March 31, 2017

The Benedict Sex Option

I’ve nearly finished Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and the second to last and last chapters deal with what he calls the two most powerful forces shaping and driving modern life: sex and technology.  No doubt some will think the whole book is simply a frightened response to the sexual revolution, but Dreher takes a far more sophisticated approach than his non-reading detractors may think.

Dreher quotes Sarah Ruden from her book Paul Among the People.  And here’s what he notes:

Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.  In fact Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time – exploitative of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure.  Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channelling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage – and marital sexuality – with love.

Dreher goes on to quote Ruden herself about Christian marriage which was: “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek”. 

Are Christians simply obsessed with sex? That’s the charge I increasingly hear from the non-Christian frame, and often, unfortunately from a sector within the church, which dismisses all the talk around sexuality from the church as scaremongering or a side dish to the main serving.

No, for as Dreher reminds us, “Christianity is not a disembodied faith, but an incarnational one”.  The new sex of the post-Christian world reverts to the dualism of the ancient paganism, disconnecting flesh and blood from psychological identities.  Dreher notes that the Christian view of sex does not come from Christ or Paul, but from the Bible’s anthropology.

“Rightly ordered sexuality is not at the core of Christianity but…it’s so near to the centre that to lose the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter is to risk losing the fundamental integrity of the faith.”

So sex is not the gospel.  We need to proclaim the gospel.  But as we know when we do, it raises a host of questions that deal with all of the identity issues of our culture, including sex. Why? Because in our culture sex is the gospel. Have you ever seen someone respond to the good news about Jesus who doesn’t realise that this has implications for the other gospels they cling to? Not in my experience.

Perhaps the best person to read on the matter of sexuality in the Scriptures is Perth’s very own William Loader, who works at Murdoch University and as a biblical scholar is regarded as a global expert on the subject of what the Bible teaches about sex.

I have read around his work more than reading it, but it seems to draw the that the Bible is clear when it teaches about sex and that heterosexual marriage between a husband and wife is the only sex the Bible approves of.  Loader’s scholarship is regarded universally as of a high standard.

The bottom line is that  he sees no loophole in Scripture for any other perspective than the traditional one.  He also happens to think the Bible has gotten it wrong and needs to be reassessed in light of current culture and information we have about human sexuality. His view of what the Bible teaches is completely unsullied by a desire for the Bible to be right about this.  That probably makes him the guy worth reading.

For those who believe the Bible does get it right: God came to us as man, Jesus Christ, and redeems us body and soul, and just as Jesus is God’s final word on so many other matters, his incarnation seals what the rest of the Bible says about sex.  We have a high and ordered view about sex because we have a high and ordered view of humanity, confirmed to us by the incarnation.

Now that’s not the same as saying we are always sexually pure, fulfilled or ordered as God’s people.   We are desperately sinful, all sexually broken and in need of grace. It’s just to say that when we follow the Word made flesh, we orient ourselves towards an incarnational view of God that was at odds with the pagan world then and increasingly so once again.

The incarnation shapes us away from a particular view and set of practices around sex and shapes us towards another view and set of practices around sex.  And over time that force became a veritable tsunami of shaping that swept away the pagan culture’s view of sex once and for all.

Well not once and for all, because we’re headed back there. But it was completely out of left field.  Nothing prepared the pagan world for this.  And nothing will raise the hackles of the new pagan world more than push back in this area.

Even sexual consent – the jewel in the pagan sexual crown –  sprang from this Christian incarnational world view and practice.  Kyle Harper in his book: From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity points out that the idea of sexual consent was rare or non-existent in the Greco-Roman world.

Sure there were some sexual boundaries, but these were primarily defined by power and ownership. A slave had zero control over his or her own body, and neither did many women, unless they were in positions of power.  Sexual consent sprang from a Christian framework.  It had no precedent in the pagan world.

It’s interesting therefore just how dangerous and confusing the world of sexual consent is  once again becoming as we move towards a new era of paganism in the West.  I recently read a secular piece in which the author was bemoaning the increasing use of iPhones as recording devices by young people who were hooking up after a night out, a nice little marriage of sex and technology indeed.

Bu not to record themselves having sex. No that would be too obvious.  But rather to record each other’s verbal consent to what they were about to do, just in case things, you know, turned nasty in the morning.

Just in case the next day the consent from the night before is suddenly viewed as nonconsensual and everything ends up in court. The accused can now cross to the smart phone and there it will  be; an electronic get-out-of-jail-for-free card. There’ll be an app for it soon no doubt.  And a pro forma for those who are not good with words.  Mind you, it will only take one smart lawyer to query the slurred speech of an intoxicated young woman reading a script for the merry-go-round to begin again.

That’s the confusion our culture is headed back in to.  A world that values consent, but can no longer define it. And just when it thinks it has, it vanishes maddeningly into the technological ether.

The new paganism is blissfully unaware of the potholes in the road it is headed down. We’re not going to head it off at the pass, and indeed, as Mark Sayers notes in Disappearing Church, the new world we are headed in to may be a beautiful looking apocalypse that makes the Christian perspective look lame and stupid, and indeed a threat to the foolhardy new world of sex unfettered from an incarnation.

Now I haven’t told you what Dreher says are the practical implications for all of this, and the hurdles Christians in the public square are facing, hurdles that seem to get higher the longer the race goes on, but Dreher’s no mere reactionary.  Have a read and see what you think…

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