“Shameless” Review

Last night, I finished the latest book written by Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Shameless”.

This is the book I wish I could have read 4 years ago when I was beginning to question the teaching I’d received my entire life from the church in regards to sexuality, gender roles, and the marginalized (particularly the LGBTQ+ community).

Nadia does not have any interest in conforming to or preserving the standard of sexuality that has long been taught by evangelicalism as The One True Way: heterosexual sex between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman within the context of marriage.

If you’re looking for a book that digs into the Bible verse-by-verse in order to challenge prooftexts used to substantiate claims used by the church, you may find yourself disappointed. This is not meant to be an apologetic treatise on the topics of gender and sexuality.

There are indeed passages of Scripture included in “Shameless”, but they are often passages one would not expect to see included in a conversation on sexuality.

Like the parable of the talent.

Time and time again throughout, “Shameless”, Nadia emphasizes that sex is a gift from God. Much like other gifts that call to our five senses -such as food or music – sex was given to us because God wants us to enjoy His creation. He wants us to experience the pleasure and intimacy that comes along with healthy sexuality.

However, according to Nadia, when the church teaches its members to suppress and deny their sexuality (by attempting to control “impure” thoughts, the avoidance of dressing in a certain way so as not to be a stumbling block to others, avoiding physical affection because it may lead to sex, etc…), it is akin to burying the talent in the sand. We would be taking the gift that God gave us and burying it so that it may not be enjoyed as intended.

The consequence often becomes that those who have suppressed their sexuality cannot then access it properly once they find themselves in the “appropriate” context; the context in which they’ve been taught they may fully enjoy sex. This can lead to problems for both the individual and the marriage as both people try to untangle what has happened.

Nadia addresses the various metaphors used to frighten impressionable youth into abstinence: chewed up gum, the cup that was passed around for everyone to spit in before the final person was asked to take a drink, the rose that was plucked of its petals one by one until all that was left was a dry and empty stem. And finally: the fireplace. This metaphor treated sex like fire – dangerous and only safe within the proper containment. The idea being, of course, that sex is only safe within the proper containment of marriage.

Here, Nadia says she can agree with the kernel of truth found in this metaphor. Sex is fire. While sex can bring connection, warmth, and empowerment, it can also burn. Abused, sex can be harmful in the same way that fire, when not respected, can be harmful. However, she argues, the fact that fire can burn is precisely why it is important to be taught the resources necessary to approach it in a responsible way. Its not enough to banish it to simply one locale and assume the work is done.

Sex isn’t something to be feared or suppressed. It is something that the church needs to be educating its youth on in a sex-positive way in order for them to have the freedom and resources to one day safely explore this gift.

Indeed, Nadia talks about speaking at a teen conference that her denomination, ELCA, holds each year. She understood that where teens and hormones are, sex will follow. She requested that sex educators be present to give their teens the resources to be safe for if/when they choose to have sex. In the book, Nadia expresses her disappointment when they refused her request due to the fear that the parents would not approve.

This leads her into discussing the harms of abstinence-only education, which she says has been proven ineffective at avoiding teen sex and teen pregnancy.

Nadia acknowledges that discussing the subject of sex with teens can be difficult for many. There is a fear of inadvertently giving teens permission to engage in hookup culture or harmful sexual experiences. There is also much empathy written in the pages of “Shameless” for parents who are uncomfortable in thinking about their teens as sexual beings, as well as their discomfort in confronting sexuality directly with their kids. However, Nadia also acknowledges the harm it can lead to for the teens who are attempting to navigate this new world of sexuality without adequate guidance from their elders.

She remembers how the only “talk” she got from her mother was being handed a book on the topic and told to come to her mother if she had any questions, and the subsequent isolation she felt as a sexually active teen. Nadia says she wanted to do more for her own children. However, when the time came for her to address it, she delayed the talk out of her own discomfort. In the end, she did as her own mother did. She gave each of her children a book and told them to come to her and their father if they had questions.

It was only when her daughter was 18 and revealed that she was in her first sexual relationship that Nadia forced herself to push through the discomfort to give her daughter words of advice on the topic in an attempt to give her safe space to discuss her feelings and experiences and to seek advice.

Nadia talks about her experiences as a young girl in evangelicalism being objectified and watching her friends be objectified by grown men. She talks about young girls being given narrow definitions by the church of what it means to be “feminine” and forced into gender roles.

She talks about her experience with divorce.

She talks about abortion and, in a moment of raw vulnerability, shares her own story on this topic.

Nadia addresses the church’s trajectory from pro-choice to pro-life, sharing a surprising connection (surprising to me, at least) to racism at the beginning of the pro-life movement.

She shares the stories of some of her parishioners. Those whose mental health has been damaged by harmful teaching on sexual orientation. Those whose marriages have been harmed by toxic theology on sexuality and gender roles. Nadia shares their struggles and talks about how many (though not all) have found healing in learning to separate Jesus from the unBiblical theology they were taught.

This book wasn’t written to attack those who dispute her theological leanings. In fact, she emphasizes love for those who differ from her. Further, while she acknowledges hard feelings stemming from hurt and trauma suffered that makes love difficult, she encourages her readers to remember that the pastors, theologians, etc… who teach these doctrines on gender and sexuality do so because they sincerely believe the doctrine. It is here, Nadia argues, that grace needs to be shown.

She leaves room for those whose lives and marriages have benefitted from the narrow teachings of evangelicalism on these topics. She only wishes to argue that when God created humanity, He created diversity. There cannot, she argues, be a one size fits all approach to sexuality or gender/sexual orientation because God did not create us all as clones of one another. While it may be true that sex limited to the context of a marriage between a cisgender man and woman may work for some, it’s not only bad theology to insist it must work for all, it is simply illogical.

Nadia does not stop at sharing hard anecdotal tales or statistics. She invites the reader to really examine their own history with the church and the teaching they’ve received on the topics that she has addressed. She invites them to feel compassion for the hardships and traumas they’ve endured and to find a safe space and a community to grieve with over those things. She reminds the reader that God did not make a mistake when He created them, regardless of whether or not they fit into that cisgender/heterosexual ideal that the evangelical church teaches. God created each and every one of us.

Where shame has taught us that we may be unlovable, Nadia says, we are immeasurably loved.

We are each holy because we were created in the image of God. We are each individually loved by that Creator simply because we exist. We don’t have to do anything or be anyone but ourselves in order to earn that love.

This book is a call to empathy, both for those we’ve “othered” and for ourselves. Nadia wants us to hear how real lives are being affected by the doctrine shared from the pulpit and by our evangelical teachers every week. She wants to give a voice to many of those who cannot fit within the narrow view of the evangelical church of what it means to be a holy and righteous person. For that reason alone, regardless of where your own beliefs may land, I would recommend this book. Once you understand where another person is coming from, it becomes much easier to hear them and have a respectful dialogue.

And we could all use a little more empathy in our lives.

Final note: The copy of “Shameless” that I have read in order to write this review is an uncorrected proof. The final draft, due to be published at the end of the month, may be altered. So its possible I’ve referenced things that will not appear in the end product.

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