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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice by Merry E. Wiesner-Hank

Title: Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice 
Author: Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: February 22, 2010

In Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks examines how Christian and Protestant ideas altered and defined sexuality and sexual behavior. The geographical focus of Wiesner-Hanks extends beyond the European continent. She writes about the colonial experience of Europeans bringing Christianity into Latin America, Asia, Africa, and North America, all of which were already inhabited by groups possessing their own native beliefs about sexuality, the changing of which was not done without challenge and compromise. Reconstructing the pre-colonial world of Latin and North American presents a problem, as Wiesner-Hanks notes, because documents are scarce, and as a result she cannot give a complete description of native beliefs. The first three chapters of the book are loosely chronological within topically based chapters, beginning with Christianity before 1500, then moving on to Protestantism, and finally to Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy. The final three chapters shift to the overseas colonies discussed above. 

In investigating sexuality, Wiesner-Hanks looks at how earlier civilizations influenced later ideas of early Christian writers, and then in turn how these Christian writers shaped opinions on marriage, divorce, fornication, prostitution, sodomy, and witchcraft, to name a few. As Wiesner-Hanks traces how these ideas evolved over time, she also compares them to one another, letting readers see not only how ideas shifted over time, but how Catholicism differed from both Protestantism and Orthodoxy. The chapters are short and succinct, but detailed enough that in every case there is a clear picture of the time and group change. The book is more than a mere generalized overview even though its length is small, though some generalization is necessary and involved, because Wiesner-Hanks looks at specifics and fills her pages with one detail after another. As a result, very little space is given to stories or narratives, which perhaps would have been a nice addition to break up her dense fact-based approach. In fact, it is all too easy to get lost or confused within the barrage of facts and details as, for example, Wiesner-Hanks moves from infanticide to women's bodies to unmarried women and men to craft guilds all in the same two page spread. That being said, there is a lot that Wiesner-Hanks does not say or does not explain, which leaves one with many questions. For instance, when Wiesner-Hanks discusses the Roman model of marriage and sexuality, she fails to mention that the Romans too had their own form of spiritual virginity in the Vestal Virgins, which would be an interesting parallel to Catholic convent life. In another part of the book, Wiesner-Hanks states that religious wars increased the number of people, both men and women, who worked in prostitution (89). Yet she does not explain how that link is made. In many places she describes a situation or a law but then finishes up with the note that the event was rare or the law was rarely enforced, which makes one wonder why it was ultimately significant to mention. It would be a lot to expect one writer to include every detail or point, so the unstated or unanswered in no way mitigates what a good book Wiesner-Hanks has written on the topic of sexuality and religion.

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