How has it come to this?
Part of the answer to that question is found in the social dominance of the selfie. We are so obsessed with ourselves: The ‘I’ always has to be centre frame. How I see myself, and how I want to describe myself, has become the most important thing in the world. Gender is part of how I see myself, so why shouldn’t I be whatever gender I want to be? In this world ‘sex’ isn’t determinative. In fact, all it is, pace Stoller, is genital pleasure.
Up until around the time that Stoller was redefining gender, it was widely assumed that procreation, if not the only reason, was certainly the primary purpose of sex. This assumption was rooted in good biblical and theological grounds, and was an assumption that helped keep sex from being a form of selfie – the connection to marriage and community was clear; even if honoured as much in the breach as in reality. Whether or not men and women were married the distinct nature of male and female – its givenness – was recognised as fundamental to human being, and connected to the realities of procreation.
Influential American columnist Rod Dreher has been arguing for some time for the ‘Benedict Option’ – that just as in the 500’s Benedict formed the monastic movement to guard Christianity in a chaotic world, there is a need today for Christians to form communities that deepen and nurture faith, and resist the claims of ‘empire’.
I want to clarify that in my own thinking about the Benedict Option, I am not advocating an Amish-style withdrawal from the world (though I respect those who feel called to it, and wish them well). That will not be the path for most of us, nor, in my view, should it be. I am calling for more of a conscious “exile in place” for the church — that is, for the kind of Christians I call small-o orthodox Christians. Some people may need to physically move for this kind of community, but in most cases (I think) it will be a matter of deepening one’s commitments to one’s own tradition and the church community in which it is embodied, and in thickening the bonds among the community’s members. This requires a clear understanding that our first loyalty is to the Church, not to American empire.
Absolutely essential to this ‘thickening of bonds’ is how we understand sexuality and marriage, which includes teaching three specific things with absolute clarity (and yes, I have posted on this before):
1. Teach that procreation is a primary purpose of marriage. Yes, there are other reasons to marry, other ‘goods’ of marriage, but the cornerstone of marriage is the forming of community which happens when a man and woman commit themselves in permanent and exclusive relationship, and have babies. There has been a trend in recent years for our marriage teaching to focus on relational aspects – have great sex, learn your partner’s love languages. There is nothing wrong with great sex and making your partner feel loved – I’m all for it! – but it can be more a reflection of our culture’s obsession with selfie sex than something distinctly Christian. Marriage is meant to mean babies.
2. Focus less on weddings and more on marriage. One of the consequences of people getting married later in life, having already slept their way through multiple partners, is that there is now a disproportionate emphasis upon the superficialities of the wedding day – a nauseatingly expensive round of dresses and photographers and flim-flam. The less significance there is to the substance of the relationship, the more significance is laid upon the inconsequential. So let’s make weddings simpler, cheaper, more about the public exchanging of vows and participation in community. At a wedding the couple are making their relationship accountable to the church and the church is inviting the couple into an exercise in community building. Christian marriage is meant to be less about personal relationship than it is about contributing to the common good. Let’s emphasize that.
3. Draw clear lines about divorce and remarriage. In our (commendable) desire to be culturally relevant and pastorally sensitive it is all too easy to come to theologically questionable positions on divorce and remarriage. We let the line shift, and then shift some more, and we find ourselves – in reality – expecting no more from Christian marriage than we would of anyone else. A community-focused understanding of sexuality will be more prepared to say, “No, you shouldn’t get divorced” and “No, because you should never have been divorced, we won’t bless you in remarriage.” Local churches need to work out where the hard lines lie on this, and not fudge them. Divorce is not always wrong, but our current societal assumptions about it are.
Communities that are clear on these things will work with given realities rather than imagined impossibilities. It will mean living in ‘exile in place’, but that place of exile will be more solid and secure than living as a citizen of an empire ruled by an emperor with no clothes. We mustn’t let selfie sex win the day: the stakes are far too high for that.