Sunday, March 14, 2010

Have Sensible Sex

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 6: Have Sensible Sex – By now, I’m sure some have declared me a full-fledged heretic. Brace yourself, there’s more. Now for something totally uncomfortable—the subject of religion and sex. In my experience, with some noble exceptions (there are some excellent evangelical marriage manuals on sex), the evangelical church has largely been sex-negative, in other words, either it has suppressed open discussion or portrayal of sex for fear of promoting immorality, or it has condemned certain sexual behaviors, from nudity to masturbation to oral sex to all pre-marital sex, based on misinterpretations of the Bible. 31

My historical studies reveal today’s church views on sex have more to do with Greco-Roman Platonism and Augustine’s warped perspective—despite his wisdom on other topics—than a rational reading of scripture. For instance, the Jewish tradition from which Christianity arose was sex affirming. Correspondingly, contrary to popular belief, the Greco-Roman world, in which the early church grew, was not wholly a debauched sexual culture. The sex-negating Platonists and Stoics, who had fearful attitudes toward “irrational” sexual pleasure, influenced much of it. 32 This had impact on early church fathers like Augustine.

One specific is how these sex-negative Greco-Roman values influenced the English translation of the Greek New Testament word porneia. Raymond Lawrence calls it “perhaps the most deliberately mistranslated word in the biblical literature,” 33 when it is rendered “fornication,” and I would argue when it is also translated “sexual immorality” (as in ‘flee sexual immorality’ 34). Conservative Biblicists have condemned a host of sexual behaviors under that one word, commonly summing it up as perverted sex or all sex outside of monogamous marriage, without understanding what it meant to the original audience. One scholar believes a better translation is “harlotry,” 35 for the connotation of porneia is selling oneself to break covenant. Moreover, it is not always about sex, as is evidenced by the times it or its Hebrew equivalent is translated as “idolatry.”

Despite the fact that I would never endorse polygamy as a good idea, the fact is polygamy is never condemned in the Bible nor is monogamy strictly endorsed. In fact, the Torah commands polygamy in the case of the Leverite law 36 and supports it at times. 37 Polygamy and concubinage were practiced by Old Testament heroes of the faith from Abraham to Jacob to Gideon to David and never censured by God, except excessive polygamy with foreign women outside the faith. The truth is that if Bathsheba had not been married to Uriah, David would not have committed adultery. The biblical literature defines adultery differently than we do in our modern context. 38

Likewise with pre-marital sex, the Bible puts limitations on it because of the Jewish concern for pure lineage and because unmarried women were considered property of their fathers. There was no equivalent of today’s single woman, living outside her family’s home. Therefore, the Bible does not specifically condemn all singles sexuality. 39

This is not to say that we should emulate the male-dominated society of the Bible or married men have license to run out and grab the first single, pretty woman they see bathing on a rooftop (how David first saw Bathsheba). Promiscuity rooted in selfish, personal gratification cannot be defended. However, it does mean, if we are honest, that we should take the above facts into account when we decide on a sexual ethic for today.

In sex, let the admonitions to love one another, treat each other kindly, and be responsible in our relationships, be the guiding principal, not absolutist rules that were never a part of the Bible’s historical and cultural milieu.

31 Thelos, Philo, Divine Sex: Liberating Sex from Religious Tradition
32 Lawrence, Raymond, The Poisoning of Eros
33 Lawrence, Raymond, Op. cit., page 2
34 I Corinthians 6:18
35 Countryman, William, Dirt, Greed, and Sex
36 Deuteronomy 25:5-10
37 Deuteronomy 21:15-17
38 Countryman, Op. cit., page 159
38 Countryman, Op. cit., page 264.


DaCosta said...

I'm in the process of getting Thelo's book, "Divine Sex". As a friend who attends my fellowship said, sex is an area we have little knowledge of.

It's a shame that people who are "bible believing" fundamentalists who forget that God said that sex was good (and created by Him) will subscribe to Platonic thought.

If we look at love and marriage in the Church today, we need to relearn about sex. It's high time we "have sensible sex".

Anonymous said...


I have really enjoyed the 'intellectual refreshment' of your posts. Those of us whose perspectives were shaped by evangelicalism, who begin along the path of integrating our faith with reality and critical thinking, often find few options other than all-out atheism, agnosticism or deism. So, finding voices like yours has been significant in allowing me to 'keep the faith' while acknowledging problems with traditional evangelical and christian biblical interpretation and the doctrines that developed because of them. I hope that you will keep up the work!!!


Michael Camp said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, as I say, there's clowns to the right of us and jokers to the left, and we're stuck floundering in the middle. Keep the critical faith. It's more rewarding, in my mind, than the alternatives.

angus said...

Not a heretic - I don't think. Just profoundly misguided. Although it has been said that "heresy begins below the belt". By the way, are you familiar with any promiscuity that isn't "rooted in selfish personal gratification"? If so I would question whether or not your spouse (I believe you are married) would agree.
Grateful for the New Life

Michael Camp said...

Conservatives call anything not restricted to one sexual partner promiscuous. Strictly speaking, they would condemn Jacob for fathering the sons of Israel with four women (2 wives and the wives' 2 maidservants); His relationships weren't rooted in selfish, personal gratification, but were arrangements he made with his wives' father and the wives themselves.

angus said...

I agree Michael, most conservative christians likely would consider more than one sexual partner (particularly if they are married) promiscuous. As would the vast majority of people you would meet on the street, christian or not. What a concept - one man and one women becoming one flesh. If I am not mistaken, that was an approach that Jesus considered "sensible".
Matt 19:4,5,6 "And He (Jesus) answered and said, Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man seperate."

Michael Miletti said...

Living in Shame and Guilt is more damaging than how we express sexuality. Beliving and living a life where you are a "bad" person who does "bad" things will only lead to depression and hopelessness. We are set free, by the blood of Christ. Not to immorallity, but to a healthy relationships with God and each other. I have read "Divine Sex" and I believe there is much to be said and learned about how God created our physical expression with others and self. We should not make rules where the Bible does not. We live in a culture and a society of rules. Conequences for behavior is a fact of life. How we live our life is very important. If you promoted the idea of "open marrage" in most churches you would be run out on a rail. Discussion on masturbation will hardly ever be mentioned. Porn is for the sexually depraved. It is just the way it is. We must consider the conscience of others, being a guide to faith. I believe there are dangers to consider in any sexual incounter, wisdom is important. The biggest danger comes how we treat each other in relationship. When we "outcast" those who do not comform to our sexual orentation, we push them away to a life with Christ and the Scriptures. Living in shame and guilt only leads to more self distructive behavior. The Bible is very carfull to condem only those behaviors that harm ourself and others. Living in "Love" for God and for others is the best guide.

Michael Camp said...

Michael Milleti,

Great comments. Thanks! Your last two sentences sum it up.