The Story is Everything

The Story is Everything February 27, 2012

The Story we tell ourselves, or the Story in which we are living, or the Story in which we want to be living, determines everything. If you tell yourself the Story of Happiness, then everything you do will be determined by whether it makes you happy. If you tell yourself the Story of Naturalism, then everything you see will be judged by its naturalistic contours. If you tell yourself the Story of the gospel, everything can become gospel-shaped.

Including sex.

Therein lies the problem and the mystery. Both of these are addressed in J.R. Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?. How does kingdom of God reshape the story of sex? How does new creation plot sex in its story? Those are Kirk’s questions.

Here we go: What stories are told by our culture? What Story does the Bible tell?

The problems are many: by 18 most teenagers have had sex with at least one partner; sex is often removed from lifelong commitment; divorce is common. So what to do? How does the Bible’s Story fit in our world today? Or, how does our world fit into the Bible’s Story?

Kirk begins the plot where the Bible does: Genesis 1-2. What do we learn? I have enumerated nine themes that emerge from Kirk’s discussion:

1. The point is sexual oneness — and it is God who makes the two into one.
2. The context of sexual oneness is marriage in a new house and a new family.
3. Marriage is permanent, lifelong, and shaped by fidelity.

These are the major points from Genesis 1-2, but Kirk goes on to discover more:

4. The gospel forgives and heals, so the church should be the community that invites the sexually broken into the grace of God’s work in Christ. Broken sexuality can be forgiven and healed.
5. The church needs to begin believing its Story — the 3 points above — is a better story than the problems our culture has created. There is a failure of nerve in the church.

He goes on further into Jesus and into Paul: Mark 12:18-27 and 1 Cor 7.

6. Our sexuality is not central to our identity because both Jesus and Paul teach that marriage is not eternal and that celibacy is good.
7. And, one more: Jesus connects all sexuality to desires, and wants a transformation of desires as well. Matt 5:27-28.

And then he observes two more themes about sexuality in the Bible’s Story:

8. Sexual union images the relationship of Christ to the church, and that relationship images sexual union.
9. The relationship of the man and woman is shaped by Christ’s cross of self-sacrificing love. Here the union becomes cruciform.

I have one criticism, and it is one I commonly see in “biblical discussions” of marriage and sex. Where is Song of Solomon?

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  • Peter

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the author chimed in to respond to your criticism re: Song of Solomon, but part of the response at least should be that this is only secondarily a discussion of sex; primarily it is a discussion of Jesus and Paul and their mutual alignment.

  • scotmcknight

    Peter, but the Bible’s plot is involved.

  • Susan N.

    “5. The church needs to begin believing its Story — the 3 points above — is a better story than the problems our culture has created. There is a failure of nerve in the church.”

    Truer (more prophetic) words have never been spoken, and the scope of the problem goes far beyond the issue of sexual brokenness or purity. “Believing our own Story” is an all-encompassing, ongoing struggle of the Church, at least from where I have sat at various times in my life.

    If our culture “feels” empty and seeks to fill the void through hyper-sexual experiences, which ultimately lead to feeling more empty and used, how is the church embodying and witnessing to a different way (than empty, vain pursuits that leave one feeling used)? Worth asking, imho.

    I like Ch. 10 of ‘One.Life.’ Bono, has spoken of “oneness” in the track ‘One’ from the CD ‘Achtung, Baby’ — “We’re one, but we’re not the same…we get to carry each other, carry each other…”

  • michael bowers

    I certainly do not have any suggestions or insight to offer here. I do however hope that this discussion continues. As a 30 year old who is now engaged and has had sex outside of marriage, I think the church needs to reassess it’s reasoning as to why sex is worth the wait. Too often we use the same talking points to people in their mid-20’s as we do 13 year olds at youth retreats. I certainly do think that sex should only be in the context of marriage, but it seems like there is a greater story to tell than the “God told you so” argument. Keep up the great posting, I can’t tell you how often I reflect on the postings I read here daily.

  • Jeremy

    Regarding sex and sexuality I think the church needs to know which story to believe before we can believe our own story. I know that, personally, I have never experienced as much cognitive dissonance as when I try to reconcile the various sexual ethics within the Church (not to mention my own thoughts and experiences) with Scripture.

  • Worth noting, I think, is the context of healing, oneness, and wholeness. Too often in Christian cultures, the topic of sex is either taboo or steeped in a context of judgment and shame. I appreciate the focus on a better way, rather than the depravity of people living in sin. The point should be leading people toward making good, healthy, Christ-focused decisions, and promoting newness and healing in people who feel broken. The context of this post seems very much in line with this kind of thinking. Very good.

  • Larry

    I think it’s quite a stretch to say that the “point” of the Genesis 1-2 story has anything to do with sex and marriage — any more than the “point” has to do with trees and fruit.

  • scotmcknight

    Larry, I think you’ll need to think of a more charitable reading — Daniel Kirk reads the Bible well, and is not saying that is the one and only point about Gen 1-2, but when it deals with marriage and sexuality, those are the points. Fair enough?

  • John Mc

    What in the world is “cruciform” supposed to mean? Sounds like a poetic/artistic allusion to painful sacrifice and that makes no sense.

    While some might assert that Paul and Jesus both claim that sex is not central to our eternal identity, both of them are direct in stating that a comprehensive peescription formKingdom living on this earth MUST include positive allowances for the sexual aspect of our identities. I would also argue that the Judeo-Christian propensity to use divine seduction as a metaphor for the relationship between God and humanity, as well as the metaphor “Bride of Christ” suggest a core significance for human sexuality which is difficult to deny.

    It seems to me time for the church to undertake a fundamental re-understanding of the term fornication, how we define it in a contemporary context, and what we anticipate are its consequences, in this world and the next. Critical to the new understanding should be the discernment and application of the following terms: love (e.g., love one another as I have loved you), joy, intimacy, desire, passion, generative, mutuality, relationship, honesty, fidelity, and prayer, as well as power, fear, exploitaion, oppression, and abuse.

  • You make a good point, Scot, that I bypassed the Song. Off the cuff, what might that have added to the discussion? Perhaps an affirmation that delighting in the physicality and beauty of our lover is a part of the biblical story of sex as well?

  • Phillip

    #10s question was to Scot, but it got me thinking. So off the cuff, Song of Solomon may add to the discussion not only delight in the physicality and beauty of the lover, but the joy and intimacy in sex, God-given means by which covenantal closeness is created and nutured in marriage. Perhaps the S of S even helps us consider the “earthiness” and creational goodness of the sexual relationship, over against theologies that see it as evil, a necessary evil. Or maybe it works against teachings that primarily emphasize guilt and shame in connection with this topic, which seems to me to then work against the message of the gospel. Perhaps the intimacy of the Song moves us away from dehumanizing relationships that simply about using another to fulfill one’s own lusts and desires.

    Along those lines, I am not a fan of those who use S of S simply to mine it for “biblically approved” techniques or acts.

  • Phillip

    Okay, a quick follow up. When I tried to post a momement ago, I got a message that said my post was “too spammy” and I should rewrite it, which I did. I took out several instances of the word “sex.” It struck me as funny.

  • Tom F.

    Anathema to the spam filter!!!

    It seems to me there is more tension between points 6

    “Our s*xuality is not central to our identity because both Jesus and Paul teach that marriage is not eternal and that celibacy is good.”

    and points 8

    “S*xual union images the relationship of Christ to the church, and that relationship images sexual union.”

    than is realized.

    If s*xual union images a good relationship (i.e., the relationship of Christ to the church), than it itself must be basically good. (It can of course, be pointed at the wrong ends, or done in the wrong way, but it must be, at its core, fundamentally good).

    However, if celibacy is also basically good (it can also be directed at the wrong ends), than you have the odd situation where both a thing and its opposite are considered good.

    Ethically, if someone were to ask, “why have s*x?”, (as only an academic could ask!) than it would be impossible to answer “Because it is a good thing”, since the absence of s*x (celibacy) is also a good thing.

    Of course, context is everything, and I know that. There are many solutions to this problem in the history of the church, and many are good (e.g., celibacy is not merely the absence of sex, but the direction (sublimation) of desire into God’s kingdom purposes and relationships). But I haven’t read anyone who I felt was able to solve this problem without at least cutting a few of the rough edges of the problem off in order to get it to fit into their categories.

    And so the point remains: these solutions are solutions to a real problem. And the solutions often mean reading one part of the biblical story in terms of another (i.e, reading Song of Songs in terms of Jesus/Paul on celibacy). If the problem can not be acknowledged as such, than solutions as solutions become unconscious, and rather than the solution allowing for the problem to be held in creative tension, the solution denigrates into “common sense”, so that up until the 19th and 20th century, everyone in the church just knew that Song of Songs was really about mystical union with God. Even Protestants who recovered the basic goodness of sexuality were stuck in these interpretations of the Song for a very long time. (I am speaking in the early modern period, I am aware that Catholic theologians have come a long way in affirming the basic goodness of s*xuality.)

    Bottom line: Accounts of biblical s*xuality that don’t acknowledge this tension have little chance of doing justice to the whole of the biblical witness on sexuality.

  • #13, I think the tension you speak of is overstated. First off, I don’t think celibacy can so easily be called the “opposite” of s*x. Not doing something is not the opposite of the act itself. It merely implies that you are doing something else instead, which seems to be more Paul’s point concerning s*xual relationships. He stayed celibate because it was better for him to be able to devote more of his energy to his mission.

    Furthermore, the temporal nature of s*xuality does not negate its goodness. It merely shows that there are other things more important.

    A good comparison, I think, is the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus. John came with fasting, while Jesus came eating and drinking. The two had different paths with different results, but both were good. Why must there be so much tension?

  • TJJ

    Point #5 is an interesting one, because it seems to me that there are entire swaths of the Church today that have basically punted and/or given up in that one (and points 1-3), and instead are aopting a message more along the lines of “we don’t expect sexual celebacy outside of marriage anymore and we affirm your sexual practices so long as they are not adulteous or abusive (non-consensual?) or literally paid for. Am I wrong?

  • Jeremy

    @TJJ – That’s basically how I see it. On the flip side of those churches are the more traditional views (i.e. fornication = any expression of sexuality outside marriage). Either way (and I’m coming from a more traditional background here), you have both sides reading into scripture things that aren’t actually said. On the traditional side they seem to appeal to an ideal that is arguably greater than the sum of it’s parts without making much room for cultural context and the like. The liberal side seems to have given up on an ideal at all, unless you consider “love your neighbor as yourself” as the ideal of sexual ethics.

    Both sides seem to appeal to a “spiritual interpretation” (see Scot’s other post on Jonathan Edwards) to some degree, which is where my skepticism of this approach comes in. The same can be said of Narrative Theology, I think. What if I, as a Spirit-filled believer, think the trajectory we’re on is different than the one you, also as a Spirit-filled believer, think we’re on. It seems we can’t really appeal to scripture as scripture is the reason we both believe we’re heading wherever it is we’re heading.

  • Susan N.

    TJJ (#15) – If the Church (or entire swaths of it) were *not* shirking its policing of boundaries in admitting those who struggle with sin(s) to the table of grace, then perhaps no one would be left to run the show!

    The issue is, imho, that if sexual sin has been exposed or willingly confessed, then those judged unworthy tend to be labeled as unfit for fellowship altogether…or at least made to feel so unwelcome and unwanted that they will leave voluntarily. “Sexual sin” has somehow been elevated to so heinous and intolerable a category that it, above all other sins, is viewed by “entire swaths of the Church” as grounds for absolute intolerance and rejection.

    I’m against that, by the way. Jesus had a soft spot for the “rejects” on the margins of society, the “sinners” if you will… Do we look at those whose sins are exposed and say, “Whew! Thank God I’m not a sinner like that.” Or, do we humbly accept our place alongside them, confessing, “Lord have mercy on me, a poor sinner.”

    My husband frequently wonders aloud whether Jesus, if he were to show up in non-descript form today, as he did 2,000 years ago, would be welcomed by “entire swaths of the Church?”

    That question was kind of a litmus test for choosing our current church, actually. If we can ask, “Would Jesus be welcome here,” and answer a reasonably confident, “Yes,” then we knew we were home. Inclusive, centered-set, moving toward Jesus Christ, becoming like him, but not altogether there yet.

  • TJJ

    Susan N #17 – I guess you were responding to my post, but honestly, I do not understand what your resoponse means. Do you agree with my premise as it relates to Kirk’s points as summerized by SMK, or disagree with it?

  • Jeff

    I think the song of solomon point is a good one. In some ways the “church” has neglected this (in many circles). It is vital to a healthy marriage relationship – and sexual joy and union is a glorious thing and a beautiful blessing from God.

    New Creation marriages are to reflect the fidelity and fulfillment of God and his people (Christ and his church). Perhaps this is part of the beauty of Song of Solomon.

    Indeed, one can find “wholeness” in “singleness” – as Jesus & Paul illustrate. Yet, there is a sense of intimate union with another that we all need. Perhaps, since New Creation marriage – in companionship and even sex – reflects the fidelity and oneness and joy of Christ & his people (Eph. 5), the sexual joy in marriage is a reflection of, metaphor for, the ultimate New Creation, in which we joyfully enter into relationship with God as his metaphorical bride and in which God is “all in all” that we might be “filled to all the fulness of God.” I find this powerful imagery. The beauty of sex in marriage (which I’ve experienced imperfectly now for nearly 3 decades) – is the oneness and openness of oneself to the other. Isn’t this what we want & need from God – to be ‘fully known’ and ‘fully loved’ – as Tim Keller notes in his recent book on marriage?

  • Tom F.

    Jake, good thoughts.

    You are right that “opposite” is probably not the best way to think about it.

    Perhaps another example would be helpful. I might ask, is it good for me to get a job, or to not get a job?

    And you might respond, well, it depends. Getting a job is good, but so might not getting a job, since perhaps not getting a job might open up other possibilities.

    Now on the other hand, I might ask, is it good for me to be a person who works, or a person who does no work at all?

    I think you would be much more reluctant to agree that this is ethically neutral, as God seems to have made generativity, or co-creation, or however you want to call it, something that is good for human beings to do and which is something that would be detrimental to human beings not to do.

    I wonder if you are talking about s*xuality likes its a job and I’m talking about s*xuality like it is work.

    I’m asking, is it good for a person to be s*xual, or is good for them not to be s*xual at all?

    I think a strong case can be made that s*xuality is part of the goal (telos) of human beings the same way work is, and I think any number of texts, including in Genesis and the Song of Songs, and even Paul would bear this out.

    I agree that s*xuality does not ground a sense of identity (neither should work or family or nation, according to Jesus), but that doesn’t make these other domains any less necessary for full human identity.

    Perhaps one could say that while only identification with Christ through his body is sufficient for identity, identities in these other domains are necessary to become human as God created us to be.

    So I think while marriage may not make it into the new creation, I think that s*xuality will. I think Paul’s image of the church as bride is particularly suggestive here.

    The tension is in the time between. I think Paul works out how married sexuality images new creation s*xuality just fine, but when it comes to talking about unmarried sexuality, I don’t know what to make of him. He talks about marriage as though it were something of a hinderance, and then uses marriage as the paradigm example of Christ and the church. He is clear that joining oneself to a prostitute is a wrong use of s*xuality, but does not give a very clear positive indication of what s*xuality should be pointed at, other than vague suggestions that our bodies are to be united with God. Better to marry than burn with passion, but overall, Paul could take marriage or leave it.

    If being sexual is part of being human, than celibacy must mean being sexual in a different way than normal, otherwise, we are being called into less humanity, not more. And I think Paul, because he was so busy promoting the gospel, and because he personally thought that Jesus would be coming back very soon (within his lifetime or at least the lifetimes of most current Christians), ended up not developing a very substantial theology of s*xuality as it relates to celibacy. I think that creates some tension with the other places in the Bible that do develop that theology that affirms that s*xuality is something intrinsic to our humanity.