Hey! Have a spoiler for my upcoming book! This is minus the humorous and useful footnotes, mind you, which will be fully present in the eBook version you’ll be able to download this weekend… for FREE.
In the meantime, have the Introduction and the first chapter. Enjoy!
Introduction: What’s Going On In This Book?
My ultimate goal with this book is to start a conversation. In order to do that, I’ll be taking you on a tour of the bits and bobs that I think it might be useful for you to consider, or at least to have in your back pocket, while you’re a part of that conversation. In the middle there will be a set of questions that might help your own self-reflection. At the end there will be some thoughts about applying some of this information in your own life and having those conversations out in the world.
Bit number one: Why I think this topic matters at all, and why it matters to me in particular. In a culture filled with moral leaders who are not rocking this boat, this is why I am. This is a section that’s quite personal for me, but it serves a certain very specific purpose for you. It answers the question, ‘Why on earth should we be listening to you?’ Bit number one is covered in one section, Why Should Anyone Care What the Church Thinks About Sex?
Bit number two: Depictions of sex in the public sphere. Whether you call it fiction, erotica, or pornography, this is where we’ll see some pros and cons of where our culture stands, and a tiny bit of how we got here. This bit wasn’t meant to be exhaustive. If you want exhaustive, there are volumes of semi-obscure and truly excellent sociology texts on the subject. Bit number two is covered in one section, Will You Know It When You See It? (What Is Pornography?)
Bit number three: Some criteria we might use to sort the good from the bad. Because I’m both a Christian priest and a social worker, there will be some biblical and therapeutic reflections on this topic. The main biblical criteria I choose is the Summary of the Law, also known as Jesus’ prime directive of love. The main therapeutic criteria I choose is the health of a relationship, as explored in Systems Theory. Bit number three begins in the section Will You Know It When You See It? (What Is Pornography?), but then continues on for the rest of the book.
Bit number four: An outline of suggestions for how we talk about sex across differences, including with our kids. As always, my goal is not actually to get you to agree with me. It’s to open a safe place to conduct a respectful conversation despite differences. Which is admittedly really hard to do sometimes. Bit number four is primarily represented in the guide to self-reflection found in the section Will You Know It When You See It? (What Is Pornography?), and the section Questions for Discussion.
Why Should Anyone Care What the Church Thinks About Sex?
Well, I’m not taking a stand for all Christianity. I’m a single priest in a rather expansive denomination that is remarkably chill on the subject of diverse and divergent thoughts about God. And yet, I think sex needs to divorce the old, soul-crushing and widely available conservative views on the subject, and the majority of liberal theologians don’t seem to want to rock this particular boat at this particular point in history, at least not outside really liberal religious circles. I, on the other hand, while no theologian, was made to make this argument. Let me tell you why.
I was called to be a priest on the first Sunday of Advent in the year 2001. I had just graduated from college and begun a masters program in Social Work. I was already near to reaching mastery as a writer, writing fiction in every spare moment since I was fifteen, and posting most of it to the gentle criticism and loving support of online fanfiction communities. At that time, I had been discussing with my mother the possibility of leaving our church, and our denomination, because even as faithful as I was to God, I was bored to death in church and I wanted more. My mother had bargained with me to stay another six weeks and try a new bible study course, so I agreed. Into this scene burst God himself. (Himself. Herself. Itself. God laughs at gender.)
God spoke. In words that weren’t words. With a voice that wasn’t a voice. During a sermon in which I was desperately trying not to fall asleep. And God said to me, in words that weren’t words, with a voice that wasn’t a voice, this is what you need to do, and ‘this’ somehow comprised what the priest was doing. The preaching and teaching was what God meant, or so I deeply suspected at the time. But even then I wasn’t totally clear. God wanted me to be a priest, even though studying social work better equipped me to be a deacon, and writing as passionately as I did didn’t leave much of me left over for any other endeavor. And yet, my reasoning was simple: God’s plans always seem to be better than mine.
Five years, two masters degrees, eight internships (to add to the three I’d done in undergrad), and numerous fiery hoops later, I was ordained a priest. And until the day that I first wrote these very words, I had asked God in prayer (sometimes monthly, sometimes daily) if God still wanted me to be a priest, so little had I truly understood my call. I’ve had my personal reservations from day one about what, exactly, I was meant to contribute to the dying church I grew up in. I’ve turned out to be fine preacher and a good teacher, but traditional parish ministry isn’t for me, and I am no great leader of the faith. What I am, in truth, is a writer.
I am a storyteller. And I’ve always been drawn to stories of romance, stories of mystery, and stories of science fiction and fantasy. The latter, I think, because that genre can speak deep truths, couch them in terms of impossible lands and unreal beings, and everyone in the audience can nod along and agree, not taking anything too seriously or personally right up until the moment said audience realizes that what they’ve just seen makes sense in their own, everyday lives. Gene Roddenberry was and Joss Whedon is a master of this in film and TV, and Terry Pratchett remains one of my favorite masters of it in the novel format.
I’ve always loved the former genre, romance, because every romantic story that has ever appealed to me is in some measure a story about the redemption of the unredeemable. That it very nearly always happens at the same time that the unredeemable falls in love, as part of a causal relationship with that happy state is a very interesting point. It’s a point I wouldn’t ever wish to simply disregard as the ultimate romantic trope. There is something exceedingly powerful to me about the idea that no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, there is someone out there who will still love you, see the best in you, and will inspire you to be the very best person you are capable of being. To be a better person than perhaps you ever thought you could be. Barbara Cartland was one of our first modern masters of this and one of my current favorites is Mary Balogh.
I’ve always loved mysteries and more than just the genre of them, I think, because this life is inherently mysterious. Life often doesn’t make sense, even as far as science, technology, math, and medicine have progressed. I often wonder if there will always be something that still doesn’t make sense on this level of form, some last little bit of knowledge, even right up until the end of the Universe, there will be some bit of knowledge yet unknown. I love being faced with the ultimate mystery in my own life, which you may not be surprised to discover is about the art of writing. For me, that mystery is to begin with an implausible ending and discover the story that turns that implausibility into the only logical outcome. And if I’m really lucky, that implausible ending will also be strange and slightly bizarre, which makes figuring out the story so much more interesting. The very challenge itself sometimes makes me giddy. And, in that way, every single story I write is a mystery, as I write it, if not in how it is actually read by others. I always start with the implausible ending and ask myself, ‘okay, how did that happen?’ And then I tell myself the story.
These three genres have always appealed to me, even from my youngest days, and well before I had cogent arguments as to why it was. All of my fiction writing has been within them. Most of it has been romantic. A great deal of it has been fantastic. Not much has been mysterious. This is an important point for me to make in the beginning of this book because much of the romance I’ve written has included at least some explicit sex. Even as I wrote this, I was in the middle of editing the manuscript for the most amazing story I’d ever written, and the first novel length one for which I’d seek traditional publication. And it contains plot driven scenes of explicit sex in it.
I could cut the scenes out entirely. I’ve considered it. It would mess with the plot, but most of it would be fixable. I could censor them, rewriting them so the sex is not explicit, while leaving them generally intact and inside the flow of the plot. I’ve considered that, too. Both of these options, however, seem disingenuous. In censoring the story in this way, I am admitting that the censored scenes are unhealthy or dirty or somehow just not good, and that’s not the case.
I’ve also considered retaining such scenes intact and seeking publication under a penname. As a public figure and moral leader, that would be acting with a profound lack of integrity. It makes the same admission as censoring the scenes, only using a different tool. That leaves me with the truth of what I feel I must do: present the story as I feel it must be presented, do so under my own name, and take my stand where I stand: sex is not a sin.
As I sat in my office writing this rather personal section, considering once more exactly how I would be phrasing this conversation with my bishop, God gave me these words: There is nothing wrong with healthy sex. And unhealthy sex is wrong. It’s just as wrong as binge watching Doctor Who, or eating the entire bag of potato chips. It’s the symptom of a system in distress, just like every other attempt at self-medication.
That was the moment I laughed out loud, realizing that the fears and anxieties which had gripped me for years on this topic had just been healed in a moment with God.
Still, there was some small amount of lingering anxiety after the laughter stopped, so when I got home I brought it back to God. I lit the candles and incense at my altar in the home I share with my husband and held the rosary that was a gift from my spiritual director. I asked why I was meant to be a priest when I so clearly had the gifts and calling of a writer.
That day was the last day I’ll ever ask God that.
Because this is what you were meant to do. Be the priest who writes this. Be the faith leader that stands up to the rest of the world and says that sex is no more evil than a bag of potato chips. This is the ditch you are to die in, except that I don’t require you to die in it. Live instead. And don’t worry about the details.