[This is the seventh part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]
Question 7 is this: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
This is the most frustrating chapter I've encountered so far. It is frustrating, not because I disagree with what McLaren has to say, but because he doesn't really address the most critical question that is involved in a dialog on this issue. What he does have to say, however, is sensible enough, and its worth reading.
In summarizing the chapter on this issue, I'm going to take McLaren's discussion slightly out of order because it makes more sense to me when it is restructured.
At the heart of the "sex" question is our sex-obsessed culture. We live in large cities, normally in great anonymity, and we have access to a wealth of birth control and medications that make the consequences of casual sex less imposing than they have ever been. Our economic system constantly brings us into contact with members of the opposite sex, and discourages marriage during the teen years and early adulthood, a time in our developmental cycles when we are highly sexually active. None of these situations are like anything that was faced by the cultures in scripture.
And that isn't all. With the mass media (particularly, the internet), pornography has become ubiquitous and advertisers have become alarmingly effective at exploiting our sexual instincts to sell their products: sexual idealism (in the way we look and in our lifestyle) is sold to us at every turn. On the other hand, extreme poverty leaves millions of people with literally nothing to do each day, other than have casual sexual contact with each other.
Set up against this doubtlessly over-sexualized culture is a very stringent code of sexual conduct that has been a part of most Christian traditions for a long time. The most rigid enforcers of this code are certain sects of Christians who promote a form of sexuality that McLaren calls fundasexuality. This is not quiet, respectful disagreement with different lifestyles, but a loud, militant, hate-filled, fear-full approach that seeks to humiliate and shame all sexual conduct that is undertaken outside of heterosexual marriage.
But are fundasexuals principally correct, though horrifically misguided in the way they approach those who think and act differently? Do those who disagree in a respectful, loving way have a valid point? It is here that I lose the ability make out what McLaren has to say on the subject. He suggests it is possible that, like the heliocentric view of the Universe that was overturned in the middle ages, our view of sexuality is now being re-examined. He also re-assesses the first six questions that he has addressed in light of the issue of sexuality, discussing – among other things – the need to avoid a constitutional reading of scripture, and goes into an extended, and intriguing, exegesis of the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunich, emphasizing that the "sexually different" found a place in the early Church.
Fair enough. Our churches should be open to the sexually different. Jesus ate with, defended, and welcomed prostitutes among his disciples. But I don't think that his analysis gets us to a very important question that lies at the heart of our uncertainty and confusion on the issue: Is heterosexual marriage the only proper location for the expression of our sexuality? In other words, if someone is promiscuous or gay, should those conditions be lovingly viewed as characteristics that we would expect might fade away as such people make the journey deeper into discipleship, or should they be considered a part of their permanent, God-given identity? I think that these questions need to be tackled head-on.
In any event, I appreciate the way McLaren deals with the issue of sexuality as a whole, treating homosexuality as a part of the larger picture, because a whole array of other sexual issues are brewing under the surface. Homosexuals, who statistically are usually around 10% of a population, are easy targets for criticism – large enough to seem imposing, but small enough that they can't defend themselves very well. And when everyone is dealing with their own array of sexually confusing issues (adultery, pre-marital sex, divorce, pornography use, sexual abuse of children, etc.), it can be awfully nice to have a scapegoat to keep the rage (and sense of guilt) drawn away from yourself.
McLaren concludes by pointing out that gays and lesbians may have a lot to teach the rest of us about the way we deal with our own, sometimes bizarre sometimes exhilarating sexuality. By being open about who they are, they are encouraging all of us to become more open about our own sexuality, and – perhaps – this will lead to an opportunity for healing, transformation, and liberation from guilt among all of us.
At the end of this Chapter, I feel like I am left with better questions about sexuality, but – in spite of McLaren's efforts – without much of a handle on how to approach the answers.