Mike Kueber's Blog

April 29, 2012

Sunday Book Review #72 – See Me Naked by Amy Frykholm

Filed under: Book reviews,Culture,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 1:25 pm
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See Me Naked should not be confused with the more popular Does This Mean You Will See Me Naked: Field Notes from a Funeral Director.  See Me Naked is subtitled Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity, and it concerns the difficulty that many Christians have in reconciling their spirituality and their sexuality:

  • [W]e can look at this dilemma culturally and recognize that we come by it naturally.  In a body-obsessed yet body-hating culture, where sex is for sale 24 hours a day, perhaps it is a relief to check our bodies at the door when we go to church.  American Christianity has taught that the only viable relationship between body and spirit is a proper following of the rules.  “God’s plan” for human sexuality is a familiar theme in churches, and while this “plan” may or may not live up to our experiences, we judge ourselves by it.  American Christianity promises a life lived happily ever after to anyone who waits for sex until marriage, marries a religious person, and raises children in the church.  The fact that this scenario describes fewer and fewer of us with each passing day is of little account.  The problem, however, is that “the rules” as they are taught us and presented as an alternative to an out-of-control culture of sexual obsession actually serves to make matters worse.  They underscore a fundamental divide between the body and the spirit, and they deprive us of one of the key insights of Christianity: that the body, with all its struggles, pains, and difficulties, can lead us into a more full relationship with God.  And not only when we follow the rules and do everything right – even when life is complicated, beautiful, and strange, as life nearly always is.

Frykholm begins See Me Naked by telling the story of the 2006 sex-related downfall of mega-church pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs.  Haggard was a spiritual counselor to Bush-43 and Frykholm describes Haggard’s New Life Church as “a microcosm of American religion with its strange blend of marketing, charismatic personalities, ‘Bible-based’ teaching, and latte bars….  Both before and after Haggard’s demise, I’d sensed an erotic energy that intrigued me.  Certainly it wasn’t overt, and I am expecting readers may laugh at me when I mention it.  But my sense is, on the level of instinct, that people are drawn to New Life Church in part because of a potent sexual energy.  They project their desires onto the shaggy-haired men with guitars on stage.  They feel caught up in the enlivening energy of being something larger than themselves – something more spectacular and more beautiful than themselves. When Gayle and Ted occupied their places front and center, members of the congregation projected their own fantasies and hopes about heterosexual marriage onto the handsome couple and idolized their intimacy.”

In a documentary titled Friends of God, Haggard is quoted telling a journalist, “You know, all the studies say that evangelicals have better sex than anyone else.”  To support his thesis, Haggard questioned two young men from the church – “How often do you have sex with your wives?”  One responded with, “Every day.  Sometimes twice a day.”  “And out of a hundred times that you have sex with your wife, how often does she climax?”  Every one, they responded.  Rather the being assured by this exchange, Frykholm is troubled – “Christianity does very little, if anything, to protect us against abuse, manipulation, objectification, and betrayal.”   

See Me Naked comprises three parts – Wilderness, Incarnation, and Resurrection – and each part contains three lengthy stories of individuals attempting to bring together their spirituality and their sexuality.  Frykholm focuses on Protestant Christians “because the problem I am trying to diagnose has significant Protestant roots.  While Catholic stories might have similarities with those told here, they will also have differences, and those differences should not be papered over.”     

The Wilderness section is named after the biblical “wilderness,” which is generally a place of threat, chaos and alienation; a place or state of withdrawal from the world to face the reality of God, oneself and one’s neighbor, and to overcome the power of evil.  “While it is confusing, disorienting, and frightening, it is also a place where God can be met.”  The three subjects of this section find themselves in a wilderness and have varying levels of success in dealing with it.  “Sarah, Mark, and Megan, as well as many others of us, have spent significant time in what I’ve called the wilderness, where religious faith and sexuality do not find an easy relationship, where confusion and uncertainty mar the landscape and the way forward is not clear.  But in a way that should not surprise us – wilderness is also a place where God meets us and whispers new possibilities and coaxes us into a bigger world, full of more grace than our worlds held before.” 

The Incarnation section discusses the role of incarnation – i.e., a deity becoming human – in reconciling spirituality and sex.  In the author’s view, the three subjects in this section “took steps toward a deeper understanding of their incarnation and so moved toward a fully embodied faith.”

The Resurrection section focuses on the ability of someone who, in spite of pain and suffering, allows themselves to be vulnerable again.

In the end, Frykholm provides her readers with an alternative sexual ethic.  She suggests that individuals move their focus away from rules and judgments about whether a particular action is right or wrong.  Instead she suggests discernment – i.e., thinking about things and understanding “what behavior is truly damaging to ourselves and to others….  We can also discern when sexuality that might ‘break the rules’ is a source of joy and hope.  Because nonjudgment means that we no longer look to an external list of rules to tell us what is right and wrong, it also means that we have to hone our powers of discernment.  This principle is threatening to those terrified of the very freedom to which our religious freedom calls us, but it is essential if we are to find an alternative to our current state of alienation between body and spirit.”

Well said, Amy Frykholm, but with me, you have been preaching to the choir. 

p.s., Amy notes in her conclusion that her dislike of photographs of herself was a form of youthful self-consciousness, akin to narcissism.  Interesting thought.

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