As part of Bristol Palin's role as a born-again champion of abstinence, she recently wrapped up filming an episode of ABC's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, in which she plays the friend of another young single mother. Look for the episode to air this summer, but look for the Palin family's hubris to air nonstop before, during, and after then.
While Bristol seems much sweeter than the rest of that clan, that arrogantly church-going family reminds me of three fundamental problems that arise from traditional Biblical instruction on sex.
Forget the tired notion that Christians are "against" sex. They're as wildly for it as anyone; that's what got Bristol into trouble. Christians simply have an idealized notion of sex and relationships, one that's increasingly divorced from the reality and the direction of the larger society.
I speak, of course, of mainstream and conservative Christians, who struggle more nervously than others with three fundamental problems that arise from Biblical sexual instruction.
1. Its rules weren't intended for modern society.
Whether the human body developed gradually over millions of years or suddenly around six millenia ago, God or Mother Nature installed sexual plumbing that slips noisily into gear around age 13 and keeps churning noisily for decades. Yet human society has developed in ways that increasingly delay marriage till 30-something. The body and mind are hardly silly to rebel.
The focus on abstinence, on "presenting one's body as a holy and living sacrifice to God" (to use Paul's term), is in 2010 a great way to never meet that special someone. Christianity is so fearful of experimentation on the part of singles that it encourages passivity instead. The notion is that "God will deliver the right person in His perfect timing. I shouldn't upset His plans or force His hand and get into inappropriate entanglements." Given that marriage is being delayed more than ever, it's little wonder that many quality people that I knew in church have moved into middle age solo, against their will and better judgment and deepest longings. And it's little wonder that some of those who married did so with people outside the church.
2. It promises more than it can deliver.
It criticizes all premarital liaisons as dangerous or at least misguided, and it pooh-poohs any possibility of even some redeeming or meaningful engagement with another human being. And it sets the marital bed up as a far greater good. This leads to the common complaint of various married Christian friends, which is that married sex isn't what it was cracked up to be. Distress over the mundaneness of it all, anger at the lack of interest on the part of a spouse, and curiosity about what else may have been out there prior to marriage may not be terribly different from what anyone else feels. But Christians' sense of disappointment is more real and palpable.
At some level, the notion that abstinence in singleness will lead to maximum joy in marriage is a microcosm of the idea that if you show restraint on earth you will have boundless joy in the afterlife. And there are many who, based on how they found the former notion to be untrue, worry about the latter being a bit trumped up, too.
3. It encourages bad faith, not integrity or maturity.
While Christian instruction makes some believers passive, as noted above, it makes others into liars, deceptive to themselves and others.
Given that Sarah Palin has always championed abstinence-only approaches for sex ed, how did Bristol not heed the message? One of numerous studies helps us make sense of it:
the Washington Post reported in 2005 that "although young people who sign a virginity pledge delay the initiation of sexual activity, marry at younger ages and have fewer sexual partners, they are also less likely to use condoms* and more likely to experiment with oral and anal sex," according to researchers from Yale and Columbia Universities."
Within a contemporary church, you will discover many committed couples who break traditional bounds of romance while pretending to be chaste. They stay overnight, for example, grinding their way past every boundary short of intercourse. I believe Calvin would have had them flogged in Geneva, and I suspect God would have told them to quit the BS and just go ahead and use a condom instead of attempting to play coy.
Theological and ecclesiastical authorities will say that this isn't what Biblical instruction intends and shouldn't even be cited as an example of Christian conduct. But few will concede that sex is complicated, and that sometimes the unmarried couple that enjoys sex responsibly but which later breaks up may be healthier than the ones who rationalize loopholes.
There is also the issue of premature marriage. Go back to the huge gap between puberty and marriage that arises due to social changes that extend adolescence longer than ever before. Combine this with Paul's admonitions that "it is better to marry than to burn," and far too many devout Christian singles end up getting married before they are emotionally mature. They want the sex now, and marriage is the only way they can get it in a way that they think God can bless. So they marry just after graduation from their Christian college, well before they know what they want in a relationship or can bring to it. This is bad faith, and it is thus small wonder that the divorce rate for Christians is roughly the same as for those who don't live by the Bible's demanding standards.
If there is a God, I imagine he or she cares more about emotional health than about rigid rules ("the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath"). And the various rationalizations and loopholes of true believers can in many cases move them farther from, not closer to, emotional health and an integrated view of reality.
There are various scholars, particularly many feminists, who have dismissed the Christian view of sex in an unflattering or distorted light. I can think, for example, of Karen Armstrong, the bitter ex-nun who makes it her calling to insist, oddly, that Muslims are far more progressive about sex than Christians.
But Christians, from Bristol Palin to Jimmy Swaggart, love them their sex, or at least their idealized concept of what sex should look like. That's what causes the three major troubles listed above. And that seems to beg for greater discussion in America's churches.
Rob Asghar's Lessons from the Holy Wars, a journey from Islam to Christianity to a more open spirituality, is available now at Amazon.