhances that with a set of moral and spiritual principles to provide guidance on how, where, and when to have sex in a responsible and appropriate way.

McCleneghan's account made me think about how I learned and sex and developed my views.  Unlike McCleneghan, I was raised Catholic, and so my Church provided a set of very clear and explicit dos and don'ts (mostly don'ts) with regard to sex.  So, in that sense my background was different.  But, in another sense, my background was essentially the same as McCleneghan's.  And that got me thinking about Mrs. Powell's religion class, and the first time I really thought in a serious way about what I thought about sex.

We moved to Jacksonville, Florida, just before I started seventh grade.  Prior to the move, my brother and sister and I went to public school, but that ended when we arrived in Jacksonville and my parents saw the condition of the Duval County Public Schools.  So, for the first time, we were Catholic school kids.  In eighth grade, my religion teacher was Mrs. Powell, and early in the year she brought in a speaker who was a pro-life activist and speaker (I can't remember her name).  It was the first time I was exposed to the pro-life movement, and something about what she was saying or how she was saying it didn't sit right with the 13 year old version of me.  So, at the end of her presentation, when she asked everyone who was pro-life to raise her hands, I kept my hand down.  Since I was sitting near the front, she focused in on me and engaged in pro-life apologetics for about five minutes, directed at me and in front of everyone.  In my memory I held my own, but surely that was not really the case.  This became a bit of a thing--eventually Mrs. Powell sent me to talk to Fr. Sullivan, a salt-of-the earth Irish priest out of central casting who immediately recognized a young person just working things out and basically told me not to worry about my questions.

[Sidebar:  I remember very clearly that there was only one other person in the class who didn't raise her hand--Christina.  She happened to be sitting in the back of that particular class, so I think that's why I took the brunt of the speaker's focus.  But I was always impressed by her willingness to publicly go against the grain, and never had an opportunity to say so.  So, in the event Christina is reading this, as Kevin Durant would say, "you're the real MVP," too.]

In any event, before speaking to Fr. Sullivan, I went home to talk to my parents.  I sat down for a long time that evening at the kitchen table talking to my Dad.  My Dad was the perfect person to speak to me in that moment--he really listened to what I had to say, he made me feel like it was OK to question and to challenge what people were saying.  While he is more or less pro-life, he made a series of practical and pragmatic arguments about how to approach these sorts of questions.  And, key to this story, he (and my mother) made it clear that he did not take everything the Catholic Church had to say about sexuality at face value or as particularly wise, and certainly not binding.

As perfect as my Dad's talk was for me in that moment, it set up a binary choice that, in hindsight, has been the through-line that has defined my struggles with Catholicism ever since that evening.  What my Dad was offering was a vision of and approach to sexuality that is basically the same as the one McCleneghan described from her childhood--an ad hoc series of practical and pragmatic concerns.  The only difference between McCleneghan's background and mine was that I was also getting a set of Catholic principles, which provided a comprehensive moral vision but didn't fit at all with the other piece (as well as my own intuition).  In a way, I spent my adolescence and early adulthood swinging between those two poles, trying to figure which of the two exclusive systems I was going to hold on to.

What I was looking for in eighth grade, but didn't know it, was something like what McCleneghan is proposing in this book--a morally serious and rigorous alternative to what I was getting from Catholic school, to layer on top of the pragmatic approach of my parents.  To that end, Good Christian Sex addresses nine topics, one per chapter--pleasure, desire/"firsts", sexual ethics, celibacy before marriage, vulnerability/modesty, intimacy, sexual histories, fidelity, and permanency.

All of this is very encouraging for the rest of the book, I must say.  I'll end this section with a quote from Frederick Buechner [Edit: Original version said "Richard" Buechner.  My apologies], which is fantastic:

Contrary to Ms. Grundy, sex is not a sin.  Contrary to Hugh Hefner, it's not salvation either.  Like nitroglycerin, it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts.

That's a pretty good tag line for a book about sex, I must say.


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