Thursday, December 15, 2011

David Marshall: "The Sexual Revolution"

In David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man, I read Chapter 4, “The Sexual Revolution”. Marshall argues that the sexual revolution was a bad thing. He says that it has cheapened people and sex, and, drawing from studies and a survey of history, he agrees with Glenn Stanton’s statement in Why Marriage Matters that “First-time, lifelong, monogamous marriage is the relationship that best provides for the most favorable exercise of human sexuality, the overall well-being of adults, and the proper socialization of children.” Among the problems with the sexual revolution that Marshall cites is that it results in a lack of sexual fulfillment, and it influences people to channel their energies into getting laid rather than being productive. For Marshall, sex should take place within the context of a committed relationship.

On the issues of divorce and homosexuality, Marshall essentially argues that people should control their behavior rather than following whatever desire or urge they have. Regarding divorce, Marshall asks how parents can tell their kids not to fight, when they themselves do not get along. On homosexuality, Marshall states that the Christian prohibition against homosexual activity may have kept homosexual activist Mel White alive in a time when he felt that it was afflicting him (back when Mel White was a conservative evangelical trying to conquer his homosexuality), for male homosexual activity has spread diseases, some of them fatal. Marshall also discusses Jesus’ respectful treatment of women in the Gospels, and he contrasts that with certain leaders of other religions (i.e., Muhammad, Joseph Smith), who slept with a number of women in their position of authority.

That’s my summary, and you can read the chapter yourself to get more insight into Marshall’s arguments. Before I launch into my mild critique, I’d like to highlight a passage in Marshall’s book that I really appreciated. On page 74, Marshall states: “M. Scott Peck points out that because his role as a psychiatrist is like that of a parent, if he were to enjoy sexual gratification with one of his patients, he would forfeit the parenting role required of a healer. He said he could not conceive of a situation in which such contact would be helpful to his patients. Jesus treated every situation he met with an ennobling and therapeutic love.” I think that this insight can apply to other roles as well, such as pastors, professors, etc.

Now for my mild critique. I’m not going to refute thoroughly or obsessive-compulsively analyze every point that Marshall makes. I can sympathize with his overall argument that the sexual revolution has significant problems. Some will disagree with the claim of abstinence-only advocates that sleeping with people before marriage somehow detracts from marital sex, or leads married people to compare their spouses with previous sexual partners they have had. A professor once asked me when I was making that very argument why he couldn’t love his wife, even if sex with her was not as good as sex with previous partners (and he was speaking hypothetically, of course). But Marshall does refer to studies, and these should be taken into consideration (even if I don’t plan to engage them in this blog post).

I can see value in such things as marriage and sexual restraint outside of marriage. I guess my question is “When do rules go too far?” Is it really fair or realistic for God to demand in this day and age that people wait until they are married before they have sex? I’m not suggesting that religions should surrender to our hyper-sexed culture. What I’m saying is that, nowadays, at least in the West, it takes a while for many people to find the person with whom they want to spend the rest of their lives. Do we seriously expect for people to wait until they’re in their forties or fifties before they can finally have sex? I mean, sure, people should not be ruled by their hormones, but the hormones are still there. I think of that Christian movie, The Waiting Game (see the trailer here), in which a Christian guy is about to get married and is looking forward to losing his virginity that night. Then, his bride dumps him at the altar. Poor guy!

And then there’s the issue of homosexuality. I asked if people should have to wait until they’re in their forties and fifties before they can finally have sex. But conservative Christianity tells homosexuals to be celibate for the rest of their natural lives. And what really steams me here is how many conservative Christians say this, right before they go home to their own picture-perfect families of spouse, children, etc. I agree with Marshall that there should be more support for the Christian homosexuals who are trying to follow the path of celibacy. In my opinion, they’re doing what their religion tells them to do, and so their religion (i.e., their church, their Christian friends) should offer them a lot more support than it does. But I question whether it’s right of God or a religion to demand that people suppress their sexuality. This is not to say that there should be no boundaries whatsoever, but I’m asking when rules can go too far.

But, not only does conservative Christianity tell heterosexuals that they have to wait to have sex (however long that wait may be). Not only does it tell homosexuals that they can never have sex, period (at least sex with someone they love and are attracted to). But it says that lust is bad, on the basis of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:28. What exactly is “lust”? Is Jesus saying that we can’t have sexual desires, period? Marshall talks about Augustine’s commitment to celibacy, and he associates that with whatever misogyny Christianity has had. Granted, Augustine was probably influenced by the pagan view that the body was a prison for the soul, as Marshall says, but I doubt that passages such as Matthew 5:28 really helped the situation. Marshall talks about Matthew 5:28 on page 82:

“Jesus has a warning not just for gays or for those who sleep around, but for anyone who ‘looks lustfully at a woman’ (Matt. 5:28). People laughed when President Jimmy Carter admitted to this ‘sin.’ But here, too, the Christian standard, while hard, shows reason and consistency. A weed isn’t gone until its roots are dead. Jesus reminds those to whom the straight or restrained lifestyle comes naturally, the so-called ‘moral majority,’ that they, too, need divine help and forgiveness from a God who demands ‘purity in the inmost part.’ Christianity picks a path between promiscuity and abstinence, between chauvinism and feminism, between loneliness and loss of self in a group. It’s a tough path, one that we need God’s help to walk.”

I agree that thoughts can lead to actions, and so people should monitor and discipline their thoughts. But, if purity means that we can’t lust, and if lust means sexual desire (and, if anyone wants to provide me with an alternative definition, then I’m listening), then Jesus is telling us that, at the risk of hell, we must suppress an essential part of our humanity, our sexuality. That makes no sense to me. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Marshall and some other Christians have a more moderate understanding of Matthew 5:28. I can tell from a few of Marshall’s stories in this chapter that he knows what being a heterosexual male is like!

I’ll close by commenting on Marshall’s arguments regarding Jesus’ treatment of women. If Marshall is simply saying that there are a variety of approaches to the issues of sex and women, and here are Christianity’s approaches, and Christianity looks good, then I am cool with that. If, however, he is making an apologetic spiel of “Christianity must be divinely-inspired because Jesus treated women well”, then my defenses go up. I admire Jesus’ treatment of women. I just have problems with accepting all of the evangelical Christian package on the basis of that. Was Jesus’ treatment of women revolutionary for his time, showing that God was behind the Christian religion? Marshall may not care for skeptic Richard Carrier’s arguments, but I think that Carrier does deserve to be heard on this issue, since he does have a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia. Carrier states (see here):

“Jesus was certainly more liberal in his treatment of women than other Jews of his day. The rampant misogyny that has characterized Christianity comes from Paul, not Christ. But there is nothing Jesus said or did that was at all uncharacteristic of any educated Gentile. The Jews were far more reactionary toward woman than their Greek neighbors, a point that was often a matter of contention between the two communities. The Romans, in turn, were even more remarkably liberal compared to the Greeks…In short, the claim that ‘only a handful of philosophers’ had views of women at least as favorable as Jesus is false. To the contrary, it was common among all the educated Greco-Roman elite to have views on the matter comparable to what we can deduce from what Jesus said and did. And this liberal attitude originates with the Classical and Hellenistic philosophers, centuries before Jesus. Epicurus was the first to admit women into his school, and Musonius (whom McFall cites) was merely echoing what had been the Stoic line since pre-Christian times. It became increasingly common after Alexander’s conquests for intellectuals to accept female students, and many Greek cities ever since then had endowments for the public education of all girls. Consequently, we know of many female poets, historians, and philosophers who were well-respected (though medieval scribes failed to preserve any of their writings). Plato, Seneca, Plutarch all write of the importance of women having a good education, and many extant portraits of women depict them holding scrolls, tablets, or pens to boast of their schooling. Indeed, to really drive home the degree of women’s liberty that had been achieved (perhaps appalling to the average Christian even today), a rich man’s party was considered dull as dishwater if not attended by several well-paid hookers (hetairai) who could debate the fine points of poetry and philosophy as well as any man.”

There’s more to this issue, for my Oxford Classical Dictionary‘s entry on “women” talks at length about the sexism of Greco-Roman societies. But I think that Carrier does well to show that a liberal attitude about women was on the Greco-Roman radar, meaning that Jesus did not have to be divinely-inspired to arrive at the view that women should be treated with dignity, and perhaps even to take that view further than many of his contemporaries. But, then again, suppose God was behind Christianity promoting a better treatment of women. Does that mean that all of evangelical Christianity is true?


  1. My take on these things: There are many things people need to be careful and thoughtful about. Relating to people is one (all sorts of relating!). Sexuality is one (it is not extra-special). What Christianity has never even tried to address in depth is sexuality outside marriage, and it has not addressed in anything like enough depth even sexuality within marriage. Couples are not prepared in any adequate way for sexuality in their coming marriages. Less than a handful of inadequately expounded passages in the Bible rule, and they are not even compatible with one another. Lust is not sexual desire. Evangelical Christianity is not all true. It is a disgrace to Christendom that it pretty well teaches that God doesn't want people to even reflect on what sexuality might be about. It does not look reasonable that God bans all sexual expression outside marriage, and incredibly doesn't even allow openness within marriage about it! Christianity needs to get its act together - is it really incapable of coming up with considerations that can be discussed!

  2. I think Christians have had some good reflections, but their extreme stances muddy things up. I'm not sure what the solution is, since the Bible does appear to back them up on sexual issues (to a great extent). There have been some attempts to get around that, though: a friend of mine has argued that the couple in Song of Solomon have sex before they are married; blogger Sarah Moon just says that biblical times were different from our times.

  3. Bingo again Davey! Evangelical Christianity needs a major re-think on human sexuality. I will go out on a limb and say it is not realistic nor desirable to have people in their 40s and 50s waiting for sex. Frankly, I find that a form of cruelty. Also there are some who think I'm advocating some kind of orgy-ism, nothing could be further from the truth.


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