dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Dirty Little Word, Part 1

Spiritual Shots™ is a Richmond-based forum for those who are honestly exploring questions about Christianity. The series meets the second Tuesday of every month in the upstairs bar at Bottoms Up Pizza in historic Shockoe Bottom.
As the guest facilitator for February, I was asked to address the question of sex from this particular dimension: Why has the Church turned a beautiful thing into a dirty little word? Here's a manuscripted outline of my talk on February 8th: Part 1.  

 

First things first: an analogy through a question.

Have you noticed how noisy sex is?

[Playful] Of course, I’m talking about all the baggage, all the hype and expectation, the disappointment and regret and pain, the desire placed and misplaced, the pressure to conform to this or that script, the fulfillment or lack thereof, and the confusion and distortion (both inside Christian culture and outside).

In fact, with all the saturating noise about sex, you would think that sex would certainly not be starved for attention. But then there are the GoDaddy.com commercials during the Super Bowl.

To illustrate some of the louder chimes making noise in the cultural winds of sex, here are two hyper-current popular examples -- and with themes you must surely recognize.

 

Film: “No Strings Attached”

Tis the season for Valentine's Day…and romance...and if not for romance…then at least for the Romantic Comedy.

I’m sure there’s more to the film No Strings Attached than the trailer lets on [wink-wink], but here’s what I’m gleaning from the film via the trailer:

1. Sex is what friends who want that added “benefit” do. We can do sex, it is suggested, and still keep the other attachments with the person the way they were before we did the sex. Of course, this is a common refrain; this is not new territory; and this obviously begs the question.

2. Monogamy is anti-biology. A branch of science has made its latest pronouncement; therefore, we should all just loosen our pants and relax a bit. [Please don't misunderstand] I'm not here tonight for some good old-fashioned anti-intellectual railing, but again this narrative begs the question.

3. At the end of the day...sex is such a bedeviling enterprise that it can confuse the wisdom of the two previous points.

 

Music: Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”

Even if the song is a symbolic ode to falling in love, the metaphor of “teenage dream” most surely highlights sex as an absolutely wonderful trip down...fantasy lane.

Also, if you catch the message in between the lyrics [in their entirety], sex is tied to youthfulness and the elusive possibility of living forever, which is yet another trip down...fantasy lane.

Sex is incredibly noisy. And it’s a wonder any of us can hear anything at all.

 

So, why has the Church turned a beautiful thing into a dirty little word?

It’s a loaded, provocative and rather ironic question when put that way.

It’s a question that, if you think about it, seriously implicates the Church (and by extension, Christian culture) in having participated in and exacerbated a process by which a thing of beauty has become something much different -- which is to say: much smaller, much uglier and less human -- than its original design and intention.

There are at least a few probable answers for this. [Here are mine; you might have some more.]

 

1. Because the Church in America has often taken up a policing relationship with the culture it inhabits.

Suffice it to say: How we inhabit the culture we find ourselves in is what makes all the difference.

The Church is implicated on the subject of dirtying sex because we have more often than not decided to don the police cap, put on the badge and wave the baton. We have gone after sex with the enthusiasm of Denzel Washington on a bust in Training Day.

The question here is: What role does the Church play when it comes to sex and sexuality?

[As we think about the question...] It’s probably important to remind ourselves: You don’t find the explicit imagery of policing in the New Testament scriptures. Also, policing is a rather off-putting image.

Also, it’s mostly an exercise in missing the point. It misses the point about how the Church can and should influence and even transform the predominant storylines of sex in the culture it inhabits.

I’m afraid...that in all our time on the police beat we may have communicated false or incomplete or only fearful messages about sex.

 

2. Because the Church in America has often resorted to legislative tactics as over against winning hearts and minds.   

If it’s not policing, it’s legislating.

[Help me with this one.] Do you remember the stories of Jesus…how he would spend the bulk of his days trying to get an appearance before the Roman senate…working tirelessly to get legislation passed that comported with his Jewish worldview…demanding that his views on sexual morality as influenced by the Torah be imposed on the whole of Roman culture.

I think we Christians sometimes suffer from a bad case of theological forgetfulness to think that law or laws can accomplish within a person or within a culture what can only come via a grace-induced renovation of the heart…through a renewal of the mind.

Illustration: Newspaper Op-Ed on Brown v Board of Education

[The columnist wrote] You could legislate that a certain school district had to become integrated, but you could not pass legislation that would keep white families from moving out of the neighborhood.

The question here is: How does social change – in this arena of sexual attitudes and behaviors – primarily happen?

I think it is quite possible to believe in a good, true and right thing…and to believe it so passionately…but to become so morally zealous that you lose the wider plot.

And I’m afraid...this is exactly what some of us in the Church have done to sex: we have lost the wider plot and we have unwittingly damaged sex -- for all the cultural or political wars we are so determined to win.

 

3. Because the Church in America has offered up a very thin counter-story. 

Perhaps this is the most damning indictment of all: our own "sex story" is often very thin.

And then...when our sex story lacks a thorough integrity…and gets combined with a certain obstinate lack of humility…it can become (and has become) extremely un-compelling.

Briefly, there are at least three threads of thinness to our Christian sex story that I’ll toss into the mix...and without much elaboration for now [Again, you can add a thread or two of your own.].

  • First, our continuing Christian cultural discomfort with a subject literally as old as time can make for a thin story.
  • Second, our own desperate failings make for a thin story.
  • Third, our labeling "wrong" what should not be labeled wrong makes for a thin story.

With regard to the first – our cultural discomfort – what can I say? It's a long conversation. Maybe it’s our religious heritage...or our religious temperament.

In James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World, he argues that American Christianity has developed a bunker mentality, and that because of this it has become a “weak culture.” Hunter says: “In spite of numerical strength and reserves of social capital, Christian churches are mainly influential only in the ‘peripheral areas’ of our common cultural life.” How might Hunter's analysis describe part of our thin story on sex? 

With regard to the second – our own sexual failings – it’s a horror show, right? There’s no way around it.

Whether it’s a Catholic priest; or Ted Haggard, the former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals; or conservative political poster-child Bristol Palin; or someone in a Christian community you know – often it’s not the sexual failure so much as the lack of humility that accompanies the failure.

And with regard to the third – our labeling “wrong” what is not wrong – this is a reference to our historical theological past in the Church…to how we’ve pummeled the body as an evil, evil, evil thing...or how we’ve made “the experience of pleasure” the ultimate fall guy. In the language of our times, this wrongful labeling is an Epic Fail.

The question here is: Is the Christian sex story a better story, a more fulfilling story, a healthier story for the social well-being? And if so, why are we having trouble selling it?

I’m afraid...our cultural discomfort, our own failings and our wrongful stigmatizing have done a massive disservice to sex. We have offered up a thin version of what should really be a very compelling story.