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Running towards Gomorrah

Sojourners endorses secular sexual morality


Running towards Gomorrah

At what point does a commitment to the anarchic sexual morality of our contemporary world disqualify one from being regarded as a Christian? That question is raised in an acute form by a recent article for Sojourners that reviews Christine Emba’s recent book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. The reviewer, describing herself as “a dirtbag Christian and a polyamorous writer,” finds Emba’s call for a more traditional approach to sexual morality than what’s offered by the sexual revolution unconvincing. In doing so, she rather blows the cover on the twisted direction Sojourners is now heading.

Emba is fascinating. A columnist for The Washington Post, she is no conservative. Still, she has come to realize that the culture of modern sex is failing because of the reduction of sexual morality to the bare notion of consent. The burden of her argument is that this culture of consent has trivialized sex, trivialized our bodies, and trivialized our relationships. It is, in fact, a culture of unreality, doomed to end in the social disaster we see all around us, marked by loneliness, anxiety, and dysfunction.

To make such an argument is, of course, to state the obvious. Casual sex has not delivered a utopia of earthly pleasures. On the contrary, it has created a society of isolated, lonely individuals, children without stable families, abortions, and disease. A return to a more traditional moral framework for sexual behavior would be a rather obvious answer to this.

One might have expected Emba’s argument to resonate with Christians. Not so with the Sojourners reviewer. While the reviewer agrees that consent is not an adequate foundation for sexual morality, she sees a return to more traditional morality as retrogressive. At least the “consent only” model was liberating for the LGBTQ community, the reviewer claims. And Emba’s view makes no place for “kink” (the new word for “perversion”), casual sex, polyamory, and the kind of polymorphous sexual desire that the reviewer assumes as basic.

That such secular drivel as this review is now apparently welcomed by Sojourners is surely a depressing sign of our times.

The review represents nothing more than the spirit of the age. The reviewer may be correct in seeing consent as an inadequate foundation for thinking about sexual morality, but her alternative is useless. She considers the morality of sex grounded merely in consent plus the need for the sexual activity to be emotionally fulfilling, or at least not emotionally damaging, to the parties involved. In other words, the reviewer is committed to the same fundamental error that lies behind the argument from consent: that sexual acts have no intrinsic moral significance in themselves. And to make matters worse, she even uses her criticism of Emba as an opportunity to slam purity culture. Purity culture may have its problems, but surely is it really farther from the Bible’s view of sex than the self-indulgent polyamory the reviewer represents?

Yet, we all intuitively know this is not true and that sex is more than a pleasurable bodily function. If someone slaps my face, he hurts me, but I will quickly recover. But if someone rapes me, I am marked for life. That is because sex is bound up with our selves, with who we are at the deepest level, and it is a gift that is mine to give in love, not something to be taken by someone else by force. Consent is therefore important. But just as important is the acknowledgment that sex is not just one human activity among many but is rather something of the deepest significance for our identity, our relationship with another, and society at large. That is why societies have often surrounded sexual initiation with rites of sacred and social importance. It is not just one human activity among many, either for the individuals concerned or for the society within which it occurs. Even our laws acknowledge this, typically punishing sexual assault far more severely than other non-fatal kinds.

That such secular drivel as this review is now apparently welcomed by Sojourners is surely a depressing sign of our times. Readers may decide for themselves whether there is any precedent in the New Testament’s description of faithful discipleship for someone who identifies as a dirtbag polyamorous Christian who lives with two of her three sexual partners. But one thing is surely now necessary: The magazine should have the honesty to change its name. It is no longer a journal for Christian sojourners and exiles in this world. No. It is precisely the modern worldliness of the magazine that marks it today. Sojourners is where the most extreme advocates of contemporary Western society’s view of sex, selfhood, and human relationships now have a platform and feel entirely at home.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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