Tuesday, May 23, 2006

sex, adultery, pornography, 12 steps, chastity and community

In the NY Times, May 19, 2006 Lauren F. Winner published an article entitled Saving Grace that was sent to me by my friend Jen and I thought you all should read it!

The recent Harvard study that found teenagers' virginity pledges to be ineffective should come as a surprise to no one. Several studies had already come to that conclusion. If we are truly to help our teenagers adopt the countercultural sexual ethic of abstinence until marriage, Christians concerned about the rampant premarital sex in our communities need to rethink, rather than simply defend, young people's abstinence pledges.

It is awfully easy for Christians to blame our community's sexual sins on the mores of post-sexual revolution America — to criticize Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, to natter on about how "Grey's Anatomy" portrays sexual behavior that doesn't square with Christianity. But perhaps it's more important that we reconsider how we talk about sex in the church. For although the church devotes an immense amount of energy to teaching about sexuality — just go to the Christian inspiration section of your nearest Barnes & Noble and compare the number of books about chastity to books that challenge, say, consumerism — many Christians still "struggle with" (in that euphemistic evangelical phrase) premarital sex, adultery and pornography.

So why is the church's approach to teaching chastity falling short? Consider the popular "True Love Waits" virginity pledge: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."

This pledge and others like it are well meaning but deeply flawed. For starters, there's something disturbing about the assumption that teenagers are passively waiting for their future mates and children, when the New Testament is quite clear that some Christians are called to lifelong celibacy. (Paul, for example, did not have a mate or children, and Dan Brown's fantasies notwithstanding, Jesus's only bride was the church.) Chastity is not merely about passive waiting; it is about actively conforming our bodies to the arc of the Gospel and receiving the Holy Spirit right now.

Pledgers promise to control intense bodily desires simply by exercising their wills. But Christian ethics recognizes that the broken, twisted will can do nothing without rehabilitation by God's grace. Perhaps the centrality of grace is recognized best not in a pledge but in a prayer that names chastity as a gift and beseeches God for the grace to receive it. The pledges are also cast in highly individualistic terms: I promise that I won't do this or that. As the Methodist bishop William Willimon once wrote: "Decisions are fine. But decisions that are not reinforced and reformed by the community tend to be short-lived."

During our first year of marriage, my husband and I lived in a small apartment inside a church. On Tuesdays, Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon met downstairs. As I got to know some of the regulars, I began to wonder if there wasn't something the church could learn from the 12-step groups in our midst. After all, what are 12-step groups but communities of people expecting transformation? People show up because they want to change, and they know that making a promise by themselves — I will stop drinking — won't cut it. Alcoholics Anonymous explicitly recognizes that transformation works best when a community comes alongside you and participates in your transformation. Christians, like 12-step group attendees, are people who are committed to becoming, to use the Apostle Paul's phrase, new creatures. Living sexual lives that comport with the Gospel is one part of that.

Perhaps pledges for chastity need to be made not only by the individual teenager. Perhaps we also need pledges made by the teenager's whole Christian community: we pledge to support you in this difficult, countercultural choice; we pledge that the church is a place where you can lay bare your brokenness and sin, where you don't have to dissemble; we pledge to cheer you on when chastity seems unbearably difficult, and we pledge to speak God's forgiveness to you if you falter. No retooled pledge will guarantee teenagers' chastity, but words of grace and communal commitment are perhaps a firmer basis for sexual ethics than simple assertions that true love waits.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of "Girl Meets God" and "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity."

5 comments:

Sarah Louise said...

Thank you for re-printing this, BJ! Lauren Winner is so right on the ball. I actually sort of just blogged about this.

david said...

this is both a thoughtfully written and insigthful post . . . as the father of a 15 yr old who is attempting to understand his sexually idenitity as well as his own personal identity . . . i thank you word this little nudge in course direction . . . making sure that i maintain the course . . . you helped with that! thanks!

Maureen said...

Well said. I just heard of Lauren Winner about a week ago--then another friend passed your blog post on to me. I just started a new season of student ministry, so this is timely truth for me to be reminded of. Thanks for posting.

Tucker said...

Beautiful post

Jonathan Erdman said...

Really good post.

Thanks.

I think I would question the whole point of taking a chastity pledge--whether this be in a community or individually. The reason is that I think it creates a pressure cooker feeling for youth. Virginity becomes this critical definition of one's godliness and personal righteousness. I wonder if it is really all that important. Sure, it's a good thing to shoot for, but a good thing can become a bad thing if it is taken to a level of importance that it was never intended to be. Virginity is nice, but it is only a small part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Jesus himself never suggested that virginity was the highest Christian ideal.

Virginity until marriage can also rush young people into marriages that they are not ready to handle. The maturity process of American youth is taking longer and longer. This is particularly true of conservative Christian children who are often isolated in home schools or Christian schools. So, if one is living with repressed sexual desire, it can feel like a pressure cooker and lead to marriages too early in life.

I'm not suggesting that one say that virginity is not important, only that it is not the litmus test for faithfulness.