Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
Jes DeVries, Ben’s wife, also contributed to the writing of this piece.
I didn’t get much in the way of sex ed from the Christian schools and churches of my youth. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. Because abstinence till marriage was the goal, and because teachers, pastors, and parents often assumed that talking about sex would encourage young people to seek it out, I never really had frank conversations about concepts like birth control and consent. Instead, discussions about sex tended to take one of two paths. The first was aimed at preventing premarital sex and culminated in specific strategies for doing so. The second, meanwhile, justified the first. While careful to keep the details unobjectionably PG, this line of instruction framed sex within marriage as fundamentally good, eminently desirable, and (with only a hint of exaggeration) mind-bendingly awesome. Marital sex, in the church’s view, was well worth the wait, if only I could keep from spoiling it for myself in the meantime.
Of course, it isn’t hard to spot the problems created by this applied theology of sex. As other members of the post calvin have already demonstrated, abstinence-only education doesn’t work when considered statistically. Moreover, it depends for its coherence on notions of purity and virginity that struggle to bear up under scrutiny. But equally concerning, I think, is the story that the church has told itself in support of its premarital abstinence, namely that Christians should wait to have sex because sex within marriage is something special. But what happens if it isn’t? Or to put it another way: what happens when marriage comes to be defined by the promise of sex?
In a way, this conceptual collapse is mirrored at the level of our language. Intimacy, for Christians and non-Christians alike, codes sexually, and the act of “being intimate” with someone often registers as a winking euphemism for sex. Indeed, the fact that these two ideas are so closely tied together makes it difficult to imagine a kind of intimacy that isn’t, in some way, triangulated in relation to the question of which parts go where.
Here, then, would be a prime place for the church—not just as a community of believers but as a community of storytellers—to help us imagine intimacy differently. For the most part, however, my experience of sex ed à la Christian middle school (and to say nothing of Christian attitudes toward sex and sexuality in the public sphere) has convinced me that the church is as hung up on the question of which parts go where as I am. In its eagerness to police and define sexuality—leave room for the Holy Spirit; be mindful of what you wear; guard your purity because it’s like a piece of duct tape, an unused napkin, a rose, or whatever—the church has not expended the same energy in preparing people for other kinds of intimacy. Whereas pastors and youth leaders have emphasized, say, the importance of greeting cleavage with a chastely demure “eye-bounce,” that same attention to practice and habit has not extended to the cultivation of the kinds of attitudes that are necessary for an honest conversation—for talking about something difficult, for example the church and sex, without making recourse to crass jokes or (as this essay so often does) to a kind of academic distance.
And maybe even that example is too extreme. After all, ninety-nine percent of marriage isn’t going to be sexy or emotionally charged. As much as the church’s interest in sex would suggest otherwise, ninety-nine percent of marriage consists in being a good friend, in coming alongside someone else and helping them flourish in the most utterly banal conditions—in the workaday cycle of grocery lists and bathroom cleaning, meal preparation and dog-walking. All the silly little details that go into a life.
Notice that intimacy, by this light, does not have to be the exclusive domain of a married couple. Notice too that intimacy here is more about your attitude toward dog shit than it is about bedroom calisthenics.
What then might it look like for the church to grapple with this model of intimacy, not just in theory but in practice?
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.