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20111011-sex-religion-hangupsIn case you haven’t noticed, Christianity becomes exceedingly awkward around the subject of sex. For much of its history, the subject was taboo, to be avoided whenever possible. There was even a vague sense that the purest people shouldn’t have sex at all (see priests, nuns, monks, and the Blessed Virgin Mary). This doesn’t sell well in a consumer-driven culture, so today Christianity is trying to get in on the action, so to speak, and the results are alternately suffocating and cringeworthy. Church leaders vacillate between obsessing over the myriad ways you shouldn’t have sex and humblebragging about how “smokin’ hot” their wives are and how awesome sex is when you “do it God’s way.” It almost seems as if they’re out to prove something, like those cigarette ads displaying male models with glowing white teeth, surrounded by adoring women.

Perhaps it is precisely because sex makes churches so uncomfortable that they feel compelled to focus so much energy trying to control the circumstances under which it happens. They spend a great deal of time and effort fighting gay marriage, comprehensive sex ed, birth control, premarital sex, and sometimes even the concept of dating itself (ever hear of “kissing dating goodbye?”). Sometimes they can even become a national sensation for suggesting women shouldn’t wear yoga pants because it’ll make men think about sex. But why does this freak them out so much? And why is regulating this one thing maniacally important to them?

Three Reasons Why the Church Obsesses Over Sex

1) Social Control.  Most who answer this question say it’s because if you can control what people do with their genitals, you can control everything else. That certainly would explain why the Jews chose circumcision, of all things, as their national identity marker. I’ve said before that among all the ancient gods, no one more than Yahweh was so critically concerned with the shape of your penis. Recently a pastor friend tweeted: “You can’t shepherd hearts without shepherding pocketbooks.” He was thinking about tithing but I think what he said about pocketbooks could also be said about “privates.”

Jesus was quite radical when it came to other things like dietary restrictions. He went so far as to argue that food and drink cannot make you unclean because what you put into your body passes through you and comes right back out again on the other side. That actually makes a lot of sense. It seems to me an argument along the same lines could be made about genitals.  Why isn’t the same logic applied to sexuality?  Does this principle not equally apply to all orifices? Evidently not.  But why not?  Perhaps it’s because like the rudder of a ship, if you can control that, you can steer the whole vessel. Sociologists and anthropologists tell us that the higher the initial investment for entry into a group, the greater the loyalty. That’s why fraternities keep hazing their inductees. If you can make people give up something valuable (like their dignity or their sexual urges) you’ve got their undivided commitment.

2) Supression of Women. Still others will answer that the church’s obsession over sex stems from their need to control women in particular. I think they bring up an important point, and the inherent misogyny of the biblical writers needs to be addressed. I think that the shape of Christian sexual prohibitions and the ways in which churches often approach the matter (e.g. speaking to young women as if it’s always their responsibility) point to the residual effects of ancient sexism. But when you compare the Christian religion to its predecessor, Judaism, you find that the early Christians took a step or two forward in their treatment of women, giving them a more important role in the propagation of that faith than most other religions of their day. Christianity’s treatment of the subject of sex, on the other hand, seemed to almost lurch backwards into a more prohibitive stance than of any which had come before. Before Jesus, adultery was already bad. After Jesus, however, you can’t even look very long before you’ve “sinned in your heart.” For Jesus, even thinking too much about sex has become a crime. No wonder the poor woman lost sleep over whether or not to wear form-fitting pants. So what gives?

3) Inherent Dualism.  I believe sex terrifies the church most because its founders (particularly Paul, but perhaps Jesus as well) were incurably dualistic. They saw the world as divided between “spiritual” and “earthly,” and as valiantly as interpreters today try to unite these opposing worlds, the duality still remains.* Modern interpreters are fighting against their own holy book, and they just can’t see it. “Oh, but the Hebrew worldview was more unified than that!” they will insist. “You must be confusing early Christians with the Greeks. Just look over here at these Old Testament verses…” Suddenly the Christian hermeneutic shifts into reverse and now we’re supposed to interpret the New in light of the Old instead of vice versa. Funny how the concept of “progressive revelation” is so popular whenever people accuse the Christian God of being violent and territorial, but then it disappears at moments like this. I cry foul, here. The New Testament writers (particularly Paul, who I believe was the true founder of the Christian religion) were quite dualistic and were very uncomfortable with the mundane, earthy, physical realities of daily life. Just listen to the kinds of things the founders of Christianity had to say:

Jesus (whose dualism was perhaps the subtler of the two):

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are spirit and they are life.

There are some who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it. (lolwut)

Paul (whose dualism was more pronounced):

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands….For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

As we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…I would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

I discipline (lit. “bruise”) my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided.

For Jesus and Paul, physical things are always distracting us from the things that really matter—the eternal things. You cannot adopt the New Testament as your guidebook without internalizing this bifurcation of life. I’ve written before how both Jesus and Paul discouraged any kind of focusing on the family because for both of them, the needs of a family were seen as a potential rival to one’s loyalty to the kingdom of God. Both seemed to concede that family entanglements can’t be avoided altogether, but each had strong words warning about the necessity of prioritizing spiritual things over earthly things. Paul went so far as to encourage his followers to forego starting families in the first place.

And what physical activity holds our attention more intensely than sex? It’s innately fascinating. You don’t have to convince any typical person to care about it—for most, it’s inherent. No topic can demand attention more efficiently, which is precisely why sex will always be the church’s greatest rival for our attention and devotion. Christianity and sex will always be in a kind of “cold war” (I say cold war because it cannot completely condemn something upon which we depend for life). Consider why Americans were taught to hate communism above all other ideologies: It was because communism fundamentally undercuts the basis for America’s economic system: the free market. Communism and capitalism are natural enemies, even if the complexities of life necessitate cooperation and trade between countries on opposing sides. In a similar way, Christianity and sex will always be awkward bedfellows because while sex unites us with our own bodies, beckoning us to feel at home here and now, the Christian faith urges us to see ourselves as aliens, not at home in this world, longing to be “clothed with eternity” at last. See? Even in its metaphors, nakedness is bad.

Foreigners in Their Own Bodies

You eventually need to choose one or the other. Will you be at home in this world or will you seek escape? Christian music positively oozes with escapism. Building 429 has a song that was Billboard‘s Christian Song of the Year a couple of years ago, and its chorus says:

All I know is I’m not home yet
This is not where I belong
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong

Quite the opposite to that, popular music embraces everything about this life—especially the parts typically condemned by the religious guardians of morality. Church leaders instinctively understand that “sex positivity” is associated with a loss of power for the church. The more people fall in love with sex, the less interesting piety becomes. The two will always war with one another for your attention. And yes, I know this is deeply offensive to those who have labored long and hard (heh) to claim sexuality for the Christian faith. I have listened to their pleas and their sales pitches and I just don’t buy it. It always comes across as awkward at best and creepy at worst. Somehow piety and eroticism just don’t mix. They each point your attention in opposite directions, and churches know which force is stronger, so they fight it with all the’ve got.

They hit teens hard with the fear of sex, convincing them that nothing is more central to being a Christian youth than not having it. This is their identity marker. References to sex must be absent from your music, your movies, your Twitter account, and your dating life (assuming you “date” at all, and haven’t hopped onto the “courtship” bandwagon to ensure you don’t sin). It’s the main thing, the watershed issue. And don’t you even think about following same-sex attractions to their logical conclusions (*shudder*). That will never be okay even after you grow up. Churches work together to get amendments to state constitutions passed just to ensure that whole categories of sex never become okay. This, to them, has become a matter of life and death, a matter of loyalty to the gospel itself. Evidently the “good news” is that there are tons of wrong ways to have sex, and only a few right ways…and fortunately for them, those happen to be the very ways in which they prefer it!

One last word for the more erudite readers who feel I’ve unfairly stereotyped their faith with the charge of dualism. First let me say, I feel your pain. Truly, I do. I’ve been in that very spot myself, defending the integrated, holistic goodness of my preferred version of the Christian faith. Perhaps you’ve read N.T. Wright brilliantly teasing out a more nuanced Christian theology in his voluminous works (the man is brilliant, what can I say?), and you have thoroughly rejected the dualistic escapism of popular Christianity today. My response is simply this: You may disapprove of both their approach and my response to it, but I am looking at this phenomenologically, taking the faith as it occurs today, not as you or your favorite theologian envisioned it once upon a time. I, too, once idealized my faith and strove to return the church to its pristine theological beginnings. But it finally dawned on me that no such thing ever existed. It’s a myth. It’s a dream. A beautiful one, yes, and who doesn’t want to chase a beautiful dream? But even the source documents themselves are more disjointed and diverse than you would like to believe. There never was a True Christianity™. There were always competing sects and communities and confessions, so forgive me for dismissing any righteous indignation you feel about me misrepresenting the true Christian teaching about, well, almost anything. It’s a chimera. What I choose to address is what we have today: A church so frightened by the lure and power of sex that it must control it at all costs. If they ever let up, they will lose what little power they have left. What a desperate place to be.


Incidentally, if you grew up in a highly repressed subculture, you may find upon reaching adulthood that you have a number of hang-ups about sex.  There are some excellent resources out there to help deal with the baggage you’ve picked up from your religious upbringing.  You might want to check out Darrel Ray’s Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality, or perhaps check out his podcast Secular Sexuality.


I’ve had enough theological education to be fully aware that many will protest the charge of dualism, arguing that we should see metonymy here, inaugurated eschatology there, and highly complex nuance all around. But the biblical authors themselves are nowhere near as semantically consistent with their categories as we modern readers would like. In fact, the internal contradictions within the writings of Paul alone are so numerous and irreconcilable that more scholars than not doubt he really wrote all the letters attributed to him.

[image: James Gangl from Sex, Religion, & Other Hang-Ups]

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...