February 26, 2010
A Christian Sexual Alternative?
Both conservatives and liberals have had their views of sexuality shaped by the culture.
The title caught my eye: “Reverend reconciles sex and religion.” Was another church challenging married couples to make time for sexual intimacy for seven days straight? A pastor making headlines for an edgy sermon about the goodness of sex? A review of the latest book from a Christian relationship expert with new statistics about Christians’ sex lives?
Actually, the article was much less predictable than any of my guesses. The story’s focus, Debra Haffner, has the distinction of being both a reverend and a sexologist who believes her two professions “offer a unique insight into modern sexuality.” The Revered Haffner—who, by the way, won’t marry people who are virgins—thinks it necessary for “conservative religious leaders to reform their doctrines to fit modern times.” Such a shift includes focusing on the “quality of relationships” rather than on the morality of sexual practices.
As someone who falls within Haffner’s “conservative religious leader” category, it’s tempting to write her off. There’s little new in her claim that our sexual ethics need updating for a new day. Her reading of the Bible (“Genesis is full of affirmations of humans as sexual beings”) is certainly culturally bound and would likely confuse the Bible’s early interpreters. Frankly, it’s hard for me to take seriously any expert who doesn’t strongly consider the historic claims and traditions of the Church.
That’s why I also have trouble with much of the teaching and preaching about sexuality that originates closer to home.
The ways those of us with more traditional interpretations of the Bible interact with this subject aren’t much more helpful. Is our language any less culturally bound than Haffner’s? What about our theology and methodology?
For example, at a conference for church leaders I listened to a pastor tout his congregation’s recent advertising campaign. To promote a sermon series about sex, the church mass-mailed glossy postcards and purchased billboards, each with a suggestive bedroom photo. Acknowledging the complaints the church received from some in their town, the pastor said something to the effect of, “We’re willing to risk any method to get people to church on Sunday.”
And we’re probably all familiar with the stories of pastors who urged the married couples in their churches to have sex for multiple days in a row. With clever branding—“Seven Days of Sex” and “The Thirty Day Sex Challenge”—these campaigns informed the surrounding culture that Christians have sex, too. (Though they may have communicated that Christians need their pastor to remind them to have sex.) Through clever marketing, these churches attempted to show their relevancy while shedding any prudish reputation.
The Reverend/Sexologists and Pastor/Marketers are more closely related than they’d like to admit. In discussing and preaching about sexuality they both borrow from the enlightened and glitzy present while neglecting the alternative kingdom proclaimed by saints past. Such a move may enthrall for a time, but always leaves us hungry for something substantially different.
Last year my wife and I spoke about sexuality to a Christian fellowship at a nearby university. Our talk that night centered on one question: How does the Gospel of Jesus transform the way we think about sexuality? In other words, does the fact that Jesus was crucified and resurrected have any bearing on how we view the sexuality of others and ourselves? By evening’s end I was both hopeful and discouraged. Hopeful because we watched light bulbs turning on as students encountered a distinct way to interact with the complexities of sexuality on campus. As those pursued by God, hidden in Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit, these young women and men have access to a Gospel that transcends the culturally captive methods and language of Reverend/Sexologists and Pastor/Marketers.
The experience also left me discouraged. In a room of bright college students, many who had been raised in the church, there was a palpable sense of frustration and helplessness at the prospect of experiencing a Christian sexual ethic. Why is this? Have Christian leaders neglected the counter-intuitive Gospel implications for our sexuality in order to portray a Christianity that is more culturally acceptable? While many of us would disagree with the Reverend Haffner’s theology, I’m not sure we’re offering a more genuinely liberating alternative.
For all our talk about sex, I wonder if we have forgotten the only distinct and life-giving thing we have to say on the subject: Jesus changes everything. As one student put it at the close of our evening, “This is really hard stuff….but it’s also really good news.” When it comes to the complexities of sexuality we don’t need more sexologists or marketers. We could, however, use more pastors and leaders willing to echo this student’s insight. The Gospel of Jesus is really hard and really good and offers entirely new ways to consider the mysteries and joys of our sexuality.