Books have the power to spiritually (and sexually) form us.
Do you remember that book that changed your life? The one you go back to time and time again, referencing and recommending on the regular?
What about that book that haunts you, still? The one that you bring up in therapy because of the messages it imprinted into your psyche at a time when you were vulnerable?
When I think about some of the most formative influences that have shaped my Christian faith — how I’ve believed, how I’ve lived, how I’ve loved — I think about books. Not just The Book, but the many books that have been written to help Christians better understand and apply to our lives what the authors believe to be the truths found in Scripture and how they should impact our thinking, our decisions, and our being.
Many significant milestones in my life can be marked by books.
In puberty, I was given a book to help me understand my changing body. When I started high school, I was given a book about ‘kissing dating goodbye’ and being a ‘lady in waiting.’ When I started dating, I bought a book about God ‘writing my love story,’ another book about embracing my ‘femininity,’ and a few others to understand ‘God’s gift to women’ and the supposed battles of ‘every man.’
I handed a book about Christian courtship to my first college boyfriend to read as a pre-requisite for dating me. Five years later, when he proposed to me, he handed me a book about ‘marriage after God’s own heart.’
My fiancé and I were given an audiobook from a conservative Christian ministry about sexual intimacy in marriage that we would listen to in the car to and from premarital counseling, where we walked through even more books together.
At our wedding, we were gifted many books, all written by men, about marriage and the supposedly unique physical and emotional needs of men and women. When we struggled to have sex for the first time (and the second time, and the third time…) because it was painful for me, I picked up these books seeking answers but was left feeling shameful, insufficient, and objectified.
At our wedding, we were gifted many books, all written by men, about marriage and the supposedly unique physical and emotional needs of men and women. I sought answers but was left feeling shameful, insufficient, and objectified. Click To Tweet
When our marriage was in a full-blown crisis a few years later and we finally sought outside help, our pastor and counselor handed us even more books.
Books are used as discipleship tools, counseling tools, and formation tools by the people we trust most. In my experience, the indoctrination and perpetuation of purity culture happened more in books than in any personal or pastoral conversation. And these books were endorsed by people I trust. So I, too, trusted these books.
In my experience, the indoctrination and perpetuation of purity culture happened more in books than in any personal or pastoral conversation. And these books were endorsed by people I trust. So I, too, trusted these books. Click To Tweet
Modern evangelicalism is infatuated with self-help books — and I would imagine that they are, for the most part, helpful for most who read them. For every questionable book on dating, marriage, and sex I’ve read, I’ve read at least five books that have held up over the years as trusty travel guides alongside my perpetually evolving faith.
Books, in many ways, become a part of who we are, the decisions we make, and the people we become as we store the words within them in our hearts and minds.
Books teach us.
Books parent us.
Books disciple us.
Books can enrich our lives in tremendous ways.
But if we are not taught to read deeply and effectively, and to think critically about that which we are reading and being recommended, the messages we pick up and internalize through books can impact our lives in harmful ways.
Books, in many ways, become a part of who we are, the decisions we make, and the people we become as we store the words within them in our hearts and minds. Books teach us. Books parent us. Books disciple us. (1/2) Click To Tweet
But if we are not taught to read deeply and effectively, and to think critically about that which we are reading and being recommended, the messages we pick up and internalize through books can impact our lives in harmful ways. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Earlier this month, a forthcoming book about sex from a popular pastor came under fire when an excerpt from his book was published on one of the top evangelical websites. Both conservatives and progressives were outraged over the spiritual and sexual metaphors taken too far and the theology behind those metaphors.
As a podcast host who regularly interviews Christian authors, I was able to obtain access to a digital copy of the full manuscript to see if the chapter excerpt was reflective of the book as a whole. (It was). I wasn’t necessarily surprised to read the content of the book, as disturbing and unsettling as it was. But I was surprised to see who had endorsed it. Shortly after, two endorsers retracted their endorsements, admitting they hadn’t read the book in full, and sharing their concern for the book’s content because of the harm it could cause women.
Now, I don’t advocate for book-banning or the canceling of those who write them. But I do advocate for women — and also the greater accountability and responsibility for those of us in the Christian publishing world. Myself included.
In the context of Christian community, spiritual leaders must be more careful and thoughtful about the books they recommend to the people in their care — and the books they write.
Books have the power to shape us and form us, but pastoral care stops at the publisher. Because once they are published, the intention of a book no longer carries any weight over its impact on its readers. Unlike blogs, podcasts, and social media posts, the author of a traditionally published book relinquishes their rights to make corrections, change their mind, or put a stop to the ongoing harm their book may be causing once they learn about it.
Today, I can read and learn a lot from swiping through a post on Instagram, scrolling through a Twitter thread, or typing a question into a search bar. But I still buy books. There is an assumed legitimacy, an assumed review process, an assumed vetting that I hope happens in the pages of a book I can hold that I don’t assume when I click on a link in someone’s social media bio.
Spiritual leaders must be more careful and thoughtful about the books they recommend to the people in their care — and the books they write. Books have the power to shape us and form us, but pastoral care stops at the publisher. Click To Tweet
Unlike blogs, podcasts, and social media posts, the author of a traditionally published book relinquishes their rights to make corrections, change their mind, or stop the ongoing harm their book may cause once they learn about it. Click To Tweet
For the past decade, stories and research have been pouring in about the damage done, largely by books, during the height of purity culture in the 1990s and 2000s. It was the catalyst for my deconstruction, my near loss of faith, and the crumbling of a marriage built on sand. As a writer and podcaster who seeks to help women who grew up in purity culture, I receive messages weekly from women who, too, are desperately trying to undo, unlearn, and heal from the ill-informed messages about bodies and sex that were propped up and given to them by people they trusted — largely through books. The indoctrination of purity culture happened more in books than in any personal or pastoral conversation. But these books were endorsed by people we trusted.
Poet Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As more people speak up and contribute to the growing research on the impact of Christian sex and marriage books on women and marriages, I hope that those involved in the writing of, publishing of, and endorsing of our Christian formational tools will begin to think about their books as critically, and in community, as we hope their readers will.
How will the writers, publishers, and endorsers of the Christian books used for discipleship, counseling, spiritual formation, and sexual formation respond to what they now know?
Morgan Strehlow is a writer, book coach, and creative collaborator who works alongside authors and academics throughout their publishing journey. She also hosts the podcast Sanctuary Woman, a contemplative podcast for weary Christians recovering from purity culture and navigating a curious faith. Balancing boldness and hospitality in her written and spoken voice, Morgan seeks to participate in the restoration of peace on Earth in our communities, in our churches, and in our relationships. She lives in Waco, TX with her husband, Sean, and their son.
How will the writers, publishers, and endorsers of the Christian books used for discipleship, counseling, spiritual formation, and sexual formation respond to what they now know? Click To Tweet
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