Sex, Sin, and Salvation
(nb: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)
“The Monk and the Skeptic” is a collection of dialogues between the author—the skeptic—and a Dominican monk named Brother Peter.
The two meet in a museum, and from there begin an extended relationship, where they discuss the nature of religious faith and sexuality, and how the two fit together. Indeed, many aspects of modern life have roots in these questions. Should same-sex marriage be allowed? How does the Church deal with priestly physical desires? Is there salvation outside Christianity? Can Christians enjoy pornography? And what’s the deal with drag queens?
The list goes on. Frank Browning is a writer of huge intellect, thoughtful and extremely well-read. Here, he draws heavily from St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, John Locke, as well as the Bible itself. His arguments are clear, concise, and quite well-balanced.
These are difficult questions with multiple answers, after all, and to handle them in flip or derisive language disrespects the reader and the questions themselves.
The basic idea behind “The Monk and the Skeptic” is that the two men meet, have sex, then discuss spiritual ideas after. In some chapters, the Monk has very little to say. The narrator asks a question, which the Monk answers, and then the narrator launches into a scholarly discourse.
When I say “scholarly discourse,” I don’t mean to impugn this book’s writing. Though the ideas are lofty and the opinions—on both sides—very well-argued and full of philosophical references, the writing here is always clear. “Scholarly” so often equates to “tedious and stilted” when discussing books. Frank Browning writes wonderfully, presenting complex answers to difficult questions, but doing so in prose accessible to all of us non-PhD’s.
At day’s end, I’m not certain whether Brother Peter really exists, or whether he is but a construct of this book—a framework to allow Browning to debate tough issues. At day’s end, I’m not certain it matters. Brother Peter exists inside this book, and that is more than sufficient.
“The Monk and the Skeptic” is a remarkable book, one that will appeal to curious readers on either side of the religious fence. Most importantly, perhaps, it does what we all should do: it raises the level of debate, allowing reasoned discourse to replace knee-jerk, oft-inflammatory emotional responses. The questions posed here are complex. They merit thoughtful answers. The monk and the skeptic—as well as the reader—deserve no less.