I’ve recently engaged significantly with 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”, culminating with this review. The title of Butler’s book suggests that it wasn’t aimed so much at being a pastoral book on relationships -though some pastoral advice may have come from it, rather, it was kind of an attempt to offer a theology of sex. My personal view is that it failed significantly in that attempt for the reasons I’ve set out in previous posts.
It’s worth saying though that this probably isn’t the worst book I’ve read on sex and relationships. That award probably goes to an especially cringey book called “Red Hot Monogamy.” The title probably says it all. In fact, the reality is that Christians haven’t been very good at talking about sex. A friend of mine recently commented that we have swung from one extreme to the other, whether progressive or conservative. We’ve gone from talking too little about it to too much.
This raises the question as to whether it is even possible for us to talk about sex without it ended disastrously, especially given the obstacles and challenges I talked about here. I believe that given this is a big and significant ethical and pastoral issue that we should be able to, in fact we need to be able to. So, how do we do that?
Well, in some future articles I’m going to have a go. In this article I want to say a little about the approach. It could be summed up as avoiding the mistakes that recent efforts have made. So, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what those mistakes have been. I would describe them as follows.
First, there has been the anatomisation of sex. This error reflects an approach we are increasingly seeing in theology and epistemology. There is the desire to break something apart, to find the smallest element within it and to analyse and understand it but we attempt to understand the part apart from the whole and this distorts it. We also attempt to understand the whole through the lens of the disconnected part and the result is that not only do we end up with our view of the part distorted but this distorts our view of the whole.
For the record, I don’t think that Butler was the first to do this when it came to sex. I’m not even sure it was the worst. It’s what Christian writers have been at for a long time. This was the problem, in my opinion, with the aforementioned “red hot monogamy.” This is why Christians have struggled to talk about sex. It’s not just about “how much we talk about it.” It’s about how we talk about it and how we place it. There’s a tendency to focus the conversation on sex and so we say something along the lines of “sex is this fantastic and wonderful thing, it’s to be enjoyed and if you can, you should get lots of it” (we want to correct older views that treated sex as dirty, shameful, embarrassing), “however sex is to be enjoyed within the context of marriage.” So then, you get marriage books that are all about “now you can have sex, this is how to get it, to get lots of it and for it to be really great.”
The problem can work out in other ways too. Even the restrained, Christopher Ash subtitled his book, Marriage, “Sex in the service of God.” This seems to lean into the same error in my opinion. Ash wants to challenge romantic concepts of relationships and especially the idea that the issue for Adam in Eden was loneliness. There are perhaps some useful correctives there. Yet, despite Ash’s book being heavily pushed at the time, I found, and the feedback from others was, that it left me a little cold, it felt incredibly functional. Marriage was about sex because sex was about procreation and that was the work that Adam needed Eve’s help with.
Second, there has been the over exaltation of General Revelation. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think General Revelation along with Common Grace is important and that this too might be something we’ve neglected. The desire to look at things around us in our world from trees to birds to skyscrapers and see what they tell us about ourselves, our world and even about God isn’t a bad thing. However, we need to remember that they are finite and they are part of a fallen world. They cannot show us completely, clearly or perfectly.
This also means that whenever we put the focus on the things in General Revelation, then we risk moving into speculation. In fact, the main thing, indeed at its worst, the only thing that will be revealed is something of how our own minds work and about our own priorities. That may not be a bad thing, it may help to highlight some positive things as well as showing up our idolatry.
What we should be doing is, instead of using the thing, in this case, sex as the icon or lens to look through, we should be using Special Revelation, Scripture, as the lens to look through at the thing. Butler’s approach might be represented as follows (where the arrows represent the lenses we look through).
Sex ->(Marriage -sometimes) -> The World around -> (The Bible -sometimes) -> God
Whereas we should have been looking through the lens of Scripture to see what it says about God, creation, new creation and us. From there, we could have seen what this meant for marriage and that would have told us what to do about sex.
So, a theology of sex needs to be a Biblical Theology and it needs to be first and foremost a theology of marriage. In fact, it is only a Biblical Theology of Marriage that we need to construct. We can then talk about sex within that context.