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Sex is easier than love: why sexuality is at the very heart of life and learning

Only if the Christian vision of sexuality can make sense of what I feel most deeply, of what I know most profoundly . . . only then can I be persuaded of the Christian vision of everything else.
Do you believe in love?
I believe in saying, 'I love you.'
—All That Jazz

A couple times each year I teach a course called Learning to Read the Word and the World, at the Same Time. We spend the first month exploring sexuality. Although the class has a reputation now, in some ways it is always a surprise for the students. Why? Simply, most have never been invited to think seriously about the meaning of sexuality.

Sex, they know, of course. Everywhere in every way in everything. As the wonderfully gifted poet Steve Turner puts it in "Creed," capturing with his characteristic brilliance the air we all breathe,

We believe in sex before, during,
and after marriage.
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that taboos are taboo.

Or in the words of Jon Foreman, the front man for "Switchfoot," who puts his poetry to song,

Sex is currency
She sells cars,
She sells magazines
Addictive, bittersweet, clap your hands,
with the hopeless nicotines

Everyone's a lost romantic,
Since our love became a kissing show
Everyone's a Cassanova,
Come and pass me the mistletoe

Everyone's been scared to death of dying
here alone

She is easier than love
Is easier than life
It's easier to fake and smile and bribe

Most understand this, painfully so. They know the aching and the yearning that is always mixed up with the hope and dream of being young—and male or female. They know that there is something about being a body that is beautifully right, viz. "This is the way I am meant to be! This is how I am meant to feel—and I feel most alive when I feel this way!"

And yet, and yet. They also know that there is true sorrow and grief that comes with the desire to love and be loved. They know that there are amazingly complex feelings that come with being male, with being female, with being embodied, with having eyes and ears, minds and hearts—yes, and with having genitals too.

A question I ask, again and again, is this: Is it possible to be holy and to be sexual at the same time? You see, my desire is not to offer one more session—a month-long one at that—on why sex is wrong. Incredibly, most of those I talk to and teach about this, who over the years have ranged from seventeen-year-olds to twenty-four-year-olds, tell me, "We have never ever heard anyone say anything other than 'No!'"

While I agree that there are proper 'noes', I am even more sure that there are proper 'yesses'—and if we are going to find our way to a biblically rich and honestly Christian vision of sexuality, then we are going to have to dig more deeply into the possibility that we are in fact made to be holy and sexual at the very same time.


Why sexuality?

I begin with sexuality because it is a line in the sand for everything else. While I believe that we have to get to the arts, politics, economics, and globalization eventually—that we have to learn to think Christianly about everything and anything—I am sure that unless we are confident that the Scriptures tell the truth about sexuality, about being bodies, and about being full of sexual longings and desires, it is hard to believe they are true when they speak about the rest of life.

How can I be persuaded that it is worth all the work of developing a Christian vision of literature, of music, of political responsibility, of international justice, if I am not persuaded that the Christian vision of sexuality really makes sense of what I feel most deeply, of what I know most profoundly?

The Bible itself seems to understand this. Or to put it another way, God in his grace gives us the Bible as a lens into reality, about the way the world really is, telling the truth about God, the human condition, and history. Everything . . . everything depends on that—it is the cosmic line-in-the-sand. Calvin argued that the Scriptures are like spectacles: we see ourselves and the world through the biblical story. And it is a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In the beginning, God made us in his image, male and female he made us—and it was good. To be fully human is to be a man in relation to a woman, to be a woman in relation to a man; together we are the image of God. There is a deep truth in that, with psychological, social, and sexual implications. The very last word of Genesis 2 is that Father Adam and Mother Eve were naked and not ashamed. We are to learn from that, to ponder that, to remember that. God in his goodness made us sexual, and it was good.

The next chapter tells the story of the Fall, and the first words after their sin is that "they were naked and ashamed." The last word, and the first word: yes, we are to learn from that, to ponder that. There is something about being bodies that is central to our humanity, at the very core of our humanness as image-bearers of God. Faithfulness and faithlessness are first of all seen and known in relation to our sexuality. Sort of scary, isn't it? But to know that about ourselves is to know the true truth about ourselves.

As the story of Scripture unfolds, this same dynamic is seen in every generation. The history of redemption is story after story of persons and peoples whose deepest identities are played out with sexuality at the center. Why is it that God chooses circumcision as the sign of the covenant? A strange way to mark one's faithfulness to God, isn't it—unless it is a sign of something profoundly important? Why is it that idolatry is primarily seen in sexual distortions? Centuries and civilizations are full of strangely sexual windows into the hopes and dreams of human beings, even in our fallenness. Why does God choose the marriage bed, and the relationship of husband to wife, as the primary metaphor of his relationship to his people? Intimacy, adultery, prostitution, commitment are all words God uses to teach us about faithfulness, and faithlessness.

Idolatry is always and everywhere a twisting of a good gift of God. We make idols because we are prone to pervert what God intends as good and beautiful and true, making the gift either more important or less important than God intends. What is meant to be meaningful, full of meaning—the sky, the sea, a bull, a fish, money, freedom, a breast, a penis, even love itself—in our bentness becomes something, first of all, with inflated meaning—and then tragically and sadly, inevitably it becomes meaningless, as it cannot stand having been made so meaningful. The reality of God's world will not allow it. The poets over the centuries have captured this with poignancy. Hear Hart Crane: "Love—a burnt match skating in a urinal."

The world that is really there, the world that God has created, and in which we live and move and have our being, is tinged with meaning. If we have eyes to see, we see it to be holy, as God Himself is holy. But that very reality is what makes it, at the very same time, so susceptible to idolatry. We will adore someone or something—at our deepest, we are homo adoramus, man the adorer.

Why is it that the Canaanites, in their idolatry, represented their vision of the good life with a giant phallic symbol? Do your own work, and think again about Baal worship and the meaning of asherah poles, which were set up on the hills of the promised land, standing larger than life for the people of Israel to ponder. How could they possibly "be holy as the Lord your God is holy" with giant penises looking down upon them?

What was it about the idolatries of the Mediterranean world of the New Testament, the cities that Paul and Peter visited in their missionary travels that became incarnate in female statues with 60 breasts? The next time you feel weighted down—or maybe even intrigued—by the promises of Cosmopolitan in the grocery-store checkout line, think about what the early Christians had to see on their way to the market—and realize that the call to be holy and sexual is perennial, it has been the challenge for God's people in every time, in every place.

Or ponder what the world looked like to Patrick, as he returned to Ireland, committed to giving the gospel to the pagan peoples who had earlier enslaved him. Walking through the streets with the good news of the kingdom he found his way among statues of naked women and men with incredibly engorged sexual organs.

My family and I were in India at Christmas. It is a wonderfully alive culture, with spices and colours that are threaded through its historic Hinduism. There is a 2000-year-old tradition of Christian witness, too. As the story is told, the Apostle Thomas came to India's west coast, establishing what is now called the Mar Thoma Church, among others. What did Thomas find? He saw what we saw, travelling twenty centuries later. In every Hindu temple we visited, the pillars which hold the roofs in place are girded by penises. To say it plainly, it is the male sexual organ that holds the temple together.

Homo adoramus? Yes, we will worship. What we worship will promise to make sense of life; it will promise to give meaning to life. It is uncanny that in the history of the human race, in centuries and cultures the world over, being naked—ashamed or not—is so close to the heart of our humanness, and of our longing to be holy, to touch transcendence.


A proper "Yes"

Creation, fall, and redemption. We find ourselves in this story that God tells, beginning in Genesis with "It was good," and ending in Revelation with "By amazing grace, it will be good again, even glorious." The fall is real, horribly so. Its reality is not only in sexualized statues, which to the 21st-century person may seem a bit abstract. More personally, it is felt in the human heart, full as we all are of longing and hope, of yearning and heartache. The very possibility of knowing and being known, of being naked and not ashamed in every dimension of life, in our fallenness becomes the dynamic center of our most deeply-felt fears. There is not a week that goes by that I don't have a tender conversation with someone somewhere about relationships in general, and sexuality in particular. Feelings are always deep, and often there are tears.

What do we do with this? How do we begin to rethink sexuality? To redeem sexuality? To see the proper "yes" that is primordially written into our DNA as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve? To understand that in this now-but-not-yet world it is truly possible to be holy and to be sexual at the same time?

In my class I begin in this way. I ask the students to bring in film and music that reflects the truth of the human condition, especially about sexuality, in both its glory and shame. The whole world becomes our classroom at that point, and the songwriters and storytellers whose work shapes and reflects our culture, become our companions. We do work our way through Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up and I Am Charlotte Simmons, and we read Naomi Wolf's "The Porn Myth," but the burden of the reading and reflection is to find our way into the goodness of this gift.

I want my students to understand that the real issue is truthfulness—that is, does the song or story tell the truth about the human condition, about the meaning of sexuality? What are the glimmers of real glory, of our true humanity? What do we learn about the way things ought to be—even as we carefully and critically work to understand the contours of our culture, so very fallen as it is.

I want them to wrestle with the Song of Songs, and its gloriously perplexing account of sexuality—even as I want them to ponder why the Church for 2000 years has so stumbled over its interpretation. Why, for example, do we have such a hard time believing that the writer waxed eloquently about real breasts, and wonderfully so, and that they are not mostly a metaphor for the beauty of Christ? The fall so twisted our reading of the Word and the world that we have a lot of work to do, if we are to "untwist" the meaning of God's grace to us in the gift of sexuality.

I ask them to read Wendell Berry, so grandfatherly in wisdom and yet so radical in his analysis and insight too. His poetry is probing, and beautiful, and thoughtful, offering poem after poem about the meaning of love, even of sexual desire. And his short stories are also included, where he tells the tales of a community over time of people who know and love, even amidst heartache and loss.

But I also want them to read his essay, "Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community," in which he insists that we see sexuality in the context of larger, deeper responsibilities and relationships. He resists the reductionism of "sex." It is as important an argument for the redemption of sexuality as I have found—and by someone who has loved his wife well for over fifty years, which is not a small thing. While I do love books, at the end of the day we need to find teachers for whom ideas have had legs, who in their lives offer honest integrity, where words have become flesh, and yes, where love has flourished. And then, listen carefully.


If it is true there, it is true everywhere

Looking back on my own undergraduate years, I remember being drawn into the richness of the worldview that grows out of the gospel of the kingdom. I desperately wanted a vision that made sense of all of life. But I knew that, truth be told, most of my thinking was about girls, not macroeconomics. I wanted to know who they were, what they meant, what my life meant in relation to them—and it seemed honest and right that I should see whether my new convictions about truth and meaning and reality could really make sense of my complex feelings about girls, full of holy and unholy hopes as they were.

I am deeply persuaded that there is an ancient wisdom in beginning where human beings have always begun—with our nakedness, with our bodies, with our maleness and femaleness. We are perennial people, after all. Reading the Confessions of Augustine always reminds me of that. I ask that my students read it, too. Some things change, but most things don't. The same longings, the very same temptations that were his are ours. His story is amazingly contemporary. And so when he writes that "I had not yet fallen in love but I loved the idea of it," it is not so far at all from the headlines on CNN.com as I write, "Jessica Simpson loves to be in love." Perhaps, even and especially, when "sex is easier than love," as Jon Foreman laments. That too is perennial.

So here is the vision, and the vocation that comes out of it. It is crucial to develop a proper confidence that what the Bible teaches about our bodies is really true. Otherwise, it is a hard sell to believe that the Christian vision can really make sense of aesthetics and astronomy, political theory and the physical sciences, psychology and sociology. Thoughtful Christian students will get there too, because they know they must—doing the hard work of asking important, foundational questions in their disciplines, reading the required texts, thinking through what they believe and why they believe what they believe about anything and everything that the curriculum, in class and out of class, sets before them. That is the task of the Christian student, always and everywhere.

But they will get there because they are confident that their faith is coherent, that what they believe about the world makes sense of the world.

Several years ago one of my students told me at the end of the semester that she had come to believe that "truth is woven into the fabric of the universe." I pray and teach towards that end. It is always my hope that my students will come to that conviction, as it is the raison d'être of learning for Christian students wherever they are, in the most faith-formed institutions and in the most secular-shaped ones. My own best guess is that to get there we have to walk through an honest conversation about sexuality, seeing whether or not biblical faith can adequately account for what we know so well and feel so deeply. If it is true there, it is true everywhere.

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Steven Garber Steven Garber
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