What Is It with Christians and Sex?

The guilt-and-shame game

“She advocates dirty books,” was the accusation of Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Her barb was aimed at Marian the Librarian, and she spoke conventional Christian wisdom: sex = dirt. Tom Lehrer captured more truth—even for many Christians—in his classic song Smut, “Dirty books are fun…I enjoy having my prurient interests aroused.” But proper Christian orthodoxy pulls us back to Mrs. Shinn’s verdict. As we find it expressed in the Bible, for example.

There are some choice texts that even devout folks might wish weren’t in the New Testament. For example, Galatians 5:24, a gem from the tortured mind of the apostle Paul: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” I suspect many Christians don’t even know this verse (is Galatians at the top of their reading lists?), and they would give it a resounding NO if we changed the name to protect the guilty: “Those who belong to the Wicked Witch of the West have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

Everything that Paul wrote about sex screams dysfunction. “It is well for a man not to touch a woman…”(I Corinthians 7:1); “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am…” (I Corinthians 7:8). “…the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none…” (1 Corinthians 7:29) It seems that having sex would diminish one’s readiness to meet Jesus descending through the clouds.

We have no idea what happened in Paul’s childhood that put him off sex so much, but there was enough in the Old Testament to reinforce negativity. Right after God created Eve for Adam, we read in Genesis 2:25: “And the man and his wife were naked, and were not ashamed.” But after gaining wisdom by eating the forbidden fruit, “…they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” (Genesis 3:7)

No one else was around! But they didn’t want God to see them naked. So, imbedded in this ancient mythology is the tension between sex and religion, exacerbated by personal monotheism as it evolved: God is always watching; fig leaves won’t help. Theologians and religious bureaucrats—following the example of Paul’s revulsion—have laid down the rules and set the tone. The damage has been incalculable.

If we could just extricate religion from the regulation of human sexuality! Personal monotheism—as depicted in the Bible—isn’t a guide to morality. Indeed, too much of it falls far short. Just check out the story of Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19:30-38).

We can do better than the Bible.

Darrel W. Ray’s essay, “Secular Sexuality: A Direct Challenge to Christianity,” in John Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails, makes a case for getting beyond destructive religious sexual ideologies—and there is no mistaking the source:

“The Christian sexual journey begins by teaching shame for one’s own body. After eating the so-called forbidden fruit in Genesis, Adam and Eve knew they were naked and decided to put on some clothes. Body shame and sexual shame are among the first lessons in the Bible. From women’s uncleanliness for two weeks during menstruation to having sex with harlots or between men, or stoning women for not being virgins on their wedding night, there are many lessons from the Old Testament. But it is not until Jesus and Paul that we get the new and much more intrusive god living inside the mind.” (p. 362, emphasis added)

“Once the personal god or mind-reading god idea is installed in a person, a battle begins. It is a battle of the watching and nagging god against the natural biological, social, and developmental processes we experience as humans. The very act of thinking becomes a hazardous endeavor. Engaging in perfectly normal sexual behavior becomes damning.” (p. 361)

The damage extends well beyond the church itself, as Ray points out:

“The Christian sexuality surrounds and infects even the nonreligious, and it can be difficult for secular people to understand it and eliminate it from their worldview. From infancy, we are indoctrinated by the religious culture that surrounds us.” (p. 362)

“There is no denying the crystal-clear messages in the New Testament, no matter how religious leaders try to spin their scriptures. Christian sexual shame is ubiquitous in our culture, and comes from people who are infected with the Christian mind parasite…infected Christians feel they must enforce the good news of sexual repression on the rest of the world.” (p. 365)

…on the rest of the world. Isn’t there now a sense of urgency about this?

It is imperative that Christians learn to mind their own business (somehow be placed in quarantine) as the modern world strives to sort out sex and gender-related issues that require understanding and compassion—instead of dogmatic denunciation. It’s time to grow up.

We know that lightening is not caused by angry gods, mental illnesses aren’t caused by demons, and tsunamis and earthquakes aren’t God’s payback for sin. We need likewise to banish arrogant, aggressive ignorance about human sexuality. We don’t need input from folks who believe that the priests who wrote Leviticus were experts on sex—or that the apostle Paul’s phobias about intercourse are binding today. We can adopt a sane approach.

There is a sense of urgency because of high gay teen suicide rates, the savage beatings of transsexuals—almost in the news now daily, it seems—and the ongoing anguish of anti-gay discrimination. Ray points out that not only “cults and fundamentalist religions” are to blame:

“The gay Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist adult who is afraid to come out is responding to childhood fear trauma. The polyamorous couples that fear being found out by their parents are reacting to the real fear messages learned in childhood. The parents of these same people are victims as well, and they are often terrified of their own gay, bisexual, lesbian, transsexual, or polyamorous children.” (pp. 367-368)

Christianity is heavily invested in being right about sexuality; this seems to be part of its very identity. Accepting homosexuality would supposedly be an affront to Jesus himself, a threat to the faith itself. Ray discusses this aspect of the problem:

“Religions try to create a comprehensive set of ideas inside your head that is largely closed to outside influence. If successful, this set of ideas will result in specific behavior…ideas like ‘tithing’ can push you to put money in the offering plate. Ideas like ‘salvation’ can create a sense of security within the group and also horror of being ‘cast out’ into eternal damnation. Ideas about an omniscient god can lead you to repress sexual thoughts. Ideas about sexual purity create a sense of imperfection and guilt.” (pp. 368-369)

“To question the deity, to challenge the minister, to read the wrong book—these are all opportunities for competing ideas to get into your head…Competing ideas are dangerous to the Christian parasite. Outside ideas can lead to less consistent religious behavior, poorer transmission to the next generation, or a total unraveling of the carefully crafted Christian infection.” (p. 369)

This is what we’re up against trying to bring compassion and rationality to discussions about sexuality. Just the mention of homosexuality—let alone advocacy of marriage equality—or transsexual rights brings on white-knuckle rage; these are affronts to Christianity itself. Which, of course, many less fanatical Christians know is not true at all. Darrel Ray understates the imperative we face: “We need to learn something about how to prevent or eliminate Christian sexuality and replace it with a more life-affirming and sex-positive approach.” (p. 368)

Sex is not one of our baser instincts to overcome: we are programed by nature to want and enjoy it. What are the real sins? The world has been—and continues to be—endangered by racism, contempt for immigrants, misogyny, and fear of those outside in-groups. And virulent homophobia. To the extent that Christianity does try to pull its adherents away from these ugly realities, then we can cheer it on, and perhaps even glimpse the compassionate God whom they is real. The visceral antipathy toward sexual minorities is especially appalling. Just a little research reveals that ancient prejudices—considered hallowed for so long—are just dead wrong.

Church bureaucrats are not easily dissuaded or diverted. Compare three versions of 1 Corinthians 6:9:

King James: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind…”

Revised Standard Version (1946): “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals…”

New Revised Standard Version: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites…”

The 1946 translators wanted to make sure the folks in the pews knew that Paul was talking about that modern perversion, homosexuality. The Greek word, arsenokoitai, is very rare, and translators have struggled with it; in fact, the 1946 version includes a footnote, “Two Greek words are rendered by this expression”—almost admitting that it’s a guess. Even less accurate is the word sodomites that replaced homosexual in the New RSV. The popular paraphrase version, The Message Bible, makes a stab at decency (although rescuing Paul’s awful theology is impossible): “Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.” For information about the translation of arsenokoitai, see “Has ‘Homosexual” Always Been in the Bible?”

In the final section of the essay, Ray addresses what “secular sexuality” means:

“Secular sexuals have no convenient, built-in rules codified in holy books…We start with a positive view of sex as an important part of our biology. We recognize that we only get one life and one body, so we need to respect and take care of our body and those of others. We try to identify sex-negative messages from our culture and eliminate them from our lives. We resist body shaming and cultural notions of ideal bodies.” (p. 370)

Ray suggests five questions—among many others—that can help us decide if we need to “disinfect” ourselves from religions sexual biases; most Christians, I suspect, would panic:

1. Am I ashamed to admit that I masturbate?
2. Am I afraid to let my children know that I had premarital sex or had many sex partners before I married my spouse?
3. Would I be ashamed if someone found out I like porn?
4. Am I ashamed to talk to my partner about sexual fantasies or activities I’d like to try?
5. Am I afraid of rejection by my partner if I am honest about my sexual desires?

These would be a challenge for so many folks who have come under the sway of Christianity sexuality; as Ray points out, “Christian expectations and ideals lead people to believe that they are abnormal or wrong if they do not conform to the standard models of relationships.” (pp. 374-375)

“…take a look at the programming you received from religious training and do some reprogramming. This is the only life you have. This is the only body you get. Why waste your sexuality on religious-based shame? There is no God watching you. There is no Jesus judging you.” (p. 374)

Occasionally we find that secular renderings of God are the best. In the 1977 movie, Oh God, with George Burns in the title role, he makes a confession: “That was another little goof of mine. Shame. I don't know why I thought we needed shame.” If the Christian god makes a habit of correcting his mistakes, maybe he could tell a few billion Christians—through the very reliable prayer channels, naturally—to lighten up: “Please, get on with your sex lives, I don’t peek in your bedrooms. Let’s focus instead on knocking out racism, misogyny, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia. You know, those things that are tearing you‘all apart.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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