We Christians, especially in America, are terrible at having healthy conversations about sexuality and sexual ethics. The landscape of these conversations are ripe with charges, counter-charges, fear, and sweeping judgements, so much so that when I write about sexuality, I need to read all the comments carefully so as to remove the hateful words that inevitably show up, offered in the name of “staying true to the faith” or “holiness” or some other such nonsense, in much the same way that the Pharisees had their rocks in hand, ready to kill, but only after they’d used the woman caught in adultery to catch Jesus in a theological conundrum so that they could condemn him too. He’d have none of it, though, for either the woman or himself. That’s because the gospel is, after all, good news – for the woman caught in adultery, and for literally every other person on the planet, if we’ll but let it be what it actually is.
No other arena of Christian ethics kills the hope of the gospel more than the slaughtering we’ve done of sexual ethics. We invoke church discipline in this arena inconsistently and harshly, in ways that elevate some sins above others. We act as if Christian sexual ethics are easy and absolute, the same everywhere for all time, when the reality is that our ethic is fluid, as seen in dress codes, french kissing, oral sex, the distinction between longing and lust, and o so much more. We sometimes act is if heterosexual sin is less offensive to God than homosexual sin. And worst of all, actions become labels: She’s not a teenager sold into sexual slavery who performs sex acts as a means of providing food for her family; she’s a prostitute. He’s not a man who occasionally fantasizes about sexual experiences with other men – he’s a homosexual. She’s not a woman who loves her husband fiercely, but in one night of drunken weak will, gave up her fidelity at a high school reunion and woke up with regret. She’s an adulterer.
These labels we give each other take all the nuances that are our sexuality and turn them into a label we’re then told to wear, as if this action, or that longing is who we are. This is what flames shame, and hence non-confession, and hence hypocrisy. This makes honest and nuanced conversation about Christian sexuality difficult, even impossible in some circles. As a result, the whole topic’s driven underground. As Jenell Williams Paris writes in her marvelous book, “Reticence to engage the issues in a sustained and civil manner has led – and is still leading – to secrecy, repression, taboo and scandal.” The fruits of this are seen in the secrecy of Christians struggles with sexual ethics and sin, as so many feel there’s no safe place for conversation. Those who feel that way aren’t fabricating their fear. I know it’s real because of the sweeping condemnations invoked in Jesus name from pulpits and print. When I’ve blogged about homosexuality in the past, I’d estimate that there were about 10% of the comments that I refused to approve, because their words were so harsh and damning, even while they would sometimes say them, according to their own view, “in love”.
Your Brain on Porn is a ‘secular’ website that catalogs the damning nature of porn by virtue of what it does, physiologically, to the brain. I’ve pointed several men to this material who’ve thanked me, finding it frankly more helpful than a website quoting Bible verses about sexual purity. The problem with those Bible verses, often, is that folks stuck in porn already know them, but have become stuck in a dopamine addiction that overrides reason and their commitments to holiness. Ironically, many people find that when the subject is de-spiritualized a bit that it’s easier to deal with it and break free. The website includes testimonials from people whose lives were transformed by breaking free. Every pastor should have this website in their toolkit, but so should every friend, and every person.
The Demise of Guys is a book I reviewed earlier, but offer it here again because just as women do, men face unique issues which have conspired to hinder their full functioning. Guys have become more passive, less able to pay attention, less inclined to choose reality over fantasy, and more filled with shame, fear, and insecurity. All of this is the result of the cultural air we breath, including porn, video games, and fantasy leagues. Until guys name this stuff, commit to renewing their minds, and choose life giving ways of using their free time, there’ll be little hope. This book is a wake up call, and can be a first step toward a fuller life for many guys.
Finally, “The End of Sexual Identity” is an important book for anyone looking for an honest conversation about sexuality and Christian ethics. I sense that the author’s shaped by Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” book, which means that she resists easy moralizing and judgmentalism, believing that proof texting, and shooting people with Bible verses isn’t what it means to be Christ followers. For this reason, many conservative won’t like her. On the other hand, she makes a strong case of exalting celibacy and chastity, which will no doubt alienate some liberals who falsely believe that being sexual active is a necessary ingredient for being fully human. There are far too few books on this topic that are nuanced, thoughtful, gracious, and well grounded in both scripture and cultural history. This is one of them, and so even though I doubt anyone will agree with everything she writes, I recommend it without reservation. After all, what’s needed right now aren’t the same old theological sound bytes, delivered up more loudly, or with special scary effects.
What’s needed is a bringing of sexuality into the light so that we can say to one another, “come – let us reason together”. This will help us become more like Jesus, both individually, and collectively.
Happy Reading! Feel free to share other resources that have proven helpful by responding in the comments section.