Once more into the breach.
Last week was a rather busy one for me, full of all sorts of fun musings about evangelicals and sex. In addition to the two parts of my review of Driscoll’s book, I also penned the following at Christianity Today:
In short, if there were more talk about sex elsewhere in the church, perhaps in the privacy of our communities and classrooms, we might get away with a good deal less of it from our pulpits and our publishing houses. Until then, the message will continue to get drowned out amidst the bombardment of infotainment that our evangelical world suffers from. In other words, if the message is not getting through, we might think about changing the messenger and method. Otherwise, the sensationalistic path of least resistance inevitably comes to the fore.
Just as importantly, learning how sexuality is a community concern gives a voice to those who are frequently ignored when the topic arises: those who are single, and especially singles who may be called to that state. It’s paradoxical, of course, to think that those who might never have sex have something to teach the married about it. But within the community of the church, single people have an indispensible role in reminding the married that for all its joys and pleasures, life without sex is not one of drudgery or disappointment. Rather, it contains within it the possibility of fruitful adventure. As Oliver O’Donovan wonderfully puts it, “[The New Testament church] conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond to its eschatological transformation.”
Yet for all our earnest attempts to speak the language of culture about sexuality, we evangelicals should be careful to not let go of the fundamental mystery that is at the heart of the sexual union. When St. Paul, a controversial figure himself when it comes to such things, writes to the Ephesians that “a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” he follows it up in his next breath by reminding us that “this mystery is profound” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Sex, for Christians, is not less than an act for the purposes of physical pleasure, but it is more than that, much more. It is an image of the relationship we believe is at the heart of the universe, a relationship that is as mysterious as it is beautiful.
At the same time, the Bible does speak frankly and openly about human sexuality (including homosexuality, but that is a matter for a different time). Yet its most sustained teaching on the matter, the Song of Solomon, is cloaked in metaphor and allusions. The language of poetry is not that of prudes: rather, it is that of lovers, of those who know by delighting in the body that the anatomical descriptions fail to capture the enchantment. Poetry is its own fusion of modesty and eroticism: it includes the physical within itself, while going beyond it. Which, I’m told, is near how a metaphor works.
The Song helps us relearn what nearly every civilization before ours already knew: Sex is allegory, and as allegory it is metaphysics and theology and cosmology. For Christians, sexual difference and union is a type of Christ and the church: How could an erotic poem (and in the Bible!) be anything but allegory? From the Song we relearn that poetic metaphor does not add meaning to what is itself mere chemistry and physics. Nor is erotic poetry a euphemistic cover for Victorian embarrassment. Poetry elucidates the human truth of human sexuality, and it seems uniquely capable of doing so. Only as allegory does the Song have anything to teach us about sex. Only as allegory can the Song play its central role in healing our sexual imaginations.