frank talk for Christians about sex, love, marriage, and all the rest (happy Valentine’s Day)

frank talk for Christians about sex, love, marriage, and all the rest (happy Valentine’s Day) February 13, 2015

MKPToday’s post–just in time for the grand Hallmark holiday of them all–is a commentary concerning young Christians and the need to speak about sex, sexuality, love, and marriage in ways that move beyond “fear, ignorance, and moralism,” as our guest blogger Dr. Margaret Kim Peterson puts it.

Peterson is Associate Professor of Theology at Eastern University in Saint Davids, PA. Her Ph.D. is in theology and ethics from Duke University, and she also earned an M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from La Salle University. With Dwight N. Peterson, she is co-author of Are You Waiting for “The One”?: Cultivating Realistic, Positive Expectations for Christian Marriage. Peterson has been at Eastern since 1998.

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This Valentine’s Day I’m remembering a book I reviewed a year ago, at the invitation of Christianity Today: a book called Loveology: God. Love. Marriage. Sex. And the Never-Ending Story of Male and Female that purported to offer “a theology of love, marriage, sex and all the rest.”

I read the book. Parts of it were standard Christian theological observations (the nature of marriage as a God-created context for companionship, sexual relationship and childbearing and childrearing). Parts of it were more culturally trendy (the Song of Songs in the Old Testament presented as a model for courtship in which men pursue and women are pursued).

Parts of it were internally inconsistent (divorce and/or remarriage and homosexuality presented as equally forbidden by scripture, but with room for pastoral exceptions made for divorce and remarriage but not for homosexuality).

Then the book got really weird.

The author (a 30-something megachurch pastor) and his two co-authors (one of them his wife, the other a theologian a generation older than himself) turned their attention to the subject of masturbation.

The author was very worried about lust, and recommended against masturbation on the groundsloveology that it would be difficult if not impossible to masturbate without lust.

His older co-author, in contrast, thought that for “a sex-charged man with an extra high need for release” masturbation (minus any lustful thoughts) might be “better than wet dreams, which are always lustful.”

And the author’s wife, chiming in with the woman’s point of view, opined, “For a woman, there’s no sexual release, so I think for us it’s just lust.”

What exactly was going on here? Was the female co-author suggesting that it is not possible for a woman to masturbate to orgasm, or that a woman’s orgasm does not constitute “sexual release” in the way that a man’s orgasm does? Or was it possible that she was unfamiliar with the very existence of the female orgasm?

Was the male co-author really saying that ejaculation during sleep is necessarily lustful in a way that ejaculation while awake might not be? Was he suggesting that a man who thinks he might have a wet dream would do better to masturbate (in a purely mechanical, dissociated way, without any accompanying fantasy) before bed, so as to lessen the likelihood of nocturnal lust?

I kept reading. The book’s main author offered advice for avoiding lust in pre-marriage romantic relationships. His suggestion: avoid any experience of sexual arousal. “As soon as you get aroused, you need to stop… Better yet, know when you get aroused ahead of time, and avoid it.”

A couple of questions came to mind. Is it really possible to carry on a romantic relationship while having no sexual feelings whatever? If it is possible, how would this be good preparation either for marriage or for more-mature single adulthood? Neither the primary author or either of his co-authors addressed these questions.

I sighed. I wrote the review. I read my final draft to my husband, who burst out laughing. “They’ll never publish that,” he said.

He was right. The editor at Christianity Today was appreciative at first: “Thank you very much. It will go up online; we’ll let you know when.”

Six months went by. Then another note: “Sorry, but we can’t use this.”

I sighed again. Of course no media outlet is required to review any book or to publish any review. But this book, and this decision by a widely-read evangelical magazine to kill a commissioned review of it, have resonance beyond themselves, at least for me.

MKP bookI teach theology at a Christian university, and I have a lot of conversations with young people about “love, marriage, sex and all the rest.” Nearly all of them have been exposed to viewpoints like those represented in this book: that is, to perspectives on sex and sexuality, love and relationships, dating and marriage, that are little more than equal parts of fear, ignorance, and moralism.

And not nearly enough of them have been exposed to anything like a thoughtful, well-informed, non-anxious conversation about any of these topics.

I do what I can with my own students. But I wish it didn’t feel like such a lonely road. I wish there were more sources of good information and useful reflection, and more people and publications willing to call out silliness (or worse) when they see it. The church’s young people deserve so much better, on Valentine’s Day and every day.

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  • Father Aidan Hix

    Dr. Peterson, thank you for your honest and open article addressing a problem within the Christian understanding of sexuality- which is more often a taboo to be kept hidden, not talked about, repressed and suppressed. I grew up in the evangelical, pentecostal world with a strong inheritance from the Holiness movement; and I understand that “lonely road.” Sexual energy is the energy of Creation itself, “Let there be…and God saw that it was good.” The scriptures themselves are certainly not silent on the issue of sex, sexuality, lust, and eros in both its beauty and abuses, such as rape or viewing woman as property to be exploited; but somewhere along the line in church history we’ve turned it into something believed to be ugly and sinful and perverted that needs to be rejected!

    We as Christians need to reclaim the beauty of sexual erotic energy, imagery, and its rightful place in human relationships.

    As Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bouargeault, an Episcopal priest and teacher on christian meditation and contemplative prayer, says,

    “Sexual energy does not mean lust. Rather sexual energy is the highest, most subtle energy human beings can work with while remaining in the flesh…

    Tachyon (hypothetical particle that travels faster than light) binds everything together. It is sexual energy, the energy of the universe. Tachyon courses inside all things. Without it we wouldn’t have religion (Latin religare – “to bind”) because religion means “that which binds together again.”

    Lust is the coarsest, most bound manifestation of this tachyon energy; it is almost always bound up with power.

    The idea is to free sexual energy from being bound so that it is free to move us towards bringing being into higher levels of consciousness.

    We have a shockingly low anthropology of sexuality which calls us to renounce the very force that pulls us into God so that more of the passion of God can course into the universe.

    Our sexual energy is good; we just have lots of bad training….”
    * (Quoted from Cynthia Bourgeault on Conscious Love and Conscious Presence
    2-23 May 2001 St. Philip Anglican Church).

    Perhaps if we also return to practicing the contemplative dimension of the Gospel, we would learn to hold our faith from a deeper place and allow the beauty of sexual energy to reclaim its rightful place in our theology.

    Respectfully,

    Father Aidan Hix, O.S.C.
    Anglican priest
    Order of st. Columba

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      “Our sexual energy is good; we just have lots of bad training….” Love this quote. Yes, it’s all about boundaries–how is sexual energy best expressed (or not) in a given context?

  • JL Schafer

    Has that review been published anywhere? I’d love to see it.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      This blog post is as published as that review is ever going to get 🙂

  • Would it be safe to say that Dr. Peterson does then address the questions she raised in her own book? Intrigued with her proactive suggestions for healthy preservation and preparation. (And did she publish her review somewhere? I’d love to read it, and chuckle along with her husband).

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      Thanks for your kind comment. Yes, we do address these questions in our book (not by way of “answering” them, but as an opening of conversation).

  • If the authors were using Song of Songs as model for courtship, I would think “lust” would be the least of their problems.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      Indeed.

  • Larry S

    Did Jesus ever have a wet dream? Or …… masturbate? That might be an interesting blog topic….

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      The nature of Jesus’ human experience, including his experience of sexuality, is a subject that Christians have wondered about for 2000 years (what does it mean to say that in the Incarnation, God the Son “became like us in all things, sin excepted”?)

  • Stuart Blessman

    I’m guessing CT owns the review if it was commissioned…would love to read it though.

    I tried reading this book a year ago. Few chapters in and was very turned off by it’s typical evangelical type message. There are much better books out there.

    Makes me wonder though if a lot of readers get a sort of sexual charge or energy from reading these types of things. The equivalent of second hand smoke or a contact high…

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      Re: your wondering about how readers experience discussions of sex like the ones in the book reviewed here–I wonder how the authors experience their own discussions. There does seem to be a lot of sexual energy present, but not of a healthy kind. More like exhibitionism/voyeurism; less like healthy relational intimacy.

  • Mary Cipriani-Price

    Great post, I will use it in my sex class at my Christian University. What do you think of Theology of the Body? BTW, I am an alum of Eastern and my son plans to go there next September.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      Theology of the Body–now there’s a long and complex subject :-). Nice to hear of your connection to Eastern. If you are sending your son here, you must have had a good experience. Glad to hear it.

  • Why would a biological imperative (the desire to have sex, or “lust”) be “sinful?” The desire to have sex is no more sinful than the desire to breath.

    The whole guilt trip about “lust” stems from the notion that our bodies themselves are “fallen” or “sinful” and that is predicated on an Adam and Eve myth that is proven untrue by biological evolutionary theory. The Bible simply got it wrong.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      I’m not sure how useful evolutionary theory is when talking about ethics, since ethics is about “oughts” (what ought we to do, what ought we not to do) whereas evolutionary theory is about what is (the fittest did survive, so this is how things currently are).

      That said, sexuality is a dimension of embodied existence, and if as Christians we are going to say that embodiment is good (as the Incarnation would suggest), then sex and sexual energy/desire are goods, too, just like the urge to breathe is good.

      • I think evolutionary theory does speak to ethics/morals.

        • Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. (1996) Harvard University Press.
        • Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. (2006) Princeton University Press.
        • Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (2010) Chicago University Press
        • Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. (2012) Basic Books.

        And Sam Harris addresses the “ought” part.

        “It’s thought that science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value…It’s often thought that there’s no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”

        Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
        TED Talk | 2010
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww

        • Margaret Kim Peterson

          Thanks for the link 🙂

    • Andrew Dowling

      That idea is actually not in the Bible; it’s a quasi -Gnostic revulsion of the physical championed by Augustine and promoted by various churches ever since.As Peter has noted, Jews never interpreted the Adam and Eve story to be the “Fall” . .that’s a later concept of the Patristics.

      • Margaret Kim Peterson

        And yet the question how best to discipline and inhabit our sexual selves is certainly biblical (remember Paul’s endorsement of singleness), and the beginnings of the development of the “celibate ethic” (the idea that vowed virginity is a better way to live the Christian life than is matrimony) predates Augustine. So it is complicated.

      • From the body shame expressed in both creation accounts (Gen. 2:25; 3:7) to Paul’s derision of the physical body (I Cor. 5:5) and Jesus’ appeal to hatred of the physical life (Luke 12:26, John 12:25,) the idea that the physical body is “bad” compared to a supposed Platonic/Gnostic “spirit” seems “Biblical” to me.

        I think the “body shame” expressed in the Bible (and other sources, even natives wear loincloths) stems from the hypersexuality of the human species. We hardly know how to handle it, like a bunch of test pilots trying out hypersonic jets.

        Our human hypersexuality is evidenced in two physical phenomena:

        1. Females in nearly perpetual heat.

        2. Males with the largest penises of comparable species, (both proportionally and actual.)

        But this crazy sexuality drives the creation of civilization. We humans are bowerbirds (who gather blue objects for their nest to attract females, if you watch PBS) x 1000. 🙂

        All the rest of the bowerbirds can’t have one bowerbird getting all the females. Hence all the sexual rules, and sometimes guilt over being a hotdog bowerbird.

        Humans are the Sex Organs of Technology
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8D3NCSVIWUQ

        • […] Paul’s derision of the physical body (I Cor. 5:5) […]

          Someone needs to do a study of sarx. Paul was not a gnostic. He needed a way to talk about corruption of the world which contaminates our being.

  • Maybe, just maybe, men and women need to have something more to live for than just sex. Is the Christian church delivering? Is there something majestic, perhaps as described by Isaiah 58? I doubt it. I see much of the Christian obsession with sex right up there with “false fasting”. It is tithing dill and mint and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Yeah, ‘faithfulness’ means much more than marital fidelity.)

    In Whatever Became of Sin?, psychologist Karl Menninger traces a fascinating obsession with masturbation; it apparently used to be viewed as the source of almost all sin! Crazy stuff. I prefer Dorothy Sayers’ thoughts in her essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins” in The Whimsical Christian:

    I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six. (157)

    Thirdly, there are two main reasons for why people fall into the sin of luxuria. It may be through sheer exuberance of animal spirits, in which case a sharp application of the curb may be all that is needed to bring the body into subjection and remind it of its proper place in the scheme of man’s twofold nature. Or—and this commonly happens in periods of disillusionment like our own, when philosophies are bankrupt and life appears without hope—men and women may turn to lust in sheer boredom and discontent, trying to find in it some stimulus that is not provided by the drab discomfort of their mental and physical surroundings. When that is the case, stern rebukes and restrictions are worse than useless. It is as though one were to endeavor to cure anemia by bleeding; it only reduces further an already impoverished vitality. The mournful and medical aspect of twentieth-century pornography and promiscuity strongly suggests that we have reached one of these periods of spiritual depression where people go to bed because they have nothing better to do. In other words, the regrettable moral laxity of which respectable people complain may have its root cause not in luxuria at all, but in some other of the sins of society, and may automatically begin to cure itself when that root cause is removed. (158–159)

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      Dorothy Sayers is a breath of fresh air on this point. I seem to remember her saying in another place that lust is the least serious of the seven deadly sins, precisely because it is so straightforwardly bodily and so difficult to mistake for virtue; pride is the most serious, because it is so easy to fool yourself into imagining that your pride is some kind of spiritual virtue.

      • Oops, I somehow missed this. I’d have to think for a little while about “least” (I forget if Sayers says it), but I agree with the general thrust of this. IIRC Luther said something about this as well. In the NT, we certainly see that the sexually immoral are most open to Jesus’ grace. And yet, the church in America these days can’t seem to get enough of bashing on sexual immorality. I’d love to read a scholarly treatment (from Christian or secular scholar) on why that might be.

  • Dean

    If conservative Christians really want to get at the root of the sex problem, we should just re-institute arranged marriages for our kids when they turn 13 so that they won’t have to resort to masturbation and can do all the kinky stuff that Mark Driscoll can dream of and have it still qualify as “Christian sex”.

    I don’t read a lot of Christian sex books, not really my genre of choice, but I did read Rob Bell’s Sex God which I enjoyed.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      “Christian sex books”–not my genre of choice, either 🙂

  • Cynthia Jansen

    This certainly doesn’t address most of the issues Kim Peterson was commenting
    on, but I like what Tim Keller says in his commentary of Genesis (What were we put in the world to do? p. 38): “Therefore we come to see the purpose of sexuality. It is a mirror, a
    visible expression of the complete unity that should be happening in the rest
    of the marriage. Another way to put it is that the covenant made is then to be
    regularly renewed [through sexual intercourse].” (Brackets are mine).

  • toddh

    This feels like an unfinished post… it raises great issues that I’d be interested in hearing more about, either via the unpublished review or other blog posts. I grew up hearing some of those same evangelical sentiments toward sex and lust, and now am searching for a better way to frame those issues for my own kids and those I work with.

  • Daniel Fisher

    I don’t follow the claim of inconsistency between divorce/remarriage and homosexuality… Per Jesus’ words on divorce, it is discouraged, and while it can be and perhaps often is sinful , he explicitly provides a stated exception… I do not know of any similar biblical exceptions for approval of certain cases of homosexuality, so I don’t see the claim of inconsistency, unless the intent is to claim the Bible itself is inconsistent on these matters?

    Or was it that the authors of the book overstated and misrepresented Christ’s teaching and claimed that divorce is *always* sinful without exception?

    • Andrew Dowling

      Daniel, again . . you can’t make arguments like this from silence. Jesus quoting Genesis (and really, it’s Mark having Jesus quote Genesis) about marriage says NOTHING about homosexuality. No Jewish scribes were pondering that question circa 30 AD . . it was not on the radar.

      • Daniel Fisher

        I fear you missed my point: i was not following Dr. Peterson’s claim about inconsistency: specifically, she claimed the authors of the Loveology book inconsistent because THEY permit an exception for divorce but not for homosexuality. It is an odd accusation, since the inconsistency she perceives is from the Bible, it wouldn’t seem to be one “invented” by these authors? That is…

        The Bible (Jesus in this case) gives a specific, explicit, and incontrovertible “exception” for when divorce is permissible.

        There are no similar exceptions anywhere in the Bible where homosexual behavior is permitted in specific cases. (Correct me if I am wrong).

        That is objective reality… so point remains, I find it odd to criticize the “Loveology” book for being inconsistent on this topic, when it seems to be simply and accurately reflecting, (in this case at least – I share her concern about other aspects of the book) what is in the Bible… Any inconsistency is on the part of the Bible, not the Loveology book for simply and accurately summarizing what is in the Bible, no?

        • Mark

          Mark was written before Mathew, and it give no exceptions for divorce. Anyone who gets divorced is an adulterer. And I don’t remember any comments by Jesus on homosexuality. Seems he was more concerned about people not staying in committed relationships than he was about which people should be allowed to form committed relationships.

  • Chris Dagostino

    Sounds like the authors are passing on the Gnostic anti-sexuality themes that early figures like Origen propogated. Sadly, it’s to be expected at this point.

  • hoosier_bob

    I haven’t visited here for a while. But this article is spot on.

    I notified my session about a while ago that I didn’t think that I was “heterosexual.” I told them that I felt that sexuality is complex, often fluid, and that notions of heterosexual orientation were less helpful than they may seem. I explained that I had this view with respect to both homosexuality and heterosexuality. I explained that we would do far better of we admitted that sexuality is complex and stopped trying to force people into rigid scripts for masculinity and femininity that had less to do with Paul and more to do with some illogical admixture of gnosticism, Freudianism, and a fetishizing of the 1950s.

    The response was all too predictable. They retrenched into a defensive posture in an effort to defend the standard evangelical view. Eventually, I just wanted to get them to admit that human sexuality is complex. I failed even at that.

    The engagement was eye-opening. We discoursed for several months on a range of topics: gender roles, inerrancy, homosexuality, etc. One theme emerged: Evangelicals don’t like fuzzy boundaries. It’s a world where clarity is a base-level requirement. Nuance, complexity, and the like are of the devil. I had first come to an evangelical church while in college. The fit had always seemed to be a bit uncomfortable, but I could never put my finger on it. This clarified it. Perhaps the mainline world of my youth ran too eagerly after ambiguity and nuance, so much so that I had no clue what Christians even believed. But evangelicals were the opposite. They fled ambiguity and nuance like they were the plague. Evangelicals knew what they believed, so much so that they didn’t even care if it was wrong.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      Gotta love that last sentence. Too true! Yes, the world is complex, and that doesn’t comport well with certain theological styles, which prefer black and white options, even where reality is not black and white.