Sex, Marriage, and Simcha Fisher’s Book
My sophomore year of college, I took a two-semester humanities seminar with eight or nine other nerds. Ever week we read a different landmark work from the Western canon, and then for three hours each Tuesday night we would sit around in a conference room and throw ideas at each other. I was a full-fledged adult of nineteen wise years at this point, with an entire year of Catholic liberal education under my belt, so I almost always knew what was wrong with the books we were reading before we even cracked them open. For instance: we frown upon pederasty, so clearly the Symposium is nuts, and we don’t believe in body-soul dualism, so obviously Descartes iss off his rocker. And we definitely don’t believe that God is dead; what use do we have for Nietzsche? But our professor, who was both brilliant and marginally crazy (how frequently the two go hand in hand…) spent the first half of every class pitching the key ideas of that week’s author with so much conviction that we would start to suspend our disbelief. Only then, once we had entered a little bit into the world of the thinker at hand, were we allowed to start analyzing his work.
I remember asking this professor once why he adopted such an unusual teaching style. His answer has stuck with me ever since. Some people, he said, are just plain wrong. But those people’s work usually fades away pretty quickly. If folks are still reading a book hundreds of years after it was written, there’s probably something valuable in it. And if we are seeking the truth, we have to be willing to find it anywhere – even in unlikely places. The wisdom of this approach is twofold. First, it calls for humility, the ability to admit that one’s knowledge, at 19 or 29 or even 90, can always be expanded and refined. And secondly, it embodies a fundamental principle of philosophy: that no part of the truth is to be discarded. A gift in an unsightly wrapping is no less a gift, and a single flash of insight surrounded by what my father would call “bull-hockey” is still a single flash of insight. If we want the truth, then we must be humble enough – and persistent enough – to seek it wherever it may be found, and we must be willing to look past a lot of mumbo-jumbo in order to find it.
In my view, Simcha Fisher’s recent book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, does not fall into the Nietzsche category. Apart from one sentence (she uses the phrase “one Person” where I think “one Being” might be slightly clearer) I think the entire thing is spot on. The tone of the book is agile: unapologetically firm where firmness is necessary, compassionate where it speaks to hurting hearts, downright hilarious where appropriate. The content of the book is clearly rooted in a deep understanding of the Catholic Church’s teaching on human sexuality, and it presents the core of that teaching in a way that reveals its power and beauty. Fisher set out to write a book for Catholics who accept the Church’s position on artificial contraception and seek a fuller understanding of how to live it out, and she did a spectacular job. For its target audience, The Sinner’s Guide to NFP is a tour de force.
But. Lots of writers can do a perfectly decent job preaching to their respective choirs. This book is even better than that. Simcha Fisher has written a book that has something of great value to offer a vast group of people who probably think that, in small part or large, she is completely off her rocker. This review is for those people, and here is what I have to say: read this book.
The Twist: It Turns Out To Be A Compliment
To bolster my credibility, let me say that I am not exactly this book’s target audience either. I’m not a sinner! Oh wait. That’s not why. Here’s why: I love the Church’s teaching on sexuality, but I have absolutely zero experience with the struggles of natural family planning. At this point, my husband and I are using fertility awareness as a method to try to achieve pregnancy. That means all the nice parts of NFP and very few of the hard parts, and a lot of people who have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy are probably growling at me right now, but I still found much of immediate relevance in Fisher’s book as well as much I am pocketing for reference later. So: if you are a Catholic who is using a fertility awareness method to try to get pregnant, you should read this book. If you are a Catholic who doesn’t bother charting and just waits to see what each cycle will bring, you should read this book. If you are a Catholic who thinks that the use of NFP to try to avoid pregnancy is only acceptable in cases where a shark is about to eat your wife, you should re-read Humanae Vitae, but you should also read this book.
I’m going to take it further. If you are a Catholic and you think the Church’s teaching on contraception is batsh*t crazy, and you use hormonal contraceptives or another form of artificial birth control, you should still read this book. If you are Christian, but not Catholic, and you don’t use contraception, you should read this book. If you’re Christian but not Catholic and you don’t see anything wrong with contraception, you should read this book. If you’re not Christian of any stripe, but you’re married, and you want to love your spouse better and improve your sex life…you guessed it! You should read this book.
Let me be very clear: If you fall outside the book’s target audience, parts of it are going to bug you. Fisher’s approach is blessedly simple, which means it rests on a lot of basic principles she doesn’t bother arguing for. If you disagree with some of those principles, some of her conclusions will seem wrong to you. (Ta-da! Logic.) But if you find yourself in that category, you should still read this book. Read it the way I might read Kant or Wittgenstein: in a spirit of quiet truth-seeking. Read it with both eyes open – read it warily, if you must – but be willing to pass gently over the parts that seem obviously wrong to you, and eager to find things that ring true. If you can bring yourself to approach the book in a spirit of friendship, I guarantee that you will be surprised by how much it has to offer you.
You may at this point question my certainty. How do I know that you will benefit from reading this book, even if you think Natural Family Planning has nothing to do with you? Because, at its heart, this book is not actually about NFP. How can I say that? Because, at its heart, NFP is not actually about NFP. At its heart, NFP is about love. And love has something to do with everyone. Watch me get there.
Obviously, NFP is about sex! It’s about sex and whether or not you get to have some today! Right? Right. And wrong. Practicing NFP does affect the basic mechanics of your sex life, but Fisher’s refreshingly frank treatment of such a fraught subject draws out truths that apply to everyone from brand-new spouses to parents of nine. Regardless of the state of your fertility, good sex requires vulnerability. It requires honest communication in the most awkward of situations.* Most of all, good sex demands generosity, the ability to seek the good – and the pleasure! – of the other. I don’t know whether she’s marinated herself in Theology of the Body or whether she’s just had a lot of experience (ha!), but Fisher’s discussion of these topics is among the clearest and best I’ve ever read, and I have read a lot of books about sex for a 26-year-old newlywed. You should read this book.
*It seems to me that these two sentences are perilously close to the beginning of a really bad poem. Someone write that. Please.
Moving beyond the strictly sex-related parts of NFP, this book is chock full of insight about marital communication. Fisher addresses the problem of misaligned desires, and also the other problem: when you both want the same thing and you can’t have it. She provides encouragement to persevere through the hardest patches, the patches that occur in every marriage, when your desire to love your spouse seems to surpass your ability to do so. Fisher sets out to write some stuff that might help couples deal with the challenges NFP brings to their marriages; what she actually writes is stuff that will help couples deal with the challenges that marriage brings to marriage. Period, full stop, the end. If you think you can afford to pass up that kind of wisdom, you must never struggle in your marriage, and if you’re going to claim that you never struggle in your marriage, I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re married to your couch. Fisher has been in the trenches for a lot of years, and she knows how to army-crawl through the tough stuff. You should read this book.
I hope the connection between marriage and love doesn’t require explanation. And at the end of the day, love is the reason everyone should read this book. Again, don’t get me wrong: this is undeniably a book about Natural Family Planning. It talks about thermometers and pregnancy and I believe it even contains the word “mucus” at one point. But just as Plato’s Republic is about a lot more than the hypothetical government of an imaginary city, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning is about a lot more than fertility awareness. Fisher’s paragraphs on the joys of marital harmony and the opportunities for generosity disguised as fertile days and the massive headaches of post-partum charting are virtuous and helpful in themselves. But the book as a whole is saturated with an overarching message: that NFP, and sex, and marriage in general, are all – at every moment – nothing more and nothing less than particular manifestations of the universal invitation to love. Fisher does not sugarcoat and she is never sappy, but the straightforward challenge of this book is a challenge rooted in a mature understanding of the real meaning of love. From a position of compassionate humor, Simcha Fisher has written something that will last for a long time, because it speaks to the eternal questions. Everyone should read this book.
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.