Book Review: ‘Shameless: A Sexual Reformation’ by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Book Review by Wesley Hill: 2/5 stars

A few years ago I was listening to NPR while driving, and I almost pulled the car over to a stop, so great was my enthusiasm for what I’d just heard. When I got home, I found a recording of the segment online and insisted that one of my housemates listen to it with me. “A Lutheran pastor just defended the doctrine of sin on public radio!” I gushed. “And then preached the gospel!”

The pastor I heard was Nadia Bolz-Weber, the now-famous foul-mouthed, tattoo-festooned recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who founded Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, a progressive Lutheran congregation that has become known as a haven for ex-evangelicals and other religious or not-so-religious misfits. Here is part of what she said on the air that day:

When [the people of my congregation] come to church, they need a place where they can experience, like, confession and absolution—like, where they can confess the ways in which they can’t manage to fix everything and they can’t live up to their own values and the ways they’ve failed and hear that sort of ringing word of forgiveness and absolution. They need to hear the gospel and receive the Eucharist.

It’s not unusual to hear religious types talk about human fallibility and the need for affirmation or acceptance. But to hear someone say to a largely secular audience that we need to confess our wrongs, admit our guilt, and be absolved—well, that’s much stronger, and usually more distasteful, medicine. Ultimately, though, it’s a message that makes true healing possible because it diagnoses our wayward condition unblinkingly, rather than politely papering over it.

Doing Away with Absolution

Unfortunately, the pastor who talked up the liberation that comes from admitting you’re in the wrong now seems more interested in helping people understand why they don’t need to. In her new book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Bolz-Weber is out to set Christians free from the angst and humiliation churches have often foisted on them because of their sexual proclivities and behaviors. But the way the book goes about doing so is by rejecting wholesale the idea of “sexual purity” and, with it, the need to confess sexual transgression. In one of the book’s most straightforward moments, Bolz-Weber sums up her message like this:

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 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.

The message of Shameless, in short, is that feeling like a transgressor never bears the seeds of redemption, and the way to flourishing lies in throwing out any standard that isn’t giving you life.

Shameless recounts story after story of people who have ditched old Christian rules around sex and have, as a result, experienced a newfound, reputedly healthy shamelessness. In one chapter, for instance, an ex-Pentecostal gay woman trying to rebuild her faith in the wake of spiritual abuse and self-harm relates to Bolz-Weber how she tore out from her childhood Bible the various passages that prohibit gay sex and threw them into a bonfire. Then, carefully removing the four Gospels and clutching them to her heart, she went ahead and threw the rest of the Bible in too. (Bolz-Weber defends her by saying, “The Gospels are the canon within the canon. … The closer a text of the Bible is to [the story of Jesus] or to the heart of that story’s message, the more authority it has. The farther away it is, the less its authority.”)

Another chapter recounts Bolz-Weber’s anguished decision to have an abortion at age 24. “My choice destroyed me for a time,” she writes, “though not because I thought I’d committed a horrible sin or because I felt ashamed.” When she finally decided to talk about her choice with her fellow teachers at a Christian retreat center, Bolz-Weber told the room: “I never regretted [my choice], because I knew it was the right decision for me.” Guilt is overcome here—but through self-assertion rather than divine absolution. Bolz-Weber doesn’t feel she needs forgiveness, in this instance at least.

According to Shameless, the voice of judgment in the Garden of Eden that diagnosed Adam and Eve as rebels wasn’t God’s. “Who told you that your sexual expression is something to be ashamed of?” Bolz-Weber has God ask the cowering pair of humans. And then she answers: “My money is on the snake. And he’s a damned liar.”

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Source: Christianity Today