First of all, I have a story today at The Daily Beast on the fallout over Mark Driscoll’s “controversial” new book, Real Marriage. It’s probably not news to most Patrol readers, but check it out if you’re interested. At least I had fun describing Driscoll as a “testosterone-oozing Calvinist bruiser.”
Something that came up in passing in the piece was the simultaneous release of Texas pastor Ed Young’s Sexperiment, which he’s promoting by livestreaming himself and his wife talking in bed on the church roof. You’ll remember him as the guy who ordered the couples in his congregation to have sex every day for a week, and received a massive amount of media attention and a book deal for doing so.
Another thing that came up is how much of a re-run all of this is. There have been explicit-ish evangelical sex books before, and others have preceded the Driscolls in basically approving of “deviant” sex acts between married couples. But the media blitz for Real Marriage has been enormous, and its press materials were packed with salacious buzzwords about how it would send “shockwaves” through the Christian world. It’s explicitness is being oversold all over the internet (not least in some prudish comments by Tim Challies in this post), as is the edginess of its argument.
So what is the deal here? Why is this sex talk able to take up so much oxygen if it’s not new or all that scandalous? Are evangelicals just obsessed with sex? I came up with a few very speculative reasons, and welcome input and correction.
1. Keeping up with the culture. As I noted elsewhere recently (and Darryl Hart argues similarly in his new book), evangelicals are intensely concerned about keeping pace with the culture around them. It’s a weird form of progressivism, a fear of being left behind by history, even if it is rather spotty and selective. So because sex is such a huge deal culturally and politically, it is “on the brain,” and tends to push that sort of issue to the forefront of the discussion. I think at one point there was a sense, even if it isn’t as raw now, that talking about sex in a frank, explicit way could make up for the ways evangelical theology forces believers to remain culturally backward. It sort of combats the pervasive cultural stereotype (which I agree is both prejudicial and contradicted by most empirical evidence) that married and religious people are repressed, sexless and frustrated.
2. Holding on to the kids. Evangelical ministers and parents realize that the conflict between how their children are asked to behave in a modern secular culture and the norms of that culture is overwhelming, intense, and pervasive. The kids (I use the term loosely) are going to hear and see stuff, very explicit stuff, about sex frequently if not constantly. (As Penn Jilette put it: “They’re going to hear Katy Perry.”) There is no longer any escaping it, so the only choice is to compete with it. And that means dealing frankly with a lot of things that used to be unimaginable in church/parent sex talks. I think parents also feel pressure to model a Christian marriage/sex life if there’s going to be any hope that their kids follow them in it, so it makes it a live subject that people can’t hear enough about.
3. It sells. In general, I don’t really believe evangelicals are any more obsessed with sex than anyone else in America. (There’s the abstract fixation on the sexual other as enemy of society’s moral order, but that’s a different thing.) The proliferation of books and media hype in the evangelical world is driven by the same thing it is everywhere else: money. Pseudo-salacious, pseudo-controversial books like Driscoll’s sell very well, particularly when they’re written by an already-huge Christian celebrity, and probably even have a bit of crossover appeal. Christian publishers are in this to make money as much as regular ones, and I have no doubt that the keeping the idea going that church is in dire need of “serious conversations” about sex is great for business. (It may happen to be true, but a Mark Driscoll book isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of how that conversation might go.)
I’m not saying any more about the book itself because I probably disagree with its authors’ first principles too much for that to make any sense. Plus, Susan Wise Bauer has written a perfectly good review, and Matt Lee Anderson has some interesting things to say as well.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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