See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity
By Amy Frykholm
Beacon Press, 2011
In her latest book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity, Amy Frykholm profiles nine American Protestants grappling with sexuality and their faith. She writes, “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.” Through individual interviews and her subsequent written narratives, Frykholm delves into a range of topics dealing with sexuality and the body, including but not limited to, prostitution, eating disorders, homosexuality, abstinence, pornography, and sexual abuse. In sharing such narratives, she models an alternate Christian ethic, making space for stories of exile within Christianity, and inviting others to experience “wonder instead of fear.” A contributor to Religion & Politics, Frykholm is an associate editor at Christian Century. She holds a Ph.D. in Literature from Duke University and is the author of Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America and Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography.
This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity. –A.B.
R&P: Thank you for taking the time to talk about See Me Naked. Share a little more about the context you hope your book engages.
AF: I have felt and I continue to feel that American Christians really struggle with how to talk about sexuality. And I think this is especially true in evangelical circles, but it certainly has spillover into the mainline as well. I think there are certainly places in American Christianity where great, amazing, comprehensive, rich, ethical conversations are being had about sexuality. So this isn’t meant to be an everybody-everywhere statement. But I think that, in general, we can see it’s a real struggle, and has been for a long time, for American Christians to make sense of how to talk about sexuality and how to make a critique of general culture while also being willing and able to adapt to radical changes in that culture. We’ve done this by making a lot of rules around sexuality. You can see this in a new book by Mark Driscoll, Real Marriage, which continues in this trend of making the pastor into a sex guru and giving people lots of rules around sexuality. I think it’s a failed method.
Essentially I wanted to initiate a kind of conversation that wouldn’t primarily be about rules. That’s how, over seven or eight years, I came to the idea that I could use my background as an interviewer to collect stories and ask questions that weren’t primarily rule-governed questions. This meant I also had to find a way of talking to people that would elicit not “What do you think is right and wrong?” or “What should you have done?” or “Who should you have been?,” but “What was your experience like? How did you grow up?”
R&P: In your introduction, you describe sexual exile in American Christianity as a problem with specific Protestant roots. What are these roots, exactly? And how are they emerging in contemporary American Protestant culture?
AF: In the simplest terms, I was thinking about a relationship between Protestantism and consumer culture that I thought was really unhealthy and not useful. It plays out in different ways. For example, Protestantism functions in an open market of cultural attraction. People don’t attend the parish in their neighborhood so much as they look around. So that means we have a religion of attraction. I think there is an unacknowledged sexual dimension to this marketing of attraction. It’s not so much a problem that people are drawn to these churches for under-acknowledged sexual reasons. But the fact that this sexual energy goes unacknowledged in congregations allows for a lot of personal difficulties to get played out in the religious environment. We see this in the endless cycles of sexual scandal that are a part of our culture.
So that’s one aspect. Another is that American Protestants so often set themselves against the culture. And this, of course, has long, historical roots where they say, “I’m not like the culture,” but in fact they are very much like the culture. For example, a lot of American Protestantism is based on projecting an ideal, e.g.: Here’s the ideal marriage and now we all try to live in relationship to it. Or: here’s the ideal sexual story and now we’ll all judge ourselves according to it. I think it’s very similar to consumer culture, which also promotes an ideal usually around beauty or attractiveness and then asks people to strive toward that ideal no matter what it costs them.
I was really annoyed at the way so much of Protestant Christianity says, “We’re setting up an alternative Christian culture to that awful popular culture—the culture of gratification and sexualization,” when so much of what’s going on in Protestantism is about sexualization, idealization, and a real buy-in to the very culture that it claims to stand against.
R&P: Sexuality is often found at the intersection of religion and politics. Knowing that, what political ramifications does your book hold?
AF: The most obvious political implication of the book is its treatment of homosexuality. I deliberately treat individuals whose stories are about the relationship between homosexuality and the church as stories among stories. They are unique, but the political and social struggles of the churches over homosexuality suggest a more widespread problem with bodies and their desires. While the surface discourse is often, “Gay sex is not ok; heterosexual sex is ok,” American Christianity’s unease about the strangeness of all of sexuality runs deep and covers everyone. See Me Naked tries, through stories not through argument, to point this out.
R&P: Let’s talk about your use of the genre of storytelling. It strikes me that you’re gravitated to the kind of creative space of telling stories as a possible alternative narrative structure that, perhaps, another genre might not have given you. How do you see these stories as creating a creative and even religious space for the kinds of ethical proposals you want to see American Christians engage?
AF: One of the inspirations for the book was that while I didn’t feel that I, in particular, had a great deal of new things to say, I also felt that, in general, a lot of the writing about sexuality was so disembodied and there were no people in it. It was a bunch of ideas, cognitively related. I thought, well, if I’m making the point about some form of Incarnation that has to be communicated through the body then I need to tell an embodied story. It can’t be about abstractions. It has to be about people who are engaging culture in very specific ways—this culture, at this time. I turned to stories because I wanted to tell embodied stories. In the end, there’s no way I could have written a book where I told people what to do or how to think because, first of all, I don’t know; and, second of all, I wanted to tell stories.
Many people I had interviewed had never told this story before. No one had ever asked them about the relationship between their spirituality and their sexuality. They had always kept those things separate: here’s my sexual story, and here’s my religious story. They hadn’t really told them together. That was very energizing. When you start to see people telling a story for the first time and putting things together, that’s a really inspiring edge to sit on, as a writer.
R&P: And what strikes me about the telling of the stories is that they are often in tension with the silencing exile part of some of the content of their stories.
AF: Yes—because as they begin to put flesh on their own story, they begin to feel a sense of integration.
R&P: Adolescence plays such a central role in most of these stories. These formative moments happen during adolescence. The spaces and language surrounding adolescence in the church become the crux of both self and community formation. In terms of your ethical proposal, what kind of possibilities do you see existing with young adolescent Christians—both within churches and also at large in our society?
AF: I’m not sure that I knew this is what I was after when I started, but I became very focused on formation. I was pretty fascinated by that moment in adolescence when sexual identities and religious identities get forged—and they happen sometimes so disparately, in such different environments. They very rarely happen in the same space. Or yet, they happen in the same space, but without being able to name it. I think of Mark’s story where he’s being sexually formed and religiously formed in the same space, but he can’t name the sexual formation. It has to stay hidden and underground in order to allow the religious formation to happen. Again, I think storytelling here is critical because young people crave stories. If you tell a young person a story and let them work with the possibilities of that story, then they can imagine themselves into it and apply it to their own lives. Adults are nervous about sexuality and they are so anxious about giving kids permission to do stuff. They think, “What if I give them permission to do stuff and they go ruin their lives?” So they forget that adolescents really can engage on multiple levels with stories—in ethical ways, in questioning ways, in rebellious ways, in all kinds of ways. And they can use that to interpret their own stories.
I suppose that you can hear in this my craving for a kind of conversation that I might have wanted to have as an adolescent that I never had. I crave a questioning conversation, a conversation that would have taken me seriously as a person in formation and would have asked me questions about my sexual development that were not already shaming, already judging.
R&P: What would you think would happen if adolescents started telling their stories in church? How do you think that would change the way church works?
AF: I want to be careful to say that I don’t think that complete openness is necessarily the right answer. One of my friends said to me about adolescent sexuality: you know, some seeds do grow best in the dark. There’s a way in which a certain privacy around the question of sexuality—a certain way of it being obscured—is not a bad thing. Information is a great thing; knowledge is a wonderful thing; questioning is great. But privacy around the question of sexuality is not a terrible thing either. I mean personally, I wouldn’t really like to have adolescents blurting out the rawest details of their stories. I’m not sure that that’s the kind of conversation I’m thinking of. But I think if they were able to ask interesting questions in an environment where there was a plethora of possible answers, with adults who were invested in mentoring and helping them in their formation, then I think that church would become a very different place—because that energy of growth would become a more organic part of church life.
R&P: Your proposed sexual ethic centers in large part on a reclamation of pleasure—pleasure of engaging the senses, pleasure in embodiment. You highlight the use of art several times and you also illustrate this sexual ethic in a powerful foot-washing story. What other kinds of possibilities for experiencing pleasure in individual and community ways are within these various modes of your proposed sexual ethic?
AF: It’s interesting because I really didn’t want to put any kind of sexual ethic in my book. I wanted it to be entirely derivative. I wanted to tell stories and then if people wanted to derive ethics from these stories, I wanted it to be their business. This is because I don’t see myself as an ethicist. I wanted out of that hard labor. But I was really pressed by people who saw the manuscript at various points of development to do the ethical work and to say, “Okay, what are the implications of this? And what would it look like?” And so that is where this attempt to define some very loose principles came.
I think we live in a culture that is obsessed with the question of pleasure on so many levels, but also does little to experience it. We get sold the idea of pleasure far more than we actually experience pleasure itself. We live both in consumer culture and religious culture environments that are very afraid of pleasure. If I eat one cookie, then for sure I’ll have to eat the whole box; or if I touch a person, then I’ll have to have sex with them. I wanted to demonstrate that pleasure could be a means through which God speaks to us; or through which we receive holiness. That’s where the foot-washing story comes in. I was in a very small church and a man who was sexually wounded in a lot of ways was a part of our foot-washing ceremony. It was a sensual experience, which I felt was very moving for all of us because he was able to experience pleasure in a community that was very safe. He was offering love and he was receiving love. That probably had never happened to him before. So I wanted to use that as an example of asking, “What’s possible here if we’re not afraid of pleasure? What if we’re not afraid that our bodies are really, truly vehicles of God’s grace?”
R&P: Because of your commitment to using Christian language, it seems a significant and even ideal audience are church communities for whom this is going to challenge and provide spaces and possibilities for talking about their own theologies. So what is it that you hope your readers gain from this book?
AF: That’s exactly what I would hope would happen: that communities would begin to ask, “What kind of a conversation could we have in our setting?” And maybe my storytelling model could be used as a place to begin by saying, “We don’t have to talk about ourselves, we can talk about Sarah, or we can talk about Genevieve, or Mark, or Paul.” And that way people can use the stories as a springboard to ask, “How have sexuality and spirituality been integrated in our community? Or how have we failed to integrate them?” And this is so important now as we’re entering a stage of healing after great conflict. Maybe the healing will go on; and maybe the mainline churches, especially, will just keep bleeding over the question of homosexuality. But maybe they will start to heal and this book could be useful as they begin to reach for a new vocabulary that’s not so much the vocabulary of division as it is the vocabulary of integration and healing and forward movement.
R&P: On that note, you describe not a mainline congregation in your introduction but the evangelical New Life Church in Colorado Springs, which Ted Haggard once led, as a microcosm for these stories. If you could imagine some New Life congregants reading this, what would you like their conversations to look like? Would such conversations happen?
AF: I haven’t been to New Life Church in a long time so I don’t have a sense of what’s going on there these days. But, it would have to happen in very safe and small groups to begin with. And maybe there are groups like that that are functioning in that environment. I really don’t know.
One piece of this book went up on Huffington Post: the final section where I talk about my own experience of getting naked in a church and having photographs taken of me. And I got such a deluge of really angry feedback about that. I thought, “Wow, the idea of Incarnation is still a pretty radical idea in American Christianity.” The idea that our bodies are holy and are acting as vehicles of grace doesn’t resonate with American Christians so much. So I wonder how radically Christians in America would have to change their practices in order to integrate a book like this. Could you continue with the big ego pastor on stage with thousands of spectators? I think in some ways my book would facilitate against that dynamic. But maybe not.
R&P: What kinds of responses besides the Huffington Post deluge have you received?
AF: It’s a book that really speaks very personally to people. Although we’ve been talking about how the book could be used in faith groups—and that may come about—the thing is, people are very shy about this subject. They’re very frightened, I think. So, at the moment, it seems to be functioning in a very personal and individual way. I’ve been hearing a lot from individuals about how the book has spoken to them, or what they’re doing with it on a very personal level. But, it’s also becoming a part of a broader conversation of evangelicals and, what would you call them, borderline evangelicals, who are asking a lot of questions about bodies and sexuality.
R&P: My last question is: what was your biggest surprise in working on this book?
AF: One huge surprise was when I went to visit the Magdalene community in Nashville where I met Genevieve and I also met Becca. I was surprised to discover that I would love to spend more time with people who are recovering from prostitution and drug addiction. I loved those women and I felt like I wanted to sit in their kitchen and eat their soup and spend a decade of my life listening to their stories and getting to know them. I didn’t expect to find such affinity and a need on my own part to hear and engage those stories on the margins of American society. But they became really important to me, and I just wanted to spend more time there.
R&P: It was a pleasure to talk with you about your book. I’ve really enjoyed it. Congratulations. I’m sure these stories will open up many spaces for conversations in this field.
AF: Thank you. Yes, I hope so. I think it’s an emerging form and people are going in that direction.
Amy Benjamin is working on her Ph.D. in the Study of Religion at Harvard University in the area of Religion, Gender and Culture.