Beautiful Union?

I recently wrote in response to an article that appeared on The Gospel Coalition website. The article was an extract from Josh Butler’s new book “Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything”  The extract provoked a great deal of controversy, hence the question mark in the title of this review.  Whether or not we think of sex and marriage as beautiful, the overwhelming conclusion seemed to be that Josh had produced something that was anything but beautiful.

I didn’t agree with all of the criticisms but I did find myself substantively disagreeing with Butler.  In response to the criticism, some suggested that it was unfair to critique the book without reading the whole thing.  My response to that objection was that we could only critique and respond to whatever had been put in front of us. The author, his publisher and TGC seemed to think that the extract could stand alone on its own merits, so it was legitimate for us to respond to that.  However, there was still a question in my mind.  First, if the book was so bad (and the extract was pretty awful), then why had others been so willing to favourably endorse it? If, so many people found the extract to be misogynistic, insensitive or even at risk of encouraging to abuse and tone deaf to singleness, then why did at least one person identifying as an abuse survivor and also same sex attracted say that once they’d read the whole thing that they were much happier with it and felt heard by Butler?   Perhaps there is more to the book than the extract? 

So, I want to begin this review by highlighting the more positive aspects of the book.  Butler’s thesis is that sex is something that by its very nature points us towards God and the Gospel. It speaks of how God relates to us.   His argument then is that distortions of marital sex are serious, not only because they are harmful to us but because they distort the image (or “icon” as he refers to it as).  They give us a false image of God and his relationship to us. They point to a false Gospel.  I think that there is something in that point. Butler speaks about how this distortion happens with adultery, sexual immorality and pornography.  At the same time though, he also speaks with clear compassion and sensitivity both to those who have sinned, offering them the hope of Gospel grace and to those who have suffered from the distortive actions of others, with the promise of healing in Christ. 

 However, despite those shards of light and hope in the book, I still found it deeply dissatisfying and even disturbing as a whole, so why is that?  Well, I think it comes back to the issues that we raised with the extracts.  Why were those extracts so problematic?  Well, it’s because TGC hadn’t just offered us a little taster by giving us any old extract from the book. Rather, they had set us up with the underlying thesis of the book, that shaped everything else.  The result is that as he unpacks his theology of sex, relationships and the Gospel, Butler has two options. He can either stick consistently with his thesis or he can depart from it. The result is that he is either consistently wrong or he says things that may be true and helpful but feel inconsistent with the rest of the book and even jar. 

To help explain that, let me remind you of what that thesis was and the issues we identified with that.  Butler’s thesis is that sex acts like an icon.  He says that it is “iconic” but he is also using the word “icon” in a technical sense.  He is thinking in terms of how icons are used in some religious contexts (e.g. Eastern Orthodoxy).  He writes:

Historically, icons were not meant to be looked at, so much as to be looked through. They pointed to something beyond themselves.[1]

Icons, then are symbolic images, they are not meant to literally represent the thing they portray but use the symbols to highlight things about it.  So, Butler argues that sex acts as an icon.  We are not meant to just enjoy sex for itself and nor are we meant to see sex as the ultimate goal, our salvation, the thing that will rescue us from loneliness. 

Sex wasn’t designed to be your salvation but to point you to the One who is.[2]

Butler argues then that sex, specifically the act of sex is designed to point us to the Gospel.  He argues that in sexual union, the husband goes into his wife, he initiates sexual intercourse and she receives what he gives to her. Sexual intercourse then brings about new life.  In the same way, he argues, it is Christ as the husband of the church who initiates a covenant relationship, who brings salvation and through the Gospel brings new life. 

This is the thesis that not only finds its way into the introduction and first chapter but threads its way through the whole book.  Now, a lot of controversy was around whether or not Butler’s language as summed up above was helpful or appropriate.  A lot of people felt that it placed the woman as passive and helpless and suggested that she should always consent to sex.  There was also a lot of pushback in terms of whether this was even a factual description of sex.

 Whilst Butler’s language does talk about active and passive partners, I don’t think that his intent was to suggest that women were helpless or to disempower them in the bedroom.  As I have explained previously, being the recipient does not make you helpless. I don’t even think it necessarily makes you passive although Butler does talk in those terms. Whether or not his portrayal of how sex functions is factually accurate is perhaps also up for debate.

A lot of commentary has suggested that the language Butler uses is itself is cringey, crude and tasteless.  At times I certainly did find that he pushed the borders of taste.  However, for me, this wasn’t the major issue and I was less concerned about it than others.  As I’ve commented elsewhere, the Bible itself uses explicit language. However, I would question the pastoral wisdom of Butler’s language choices. As I said above, I do think he is pastorally sensitive and that comes across in other places but this is compromised by language which seems careless as to its impact on those whose experience of sex and relationships has not only been unpleasant but harmful and abusive.

Additionally, I would comment that the book comes undeniably from the perspective of a married man with children.  Whilst I do not think, in fact, because I think, that you have to be married to understand the good of sex and whilst we will always write from our own perspective, I wonder whether he could have made a better effort to step into the shoes of people seeing this from a different perspective.  For example, what impact would the voice of a single woman have on our understanding of the subject?

My big problem though, was (and after reading the book remains), that Butler does something which I would argue acts to brutalise sex and rob it of its beauty. He anatomises it. He takes it and isolates it from its context.  This happens overtly when he mistakenly treats “one flesh” as synonymous with the act of sexual intercourse, rather than as Scripture uses the term to point to the single new identity that husband and wife share together in marriage. 

The result is that he attempts to shoehorn an explicit focus on sexual intercourse into Bible teaching where it is not intended or helpful. For example, yes, when Scripture talks about God putting his seed in us, the word “seed” is the same as “semen” but does that mean we are meant to think about sex at that point?  No. Apart from anything, this  shows a failure to understand how language works and I suspect that this is in itself one of the reasons why he comes across so awfully badly.

However, we can also see how the inconsistency happens.  Butler sets out to write a book which is a theology of sex and show us how sex explains everything. Yet, sex is not the explanation of everything and so a book that focused in solely on what we can learn from it would be very short.  It might make for an essay in cultural studies of the type Theology Students are asked to write but that’s about it.

It’s not the act of sexual intercourse, on its own in isolation that is meant to reflect God’s relationship to us and point us back to the Gospel. It’s the whole marriage relationship itself.  So guess what? To actually pad things out and make a book, Butler has to talk about all the other about family and relationships including having children and adoption.  One of the best points he makes in the book is this:

“Marriage is a workshop in spiritual formation. God can use it to bring your imperfections to the surface and hammer them out, to form you into the image of Christ.”[3]

Now, this is a useful correction to the suggestion that marriage is the solution to our desires and needs that we keep seeing made from certain quarters.  I would also note that some might hear this as “marriage is the only workshop.”  I don’t think he intends this and so it’s important to be clear that singleness, widowhood etc may also be such workshops. However, the point I want to pick up on here is that it is “marriage” and not “sex” that offers the workshop.  Not only that but it is not even through sex that the workshop offers the opportunity to work those things through.  You see, Butler goes on to observe that:

“Making love means something different today than it used to. The phrase has become a euphemism for sex, but originally it meant the opposite: creating the conditions for affection to grow without resorting to sex.”[4]

His point Is that:

“Sometimes you gotta do the actions of love for the feelings and desire to follow.”[5]

Yet, unintentionally, he’s also made the point that it is not sex that explains everything.  His claim here acts as a corrective and so jars with his underlying thesis.

There are a couple of other related problems with the book.  First, chapter 12 attempts to set out a Trinitarian perspective on sex.  The best I can say is that the chapter is just plain weird.  I’m not even sure where to start with untangling the mess in that one.  Second, the issue is that not only does he see sex as one example of things that point to the Gospel but as the title says, he sees it as explaining everything.

So, in chapter 2, he uses a whole load of imagery around ying and yang, sky and sea, day and night etc  to talk about creation having touching points where opposites meet, whereheaven meets earth.  He presents these touching points as sacred space.

“We’re drawn to these intersections. The mingling of their material elements is a mutually formative marriage: They shape one another and evoke wonder. The convergence of land and sea, like the union of man and woman, has the power to both form beauty and generate life. It is at these “edges” where two different systems touch that the productivity and diversity of life are massively higher. We are right to congregate around the cathedral of their splendor, for they are holy spaces with a powerful allure. They are, as Kreeft puts it, where the action is.”[6]

About sunsets he says:

The colors of their union explode through the atmosphere. I’ve come to think of this radiant explosion as something like an orgasm across the sky, an expression of holy delight emerging from diversity-in-union. [7]

He is arguing that “sex is given by God, as a sacred window into the structure of creation.” [8]  This highlights the problem with arguing that we are meant to look through  it to see and make sense of God and everything.  This is the problem with his underlying theological dependence on iconography. I believe that God uses General Revelation, he uses the world around us to show us things.  I also believe in the helpfulness of “means of grace” -specifically communion and baptism which give us visible, touchable, edible, actable aids.  I am also a firm believer in the use of spiritual gifts such as prophecy.  However,  what Butler does here is to drive a coach and horses through Special Revelation, through Scripture as the means by which see the world around us, we come to the Gospel and see God. 

All of this means that whilst there may be some helpful bits in the book, they only come because Butler is inconsistent. He has come up with a clever but faulty thesis in order to produce a work of original theological thought.  However, when he actually has to be a pastor, he has to lay aside his clever theology and pick up the proper tools of pastoring.

Dare I say it, here we discover the big problem and the major problem I have with a lot of what passes as theological engagement today.  It’s either about being academic, intellectual and conservative with traditions or its about being edgy, original and clever. Theologians are meant to be doctors of the church. They are meant to serve the church and so, theology should be Biblical, glorifying to God and useful. If you have to set aside your theology when you come to pastor people, then there’s something badly wrong with your theology.  Remember “what we believe affects how we live.”

Sadly, this book may have started with lofty and worthy intentions but it has crashed and burned.  I cannot commend it.  I am bewildered as to how it got published at all.

[1] (Introduction)

[2] Butler, Beautiful Union, 4.

[3] Butler, Beautiful Union, 52

[4] Butler, Beautiful Union, 52.

[5] Butler, Beautiful Union, 53

[6] Butler, Beautiful Union, 24.

[7] Butler, Beautiful Union, 24.

[8] Butler, Beautiful Union, 24.

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