In the past few months, I couldn't help noticing the flurry of articles about the PCUSA's decision to ordain people in same-sex relationships, the repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, the passage of same-sex marriage laws in New York, and the decision of Chaz Bono, daughter of Sonny and Cher, to become a man.

Yet conversations about sex and sexual identity emerge as often around our dinner tables as on the front page of the paper. Recently, a pastor told me about a married member of his congregation who routinely cheats on his wife with other men. A friend described helping a female friend pick out an engagement ring so she could propose to her girlfriend. Another friend sat at our dinner table and talked about leaving the church after years of celibacy because he couldn't deny his gay identity. Jenell Williams Paris, an anthropology and sociology professor at Messiah College, seeks to enter this cultural conversation in her new book, The End of Sexuality: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are (InterVarsity Press). Moreover, Paris seeks to change the conversation within the church. Her analysis of contemporary culture offers a helpful aid to Christians trying to wade through the complex issues surrounding gender and sexuality in the modern age.

Paris does not want to overturn centuries of traditional Christian doctrine about sexuality, singleness, and marriage. Rather, she wants Christians to understand the manner in which we have capitulated to our culture, and then she wants to help churches create communities that offer a better way for all people, regardless of sexual experience, desire, or practice. To begin that new way, Paris insists we reclaim our core identity as God's beloved rather than identify ourselves according to sexual preferences, either heterosexual or homosexual, which are relatively modern labels. Paris writes, "All sexual identity categories have a common trouble; they tell us that what a person wants, sexually, is an important measure of who a person is." The same could be said for other identity categories, be they ethnic, racial, economic, or related to ability and disability. As Christians, first and foremost we know ourselves as members of the body of Christ, as new creations by the power and work of the Spirit of God. Only as we recognize this truth about ourselves and about our sisters and brothers can conversations about sexual practice proceed in a constructive way.

Despite her critique of sexual identity categories, Paris does not seek to overturn traditional biblical understandings of sex and sexuality. She calls herself a " 'sex only within marriage between a man and a woman' kind of Christian," and she acknowledges, "God did create humans male and female. But sin has influenced every dimension of human life …." She upholds a biblical understanding of creation, sin, and redemption, although she might have spent more time examining the theological significance of being created "male and female, in the image of God." Paris approaches the Genesis passage from a sociological standpoint, but she needs to provide an exegetical lens as well. Furthermore, she is so concerned about questioning the cultural construction of sexual identity that she fails to thoroughly discuss the Bible's understanding of masculinity and femininity.

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Paris asserts that reclaiming our core identity enables us to eliminate a hierarchy of "heterosexual" and "homosexual" within the church. Only then can we begin conversations about holiness in general and sexual holiness in particular. She writes, "In post-sexual identity Christian communities, sexual holiness becomes a common standard for all believers. Same-sex attraction and behavior still matter, but not as identity-constituting characteristics and not as points of theological disagreement that warrant separation or exclusion." Sexual holiness, according to Paris, includes celibacy for people who experience same-sex attraction as well as for people who are unmarried and attracted to someone of the opposite sex. And rather than call for individuals to repent, be they individuals who have participated in same-sex sex or individuals who have condemned and judged others, Paris instead calls for cultural renewal throughout the church.

Paris suggests that celibacy is not currently "plausible" because there are very few ways to experience intimacy without sex in contemporary culture, even within the church. She upholds an ideal of celibacy that exists with institutional and relational support: "Long-term celibacy becomes plausible when there are widely held values, positive language, meaningful social roles and real social support for celibates." Unfortunately, she doesn't offer specific examples of communities—past or present—in which such support has existed. And she could spend more time examining the theological significance of Jesus and Paul and other New Testament figures who live holy and full lives as celibate persons.

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The End of Sexual Identity could use more theology to balance out its anthropological focus. Nevertheless, Paris upholds a Christian understanding of who we are as human beings while offering a critique of the church for its appropriation of modern cultural categories that create false power structures and divisions.

Which brings me back to the headlines and dinner conversations of late. Paris's book offers hope that the church might become a refuge for people who have been marginalized by cultural assumptions about sex. Instead of supporting divisions, The End of Sexual Identity reminds readers that identity is bestowed upon us by God, not by our sexuality. It rebukes me for my participation in the divisions created by sexual identity categories. And it helps me consider ways to support and equip single people as meaningful members of our church community. Paris herself doesn't go this far, but her book also reminds me that—even when it involves self-denial, even when it involves countercultural lifestyles—God's way of holiness is good for all people. It reminds me that the way of holiness is the way of love.