For the last three years I’ve been trying to change the evangelical conversation about sex.
I’ve been pointing out how we went so very far off track with so much of our messaging in our best-sellers–focusing on men’s satisfaction and ignoring women’s; seeing sex as a female obligation and a male entitlement; prioritizing his needs over hers.
In The Great Sex Rescue, we pointed out that Christians often have just as pornified a view of sex as the world that we criticize: we view women as sex objects; we view men as unable to treat women as anything other than sex objects (Gary Thomas says that God made men to think about sex constantly and to always be ready to seize a sexual opportunity; Every Man’s Battle says that men sin naturally, simply by being male).
Even the “bounce your eyes” solution to lust STILL treats women as sex objects. Either you lust after her, or you ignore her because she’s a threat. In both cases, you see her merely as a collection of body parts (and Every Young Man’s Battle actually talks about women that way–“a pair of boobs walking towards you.”)
I believe the conversation is changing, and for that I am rejoicing greatly.
However, what saddens me is that because evangelicals have gotten sex so wrong, we really have had nothing to say to the world about sex.
We are supposed to be salt and light to the world, but we have failed in our task.
In fact, not only have we failed; in many cases the world is far healthier than we are. Our study for The Great Sex Rescue does suggest that non-religious secular women enjoy better sex than evangelical women, with a lower orgasm gap and with higher libidos.
But also the things that we were teaching in The Great Sex Rescue, which were so groundbreaking in evangelicalism, have been largely taught in the secular world for decades. When I was in university we learned about the importance of consent and the problems with the objectification of women. We learned about the problems with only seeing sex from a male perspective. And this was 30 years ago!
We debated how the sexual revolution and the porn culture had merely made it easier to objectify women by putting cultural pressure on women to approach sex the way that many college frat boys did. We debated what sexual liberation really should look like for women; did it mean rampant promiscuity, or did it mean being allowed to figure out what they wanted?
Again, we debated this thirty years ago.
I’ve been reading a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
The central thesis is that evangelicalism became so populist and fundamentalist and “Bible only” that it stopped being able to influence the thinking, the arts, the philosophy of the wider world. It became merely reactionary, and had nothing substantive to say about morality, politics, economics, and even sexuality.
By declaring that the Bible was all that was needed, evangelicalism started looking down on higher learning. And we stopped learning how to engage intellectually with the world. There have been no evangelical Nobel Prize winners; few evangelical Rhodes scholars. Yet this is not true of Catholics or other streams of Protestantism, who have been very active in intellectual life and philosophy.
I’ve been reading a chapter of the book at night, and then during the day working as usual. And so it happened that juxtaposed in my reading was an hour and a half that I took out of my life to listen to one of John D. Street’s graduate level classes on Advanced Biblical Counseling. John Street was one of the ones I fixed in a recent graphic for blaming the rape of a 4-year-old on the fact that the mother hadn’t had enough sex with the stepfather, so he sought “sexual satisfaction” from the young girl instead.
I decided to listen to his series of lectures, and I’m in the middle of his one on sexual deviancy. I was surprised by several things in listening to this lecture:
The level of academic discourse is much lower than I would have expected in a first year university course, let alone a graduate level course.
As someone who has lectured in first year university courses, and marked and led tutorials for multiple first and third year courses at a prestigious Canadian university, I will tell you that this lecture was not in the least academic, and did not meet our standards of rigour.
Street portrays almost an idolization of Scripture
He spends half an hour, for instance, showing how sex was meant to be mutual (at least he said that!) and that it was meant to be in marriage and it was meant for love. All of that could have been said in one sentence, yet he has to prove it with multiple Bible verses, as if one cannot declare “the sky is blue” unless there is a Bible verse for it.
Only if you can proof text it with a Bible verse can something be true. And thus if you cannot proof text it, it must not be true.
This is really the heart of the critique that Mark Noll is making in The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind. It is as if Christians have forgotten that Jesus is the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life. If Jesus is Truth, then study that finds Truth is a worthy pursuit. It points us to learning more of God’s creation.
But if you can only declare something true if you can find a verse that talks about it in the Bible, then you’re very limited in what you can study. And you can’t grow to have a robust intellectual understanding of key things.
Evangelicals display a gnostic strand when we treat the Bible as if it were an esoteric code to be deciphered as a way of obtaining privileged information about the creation of the natural world, the disposition of historical events, or the unfolding of the future. (p. 66)
Proof-texting did not cause great damage so long as the culture as a whole held to general Christian values, but when those general Christian values began to weaken, the weakness in evangelical theologizing–even more, in thinking like a Christian about the world in general–became all too evident. (p. 127)
The only thing that evangelicalism has to offer the world about sex is “don’t do it.”
That’s what we’ve been saying for decades–“don’t have sex before marriage.”
But we’ve never really said WHY, because we’ve never answered that question ourselves beyond, “because God said not to.”
We need a Christian view of sexual ethics that goes beyond “don’t do it” and encompasses the sacredness of sex.
The world has been developing its own sexual ethic, and it mostly focuses on the twin goals of personal satisfaction and fulfillment and consent. Both are worthy goals; but alone they fall woefully short of what God made sex to encompass. We need a view of sex that honors the dignity of all persons; that encompasses God’s design for real intimacy, and that understands how that intimacy can be expressed even outside of our sexuality. A view of sex that is rooted in relationship and our personhood.
Catholics have actually been very good at this. I can’t count the number of people who have recommended The Theology of the Body to me, and Christopher West’s work is next for me to read.
But evangelicalism’s anti-science bent and our anti-intellectualism, as well as our conceit (if I may say it so boldly) in thinking that our graduate school courses are at all analagous to the rigour that is found in top-notch secular institutions, is keeping us from being salt and light in this crucial area.
Quite frankly, if the church wants to reach the world, we need to get our act together.
Normally when that is said in a sermon the pastor is referring to repentance and becoming holier.
But that’s not what I mean (though those are worthy goals too). We need to start engaging real arguments. We need to get our own view of sex right, and then we need to figure out how to articulate it to ourselves so that we can start influencing the world. Yelling “don’t do it because the Bible says so” doesn’t work, and it’s insulting. Explaining WHY God created sex the way He did is a worthy and important intellectual pursuit.
I hope that evangelicals will start embracing it.
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