Thursday, January 20, 2005

Call them on it

NOTE: this is taken from a journal entry on 15 March 2004. Rated PG

I was listening recently to a Christian radio station in my area broadcast a program that was dealing with the issue of Christian teen sexuality. The hosts, a man and a woman, ended the program by nothing that the woman's daughter had pledged not to kiss any man until she was engaged. The finished the show by revealing conspiratorially that "many girls today are waiting to kiss until they get married," and exclaiming, "wouldn't that be great?!"

I turned off the radio, scoffing to myself and more that a little upset. Beside the fact that there are few statistics supporting the claim that "many girls" are waiting till they are engaged to kiss anyone, I found myself - a devout Christian and supporter of much of this radio station's content - angry at these commentators enthusiasm for something I considered absurd. Why was I so mad? Obviously, the route advocated by these commentators was not one I pursued myself, though sex was certainly not on my dating agenda. But I believe that my reaction was more than a case of self-righteous jealousy or indignation. In fact, I understood and even empathized with the commentator's "slippery slope" argument - each new sexual experience satisfies us, but leaves us wanting more. What I found so disturbing the complete lack of an understanding of what it means to be a sexual creature outside of the context of marriage. This is displayed by so many (married) Christian commentators that I've lost count.

In "The Most Important Year of a Woman's Life," the authors note that many people, but especially girls, find it hard to go from saying "no, no, no" with regard to their sexuality to "yes..yes...yes!" as soon as they're married. Although with the best of intentions, and important Biblical principles at hand, too many Christian leaders are, at best, simply unaware of how to articulate an ethic of healthy Christian sexuality out of the marriage context , and at worst, contributing to the sexual dysfunction of that new generation of Christian young people by refusing to develop a thoughtful model to articulate.

In their defense, this is a relatively new problem for many church leaders. For centuries, the American church tradition kept all manner of sexual discussion firmly pent up in private, reflecting their Victorian, and yes, Puritanical heritage. (Puritans were known for having sex with their clothes on in order to prevent immodesty and discourage lust.) Prior to the European Reformation, celibate Catholic priests/theologians hardly had the resources to articulate any vision of healthy sexuality, much less in the lives of today's young and single. (though I do believe that Catholic celibacy to be a viable, healthy sexual option that affords celibate priests resources of time and energy not possessed by married clergy).

It was the traumatic cultural upheavals of the 1960's and 1970's that actually encouraged Christian leaders to begin to speak openly about healthy sexuality. Thought they almost universally criticized the excesses of this era, it was the pressures of a rapidly evolving sexual society that forced many pastors to begin to talk openly about healthy sexuality at home. Today, many churches offer some form of "marriage retreat," a combination weekend-long counseling session and romantic getaway, where couples are encouraged to re-ignite passion in the bedroom as an essential key to a healthy marriage partnership. But when the subject switches to the unmarried (including, I might add, those who are engaged), these same pastors have nothing to say - preaching either implicitly or explicitly a complete "hands-off" (literally) approach to sexuality. This lack of a coherent vision is becoming an increasing problem in churches that regularly have 50-80% of their "twenty-somethings" unmarried. In a society that is maturing (physically) earlier and earlier, and marrying later and later, the Church has no comprehensive approach for dealing with often 15 years of sexual maturity and frustration beyond simplistic quips about lust and self-control.

What does it mean to be a sexual being in God's eyes, and why does this Bible seem to present a limited number of examples for dealing with these questions? This has more to do with the structure of ancient societies than it does with Biblical insufficiencies. Ancient societies, almost universally, have two things in common: a patriarchal structure and a low life-expectancy. The patriarchal norms means that women usually had little choice of when/who to marry, and girls - especially post-pubescent women - were often kept strictly separated from men. The low life expectancy, combined with a high mortality rate, means that women were married young, and forced quickly into childbearing and child rearing. Many girls might have been physically mature less than three years before they were "safely" married off. Much of this tradition continued right up to the recent past, when women's liberation and sexual revolution (especially the development of simple and effective birth control) finally meant that women and men can now interact together freely in the public sphere, without social pressure, and marriage and childbearing is delayed later and later for the pressures of education and career. Given these recent and dramatic changes, it is perhaps commendable that the Church has come as far as it has. Yet we are still left with a seemingly intractable problem: while previous century's theologians did not need to develop a "Christian single" sexual ethic because so few Christian singles existed, today's Christian single must wrestle through 10-15 years of sexual maturity, with little in the way of guidance from Church leaders, and virtually no understanding of what it might mean in God's eyes to be a sexual being, mentally and emotionally mature, looking for that special someone, but increasingly, not there yet.
Grace & Peace