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Let’s Talk About Sex (and Religion)

Churches and publishers are responding to changing attitudes about sexuality

Originally Published By Lynn Garrett Sep 21, 2018

They might seem like strange bedfellows, but sex—the source of human life—is at the core of religious teachings, with sexual activity outside of conventional marriage forbidden by traditional faiths. But with recent cultural shifts have come changes in the attitudes and behaviors of many believers. This loosening of restrictions on sexual activity, and a greater acceptance of a variety of sexual expressions, means churches—and publishers—must respond.

One of the most divisive changes, for Christianity in particular, has been acceptance of same-sex relationships. The battle over this issue has sent landmark cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, including one legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015. The decision was welcomed by some religious groups and decried by others. A just-released survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute shows a majority of Americans (61%) across ethnic and racial groups now support same-sex marriage. And that support also ranges across faiths: clear majorities of nearly all major faith groups are in favor; the exceptions are white evangelicals and Mormons. Young adults (ages 18–29) are overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equity (77% for, 17% against), and even white evangelicals in that age group support it—53%—while only 25% of white evangelicals over 65 do.

Conservative religious groups are fighting hard to preserve traditional sexual mores, but others have chosen to evolve alongside the shifting perspective on sex. Books from religion publishers reflect that tension.

Conversion, Spiritual and Sexual On the conservative end of the spectrum, some evangelical Christian publishers have made gay conversion narratives a staple. Two new books connect the authors’ homosexuality to childhood deprivation, abuse, and rejection. In Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been (B&H, out now), Jackie Hill Perry—rapper, poet, and artist—writes that growing up without a father was a source of confusion about her gender identity and a reason she embraced gay culture.

She had a born-again experience at age 19 and turned away from same-sex attraction. “I used to be a lesbian,” she writes. Perry has made it her mission to change others and uses her platform of 220K followers on social media to spread her message. Her performances of her poems have garnered more than one million views on YouTube, and her debut album, The Art of Joy, was released in 2014.

Catholic publisher Ignatius Press weighs in with Out: One Man’s Queer Journey to Freedom (Apr. 2019). Author Robert Hauck writes that his “gender confusion” began with his mother’s attempt to abort him; her grudging acceptance of the pregnancy was conditioned on the baby being a girl. When Robert was born, she dressed him in pink and treated him like a girl. Hauck also writes of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a cousin and a man who worked on the family farm, and of his father humiliating him by forcing him to do what he calls “women’s work” on the farm.

Hauck fled to the gay underground in Los Angeles in the 1960s and immersed himself in that world until he was publicly outed, fired from his job, and unmasked to his wife and four children. Turning to his Catholic faith, Hauck recommitted to his marriage and underwent years of therapy and counseling.

In A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Zondervan, Nov. 2019), David Bennett tells of coming out to his parents when he was 14; he was fortunate to have parents who immediately accepted him. When Bennett moved to Sydney, he witnessed homophobia and harassment and was inspired to become an activist and seek justice for LGBTQ people. Bennett’s spiritual journey took him through atheism, alternative spirituality, and French existentialism, to Christianity. He has embraced himself as a gay person but believes his faith calls him to be celibate outside of marriage. Bennett is a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and pursuing a PhD in theology at the University of Oxford.

Many parents—especially those who are religious—do not react well when their children come out. In Embracing the Journey (Howard, Mar. 2019), Greg and Lynn McDonald write about their initial anguish and disappointment. They say that they tried to “fix” their son, to no avail. After 20 years of struggle, the MacDonalds concluded there is no dissonance between loving him and loving God. “Parenting is a journey to be embraced, whether your child is gay or straight, tall or short, athletic or clumsy,” they write. “None of this has caught God by surprise. This is the child that God chose specifically for us. And he did so for a reason. We prayed for God to change our son. Instead, he changed us.” The couple cofounded Embrace the Journey, one of the first ministries for evangelical Christian parents like themselves.

Gender Bending The cultural conversation about the fluidity of gender has spilled over into churches. In Rewriting Gender? You, Your Family, Transgenderism and the Gospel (Christian Focus, out now), Irish evangelist David Martin argues that people don’t have the right to define their own gender identity—that it is God alone who decides whether a person is male or female.

He writes, “Identity obviously is one of the key issues in all our conversations about transgenderism.... [But] we are not just having a conversation about an idea or an –ism, but about real people’s lives.”

Martin acknowledges the pain of gender dysphoria and prescribes a biblical approach: “Rooted in the very essence of creation are two simple ideas that the world cannot accept or hold together at present,” he writes. “First, we are all made equal by God. He does not love one gender better than the other. But secondly, men and women have been made to be different from one another. Both have their own special roles to fulfill in God’s grand plan.... Setting this picture of reality before our children has never been more important.”

Jonathan S. Williams comes to a different conclusion in She’s My Dad: A Father’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption (Westminster John Knox, Nov.), written with Paula Stone Williams. Evangelical pastor Williams was shocked when his father, Paul (himself a prominent evangelical pastor), told Williams that he is transgender and intended to become Paula. At first frightened and depressed, Jonathan learned to forgive and accept his father and to welcome LGBTQ people into his congregation, which became one of the few LGBTQ-inclusive evangelical churches in America.

He doesn’t gloss over the difficulties: “The postmodern narrative doesn’t take into account the sheer complexity of having one’s father, brother, sister, mother, child, or spouse become a completely different person on a neurological level,” he writes. “There’s no handbook. There’s no ‘how to’ on YouTube. We’re rightly creating a culture where those who identify as being transgender receive greater support, but behind every coming-out party, there is a family that’s weeping, drinking too much, and Googling what exactly it means to be transgender.”

Acceptance and Embrace Many progressive churches have embraced LGBTQ people, including the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination. Its trade publishing arm, Westminster John Knox, has a number of books on the topic on its backlist and is publishing several more over the coming year. “It’s part of our overall ethic of inclusion and justice,” says Jessica Miller Kelley, acquisitions editor for general reader books. “As the church has grown much more affirming, with more denominations allowing same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ pastors, our approach to the genre has changed.... Our previous books aimed to change people’s minds about the morality of gay relationships. Now, fewer people need convincing, and we are expanding our focus, publishing more books by and for people in the LGBTQ community.”

Next year, WJK will publish Unashamed: A Coming-Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians (Mar. 2019), the second title from Amber Cantorna, whose memoir, Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God, was published in 2017. The daughter of a longtime executive at the ultraconservative Focus on the Family organization, she came out in 2012 and was rejected by her family and church. Unashamed is her guide for those wrestling with questions about how their faith and sexuality can be reconciled and where they can find a welcoming faith community.

WJK’s Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage by David Khalaf and Constantino Khalaf (Jan. 2019), with a foreword by Rachel Held Evans, also offers practical, faith-based advice to same-sex couples. When the Khalafs were engaged, “there were virtually no resources to help queer Christians navigate the waters of marriage, church, faith, and sexuality,” they write. “We started a blog as a way of processing and examining our own experience, and, to our surprise, we soon found that we had become the role models for others that we hadn’t had for ourselves.”

Changing Churches Books also provide guidance and advice to congregations that want to welcome LGBTQ members. In True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace (Chalice, out now), gay millennial pastor Brandan Robertson writes, “True inclusion calls us beyond mere welcome, beyond outward signs of celebration, and even beyond the LGBTQ+ conversation itself and to a completely new paradigm for how we live our faith in the confines of our sanctuary and in the public square.” He adds, “It’s my sincerest belief that God created humans to live in community with one another, and that we can’t have true community until we include those who are different from us.”

Episcopal priest Gregory Millikin’s Being Called, Being Gay: Discernment for Ministry in the Episcopal Church (Church Publishing, out now), with a foreword by Mary Glasspool, shows how the Episcopal Church has been a leader in opening up ordination to holy orders for partnered gay and lesbian members. As a result, many gay and lesbian churchgoers are considering an option for religious involvement that was formerly unattainable. The book focuses on the practice of discernment: close questioning about whether the call to ministry is coming from God, which can be complicated when the question becomes, Does God want me, as an out gay person, to be a priest in the church?

One of the large mainline denominations still bars openly gay people from ministry. Surrendering My Ordination: Standing Up for Gay and Lesbian Inclusivity in the United Methodist Church (WJK, out now) is J. Philip Wogaman’s account of leaving the clergy after sixty years as an ordained United Methodist minister, in protest of the church’s policy.

Sexual Theologies Christians on both sides of debates about sexuality can find scriptures that support their theology. WaterBrook, the evangelical Christian imprint of Penguin Random House, has published Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story by Christopher Yuan, who argues for the “holy sexuality” he believes the Bible teaches—i.e., chastity for singles and fidelity for married couples. The 2011 memoir he wrote with his mother, Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, a Broken Mother’s Search for Hope, describes Yuan’s conversion from an agnostic gay man to a Bible professor who teaches holy sexuality. Countering cultural trends, Yuan offers advice for Christians who experience same-sex attraction and encourages Christians to reach out to LGBTQ communities.

Evangelical house Kregel will publish Reimagining Your Love Story: Biblical and Psychological Practices for Healthy Relationships by Andrea Gurney in spring 2019. Gurney, a psychologist, examines how childhood experiences and media culture can create unattainable expectations for sexual relationships and gender roles. She urges using biblical principles to counter the sexualization and objectification of women, citing research linking oversexualization “with three of the most common mental health issues in girls and women—eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem.”

Karen Keen finds support in the Bible for a different view of sexuality. In Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, out now), she writes, “When it comes to same-sex relationships, there is one thing we cannot forget—people.”

Accepting same-sex relationships does not require compromising what the Bible teaches, Keen argues, and she shows new ways to read the scriptures often used against homosexuality.

“Proper interpretation of Scripture requires recognizing the overarching intent of biblical mandates, namely, a good and just world,” she notes, urging Christians to look at the overarching intent of sexual laws in scripture “to determine how they might be fulfilled and enhanced for gay people in ways not currently imagined by the traditionalist position.” Studying the Bible, she adds, “I found that Scripture offers a life-giving vision I had not seen before.... I hope this book will encourage the hearts of gay and lesbian people who often feel painfully torn between faith and sexuality.”

This story has been updated with a correction about David Bennett's beliefs and work. Click here to view New Religion Books Embrace Women’s Sexuality.

A version of this article appeared in the 09/24/2018 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Let’s Talk About Sex (and Religion)


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