Sexuality and the Sacred (Book Review)


Natalie K. Watson

Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, 2nd ed., Marvin M. Ellison and Kelly Brown Douglas (eds.), Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010. ISBN 9780664233662. PB £26.99.

The publication of this book is no doubt a landmark: a completely new edition of what was a pioneering work when it was first published in 1994. The broad range of essays by established scholars reflects a conversation that has indeed grown, emerged and become infinitely more diverse than the contributors to the first edition could have imagined. Here we find well known names such as Carter Heyward, Beverly Wildung Harrison, James Nelson, Kwok Pui-Lan, Judith Plaskow, and indeed two of our own: the late Grace M. Jantzen reflecting on AIDS and Elizabeth Stuart, well known to many Quest members, writing about ‘Disruptive Bodies: Disability, Embodiment, and Sexuality’.

From a scholar’s point of view, there is much here to be considered or indeed enjoyed. Essays such as Dwight N. Hopkins ‘The Construction of the Black Male Body: Eroticism and Religion’ or Patrick S. Cheng’s ‘Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today’ are fascinating insights into the current diversity of the debate.

Yet, much as I enjoyed the diversity of voices reflected in this book, there was much I missed, too. If pressed as to whether this was the book every discerning reader of the Quest Bulletin should rush out to buy, my answer would have to be a considered ‘maybe not’. The diversity in this book is still a very transatlantic diversity, maybe inevitably so. Two UK-based contributors apart, I see little reflection of the questions raised and debated in the context of other parts of the world. In a time when experience has become an important source of theology and religious studies, I would have hoped to see more sustained theological reflection on the lives and the experiences of the kind of people I have met in the context of Quest and indeed reference to some of the contributions to this field that have come out of a UK context, such as Susannah Cornwall’s seminal work on theology and intersex or some reflection on thinking about sexuality in the light of and engaging with the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse in the Church.

A substantial part of the book is dedicated to marriage, a term that is probably more confidently used by LGBT people in the US than it is here. Again, this is important as a way of taking stock of an issue that is a key part of the debate in one particular context but framed rather differently in another.

As a theologian, I was probably left most dissatisfied by the lack of engagement with the way in which not only the debate about theology but also theology as a discipline has developed. I would have hoped for a more confident and sustained engagement with the Christian tradition or some good worked examples of how the Tradition or indeed the Church can be not only a resource but indeed the most life-giving source for any reflection on what it means to be human. At a time when such a re-engagement with the Tradition is becoming one of the most significant voices on the theological landscape, we too need to reconsider what a confident Christian and indeed Catholic contribution to such a delightfully diverse discourse can be.

This text has originally been pablished in the Quest Bulletin no. 61 (Autumn 2011)