sex

When a Theology of Sexuality Became Too Sexy

31 March 2023

9.2 MINS

“Sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory in between.”

    – Roger Scruton

“Sex is in its pleasure, its joy, its “well being”—the image throughout the Old Testament of the beatific vision—the nearest we come to God.”

  – Dorothy Day

The Sexual Revolution

Being near the end of my seventh decade, I am a child of the decade which produced the Sexual Revolution. Those being my teenage years I also recall vividly the enormous tensions this produced. On one side of the generational divide, you had a generally conservative attitude in relation to speaking publicly about sex. It just wasn’t done. And this was even more so in the church, which at the time often laboured under the general error of “flesh = bad, spirit = good”.

On the other side, there was a sudden explosion, and open acceptance by the younger generations, of liberalisation of attitudes towards not just discussing it but experiencing it. The number of couples living in de facto relationships also began to increase at that time.

In popular culture, it came through the lyrics of our music. For example, Crosby, Stills and Nash openly declared that “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”. And Joni Mitchell sang about her relationship with her partner, “we don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall keeping us tied and true”. They and others were products of “The Summer of Love” in 1967 in San Francisco, which was itself the product of a slow ferment through the post-war generations. And this culminated in “Woodstock” in 1969 before the Hippie Utopia expired.

I also recall a few years later driving to the beach with my girlfriend (now my wife of 46 years) the morning of the launch of the ABC youth FM station, 2JJJ, which leapt out of the blocks with the Skyhooks song, “You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good in Bed”.

And from Hollywood the explosion was even more explicit, with full frontal nudity and casual sex all of a sudden being portrayed as normal and in fact preferable to chastity.

As a teenager, these conflicting expectations were challenging, to say the least.

Response from the Church

As for the churches, there were those who held fast to the rigid conservatism of the time. I recall reading a book a few years ago by evangelists John and Paula Sandford, where he noted that his grandmother once boasted that her husband had never seen her naked. And there was no shortage of those who even claimed that sex within marriage was only for the purpose of having children.

But there were those who lifted their heads above the parapets and began to engage with that generation, to try and come up with a Christian response that was more proactive and at the same time honouring God’s purpose, and we started to regain insight into what Scripture actually has to tell us about sex. And primarily, that it was meant for pleasure within marriage and not just for procreation.

This was a step in the right direction. As a consequence, we’re now able to discuss it in a far more open and healthy fashion, free from the prudish guilt of the past, both within our Christian communities and to the world around us. And I think we’ve made great gains, although we always seem to be one step behind being able to speak positively regarding whatever is the current focal point of any debate on sexuality. And there are those who are still prone to resorting to nothing more than an uncomprehending howl of moral outrage. But that only serves to disengage instead of lovingly confront with a positive alternative.

To this end we’ve never been able to shrug off the “straw man” image that most non-Christians have of us as black-robed people horrified at the notion of experiencing pleasure of any kind. Or if we do, we’d never admit to it.

And that’s one straw man I would love to see removed.

So why the history lesson?

Joshua Butler

Beautiful Union

Earlier this month there was an article published by The Gospel Coalition written by Joshua Ryan Butler, a pastor in Arizona and a fellow at the new Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. The article was an excerpt from his forthcoming book “Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort Of) Explains Everything”.

The article comprises the first three pages of the opening chapter of the book, titled “Sex as Salvation”, where he contrasted the kind of idolisation of sex he experienced in his formative years with how he understands it as a Christian. He identifies:

“… a crucial corrective in the gospel that can lead us out into true freedom… Sex wasn’t designed to be your salvation but to point you to the One who is. Sex is an icon of Christ and the church.”

In response, as Kevin DeYoung, a member of The Gospel Coalition’s Council, describes in an article at the Evangelical magazine, “World”, the article:

“… immediately drew curious eyebrows and strong criticism for its sexualized description of the relationship between Christ and the church, and for its description of the sexual relationship between husband and wife.”

In response to mounting criticism, TGC made the entire chapter available in order to provide more context for the controversial remarks. But the digital wildfire was already out of control. In the end, Butler resigned as a fellow, he was removed from speaking at TGC’s national conference, and the online cohort based on his book was canceled. On March 5, TGC pulled the article and the chapter off the website and issued an apology, asking for forgiveness and expressing a desire to listen and learn from its critics.

Reading this article, where DeYoung, in trying his best to be supportive of Butler, only succeeded in damning him with faint praise. This made me curious. And then someone sent the excerpt to me, along with another article in a similar vein.

DeYoung described the language of the excerpt as “lurid and specifically sexual instead of generally typological”, while Denny Burk in his article summed it up as being “salacious”. DeYoung also said that Butler

“took a misstep in combining spiritual language and sexual language to talk about marital intimacy between husband and wife. To be sure, there is a time for spiritual language and a time for explicitly sexual language. There is also a time to put the languages together, but very carefully”.

In both instances I wonder whether these men have ever fully understood how explicitly sexual the language employed by Solomon is in Song of Songs.

But be that as it may, I have to say that when I read the excerpt from Butler’s book I was literally rejoicing in almost every paragraph. Here he was illuminating thoughts I had been trying to unravel for years about the deep parallel between marital intimacy and the intense passion of God’s love for us.

And I believe Butler has given honour to the combining of the spiritual with the sexual in marriage. In fact, I cannot imagine a better explanation of the ineffable transcendence that is the closest we get to comprehending the passion of God’s desire for us. After all, sex is God’s idea and design!

An article at “Premier Christianity” commenting on the TGC controversy conveys this very well:

“If we find ourselves getting a little uncomfortable with these analogies then we might need to recover a high view of sex within marriage. By ‘cancelling’ Butler and pouring scorn on his work we learn more about our distorted view of sex than the truth of his writing. Have we absorbed such a fallen and distorted view of intercourse from our culture that we have an impoverished vision of the intimacy God calls us to?”

In passing, the issue of Butler being cancelled deserves mention. The actions against Butler, with the kind of lynch mob mentality spawned by social media, and what DeYoung described as the “out of control… digital wildfire”, is indistinguishable from so many incidences of “cancel culture” witnessed in recent years. Yet here are Christians doing exactly the same thing! We hold in contempt those on the Left for “drinking the Woke Kool-Aid”, yet many of us are guilty of sneaking a surreptitious sip ourselves when it suits.

Vigilance against “the spirit of the age” was never more necessary!

But in all of this, possibly the greatest irony is that Butler lost his position at The Gospel Coalition’s new Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, named in honour of pastor Tim Keller. You see, Keller himself has an online article, “The Gospel and Sex”, culled from conferences in 2004 and 2005. In the section headed, “Sex is a Sacrament” he has a subsection titled “Sex Delights: The Dance of Sex”, where he notes that:

“…sex is sacred because it is the analogy of the joyous self-giving and pleasure of love within the life of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in a relationship of glorious devotion to each other, pouring love and joy into one another continually (cf. John 1:18; 17:5, 21, 24-25). Sex between a man and a woman points to the love between the Father and the Son, as well as that between Christ and the believer (1 Cor. 11:3).”

If Butler is judged to be “lurid” and “salacious”, then by that same logic Keller is equally so!

All of this brings me to the point, and to why I started with the “Sexual Revolution” in the ‘60’s.

Lessons for the Church

To me the kind of prurience shown by those who objected to Butler’s article is a reversion back towards the dark days when any mention of sex was taboo. I’m not saying it gets there, but it is a step in the wrong direction, and at the worst possible time for our culture.

Why is that?

Because we are now living through an age where all the boundaries in relation to sex and sexuality have been obliterated. In fact they’ve been turned inside out and upside down, especially in the past few years in relation to the transgender movement. In relation to this, Douglas Murray, in his book, “The Madness of Crowds” repeatedly uses the word “derangement”. We’re certainly living in the most sexually permissive age in history.

And whatever you think of Butler’s writing, I believe he is pointing in the right direction in the process of being able to express a theology of sexuality which can act as a corrective to the secular free-for-all. This can only be achieved by an expression of the true purpose of sex. It truly is the ultimate, most fulfilling, expression of a unique and pleasurable mutual intimacy as God designed it within the protective confines of marriage. This is what Solomon describes in Song of Songs 4:12 as a “locked garden” and a “sealed fountain”.

This then needs to be a component part of the whole theology expressed by our Christian worldview, to a world which, by settling for worldly solutions, settles for the inferior, not just in relation to sex, but in every aspect of life.

This, for me, is in line with what the apostle Peter teaches us in his first letter. He informs us of our own elevation, that we are “…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…”. By the authority of this office our calling is to “… proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9 NASB).

So, when an issue arises where we are questioned about our faith, because we are encouraged to always be “ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 NASB), we have the opportunity to shine that “marvellous light” on whatever issue is raised. This applies as much to a defence of the Biblical perspective on sex and sexuality as it does to any other issue.

This brings me back to that straw man figure I mentioned.

One of the most influential teachers in my Christian life has been the prophetic teacher Graham Cooke, who I recall hearing many times referring to the need for us as Christians in the world to “operate in the opposite spirit”. In other words, to act in response to those we know and meet in a way that challenges their inherent prejudices.

My strongest impression from that has always been of Christians in the world as bowlers in a cricket match, with the batsman seeing us as a bowler who poses little threat, as they imagine they can easily dispatch every ball bowled to the boundary. This is because non-Christians all carry around in their heads a straw man image of what a Christian is like, which gives them confidence that our arguments are easily and rationally dismissed.

But as we operate in the opposite spirit, we have the ability to shock them with a sharply rising delivery off a full length. This forces them to make a hurried defensive shot, and thus make them start to think, and to concentrate more on what we have to say.

And in relation to our theology of sex, in this hyper-sexualised age where nothing is hidden and all shock value has been wrung from every expression of sex and sexuality, now is the time to shock those we meet, to whom we offer our “ready defence”. And we do so by being able to both speak freely, even explicitly when called for, yet soberly, about sex (it goes without saying, of course, that we never resort to the kind of crudities which are so common in normal conversation these days).

By this means we present the Christian view of sex as the excellent and superior “icon” (Butler) and “sacrament” (Keller) that God designed it to be, and how we best explain the transcendence of intimacy far beyond the physical stimulus which, when made the focus, can never fully satisfy. Because God intended it to reflect the other centred focus of His love. The transcendence is in the giving, not the getting.

Beautiful Union” will be available in April. I for one am looking forward to reading the book in its entirety.

___

Photo by Joshua Butler.

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8 Comments

  1. Warwick Marsh 1 April 2023 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    Excellent article on a very important and neglected subject.

    The two most important questions we can ask a person today in our fallen and sex obsessed world today.

    1. What will you do with Christ and his free gift of salvation. Will you accept him as your Lord and Saviour?
    2. What will you do with God’s gift of sex. Will you accept that sex is a sacred and glorious gift reserved for marriage between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. So, help me God!

    The answer to these two questions will decide your eternal destiny, your own destiny and your family’s destiny as well.

    When we worship & commodify sex, we commodify women. When we commodify women, we Commodify LIFE. When we commodify LIFE we do violence to LIFE.

    When we commodify LIFE, we kill God and we destroy gender, family and ultimately ourselves.

    God created sex the devil did not. The devil only destroys it! God redeems it!

    If you first want to understand the mystery of Christ and the church you have to understand the beauty of sex within the marriage covenant.

    The bible begins with a marriage ceremony in the Garden of Eden and finishes with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in the last few chapters of Revelation..

    “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”
    Revelation 21:1,2.

    “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life… He who is the faithful witness to all these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon!”…
    Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
    Revelation 20:17-20

    The book by Anglican priest Mike Mason called the “Mystery of Marriage” is the most profound book on marriage & sex I have EVER read.

    Pope Johns Theology of the body is also exquisite in its understanding. Joshua Ryan Butler would be in good company with these two men.

    1. https://www.cmf.org.uk/resources/publications/content/?context=article&id=1864

    2. https://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Marriage-20th-Anniversary-Meditations/dp/1590523741

    3. https://catholiceducation.org/resources/five-key-features-of-the-theology-of-the-body

    4. https://theologyofthebody.net/

    • Kim Beazley 3 April 2023 at 11:32 am - Reply

      Thanks, Warwick. You’ve added a few great tangents to the article. In fact, it’s almost another article itself. And those links really add to our understanding of this issue.

  2. Kaylene Emery 1 April 2023 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    Lots of food for thought in this article Kim and I enjoyed it enough to read it a second time.
    Thank you for your work.

    • Kim Beazley 2 April 2023 at 4:16 am - Reply

      Thanks, Kaylene.

  3. Jim Twelves 3 April 2023 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    Kim, thank you for your post.

  4. Jim Twelves 3 April 2023 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Dear Kim, for days I have been trying to send this comment but I must have gotten a bug in my computer. If this posts, my bug must have been cleansed!
    Thank you for your forensic work. I read your piece with interest, I confess only once. Some reflections:
    I got the impression that your definition of sex is ‘fun and procreation’. And that you were taking issue with the belittling of the ‘fun’ part by the church. Well to me sex is a picture of Christ’s selfless love for His Church. The highest demonstration of self-sacrifice a husband and wife can know. So for me my definition might be, ‘the demonstration of self-less love, fun and procreation to bring new life into such a loving nest’.
    For me the greatest challenge regarding sex today is the gender bender ideology and that young people are being encouraged to ‘change’ if they want to. To me this is, by default, belittling sex in a devastating way, relegating it to ‘biology, that can be conducted, ideally, in a laboratory, using high technology’.
    For me, the world today is getting more and more prudish with regards to sex, under the influence of Islam, quite ironic! If we look at the Arab world becoming more ‘orthodox’ in the last three or four decades. and now this influence spreading to western cities with the spread of Islamic migration. I think of the work of Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her 2021 book Prey, in this regard.
    Kim, thank you for raising this topic to our attention when so much of our energy is directed to less pleasant contemplation.

    • Kim Beazley 4 April 2023 at 7:56 am - Reply

      Thanks, Jim. I don’t know that it’s a bug. The comment moderation has been a bit variable recently. Not to worry, they get posted eventually.

      I’m not sure that “fun” was the idea I was trying to portray. I would hope that’s hardly necessary. I think what I was really trying to highlight (and it truly is a challenge to describe what I could have called “the intangible ineffable” quality of marital intimacy) is where I wrote that “the true purpose of sex…is the ultimate, most fulfilling, expression of a unique and pleasurable mutual intimacy as God designed it within the protective confines of marriage”.

      So in relation to the article, where I worked very hard to stick to the ideas Butler was expressing in the section which brought him to grief, fun is just a minor, even an incidental, aspect.

      So, as far as “taking issue with the belittling of the ‘fun’ part by the church”, only that part of the church which found the very mention of sex, and the descriptions Butler used, “salacious” and “lurid”.

      So I fully concur with your definition: “sex is a picture of Christ’s selfless love for His Church. The highest demonstration of self-sacrifice a husband and wife can know. ”

      Butler, in his comparison with the nature of the Father’s desire for us, as well as Keller’s comparison with the love within the Trinity, convey that very thing.

      In relation to your reference to gender bender ideology”, that was one of the issues I had in mind when I referred to “a world which, by settling for worldly solutions, settles for the inferior”. As do the two verses from 1 Peter, and the way we “operate in the opposite spirit”, not to (as the world expects) tell those trapped within that ideology how bad and corrupt they are, but to find a way to express to them the far more satisfying and authenticating way that sex within the protective confines of marriage between a man and a woman is.

      And as Keller’s article has a great section on the joy that being single can provide, and Butler’s book I’m sure has a section on the same, then it’s still possible to include something in out theology of sex that deals with celibacy.

      Finally, your reference to Islam is an interesting tangent. I haven’t read Hirsi Ali’s book, though my wife and I have both read her earlier book, “Infidel”.

      So thanks again, Jim. Yours is a singular (and up to now single) example of the kind of engagement I was hoping for.

  5. Jim Twelves 4 April 2023 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Kim, thank you very much, for your reply.
    I do most strongly encourage you to dig out Ayaan’s book Prey. I think she write very well and she is meticulous with her research on this one.

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