Book Excerpt: “Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity” (Sep-Dec 2006)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lauren Winner
September – December, 2006

Lauren Winner is one of the best Christian writers of our day, and we have invited her to our ZOE Look to the Hills Leadership Conference, October 5-6. This excerpt from Winner’s newest book continues a conversation with Lauren Winner in New Wineskins, which began two years ago. Enjoy this frank look at sexuality that is scriptural and spiritual – and make plans to come to the ZOE Look to the Hills Leadership Conference where Winner will present in three sessions on CLOSER: Intimacy with God. – Managing Editor Greg Taylor

Communal Sex

Or, Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night

Salvation in Christ is being adopted (baptism), made members of a people, Israel, and the church. We really believe that if we were not part of this people we could not be saved. So when the church has opinions about how you spend your money, how you have sex, how you vote, this is salvation. You are not simply being saved from personal greed or licentiousness, you are thereby being made a member of God’s people.
—William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas

Real Sex: The Naked Truth About ChastityOne of my favorite novelists is Barbara Pym. Pym, who was born in Shropshire in 1913, wrote novels set in post-war English villages populated by vicars, spinsters, and well-meaning but slightly inept housewives. Pym was a master of the comedy of manners, simultaneously arch and generous, and she is often likened to Jane Austen.

Her third novel, Jane and Prudence, depicts the long-standing friendship of Jane, a middle-aged minister’s wife adjusting to small-town life in a new rural vicarage, and her erstwhile student Prudence, an office worker in London. Twenty-nine-year-old Prudence is rapidly on her way to old-maid status, and Jane attempts to fix her up with the recently widowed Fabian Driver. Prudence condescends to go on a few dates with Fabian, but doesn’t reward Jane with any juicy details of their assignations.

One week, Jane pays Prudence a visit in London. Jane is alarmed when her friend answers the door clad in “a long garment of dark red velvet, a sort of rather grand dressing-gown.” The vermilion gown is “not the sort of garment a vicar’s wife could be said to possess.” It stands in dramatic contrast to Jane’s own worn camel-hair robe. “Had she entertained Fabian in her red velvet dressing-gown?” Jane wonders, shocked. Sipping a cup of Ovaltine, she endeavors to learn just how intimate Prudence’s relationship with Fabian Driver has become.

“Does Fabian like you in red?” she asked bluntly.

“Yes. I think so,” said Prudence rather vaguely.

“Has he seen you in that?”

“I can’t remember really—he probably has.”

“I suppose it’s all right in London,” said Jane, thoughtfully stirring her Ovaltine.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, to entertain a man in one’s dressing-gown.”

“It isn’t a dressing-gown,” said Prudence rather impatiently; “it’s a housecoat. And in any case I don’t know what you mean by ‘all right’.”

“No, it’s a very decent garment really, with long sleeves and a high neck.” Jane picked up a fold of the full skirt and stroked the velvet. “I suppose what I meant was would people think anything of it if they knew.”

Prudence laughed. “Oh, really, Jane! It certainly isn’t like you to worry about what other people would think.”

“No. I suppose it isn’t. I was just thinking of you, really. A married woman does feel in some way responsible for her unmarried friends, you know.”

“Really? That hadn’t occurred to me. In any case, I’m perfectly well able to look after myself,” said Prudence rather touchily.

“Darling, of course! I only wondered . . .” Jane paused, for really it was difficult to know how to ask what she wanted to know, assuming that she had any right to ask such a question. “I suppose everything is all right between you and Fabian?” she began tentatively.

“All right? Why, yes.”

“I mean, there’s nothing wrong between you,” Jane laboured, using an expression she had sometimes seen in the cheaper women’s papers where girls asked how they should behave when their boy-friends wanted them to “do wrong.”

“But I don’t understand you, Jane. Did you think we’d quarrelled or something? Because we certainly haven’t, I can assure you.”

“No, it wasn’t that. I don’t seem to be putting it very clearly, what I was trying to ask was, are you Fabian’s mistress?” As soon as she had said it, Jane found herself wanting to laugh. It was such a ridiculous word; it reminded her of full-blown Restoration comedy women . . . or Edwardian ladies kept in pretty little houses with wrought-iron balconies. . . .

Prudence burst into laughter, in which Jane was able to join her with some relief.

“Really, Jane, what an extraordinary question—you are a funny old thing! Am I Fabian’s mistress? Is there anything wrong between us? I couldn’t imagine what you meant!”

Jane looked up from her Ovaltine hopefully. “I don’t really know how people behave these days,” she said.

“Well, I mean to say—one just doesn’t ask,” Prudence went on. “Surely either one is or one isn’t and there’s no need to ask coy questions about it. Now, Jane, what about a hot-water bottle? . . .” Prudence stood up, slim and elegant in her red velvet housecoat.

Jane said, “. . . I don’t mind about a bottle, really I don’t, though if you have a spare one it might be a comfort.” She felt a little peevish, as if she had been cheated, as indeed she had. She also felt a little foolish—naturally, she should have known that Prudence was (or wasn’t) Fabian’s mistress.

Though written over fifty years ago, in a perhaps more delicate and decorous age, this scene perfectly demonstrates the discomfort of conversation between friends about sex. Jane, surely, is curious, and perhaps she is even living vicariously through Prudence, but she is above all trying to care for her friend. Yet she is unsure how exactly to do so. She worries that she might be out of line inquiring about Prudence’s sexual behavior. Lacking the words for her concern, she resorts to awkward quotations from women’s magazines. All in all, her attempt to talk to Prudence about her relationship with Fabian is a dismal failure. Jane feels as though she’s been cheated, because, in fact, Prudence evades her questions and tells her nothing. For her part, Prudence thinks Jane, with her wholesome chocolate beverage, is a bit of a bore. Prudence is a liberated gal—she doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her. Though Prudence has invited Jane into her home, she can’t ultimately invite her into her life, and instead sends Jane off to bed like a child.

“The affair was none of their business”
Most of us, on some level, share Prudence’s assumptions. It is not surprising that Prudence is miffed—does Jane really have a right to chide her about her romance with Fabian? And Jane’s confusion is certainly understandable. Aren’t our friends’ private lives . . . private? We ought not risk looking prudish, or invasive, or presumptuous, by putting our oar in. In Prudence’s phrase, either one is or one isn’t, and one just doesn’t ask.

In contemporary society, sex is public—moms go on talk shows and confess to sleeping with their daughters’ boyfriends, Calvin Klein models expose their body parts in magazine ads. But if sex is public, it is not communal. Americans consider sex a fine topic of public disclosure but we insist that sex is also private, nobody’s business but mine and the person with whom I’m doing it. I can show you my midriff in public, and I can make out with my boyfriend on a park bench, but there is no communal grammar that allows you to talk to me about this body I am exposing in front of you.

Underpinning everything else we say about sex is the assumption and insistence that you ought to keep your nose out of my bedroom. Supreme Court Justice John Harry Blackmun, dissenting from the 1986 decision Bowers v. Hardwick, declared that “how a person engages in sex should be irrelevant as a matter of state law. Sexual intimacy is a sensitive, key relationship of human existence and the development of human personality. In a diverse nation such as ours, we must preserve the individual freedom to choose, and not imply that there are any ‘right’ ways of conducting relationships.”

Variations on that theme pervade our popular culture. From movies and TV shows to online mags and the nightly news, everyone is telling us that sex is private. As Elliot Garfield says in the 1970s film The Goodbye Girl, “If I do attempt to have carnal knowledge of that gorgeous bod that’ll be her option, my problem, and none of your business.” Even the satirical Simpsons reiterate the point. In an episode tellingly called “Secrets of a Successful Marriage,” Homer and Marge attend a marriage seminar. Homer tells the tale of an anonymous couple—Mr. X and Mrs. Y—who practice the delicate art of elbow nibbling underneath the covers. But Homer blows X and Y’s cover when he blurts out, “So anyway, Mr. X would say, ‘Marge, if this doesn’t get your motor running, my name isn’t Homer J. Simpson.’” Marge, furious that Homer has shared something about their bedroom behavior with the seminar, kicks him out of the house.

I was surprised to find the same theme sounded in Danielle Crittenden’s recent novel Amanda Bright @ Home. Crittenden, who has made a name for herself bashing second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution, is very much a cultural conservative, and Amanda Bright @ Home, on the whole, valorizes a pretty traditional and conservative view of things. No swingingly single heroine here. Rather, our Amanda is a smart and sassy Ivy League grad who has turned her back on money and professional glamour to stay at home with her kids. She’s a little ambivalent about her choice, but she ultimately finds fulfillment at home with her three little ones. Most women will close the novel thinking they should marry, have lots of babies, and then devote themselves to the arts of housewifery and childcare. Yet the notion that sex is private has captivated even the folks who live in Amanda’s homey and traditional world. One night Amanda’s best friend, Susie, comes for dinner, new boyfriend in tow. Amanda is charmed by the beau, but just before dessert, Susie tells Amanda that he’s married. Amanda, shocked and angry, is worried about her friend. Amanda’s husband, Bob, pooh-poohs her concern, insisting that Susie is a grown-up and her affairs are, well, her affairs. Amanda finds herself persuaded by Bob’s reasoning: “Bob’s words had been reasonable enough. Susie was a big girl, the affair was none of their business.” Susie was a grown woman, Amanda reasons, a free agent, and even her best friend really has no place questioning Susie’s choice to sleep with someone else’s husband.

Amanda’s monologue neatly summarizes our society’s most basic message about sex: one person’s sexual behavior is not anyone else’s concern. And if your best friend doesn’t have permission to voice her worry when you commit adultery—with both its blatant violation of the Ten Commandments and its obvious capacity to hurt other people and wreak social havoc—certainly no one has permission to utter a word about a little thing like premarital sex.

Put simply, this is a lie. And it is a fairly new lie. For most of human history, people of many different cultures have agreed that societies must order certain forms of exchange in order to survive. Communities have ordered language, establishing grammars and vocabularies that shape how people communicate with one another; they have ordered the exchange of money, property, and labor; and they have ordered the practice of sex. As essayist, poet, and novelist Wendell Berry has put it, “Sex, like any other necessary, precious, and volatile power that is commonly held, is everybody’s business.”

In the last half-century, however, that assumption has been routed, replaced by the axioms of individualism and autonomy. Indeed, today the idea that sex “is everybody’s business” sounds alternately shocking and silly. Instead, we are more prone to think like my friend Roxanne, who chuckles and says, “Look, we’re two consenting adults. Why is what we do under the sheets anyone else’s concern?”

There are, of course, some practical answers to Roxanne’s question, not least that her sex is my business because sex can lead to babies, and the society that Roxanne and I share has a vested interest in defining and maintaining the family structures that care for babies.

But Roxanne and her boyfriend use condoms, so it is easy for her to dismiss any concern I might have about kids. Today, thanks to the Pill, we can generally (if not completely) sever the connection between sex and child-making; indeed, the advent of reliable birth control was a major factor in privatizing sex in the West. “I’m not going to burden society with an unexpected and unwanted child,” says Roxanne, “so I’m free to do what I want, right? Or what about my mom? She didn’t get remarried after Dad died, but she’s well past menopause. She won’t be conceiving any babies, so she and her gentleman friend can surely make their own decisions about what they do in bed.”

To be honest, I appreciate Roxanne’s rejection of my practical and pragmatic suggestion that sex is communal because babies are communal. Procreation ought not be severed from sexual conversation (we will return to procreation in the next chapter); but arguing that sex is “everybody’s business” only because everybody is interested in preserving stable families in which children can be reared is on some level a practical argument, and practical arguments are, finally, unsatisfying, because they don’t get at the core of what’s at stake.

It is sometimes hard for me to talk to Roxanne about sex because she and I don’t share some basic assumptions. For starters, the way I talk about sex is conditioned by the beginning of Genesis. The understanding (laid out in chapter two) that sex is made for marriage is vital to my belief that sex is a communal task. Marriage serves as the biblical analogy par excellence to the relationship between God and His people. Over and over in sacred scripture, that relationship is described as a marriage. When the people of Israel are faithful to God, Israel is described as a bride; when she turns away from God, she is called a harlot. Similarly, the writers of the New Testament found that one way to capture the relationship between Christ and the church was to draw an analogy to husband and wife. Through these analogies, marriage is substantively linked to community. Marriage—because of what marriage is, the analogue to God and His relationship to His people—precedes sex. This ordering of marriage and sex—the understanding that marriage contains sex, rather than that sex adorns marriage—implies a resonance between sex and community.

But perhaps a more important disagreement between Roxanne and me has to do with individualism. The actors in Roxanne’s question are “two consenting adults,” unmoored from any community or society, free to make their own decisions. So long as they don’t violate the other’s consent, they can do as they please.

Even on Roxanne’s individualistic terms, terms keyed to a world where everyone is a free agent, sex can be rightly understood as a matter of communal concern. Sex is communal because it is real. Sex has consequences. Sex is dangerous and delightful and tempestuous and elemental, and it matters. What we do with our bodies, what we do sexually, shapes our persons. How we comport ourselves sexually shapes who we are. If we believe that sex forms us, then it goes without saying that it is public business, because how we build the persons we are—persons who are social and communal and political and economic beings—is itself a matter of social concern.

Even in America, which sometimes seems to value individualism above all else, we never hesitate to insist that formative institutions are public business. We readily agree, for example, that education is a matter of concern for all members of our community, even those citizens who don’t have school-age kids—because we understand that education forms the children who grow up to be the adult citizens that constitute our community. We have heated debates about controversial exhibits at art museums, because we recognize that the art we spend time with shapes the persons we are, and who we are is a public problem. As with art and education, so with sex. Because sex forms us, sex is a community matter. Sexual ethics make good sense even in a world governed by individualism.
Still, the real place of disagreement between Roxanne and me is the assumption of individualism itself. In a world where the basic unit of ethical meaning is the individual, Roxanne’s stance carries real weight. But in the Christian universe, the individual is not the vital unit of ethical meaning. For Christians, the most basic images, metaphors, and signs are corporate, and the basic unit of ethical meaning is the Body, the community. Israel experiences covenantal fidelity as a people, and the People of God is a collective—not merely an aggregate of individual persons, each doing his or her own thing, but a body. In the Bible, God elects the People of Israel as a body. He sustains them as a body. And, finally, He redeems them as a body.
This talk about community is not mere metaphorizing. The community has a role in making ethics. Paul makes this clear when he instructs the Galatians to hold one another accountable for sin: “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.”

That passage in Galatians, if we construe it uncharitably, can lead us to envision a community that functions primarily as a police force: Christians’ responsibilities to one another begin and end with peering into other Christians’ bedroom windows and sounding the alarm if something illicit is going on.
While one task of any community is to enforce its own codes when they are being violated, perhaps the prior task of the community is to make sense of the ethical codes that are being enforced. Here the community is not so much cop as storyteller, telling and retelling the foundational stories of the community itself, sustaining the stories that make sense of the community’s norms. This storytelling is part of the working out of God’s grace in the church. We, the church, retell our own story—we do this every time we read scripture, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and (hopefully) every time we minister to one another. And that retelling is part of what enables us to live into the story. It is the community that ensures that ethics is not about the dispensing of cut-and-dried answers to moral questions, but that ethics is a story with meaning and power.

Sociologist James Hunter gets at this point in his study A Death of Character. Character—the making and sustaining of character—is a communal event, not an individual possession. Contra the psychologists, who would say that character accrues autonomously in individual people, Hunter shows that character is a social thing. Far from innate and purely natural, character is formed and learned in societies, and when the social prerequisites for character formation disappear, no amount of individual striving will culminate in character. “The story implicit within the word ‘character,’” writes Hunter, “is one that is shared. It is never just for the isolated individual. The narrative integrates the self within communal purposes, binding dissimilar others to common ends. Character outside of a lived community, the entanglements of complex social relationships, and their shared story, is impossible.”

Christians have to work hard to overcome the pervasive message that my sexual behavior is none of your business. Though we are willing to talk about sex from the pulpit, we are often less comfortable initiating hard conversations with our brothers and sisters about sex in people’s real, day-to-day lives. The Christian community senses that sex is a matter of communal concern, but we are hard-pressed to articulate exactly why. We have understandably absorbed the story our surrounding culture so forcefully tells us, trading our vision of community for American notions of individuals and free agents.

A story that my friend Carrie shared with me may illustrate. Carrie was two years out of college, living in Minneapolis in a funky, rambling Victorian with six other Christian women. Her boyfriend, Thad, lived down the block. Carrie and Thad were not having sex, but they were doing everything but having sex, including spending the night with each other regularly. And of course none of Carrie’s roommates knew for sure that they weren’t having sex—all they knew was that Carrie and Thad spent a lot of nighttime hours together in his apartment. But not one of Carrie’s roomies ever asked her a single question about what was going on behind closed doors. No one ever posed a loving inquiry, or a gentle rebuke, or even an oblique offer of an ear. Probably Carrie and Thad’s friends were simply made uncomfortable by the prospect of raising the tough issues of sex and chastity. They probably did not want to intrude, or seem nosy.

But the Bible tells us to intrude—or rather, the Bible tells us that talking to one another about what is really going on in our lives is in fact not an intrusion at all, because what’s going on in my life is already your concern; by dint of the baptism that made me your sister, my joys are your joys and my crises are your crises. We are called to speak to one another lovingly, to be sure, and with edifying, rather than gossipy or hurtful, goals. But we are called nonetheless to transform seemingly private matters into communal matters. Of course, premarital sexual behavior is just one of many instances of this larger point. Christians also need to speak courageously and transparently, for example, about the seemingly private matters of Christian marriage—there would be, I suspect, a lot fewer divorces in the church if married Christians exposed their domestic lives, their fights and tensions and squabbles, to loving wisdom, advice, and sometimes rebuke from their community. Christians might claim less credit-card debt if small-group members shared their bank account statements with one another. I suspect that if my best friend had permission to scrutinize my Day-timer, I would inhabit time better. Speaking to one another about our sexual selves is just one (admittedly risky) instance of a larger piece of Christian discipleship: being community with each other.

Household Sex
Wendell Berry provides us a good starting point for thinking about sex and community. Berry’s account of sexual ethics—his critique of modern sexuality and his vision of a more appropriate and redemptive sexual practice—rests on the rails of his larger account of the deterioration of modern society. Berry believes that modern life is bedeviled by the veneration of autonomy. We moderns conceive of ourselves as disparate, self-sufficient, and isolated atoms. Whether we realize it or not, our highest pursuits—in science, in politics, in personal happiness, in culture, in morality, and, at times, in religious life-function to maximize a sense of our own distinctiveness. We calibrate career success in terms of how well our jobs attend to our specific desires. We even conceive of America’s great democracy as a way to get our own interests heard, rather than a way to achieve or articulate larger social goods. And on it goes. At each turn, modern society glorifies achievements of independence and specificity, reveling in the way human beings are able seemingly to shrug off their natural dependencies.

It is not surprising that this modern refusal to acknowledge the way humans are dependent creatures—on their surroundings, on each other, on forces beyond their control, on God—should manifest itself in sexual terms. We create rarified and unearthly standards of beauty, and evaluate the sexual attractiveness of both ourselves and other people by the degree to which they resemble those standards. We often conceive of sex as an athletic exercise, which when done well is about dexterity, technique, and endurance. Pick up any women’s or men’s magazine, and read the advice columns and the advertisements: our contemporary culture tells us that sex is little more than recreation. All in all, sex has been denatured, dismembered, and desacralized.
The point is not to offer yet another flat-footed religious critique of secular degradations. What appears to be a critique of modernity is also a critique of religious life in modernity. A robust yet judicious understanding of the communal nature of sexual behavior requires that Christians enact both a thicker understanding of sex and a thicker understanding of community. To return sex to its proper place within creation, to revivify a gracious and salutary sexual existence, we need to root out modern and hyperindividualistic notions about sex, and come to understand the place of sex in the Christian—and human-community.

The insidious individualistic notions that turn sex into no more than entertainment not only shape how Americans think about illicit activities like premarital sex; they even infiltrate and affect how we think about marital sex. Husband and wife, too, judge their sexual life by aesthetic norms. Spouses have come to view marital sex as principally a way for an individual husband and an individual wife to get individual needs met.

Enter Wendell Berry, who suggests that marital sex ought not be an individual project at all. In a rich domestic context, sex is not about individual desires that happen to be neatly matched, but is rather an embodied way of entering into community with one’s spouse and of enacting God’s love.

At the heart of Berry’s vision is an idea called the household. Household seems, at first blush, to be just a synonym for home, but it is actually quite different from what most of us mean when we speak of home.
Today some of us think of homes as warm places where people come together for affection and love. Others think of homes as sites of dysfunction, places that should have been filled with warmth but were instead marked by neglect and abuse. And some of us reside not in homes but in houses—physical dwelling places where people who happen to be related to one another (or who happen to be roommates) live out their relatively separate lives. Each family member has his own TV, his own cell phone, his own car. We each have our own busy schedules that often preclude our eating breakfast or dinner together. We go to our houses to refuel and rest our bodies, and then we return to the places that really matter—our schools, our businesses, the places where we earn the money to pay for all those cell phones and cars.

A household, by contrast, is a place of shared mission, of shared work. Think back to the eighteenth century when people did most of their productive labor together, in family units, in their households. Mothers and daughters spun flax together. Children helped parents plant and harvest crops. I don’t mean to romanticize the difficulties and privations of life in earlier centuries—work was hard, medical care was sketchy, life was short.

And yet there was something powerfully good about those earlier households, something missing from many of our homes and houses today. There was a togetherness born not merely of affection but of mutual work. It didn’t really matter if you liked your husband on a given Tuesday. You were stuck working with him all day anyhow. Your togetherness, your relationship, didn’t rely on the caprice of your feelings. You were bound together, primarily, by a common undertaking—making your productive household run. Your household was not a place where individuals happened to congregate; it was a place of genuine mutuality.

To understand the good work that work does for families and neighbors, think about backyard cookouts. Sure, ordering pizza from Domino’s would be simpler, and less labor-intensive than stoking up the grill, chopping all that cabbage for coleslaw, tending to the hamburgers and hot dogs, making sure they don’t get overcooked—but when I work together with my neighbors, even simple work like cabbage-chopping, I am participating in a shared enterprise with them, and that sharing strengthens the ties of our relationship. So you don’t have to be an eighteenth-century farmer to begin to conceive of your home as a household. Rather, beginning to approach your meals, chores, and furnishings as part of a rich domestic economy, opportunities to connect you, your family, and your neighbors in truly shared undertakings.

In an essay called “The Body and the Earth,” Berry urges married couples to integrate their sexual lives into the larger, holistic project of creating a household. Indeed, Berry is concerned not only with what happens in individual households, but with the ways households, families, and marriages are part of larger neighborhoods and communities. Berry wants us to envision domestic life and sex, marriage and the marriage bed, as “a more generous enclosure—a household welcoming to neighbors and friends.” We should view all of society as a series of concentric circles—households sit at the center, and they are encircled by neighborhoods, and neighborhoods are encircled by communities, and communities by towns, civic bodies, whole societies. (Or perhaps the more appropriate metaphor is the wedding cake. At the very top are a bride and groom, and they are supported by a layer of household, a layer of family, and a final layer of community and society.)

Marriages, in other words, are not meant to be simply pairs of people in love; they are institutions out of which cultures and societies are formed. Households are the foundations of communities. Because marriage is a community, marital sex is rightly understood as the glue that binds “a woman and a man not only to each other, but to the community of marriage, the amorous communion at which all couples sit.” In productive households, married sex can be “a communion of workmates,” not a romanticized “lover’s paradise,” nor a “kind of marketplace in which husband and wife represent each other as sexual property.” And marital sex should, in Berry’s phrase, “empower and . . . grace” the household and the community.

Berry claims that “the disintegration of community” began when we started treating marital sex as a wholly private matter, when we severed the connections that link marriages to households and neighborhoods and communities. The history of dance, Berry says, is illustrative: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together,” were gradually replaced by “social ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone.” For many people today, of course, social ballroom dancing is a thing of the past. It has been replaced by the rave, in which a crowd of people dance not so much as a community, but as a group of individuals, boogying in the same room, alone.

What does all this mean, in practical terms? It is one thing for a couple to open up their household to their sexuality—to recognize that sexuality is, in Berry’s phrase, a “nurturing discipline,” and allow it to form and shape the work and daily life of their home. It is quite another for them to understand their sexuality as contributing to a larger community. Yet when we realize that sexual love is a primary force in constructing a household, and that households are primary components of constructing community, it begins to appear, indeed, that sexuality is something that should have a public, communal face. The question, of course, is in what way. Sexuality is an integral part of human mutual dependence. Sex, then, is a communal topic. We Christians—whose primary idioms are not individualistic, but communal, the Body of God and the church—are to see in sexuality the bonds of community.
It is an attractive vision that Berry lays out. It calls to us in our hectic, isolated lives. And yet this idea of community can rankle. The logic that links my body to sex to marriage to household to family to neighborhood to community is compelling, but it seems alien. Individualism and autonomy are so essential to the modern story that even Christians have trouble parsing the relationship between ourselves, our bodies, families, homes, and our communities. We know that bodies are not private property in the same way a car or a sweater is private property. We agree that marriage and sex are topics worthy of communal consideration, but we have trouble remembering, and knowing how to enact, all the communal and corporate language of the church.

But the resources for reiterating and inhabiting Christian community are still visible and audible in the church, not least in the marriage ceremony, which makes plain that sex is a part of the new relationship the community is promising to uphold. In Thomas Cranmer’s sixteenth-century language, brides and grooms vow that “with my body, I thee worship.” Not a private affair between two atomized adults who contract to live together, Christian weddings are essentially communal. The bride and groom are surrounded by their community, and one of the most important moments of the ceremony is when the minister asks the congregation whether it will do all in its power to uphold the bride and groom in their covenant of marriage. The congregation answers, “We will.”

As the church, we tell the story of creation and redemption, and we speak to one another about sexuality’s place in that story. We animate the story through confession and confrontation. We embroider the story with practical tips that help people manage and express desire. We live the story through a series of institutions that display redemption to the world and enable the gospel to transform God’s people through sacrament, and hospitality, and prayer.

I was once asked what I would say to a friend whom I knew was having premarital sex; would I do any better than awkward, Ovaltine-sipping Jane? I told my interlocutor that the first step in speaking to my friends about sex was making sure that we enjoyed relationships built on top of hundreds of ordinary shared experiences—plays attended together and pumpkins carved together and accompanying one another on doctors appointments and changing the oil together. To say this is not to side-step the question. Community doesn’t come about simply by having hard, intimate conversations. Having hard, intimate conversations is part of what is possible when people are already opening up their day-to-day lives to one another.
Sex is communal rather than private, but it is still personal rather than public. To say there are communal rights to sexual behavior is not to imagine a world where Mr. Married offers a Christianized version of locker-room chat with his buddies in the pews. It is not to imply that my married friends need to regale me with details every time they make love.

To say that sex is communal, rather, is to remind Carrie’s roommates that they have not just a right but an obligation to speak to Carrie about sexual sin. It is to encourage married Christians to speak to one another—not just about sexual sin, but about all the complicated emotional and physical thickets one can find oneself in when one is having sex. It is to urge Christians to speak frankly to one another about the realities of chastity, about the thrills and tediums of married sex, about the rich meanings inherent in being sexual persons who live in bodies. It is to ask the church to serve as narrator, reminding ourselves who we are, and why we do what we do.New Wineskins

Lauren WinnerLauren F. Winner is author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, as well as Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath. Ms. Winner spoke with New Wineskins about her conversion to Christianity in A Conversation with Lauren Winner. She is a daughter of a Reform Jewish father and a lapsed Baptist mother. During her freshman year at Columbia University, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. She studied in England, receiving a master’s degree from Cambridge University, and during that time she was baptized into Christ. Girl Meets God was reviewed in the July-August 2003 issue of New Wineskins.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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