Books of 2017: Titles for those who are looking outside the box

As I finally come to write reviews of this last cluster of books from 2017 I realise that I’ve probably more not read them, than read them. Sorry about that. This batch is probably of most interest to people who are questioning some of the answers they’ve been given by the church, particularly around sex, sexuality and gender. There’s also some sci-fi. Here are the books I’ll give you a little flavour of:

  • Damaged Goods
  • God, Sex & Gender
  • Making sense of Sex
  • Searching Issues
  • Say Goodbye to Hollywood (fiction)
  • Lord of Light (fiction)
  • Soul Bare

Damaged Goods

By: Diana E Anderson
Publisher: Jericho Books
First published: 2015

This is a catalogue of deficient Christian thinking in matters of purity, sex and marriage.

Joshua Harris, Doug Wilson, Mark Driscoll, even Rob Bell, all get hauled up in this gallery of shame as Anderson pulls apart what they’ve said and how they’ve said it. Ideas that women who’ve had sex are like chewed up bubblegum, or that sex creates marriage, or that all sexual thoughts are lust and sinful, or that women have to submit to their partners, or that women can’t their own bodies.

As catalogues go (with a potted history of where the evangelical purity movement came from) I found it pretty comprehensive and exceedingly useful as it had example after example of problematic posts, comments and teachings.

Meanwhile Anderson sets out a number of pretty important messages about mutuality in sex and consent.

But.

When I started flicking through it a second time I began to see its assumptions and flaws. Anderson is scathing about the Christian idea that we do not belong to ourselves, and yet she also says (rightly, IMHO) that sexual ethics are communal. How does these two square? She doesn’t go into detail.

She hates the idea that we belong to our future spouses, and she loves the concepts of women owning their bodies. Yet I use those words with almost opposite meanings. To me, belonging is good, ownership is coercive. And whereas I think Anderson’s and my thinking have much in common, I found the language gaps hard to reconcile at times.

She says many times “You are not public property” and pits the idea of being public property against that of individual autonomy. Problem is, I see autonomy as being about self-expression and ‘public property’ as about a public right of access. The two are different. And, no, not even conservative evangelical culture is trying to say that anyone can use a woman’s body. (At least outside marriage.)

Fortunately my husband was available to translate: he said I was coming from an individualist concept of public property, whereas Anderson was probably coming from a collectivist one. He said, for her, “public property” meant you had to lose your individuality, conform to the system and fulfil your function within it. For women in purity culture, that meant marriage and babies. And restrictions on contraception and sex-education, amongst other things.

Oh.

So I think many people who are angry with evangelical purity culture will find much in this book to slake their desire for a more equal, less shame-oriented, less fearful world when it comes to sex. I just don’t know if it will satisfy.

She takes down far more than she builds up. And sometimes she jumps to conclusions that I didn’t feel she had provided support for. I also felt that, at times, she was too willing to believe the worst about the people she was criticising. It meant she didn’t stop to ask what they might be trying to say, or where the baby might be hiding in the bath water.

But then, why would she be looking for good things in the culture she’s escaped from?

All in all, if you want a snapshot about why ex-evangelicals are angry about purity culture and what their thinking is, then this book is very useful resource – particularly for its compilation of sources.

I just don’t know if it’ll build any bridges.

‘God, Sex & Gender’ and ‘Making Sense of Sex’

By: Adrian Thatcher
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (God, Sex & Gender) and SPCK (Making Sense of Sex)
First published: 2011 and 2012

It’s probably fair to say that Making Sense of Sex is the shorter and easier-to-read version of God, Sex & Gender. Note “easier”, not necessarily “easy”.

I… these books are just so dense. I have tried multiple times to get into Making Sense of Sex and it was informative, but I found it hard to grasp in a way that meant it really sank in.

Maybe I was coming to the subject matter with too many expectations of what I wanted to read about. Thatcher on the other hand is drawing from a much, much wider pool of historical and theological knowledge and telling me about what he thinks is important. Like how for most of history it was assumed that there was only one sex. And how the idea of complementarity (which, it would seem, isn’t quite the same as complementarianism) borrowed from theoretical physics.

I think my main frustration is that, too often, it seemed he had said all he felt needed to be said, when I was looking for more. I mean, he dismisses subordinationism in a couple of sentences, saying the persons of the trinity are co-equal. End of story. And I’m like, “But come on! Unpack this more!” If you read my reviews of books that egalitarian Christians would be interested in, you’ll see I read a whole book about this single question of subordination within the Trinity.

I therefore found it hard, harder than I expected, to relate what he was saying to my lived experience of the church. But hey, if he was telling me stuff I knew, how would I learn?

And there is much to consider here. Like, how God is suprasexual, or whether the body of Christ is queer, and indeed whether Jesus is male. (His answer: yes, Jesus was male while he was passing through space-time, but otherwise no.) To my surprise, he defended the idea of referring to the first person of the Trinity as ‘Father’, yet he also avoids referring to God with male pronouns.

All in all, these books are mines of information, but you might need to work hard to extract something that will actually stay in your understanding when you stop looking at the page.

Searching Issues

By: Nicky Gumbel
Publisher: Kingsway
First published: 1994

It’s a bit weird going through the books you borrowed from a friend 10 years ago and being reminded of just how much your worldview and theology has shifted. This little book is one of those.

Now, in fairness, I have a lot of time for Nicky Gumbel. Or at least, the reasons why I had time for him way back still stand. I also know of a good many people who have been very positively impacted by the Alpha Course, from which Gumbel wrote this collection of essays. I also think the essays (at least, the ones I read) are generally well written. In that they’re clear, they’re concise and, generally speaking, they don’t resort to fear mongering.

I just disagree with some of them.

Gumbel is answering the six most frequently asked questions that were raised on Alpha Courses, including whether it was wrong to have sex outside marriage. I was genuinely interested to see what he would say on this topic. I was even willing to be persuaded. I mean, my questioning of the sex-only-inside-marriage ethic is very, very recent and probably the most terrifying development for me in my theology. Yes, even more so than LGBT+ inclusion, if you can believe it.

But I wasn’t persuaded. Instead I saw the same old assumptions being set out: that we’re designed a particular way, that this design is marriage, and that if we want happiness we need to get with that game. And if everyone would simply accept this then we wouldn’t have all the messy questions of abortion or divorce.

Except that I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t believe actions have design. People have design, actions have consequences. Meanwhile, people grow in wisdom through their mistakes. And we cannot presume that if people just accept the model of monogamous marriage then there would be no mistakes.

I don’t know if Gumbel’s thinking has developed in the last twenty years since he wrote this book. Whether he has or hasn’t, I am in some ways grateful for this little compilation of the broader assumptions of evangelicalism’s understanding of sexual ethics. It’ll help me blog on the topic later.

Meanwhile, I don’t think it’ll build any bridges.

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

By: Jenny Trout
Publisher: Amazon
First published: 2017

And now for something completely different.

I started my blogging journey wanting to write about the problems in Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels. Along the way I was much amused and fascinated by Jenny Trout’s commentaries on the trilogy. I wasn’t the only one: these posts propelled her blog from 50 hits a day to 12,000.

The thing about Trout is that she is sex positive and BDSM positive. So on the one hand she is very happy with the idea of BDSM erotica, but on the other, she hates the non-consent and dubious consent in Fifty Shades. (By the way: here is why I write about BDSM and here is why I write about Fifty Shades.)

Now, I don’t really read erotica (seriously, all I’ve read is Fifty Shades and that hardly counts), though I was curious to know what Trout would consider a good and realistic portrayal of a BDSM romance. Plus, I knew that this particular novel was lampooning EL James’ journey to stardom and her notorious attitude during the production of the first Fifty Shades film.

So, I decided I would read it.

With only two sex scenes, there was far less erotica than I had thought there might be. That said, in those scenes, oh my goodness, my eyes were popping out of their sockets! I’m not sure I enjoyed this experience (as I said, erotica really isn’t my thing) but it did make me think that EL James’ writing was tame in comparison.

Meanwhile, I absolutely loved the humour and politics of the newly-famous-author who wants to control the creative process as her book is adapted into a film, yet can’t recognise the flaws in her own writing. Please appreciate, I was there in Leicester Square (protesting) when EL James and Sam Taylor-Johnson (director of the first film) grimaced together on the grey carpet. So, it’s refreshing to see some humour being made of the friction they experienced during the film-making process.

Did I like the characters? Hmm… tough one. The lead character, Jessica Yates, was previously a dancer (the topless kind), currently acts a dominatrix for her famous-actor-friend Jack, but more than anything wants to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter. And you don’t often get to read such a sexually expressive female lead who is trying to determine her future without being in any way ashamed of her past (or present). Trout keeps consent at the fore whenever Jessica Yates refers to her dominatrix activities; she also frames Jessica’s BDSM with her not-boyfriend Jack as coming from a context where he and Jessica have had extensive negotiations and grown in knowledge about the other.

But…

…I just can’t square with all the choices Trout’s characters make. That’s no criticism of Trout’s style – authors have the right to write characters with different moral frameworks. But I just got to the end of the book wondering if either of the two leads had grown at all.

I also don’t like Jessica’s taste in kink, even if it is consensual. But then, having a clearer portrayal of BDSM (as opposed to the flat-out grooming, rape and coercive abuse you see in Fifty Shades) helps me towards figuring out what I actually make of the idea of bodily harm in the interests of sex.

All in all, my curiosity has been sated.

(That said, I am planning to read How Not To Fall by Emily Nagoski, because she wrote the amazing book Come As You Are and has rightly complained that the romance genre lacks consent.)

Lord of Light

By: Roger Zelazny
Publisher: Orion Books
First published: 1967

A friend gave me this saying it was one of his favourite books. George RR Martin is quoted on the front of my edition as saying it’s one of the best five sci-fi novels ever written. When I put the picture of my 2017 reads onto Twitter someone commented that it was one of their all-time favourite sci-fi books.

I’m sorry, I just don’t get what they see in it.

It deliberately blurs science and fantasy, such that magic is essentially unexplained science – OK, fine. It also borrows heavily from Hinduism and Buddhism. I mean it’s basically about an elite of ‘gods’ who repeatedly reincarnate and keep lesser mortals from developing ‘too quickly for their own good’. The lesser mortals also reincarnate. (For the record, the introduction acknowledges that Zalazny wasn’t entirely free from appropriation in his authorship.)

It starts like this:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

Both GRR Martin and my friend were hooked by these words. For myself, I don’t get it. I mean, the character of Sam was kinda OK and there was at least one decent female character in the book. (Who gets cast out of heaven and fat-shamed.) There were also some interesting conversations and duels, but it didn’t hook me. And I felt when one of Sam’s enemies switches to be an ally, it was a bit quick and neat.

I also couldn’t stand how the narrative was drenched with the imagery of false worship – you know, the worship of gods who are not gods. I dunno, in my previous post one of the books I talked about was Whole Life Worship, because this is something which, as a Christian, I think can be soul-filling and life-transforming. But here it was all fickle, fake and shallow. I think that was the author’s intention, I just didn’t enjoy reading about it, any more than I’d enjoy a book loaded with misogynistic language and treatment of women. (It had some of that, too.)

I suppose, also, I didn’t think the body-swapping was a patch on the body-transformation I read about in Iain M. Banks’ book Excession. But then, Banks was probably walking a path that Zelazny helped pave.

Also, Excession had moments of horrific violence, and at least in Lord of Light, Zelazny kept his torture scenes to a couple of paragraphs (that you could tell were coming and could skip over).

I asked the Twitter commenter what he liked about the book and I don’t think he’ll mind my sharing his reply:

I loved how he managed to capture the feel of the Upanishads in his writing. I loved that the plot paralleled the emergence of Buddhism from Hinduism and then the arrival of Christian missionaries. It was so beautiful.

So there you go. I didn’t get it, but other people think this book is amazing. Read at your own curiosity and risk.

Soul Bare

By: Various, including Emily P Freeman, Sarah Bessey, Tanya Marlow
Publisher: IVP Books
First published: 2016

This book was given to me by a friend too.

It’s hard to describe the breadth of experiences laid out in this book. It’s a compilation of 31 short, personal stories written by Christian women – and they are baring their souls in vulnerability as they share aspects of their lives.

They’re all called in a sense “stories of redemption”, but they don’t have warm and fluffy happy-ever-afters. They read more like someone is showing you their hometown years after it was bombed in a war; that person has made or is still making their own home, they’re strong and whole enough to take you around and they’ll point out memories and how, in some parts, new and unexpected things are happening. But it’s still small beginnings and there’s a lot of rubble lying around.

You have a woman who had an affair and got a divorce. You have another who left her church. The one that struck me most was that of a young woman who enrolled herself into a Christian school for one semester – and never went back.

All these years later, I still sift the ashes of those months behind the gates. Even now, nineteen years later, the lessons continue to unfold. [p41]
Captivity, by Kris Camealy

In too many of the stories, the damage was inflicted by the church. But we need to share stories like these. And ones like Captivity are an example of how women held onto to God (or how God held onto them) through it all.

If you are on a journey of theological deconstruction, there is a banquet here. Though, perhaps best taken in small measures.


What do you think? Have you read any of these? Did you find them helpful? I’d love to hear! (I moderate comments usually within 24 hours, often less.)


This is the fourth and last of my 2017 book review posts. In the first I discussed ‘The Twilight of Cutting‘ and what it taught me about FGM.  In the second, I discussed books that would be of interest to egalitarian Christians. In the third I covered some theology titles, particularly looking at the Bible.

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