Real Sex, Victoria’s Secrets and the Liberating Image of God

A few years ago we hosted a reading by an author we didn’t know personally for an evening, which ended leaving us deeply glad to be in this business. We had already known the early work of Lauren Winner–a fine essayist and book reviewer–and admired her insight and clarity. It was good to meet a new friend and we felt privileged to host her here reading from the just-released Girl Meets God. Our local customers loved her and mail order folks who read our review on line got busy as we all raved about this curious, extraordinary memoir. There, she shared her journey into Orthodox Judaism and then into a liturgically-shaped Christian faith. We soon discovered that we loved some common books, had mutual friends, and shared similar concerns about the book world, the church, and the times in which we live.

Winner’s second book, Mudhouse Sabbath, became a title, like GMG, that we foisted on nearly anybody that would listen. The lovely Episcopal publisher Paraclete Press did a sweet job putting out Lauren’s ruminations–wise, funny, fresh–on Jewish spiritual practices that could help an insipid and too often disembodied Christian discipleship. Part memoir, part “things Christians could learn from Jews” MhS is remarkable; I know of no book quite like it. (And, it is fun to know, her first two books have generated a fierce loyalty in some readers—just like Lauren tells how she and her mother playfully stalked a favorite Southern writer, so a friend of mine paid a visit to the Mudhouse coffee shop in Charlottesville, hoping, perchance, to have Lauren spot her toting Mudhouse Sabbath as she sipped her latte.) Along with a small handful of new creative writers (think Donald Miller or Brian McLaren) or not so new ones like Anne Lamotte, Lauren Winner is, at least among a certain sort of religious reader, hot.

Right now, I stick my pen in my mouth and stroke my beard under a wily smile—is it wrong to use the word “hot” in describing a serious-minded author, as if commercial success or popularity is worthy of notice? Hmmm.

But it is a joke, of course. Ms Winner’s new book is, well, hot in its own way. It is about sex. (I took off the lovely, sensuous dust jacket–sporting a picture of a magnolia on the cover—as I sit in a nearby eatery to write. What might my neighbors think if they see their local Christian bookseller reading a book called Real Sex?)

It makes sense that Winner would write more about sex. She had confessed to some fairly (to put it delicately) active years in her Girl Meets God journey, episodes and involvements which were told with candor and insight. Several chapters in Mudhouse are exactly about how Jewish spirituality is shaped by embodied habits and communal practices—seemingly mundane stuff like handling food, sharing grief, doing weddings, being in bodies, experiencing time. There is a certain inter-relatedness and progression to her books; they seem to build naturally on each other. Reading Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos Press; $17.99) is wonderfully rewarding on its own and is top-notch in its own right but it is also a way to see Winner’s new levels of theological acumen and to join in the next steps of her journey. (The beau she described meeting in MhS is now her new husband, although she wrote the book as a single gal.) As with her other work, it is well told, carefully written, substantial yet delightful. She is a wise guide and we can learn much from the ruminations she has about the Christian faith, honest discipleship and how to be a robust Christian in the real world.

The real world. But what is really real? The so-called reality shows? The lies of the glamour magazines? The ubiquitous, surreal images from the sex-drenched TV media, those lascivious ads in Rolling Stone or the layouts in Maxim? The internet sex that comes sometimes unannounced into our inboxes, the vile and sadistic sexuality in the more harsh computer games? The dirty jokes all over the late night talk shows? The midriff-baring tops and exposed thongs that even young Christian girls wear not only to the mall but to Sunday night youth group?

Winner does not rant and rave. She is calm and reasonable even as she discusses the threats and foibles of our fallen and weird culture. She is frustrated, though, and it is her hope to help the church do a better job helping people live Godly lives of chastity and prudence. (Again, a bit of memoir clarifies her passion for this since she herself has had experiences of unhelpful guidance from those who should have known better.) And so, firstly, we must be clear-headed, expose the lies, do the Romans 12:1-2 thing and have our minds transformed. One important, if rather expected, chapter is called “Lies Our Culture Tells About Sex” while another much-talked about and a bit unexpected one is “Lies The Church Tells About Sex.” Noticing how much talk there is these days about sexuality, she wisely reminds us, “It’s not, in theory, a bad thing that we talk about sex”¦The problem is not that we talk about sex. The problem is how we talk about sex. So much of what we say about sex is wrong: deceptive, distorted, misleading. This matters, because the way we talk about sex reflects and forms the way we think about, and ultimately the way we practice, sex. And when we tell falsehoods about sex, and listen to falsehoods about sex, we wind up living falsehoods about sex.”

This leads to one of her important insights, that wrongly ordered sex, premarital and extramarital, is not only wrong, but that it is ersatz, fraudulent, unreal. Reality, she says in numerous ways, time and again, is, everywhere and always, being in coherence with God’s ways. We in fact live in God’s good world and it is most real to be in the world in the ways in which God has structured and ordained. To be comfortable in the reality of the creation and amidst the very real redemption of that creation is to–in all our bodily ways, what Calvin Seerveld wonderfully calls our “creaturliness”–comport our very selves in ways commensurate
with God’s intentions. That is what is real. Illicit sex isn’t real sex. It may feel pleasurable, it may even bear some resemblance to something seemingly healthy or right, but Winner is adamant: we are not good judges of what is really real, what is really right, what is really good. We are masters of self-deception. God’s Word is clear, though: real sex is made for marriage alone.

Many books have said this, but Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity is distinguished for several quite important reasons, reasons of style and substance, which I will note. But do not trust me alone on this (or the significant reviewers that have also raved about this, or even the New York Times article recently written about her.) Get the book. Read it for yourself. You will see that it is a rare kind of work, a reader’s joy.

First, it is not aimed at 15 year olds; it is not about merely “saying no” to hormones and temptation-filled dates. (Even some books that seem to be marketed to collegiates and young adults, it seems, are written as if the readers and their social and sexual experiences are that of high schoolers and the best advice given is to “wait.”) RS is not a negative book; it is not primarily against sex the way some seem to be. (I know I have friends that say I overdo the critique of the sacred/secular dualism and that my fear of crypto-gnosticism borders on the paranoid, but some of the books about sex and dating really are weird like that.) Real Sex is intelligent, candid, positive and realistic and a perfect read for nearly any mature reader; it doesn’t trivialize the subject or speak condescendingly to the reader. Perhaps the only other book that is evangelically-minded, so beautifully written and so deeply engaging on this topic is the finely tuned and well-crafted set of reflections in Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World by Wheaton sociologist Lisa Graham McMinn, published last year by Jossey-Bass. Bravo!

Secondly, Real Sex is decidedly theological. Many of the books about sex that Winner had previously read were what she calls “thin” accounts—perhaps some random verses from Paul were cited which failed to ponder and proclaim the fuller Biblical narrative which surrounds and undergirds Paul’s insights. This is a thicker account which goes beyond mere moralism or prooftexting. I would commend it for this reason alone—it is a brief example of being Biblically-literate. Not unlike Lewis Smedes’ classic Sex for Christians, which uses the “creation-fall-redemption” framework or Marva Dawn’s useful collection of rich theological and Biblical studies, Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy, Winner’s Real Sex is solid, mature, deep. Easy to read, of course, but meaty stuff. Thanks be to God!

Thirdly, Lauren happily reviews some classic theological terms and insights. The subtitle of the book proudly uses the old word chastity. She admits it is a churchy word. As she says in her opening paragraph,

Chastity is one of those unabashedly churchy words. It is one of the words the church uses to call Christians to do something hard, something unpopular. It is a word that can set our teeth on edge, and it is the topic of this small book. Chastity is one of the many Christian practices that are at odds with the dictates of our surrounding, secular culture”¦it runs counter to the way many of our non-Christian friends organize their lives. It strikes most secular folk as curious (at best), strange, backwards, repressed.

That a writer is so candid without being judgmental and yet so insistent that the church can be a counterveiling presence in the lives of those of us living in a contemporary Babylon is refreshing and helpful.

Many readers will learn from, and others will be very grateful for Lauren’s theological insight and commitments, her good sense, her intentionally “thick” approach. She struggles with sin and lust like many of us and she names it firmly. She knows, too, that lust is perverse; that is, it distorts something essentially good, like a parasite. This approach, by the way, helps produce a wise and balanced analysis. She neither minimizes sin nor overstates its horrors; she can name the distortion without falling into Gnostic legalism. She also knows that other (not unrelated) idols of our time—materialism, say, fueled by a culture of consumerism—are equally dangerous and important to name and resist. (I loved her brief discussion of her shopping habits and her important quotes from Wendell Berry.) She teaches what chastity actually means, what it looks like and how other classic terms (repentance, modesty, discipline) can be truly helpful as we attempt to speak and think in more faithful ways. She wears it quite lightly, but she has dug deeply into the best thinking of the church and the best of more ancient traditions. As always, she reads widely and has a good ear for what to report. All this makes it one of the best books on the subject I’ve seen.

Further, Real Sex is rare in how it offers a vision of chaste lifestyles that are expressions of a more general life of daily discipleship. Her stuff on spiritual formation–a God-centered life lived together through all our different ages and stages–is fabulous. Like other favorite devotional writers and authors of books about spirituality that we most admire (Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Ronald Rolheiser, just to name three) she insists that rather ordinary spiritual disciplines done in fairly mundane ways can become spiritual habits that help us learn to be not just more religious, but more human. As Charlie Peacock puts it in his great little call to whole-life discipleship, to step into the story to follow Jesus is “a new way to be human.” We comport ourselves in proper ways in order to be real, to be authentically human, to be present with and empowered by God. These chapters of Winner’s are good to help us reflect on sexual ethics, but are wonderful, too, for anyone interested in the spiritual life. She calls it “conforming your body to the arche of the gospel.”

A final good, notable feature of Real Sex is that it is a book which is quite sure of how our lives (including our romantic entanglements, gender identities and all things seemingly personal) are to be woven together with others in the fabric called Christian community. To understand that she really means this (who doesn’t affirm community these days?) hear the title of her great third chapter: “Communal Sex: Or, Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night.” Tell that to the “fellowship committee” at your parish.

Picking up on this theme from a chapter in Mudhouse she explains the ways in which community can strengthen marriages, support singles, befriend the lonely and affirm the aged. Community that is Christian can provide discernment, guidance, and accountability. Our characters are formed as we tell and re-tell one another the Story of which our lives are a part. Our callings and vocations, our life choices, our very sense of our selves are normed and storied–we are given meaning by the stories and values that we are given by our communities. Our worldviews and lifestyles are shaped by others who share our common experience of the gospel. (She also shows, rather conversely, how singles and marrieds both have much to teach the church out of their unique life experiences. Formation works, then, in this sense, both ways—from the community to the individual members and from the members back to the community”¦) Few authors have discussed sexuality, marriage, family, singleness, and young adulthood within such a proper and profound context. (Rodney Clapp’s essential Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Postmodern Options stands out; his latest, by the way, Tortured Wonders: Spirituality for People Not Angels is ostensibly about spirituality, but ends up having several chapters about sexuality. What a great book!)

Certainly, Winner gets down to details, quite intimate ones, actually (masturbation, pornography, body image, sexual disinterest, loneliness, desire.) But even her most detailed descriptions and advice about this most wondrous side of life is always framed by our reminder that we belong to God, that we are called to be loyal to one another, and that this is lived out practically with other saints and sinners in the local, worshipping church. With help from sources as unique as Thomas Cranmer and Wendell Berry, she reminds us often of community.

An adult and literate style, a broad commitment to the full Biblical narrative, a thick theological perspective, framing sexual ethics in light of spiritual disciplines and character formation, and a commitment to Christian community; these are some of the features which make this a truly extraordinary book.

Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity is a rich, fun, thoughtful, clear and theologically beautiful book. Like Lauren Winner’s other titles, we heartily commend it. Read it if you are single or married, young or old. And keep the cover on; it is gorgeous.

* * * *

Two more of the many great books that have come in this month that I have to tell you about:

The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 J. Richard Middleton (Brazos) $21.99

Wanting to Be Her: Body Image Secrets Victoria Won’t Tell You Michelle Graham (IVP) $12.00

Two other brand new books deserve cheering and hat-tossing and great hoo-raaahs. In their own way, they are both wonderful, very important, and long-awaited, and both fit quite nicely into this month’s theme. The Liberating Image by J. Richard Middleton is one of the most serious, scholarly books I’ve read in years, a scholarly treatise par excellance. It is an academic tome that this master skimmer of books and unashamed skipper of chapters (and quoter of back of the book blurbs) honestly couldn’t put down. What fun to find such a rich, rewarding experience wading through a serious bit of Old Testament scholarship. Granted, Richard Middleton is somewhat of a hero of mine–he co-wrote with Brian Walsh, the often-mentioned The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview and the very, very important Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. I am not qualified to do a serious review of his new one, but will try to tell you a bit about it below.

The other great book we want to share with you, Wanting to Be Her: Body Image Secrets Victoria Won’t Tell You is a quick read, easy and fun, but very, very important for anyone that cares about women’s self-esteem. Michelle Graham works in campus ministry and has worked with this topic for quite some time and has grown in solid and wise insight. I’ve got daughters and a wonderful wife and some beloved women colleagues and friends and we talk about this from time to time. It is my sense, though, that even those of us who may be aware of these concerns about body image desperately need this little book. We at Hearts & Minds have read and raved about the fabulous Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body by Lillian Calles Barger and enjoyed the lovely Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice by Stephanie Paulsell, published to great acclaim in the helpful Jossey-Bass series on Everyday Life. Michelle Graham, though, has done a good job and it is happily very accessible; it would be a good read as a companion to the Lauren Winner book.

One of the great things about this practical guide to thinking faithfully about body image, the quandaries of the sexualization of everything, the dangers of eating disorders and such, is the way in which this solidly Christian guide is so rooted in an awareness of how so many women buy into the lies of our culture. Wanting to Be Her is clearly written out of the experiences of the author but also out of her years of listening to and speaking with her students in campus ministry settings. It is realistic and practical (one great chapter is called “Can I Keep My Favorite Lipstick: Beauty and Balance.”) Anyone who works with young women, anyone in youth ministry or campus work, any parent or teacher of young adults, it seems to me, would benefit from this brief study. If this is your area of ministry, please consider getting one or two of these (trust me–you will think to give one to someone you know soon after you start it.) If you don’t work with young adults, know any women, or have any concerns in this area, please get one anyway—you surely know somebody who would find it helpful. This really will be a book that I am confident will touch many lives, if the word gets out about it, if people get a vision of how to use it effectively, if people get over their uneasiness with the topic and give the thing out to others. Along with a small handful of other such titles (not the least of which is the prophetic and powerful critique of the sexualization of advertising, the nearly classic Can’t Buy My Love by Jean Kilbourne and the exceptionally wise and well-written A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit) this could become a much-talked about resource. Helpful discussion questions at the end of each chapter make it especially useful for small group use or for book clubs.

Another helpful bit of insight in this book, a piece that illustrates the integrity and care of the author and publisher is that it doesn’t presume a white reader. Graham describes the struggles of women of color, has obviously reflected on the experiences of minority women, and forthrightly begins a conversation about race and beauty. I am so glad about this and find it a very interesting and important conversation, regardless of your ethnicity, race, or skin type.

Read Lauren Winner, to be sure. But to round out your insight, Wanting To Be Her: Body Image Secrets Victoria Won’t Tell You could be very, very helpful. Listen to what one advance reader said: “Though the subject of beauty and body and ethnicity and weight might leave a woman feeling self-conscious, after reading this book, I felt unusually relaxed. My longing for God was reawakened, and my love for other women renewed.”

That is a remarkable bit of evaluation, isn’t it? I hope it inspires many to buy and use the book.

Now, to Middleton. Richard is (speaking of the beauty of various skin-hues) Jamaican, and a feisty, Biblically-knowledgeable, radically Christian advocate for a culturally-engaged kind of postmodern faith. As he says in the very moving forward of The Liberating Image, he has lived several different places, has been unclear about his sense of place even while others are unsure of his own ethnicity. He lived for a spell in Canada (hence, the fruitful writing connection with Brian Walsh where they studied and taught together at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies.) In their classic worldview book, and the subsequent postmodern follow-up, they emphasized the ways in which an authentically Christian worldview–rooted in the generative story of ancient Israel and the Biblical canon–must certainly offer resources for developing a sane view of the self, a wholistic view of the human person, a sense of the dignity and calling of those made in the “image and likeness” of God’s own Self, leading to an ethical understanding of human responsibility as steward of the creation. That is, ruminating on the implications of what Reformed theologians call “the cultural mandate,” we mirror God most keenly by doing that which God does—run the world. To be (royal) Earthlings charged with the grand calling of stewarding the Earth itself, on behalf of and in the Spirit of the merciful Creator, well, that leads to some serious stuff (including building institutions, doing politics, developing households, being involved in economics, the arts, play and work and real sex, I might say, using Lauren Winner’s insights about embodiment and the fully human nature of Biblically-faithful spirituality.) To know what it means to be fully human, and what our calling entails as we mirror God in God’s generous creation is a key to understanding our lives, our roles, and the nature of reality. Whoa, this is very important stuff.

I can say with confidence that Richard Middleton may be the most important person on the planet to methodically unpack the glories of the imago dei phrase in Hebrew; he has studied this material more than anyone alive, I am sure. (Patrick Miller of Princeton suggests that this may be “the most comprehensive treatment of this topic in the English language and will be an automatic point of reference” for future studies.) And unpack it he does: Middleton compares and contrasts various readings of this phrase, (with very clear and compelling side trips into the very notion of various readings, the postmodern rejection of the autonomy of reason, the arrogance of the higher critics, the biases that he himself naturally brings to the hermeneutical task.) He explains how even seemingly arcane academic differences between various key scholars–Barth or Berkouwer, say, or recent feminist writers—may yield considerable contrasts in ethics and lifestyle; how theological reflection and Biblical studies might compliment on another and why getting this Biblical insight right is so very, very important for all of us. And, I hope you know, it is important.

In Walt Bruggemann’s glowing review (he says that the book is a benchmark!) he notes that Richard “exhibits a powerful capacity for big issues, a patience with detail, and a sure theological sensibility”¦. (his) unwavering theological focus keeps the detail in service of the big issues and culminates with a wondrous affirmation of a generous God.” Yes, hear that: creatively utilizing a scholarly imagination which can deeply understand the implications of this Biblical doctrine can lead to more proper service of our God. As Middleton makes clear, the ways in which we understand Genesis 1 not only shape how we think about humankind but how we think of God’s own self. Is God a battle God who had to wage war against uncooperative primal chaos? (He says no, despite the liberal fashion to insist on God’s creative fiat not to be ex nihilo but merely over chaotic and uncooperative substance.) Do we bear the mark of a lover, a creator, a generously kind One who blesses that which is made or are we to mirror a brute, a dictator, a Divine puppet-master? Understanding God and God’s creative power in terms consistent with the Genesis poetry helps us more acceptably define and plumb the depths and implications of our human call to mirror this God. These are hugely important concerns and I trust Richard’s good heart (and amazing Bible knowledge) in trying to help us be faithful to the text of Scripture and to be relevant to the needs of our postmodern world. Theological and Biblical research done with such thorough care and with such an urgent ethical agenda is a joy to behold (even for those of us not used to such lengthy footnotes, so many foreign words in italics, so many authors noted and kindly refuted.) This is nothing short of magisterial and well worth working through, no matter how long it takes you.

Middleton spends time in The Liberating Image–too much for some, I am sure–describing the competing creation narratives of Mesopotamia and how the Biblical one is so very, very unique and empowering. Placing the Genesis stories (the codifying of them in writing, at least) during and after the time of Babylonian exile–when demeaning and violent stories were prevalent in the Near East–he shows how this Story, with this anthropology (laden as it is with dignity and calling, hope and power) shaped the formation of the Israelite people (in contrast to the oppressive ideologies given them by their captors.) Down through the ages this radical and transformingly blessed insight has come, only to be muted by unfaithful readings, unhelpful assumptions, less than adequate theological methodologies and inconsistent teachings. This book sets out to explain all of this, telling the details of the story–the theological errors, the historical debates in the academy of Biblical scholars, the various schools of thought, the ways in which social realities and ideologies have shaped even theologians and those within the church (think of the reductionistic Enlightenment ways of thinking and knowing and the subsequent Earth-abusing ethos of secularized progress and the resultant inhumane fragmentation and social alienation. Or, consider the pietistic dualism that insists on super-spiritual language that frankly is foreign to the text of the Hebrew Scriptures— Gnostic, individualistic, disembodied. Both have born unhelpful and unfaithful fruit in our thinking about our role as humans in God’s world.) This book tells a grand story, and is a wonderful example of fair-minded but passionate scholarship. He has strong thoughts about many of the scholarly points but yet humbly says that his surely is not the last word. It is an extraordinary treatment of an important subject.

Richard is brilliant in distilling the essence of many important arguments and theories, so this is good for young scholars or anyone who wants to be informed about these key issues. The details are too complex and nuanced to reiterate here, of course. A key point, though (similar to Bruggemann’s observation cited above, that Middleton’s work always keeps the big issues in mind–the justice and grace of God, the need for an ethical way of being in the world, the very meaning of our lives as history-makers in God’s creation, etc.) is this: the Biblical telling of the story is set, in the Biblical narrative itself (for those with eyes to see) in opposition to more violent and demeaning narratives and worldviews. That is, if we get the Biblical vision in our bones on this, we will say, with the black gospel tradition, sung from the margins of society, “I am somebody!“ This, obviously, has immense implications for matters as relevant as our sexual habits, our understanding of beauty (see the above title), our approaches to eating, our environmental practices and the politics of land use, the big questions of international development–from the Third World debt, to trade issues, to the international AIDS crisis, to our convictions about the bombs falling in Iraq and the current debates about Terry Shaivo and other such matters of bio-ethics, the right to life and the care of the disabled. Indeed, as Peter Enns of Westminster Theological Seminary says of The Liberating Image, “That Israel’s story promotes the dignity of all humans, not just of the royal or priestly classes, should have vital ethical implications for today.” I’m not sure how Richard’s Jamaican buddies might put it, but I would say, “Right on, man!”

If this Brazos Press book, like so many others from that innovative publisher, evokes a more caring Christian discussion about the ethical implications of Biblical scholarship, if it gives rise to a more humane, creation-caring, whole-life Godliness, if we understand our most primal Story better, then the God of Genesis will indeed be pleased. Christ Himself, present at creation, servant-King of the Universe in whose ways we reign, will be honored. May this serious book be taken seriously, may the author’s creative and risky scholarship bear the kind of fruit in keeping with its theme—that we mirror a gracious God in all we do. I pray that many study it, talk about it, ponder its call to live nonviolently in Christ-like service, resisting all ideologies and myths, theologies or visions that try to tell us otherwise.