For several years, I tried and tried to find a way to wiggle out of the church's traditional teaching that God requires chastity outside of marriage, and I failed. I read all the classics of 1970s Christian sexual ethics, all the appealing and comforting books that insisted that Christians must avoid not sex outside of marriage, but rather exploitative sex, or sex where you run the risk of getting hurt. These books suggest that it is not marriage per se, but rather the intent or state of mind of the people involved, that determines whether or not sex is good and appropriate; if a man and woman love each other, if they are committed to each other, or, for Pete's sake, if they are just honest with each other about their fling being a no-strings-attached, one-night stand, then sex between them is just fine. After all, as long as our 1970's man and woman care about each other, making love will be meaningful. In fact, sex might even liberate them, or facilitate their personal development.
Well. I tried to find these books persuasive. I wanted to find them persuasive. I wanted someone to explain to me that I could be a faithful Christian and blithely continue having premarital sex. But in the end, I was never able to square sex outside of marriage with the Christian story about God, redemption, and human bodies.
It wasn't just the liberal, supposedly liberating, books that left me cold. I didn't find many of the more conservative bromides all that persuasive either--the easy proof--texting that purports to draw a coherent sexual ethic from a few verses of Paul. To be sure, scripture has plenty to teach us about how rightly to order our sexual lives, but, as the church, we need to ask whether the starting point for a scriptural witness on sex is the isolated quotation of "thou shalt not," or whether a scriptural ethic of sex begins instead with the totality of the Bible, the narrative of God's redeeming love and humanity's attempt to reflect that through our institutions and practices. If our aim is to construct a rule book, perhaps the cut-and-paste approach to scripture is adequate: as the bumper sticker wisdom goes, Jesus (or in this case, Paul) said it, I do it. But if we see scripture not merely as a code of behavior but as a map of God's reality, and if we take seriously the pastoral task of helping unmarried Christians live chastely, the church needs not merely to recite decontextualized Bible verses, but to ground our ethic in the faithful living of the fullness of the gospel. As ethicist Thomas E. Breidenthal once put it, "We must do more than invoke the will of God if we wish to recover a viable Christian sexual morality.... Even if God's will is obvious, it cannot provide a rationale for any moral code until we are able to say, clearly and simply, how God's command speaks to us, how and why it addresses us not only as a demand but as good news."
An analogy may help make the point. If my sexual habits were formed by Hollywood and Cosmo and therefore at odds with how Christianity would have me comport my sexual self, my shopping habits were equally schooled in a surrounding secular culture whose assumptions are contrary to those of the gospel. Compact discs were coming into fashion when I was in fourth grade, and my father, upon buying a CD player, presented my sister and me with one CD each-Leanne got ABBA's greatest hits, I got the more modish Madonna, her album Like a Virgin (which may itself speak volumes about how I was formed sexually) with its hit single, "Material Girl." And though after college I eschewed lucrative job offers to work on Wall Street and rake in more money than a twenty-one-year-old should be allowed to earn, I nonetheless was something of a material girl. I liked to shop. I owned a lot of silk blouses. I was singularly unreflective when it came to matters of money, ownership, and wealth.
Not that I hadn't read the Gospels, where Jesus has quite a few things to say about money, ownership, and wealth. I had read his strict words about the rich man's inability to get into heaven. I had even heard sermons that quoted these lines and urged the faithful to be "good stewards," whatever that meant. (As far as I knew, a steward was a male airplane attendant.)