David and I were sitting in a friend's living room recently, drinking civilized wine, eating civilized crackers, and making civilized conversation, when the friend in question asked about our whereabouts the previous evening. Our whereabouts had been a hotel room. A hotel room with a lone king-size bed.
No big deal. Men and women go out of town and get a hotel room, and in this day and age no questions are asked, no eyebrows raised; the couple in question has no reason to check in pseudonymously, pretending to be church-sanctioned, state-approved Young Marrieds.
Unless, that is, the couple in question is a Christian couple, and the friend feeding them Stoned Wheat Thins is a Christian friend. If that's the scenario (and it was), the couple never should have been in that hotel room to begin with, and this is the conversation you can expect afterward:
|Celibacy is a big deal. But it's a big deal that evangelicals aren't willing to talk about, except to remind us that True Love Waits.|
"I can't believe you two," Sarah said. "Can't you keep your pants on for one damn minute?" (Sarah may not have had sex before she married, but she has learned to curse since.) "Perhaps you've noticed that the Bible forbids this sort of thing?" She gazed evenly at David: "Maybe I shouldn't expect any better of someone so new to the faith, but I did have hopes for your girlfriend. Silly of me." Sarah glanced my way. "I suppose that's what you get when you're dealing with the world's favorite evangelical whore."
Mark Noll, the evangelical historian, published a book a few years back called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." The scandal was that there is no evangelical mind, and Noll called for a rejuvenation of Christian thinking. I think there's another scandal, and, following Noll, we might call it The Scandal of the Evangelical Body. The scandal, thankfully, is not that there is no evangelical body. There are, in fact, many evangelical bodies. Lots of those bodies are married, and I can't say much about their sex lives.
But lots are unmarried, and for us sex--or, perhaps more accurately, celibacy--is a big deal. But it's a big deal that evangelicals aren't willing to talk about, except to remind us that True Love Waits. This slogan might work when you're 15. Ten years later, catch-phrases don't really do the trick. So here, in short, is what I propose is the scandal of the evangelical body: the church tells all of us to be celibate outside of marriage, and then turns a blind eye to those thousands of unmarried evangelicals who ignore this injunction. We Christians spill plenty of ink moralizing about sex, but we seem unwilling to talk about it in any honest or theologically engaged way.
When he tries to articulate helpful hints for singles struggling with celibacy, he falters. "Setting forth rules"--like don't remove her blouse or don't lie down together--"doesn't help," he says. "Paul does not provide a detailed list of situational dos and don'ts." In the end, Hsu concludes that singles must simply opt "to pursue holiness and purity," finding whatever approach to the task of remaining chaste "works for us."My unmarried evangelical friends, I think, are fairly representative. Some of them are virgins. Seriously chaste virgins. Others are virgins in Bill Clinton's sense: in the tactful euphemism of my friend Sheila, they "entertain through other orifices" nightly. Or take my friend Ben, who managed to marry as a virgin but was still a virgin on his first anniversary: he couldn't flip the switch from "Sex is bad while I'm single" to "Now I'm married--sex is great."
|My friend Ben managed to marry as a virgin but was still a virgin on his first anniversary: he couldn't flip the switch from "Sex is bad while I'm single" to "Now I'm married--sex is great."|
Then there are those who do have sex, like Jill, a Wheaton College grad who lost her virginity in the Billy Graham Center. The college administrators, experts at acting in loco parentis, might be shocked. After all, they've put their students in sex-segregated dorms, sent Elizabeth Elliot to lecture them on purity, told their students to be good till marriage, and washed their hands of the matter. Little does Wheaton know that some of its dorm rooms house evangelical whores.
So, what to do, if not turn a blind eye? In the first place, evangelicals might attempt to have an honest conversation about sexuality. We might aim for a discussion of scripture that investigates what the Bible has to say about sex, rather than assuming what it says. (I suggested sexuality as a theme for a 20s-and-30s Bible study group at a nearby evangelical church and was laughed out of the room--a response that might lead the cynic to wonder just what evangelicals are afraid of. If, indeed, the Bible is so straightforward about the evil of premarital sex, surely it wouldn't hurt us to spend six weeks rehearsing the theme.) We shy away from discussing sex because, like most other matters in our highly atomized, individualized culture, we think of it as private, off-limits--all evangelical-speak must be above-the-waist.
But sex is sometimes a community matter too, especially when one's community is the body of God. In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he writes: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."
As the Anglican theologian John Macquarrie observed, "We must avoid the mistake of thinking that because human sexuality is personal, it is also private." Macquarrie went on to say that sex has any number of social ramificiations--sex leads to babies, babies get property, and so on. But Christians have an additional reason to worry about sex--what I am or am not doing in bed affects my relationship with God as much as what I do in church does, and it's the job of my sister in Christ to hold me accountable. The problem isn't that Sarah made my sex life her business. It's that her evangelical vocabulary left her with nothing to say but "whore."