As the clergy reading this blog may perhaps attest, it is always interesting when a parishioner presses a book into your hand with the request, “Father, would you please read this and tell me what you think?” The book in question is rarely something like Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, or Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, or (to bring it up to date a little more) David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions. The last time this occurred to me the book in question was The Shack. But the request is usually wisely made. It is almost as if the parishioner’s “Spidey sense” began to tingle, and they want to find out why.
This time the book was Sacred Sex, written by Tim Alan Gardner and published by WaterBrook Press in 2002. Chapter one was entitled “Holy Sex” and its first four brief paragraphs all began with the words, “Sex is holy”. I suspect the book as a whole was entitled Sacred Sex because of its alliterative value, and because calling it Holy Sex would have sounded too much like a verbal expostulation, or something Robin would have said to Batman upon entering an illegal brothel. (“Holy sex, Batman! What kind of a place have we stumbled into?”) One suspects that the title Sacred Sex was chosen by the publisher as less given to the comedic and more stately.
It was not a difficult read. Its author was a Presbyterian minister who also works as a marital therapist. It was written as a popular work, rather than a scholarly one, and in a chatty, light-hearted tone. Quotes at the head of chapters included citations from W.C. Fields, Albert Einstein, Danny Thomas, Will Rogers, C.S. Lewis (who would not have been much pleased), Billy Crystal, and (of course) Marilyn Monroe. The brief endorsing blurbs at the beginning of the book included one from a “teaching pastor” of Willow Creek Community Church.
In many ways it was an admirable book as well as being an easy read. It forms part of a larger literature of Christian self-help books on marriage, stretching back to a similar volume I remember from my single years in 1973 entitled, Do Yourself a Favor—Love Your Wife. Though Gardner’s book runs to 221 pages, its basic message could be more easily summarized and perhaps made to fit on the back of a large postcard. It is that sexual intimacy in marriage finds its purpose and fulfillment in emotional openness, vulnerability, and mutual kindness and sensitivity, and that one should refuse to buy into the lies our secular society offers about sexuality and fulfillment. It is this larger emotional and mutually-supportive context that he refers to (rather relentlessly) as “holy sex”. The phrase recurs like a kind of mantra, and the book ends with a final assertion that “sex is holy”. All in all, there are worse ways to spend $13.99 US. But from an Orthodox perspective, there are also several problems, and I would like to mention some of them.
The first is Gardner’s dismissal and distortion of what the historical Church actually taught about sex. There are books available outlining what the Church has taught, but despite them Gardner seems to be unaware of the teaching of the Church throughout the centuries. In his footnotes documenting his assertions, apart from St. Augustine’s Confessions, he cites only such secondary sources such as R.C. Sproul’s The Intimate Marriage, Sapp’s Sexuality, the Bible, and Science, and Hybels and Wilkins’ Tender Love (this last from Moody Press). And he seems not to have understood these books, assuming that the books themselves were accurate.
Thus in the seven brief paragraphs devoted to the topic “Sex and Church History” Gardner writes, that “Some have even concluded ‘that God regards sex as intrinsically evil’” (Gardner here cites Sproul). Gardner goes on to write that, “Some in the history of the church have regarded sexual pleasure itself as a consequence of sin. According to this view, before Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God had forbidden, sex wasn’t part of the scenario. Instead, the knowledge of good and evil gave them sexual awareness”. St. Augustine—the only Father actually cited—is dragged in as a kind of witness for the prosecution: “Along these lines, Saint Augustine believed that sex was the vehicle for the transmission of original sin…Augustine concluded that all sexual pleasure must be evil”.
It is hard to imagine that Gardner had ever read much of St. Augustine, or even of C.S. Lewis, who once noted that according to Augustine sex would have been even better had Adam not fallen. Thus in Augustine’s City of God, book 14, chapter 23, Augustine wrote, “If there had been no sin, marriage would have been worthy of the happiness of paradise, and would have given birth to children to be loved, and yet would not have given rise to any lust to be ashamed of”. The idea that sex itself was sinful found no place in the Church, especially in the East. In fact the notion that sex was sinful was condemned by the Council of Gangra in the fourth century. (And—by the way—Augustine did not teach that sex was the vehicle for the transmission of original sin, but that the concupiscence now accompanying it was.) A book which ignores and distorts the historical teaching of the Church is at best incomplete in its attempt to present timeless Biblical wisdom.
I note too that a certain Biblical fundamentalism accompanied the work throughout, though given the popular and chatty nature of the book it was hard to discern how many of his Biblical expositions were intended to be strictly exegetical and how many were being handled with a preacher’s rhetorical freedom. Thus we note that commenting on the creation of Eve and her presentation to Adam, Gardner writes, “It’s helpful to remember that he’d [i.e. Adam] just watched a long parade of warthogs, hippos, orangutans, and every other type of creature walking past—and they all had dates. Now, feeling very much alone, he awoke to find not another furry, four-footed mammal, but a woman—a ravishing, delightful, completely naked woman. Now, how do you think he reacted?”
Gardner presents a delightful narrative, but this imaginative fanciful picture presupposes that the text offers us an historical account of an event, complete with emotional details. This might be good preaching, but it is not real exegesis. It is the same with his assertion that God created Eve because Adam was “lonely”, and with his reading of the Song of Songs in which Solomon was addressing tender words “to his wife”. His wife? One is tempted to ask, “Which one?” Throughout Gardner’s book one becomes aware of a certain exegetical naivety.
Perhaps my main critique of the book is with his repeated use of the term “holy” to describe sex, which devalues the concept of holiness itself. Thus in chapter one Gardner writes, “It might seem odd for me to say this, but sex is holy just as the celebration of Communion is holy”. (He goes on to say that, “Christians celebrate Communion as a reminder of God’s new covenant with us”.) As an Evangelical, Gardner obviously rejects Orthodoxy’s understanding of “Communion” as offering us the Body and Blood of the Incarnate God; of greater concern is his devaluation of holiness such as manifested in Communion. Holiness is more awe-inspiring, transcendent, and even dangerous than Gardner suspects.
Let us look at the concept of holiness in the Scriptures. In the Law we find the state of holiness contrasted with two other states. One can be in a state of ritual impurity (e.g. after menstruation or touching a corpse); one can be in a state of ritual purity (during which sacrifices can be offered), and one can be in a state of holiness (such as when a priest offers a sacrifice). Holiness is always distinct from simple ritual purity—one passes from a state of purity to that of holiness, just as one passes from a state of impurity to that of purity. Trying to reach a state of holiness while ritually impure would have been disastrous for the one making the attempt. Holiness was therefore dangerous, and it transcended the normal state of purity.
We see this in several Old Testament passages. When Uzzah famously reached out to steady the Ark as it was being brought to Jerusalem, he transgressed the boundaries of holiness and was struck down for it (2 Samuel 6:6-7). When God appeared in the Temple to Isaiah, who was poignantly aware of his moral unworthiness, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) We see such holiness in the New Testament also: when the glorified Christ appeared to John in all His holiness at the beginning of his apocalyptic visions, John fell at His feet as one dead (Revelation 1:17). True holiness is dangerous—or least alarming enough to call for caution.
As we see from these Biblical examples, holiness contains an element of the fearful, the numinous, and what Otto in his The Idea of the Holy called, the mysterium tremendum. We see this in the Orthodox Liturgy as well: before he offers the Eucharist, the priest quietly prays, “No one who is bound with the desires and pleasures of the flesh is worthy to approach or draw near or to serve You, O King of Glory; for to minister to You is great and awesome even to the heavenly Powers… I draw near to You and bowing my neck I implore You: do not turn Your face away from me, nor cast me out from among Your children, but make me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You.” Holiness is fearful and awe-inspiring, and approaching something holy requires daring.
For Gardner, holiness shares none of these transcendent and dangerous components. For him, holiness is defined as something that is merely morally good, and designed by God, and promotes emotional and spiritual health and happiness. Sex meets all of these qualifications, and so sex is holy.
This is not the Bible’s understanding of holiness. In fact when God came down to Mount Sinai to give the Ten Commandments, the people were commanded to abstain from sex in preparation for meeting the holy God (Exodus 19:10-15). The Bible therefore regards holiness as more than simply good and health-giving. Sex was designed by God and can promote wholeness and happiness, but it is not holy. The sex act was designed by God to promote health, but so was the act of eating, and no one suggests that eating is holy in itself—thus what is received from the Eucharistic Chalice is holy and what is eaten in the coffee hour immediately following the Liturgy is not. Accepting Gardner’s fundamental premise allows little room for such a distinction, and devalues the concept of holiness.
Finally, I suggest that Gardner places too high a value on sexual happiness and adjustment. Sexual harmony is lauded as “the Promised Land”, the apparent summit of happiness in this age. These are not the priorities of Scripture, which take a more prosaic and practical approach to married sexuality, viewing it not just as an image of Christ and His Church, but also as a debt to be discharged.
Gardner’s words about sexual happiness as the Promised Land also tend to leave the pious single still wandering in the wilderness. He attempts to evade this by saying, “Man and woman together most fully represent the image of God…It is important to note that this truth about sex doesn’t mean that unmarried persons are somehow less representative of the image of God than those who are married. It does mean that the fullness of God, His complete image is not fully represented by a lone individual” [italics original]. It is hard to see how Gardner here evades the charge that this indeed leaves the unmarried individual with less of a share of God’s image. Does the unmarried person have only a portion of God’s image? It is also hard to see how Gardner finds room for St. Paul’s stated preference for celibacy over marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. In 1 Corinthians 7:32f, Paul praises the choice for celibacy, saying that it allows the unmarried person to devote greater attention to the Lord than is possible for the married person. Clearly Paul did not think anything was lacking in such a life of celibacy or that the single person had a lesser share of the divine image than the married person. If marriage was precious silver, then such celibacy was gold.
All in all, Sacred Sex is worth a read, especially if one’s marriage suffers from problems rooted in sexual conflict, selfishness, shame, or insensitivity. It is a good book. It is also a book which only an Evangelical could have written.