Sex is a feminist issue. Harmful perspectives on sex and our physical bodies have been used to disempower and invalidate the sexuality of women, LGBTQIA folks, and people of color. It runs through our theology and cultural traditions within the church.
I run a personal blog which speaks positively about sex and queerness. And when folks find it, frequently, their first questions to me is what other resources are out there that teach a better Christian perspective? I often tell them to start with The Incarnation Institute for Sex and Faith.
IISF offers “inclusive, science-friendly, sex-positive” educational programming for church leaders and lay people. Founder Rev. Dr. Beverly Dale, affectionately known as “Rev Bev,” is ordained through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently teaches courses on sexuality and religion at Lancaster Theological Seminary.
The institute recently released a four-part web series, Reading the Bible with Sex-Positive Eyes, which includes the topics: “Introduction to Christian Sex Negativity: The Beginnings,” “Discerning Truth, Discerning Culture,” “Sex in the Bible: The Good, The Bad & the Ugly,” and “Sex: Whether, When, and How.”
I interviewed Rev Bev about the new series.
1 Who is this web series for? And what does it teach that you may not find in even a liberal church setting?
This web series is for the faithful Christian who is dissatisfied with or has been wounded by sex-negative Christian teachings. They want to be faithful to the gospel but are not heterosexual or married or interested in conforming. Basically anyone who wants to hear some good news about the body and sexual pleasure, as well as perhaps even experience sexual freedom in new ways will be interested in these webinars. Too often people think they have to give up their Christian faith to be sexually authentic. That includes those who are LGBT or gender variant, women, those in multiple intimate relationships or anyone who wants to deepen and broaden their sexual lives. The truth is that while the teachings of the mainline Christian churches do not, as a rule, create guilt, shame, or fear and may, in fact, be quite inclusive of women and gays, there are few that insist that the incarnation of Jesus is linked to our sexual lives! I think this is a serious omission because it leaves the field wide open for those churches who purport to teach the incarnation but who focus their teachings on the sexual rigidity of Plato rather than Jesus or the early church. And, unfortunately, that kind of teaching is all-too-frequently destructive for satisfying intimate relationships or healthy personal self-esteem and self-confidence. The scientific research makes a strong correlation between religion and sexual conflict.
2 How does this series fit into the overall work you do at the Incarnation Institute?
While much of our energy focuses on professional leaders such as sex therapists, counselors, sex educators, or seminarians and pastors, we also have a concern for those “people in the pew,” or more likely, those who have left the pews altogether because of the clash between their hearts and their own sexual integrity with sex-negative church teachings.
I go to conferences and present workshops and meet former Catholics and ex-Baptists, for example, who are in responsible non-monogamous lifestyles, church elders and deacons who are exploring kink, and others who are closeted in any number of ways. They flock to my workshops hoping to receive some freedom from repressive rules. I also meet a lot of single women in their thirties and forties who are not married and may not even want to be so, who want to experience sexual intimacy and pleasure in their single state but who are looking for moral guidance from a faithful framework. And then, of course, the sexual minority communities seldom hear how their queerness can be a spiritual gift or that sexual diversity is God’s gift.
We have resources on our website that, in some ways, supplement the webinars. However, I trust that the webinars are comprehensive enough to turn people’s heads around – a couple of times! They clearly show a different way of being sexual people of faith, and, it is grounded in sound science and a liberating gospel of Jesus.
3 I can imagine many churches using the series in small group settings. Does the series ask questions at the end or provide structured ways of having a conversation around the material?
We have not created a study guide for the webinar series but there is a complete bibliography at the conclusion of each one that can point people to other thinkers and scholars including Christian memoirs. If a group wanted to start slowly, I have a series of short YouTube videos called Sex is Good. We will have a study guide available for those by next year. The webinars however are far more comprehensive.
4 In the description of the series, you explain that your work builds on the “crucial theological work of a wide group of Christian liberation theologians that include feminists, womanists, post-colonialists, and queer scholarship.” Besides your series, where would you recommend someone starting who is new to this kind of theology?
It is important for people to know the Incarnation Institute is not the only one challenging the church to step up its game on the matters of sexuality and the body. There are regular Christians who share their spiritual stories and theologians whose academic writings can provide helpful insights. What is important is to assemble a wide conversation with Christians (or post-Christians) who have felt the brunt of religious rigidity toward their body or who offer thoughtful analysis of biblical texts. This conversation must not be solely with straight white men, however learned or revered. (In that latter category I would put the insightful work of theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, neither of whom address the body per se but rather, teach a liberating framework to the bible, and Bishop John Shelby Spong who does address sexuality in more than one of his books.) But we have to open the conversation to people who are different from ourselves and whose life experiences in their bodies can help us see the intersectionality of so many issues.
For example, to talk only about queerness misses the reality of those who are also bashed for skin color or poverty level. To talk only about the ways women are put down in a sexist fashion misses the different lived realities of lesbians, trans women or women of color. A diverse group of teachers with differing lived experiences can help us understand the magnitude of the ways the body is routinely trivialized, dehumanized, and damaged. In this way we will jettison Christian-based sex negativity.
There are three Christian theologians I especially appreciate: straight ally womanist, Kelly Brown Douglas, and her examination of the Black church attitudes toward the sexual minority communities; Christian theologian Patrick Cheng, whose experience as a gay Asian informs his re-examination of Christian theology; and Miguel de La Torre who critiques US colonialism and sexism through his Cuban heritage.
Of course, there are many, many others. Just start with one writer/thinker and they will reference to many others! There are also Christian and interfaith organizations doing good work as well addressing body-based sex negativity such as the Religious Institute, Many Voices, Faith Trust Institute.
Jera Brown is an intersectional feminist and freelance writer whose work engages sensitive issues around faith and sexuality. They blog about being a queer, non-monogamous Buddhist Christian at scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship column “Just the Tip” centers folks with marginalized sexual identities and pressing issues in more depth than you normally find online. Jera is also the editor of Sacred and Subversive, a multi-faith blog and anthology project offering queer perspectives on the future of faith communities.