I first became familiar with Bromleigh’s writing when I heard her speak on a panel at a writing conference on the topic of writing about sex. Since that time, I’ve been awaiting her book (which releases today). Recently, I caught up with her to talk about it. You can also listen to the interview below.
Cara Strickland: Hi Bromleigh, it’s so good to talk with you.
Bromleigh McCleneghan: I’m so excited to have this chance to tell you about my book.
CS: Let’s get started, tell me about it.
BM: So, the book is called Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option— And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex. It’s funny, I’m looking at the back of it and it says it’s a Religion/Christian Life/Personal Growth book. In my mind, it’s part memoir, but also sort of a theological ethics primer. And it’s about sex, but it’s also about love and faith and how we live good Christian lives. I’m very excited about it. I’ve been working on it in various forms and ways for ten years, so it feels very exciting to have it published now.
CS: What made you want to write this book in the first place?
BM: I grew up in a mainline Protestant congregation. I’m a preacher’s kid and was in church all the time, loved church, didn’t ever think I’d be in ministry until that call came when I was a graduate student. But we never really talked a whole lot about what my faith had to do with my sex life, or imagined sex life, there was not really that connection made in the congregation where we were growing up. Most of the scripts that we had were fairly cultural, just generic American culture. So I took much more from what was on TV than necessarily what was being talked about in church.
But when I got to grad school, I did a Masters of Divinity, which is the ministry degree required in my denomination for ordination, and while I was there I was interested in sexual ethics as a course of study. I read Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye and then the second one, I think it was Boy Meets Girl. So I read those and they were very counter to what I had grown up with and, I was sort of already, like that ship had sailed, I was not going to be courting my future spouse, plus I was 22, not 17, so I read it sort of with a scholarly eye but the thing that made me so irate about it actually was this suggestion that any relationships that you had outside of marriage, regardless of what sexual activity happened within them, any kind of romantic relationships would damage your heart irreparably and didn’t count as real love, that it could only be married. Only in marriage were these things healthy and holy. I had been in love a couple times by then. I had a high school boyfriend who I loved dearly and was very good to me, and I tried to be good to him, and then we broke up as you often do with your high school love. And then I dated someone in college, for a number of years, who I loved very dearly and thought maybe I would marry, and we didn’t ultimately but it was still a tremendous gift to have that relationship. So that sort of got me started thinking about what is it about this line of marriage as the only arbiter of what makes sex and love holy or not? And so the book kind of grew out of that question that I’ve been asking on and off in different ways for lo these many years now.
CS: Many of our readers, I think came of age during purity culture, can you speak a little about how your approach is different?
So in my denomination, the question that has been ripping us apart is usually around the question of whether or not LGBTQ folks can be wholly, full, participating members of the church and there was very little conversation ever about what it was like to fall in love or what it was like to desire pleasure or intimacy, all the feelings around romantic and sexual relationships sort of went unexamined. In some ways, those questions about intimacy and vulnerability are raised in purity culture, I mean Josh Harris certainly talks about temptation. But the responses to those questions are very different in my book than in some of the great tomes of purity culture. Josh Harris talks about temptation and he sort of says ‘cast your eyes on Jesus and run’ whereas I sort of have this question of ‘well, what is this about, and is this a holy thing?’ or ‘is this a dangerous thing?’ or ‘what’s at stake for me and what’s at stake for the other person?’
I wanted to ask these questions about the critical feelings that people have, and that I have had, and sort of break them open and probe them a little bit more, and to do so without fear. I believe very strongly in the power of God’s grace in our lives and so I wanted to equip people to look at their own lives and their experiences and to not be ashamed about things that they’d done or not done, but to explore their feelings a little bit more in the light of faith and the scriptures and the whole Christian tradition.
CS: It feels like your book encourages a step away from black and white theology and in some ways it might seem more permissive than what people have been taught, but in other ways, you’re really holding up a much higher standard, especially in marriage, could you talk a little bit about that?
BM: Indeed, I think that for a long time, churches, and even my own denomination says the sort of standard line is celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. So that line of whether or not you’re married is the only question that’s asked about whether or not sex is holy. And too, there’s a sense of what sex is is very clear. Purity Culture sort of upped the standards in some ways because it was like anything that feels like it might be fun you shouldn’t be doing, so not just sex itself but what are you feeling?
I’m shifting in some ways, and the way that I like to talk about it is that marriage is not a sufficient norm. So the norm is what makes the rule in ethics talk, and so to say that marriage is not a sufficient norm is to say that that’s not enough, there are other questions involved like: Are both partners freely participating? Does this encounter and does this relationship reflect that they are created in the image of God? Is this loving and not just role driven? Is this not just because people who are married are obligated to sleep with each other out of duty? But is this actually a healthy dynamic that they have in the rest of their marriage that’s then reflected in their sexual relationship?
I read Mark Driscoll’s book, and I know in the time since this book has been written and published I know he’s taken many steps back from his congregation, but he wrote this book called Real Marriage with his wife and even he talks about how just being married did not make their sex lives work well together. And he tells a story about how it was actually a really dark space in their marriage, their sexual relationship, and so I kind of want to look at that and sort of say ‘well yeah there’s a lot more stuff, just getting married isn’t going to make this holy but in fact we have a lot more things to think about, too.’
CS: Is there a part of this book that makes you more nervous to share than other parts?
BM: A lot of these topics are about things that are deeply private. They are things that we do not talk about in polite company or with our parents. In Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex, she talked about how the line for sexual practice should be never anything that you would not do in the gazebo in the middle of town, or something you wouldn’t be able to do in front of your pastor or your parents, and here I am writing about all of these things for all the world to see, so in some ways it feels immodest. I did try very hard to make sure that I knew why I was including any particular story or any particular topic, that I was doing so because it needed to be discussed or it needed to be told, not for me, but for the purpose of the book and for the purpose, I hope, of readers who could use this sort of pastoral walk through things. So I did do a lot of thinking about what to include and whether or not it was worth the risk.
That said, it still feels funny that my first chapter is about self pleasure and self love. It’s sort of deeply embarrassing. And I acknowledge that in the book, that this is the chapter where I’d love to just quote my interviews with other people and my survey responses and not include anything about myself. So that one makes me nervous. And in the second chapter, I actually tell the story of the first time that I had sex. And I had left that story out for a long time, one, because it was something that just felt really private and also because it wasn’t necessarily an unambiguous experience, but I ultimately decided that it was worth including because it was an ambiguous experience. And I think a lot of us have ambiguous experiences, not just sexually, but in relationships, and so it felt important to sort of demonstrate how we can have mixed feelings about things. So I’m nervous about what those responses will be, but I’m also ready to take the risk.
CS: What would you say is something that you’re really excited to share?
BM: I’m very proud of the whole thing, but I’m really proud of, I think the chapters on fidelity and, the chapter is called: “The Avoidable and the Inevitable,” sort of how do we know how to think about long term love and how to know when it’s time to stay or go. Not necessarily in terms of marriage. I generally think that if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re married you want to do absolutely everything you can to make sure that you can stay married. So, this question about how to be together in the long term. Marriage is both harder and easier than it looks, you know? And I think that’s also true of fidelity. I said earlier, I do a lot of weddings. Folks usually come in to get married when they’ve been together for a few years and so they’re still head over heels in love and they want to tell you that they never fight and that they never look at anybody else and being faithful to the other person is definitely not a problem and never will be, if you know what I mean. They’re really so excited.
For me, one of the ways that I knew that I wanted to marry my husband was that indeed for the first two years that we were together it was the first time that monogamy, lifelong monogamy was exciting to me. I was like ‘yes, we are going to build a life together’ and it was the first time that I never looked at anybody else, it was like ‘this is the one for me.’ But then, you know, after a couple of years, I’m human. We both notice different actors and actresses and we’re like ‘oh, that person’s attractive,’ and so part of what was important for me, and that I want to share with other people, is that those things are not necessarily a sign that your marriage is in trouble. Normal human responses to things are not a threat. What you do with anything, how you respond to anything in the world, is the thing that makes or breaks a relationship. There are faithful responses and then there are less faithful responses and then there are not faithful responses. So I’m excited about that.
I’m also really excited about the chapter on singleness in particular. That was the hardest one for me to write because as I said, I’m an old married lady and I was terrible at being single, I was deeply anxious about it all the time. And so I worked really hard on it, that’s the one that went through the most drafts and I’m hopeful that there is a comforting word because I know that for those who would rather be partnered singleness can be a challenge. But also a tremendous gift. So I’m hopeful that that chapter will be helpful for people.
CS: How would you say that writing this book has shaped your image of God?
BM: I grew up, as I said, in a mainline congregation. In several, but always in the same denomination, and I always felt like God was about the world. God was about big social issues like poverty and war and how Christians are called to respond to the brokenness of the world. And in thinking through this book and the topics in it, I really do now believe that God is in our most intimate relationships and is with us as we ask these both small and large questions about who we are as individuals. It’s funny sometimes to say this to some people who grew up very differently but I don’t think I really understood, like we talked about social sin, like turning your backs on the poor, but we never really talked about personal sin. I thought my job as a person was to make the world a better place, it wasn’t to avoid sin. I had just graduated from college when I really hurt my boyfriend and I experienced myself as a sinner for the first time, and it felt terrible. I’d never really hurt somebody like that before and I couldn’t believe that I could do that. And then had this experience where my father was like ‘you know, everything will be all right again’ and I didn’t believe that for a long time. And then eventually it was and I believe that’s God’s grace that everything was all right again. So experiencing God in that sort of new and personal way and just remembering that and being revived in that commitment through the writing of this book is just a lovely thing.
CS: What is your hope for your readers as you send this book into the world?
I don’t expect that everyone will agree with me about everything. I mean, obviously I think they should, but I don’t expect that. But I hope that this introduces folks to thinking about questions of both faith and relationships in ways that they maybe didn’t even know existed. A lot of us know certain texts as the ones that you talk about when you’re talking about sex and love, the ones in Ephesians, and we definitely have to talk about the Creation story and the Fall and then we definitely have to talk about ‘your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit,’ but I really wanted to open up the depth and the breadth and the Bible and the Christian tradition to kind of show folks how many resources we have for thinking about how to order our intimate lives. There’s a lot more than six texts that you got in your youth group sexuality study. There’s a lot that goes towards building a Christian life. And so I wanted to show people what’s out there in some ways that maybe they hadn’t thought about before and I hope that that’s a good and useful thing. I tend to think that the more resources people have in order to make sense of things, the better off they feel, the more empowered they feel, and I think that’s what I want ultimately.
Pope Francis wrote recently, he had this whole new letter that was on love and the family and in that letter, it’s like 200 some odd pages long, he talks about marriage and family and divorce and sexuality and he didn’t change any church teaching, exactly, in writing this letter, but one of the things that he did do was encourage priests and individually faithful people to be aware of the complex circumstances in which people find themselves. He didn’t say that marriage isn’t a sacrament and that divorce is okay, that would have changed church teaching, but he did say that there are reasons why people divorce and some of them are the best reasons in a terrible situation and so when the church is thinking about how to respond to one another, and to the individual parishioners there, we need to respond, not first with doctrine, but with pastoral love and to help people discern what is the right thing. So I hope that this book, my book, just like the the Pope (ha!), I think I do challenge church teaching in some ways, or what people think of as church teaching, certainly Catholic church teaching, but rather that this book will empower folks to do their own discerning, that we live in a complicated world and our relationships are often complex, and so I want people to have the tools to feel empowered to navigate those complex situations and to live as faithfully as they can within that.