How the strict purity ethic and rules-based culture of American Protestantism has adversely affected the sexual development of many believers, and the intimate and varied personal stories of the roads nine of them traveled to begin to heal.
Stories of sexual scandals in churches throughout the nation have been downright routine in recent years, suggesting to many Americans that a deeply rooted problem plagues American Christianity and prompting some to abandon their congregations altogether. In See Me Naked, Amy Frykholm takes us beyond simple indictments of, or blind allegiance to, Christian cultures to explore the complex, intimate intersection of sexuality and spirituality as it affects the lives of ordinary Christians.
Recounting with care and nuance the life histories of nine American Protestants, Frykholm shows us the harm done by the rules-based sexual ethic now dominant, which alternately denies and romanticizes sexuality. But she also points to how American Christians might otherwise access their spiritual tradition to heal the divide between religion and sexuality. One story examines the intricate relationship between a man’s religious faith and his sexual addiction. In another, a man defines religion as a wall that kept him from the discovery that he was gay. One young woman uses sex to defy her devout parents, while another seeks to transcend her body by going without food. Nearly everyone interviewed in See Me Naked remains a Christian, with some further on their journey than others. Yet each of them is working to understand the connection between their desires and their faith. Ultimately, their stories-stories of pain and violence, perseverance and courage-attest to the healing power of struggling through the wild and uncertain experiences of life.
See Me Naked explores the many ways that people work to recover from harmful beliefs and restores the notion that one of the key insights of Christianity is that the body, with all its struggles, pains, and difficulties, is a vehicle of the holy and can lead us into a more full relationship with God.
“An essential book [that] will perhaps begin the national conversation that we deserve.” -Paul Landerman, Edge
“Frykholm and the brave souls she interviews will challenge your understanding of grace.”—David K. Wheeler, Burnside Writers Collective
“The most redemptive book I’ve ever read.”—Dave, Elliot Bay Bookstore
“A Christian herself, Frykholm does not offer this book as a means to discourage people from the religion. Rather, she holds up these wounded but not lost souls to critique dogmatic practices that, in disdaining the body, disdain the spirit.”—Crystal K. Wiebe, Bitch
“A fascinating, troubling, and finally heartening book that subtly shows ways that Christians might reconcile their bodies with their devotion to God. Highly recommended for individual Christians but also for pastors and church groups.”—Library Journal, starred review
“A culturally significant collection that explores the challenges of reconciling pleasure with piety.”—Kirkus Reviews
“With singular gentleness and a palpable respect for those whose stories she is telling, Amy Frykholm lays bare whole areas of human sexual formation that I had never seen before, much less considered….This is an important book.”—Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why
“These disarmingly honest life stories of people navigating the ‘tenacious strangeness’ of their sexual and spiritual lives will stay with you long after you finish this book. So will the gracious, honoring, and insightful ways Frykholm tells and interprets them. It should be on every pastor’s coffee table.”—Timothy Beal, author of The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book
From the Introduction
In the fall of 2006, just before the midterm elections, Ted Haggard--celebrated pastor of the fourteen-thousandmember New Life Church in Colorado Springs, spiritual counselor to President George W. Bush, president of the National Association of Evangelicals--was suspended from his position in light of a scandal involving sex and drugs.
Michael Forest Jones, an escort and masseur in Denver, Colorado, alleged that he had carried on a three-year sexual relationship with Haggard in which the famous pastor had paid him for sex and to procure methamphetamines. After his resignation, Haggard wrote to his congregation, “There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.”
Haggard never says that this “part” is his sexuality, in particular homosexual desire, but perhaps that is obvious. He has been at war with an intimate and elemental part of himself that he had tried to send into permanent exile, without success. In the light of day, he was a model husband and father of four children. Every Sunday, his blonde and photogenic wife, Gayle, dutifully played her role in the front row of the cavernous New Life auditorium. Haggard often gestured toward their family life, and Gayle publicly worried that people in the church thought their marriage was “so perfect.” But by night, in the “darkness,” Haggard was driven by desires that seemed beyond his control. “From time to time,” he wrote, “the dirt I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.”
I watched Haggard’s fall from grace with fascination. I was deep into the research for this book, and on the day that Haggard’s story broke, I was interviewing one participant about the relationship between spirituality and sexuality at a diner in Boulder, Colorado, looking out onto the sidewalk at newspaper headlines about Haggard. A year before, I had been part of a History Channel production that was partially filmed at New Life Church. I had spent several odd minutes in Haggard’s office when he was not present, watching the fish swim around in his fish tank and looking at the titles of the books on his shelves. And in fact, when this documentary aired in the summer of 2006, Michael Forest Jones saw it and for the first time recognized his client, whom he had known by the name of “Art.”
As I was researching this book, I identified New Life as a microcosm of American religion with its strange blend of marketing, charismatic personalities, “Bible-based” teaching, and latte bars. So I had started spending time there, attending occasional worship services, and observing the social dynamics of the place. 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 that 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 onstage. They feel caught up in the enlivening energy of being a part of 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. When I was in Ted Haggard’s office, waiting my turn in front of the filming crew’s cameras, his nervous young assistant stroked my hair and said, “This is what I do for Pastor Ted before he goes on camera.”
I think, however, I am also fascinated by Ted Haggard’s situation because I recognize his dilemma, specifically his desire to keep his spirituality and his sexuality locked up in different boxes, in terror of what would happen if the two were to come together in the public eye. Not only do I recognize this dilemma in myself, but I also saw and heard about it from many of the people that I interviewed for this book. Spirituality and sexuality, for many people in American society and perhaps especially Christians, are kept rigidly separate, and many struggle to find a way to reconcile the religious elements of their lives and their sexual realities.
On the one hand, we 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 twenty-four 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 line up with 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 to us and presented as an alternative to an out-ofcontrol culture of sexual obsession actually serve to make the problem 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 is a vehicle of the holy, that its experiences in the world are a means of divine communication, and 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.
As I interviewed people, I sought to understand the relationship between bodies and spirits, between sexuality and spirituality, on both personal and cultural levels. Specifically, I sought ways that sexuality and spirituality could come together, could live in harmony, where the body with all its tenacious strangeness could come home from exile. Each story told here emerges out of a unique set of circumstances, but unites with others to offer a picture of the relationship between spirituality and sexuality in one segment of American society. I focused on the stories of 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 people in this book, while they come from many different geographic and religious corners, share one culture. They share the pain of a toxic culture of religion and sexuality. Themes of shame, isolation, fear, silence, and vulnerability surface and resurface. At the same time, the healing and wholeness that many have found is also part of the same fabric. When one person works toward healing, we all step closer to it. If we see that we share this religious space, we might start using our stories, our bodies, our sexualities, our minds, and our souls to love one another better.
The stories that I tell here are not “mine,” but I am the one who heard them and turned them into the form that you find here. While I did my best to give participants a chance to interact with their stories, they remain my interpretation of someone else’s story. As in a game of telephone, I am certain that I say things here in a way that participants did not quite say them. In addition, in order to protect the identities of those who graciously offered their stories, I intentionally changed details, which inevitably changed meanings as well. In other words, each story is a collaboration, a meeting place, a conversation. It is not a perfect rendition of another person’s reality.
Occasionally, participants chose a language for their experiences that is intensely graphic and might be offensive to some readers. In certain cases, I decided to leave this language alone and not transform it into something nice and easy to hear. When someone has the courage to find words for his or her experience, even when these words are painful, graphic, and even violent, I want to respect that language and the struggle from which it came. These are not fables, and they are not compilations. These stories are messy. They do not come together neatly in the end with a moral and a clear sense of direction. Each story has a number of interpretations, and the decisions that each person makes could be debated. One interviewee said to me, “Be sure you tell people that I am still not sure I made the right choices.” That ongoing inner struggle is an important part of each of these stories and of our own. But through stories, we can begin to make sense of where we come from and where we are going. Genevieve, whose story is told in the third section of this book, noted the significance that storytelling, in itself, has had in her own experience. “People who told their stories started getting better,” she said. “The people who kept their stories to themselves didn’t.”
A story, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “creates a quiet place where one may lay down one’s defenses for a while. A story does not ask for a decision. Instead, it asks for identification, which is how transformation begins.” That is the hope embedded in this book: that as we cross into the realm of other people’s stories, we might begin our own transformations, we might begin to live more fully and more completely as both spiritual and sexual beings. My hope is that these stories will open up your story and my story, and that telling will change us.
Table of Contents...
Part One: Wilderness
Part Two: Incarnation
Part Three: Resurrection
Conclusion: An Alternative Ethic
- Click here to read a review of Frykholm's work posted on Spirituality and Practice
- Click here to read a review of Frykholm's work posted on Edge.com
- Click here to read a review of Frykholm's work in the September 12th, 2011 issue of Publisher's Weekly
- Click here to read a review of Frykholm's work in the October 1st, 2011 issue of Library Journal
- Click here to read an excerpt from See Me Naked printed in Think Christian
- Click here to read an excerpted essay from See Me Naked printed in the Huffington Post