415. sin, sex, and marriage (part 4) — the purpose of sex

I ended the last post in this series stating that much of the world inside and outside the church both have an inadequate understanding of the purpose of sex and because of that, a lot of confusion and harm is occurring. I also stated that if we can understand the God-given purpose of sex then we can define sex, talk about how to engage in it in a God-honoring way, and talk about how to minimize harm/abuse.

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Image by Cinzia A. Rizzo

Defining Sex — Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act

One of my favorite books about the theology of sex is Christine Gudorf’s Body, Sex, and Pleasure, and one of her key ideas is, if the purpose of sex is no longer procreation (because of the acceptance of contraceptive use), then the purpose of sex must be pleasure. I mean, why else are so many people wanting to have sex if not for the pleasure it brings? One illustration Gudorf uses to support this idea is the fact that

the female clitoris has no function save sexual pleasure — it has no reproductive, urological, or other function in the body… If the placement of the clitoris in the female body reflects the divine will, then God wills that sex is not just oriented to procreation, but is at least as, if not more, oriented to pleasure as to procreation.1

As I stated in the previous post, once you understand what something’s purpose is, you can definite it and discern how to use it properly and safely. Given that, if Gudorf is right and the purpose of sex is pleasure, then I propose defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act. But is there biblical support for this definition?

Gudorf’s example of the clitoris is an argument from natural theology, but Song of Songs is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to the thrills and pleasures of partnered sex.

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Image by Herr Olsen

The language of the book is dream-like. It’s full of lush metaphors and its precise meaning and structure are notoriously difficult to pin down. But here are a few examples highlighting mutually pleasurable intimacy.

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! Song of Songs 2:4–6

Although it’s transparent to modern readers, a number of contemporary biblical scholars highlight the erotic subtext here. Richard S. Hess:

The metaphors and symbols of this poetry imply that the drinking house may refer to a particular place where the lovers meet, one that is private and embodies the sensual pleasures of lovemaking already suggested by the image of wine (Song 1: 2, 4, 6).2

Tremper Longman:

She needs sustenance and calls for raisin cakes and apples. The emotion of love can overwhelm a person psychologically, and the physical rigors of lovemaking can wear a person out. The context does not make it clear whether one or the other, or perhaps more likely both, is meant. Raisin cakes and apples may provide more than physical sustenance and may have been understood stood to be aphrodisiacs.3

And take a look at this scorcher:

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. Song of Songs 5:4–5

Hess:

The central theme of this passage is this pleasure, or more precisely its expectation, that the female lover yearns for. The myrrh, in an olive oil compound, might well represent a physical oil that exudes from the flesh of her hands. However, it also expresses fervent love and desire.4

Leave it to a (male) biblical scholar to suck all the erotic force out of a passage like this. To really get to the core meaning, we need to hear a woman’s reading:

This sounds like a woman who is quite comfortable touching her genitals and appreciates her own sexual response as she yearns for her lover. This does not sound like a woman who kept her fingers away from her own dripping honeypot before inviting the “thrust” of another’s hand.5

That’s more like it!

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Image by Javier Enjuto

Defining Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act – Sex on a Spectrum

The problem with the word “sex” in the phrase “it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them” is that sex is understood as a line or boundary. If you cross this (never adequately defined) line, you’ve had sex and therefore sinned.

But if you’ve ever been to a Christian youth event where the topic of sex gets discussed, you’ll almost always hear the question, “where is the line? How far can I go with my partner and not sin?” At this point, the person leading the group starts to squirm and hem and haw and say something unhelpful like “instead of thinking about where the line is, maybe it’s best to stay as far away from the line as possible.”6 And that’s an answer that shuts down conversation because what else is there to say?

In contrast, if the church can talk about sex as something God gave us to bring a profound sense of mutually intimate pleasure into our lives, then instead of thinking about sex as a line that can’t be crossed, we can think of sex as a spectrum that we move along.

Because there are different kinds and levels of pleasure one can experience. Holding hands with a partner is one sort of pleasure, kissing is another, and the percussive thrill of orgasm is yet another. Each experience brings a different level of pleasure and vulnerability, and if Gudorf is correct in her assessment that God’s purpose for sex is pleasure, then the fraught, unhelpful question, “are we having (sinful) sex or not,” morphs into a number of interrelated questions that invite curiosity and conversation: “what sort of intimacy are we sharing? Are we both comfortable and enjoying what we’re doing? Is what we’re doing honoring to God and our-selves at this point in our relationship?”

And from the point of view of the church, instead of saying, “stay as far away as you can from an ill-defined sexual line that we won’t clarify for you,” defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act makes room for a much broader, more vulnerable conversation — one that encourages inquisitiveness and honesty. It reframes the topic so that the church can teach people how to talk to one another about intimacy, mutuality, consent, and pleasure as relational, embodied elements related to sex.

To Be Continued.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I know I said that once a thing is defined, we can also think about how to use it properly and safely, but I’m going to address how that plays out in the context of sex and Christian ethics in the next post. Because to do that well, I want to reintegrate what I’ve previously written about sin and marriage.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

[END POSTSCRIPT]


  1. Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1994), 65.  ↩
  2. Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), Kindle Edition.
  3. Tremper Longman, Song of Songs (NEW INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY ON THE OLD TESTAMENT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 114.  ↩
  4. Hess.  ↩
  5. Christine Marietta, *Turning Inward: Essays on Finding God in Female Sexuality (Self Published, 2016), 30.  ↩
  6. Which is still useless advice beause if the line isn’t defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?  ↩
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395. language is fuzzy (part 6) – how do we read the Bible?

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I ended my last post with these questions:

If the church has been wrong about its interpretation of the Bible before and may be wrong today then how do we read this thing we call the Bible? How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?

And here’s where I hope that all the groundwork I’ve laid in the this series will pay off.
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Photo by: Demi-Brooke

 

How do we read this thing we call the Bible?

The church has been wrong before about how it interpreted the Bible. The story of the astronomical move from geocentrism to heliocentrism is just one example of this.1 But this isn’t the only disconnect in church history. Around the time of the Civil War, there were many churches (and not just in America) using scripture to support the institution of slavery. And, there’s a contemporary analog to this – the church today is wrestling with how to reconcile scripture with the issue of marriage equality.

In light of all of this, what are we supposed to do with this thing we call the Bible? How do we read it when its been misread before and when people continue to disagree over how it should be interpreted today?
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Well in part 3 of this series, I talked about the vase/face illusion. I wrote that people can disagree over whether they believe the face or the vase is more prominent in the picture, but no one is going to take seriously the idea that it’s a picture of a rainbow. And how do we know it’s not a picture of a rainbow? Because in the grand community of our collective humanity, no one is going to say that with any seriousness. And it’s that communal aspect that I think is especially relevant to this discussion about how we read scripture.

So how do we read this the Bible in a time of differing interpretations?

We read and interpret scripture in community because it’s only in community that we can have any hope of coming to understand what it means for us today.2

And I believe that we should strive to read scripture in as wide a community as we can find, and that doesn’t just mean reading with liberals/conservatives in the American church today, it also means reading with the global Christian community.3 But for Christians, the interpretive community also includes paying attention to how scripture has been interpreted by readers of the past. NT Wright puts it this way:

Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our responsibility in the Communion of Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the final say or making them an “alternative source,” independent of scripture itself.4

And in when one reads the text in such a diverse community, differing interpretations are inevitable. But that’s not a bad thing because it’s my firm belief that the “true”5 meaning of the Bible emerges most clearly, not in any particular interpretation of it, but somewhere in the midst of divergent interpretations. In other words, in any biblical text or issue in dispute, it’s not that interpretation A or interpretation B is the one true interpretation. Rather, the “true” interpretation is more likely somewhere between the two.6 And if this is the case, then the goal of discussing varying interpretations of the Bible is not to sway the other person to one side or the other, rather, the goal is for interpreter A to try to understand how interpreter B came to their interpretation and vice versa.
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Photo by: atrphoto

 
It’s important to note that understanding does not mean agreement. It’s entirely possible for person A to understand how person B came to their interpretation while still disagreeing with them. But the process of discussion and understanding is still important because without understanding the other, disagreeing over interpretations can (and often does) devolve in to pointless shouting matches.

And here’s another important aspect of this process: person A tries their best to understand how person B arrived at their interpretation in order to question their own interpretation, not the other’s. In other words, I believe the primary goal of discussing differing biblical interpretations is not to prove another person’s wrong, rather, it’s to check one’s own interpretation. At the end of the day, person A might still disagree with person B (and vice versa) but when done well, each person will leave the discussion with their own position slightly changed and/or bolstered and thus, both people leave the exchange blessed by the other.

But what if we can’t pin down biblical interpretation down to one side or another, then that brings us to the second question:

How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?

And I’ll get to that question in my next post. Stay tuned!


1 This disconnect between science and scripture continues to play out today in the creationism/Intelligent Design/evolution debate.

2 N.T. Wright calls the church “the scripture-reading community.” N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 116.

3 I am really looking forward to diving into Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’brien!

4 N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 118.

5 The topic of truth is well beyond the scope of this blog series, but is another important topic of discussion. If you’re interested in how we hold truth in today’s postmodern, global context, I’d recommend Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age by J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh.

6 That’s not to say that both interpretations are closer to the truth to the same degree. It may well be the case that one side or the other is closer to the “truth,” but there can still be elements of the truth on the other side.