Hip Puritan Sex
In his latest book, Rob Bell gives a slick makeover to some old truisms and prejudices about sex.
By Astrid Storm
Rob Bell’s advice to an aspiring writer—“Get rid of your edit button, and just write and write and write”—is good preparation for anyone planning to read his new book “Sex God,” slated for release in March. Don’t expect coherence; Bell jumps from Nazi soldiers piling up corpses at Bergen-Belsen to high school boys sizing up women at their lockers in one dizzying page. Paragraphs later, when he launches into another illustration by saying “I just got an email saying…” you sense that the email did just pop up as he was writing. His footnotes function more as asides than as sources of information—“Please go read everything Donald Miller has ever written.” “Have you ever been that girl? Or that boy?” “Trust me, [my wife] is … brilliant,” and “No offense to country music fans everywhere.” LOL!
This is all part of Bell’s schtick as the youthful face of a new, more tolerant, form of evangelicalism sometimes called “emergent.” On his website, Nooma.com, you can watch film shorts where Bell sermonizes while unloading soccer balls from his trunk or walking down a derelict alleyway to a steady guitar drone. In “Sex God,” he talks about people he met at a Rolling Stones concert, references Bono a few times, and uses the thrill of opening a new pack of cigarettes to illustrate a point about the beauty of the material world. Reading his book sometimes feels like being on a nicotine buzz, and it’s kind of fun.
It’s also a step forward for many evangelicals who, like Bell, grew up in Christian evangelical homes with some pretty puritanical attitudes toward sex. At times, Bell sounds far more liberal than you’d expect—like when he suggests that couples living together are as good as married, regardless of whether or not they have a certificate of marriage. Or that Scripture is a record of evolving attitudes about women, which have continued to evolve even after the Scriptural canon was closed.
But don’t let such remarks or its drunken prose fool you, because, when all is said and done, “Sex God” falls back on many of the old-fashioned, outmoded sexual precepts and assumptions that continue to plague evangelicalism new and used. On premarital abstinence, for instance, Bell describes the “enemy”—those who prefer abstinence as just one option among many—as hardened, resigned, and cynical. Such people may claim to be realists, he argues, but theirs is not the voice of realism. “It’s the voice of despair. It’s the voice that asks, ‘Aren’t we all really just animals?’”
Similarly, in the course of talking about how sex is about much more than copulation, Bell again engages this false enemy: “For many, sexuality is simply what happens between two people involving physical pleasure.” Whoa, just a second. Is that really how “many” people would define sexuality? Wouldn’t most of us acknowledge that sex is much more than just the sex act itself?
In both cases, Bell feeds the suspicion that evangelicals are perpetually in dialogue with their own, and usually false, perception of the enemy. It’s hardly radical to assert that sexual activity among younger, unmarried adults may not be a bad thing under certain circumstances—especially if the participants are not causing harm to themselves or others. And it’s simply erroneous to draw a direct line from this position to a despairing view of human nature. Moreover, as anyone who has stayed abreast of the sexual ethic debates over the last 30 or so years knows, the distinction between “sex” and “sexuality” is an old one, and the choices aren’t simply abstinence or reckless hedonism.
Bell’s chapter on another hot topic among many evangelicals—Paul’s injunction for women to submit to their husbands—initially seems promising, but soon devolves into a long discourse about how scoring a man isn’t a measure of a woman’s worth. No kidding! The need to even bother to make such an observation the 21st century is a reminder that Bell is still very much in dialogue with—and the child of—conservative evangelicals.
Bell makes a further retreat into the puritanical arms of his evangelical forebears with some truly preachy commentary. For instance, there’s his annoying observation about some teenagers he saw groping each other in a London subway. “What if subway girl demanded that before she gave herself to subway boy, he had to prove that he was the kind of man who would lay down his life for her?” Bell stodgily wonders. I mean, lighten up and let the poor girl have some fun!
Bell seems smart (albeit a little unfocused), earnest, at times humorous, and, as the evangelicals would say, it’s obvious that his “heart’s in the right place.” But I’m just not sure what, in the end, his book contributes to the incredibly difficult and contentious topic of sex and Christianity. With ten thousand in his congregation and such a compelling personality, he has the power to say a lot and to bring about real change. To remind us that sex is more than the sex act and that human beings are more than just animals is hardly groundbreaking or helpful; to package the old truisms and prejudices of his father’s generation in this glossy, hip wrapping is downright deceptive and potentially harmful.
Fortunately, some evangelicals—the pro-gays and those who support birth control, especially in developing countries where unprotected sex leads to serious health risks—are making significant strides on these issues and redressing the harm done by generations before them by facing them head-on. And they’re saving lives while they’re at it.
When I picked up “Sex God,” I had hoped Rob Bell might be attempting to do the same. But edit out the glitz, and I’m afraid you get just another rehash of that fusty, old-time religion.
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