Friday, December 16, 2011

Evangelicals and arguments for chastity

The article Fearsome posted on the BHT has gotten me thinking about evangelical arguments for chastity.  Basically they suck.  How do I know this?  Well, if 80 percent of evangelicals ages 18-29 admit they're all fornicating animals that's one measure of failure.  Now the biblical prohibitions against gay sex and adultery are easily located but it seems the big failure in evangelicalism is the fornicating/pre-marital sex part. What has been the argument for avoiding premarital sex?

Lauren Winner has been saying for a few years that the whole case evangelicals build for chastity is this: you need to save it for the wedding night.  You want that wedding night to be super special.  You don't want to go into marriage with the shame of knowing you've been with other people.  Well, she has said, that argument may actually work for teenagers but if you're 28 instead of 18 and you're not sure you're ever going to get married what arguments can you marshall for chastity?  The answers evangelicals have come up with, if the fornicating rate of younger evangelicals is any indication is, nothing. Everything hangs on getting evangelical youth to marry as fast as possible so as to solemnize the sex drive.

I've written about this at length already but I've seen an inconsistent appeal to the biology of sex in evangelicalism.  If you're gay then whatever is biochemically applicable about your sexuality is something you need to repent of.  Turn to Jesus and repent of your biochemistry and sexuality.  If you're straight?  Well, get on the horse as fast as possible and get married because that biological thing called sexuality is proof that you need to be married.  Preferably last week, if you really love Jesus. 

Yet Paul wrote that the one who marries does well and the one who does not marry does better.  Paul famously lays out an eschatological argument that the present time is difficult and the time is short.  Life isn't THAT long in the eternal scope of things and you won't be married in the age to come.  Therefore if you can keep yourself from sexual immorality don't be in a rush to marry. I know this seems like a silly and impossible argument if you're 18 and beset by hormones but when you're 37 and have seen your friends lose wives and husbands to cancer or war or you've read newspaper headlines in which old college associates have been murdered you begin to realize how short life is.  When you've seen how married life has its joys that come at the cost of, say, finishing a book or song you wanted to write, you realize that there are opportunity costs to marriage.  More on this thing about opportunity costs later.

The second argument is that sexual sin is a sin against one's own body.  Tim Keller fleshed this one out a bit by pointing out that there are bonding processes in intercourse that knit two people together the more they have sex and that sexual immorality divorces the sexual act from this process.  As my brother-in-law put it, in a very different way, he noticed that once people started actually having sex they often couldn't stop.  So it made sense to not start unless you were starting with someone you're married to.

An application of the second argument is that the subject of "sexual compatibility" shouldn't even have to come up.  If you've kept your pants on and avoided fornication then if you and your spouse are not masters of bedroom sex positions then it doesn't matter, because you have no reference point from which to negatively assess your performance. As Luther is said to have said (and Lutherans, correct me if I'm wrong) if the husband and wife love each other they will love each other enough to not sweat how awesome or bad the sex is and the love outside the marital bed will be the incentive to get better. 

Now the third argument is one I don't think I've heard any evangelicals make in the last fifteen years for avoiding premarital sex.  I've seen it trotted out at rare intervals against adultery but the argument is from Proverbs 5.  Sexual immorality is financially catastrophic.  She may look hot, son, but when she gives birth to that out-of-wedlock baby three states away it's going to cost you!  You won't get custody of the kid, but you'll have to spend the next twenty years paying child support for a kid who will be raised, in all practical matters, as someone who isn't your kid. You'll get all the financial burdens and responsibilities of that child without the joys of playing with the kid or watching cartoons with the kid or teaching the child the things you know and the things you believe.  Oh, well, you might, but that'll be once a week or once a month depending on har far away the mother moved after things went south.

Proverbs 5 and 7 warn that while the opportunity for sexual gratification may be tempting it should not be forgotten that the cost is immense.  Back when I was a teen my parents were hard up for work and funds.  I ended up getting a job where I paid for my portion of the food bill.  Teenage boys eat a lot, in case anyone needs reminding of that.  Getting a grasp of how much I had to pay into the food budget just for my own food gave me some dim insight into the expense of kids.  I concluded that if I wasn't ready to raise one of my own it was not a great idea to sentimentally seek out the girl who would "complete me". 

I've had friends who are fellow evangelicals tell me that my remarks on the enormous expense of married life seems like an anti-romantic buzzkill.  I don't mean it to be that way.  It's just that I've seen marriages fall apart and what can happen to the kids in the wake of those divorces, those affairs, and those serial daters.  I've had a chance to observe the significance of divorce both first hand and second hand, and sometimes third hand.  I have come to the grim conclusion that most American evangelicals are sold, and sell themselves, a bill of goods about marriage that emphasizes the benefits and pleasures without adequately considering the expenses and responsibilities.  Now I grant up front that I have probably weighed the burdens and responsibilities too heavily but I haven't exactly been on dates so my observations are based on observation. 

It doesn't help that in many cases marriage is seen as the +10 category friendship, as Driscoll so eagerly put it.  A friend of mine has told me he wants to be married because there will be emotional intimacy.  I have told him that if he hasn't obtained that sort of emotional intimacy with family and friends already why should he think he'll obtain that kind of intimacy in a marriage? Marriage as the  +10 friendship over and above close friends and family (+7?) helps to perpetuate marriage as a holier-than-normal kind of relationship.  And, of course, marriage mirrors the Trinity so that makes it even more holy than any other kind of human relationship!  Who wouldn't want to be married then, ,eh? 
All those fornicating unmarried Christians are just seeking to model the love within the Trinity I guess, because there's no other kind of relationship that models Christian love that evangelicals want to talk about, is there? There are other kinds of relationship that model Christian love ... but we don't stamp them with "God's design" and move from there to the "epidemic of singleness", do we?

If evangelicals persist in arguing against premarital sex on the basis of the idealized wedding night then it won't be any wonder that 80 percent of American evangelicals in successive generations will tire of waiting.  We're in an economic slump that has been comparable to other recessions.  Some have even compared to to the Depression in terms of where it might still go.  This means the median age of first marriage is going to keep going up, not down.  Now if the best argument against premarital sex evangelicals come up with is still "save it for the wedding night" then evangelicals are idiots.  There is no place where the biblical authors ever make that case!

I've outlined the three basic arguments for avoiding premarital sex and other sexual dalliances that I've noticed in scripture over the years.  It would seem as though all three arguments must be kept in mind at various stages in life.  Let's face it, if there were only ONE case for keeping your pants on it's possible to exempt yourself from that one argument.  But if there are three arguments then if you might exempt yourself from warning 1 then warnings 2 and 3 are still relevant.  Your success rate may not reach 100%, you might still stumble with temptation, but if you have three biblically derived arguments for resisting temptation that's better than hanging everything on "I'm saving it for the wedding night."  We've had a chance to see over the last tweny years how THAT line of argument has been working out in evangelicalism.

There is a fourth argument, for the already married, that what you have is better than what you want.  Proverbs 5 discusses this a bit.  Be happy with the spouse you have because what you have is better than what you want.  The eye never has enough of seeing nor the ear of hearing.  There is always something newer and better, someone younger and hotter, or someone more "emotionally available" that you may be tempted to want.  Resist that temptation.  He or she will get old and fat, become emotionally distant, and die at some point.  As I have told some of my friends remember that time and gravity will inevitably defeat us all.  Some of my prettiest friends have appreciated this observation as more than a simple joke.  They don't mind being appreciated for being beautiful now but they want to be appreciated for more than that, and know that one day physical beauty will fade.  Your character remains when you no longer have the slamming body you had in your early twenties ... if you had one that is. 

If this seems like a recipe for going decades without getting any and sometimes being miserable about that, well, it is, but the practice of being a Christian means living your whole life with a desire that won't be realized in this life.  Why do you think we hope in the resurrection of Christ and sharing in the life to come?  Because it means getting all the tail we want now in Jesus' name, if we're adequately obedient?  Who sold you that prosperity gospel, anyway? Who says that if you just get all your ducks in a row that things will fall into place and then you can crank out a brood for Jesus' fame?  If that happens, well, be grateful, especially if the children are born without any genetic problems that led to allergies to common foods or neurological disorders or liver conditions.  Now I probably do seem like a buzzkill about marriage and parenting, huh? 

I don't think my mother has regretted giving birth to me even though I've spent my whole life with a vision history so bad eye doctors and surgeons remark on how crazy it is.  Has she stopped praying that my eyes would get better?  Nope.  Have my eyes gotten better?  Well, not exactly, but as I've been writing about in my essays on Batman: the animated series Batman lives in the place where he is reminded of what has been irrevocably lost and living with a desire that is impossible to have met in this life.  In other words, the Fall is the Fall and the new heaven and earth are not yet with us. Batman villains can be seen as those who deny any Fall took place or that death will touch us all, or who believe they can usher in the new heaven and earth with their plan.  Batman calls bullcrap on both impulses, which is why he's a hero.

But it also means Batman lives between the agony of loss and impossible desire, all the time.  This is actually the normal way of living as a Christian. I keep driving this point home as I work on essays about Batman: the animated series for Mockingbird because I like Batman, but also because the cartoon does a good job of illustrating an unresolvable tension that can be seen as characteristic of Christian living.  We live between an awareness of the Fall and and a new heaven and earth that isn't with us, and a resurrection body we do not have and anticipate. 

Meanwhile, the whole process of offering one's body as a living sacrifice suggests that the sacrifice is not your best life now, and it's not fulfilling "God's design" by letting biological impulses be taken as prima facie evidence that what you want must be what God wants for you.  There are going to be times of miserable loneliness compounded by evangelicals saying that you're not being married means you're a loser who has failed to live out "God's design".  You might even hear some pastor say something like that having sex with a condom is like trying to eat a stake with a latex glove on your tongue.  You might end up having a pastor go on a weeks-long or months-long series on marriage and sex and hear friends say, "Oh, it's cool because it gives us something to look forward to."  Reread that as new ways to be tempted, too.  If evangelicals think their best argument for chastity and fidelity is "save it for the wedding night" then the 80 percent of evangelicals ages 18-29 who are boning each other like there's no tomorrow may well prove how compelling that argument has been.  We've made the bed as evangelicals, and we've found out a little too clearly what we've done while in it.

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