I imagine that most readers, after reading the title for this blog, are inclined to let out a hearty “Amen!” However, that title might be meant in a somewhat different way than it is often deployed in Christian circles. I’m not thinking of “the media elites” or “Hollywood” or “the liberals” when I talk about a sex-obsessed culture. I’m talking about us Christians and our seeming inability to engage in healthy dialog about Christian faith and sexuality. Let me see if an anecdote might help clarify what I mean.
I know a couple whose son was involved in an internship with a Christian ministry. As it turned out, their son’s girlfriend was also participating in an internship at the same place with that same ministry. As one might expect with a Christian ministry, there were regular teaching times, centered around studying Scripture. At one point during the internship, the parents received a call from their distraught child, concerned about all the things they were being taught and how they related to the relationship between the son and his girlfriend. So, the parents set off for a visit, hoping to understand better what they were experiencing.
My friend sat with the young couple and listened initially to them talk through the ways in which the scriptural teaching was oriented and how it seemed intentionally, but often indirectly, brought to focus on boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. As my friend recounted the story, he said that he found himself growing more and more angry by the minute at what he took to be unhealthy teaching around human sexuality and dating relationships, virtually all of which was handled more implicitly than explicitly. Time will not allow space to walk through those teachings and how my friend found them to be inadequate. Instead, let me say it the way he said it to me: “Chuck, these leaders were so concerned to make sure that these kids did not engage in premarital sex that they were willing to screw them up fifteen other ways.” As I explored this with him more, it became clear that what he was seeing was poor use of Scripture aimed, not at helping kids to understand human sexuality, but rather to persuade them to avoid having sex before they were married. And, if the biblical texts were taken out of context and if the teaching was attempting to achieve that end through avoidance rather than engagement, well, so what? The goal was worth it, they seemed to think. My friend, rather strongly, felt otherwise.
Now, granted, this is one story about one ministry and one young couple traversing the difficult and complicated ritual of courting. One might be tempted to suggest either that my friend overreacted or that this one ministry was an exception to otherwise sound Christian teaching about human sexuality.Unfortunately, I think these would be mistaken conclusions. First, one merely need reference any one of a number of studies by folks like George Barna, which indicate that divorce is not only as bad among Christians as non-Christians, but is actually worse the more conservative the Christian group. Or to studies that show spousal abuse is far, far too frequent in clergy circles. Or to studies that show a high incidence of the use of pornography among clergy. Or perhaps we should consider all those unfortunate cases where clergy are overtaken by sexual misconduct. No, dismissing this example as either over reaction or an exception to otherwise healthy Christian attitudes about sex simply wouldn’t comport with the data.
One writer commented of Plato that he often seemed embarrassed to have a body, that somehow the life of the mind or the life of the soul were more noble and not inherently evil as was the body. Sadly, we Christians too often take the wonderful gift of physicality that God has given us and we simply avoid explicit and concrete ways of addressing and celebrating out physicality and our sexuality.
So, going back to my title — we do live in a sex obsessed culture, right here within the church. We have become obsessed with formally laying down a set of don’ts (I wish I could say a set of does and don’ts, but we seem to miss the former) that are aimed to get our children through the difficult teen years without succumbing to sexual sin. But the means we use are so narrowly contrived that they are better understood as obstacles preventing premarital sex than as the beginning of lifelong habits of discipleship that won’t just help us survive those years, but will prepare us for the joys and disappointments of our sexual being.
I wish I had more concrete things to say about the right steps forward. I am convinced that they are wrapped up in an overt celebration (and not just acceptance) of human physicality and sexuality grounded in a healthy grasp of God’s creative intent, in teaching that does not merely have as its goal avoiding sex until marriage, but rather more positively presents the case for the wonderful gifts God has given us in our physicality and sexuality, a teaching that does not shy away from those aspects of creation and that situates their proper use in a constellation of practices of the Christian life. I wish I could say more, but alas, I will have to leave the more to other voices.