Sex is on the decline. It’s partly due to our left-brain culture. It’s partly due to the rise of accessible porn. And it’s partly due to how most churches depict the gospel.

Our left-brain culture is the product of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers viewed metaphor as mere adornment to show a communicator’s skill or aid flagging attention. But as image declined, the left hemisphere—which doesn’t understand metaphor—took over. It elevates information while diminishing the imagination.

The churches of Europe and America “came to a comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment” two centuries ago.[1] In so doing, they essentially became Deists, which became popular in the Enlightenment. Deism affirms God in the abstract. Christians began to describe the faith in abstractions like “concept” and “worldview.”

That sort of language sure gets you aroused, doesn’t it? Not. In fact, Enlightenment language contributes to the decline of sex. In cohabitating with the Enlightenment, Western churches are complicit. We see this in how they approach sexuality.

Older traditions depict God’s love as eros, erotic love. The gospel is best told in our physical body, especially our sexuality. Modern churches are generally reluctant to go this far. Marriage, while good and holy, is more a “biblical concept.” Concept comes from the French conceit—the arrogance that you can claim to know something having never touched it or having it touch you. This is not genuine knowledge (Gen. 4:1).

Of course, when it comes to sex, Enlightenment Christians often object. How can you touch sexuality without sinning? Easy. Artwork. The arts can display eros as good and beautiful. Ancient church artists depicted the gospel in erotic statues, including the ecstasy of Teresa. Michelangelo featured Adam and Eve in the nude in his depiction of the fall (they were naked). It’s found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The statue of David in Florence features the young lad in the nude. Are these images in your church?

Stories that leave something to the imagination can also display eros. The sign of the covenant to Abraham was circumcision—the shedding of his blood and the sacrifice of his flesh—exposing the most intimate aspect of his anatomy, the tip of his penis. It’s the part that makes the deepest penetration in sex. Every time Abraham and his bride enjoyed sex, they saw this intimate sign. How many churches tell this story?

We see signs in the female body as well. There is the tearing of the hymen, broken at the time of the first sexual intercourse, bringing about a slight loss of blood. The French word “hymenée,” which means “marriage,” originates from “hymen.” In the ancient gospel, the tearing of the hymen signifies the opening up of the betrothed—the church—to Christ, just as the veil protecting “the holy of holies” was torn open.

Ever heard this in your church?

The gospel explains why men are often aroused when they see a woman’s breasts. The female breast turns blood into milk for newborns. Jesus’ bride, the church, incarnates—makes flesh—his Word by turning it into “pure milk” for “newborn babies” (I Pet. 2:2). It’s not prurient to suggest that Jesus finds this aspect of the female form attractive.

Ever heard this in your church?

The ancient church emphasized the presence of God, so church leaders were comfortable if viewers of art found themselves in the beginnings of sexual arousal. An image has the capacity to do this. Worldviews and “biblical principles” do not. Erotic art touches the imagination while concepts merely pass along information.

My hunch is our over-sexualized culture has scandalized believers. Scandalized people believe any work of art that stirs up erotic feelings—and the joy that comes with it—should be covered up. Anything that incites erotic arousal is pornographic. Any use of the word “breast” is ipso facto pornographic. Granted, an obsession with female breasts can indeed degrade a woman, reducing her to an object. But describing the wonders of the female breast does not necessarily degrade to porn. Scandalized folks don’t see this.

In his book Leisure, Joseph Pieper writes how “knowing little or nothing before Descartes is a formula for philosophical incoherence.” Western churches know little or nothing before Descartes, the father of the Western Enlightenment. Their rationalistic approach to sexuality is incoherent to those in the wider world, as well as to Christians.

I see this over and over. I met regularly with Christians who are struggling with sex. They can recite chapter and verse about what the Bible says about sex but the information (mostly don’t and wait) does not touch their imagination. Not erotic. God created us for eros, so they look elsewhere to understand arousal, intercourse, orgasm. They’re turning to porn, which further erodes sexual desire (see last week’s column).

Better artwork would improve things. Beginning in the late 1970s, Pope John Paul II gave 129 Wednesday audience addresses that spanned five years, explaining how it is in our physical body that we see the gospel. It wasn’t a reaction to the sexual revolution. It was a response to the Enlightenment.[2] In 1980, as part of the restoration project of the Sistine Chapel, he ordered the removal of many of the loincloths that previous churchmen had ordered to cover Michelangelo’s nudes. He was returning the church to the full-bodied, erotic gospel. Will Western churches follow suit?

 

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.

[2] Christopher West, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (New York: Image Book, 2012), p. 68.

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8 Responses to “The End of Sex? (Part 3)”

  1. Mike Metzger says:

    btw, NYTimes columnist Ross Douthat noted the decline of sex in his op-ed piece yesterday: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/14/opinion/sunday/1970s-weinstein-sexual-predation.html

  2. Gerard says:

    Thanks for the 3-part journey, Mike.

    I am still debating with myself which parts I agree and don’t agree with, which means regardless of where I land, I will be in a more meaningful place than prior to your columns.

  3. Dave T says:

    Excellent piece, truly excellent. Correct me somehow: I still don’t know how you seem to somehow slam everything about the Enlightenment as bad (IMHO the Enlightenment brought us aspects of modern science and government that Europeans had never experienced under Papal control and fear of the unknown) but I love how you bring out the best in what you’re saying that the church knew pre-enlightenment in terms of touching sexuality without sinning. I wish you were right in general about generally seeing sex thru God’s eyes, but it might be Josh McDowell – a genuine enlightenment product, no? – who opened my eyes as a teenager to see sex as something profoundly human and sacred at the same time and therefore accessible and not just a secret even to saints.

  4. Mike Metzger says:

    Hi Dave T

    If you read past columns, you see I give credit to the Enlightenment for the Scientific Revolution, etc. I don’t “slam everything about the Enlightenment as bad.”

    I too appreciate Josh McDowell’s contributions in this area. He’s a good good man. But as Regnerus’ first book (“Forbidden Fruit”) pointed out, the empirical evidence for changed behavior just isn’t there. Youth who learn about sex via youth programs are slightly more promiscuous than those who don’t darken the door of a church.

  5. Dave T says:

    Okey dokey, I miss lots of columns, so my bad on my blanket read of you and the enlightenment. That could be an interesting study of its own – youth in churches and youth in para-church youth groups. My experience as a youth was the absolutely opposite, as if church youth were dying inside thanks to stale required attendance by parents and all they wanted to do was party hard. Me and my para-church youth group comrades went to churches without being forced or even asked, and we “drove the bus” of sexual fidelity. Churches teaching ANYthing with insight about youth & sexuality? That was not happening where I was.

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    Dave:

    I get what you’re saying. We just have to be careful not to have the anecdotal (your experience) supersede the analytical (i.e., Regnerus’ research).

  7. Josh Glaser says:

    Great stuff, Mike. Thanks for bringing it!

  8. Mike Metzger says:

    Thank you for your encouragement, Josh.

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