November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
TOJ: In your book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, you say, “Without a robust account of the Christian vision of sex within marriage, the Christian insistence that unmarried folks refrain from sex just doesn’t make sense.” (p. 25) What is a robust account of the Christian vision of sex? How can we talk about sex in a more Christian way? And, as you yourself ask in your book, what does our belief that sex belongs in marriage teach us about what good married sex looks like?
LW: People often don’t like it when I say this, but: good married sex is allowed to be ordinary. Premarital sex derives its seeming thrills from instability, from the unavoidable uncertainties of non-marriage relationships. There is nothing ordinary about non-marital sex; it has no normal qualities. When you are sleeping with a guy you just picked up at a bar, you are not bringing your whole self to him; you inevitably dissemble, hiding the fact that you had a lousy week at work, hiding the fact that your sister screamed at you and you are fragile. In marital sex, we are allowed to bring our whole (messy, broken) selves into the bedroom.
TOJ: How we live out our sexual lives cannot be a private affair, it affects community and needs to be part of a larger community conversation. Could you define what community is and what private life is? If sex belongs in marriage, what role does marriage and sex play in the Christian community? And how can the discussion of sex become part of the larger community conversation?
LW: In the Christian grammar, very little is private. Some things might be personal, but very little (if anything) is truly private. When we are baptized, we are opening up the whole of ourselves and our lives to the church – we are allowing our very body to be knitted into the body of Christ. So categories of experience that secular America has defined as “private” – how we spend money, how we have sex, how we inhabit time, for example – these are categories that are no longer ours but are part and parcel of our living in community.
One of the many experiences America has privatized is marriage; we believe that marriage is something given to two people for their companionship, fulfillment, happiness, and perhaps for the rearing of children. While companionship, kids, et cetera, are clearly part of marriage, in the Christian landscape I think we have to see that marriage is not given exclusively, or even primarily, to the couple. (And insofar as it is given to them, it is for their transformation, not their fulfillment.) It is given to the community, the church, to be a sign to the community of God’s relentless faithfulness. Other people’s marriages instruct me in what faithfulness looks like.
TOJ: Both you and Wendell Berry discuss the idea of sex outside of marriage as merely a distorted imitation of sex. When intercourse is portrayed in movies, T.V., or other media such as pornography, it becomes only what an artist, director, or screenwriter interprets it to be. So often, then, media defines for the rest of us what is erotic. Can you help to describe erotic and also what happens when the erotic becomes a commodity? Have we turned “erotic” into an idea about individual pleasure and therefore don’t have a healthy view of what erotic is?
LW: Yes – yes, we’ve done just that. Think of how many movies depict sex, and then think of how many movies depict sex between married couples – most depict sex between unmarried people, or between people who are married to other people. Pop culture gives us very few pictures of what sex looks like between a couple that has been married for 5 years, or 15 years, or 35 years.
So the pictures and scripts we have in our head are of decidedly unordinary sex. We learn from these images to equate eroticism with newness.
TOJ: In your book, you discuss the idea of chastity being more than merely saving sex for marriage. Can you discuss this and include in this discussion the idea that one of the churches only resources to discourage premarital sex, and sin, to be guilt. The result being, that when one doesn’t feel guilty, they continue to have sex or indulge in sins of their choice. What resources should the Church or communities be using to encourage chastity?
LW: For starters, we don’t always feel guilty when we sin. Our feelings are broken and fallen, distorted by sin, and thus not consistently in touch with what is really real – hence, sometimes we do something that is sinful, that is bad for us, and we don’t feel bad. So, for that reason (as well as other reasons) guilt trips are not great ways to keep people on the straight and narrow.
Further, Jesus did not run around guilt tripping people. He described for them the kingdom of God and invited them into it. And he also described the consequences of saying no to that invitation. I think we can model all of our discipleship—not just discussions of sex and chastity—on that – start with a positive presentation of what is good and true about the Christian story of sex – talk about how this is good news – and then also discuss what the ‘no’ to this good news looks like. When I speak to college students about sex, for example, I always include a discussion of the ways my years of premarital sex misshaped how I understand sex. I still, two years into my marriage, have to unlearn the idea that something has to be new and uncertain to be sexy; I am still learning what it looks like for stability and real intimacy to be sexy. But I also always discuss the promises of forgiveness and repentance. To talk about the effect of sinful behavior without proclaiming loudly that God forgives sin is patently unbiblical. Further, it is, in my view, always important to underscore that virginity is not the litmus test of sexual sinlessness. Though I certainly believe that one who, like me, marries after having sex has something to mourn, it is also important to recall that by Jesus’ standard – the standard of lust – every one of us has sexual sin and sexual brokenness to deal with.
TOJ: In understanding sex as being not merely about my own individual pleasure, what about masturbation? Is there a place for it in community?
LW: This is actually something I changed my mind about when I wrote Real Sex. When I started the book, my basic approach to masturbation was to think that the evangelical community was too obsessed with stamping it out. And I still think, to some extent, that’s true. Masturbation, or the lack thereof, is not the end all be all of Christian sexual ethics. But when one asks a question about formation – what is this act, masturbation, teaching me about sex, what sexual stories is it giving me – the selfishness and individualism of masturbation is clear. If sex is about a total self-giving to the other, and about being totally received by the other – well, masturbation isn’t sex. And habitual masturbation is destructive because it teaches us that sex is all about our pleasure whenever we want it; again, that’s an understanding of sex that is in deep tension with the realities and joys of marital sex.
TOJ: Describe how sex is incarnate, sacramental, and other directed.
LW: It seems to me that how sex is incarnate is sort of obvious – it is this thing we do with our incarnate bodies. (That sex is incarnate is one reason porn is a problem – porn is faux sex with a computer screen, with an image, not with a real person.) As for sacramental and other-directed: Christian tradition has historically articulated three “ends” of conjugal sex: sex unites, is procreative, and sacramental. That means, in simpler language, that sex is meant to unite two people, it is meant to lead to children, and it is meant to recall, and even reenact, the promise that God makes to us and that we make to one another in the marriage vow—that is, we promise one another fidelity, and God’s Spirit promises a presence that will uphold us in our radical and crazy pledge of lifelong faithfulness. Each of these three ends of sex has a basis in Scripture—that sex unites is hinted at in Genesis 2:23, when Adam says that Eve is “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” The sacramental end of sex is hinted at in Ephesians 5:32, when Paul, having offered a set of guidelines for how husbands and wives should relate to one another, says “This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
At first blush, it seems like something of a non sequitur. But, in fact, it tells us what marriage, and marital sex, is: a small patch of experience that gives us our best glimpse of the radical fidelity and intimacy of God and the church. Finally, procreation is spelled out in Genesis, too, in God’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply.
Sex’s procreative ends help us understand what sex is about. The point is not just that we make babies as a way of propagating the species. Openness to procreation means that sex is hospitable. It is open to the interruption of another – of a child. Without a quality of hospitality, sex can become too inward focused, too two-people-gazing-so-intensely-at-each-other; the openness to procreation is part of what helps sex not become, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, an ingrown toenail. Procreation is not the only way for sex and marriage to be hospitable – it would be absurd, for example, to suggest an infertile couple, or married 70-year-oldsshouldn’t’ have sex because their sex could not be open to procreation. But without the openness to procreation, couples may have to be more, differently intentional about making their marriages hospitable to others.
This returns us to the sacramental – all the Christian sacraments eventually redirect us away from the sacramental moment itself and back to the church and the world. We don’t, for example, get baptized so that we can then just hang around with other baptized folk – we take the grace and transformation we’ve received and share it with the world. We don’t come to the Eucharistic table, receive the Eucharist, and then sit at the table, preening, with other communicants – we take our Eucharistic grace and go back to the world. Similarly, we do not come to marriage simply to hang out with our beloved, but to take whatever grace and transformation marriage may offer us and then offer it back to the world.
TOJ: How do love, sex, and marriage reveal God’s grace?
LW: Contemporary pop culture tells us that sex is always extraordinary – it is always about swinging from the chandeliers, extreme sports goes to the bedroom…and “great sex,” as defined by Cosmo and Maxim, is threatened by ordinary domestic practices; it is threatened by the household by the dishes in the sink, by the kids down the hall.
Christians ought to be critiquing this vision. Household practices are one channel through which Christians come to embody the Christian virtues of mutual care, forgiveness, generosity, community, interdependence, and reconciliation. Our humanity cannot be separated from the sorts of practices that are distinctly human: the moments of joy, anger, friendship, sadness, attention, confusion, tedium, and wonder that unfold over time and in specific places. Human intimacy is hammered out on an anvil made of nothing more than ordinary household practices. Love, sex, and marriage, to be theological, must drink from the very same wells. Love, sex, and marriage, to partake in their transcendent mission of encountering God’s grace, must attune itself and embrace life’s decidedly un-transcendent daily-goings-on.
In a Christian landscape, sex is indeed tremendously important—but not because each and every sex act is an act of emotional intercommunion. To the contrary, what’s important about sex is nurtured when we allow sex to be ordinary. This does not mean that sex will not be meaningful. Its meaning, instead, will partake in the variety of meanings that ordinary life offers. Sex needs to be clumsy. It should at times feel awkward. It should be an act we engage in for comfort. It should also be allowed to hold any number of anxieties—the sorts of anxieties; for instance, we might feel about our child’s progress in school, or our ability to provide sustenance for our family. Sex becomes another way of two people realistically engaging the strengths and foibles of each other.
Sexual intercourse is not only transformed as we allow it to take on the varieties of the commonplace; but the varieties of the commonplace themselves are transformed, as well. We might better understand that human love is forged in, say, time spent cooking together, or in picking up our loved one’s laundry, or in spending time calming our children’s fears. By opening up sexuality to these sources of our existence, we are doing nothing more than opening up sexuality to the sources of human love. Through sexual practice, we come to find each other fallible, and we come to love each other for the way we watch each other create very human lives out of those very fallibilities.
This gets back to the question of community. The sorts of challenges that attend creating community—all of which revolve around the complexities of being responsible to the other—are present in our sexual lives. The stuff of creating community—which we experience as work, as at times more than we can bear, as taking an extraordinary amount of time, and as requiring that we make ourselves present to the other—is the stuff of creating a Christian sexuality. To say that marriage ought not be a personal endeavor is to say more than that Christian marriage is transformed into a communal endeavor by exposing the deep inner workings of our marriages to members of our communities. Instead, we need to expose the deep inner workings of our communities to our marriages; we need to take what we know about being a community and bring it to bear on sex.
April Folkertsma is a writer and social worker who works in Calcutta, India with women and children who are struggling to escape the reach of prostitution.
Lauren Winner was educated at Columbia and Cambridge Universities, and is currently finishing her PhD at Columbia University in American Religious History. She is the author of Girl Meets God and Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post , Book World, Publishers Weekly, Christianity Today, and Christian Century. Lauren also teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband Griff Gatewood. She hopes to resume work on her next book very soon. April Folkertsma is a social worker living in Southern California who also works as a free-lance writer. She is Executive Editor of The Other Journal and has been published in Mars Hill Review. Currently she is writing about loneliness.