Sex and Consent: A Christian Perspective

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.

–1 Corinthians 6:18 (ESV)

Now, should we treat women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.

— Jessica Valenti

If you’ve been following the news, you know why I’m writing this.  Our culture, from Hollywood to Washington to Fortune 500 boardrooms to (sadly) the American Church itself, is being revealed for what it is, and the results are horrifying.  The putrid boil of sexual assault has been lanced, and the fetid pus has come pouring out.  Good.  This is a cleansing, clarifying moment.  Now is the time to talk about what the “sexual revolution” has wrought and how we can move forward in creating a godly and just social order.  To do so, we must be clear in what God requires of us and how we can live that out in an increasingly godless culture.  But we must begin with ourselves as Christians — “for it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17).  Evangelicals have no standing to judge the world when we are actively supporting elected officials (including the President) who have sexually harassed, abused, assaulted, and (probably) raped women and young girls.  Pastors and priests are not immune to this either.  Just this morning there was a report of a pastor of Florida’s biggest megachurch molesting a 4-year-old.  The scandal among Catholic priests is well documented.  And in all this, the default position of Christians seems to be that the women or girls (or boys) who are the victims are somehow to blame.  We tell girls to protect their virginity without stopping to ask why they need to be protected.  Boys will be boys, am I right?  Paul says to “flee from sexual immorality”.  It seems that we are content to instead go right up to or over the line, and then find ways to justify our sinful behavior.  ENOUGH.  We have to do better.  We have to be better.  The message of the gospel and the souls of the lost depend upon it.

Let’s start with what the Bible says about sex.  That may seem quaint to some in our more “enlightened” time, but if enlightenment has led to this epidemic of sexual misconduct, perhaps we should reconsider what God has to say.  First off, adultery and incest are explicitly banned.  Adultery, prohibited in the Ten Commandments, means a married person having sex with someone to whom they are not married.  Incest, condemned most explicitly in Leviticus 18 & 20, is sex with someone to whom you are related by blood.  These prohibitions include stepchildren and step-siblings.  Homosexual relations are also prohibited.  Contrary to popular belief, this is not just found in the Old Testament.  See for example Romans 1:26-28, 1 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 6:9.  Anyway, that topic requires a whole other essay.  But what about the biggie: sex before marriage between single, heterosexual adults.  In 1 Corinthians 7:2, it says “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband”.  Here, Paul clearly equates “sexual immorality”, which is condemned frequently in the New Testament, with sex outside of marriage.  Paul goes on to discuss how he prefers that people should not get married, but that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (7:9).  If sex outside of marriage was not wrong, there would be no need for this admonition.  Hebrews 13:4 says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous”.  Here again there is a differentiation between adultery and sexual immorality.  The proper place for sex is the marriage bed, period.

Don’t misunderstand, the Bible is actually very positive about sex.  Song of Songs is an entire book dedicated to sexual delights in which the lover and beloved describe each others bodies with ardent passion.  The woman says, “as an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (2:3).  The man replies, “your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.  I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit. Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine” (7:7-9).  Proverbs adjures a young man to “rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (5:18-19).  Sex is clearly not just for procreation, but for mutual delight.  Notice, however, that even Song of Songs repeatedly warns “that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (2:7).  The Bible recognizes that sex is powerful – it can bring two people together but it can also tear a person apart.  Jesus himself was explicit about this in his teaching on marriage from Mark 10:6-9:

From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

Sex creates one flesh out of two people.  Therefore, marriage is between one man and one woman for life.  No divorce; no homosexuality; no adultery.  Of course, Jesus also expanded the definition of adultury to include lust (Matthew 5:28), making him even stricter than the much-maligned Leviticus.  Sexual sin is, as Paul says in the epigraph verse above, a sin against the body.  To commit sexual sin of any kind is to do violence to someone else’s body (and your own).  As Christians, we should at minimum condemn rape, molestation, and harassment.  But all sexual sin, even lust, dehumanizes someone made in the image of God, and turns the gift of sex into a tool for gaining pleasure at the expense of another (even if that person consents).  We must hold ourselves to a higher standard than the world.  The fact that we are no different from the world is an unspeakable shame.

Let’s talk about consent.  To be clear:  SEX WITHOUT CONSENT IS RAPE.  And that includes within a marriage.  Of course, it should be assumed that you and your spouse will have sex; after all, the Bible commands it (see 1 Corinthians 7:3-5).  But just because you should have sex sometimes does not mean that you can expect sex anytime.  If your wife or husband says “no” to sex and you force them to anyway, you have raped them.  There’s more to it than just that, though.  Let’s say that your spouse typically performs oral sex on you as a part of foreplay. But one day, as things are getting hot and heavy, they say that, while they want to have intercourse, they don’t want to do that particular act.  If you coerce them, physically or by verbal threat, to do so anyway, you have sexually assaulted your spouse.  If you had planned to have sex at a given time, and your spouse says they’ve changed their mind, you should not expect them to do so anyway because it’s their “duty”.  I should note that, since sex within marriage is a given, any “no” that you wish to convey should be explicit and unmistakable.  Use the word “no”.  And, just a reminder to us all, “no means no”.  Of course, if you find that you or your spouse are saying no to sex more often than not, you should have a talk about that, maybe with a pastor or counselor.  That could be a sign of trouble in your marriage.  But the occasional “not tonight, honey” is your right.  And consent is not that hard to figure out.  I promise that taking two seconds to ask the question “would you like to have sex?” and getting a positive response will not kill the mood.  Communication is sexy because sex is all about communication.  I’ve found that asking “are you enjoying this?” can lead to, shall we say, positive results.  Sex that is about only your pleasure is actually less pleasurable than sex that takes both partners’ needs into consideration.  Consent is not just morally necessary – it’s also the only way to have truly pleasurable sex.

Here’s a really important point: there are some people who cannot consent to sex, even if they are saying “yes”.  If a person is drunk, high, or unconscious, they cannot consent to sex.  If you are over 18, anyone under the age of 18 cannot consent to sex with you.  If you are any age, a person under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex (state laws vary here).  Having intercourse with people in these situations is rape.  Performing any sex act with them is sexual assault.  In light of the allegations against Roy Moore (and the sad reactions to them), I will put this in all caps:  A 14-YEAR-OLD CANNOT CONSENT TO SEX.  This is really not that hard.  Teenagers are dealing with new feelings and powerful hormones and cannot be trusted to make wise decisions.  I don’t care if a teenager is dressed provocatively or is dropping hints or whatever other lame excuse you have.  You are an adult and they are a child and it is your responsibility to protect them.  As the quote above indicates, nobody is ever asking to be raped.  The reason someone gets raped is that someone rapes them.  Of course, women should be careful to not get intoxicated and to dress modestly, especially if they are underaged.  But our obsession, particularly in the Church, with female chastity has led us to blame the victim over and over again.  And that is just plain evil.

Even worse, when women come forward claiming sexual misconduct, especially against a pastor or church leader, they are often not believed.  We want to think that our pastors are above reproach, but we are all sinners.  Women should be believed, especially in a church that vests power solely in men.  False accusations do happen, but they are exceedingly rare.  If your priest or pastor is taking proper precautions in meeting with female parishioners, they should have no problem disproving false allegations.  If women who have been raped, assaulted, or harassed cannot turn to the Church for love, respect, comfort, and guidance, where can they turn?  Our primary mission as Christians is bring the love of Jesus into our broken and dying world.  How can we do that if we are busy covering for the misconduct of our “spiritual leaders”  because they hold the right theological or political positions?  God will bring the truth to light.  False witnesses will be revealed and condemned.  Abusers and the people who abetted and enabled them will also be revealed and condemned.  Let’s just say that I don’t want to be standing before the Judgement Seat of Christ and have as my only defense: “But what about Bill Clinton?”

If you know of abuse or harassment that is occurring, it is your Christian duty to confront the abuser.  If they will not immediately repent, seek forgiveness from their victims, make what restitution they can, and change their behavior, then you should report them to the authorities immediately.  If the crime involves a child, you are legally obligated to report them to the police.  Knowing about such crimes and either ignoring them or covering them up is just as bad a crime (and a sin) as the abuse itself.  If the pastor of your church is caught committing any crime, especially a sexual one, and makes excuses instead of immediately stepping down, leave that church.  Too many evangelical churches are basically pastoral cults, and that culture, which breeds abuse, must be rooted out and destroyed.  You should submit to pastors and priests (and, indeed, husbands) only if they themselves are under submission, to the authority of the Church and of Christ Himself.  And we should demand better of our political leaders.  Of course, they are entitled to due process protections before being deprived of their life, liberty, or property.  But that doesn’t mean you have to vote for a creep just because you agree with his politics.  I know that many Christians feel that we are under attack, and we want politicians who will fight for us.  But shouldn’t we demand that politicians who claim to fight for “Christian values” actually follow those values?  And shouldn’t we believe that, no matter who we vote for, God is still on the throne as King of Kings?  If we truly believe that God is in control, we have no reason to trust in political leaders to save us, even if they are pure as the driven snow.  “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).  Let us love our fellow Christians, especially the most vulnerable, honor our leaders, but, above all, fear God.

In conclusion, God is not primarily interested in our happiness.  He wants us, above all, to be holy as He is holy.  He doesn’t want us to be good; He wants us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48).  So much of the debate around sex involves our happiness, be it how abortion allows for “sexual freedom” or how sexually abusive politicians work for “the greater good”.  We in the Church have internalized this model and treat the commands of Scriptures as suggestions when they threaten our happiness or our cultural position.  This is not a liberal or conservative issue.  It’s an issue of the heart.  We must begin by asking the Lord to give us a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), “for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19).  The change in our society must begin inside each one of us.  We must teach our children the beauty and value of sex, and to treat it as a precious jewel to be saved for one special person.  And we must teach them, especially the boys, how to treat others with dignity, respect, and modesty.  The unfettered search for “sexual freedom” has led us to this sorry state of affairs, when the only true freedom is found in Jesus Christ (John 8:36).  If the Church keeps burying its head in the sand and pretending that sexual immorality doesn’t exist in our midst, it will only cause the problem to metastasize.  Let us be clear and unequivocal about the Biblical call for purity for both men and women, and let us be on guard for the corrupting influence of power.  Only then can true healing begin.

I recommend this terrific op-ed by conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat about the Roy Moore allegations that touches on the kinds of predators that thrive in the Church and other conservative circles.




Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Review

Quick Note: I know I haven’t updated this space in a while, but that 30 Days of 3:16 was kind of exhausting and I needed a break from writing.  While I enjoyed those deep dives into Scripture, and while I fully intend to return to writing on spiritual topics in this space in the near future, I feel a little lighter fare may be called for.  Hence, today I will be reviewing a movie I saw in the theater – the first chance I’ve had to do such a thing in over a year.  Later this week, I’ll be reviewing John Green’s newest bestselling novel Turtles All The Way Down.  If these are well received, I may continue reviews here, perhaps even with a spiritual twist.  Anyway, enough throat-clearing:

Behind a locked door, someone is found murdered.  A brilliant but troubled detective is called upon to investigate.  The suspects are all confined in claustrophobic quarters, and the inscrutable detective questions them one-by-one.  They are all lying; all have something to hide.  But who is the murderer?  In a solution both inevitable and genius, the detective lays out the case in detail, and the murderer is revealed.  Roll credits.  I have just summarized not only this movie, but a whole mystery subgenre that is so familiar, the formula so ingrained, that it’s hard to imagine such stories never existed.  And yet, you can thank one person for making this kind of story so ubiquitous that it became a cliché: Dame Agatha Christie, who has sold more books than anyone other than God and Shakespeare.  To adapt her work in our day, when Internet “movie experts” pick apart clichés and plot holes with joyless glee, takes a combination of talent, courage, and pure ego.  Enter Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Director and star Kenneth Branagh, famous for his adaptations of Shakespeare like Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, is not a revolutionary.  His talents lie in reminding the audience of the vibrancy and relevance of classic literature, i.e. why the classics are classics.  Branagh clearly did not set out to reinvent the wheel, but simply to buff it to a high sheen and look at it from a different angle.  The results are, for the most part, excellent.  Murder on the Orient Express is a tricky beast for a couple of reasons.  First, the story takes place almost entirely on a train, which is as un-cinematic a location as you could imagine.  Second, the plot is caught somewhere between the “brilliant detective” story (pioneered, of course, by Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes) and an ensemble mystery (best exemplified by Christie’s own And Then There Were None).  The solutions to these problems illuminate why this movie succeeds as well as it does.

In a lively prologue, Murder on the Orient Express introduces us to the genius of detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh), whose obsessive attention to detail and unwavering commitment to reason owe no small debt to the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes.  While Holmes’ outsider status is self-inflicted, the French-speaking Belgian Poirot seems to have no choice in existing on the margins, observing but never engaging.  As such, he serves both as protagonist and audience surrogate while the cast of characters assemble on the eponymous train.  Poirot, looking forward to a relaxing ride from Istanbul back to London, is thrust back into work when homicide intervenes.  The suspects read like a who’s who of Christie archetypes: the widow, the governess, the duchess, the doctor, the missionary, the butler, the countess, the maid, the professor (etc.).  And Branagh, in typical style, has assembled a who’s who to play them.  Should I list them?  Yeah, I will.  The cast list alone is worth the ticket.  This movie stars (deep breath): Johnny Depp, Michele Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr., Lucy Boynton, Tom Bateman, and Judi Dench.  This ensemble plays off each other and Branagh as clues are dropped, lies are told, and threats are made, all leading to one of the most famous and ingenious solutions in the entirety of detective fiction.  I will not spoil the ending, but, as is often the case on trains, the journey is more important than the destination.  And what a journey!

First off, this is a terrific looking film.  The cinematography, costumes, and production design are all impeccable.  Branagh’s direction is energetic and, at times, unexpected.  In particular, he deploys tracking and overhead shots to great effect.  This is his solution to the first problem we mentioned.  The geography of the train is clearly laid out and, while the characters are trapped, we as the audience do not feel likewise.  Perhaps the film could have used a bit more claustrophobic tension at times, but the film’s style did keep a story that is mainly dialogue from bogging down.  The editing keeps the pace up for the most part, although two brief action scenes were cut in such a way to make it hard to follow the action.  Thankfully, for all the flourishes, Branagh keeps the characters front-and-center and never lets his more showboaty tendencies overwhelm the story.

The acting is, as you would expect, terrific all around.  Pfieffer is a particular standout, finding unexpected depths in what could have been a hysterical caricature.  Ridley and Gad are also excellent.  It’s nice to have a reminder that Johnny Depp can act when given the opportunity, albeit in a gangster role he could play in his sleep.  There are so many characters that some, like Jacobi’s butler, get short shrift, much to the movie’s detriment.  I think this is partly attributable to Christie’s penchant for creating archetypes rather than characters, and in that this adaptation is faithful.  The movie never gets off the ground as an ensemble piece because the ensemble is so unwieldy, which brings us to Branagh’s solution to the second problem.

One gets the sense that Branagh’s favorite actor is himself.  And dammit if he doesn’t deserve his ego.  He is terrific as Poirot, portraying a quirky character without ever tipping over into parody (even that ridiculous mustache somehow works).  From his physicality to his careful manner of speech, Branagh embodies Poirot’s desire for balance and order, and his pain at crimes which upset that order.  Particularly at the end, Branagh finds unexpected depths in this simple story by challenging Poirot’s idea of justice itself.  Leave it to our greatest modern Shakespearean to mine detective fiction for a philosophical and emotional catharsis.  But the movie never feels heavy, balancing comedy and drama in a way that would please its protagonist.  While I had trouble connecting to some of the characters, I was invested in Poirot and hope that the tease of a sequel at the end comes to fruition.  Bring on the Poirot Cinematic Universe!

Actually, that’s not a joke.  Branagh’s solution to the detective-vs.-ensemble problem is not found in his Shakespearean c.v., but in another movie he directed: Thor.  This is a superhero movie as much as that one, only this hero’s powers are of the mind rather than the body.  By centering the story around Poirot’s complicated relationship with his own talent as “probably” the best detective in the world, Branagh keeps the story from falling to pieces.  The movie is only incidentally a mystery set on a train with a bunch of suspects.  It is really the story of one man who is trying to set the world right one solved crime at a time.  This is a film that dares to ask whether crime solving is all it’s cracked up to be.  Maybe finding balance in the world means more than just finding a murderer.

I do have a few quibbles with the movie.  The solution that is presented includes facts that are not presented to the audience and are difficult or impossible to guess.  This makes the famous solution feel less earned that it could have been.  As I’ve said, the focus on Poirot means that the terrific cast feels underutilized at times, making the movie feel both too short and too long.  The score could have added tension and drama, but instead was entirely forgettable.  Some parts of the backstory of the murdered character felt glossed over, particularly the motive for a crucial crime that the victim committed.  None of these things are deal-breakers, but they do keep this movie from being an instant classic.

In conclusion, I recommend this movie wholeheartedly, particularly if you are a fan of Christie or detective fiction in general.  If you like to complain that “they don’t make movies like they used to”, well, they do, and this is a must-see for you.  It’s that rare movie that is made for adults and treats its audience with respect.  It’s a movie that celebrates justice and compassion and good taste.  In 2017, that counts as a breath of fresh air.  Leave it to Kenneth Branagh, the revolutionary anti-revolutionary, to remind us of these values by reinvigorating yet another classic.  Dame Christie would be proud.

Murder on the Orient Express is rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.  It’s fine for kids, although young kids will probably get bored.


October 31st – Conclusion

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Reading the Bible should make you uncomfortable.  Even jumping around to only read favorite verses and familiar stories can lead to discomfort when you realize that what you thought the story or the verse said is not, in fact, what it says at all.  And this is great.  We have a tendency nowadays to read only those with whom we already agree, and we curate our online lives in order to reinforce our presuppositions.  But doing so calcifies our minds and deadens our hearts.  If we are to receive the new heart that God wants to give us, if we want to have the mind of Christ, we must allow ourselves to become uncomfortable, even disturbed or upset.  For in that, there is great opportunity for change and growth, for renewal, for life reborn.  The Bible, more than any other book I’ve ever read, is alive.  It has a way of speaking across the centuries and into the very heart of who I am.  It always seems to change each time I read it.  But, of course, it is I who have changed and the Bible, miraculously, speaks in a new way each time, to each new version of me.  So calling this a “conclusion” is a bit misleading.  It’s more a signpost on the journey, a summary of what I’ve found out over the past month.  There is no true conclusion until that final trumpet sounds.

So what have I learned?  First off, God is the protagonist of the Bible.  This seems blindingly obvious, but it’s easy to forget sometimes.  We like to think of Scripture as a record of man’s search for God when it is exactly the opposite.  It is not a bunch of stories about different people, but one story about God as seen in the lives of many people.  From Genesis on down we’ve seen God as the prime mover, the actor to whom every else is reacting.  Nothing in these stories and prophesies happens outside God’s sovereignty.  And that is both a challenge and a comfort.  It is a challenge to the idea that I run my own life, that my free will is the determining factor in my fate.  It is a comfort because God sees and remembers me, even in the hardest of times.  Which brings me to another point.

Did you notice how often these verses dealt with evil and suffering?  Looking over the readings, I’m having difficulty finding even one that doesn’t have some kind of suffering at least in the background.  Be it sin, slavery, sacrifice, prejudice, depression, injustice, exile, disappointment, or fear, the Bible can hardly be accused of sugar-coating life.  The history of the Jewish people has, in many ways, been a history of misery, and they’re God’s chosen people!  Maybe that’s why they’ve suffered so much.  In any case, if you read the Bible primarily to tell you that everything’s going to work out and nothing will go wrong if you just have faith, then you are in for a rude awakening.  People suffer, sometimes unjustly and often without explanation.  But there is comfort even in this, for we are not alone.  Our suffering does not mean that God has abandoned us or that we have failed.  We cannot avoid pain, so the only question is whether we are going to let it destroy us or remake us.  The greatest argument against the existence of a good God is evil and suffering.  Instead of making arguments to defend God, perhaps we should listen instead.  Listen to your suffering and the suffering of others.  For in it we will find the lynchpin of hope and faith we talked about yesterday: the love of God.  For suffering does not so much disprove God as reveal His character by showing us that even this cannot kill love.  This is why the white robes in Revelation are given to “the overcomers”.  And awaiting us in our heavenly home is a Savior with wounds on His hands, His feet, and His side.  For the only answer we have to human suffering is to point to the Cross and then to the empty tomb.  That’s what all these verses have done.

Which all leads to my final conclusion: there’s something missing in all of these verses.  Wait, wait, before you get angry let me explain.  Reading the Old Testament is (to a paraphrase a Karl Barth story) like watching a bunch of people pointing at the sky but not being able to see the sky.  It’s like we’re on a train, but the destination is unmarked.  There is just no central theme or point of the Old Testament except that God exists and we screwed up and God wants us to stop screwing up.  It feels like its wheels are spinning.  That Malachi passage, very nearly the end of the Hebrew Bible, is all about remembering the past, and the book ends with a threat to strike the land with a curse for disobedience (like Genesis 3 all over again).  The cycle of disobedience, desolation, forgiveness, restoration, and disobedience just seems like it will go on forever.  What’s the point?  Well, we saw it in yesterday’s reading.  Jesus was the point.  That’s what was in the sky the whole time; that’s the destination of this train.  Without Jesus, the Old Testament just kind of sits there as a testament to human misery and cussedness.  With Jesus, the whole thing springs to life with the Spirit, the love, and even the mischievousness of God.  The gospels (yes, including John 3:16) recontextualize the entire Old Testament, giving it an arc and a grand purpose it would not otherwise have.  To read the Old Testament in this context is to see a God carefully laying out His plan and executing it to perfection.  The story doesn’t stop with the threat of a curse.  Note the difference:

  • Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:5-6)
  • He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.  (Revelation 22:20-21)

In the place of “utter destruction”, there is “the grace of the Lord Jesus”.  The Old Testament is so evocative and wonderful at showing the fallibility of man and the holiness of God.  The New Testament demonstrates how our holy God reconciled fallible man to Himself.  Reading one without the other is like delivering just the set up to a joke (the OT) or just the punchline (the NT).  Reading them in the context of each other has been satisfying for me, and, I hope, for you.  May your reading of God’s Holy Word from henceforth continually point you to the One about whom it was written: Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.