Monday, November 14, 2011

Sexuality in the Church

We are all heirs to an ancestral estate, and in many cases, we reap the fruit of the misdeeds which our parents and grandparents sowed. An excellent example of this in today’s culture is in the world of sexuality and the manner in which Christians act towards sex and sexuality, a manner which I would maintain is deeply—and in some critical ways dangerously—affected by the actions of the earlier generation.

Since the 1920’s in the USA, with its joys of prosperity, its inheritance from first-wave feminism, and its freedom of physical expression in dress and dance, sexuality in American culture has increasingly become a prominent feature in the public square. This process gained momentum by many factors, including the freedom of the post-WWII era, second-wave feminism, free divorce laws, the expansion of film and television, and the rise of the internet. This is not to say that any or all of these things are evil, or are the source of evil, or that even freedom from sexual repression is bad. (In fact, my argument is that openness to sexuality is a good thing, just not in the form we find it in the secular world.)

The Christian response to this was to shut it out and shut up. The Church assumed that if they simply ignored with enough force they could keep unfettered sexual license out of the Church. If they could abstain from making sexuality in any way public, then they could avoid any misuse of it. (And in this we hear echoes of medieval ideology that sex was only ever to be used for procreation along with Pauline sentiments—accurately understood or not—that sex was for those too weak to control their bodily desires.) So in short, the Church stuck its head in the sand and left it there for the last century or so. And for many in the Church, the head is still in the sand.

But if one pulls their head up and looks around, they will realize that the project was a failure. For one thing, the world did not take any cues from the Church (ignorance, it would seem, is not a strong witness to the truth). Rather the secular world continued on the track it was on and even gained momentum. Massive industries are built upon sexual aberrations and the consumer market runs its advertising on the glorification of hyper-sexuality. And even within the members of the Church we see bad sexuality: the marriage bed is not kept pure, people are sexually abused, and clergy are revealed (like many of their parishioners) to have a serious struggle with and addiction to pornography.

But the issues that arise in the Church because of the head-in-the-sand mentality concerning sexuality go deeper than a failure to fix the problem. The Church has also managed to come with a few problems all its own as a result of this mentality. For one, the Church does not talk about sex. It’s a naughty word and a dangerous topic so the Church leaves it alone. But this kind of a response creates a “baby-and-the-bathwater” scenario. By throwing out the bathwater of bad sexuality the Church has thrown out the baby of good sexuality.

What do I mean by this? Well, let me get at it this way: how many of you had “The Talk” at some point in your late childhood or early adolescence? Most of you had something like that, along with some discussion of the morals of sexuality. But for how many of you did your parents ever again sit you down and talk to you about sex? How about the first time you went on a date? When you brought a girl/guy home for the first time? When you got engaged? Before you got married? The answer I would expect to most of these questions is “no.” The reason is that many of the people I know, like myself, are products of the baby-boomers; as in we were produced and raised by the baby-boomers. And the Christians of the baby-boomer generation tend to be part of the head-in-the-sand group when it comes to sexuality. What this means is that while there is much talk about what bad sexuality is (and if your parents did speak to you frequently, that was likely the content of the discussion) they rarely get around to what good sexuality is.

Now sex is good. I’m married. I know that. And I know it’s a critical aspect of a happy marriage (a truth gained more by going without sex than by having it). And while I had the benefit when I was engaged of having older siblings who were married to tell me about good sexuality, I would not doubt that there are many who did not have the same sort of assurances prior to marriage. Sure, the Christian community winks and nods when you talk about honeymoon plans, but nobody really talks about it—good or bad. There are few people who will look their child in the eye a month before their wedding and say: “sex is weird and awkward, and first-time sex can be painful and emotionally difficult. But it will get better and it will be worth it.” Everyone who’s had sex knows the truth but few people who know the truth seem very willing to share it.

This may not seem like much of a problem to you. You may be thinking: “why open the floodgates of sexuality just to give a couple of starry-eyed young lovers some help that they’ll figure out on their own and get around to realizing. Besides, they’ll be fine—they’re (pardon my language here, but it fits the mentality) ‘young, dumb, and horny’ and their young love will get around any issues. They’ll be fine.” Really? What kind of a mentality is that! That’s like allowing your child to figure out that the stove is hot by letting him stick his hand on it, in the certainty that it will heal! True, the school of hard knocks rarely teaches lessons that are forgotten, but that does not make it the optimal method of education. And yet that is the mentality with which many people approach sex.

This doesn’t just pertain to honeymoon sex; it also pertains to inter-gender friendships, to dating, to engagement, and to anything else that pertains to romantic interest. How many kids come home with a boy or girl who their parents look at and go “no way is that happening,” and two months later that relationship is broken with deep pain and destroyed friendship, and all that trouble could have been avoided if the parent had said before they sent their kid off to college: “look, there’s this mistake I made in college, and I don’t want you to make the same mistake.”

Or how many awkward situations could be avoided in college if a father would sit his son down and say: “look, of the girls you’ll meet in college and spend a lot of time with, there’s something you should know about them: once a month, for a few days, they’ll be physically and emotionally a little touchy. It might seem weird, but it’s normal, and you’ll make your friendships with them so much better if you are simply aware of that and are sensitive to their needs. As in, that’s a bad time to try to start arguments or bring up grievances. And someday, when you’re married, it will make you a great husband.” How many girls out there would appreciate it if freshmen guys had advice like that coming into dorm life? And wouldn’t the inter-gender friendships be so much deeper for it? So why don’t we do it? Because we don’t talk about sex!

There are still messed-up versions of sexuality in the world. They’re all over—I won’t even bother explaining them, as they are so obvious and common. But the Church’s response to this cannot be to simply stick their fingers in their ears, put blinders on their eyes, and close the doors of their Church. Simply apart from the truth that you can’t hide from the effects of the surrounding world, the Church would not be doing its job if it didn’t try to right the wrongs of the world. The Church needs to change what it’s doing. It cannot continue to hang around with its head in the sand on the matter of sexuality. Bad sexuality is all around the Church, and it can’t even manage to talk about good sexuality within itself, let alone to the rest of the world.

I could give a lengthy proposition as a conclusion, with all the right points. But my point is simple. The Church needs to talk about good sexuality. Why? Because it’s part of a right marriage relationship and because otherwise the bad sexuality of the surrounding world will continue to gain a foothold until it cannot be loosed, even in the Church. So again, my point is simple: talk about good sex—with your kids, your mentors, your mentees, your friends. Talk about good sex.

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