SEE ME NAKED
See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity
Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011
Through a variety of candid and courageous interviews, Amy Frykholm explores how the body in the body-spirit relationship has been exiled in American Christianity. The author claims that spirituality and sexuality should live in harmony and that the coming together of these two human realities can lead to a transformational healing.
Moving the reader towards an alternative sexual ethic, Frykholm diagnoses our sexual exile in American Christianity and lays out a path of healing and hope structured along the narratives of wilderness, incarnation and resurrection.
The Wilderness (Part One) is “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 wilderness is also a place where God meets us and whispers new possibilities and coaxes us into a bigger world.”
In this part of the book, Sarah’s story examines the conflicting values of her traditional Korean Presbyterian home and the permissive American culture that surrounds her. Sarah’s wilderness wandering involves learning how to negotiate or bridge the divide between her two worlds.
Mark is the ideal young Christian man lifted up at his church’s Young Life group where he is taught that the “right path” of sexuality is clear—no sex before marriage and no sexual behavior that might lead to the dangerous sin of intercourse. But this “black and white” understanding of sexuality gets complicated when his body’s desire for physical touch and sensual pleasure seeks to be satisfied in a way that is also faithful.
After being kissed by another girl, Megan was surprised to discover that she could feel romantically and sexually for both boys and girls. Knowing that her parents and her church would reject her if she was found out, she explores her sexuality in secret and lives a double life.
Incarnation (Part Two) is “the process of embodiment. Our culture is miserable at it. Instead of learning from the sensory world, we aim to control it. Investing in our own incarnation as central to our faith could be an important step in integrating our sexuality and faith.”
Monica’s conservative Christian upbringing taught her that the naked body was repulsive, something to be feared and shunned. But an overseas art class in college taught her to see the human body as beautiful, as God’s embodied creation.
In Paul’s mind he could not be both gay and a minister. So he spent decades as a single, celibate Lutheran pastor. Eventually, though, he could not disembody his faith from his sexuality and came out to his denomination.
Ashley’s goal was to be perfect like her heavenly Father is perfect. Desires, she learned, needed to be controlled—even her desire for food. The eating disorder that arose from this understanding almost killed her. Ashley recovered by learning how to trust her body.
Incarnation is not the end of the story. The stories in Resurrection (Part Three) wander farther into the margins of exile. “Each of the people in this section is primally wounded at the place of sexuality, and each one has encountered what it might mean to be made new.”
All men in Matthew’s environment had secrets. His included being molested by a neighbor at age seven, raped by an older man in his adolescence and a controlling addiction to pornography. Through Sex Addicts Anonymous, Matthew discovered a “faith that works” rooted in a God of startling love who began to bring him back to life.
As a child Genevieve learned that her body was not her own and that her family would not protect her. At Magdalene (a safe house for recovering prostitutes) Genevieve came to know a God who wasn’t out to get her but was strong enough to love her no matter what she had done or had done to her.
Becca Stevens is the founder of Magdalene, an Episcopal priest and the Chaplain of Vanderbilt University. Her story of sexual abuse is not anonymous because she is committed to doing anything to help us—the church, the community, the society—to get better from what she names as our “original sin,” sexual abuse that is an overlooked but a central part of who we are as a society.
I met and came to know Amy Frykholm, author of three books and associate editor for the Christian Century, at a writing conference for clergy. Amy is a genuine and generous person who honestly shares of herself and her experience in ways that benefit others. In See Me Naked, Amy’s qualities serve the book’s purpose well as she explores a topic that few would take on with the same courage and personal candor.
For me, the strength of this book lies in the fact that Amy Frykholm does not remove herself from it. The book opens with fifteen-year-old Frykholm making a written list of rules for herself about what is “OK” and “Not Okay” to do with her new boyfriend. The book concludes with the author discovering a way to bring her whole self—body and spirit—to church and the resurrection healing that moment offered her. In between these two life narratives, the reader journeys with the author as she writes to discover an alternative Christian sexual ethic for herself and others.
Amy Frykholm quickly problematizes American Christianity’s theological view that the body is something we should be separated from, that the body is inherently bad, impure, dirty and sinful. She also names the paradox of eroticism found in churches that manipulate the energy and charisma of its attractive, male worship leaders to titillate their audience while, at the same time, condemning such sexuality as impure and immoral. Undergirding Frykholm’s work is Julian of Norwich’s theological understanding of incarnation as sensuality and substance united in Christ, and in us.
AIM OF BOOK
In the final interview of See Me Naked, Becca Stevens challenges Frykholm before sharing her story. “The people in this book are offering you the precious pearls of their stories. What are you offering them?” In response to Stevens’ challenge, Frykholm reveals the aim of her book. “Telling stories is wonderful, but working to heal the rift in our society that daily damages precious human beings is better.” The aim of See Me Naked is to highlight the damage done to human beings by the sexual ethic promoted by American Christianity and to propose an alternative way towards healing this rift in our society.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
I have been looking for a resource to help guide an honest, theologically informed, conversation about sexuality with my college students. See Me Naked, in my opinion, offers me the perfect way into that conversation.
For this kind of study, this book presents many strengths. The author offers keen insights into American Christian culture and identifies problems with a helpful clarity. The book is theologically rich which will help students think more deeply about the messages they have received regarding sex and sexuality. Frykholm’s honesty and genuine empathy for the people she interviewed sends an encouraging message to students to share of themselves and their stories with the same kind of candor. Also, through her use of stories, Frykholm reveals the complexity of our human sexuality that has been oversimplified by American Christian culture. The book also creates the opportunity to discuss rape culture and sexual dynamics present on a college campus.
For the campus minister who chooses to use this book as a resource, the challenge lies in creating a safe enough environment for study and discussion. I can’t see this book being used in a classroom. It must even be handled with care in a co-curricular group setting. Students with past experiences of sexual abuse will likely be triggered by the stories in this book. The group facilitator should be aware of this likelihood and trained in how to appropriately help the triggered student. The book may also need to be studied within single gender groups to foster the necessary sense of safety.
 Frykholm, A., See Me Naked, 67.
 Ibid., 68 and 70.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 72.
 Ibid., 156.