Our world thinks it understands sex. It doesn't. Moreover it is beginning to ignore and even disdain how Christianity views sexuality.
We are paying a price for this, mostly without consciously realizing it: Sex, outside of its proper containers – respect, unconditional commitment and love – isn't bringing more joy into our lives, but is leaving us more fragmented and lonely.
Part of what's happening to us is expressed in a haunting line in Leonard Cohen's song, Famous Blue Raincoat, where a man reminds a friend of the consequences of his having had sex with a woman to whom he was not committed: "And you treated some woman to a flake of your life; and when she went home she was nobody's wife." Casual sex: A flake of our lives. Frivolously given away.
There's a lot of sex in culture, but it isn't taking a lot of people home, home to that place where they feel fully respected, unconditionally safe, able to be themselves comfortable and confident that the joy of their love-making is making their hearts bigger, softer, more gracious, more joyous.
With this as a background, I would like to recommend a book, Sex God, by Rob Bell. He is pastor of a Christian church in Michigan and does something in this book that has been often tried, but rarely done well. What he does is take seriously the raw power, brute earthiness and befuddling complexity of sex and set that into an anthropological, biblical and Christian perspective that properly honours both the earthiness and the holiness of sex.
Unlike many Christian commentators, he accepts, without denial, denigration or pious encrustment, our sexual complexity. Unlike most secular commentators who do accept the full impact of our sexual complexity but then lose sight of its deeper meaning, he marries the earthiness and the holiness of sex into a perspective that is both earthy and holy.
Here are some examples of his insights:
For too many of us, sex is a search for something we're missing, a restless quest for an unconditional embrace; so we go from relationship to relationship, looking for this.
But, as Bell suggests: Sex is not the search for something that's missing. It's the expression of something that's been found. It's designed to be the overflow, the culmination of something that a man and a woman have found in each other. It's a celebration of this living, breathing thing that's happening between the two of them.
In Bell's view, sex inside of its proper containers (unconditional commitment, respect, love) is designed to counter the brokenness of our lives and the fragmentation of our world. The "oneness" experienced in sexual embrace is meant to help bring "oneness" into the world: This man and this woman who have given themselves to each other are supposed to give the world a glimpse of hope, a display of what God is like, a bit of echad (oneness) on earth.
Is that where the phrase "making love" comes from? An awareness that something mystical happens in sex, that something good and needed is created? Something is added to the world, given to the world. This man and this woman together are in some profoundly mysterious way good for the well-being of the whole world.
Bell is clear on the holiness of sex and how that in fact undergirds its unrelenting grip: In heaven we will be fully known . . . which is what people crave in sex, isn't it? To be known and still loved, still embraced, still accepted. Is sex in its greatest, purest, most joyful and honest expression a glimpse of forever?
Moreover, he isn't starry-eyed and naïve about what the grip of sex can do to us and how it can leave stains of regret on both our innocence and our baptismal robes. He assures us that God knew how powerful sex was going to be and so built in space for some misadventures.
He finishes the book with a story of a dream marriage of an idealistic couple who, a few years later, break up: I finish with this story because life is messy. Gut wrenching. Risky. Things don't always turn out well. Sometimes they don't turn out at all.
Sometimes everything falls apart and we wonder if there's any point to any of it. We're tempted to shut ourselves off, fortify the walls of our hearts and forge ahead, promising ourselves that we will never open ourselves up like this again. But we have to believe we can recover from anything. I have to believe that God can put anything – anyone – back together. I have to believe that the God Jesus invites us to trust is as good as he says he is. Loving, forgiving, merciful, full of grace.
The problem with sex is that the churches don't take passion seriously enough, while the world doesn't take chastity seriously enough. Healthy sex is predicated on the vibrancy of both, passion and chastity, earthiness and holiness. Rob Bell's book honours that.