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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Postmodern Sex & The Image of God

It's official: over half of all American teens age 15-19 have had oral sex. If you only look at 18-19 year olds, the numbers go up to 70%. Girls are just as involved as boys. Over 10% of women age 15-44 have had some sort of sexual experience with another female. It seems that sex outside of marriage has finally gone mainstream.

These latest findings have social experts in a tizzy – given the serious health risks associated with brazen promiscuity, most are focusing on the obvious: How are we going to control these trends? UC professor Claire Brindis suggests it may be a losing battle: "At 50 percent, we're talking about a major social norm. It's part of kids' lives."

Perhaps we ought to be more interested in what motivates such behavior. I'd like to explore the intersection between our postmodern sexual ethics and the biblical notion that humanity is created imago-dei, in the image of God. What does our approach to sex reveal about our core values and beliefs? What does it say about how we see ourselves? Others? God?

First, (and this may seem obvious), we seem to have a fixation on sex. This shouldn't surprise us, because God designed us for relationship – God as trinity is fundamentally interpersonal, relational; mankind as imago-dei is too (albeit in a derivative sense). Scripture tells us that one of the deepest expressions of a human-to-human relationship occurs in the one-fleshness of a sexual encounter. We fixate on sex because the image of God in us craves deep relationships; we long for fulfillment, and we cannot find it in ourselves alone. This is why teens aren't content with simply masturbating: it's just not fulfilling; we recognize that sex was meant to be interpersonal.

Second, (and this may not be so obvious), our sexual practices are seriously broken. Even the secularists recognize this, or they wouldn't be concerned about the current sexual trends. We desire sex without consequences (hence the emphasis on oral sex, because it is seen as less risky, less "official"). We desire sex without commitment (hence the casual hookups, multiple partners). In short, we desire consumer sex – sex that is cheap, readily available, always on, whenever I want it, with whomever I want it, in whatever way that I want it. I want sex that is all about me.

Once again, this shouldn't surprise us. Scripture teaches that man is fallen, we are bent; instead of being willing to deny ourselves so that we might serve God and others, we repeatedly put our own interests first. We see this manifested clearly in the way we approach sex. We may try to dress it up with words like "responsible" and "consensual", but at the end of the day our sexual ethics are fundamentally self-serving.

This leads to a third point, our sex is not very satisying. For all its quantity and variety, it's quality seems to be sorely lacking. A quick look in your spam folder or the sexuality section at Barnes & Noble illustrates the point: there is a huge industry aimed at selling us products which promise to improve our equipment or our technique. Why? Because there is a huge market. Yet in spite of all the hype, we find that sexual experimentation is exploding, sexual fidelity is evaporating, sexual satisfaction is declining, and broken sexual relationships are more or less the norm (as evidenced by divorce rates, total number of sexual partners, etc). Why? Because it isn't working.

The bottom line is that no matter how much sex we get, we never actually get what we really desire – we still haven't found what we're looking for. That's why there is a sexual progression – both culturally and personally – the sex we are getting now isn't delivering the goods any better than the sex we got yesterday, so we push the envelope, looking for something more. Once again, this shouldn't surprise us: God has so constituted his image within us that we can only find our fulfillment by being reconciled to him.

Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual dysfunction, Christians don't seem to fare much better than unbelievers. Perhaps this stems from an implicit adoption of secular thinking about both sex and the image of God in man – sow their seeds, reap their fruit. The fact that we Christians are such ready reflections of our culture and such poor reflections of Christ (the ultimate manifestation of God's image in man) undoubtedly says more about us than it does about him.

At the same time, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that many Christians do exemplify an imago-dei that really is being changed and renewed; it's still far from perfect in most of us, but Christ does make a difference, we do make progress. The challenge for us is to seek to apply this renewal to all areas of our lives, even in our sexuality. As Christians who are being conformed to the image of Christ, the image of God in us should be transforming our sexual relationships into something truly exemplary.

If we're looking for better sex, we need to start by rennovating our imago-dei.


At 11:31 PM, September 25, 2005, Blogger Steve F. said...

I knew I was born a quarter-century too late... (sorry...)

Great comments. How often we forget that God needs to be in the center of things for them to turn out even partly well...and it's good to note that the Christian community doesn't fare well in this comparison.

A writer in the Chicago Reader noted on Friday that some of the highest incidences of divorce (and some of the highest incidences of supposedly-sent-by-God natural disasters) seem to be in the so-called "red" states (which, everyone knows, is where true faith flourishes...). And one of the lowest incidences of divorce is in that hotbed of GLBT activism, Massachusetts. Not a good sign...

Keep the good stuff coming.

At 4:07 AM, September 30, 2005, Blogger CM said...

Been thinking about this sort of thing recently, one thing a lot of churches seem to do when faced with this sort of news is start talking about the importance of family. While there's nothig wrong with that some churches here seem to attach such an importance to families that they actualy risk alienating many single people and people who can't have kids for whatever reason.
While I fully support the church speaking out on this kind of issue, we need to be carefull not to react by moving to far in the other direction.

At 5:16 AM, September 30, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

Well said CM - you've touched on a very important point which I hope to come back and expand upon in the next couple of days. We tend to idolize family - while our families should be a reflection of the image of God in us, it's important to realize that it can't be limited to that (just like it can't be limited to the structure of marriage either) - not everyone is in a family or a marriage.

All of this illustrates why it's important to think deeply about the implications of our theology...

Good stuff!

At 3:55 PM, October 01, 2005, Anonymous Sydney said...

I'm not amazed although we all should be. I drive a school bus. Just yesterday I had a 1st grader tell another 1st grader that he wanted to pull a girl's pants down and lick ...... you get the picture. I don't even want to know how he even knew to think such a thing at his age. I had to send a referral home to his parents. We'll see Monday what they have to say if anything, 1st grade. That one did shock me and not much does anymore.

At 5:17 AM, October 04, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

Here's another link that offers further reflection on the data in that recent study. Helpful to show how much things have changed since the 40s...


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