Book review: How we lost our blush

Review by James V. Heidinger II

More than a decade ago, Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, wrote that the “sexual revolution will possibly prove to be the most destructive revolution in history.” After reading Karen Booth’s new book, Forgetting How To Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution (Bristol House, Ltd., 2012), I am convinced Kreeft was right.

Karen Booth is a United Methodist elder and currently heads the Transforming Congregations ministry within The United Methodist Church. She writes that after 16 years of local church ministry, she felt God leading her to witness to God’s call “for sanctified sexuality” and to help God shape local congregations “into safe and welcoming ‘redemption centers’ for all those who struggle with sexual sin.”

As I read Booth’s work, I became convinced that she was the right person to author such a book. Booth candidly acknowledges her own struggle years ago, which included a failed marriage, relational brokenness, and sexual struggle. Now she is a beautiful and faithful servant of Christ — an authentic witness to transforming grace.

Through the witness of a former openly gay seminary friend who ten years later had been transformed, healed, and was happily married, Booth had to re-think the popular view that homosexuality was “genetically caused and predetermined.” With the help of Exodus International and a more in-depth look into the scientific research about same-sex attraction, along with a more open-minded look at Scripture, Karen realized she had been misled by the media and the conventional wisdom of the day. God’s grace is adequate, regardless of our sexual brokenness. Before long, Karen became a member of the board of Transforming Congregations, and then in 2003, its executive director.

Booth describes her experience at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. She was joined by her friend, Bonnie, who was there with the Transforming Congregations team to witness to God’s gracious healing. Bonnie had been transformed and healed of powerful lesbian attractions several years earlier and was devastated emotionally by the pro-gay activists demonstrating on the floor of the Conference. She said to Booth through her tears, “How could my church betray me like this? How did we get to this place?” Booth writes, “I’ve spent a good part of the last eight years trying to answer the questions that Bonnie raised.”

Forgetting How to Blush may be the most important book that Bristol House, Ltd. has published in its young history.  It is, without question, the most comprehensive and well-researched volume I have read to help one understand how the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s found currency and legitimacy in major segments of American society, including the historic mainline denominations.

In the first two chapters, Booth focuses impressively and thoroughly on the research of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, a trained biologist, whose work on human sexuality in the late 1940s and 1950s would for many years “completely redefine the Western world’s understanding of sex.”  Kinsey’s research is debunked and discounted by increasing numbers of scientists and scholars, Booth notes. Furthermore, “in the seven primary ways that research can be biased the Kinsey reports included them all,” she adds. Yet Kinsey’s groundbreaking work of 1948, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, became an immediate hit, selling 175,000 copies its first year in print. Within two years, articles about the book or about Kinsey had appeared in some 500 magazine and journal articles.

Kinsey stated that he used “research” to help advance his own personal attitudes toward sexuality, attitudes that had formed by the mid-1930s and that he would advocate the rest of his life. Those included:

• Human beings are animals whose sexual behavior is derived from their mammalian background;

• So-called “perversions” are rooted in primate behavior and in that sense are “natural”;

• Sexual activity is a required “outlet” for men and women;

• Long frustration and denial of sexual urges are the primary causes of social problems and sexual conflicts in young people;

• The Christian church is to blame for this situation; it is the main culprit behind sexual ignorance, repression, and dysfunction.

More recent historians have discovered that Kinsey participated in extramarital sexual experimentation and soon became dissatisfied with merely collecting other people’s histories. Booth reports, “He encouraged his staff to experiment with each other sexually—activities that sometimes included himself, his wife Clara, and other invited guests.” In no way could Kinsey and his team of researchers “profess to be disinterested, impartial observers,” writes Booth. Many today are probably unaware that Kinsey, his reports, and his methodology, were sharply criticized by respected leaders of his time, such as Henry P. Van Dusen, President of Union Theological Seminary, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, writer and activist Dorothy Day, and literary critic Lionel Trilling.

Despite the abominable research done by Kinsey and his associates, the heirs of his Institute forged ahead on a mission “to radically transform American culture” Booth says. They had a major impact on comprehensive sex education, attitudes toward pornography, homosexuality, sex, and marriage. The values polluting American culture came straight from the Kinsey playbook.

The most disturbing section of Booth’s work traces the activities of a handful of Methodist pastors connected to Glide Memorial Church and its Urban Center program in the California/Nevada Annual Conference. In the early 1960s, they “began putting situational sexual ethics into practice in the church and on the streets,” writes Booth. The key person in this emerging program was Ted McIlvenna, who was appointed in 1963 to serve at Glide as Director of Young Adult Work in San Francisco. It was a regional arm of a larger denominational program, the National Young Adult Project (NYAP). He and the others had the support of their district superintendent and presiding bishop, Donald Tippett.

McIlvenna soon discovered the world of gays and lesbians, probably initially through his acquaintance with a man named Hal Call, a leader in the local Mattachine Society, a support and advocacy group for homosexual men. Call was an associate of Alfred Kinsey and had helped recruit the homosexual subjects for Kinsey’s research. Call also had a profound influence on McIlvenna.

In 1964, with help from the Glide Foundation and the General Board of Christian Social Concerns, McIlvenna organized one of the first public consultations in an effort “to endorse and validate the local homosexual community.” The event included an in-depth immersion experience that stretched participants’ personal boundaries, beliefs, and moral values. A larger consultation took place in 1967, out of which was born the National Sex Forum.

The next year the Forum offered “an experimental course to assist clergymen in understanding sexuality and sex education.”  And where earlier events had used films that “artistically” examined homosexuality and pedophilia, with no graphic nudity, now blatant pornography had been added to the mix. This led to the Forum’s notorious contribution to sex education, the Sexual Attitude Readjustment(SAR). In the Forum’s three, four, and even seven-day sexual-immersion events, one of the highlights was “a sustained, non-stop barrage of pornographic images and sounds.”

The rationale behind the entire SAR experience, writes Booth, was to “free the participants from prejudices or misconceptions about sex and sexuality by desensitizing them to what the program’s designers judged was a more open-minded and professional attitude.” Some say the experience short-circuits the conscience. Others say the viewer’s brain circuitry is physically changed and that one’s reasoning processes, emotional responses, and even memories are remolded, reformed, and coarsened. It amounts to a full-scale, damaging sensory assault.

According to Booth’s meticulous research, McIlvenna presented his graphic SAR or similarly explicit programs to members of the General Boards of Evangelism and Education, the Chaplaincy Corps, the US-2 training program of the General Board of Global Ministries, the California-Nevada Conference Bishop, Cabinet and Board of Ordained Ministry, and denominational staff in Nashville and their spouses.

In 1976, McIlvenna co-founded the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and, at more than 80 years of age, still serves as its president. The institute still hosts a weeklong SAR event and has amassed what it claims is the largest porn collection in the world.

Booth asks appropriately, “Where was the United Methodist Church while McIlvenna was ‘doing his thing?’” He did all of this while under appointment as a clergy member of the California/Nevada Annual Conference. In personal correspondence he reflected on his mutually satisfying relationship with the denomination: “….as long as I always told the truth and got my reports in on time, they would never interfere with me. And they never did.” We will never know the full impact of McIlvenna’s influence on our church and upon thousands of lives that were damaged sexually, spiritually, and emotionally.

A jacket blurb for Booth’s book by a pastor friend in California credits McIlvenna’s work as leading him into a pornography addiction, from which, thankfully, he has been set free. Booth powerfully sums up the damage from such corruptness: “The end result of value-neutral sexual ethics is moral confusion and sinful, potentially depraved, behavior” (emphasis the author’s).

Booth goes on to look at the pro-gay activism within the denomination, and her chapter on pro-gay ideology is well-researched and provides essential material for those United Methodists who really want to understand the debate taking place within the church. She concludes by rightfully cautioning the reader against the temptation to accept the supposed “middle” or “third” way in the sexuality debate, which would have the church say, “we are not of one mind on the issue of homosexuality.”

Karen Booth has done a service to the church by giving us this profoundly important volume. Bristol House, Ltd. has done a service to the church by publishing it. This is a “must read” and would be an excellent resource for group study in your local church. It is remarkably well-researched and written with grace, humility, and with the conviction of one well-grounded biblically. The author knows her subject. When you finish Booth’s book, you will better understand the answer to the question her friend Bonnie asked her some eight years ago: “Karen, how did we get to this place?”

You will also understand the title. It’s from Jeremiah 8:12: “Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.”

James V. Heidinger II is the president and publisher emeritus of Good News.