It’s too early to call it, but if evangelicals keep their frenetic pace up, 2012 will be the year they self-combust from over-sexual-exposure.
Yesterday Pastor Ed Young made international headlines by announcing that he would be promoting his new book, the ham-handedly titled “Sexperiment,” with a 24-hour “bed in” on the roof of his Dallas megachurch. The book poses a “seven-day sex challenge” to married couples, a concept that Pastor Young is repackaging from a sermon series that was similarly sensational a few years back. The “bed in” will be tamer than it sounds: Curious onlookers should note that, as the Guardian aptly puts it, the Youngs will not be “practicing what they preach.”
The news follows closely upon the heals of the release of Mark Driscoll’s “Real Marriage,” a book that has caused something of a minor stir online among the evangelical community. Driscoll, who is releasing excerpts from the book here at On Faith, has raised eyebrows, if not temperatures, by candidly addressing which sex acts Scripture approves.
Yet while Pastor Young’s gimmicky approach (the roof?) has bought attention, evangelicalism isn’t foreign soil for speaking candidly about sexuality–contrary to what you might have heard from the media or a few megachurch pastors. If anything, the sermons and books are simply the next stage of evangelicalism’s sexual evolution. For the better part of 40 years, evangelicals have been pumping out sex manuals and advice, some of which have enjoyed bona fide commercial success. As religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer wrote way back in 1999, “America is in a golden age for Christian sex manuals.” Nor are seven-day sex challenges exactly new either: In 1973, Marabel Morgan’s “The Total Woman” urged wives to seduce their husbands for seven days in a row. We might chafe at the gender imbalance, but the seeds are there: more sex is better sex, and happier marriages are at stake.
It’s easy to dismiss the sensationalism as simply attempts to sell books. But evangelical teachings on sex and marriage have taken hold: sociologist Bradley Wright, for instance, concluded that evangelicals who attend church regularly divorce at a rate of 38 percent, while people who never attended divorce at a 60 percent rate. It’s far from perfect, but not as bad as advertised either.
Yet the Ned Flanders narrative that evangelicals are awkward and repressed persists, fueled in part by, well, Ned Flanders, but also by evangelicals ourselves. With every new book that comes out, we continue to run from the stereotype that we don’t talk enough about sex, despite the fact that an outside observer might be forgiven for thinking we talk about very little else. We have not yet learned that our repeated insistence that we can have hot sex too simply reinforces the perception that we don’t have better things to do. This is, after all, an area where actions speak louder than words.
As a result, our proclamation that sex is good because God designed it often seems tinged with an anxious striving for sexual respectability. Evangelical sex manuals have an apologetic undercurrent that suggests that because God made it, Christians should be having better and more frequent sex than everyone else. As two scholars who analyzed sex manuals from the early 80s put it, we are apparently “God’s chosen people in matters of sexuality.”
Yet for all our earnest attempts to speak the language of culture about sexuality, we evangelicals should be careful to not let go of the fundamental mystery that is at the heart of the sexual union. When St. Paul, a controversial figure himself when it comes to such things, writes to the Ephesians that “a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” he follows it up in his next breath by reminding us that “this mystery is profound” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Sex, for Christians, is not less than an act for the purposes of physical pleasure, but it is more than that, much more. It is an image of the relationship we believe is at the heart of the universe, a relationship that is as mysterious as it is beautiful.
At the same time, the Bible does speak frankly and openly about human sexuality (including homosexuality, but that is a matter for a different time). Yet its most sustained teaching on the matter, the Song of Solomon, is cloaked in metaphor and allusions. The language of poetry is not that of prudes: rather, it is that of lovers, of those who know by delighting in the body that the anatomical descriptions fail to capture the enchantment. Poetry is its own fusion of modesty and eroticism: it includes the physical within itself, while going beyond it. Which, I’m told, is near how a metaphor works.
Evangelicals will, no doubt, continue to strive to show (as St. Paul puts it) a “more excellent way” on matters of love and sexuality. Our sexuality is, as both Pastors Driscoll and Young have aptly pointed out, wrapped up in our spirituality, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Yet the good of sex is a powerful good, a good that needs to be entered into “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God,” as the old prayer book puts it. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad way for evangelicals to learn to speak of it as well.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of “Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith.” He writes at Mere Orthodoxy, and you can disagree with him on Twitter.