The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. And also with you
The week Prince died, I was flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, to speak to a group of Methodists. That same week, the state legislature of North Carolina voted in the so-called bathroom bill, which stated that people must use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their driver’s license. As I stuffed my carry-on bag beneath the seat in front of me, I thought of this hideous bill and the little plan I had concocted to protest it. My bag contained a roll of Scotch tape and half a dozen sheets of paper, all which bore—in huge purple print—the androgynous symbol for Prince’s name.
The plane took off, and I looked out the window. We were traveling over the dry plains of eastern Colorado, thirty thousand feet above a dot matrix of green and brown circles that revealed the geometry of industrial agriculture. As a city girl who doesn’t know a thing about farming, I’ve always found those green circles puzzling. Why would farmers plant circles of crops in lots that are square?
When I looked into it later, I discovered that in 1940, just twenty-nine miles from the spot where my plane made its way into the crisp Colorado sky, a man named Frank Zybach invented the center-pivot irrigation system, essentially revolutionizing farming in America. In his system, the watering equipment turns on a pivot, allowing sprinklers to water crops in a circular pattern. The crops aren’t planted in circles; they’re just watered that way. The water never gets to the crops in the corners.
When I arrived at the Charlotte airport, I went about my project of taping the purple Prince symbols over bathroom signs that read “Men” and “Women.” Then I went to church.
The day after I returned home, I sat on the edge of the stage at House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), the Denver church I pastor. My parishioner Meghan and I were watching the church’s monthly community meal take place. Groups of mismatched people of differing ages and sexual and gender orientations were situated at twelve circular tables throughout the room, eating chili out of Styrofoam bowls.
Meghan, a large transwoman with long, thin hair and a face and figure that she admits do not allow her to “pass,” has enough social anxiety to make sitting at a communal table a non-starter, so she usually makes her own place on the edge of the stage. Some Sundays, rather than join the fray, I hang with her and talk comic books.
That day, as our legs hung off the stage, I brought up something that had been on my mind lately. “Hey, Meghan, I read my old Christian sex-ed book this morning for the first time in maybe forty years.” She laughed, and I went on. “It taught me that God’s plan is for everyone to be a hetero-sexual, cis-gender Christian who never has sex with anyone until they marry their one true love and make babies.”*
We both laughed. Then I shook my head. “I mean, I do think there are genuinely those kinds of people out there.”
Meghan held up her hand and touched her thumb to the rest of her purple nail-polished fingers. “Sure there are. And this is how small that circle is.”
If you were to draw a circle that represents all the people on the planet, and then inside it draw another small circle to represent the people who live according to “God’s plan,” then, well, very few people on the planet fit in that
circle. Meghan doesn’t fit in that circle. I don’t fit in that circle. Also not included in the circle are divorced people, people in unhappy marriages, people who have sex before marriage, people who masturbate, asexuals, gay people, bisexuals, people who are not Christian, people who are gender non-binary . . .
If that’s “God’s plan,” then God planned poorly.
Maybe you don’t fit into that circle, either. God planted so many of us in the corners, yet the center-pivot irrigation of the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends to exclude us. Many of us were taught that if you do not fit inside the circle of the church’s behavioral codes, God is not pleased with you, so we whittled ourselves down to a shape that could fit those teachings, or we denied those parts of ourselves entirely. The lusty parts. The kinky parts. The gay parts. The unwanted-pregnancy parts. The unfulfilled parts.
But our sexual and gender expressions are as integral to who we are as our religious upbringings are. To separate these aspects of ourselves—to separate life as a sexual being from a life with God—is to bifurcate our psyche, like a musical progression that never comes to resolution.
In the ten years I’ve been pastor at HFASS, I’ve known young married couples who did what the church told them and “waited,” only to discover that they could not, on the day of their wedding, flip a switch in their brains and in their bodies and suddenly go from relating to sex as sinful and dirty and dangerous to relating to sex as joyful and natural and God-given. I’ve known single women who didn’t have sex until they were forty and now have absolutely no idea how to manage the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship. I’ve heard middle-aged women admit that they still can’t make themselves wear a V-neck because as teenagers they were told female modesty was the best protection from unwanted male sexual advances. I’ve seen gay men who never reported the sexual abuse they experienced in the church because the church told them being gay was a sin. I’ve heard stories from women who experienced marital rape after getting married at twenty years old (because if you have to wait until marriage to have sex, then you hurry that shit up) but got the message from their church that because there is a verse in the Bible that says women should be subject to their husbands, it was not actually rape.
It doesn’t feel very difficult to draw a direct line between the messages many of us received from the church and the harm we’ve experienced in our bodies and spirits as a result. So my argument in this book is this: we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people
. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther took a hard look at the harm in his own parishioners’ spiritual lives, specifically their torment from trying to fulfill the sacramental obligations that the church determined would appease an angry God. Seeing this, Luther dared to think that the Gospel—the story of God coming to humanity in Jesus of Nazareth, and speaking to us the words of life—could free his parishioners from the harm their own church had done them. Luther was less loyal to the teachings of the church than he was to people
, and this helped spark what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.
I know that there will be those who do not wish to rethink their ideas about sexual ethics, gender, orientation, extramarital sex, and the inherent goodness of the human body. Maybe some people reading this will look at their own lives and in their own churches and see only happy, straight couples who have fulfilling monogamous sex and who glow with the satisfaction of “living in God’s special plan for humanity.” I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t go to your church and I do not live your life. So if the traditional teachings of the church around sex and the body have caused no harm in the lives of the people around you, and have even provided them a plan for true human flourishing, then this book probably is not for you. (Good news, though: the Christian publishing world is your oyster. There you’ll find no lack of books to uphold and even help you double down on your beliefs.)
This book is for everyone else. It is water, I hope, for those planted in the corners. It is for anyone who has had to keep their love life secret. It is for all those who have been good and done everything right in the eyes of the church, and yet still have a sex life minus the fireworks and magic that were promised them if they just “waited.” It is for the parents of the gay son, parents who love and support him because they know he is neither a mistake nor an aberrant sinner, and as a result of that support have become outsiders in their own church. This book is for everyone who ever felt ashamed of their sexual nature because of what someone told them in God’s name. This book is for anyone who has walked away from Christianity and yet still is secretly into Jesus and always will be. This book is for anyone who has passed the traditional teachings of the church on sex to their own kids and now regrets it. This book is for the newly divorced man or woman who desires to be a caring and thoughtful lover, yet wonders: Do the rules I learned in youth group still apply to me now?
This book is for the young Evangelical who silently disagrees with their church’s stance on sex and sexual orientation, yet feels alone in that silence. This book is for anyone who wonders, even subconsciously: Has the church obsessed over this too much? Do we really think we’ve gotten it right?
I believe strongly that the church, in general, has absolutely not
gotten it right.
Copyright © 2020 by Nadia Bolz-Weber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.