Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

On Sexual Apologetics: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 7)

November 23rd, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Jake Meador, writing about my take on sexuality, wants me to expand my thoughts on the "apologetic undercurrent" of evangelical teachings about sexuality:

Sadly, evangelicals are often unwilling or unprepared to identify what’s sand and what’s solid ground. So on matters of sexuality, our discussion ends up trapped in the “sex and pleasure” cul de sac in which its impossible – or at least quite difficult – to discuss sex in terms other than the immediate bodily pleasure it gives us. Rather than concede that point, evangelicals need to reset the discussion. Anderson does that wonderfully, but it’d be interesting to hear him address the base cause of our muddled discussion, which comes from the “apologetic undercurrent” influencing the discussion.

I understand Jake's concern here, and it's one that I clearly share.  The evangelical mantra of "Hey, we have great sex too!" is wearisome and embarrassing.

But let's just acknowledge the difficulties of the evangelical situation, if only to understand it better.  On the one hand, trying to shift the ground such that pleasure isn't the only good under consideration almost invariably comes across as negative toward pleasure.  And for good reason:  near the heart of the evangelical proclamation about sexuality is the idea that pleasure, while good, isn't good enough to justify a particular sex act on its own.

On the other hand, this narrative that evangelicals are hostile toward sex and pleasure is so pervasive that it shapes even our affirmations.  Evangelicals share the blame for this narrative, of course, as we've retold it enough within our own movement (how else to sell those books and fill those conferences?).  But in attempting to offer an alternative, we rarely escape its domain.  Why start with full-throated affirmation's of sex and pleasure's goodness?  There's no reason to, except to defang the sneaking suspicion that we're opposed.

Which is to say, the apologetic undercurrent is very much tied to broader questions of evangelicalism's relationship with the world.  I'm not going to identify a root cause here, but let me offer one better way forward for evangelicals who want to affirm the goodness of sex in ways that legitimate it without falling prey to anxiously defending it:  make beautiful art.

Evangelicals have a "more excellent way" on sexuality.  Yet that "more excellent way" depends for its excellence on being veiled and shrouded in darkness.  It is not a matter of prudishness that Scripture's most intensely erotic book, the Song of Solomon, is also the most metaphorical.  Yet if evangelicals want to affirm the act outside of the terms that have been set for us by the culture, then we must leave the matter in the metaphors, rather than attempting to unveil it for the world.  Speaking in poetry about sex isn't a matter of prudishness--rather, it's a matter of suggesting that the goodness of sex includes the pleasure but goes beyond it.  Which is, I think, precisely how metaphors work.

Art conceals as much as it reveals.  The art that we are most intrigued by is shrouded in ambiguity, hidden behind a veil of uncertainty.  It takes us to the center of the mysteries of human existence, demonstrating their beauty and goodness as mysteries.

And when it comes to human sexuality, a mystery lies at the heart of the Christian proclamation.  If evangelicals wish, then, to escape the anxious striving that comes from trying to escape the dominant ethos of sexuality, we should start by rediscovering the truly human things and reinvigorating our appreciation for the arts.  Because the "more excellent way" of sexuality is graced with the loveliness of allusions and the subtle delights of analogies.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.