Monday, July 29, 2013

Let's Talk about Sex

So, before I get started here, I have a quick message for my friends Betsy, Georgia, Laurie and Jennie: Hey ladies.

Okay, now that a private joke amongst old friends is done, I present to you Christian Sex Talk!
When I finally got around to taking Christian Ethics at Fuller, Dr. Glen Stassen was on a break and Dr. Justin Phillips (I haven’t been able to officially call him doctor yet…yay!) taught in his stead. I don’t remember if he and Bethany McKinney (hey...I still ask the iPod friend!) assigned reading for us, or if we self-selected, but somehow, I ended up with Marva Dawn’s book Sexual Character. That book title in itself is not terrible, but the subtitle Beyond Technique to Intimacy…yeesh, made this single dude cringe. But the deal was it started a pattern of thought that changed me quite a bit.

Through the course of that quarter and the next year I just became really comfortable with sex. Friends presented different problems in terms of sexuality and the sex act and it really just didn’t bug me. I can’t tell you why. It was even to the point that I was looking at going to school to be a sex therapist for people in the church. What I realize now is that the shame of sex just evaporated for me. In the words of George Michael, it dawned on me that “Sex is natural, sex is fun” (I just can’t bring myself to type the rest of the lyric though!).
Rachel Held Evans has written a lot about his. I like her phrase, “shame-based purity culture.” It’s a great term, especially for us Evangelicals. We are raised with this stigma of “sex” that ruins something that is good and natural. And to exacerbate that the word “sex” itself became so stigmatized that there are a lot of conversations that are now so painfully awkward, parents and ministers are left scratching their heads. How do we talk to pubescent kids about things like masturbation, kissing, relationships and more importantly abuse? If we teach kids that sex is dirty and gross, I would assert we are grooming victims. I think my generation has seen its fair share of men and women taking 20 years or more to finally confess they were victimized, because they were so ashamed at the time of what happened to them.

So, yesterday at church I encountered this culture again. Now, before I go too much further, let me say that I really enjoyed the marriage panel we had. It was actually one of the best church-marriage things I have seen done. So kudos for that. And really, sex wasn’t even the focus, but there was a singular moment when sex took center stage. Someone tweeted the question (yeah…we did questions by tweet, both cool, and now I realize limiting since we probably barred a majority of people over 50 from entering the conversation), “How do you as a couple decompress together? What kinds of activities do you do to take the edge off?”
Great question. And my buddy Will chimed in with a great answer, “Uh. My mother-in-law is here.” This garnered some very appropriate laughter. It was funny. Will continued by saying that he and his wife really did just love sex. It was something special for them. And the laughter continued. We all know that it was good-natured laughter, probably nervous laughter. I mean, this is church. Why would you talk about sex? And the truth is it reflected this same shame-based purity culture that Held Evans writes about. As a congregation we were just uncomfortable with a couple that has been married for 14 years with a couple of kids saying that they enjoy sex. What gives?

This is the culture that I was raised in. This is the culture that I live in. This is the culture that I try to invest my life in. I hang with, and try to indirectly mentor quite a few dudes and gals. I do my best to show that we just do life together, and the day-to-day, mundane things are still spiritual and significant. And, for the most part, I think I do a decent job. There are certain disconnects because I am a Gen X’er hanging with Millennials. Certain things are just radically different. I know 10 years doesn’t seem a lot different in terms of age, but there are certain things I have more in common with 54 year olds than I do with 24 year olds.
But one of the things that translates, and I think this is more church culture than society, is the shame associated with sex. Recently I had an encouragement for a bro about purity. But, because of the nature of it, I thought for a second we would have to go into another room for me to be able to share it. There are just certain words you can’t say. And truth be told, I get where it comes from. I don’t agree with some of our overt denial of the way things are, but it is birthed out of a quest for purity. And I love that in a world of anything goes, there are still people trying to retain their purity. It is beautiful, but even those of us who pursue sexual purity can see the failings of it. It reminds me of the old joke:

Do you know why Baptists don’t have sex? - It could lead to dancing.
Basically, we know that we have gone too far. We know that our quest for purity has led us to a place where we cannot have good, pure, life-altering talks about matters that are of utmost importance. Because the truth is sexuality is just as important as physicality, emotionality, spirituality and intellect in development. It shapes who we are. And when we say: “No. We will not talk about that. When you get married then you can learn about sex,” what we do is cut off the forging of identity…and worse yet, we tell young people to figure out on their own. And so sex becomes a peer taught subject...and I don't know about you, but I remember the education I got in that area during middle school. Not exactly the greatest.

And so my challenge is this: If we know that what we are doing is unhealthy, why do we keep doing it? That would be like finding out your radiator has a leak and driving our car without refilling it or replacing it. Eventually it is going to break…and because it’s the radiator it could destroy the rest of the car. So…let’s try and work this out. How does this sex thing work? How do we talk about it without becoming exhibitionists? I think it’s a conversation worth having.


  1. I'm thankful to have been raised in a church and youth group that emphasized sexual health (i.e., keeping sex in the bounds of marriage), though I will admit that the unhelpful aspects of the larger Evangelical culture seeped into some of the messages. It's as if we tell people sex is the worst thing you can do unless you're married and then it's the best thing you can do. (This method, rather than being counter-cultural actually buys into the narrative seen in lazy pop-culture stories in which people believe they will see different colors once they lose their virginity.) The shame-based purity culture is actually laziest path to keep people from sleeping together before marriage. But it ain't great discipleship. I applaud frank and respectful discussions about sex in churches. I also wonder what role does modesty have in this whole discussion? I don't mean modesty as a cheap holding card for shame, but true modesty as an expression of comfort with one's sexuality that also respects the sanctity of marriage.

    Attitudes and practices about sex are changing in the Church. More and more, devout Christian couples are sleeping together and living together before marriage. Like the rest of society church folk are getting married later and holding off having children. How much of this is a good thing, a bad thing, or indifferent? My concern is that the changing attitudes about sex in the church are more an adoption of larger cultural values than real biblical and theological reflection.

    1. I frequently wonder the same thing man. Even, as an example from current culture, the Church becoming more willing to embrace the LGBTQ community seems to be more based on culture's persuasion and not the Word or theological reflection. What am I not saying is that you cannot get there without biblical and theological reflection. As a matter of fact many had arrived there long before the emergence we now see. What I am saying however is the way we get there is quite important. We cannot be blown and tossed by the winds of cultural. We cannot let what society and culture tell us determine our belief. That is just flimsy and not a genuine spiritual life that contemplates these things.

      It reminds me of old Walter Brueggemann. We have to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I think as the Church we have let the newspaper hold precedence. It influences more than the written word of God. There is a marriage between the two that we have figure out along the way. And I think it is difficult, but worth it.