Redeeming Sex by Deb Hirsch

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Sexuality is either awkwardly displayed on a billboard for all to see, or it is hidden behind closed doors for us to guess at the proper way to understand it. The church is even worse when discussing sexuality, and as Butch Hancock so eloquently said, “Life in Lubbock, Texas taught me two things: one is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love.”

With questions about gender identity, homosexual marriage, pornography, and sex trafficking needing answers, the church, on the whole, has either ignored the issue or responded with theological arguments that have left the average Christian confused and needing to fend for themselves. This angst around sexuality has deep historical roots, but thank God resources that are fair, practical, and compassionate are finally making their way into church thinking. One such resource is Debra Hirsch’s new book Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations about Sexuality and Spirituality from IVP Books.

Hirsch opens the book by confronting a widely held belief that sexuality and spirituality are antithetical to one other. She spends the first few chapters addressing this issue and how it has poisoned the church’s view on sexuality, while also playing a part in creating a widely held belief that everything physical is bad and everything spiritual is good. She says, “Our fear of sexuality and the corresponding inability causes us to see God and the Scriptures in distorted ways.” She proposes that under-emphasizing our unique sexuality due to a perceived scriptural mandate on purity misunderstands the Scriptural view of sexuality and leads to fear-based teaching with a host of other negative consequences. We are fully sexual and fully spiritual beings by God’s design, and we must embrace this.

To better understand the interplay between our sexuality and spirituality, Hirsch proposes we need to look at our sexuality through two lenses: genital sexuality and social sexuality. Social sexuality is every relationship we have whether with our parents, co-workers, kids, spouses, or good friends. When we encounter another person, we are engaging sexually because we are engaging them as male or female. Genital sexuality is when we encounter another person romantically and genitally. She states that this helps us:

“Understand our sexuality in two fundamental ways: First, as part of God’s good created order, which means that God created us sexual, and being sexual is good! That means we can freely let go of all those negative attitudes we carry around about sex. And second, in some way being sexual is connected to the way we image our Creator—now that’s something to think about!”

This helpful clarification has profound ramifications: from male and female interaction all the way to pastoral counseling modus operandi, and there are deep consequences if we try and ignore our unique sexuality.

Hirsch spends the rest of the book diving into critical topics such as gender, bisexuality, homosexuality, and how sexuality is best understood as a spectrum. She reminds us that there are no clean lines when talking about sexuality, especially homosexuality. “There are many variances and things to consider when trying to define and understand homosexuality. In fact, it might be more accurate to say homosexualities.” Hirsch’s gentle and clarifying approach culminates by saying, “Gay people, like all people, just want to be recognized and accepted for who they experience themselves to be, despite the degree of choice of not involved in their lifestyle. It is a profoundly human issue, and followers of the incarnate God ought to be very sensitive to this.”

She reminds the reader that we all make it to heaven with a limp and that “Surely we can hold an orthodox position and still be good, kind and embracing people.” This idea leads to the last part of the book: the mission of Christian sexuality. She argues that Christians must normalize non-heterosexual expressions, and by normalization she simply means “The recognition that homosexuality is part of the spectrum of human sexuality.” Though we may not agree with the choices, we must view others first and foremost as being created in the image of God and then as sinners in need of a savior. This will help the church listen rather than yell; to take a position of humility rather than antagonism. She closes the book with the idea of “re-sexing” the church and how grace must be the starting place, which speaks deeply of the Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace.

As a millennial who has grown up in an over-sexualized society and under-sexualized church, Redeeming Sex came as breath of fresh air. With grace and humility, it addressed nearly every aspect of sexuality I have wrestled with, as well as those aspects church members are wrestling with. It gives a way forward that smells distinctly of Jesus while maintaining historic orthodoxy. It shows grace while reminding us that holiness is our ultimate destination and the journey starts today. It gives hope that the conversation regarding sexuality and gender can move past polemics, crass joking, denominational bickering, and sweeping generalizations, to a dialogue that sees the image of God in the other. I wholeheartedly recommend Redeeming Sex to both pastors and church-folk alike.

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Joshua lives in Atlanta and works for Peachtree City United Methodist Church as the Executive Director of Grow Ministries. He is a Priest in the Anglican Church of North America (ADGL) and blogs at trinitarianmission.com as well as co-hosts The Threshing Floor Podcast. The posts on Trinitarianmission hope to engage in a conversation around the Mission of God and missional themes. Find him on Twitter: @joshuatoepper

3 COMMENTS

  1. A view from a lifelong Methodist of more than a few decades: First off, thank you for making me laugh with the quote from Butch Hancock; it pretty well sums up what life in various towns in Texas taught me about God and sex. Reality is, the two go hand in hand: currently there is absolutely no coherent teaching when it comes to who God is and who we are so there is no way we can have a reasonable understanding about sex.
    A few years back I ended up distancing myself from all things church and discovered what all I did not know and understand about basic orthodox Christianity; I finally discovered the existence of a God worth worshiping; I found myself standing in the wide open space of his amazing grace; Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable.
    At the same time, I started monitoring a myriad of voices from within the UMC and of course I was forced to confront what my thoughts were on homosexuality beyond it is “wrong”; I came to the conclusion that the problem was not that the church “discriminates” against people attracted to persons of the same gender, it was that it had no way to talk to them beyond declaring what they were doing is a sin. But I also learned the real reason this subject has turned into a shouting match: people are literally peddling apples and oranges to each other because of different understandings when it comes to who God is and who we are; the way in which church relates to society; and the role of General Conference and the Discipline in the life of the church.
    My instinct now is that before the church can have a rational discussion about sexuality, it has some business to tend to starting with reclaiming a robust teaching about the existence of the triune God of holy love and his story of creation, sin and redemption. Once people are “amazed and humbled into the dust” at the love of God in Christ Jesus for them, concern about a person’s sexuality will pale in comparison!

  2. Perhaps, having not read this book myself, I am missing some context. Nonetheless, some of the language used herein is a bit disturbing: “a perceived scriptural mandate on purity” … “sexuality is best understood as a spectrum” … “there are no clean lines when talking about sexuality, especially homosexuality” This all seems to be just ambiguous and haphazard enough to stumble its way far afield of an entirely scriptural teaching that partaking in sexual activity outside of the marriage of one man and one woman is sin. In response to sin, Holy Love requires confession and repentance — no less.

    I don’t believe there’s any disagreement that the Church has failed to teach this well, or at all in many circumstances. This failure of the Church has probably been rooted most deeply in its ignorance of and departure from Holy Love. Too many have been outrightly rejected and abused — often quite hatefully — who should have been lovingly and prayerfully led to confession and repentance. This doesn’t imply that a “re-sexing” of the Church is needed — rather, it makes clear that the Church needs to return to its First Love.

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