For all the talk about sexual issues with regard to the church --- abortion, homosexuality, pedophilia, and celibacy come immediately to mind --- you'd think sexuality was the church's major concern. If that's what you think, well, it turns out you're not entirely wrong. Carmen Renee Berry's survey of Christian thought on sex reveals an inordinate amount of emphasis on the subject throughout church history.
Berry's "unauthorized guide" is divided into three major sections. The first traces the history of Christian (and Jewish) attitudes toward sex, as well as historical thinking on which sexual practices were considered appropriate and, of course, which were not. Conservatives and liberals alike would do well to read this section in particular; many Christians, I'm sure, would be surprised at how ancient laws regarding property rights helped shape ideas on sexuality that have survived to this day, for instance, or how Luther's early opposition to celibacy helped shape the thinking that led to the Protestant Reformation.
The second section examines four specific issues that stand as obstacles to church unity in contemporary society: sexual purity, celibacy, abortion, and homosexuality. Berry offers insight into each issue by examining them from a variety of perspectives and, in some cases, a variety of denominational perspectives --- a particularly helpful bit of information for anyone who tends to lump all Christians together. The third major section looks at sex scandals in the church, providing some troubling statistics on the incidence of rape, pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse, sex addiction, pornography, and the like within the church.
Throughout the book, Berry offers resources with regard to each specific issue and provides a separate listing of resources in an appendix. Other appendices offer statistics on sexual misconduct, most of which specifically cite behavior among Christians, and a list of questions readers can use to help discern where they stand on foundational beliefs such as Jesus and the authority of the Bible --- beliefs that go a long way toward predicting and understanding a person's attitude toward sex.
If you're familiar with Berry's other books, such as THE UNAUTHORIZED GUIDE TO CHOOSING A CHURCH and the New York Times bestseller GIRLFRIENDS, you'll be glad to know that she continues with her warm, conversational style of writing in this book. In Berry's hands, church history becomes a series of delightful, interconnected stories that shed light on the way Christian thinking on sexuality has developed. As usual, her wit is never far from the surface.
Berry's purpose in tackling such highly charged topics is commendable; she'd like to see Christians on both sides of, say, the abortion divide talking to each other rather than attacking each other. The same goes for all the other sexually related issues that create division in the church. Berry writes in a way that shows she genuinely wants each side of a given issue to understand how and why the other side has reached the conclusions it has.
One can only hope that her readers will take the hint. Berry has done the church a service by providing a highly readable and entertaining look at the way diverse Christians approach sexual issues; the church would be wise to return the favor by encouraging those diverse Christians to begin a conversation with each other that focuses on finding common ground as well as solutions to sex-related problems that plague the church and society.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on August 23, 2005