Wednesday, October 7, 2015

John Piper Said "Sex Belongs to Christians" and I am Not the Least Bit Surprised

"I read sex tips in COSMO. I'm a Christian virgin, and I plan to WOW my future husband on our wedding night." Oh dear. Ohhhhhh dear. Image source.

So. John Piper said "sex belongs to Christians."

My reaction: *rolls eyes* yeah, that sounds like the kind of thing he would say. That's not that weird.

But apparently, a lot of people on twitter were way more surprised about it than I was. So I'm here to explain the existence of a culture in which statements like this are completely normal.

First of all, we have to talk about Christian hedonism, a term which John Piper coined in his 1986 book, Desiring God (according to Wikipedia), and Piper has been talking about ever since then.

Piper usually sums up Christian hedonism in this way: "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." The idea is, when we seek God, we are actually seeking our own pleasure, because the most pleasurable way of life is one where we are totally consumed by an obsessive pursuit of God.

Christian hedonism seems to me to be a response to the idea that the Christian life is one of suffering and making sacrifices, and the more we abstain from pleasure, the more godly we are. To be clear, Christian hedonism also very much believes in making sacrifices and following God's strict rules, but the point is that by doing this, you will actually have a much happier life than if you had not made sacrifices for God.

You can find this idea in Trip Lee's song "Satisfaction (Hedonist)" [lyrics are here]. Trip Lee is a Christian hip-hop artist whose theology was heavily influenced by Piper. The relevant lyrics are:

See I'm a hedonist, I seek my pleasure
Not in sex, nope he's much better
Not in wealth, nah he's my treasure
Pursuing anything else will just upset you

Back when I was a Real True Christian, I didn't follow Piper particularly closely (but I definitely considered him one of those apologetics experts who knew all the right answers- for example, I believed him when he said "it's right for God to slaughter women and children any time he pleases") so I wouldn't have used the term "Christian hedonism", but I did agree with the basic idea. My life was one of unending worship and devotion to [a particular version of] Jesus, and it was so hard. It was so hard. I woke up early every day to read the bible. I put to death my own desires and submitted myself to "God's will." I worried so much about my friends' salvation, and had the awkward evangelistic conversations. I got discouraged. I doubted. I wondered if all the work I was doing for God even mattered.

But. I loved that god so much, it was all worth it to me.

And- maybe this is the most important part- I believed that my life would be a living hell if I were not constantly working so hard to follow that god.

I was a slave to god, but I believed the only alternative was to be a slave to sin, which would definitely be worse.

And I loved that god so much, in a stockholm-syndrome kind of way. And the idea of Christian hedonism was, for me, a way to argue that yes, I am happy and this is the best way to live- maybe because it was terrifying to even consider other ways.

So now we come to Piper's article, Sex Belongs to Christians. Basically, it's an article discussing 1 Timothy 4:1-5, which says that though some people "forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods", these pleasures were given to us by God for our enjoyment.

(As a side note: when you hear the term "forbid marriage", does anyone in today's society come to mind? Can you think of anyone trying to "forbid marriage"? Anybody? Anybody at all? *cough*John Piper*cough*)

From there, Piper goes on to say that pleasures like sex and food were given to us by God, and we should be "unembarrassed" to celebrate and enjoy them. He gives us some verses from Proverbs and Song of Songs about enjoying sex.

For me, any discussion about Christianity and the rules for sex is a discussion about purity culture. So let's stop for a moment and address this question: What is the connection between Christian hedonism and purity culture?

The most vocal advocates of Christian hedonism and the most vocal advocates of purity culture are not the same people at all. However, both groups are considered to be real Christians (and you guys know about how American evangelicals love to judge and decide who is a "real Christian"- I'm not even close to being a "real Christian").

Both groups believe that sex should only exist in a one-man-one-woman marriage; in any other context, sex is a sin. Both groups believe that if you follow God's rules about sex, you will have THE MOST AMAZING SEX POSSIBLE, and if you don't follow God's rules, it is impossible to have good sex.

Personally, I don't consider John Piper to be a purity culture advocate. I think his beliefs fit completely within the worldview of purity culture and do not challenge it at all, but he doesn't talk about things like "guarding your heart" and being afraid of dating and trying to force yourself to never ever have a single sexual thought. In other words, he believes premarital sex is a horrible sin, looking at porn is a horrible sin, etc etc, but he doesn't go beyond "don't do it", he doesn't start from there and develop a whole toxic, shame-filled, terrified-of-sex approach to the subject of relationships. (Correct me on this if I'm wrong.)

This is the case for a lot of Christians who are my parents' age or older. (For example, my parents.) Today's purity culture is very different from what they were taught when they were young, and they may not even realize what their kids are being taught. Also, they focus more on advice to Christians who are married, with very little to say to single people besides "don't have sex." Purity culture, on the other hand, has A LOT to say to single people.

I have seen Christians come across purity culture's teaching and, in horror, declare it be "legalistic." (I would not be surprised at all if Piper has made some kind of comment to that effect.) But they never give any kind of alternative, they never actually present a healthy view of sex and relationships and singleness. They still hold to the teachings of "don't have sex" and "don't lust" ... and at this point, I highly doubt that there even could be a healthy worldview built on that foundation. Believe me, I've looked.

Anyway, my point is, while Piper is not at all a spokesperson for purity culture, his teaching on Christian hedonism can fit within purity culture very well. Purity culture teaches that having sex with RUIN YOUR LIFE, and that people who have had sex (or have broken any of the rules of purity culture) are constantly racked with guilt over it.

In other words, obeying the purity culture rules is the best way to live. If you break the rules, your life will suck. Oh and also, if you obey the rules, God will give you an opposite-sex spouse and you will have the BEST SEX EVER on your wedding night.

This is more or less what Piper is saying, but he doesn't have as many rules in mind as purity culture does.

(And here I'd like to point out that purity culture damaged me far more than occasionally having sex could have. And there are tons of other purity culture graduates who would say that too. So. Yeah, that whole "this is the best way to live" thing is bullshit.)

Let's get back to that post. So, the beginning part is about how God created sex and we should fully enjoy it. And then we come to this part:
Sex belongs to Christians. Because sex belongs to God. "God created it to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." If it is used by those who do not believe and know the truth, it is prostituted. They have exchanged the glory of God for images. They have torn sex from its God-appointed place in the orbit of marriage. But they do not know what they are doing. And the price they will pay in this life and the next is incalculable.

The pleasures of sex are meant for believers. They are designed for their greatest expression by the children of God. He saves His richest gifts for his children. And as we enjoy His gift of sex, we say, by our covenant faithfulness to our spouse, that God is greater than sex. And the pleasures of sex are themselves an overflow of God's own goodness. This pleasure is less than what we will know fully in Him at His right hand. And in it, we taste something of His very exquisiteness.
Oh my.

And by "oh my", I mean "yeah that's pretty much what we believe, but we don't usually say it so directly and where unbelievers can hear us."

The logic goes like this: God created sex, and we can only truly understand and enjoy sex if we believe that God created it, and we follow God's rules. Everyone else, who doesn't believe the correct things about God, isn't able to have sex correctly.

In Hemant Mehta's post on Piper's statement (at the Friendly Atheist blog), he says, "Which, I guess, means all of us are doing it wrong. Literally." Mehta is making a joke here, but this isn't a joke- the church actually explicitly teaches that the only way to [insert whatever aspect of everyday life here] correctly is to do it "God's way."

How many times have I heard that the only way to be happy and have a truly satisfying life is to base your life on Jesus? And that everyone has a "God-shaped hole" in their heart and they will never be happy unless they become a Christian?

And you can't have a healthy dating relationship unless that relationship is centered around Jesus. And you can't have healthy friendships unless those friendships are built on Jesus- our best friends will always be Christians, like us. And you can't have a good family life unless you put God first. And you can't have a good career unless you put God first. And you can't do this or that and everything in between unless you put God first.

And the church is kind of squeamish about talking about sex, but when they do, of course they say you can only have good sex if it's done "God's way."

American evangelical Christians believe that everyone who's not a "real Christian" is living a miserable life in their own personal hell. Their lives are based on all the wrong things, so of course they are failures. This is literally what the church teaches ... but we hide it well.

We hide it because we love you. And "love" means "we know the only way for you to live a good life, and we must try to push you in that direction because it's obviously what's best for you." Now, if, when I was a Real True Christian, I had actually told people "I think your life is sad and miserable and you need to become a Christian", would that help to push them in the direction of becoming a Christian [aka living a good life]? No, it wouldn't. So I didn't say that.

I was dishonest and sneaky about my very offensive opinions on other people's lives, because I loved them.

I cannot say enough how happy I am to no longer believe that Christian supremacy crap. Now I believe that if you love someone, you want them to have the freedom to make their own decisions about their own life.

All right, there's one more thing Piper said that I want to talk about. Throughout this post, there's a theme about God being involved in our enjoyment of sex. For example, Piper says, "The heavens are telling the glory of God. We are to see it. And worship him. So it is with the breasts of our wives. The breasts are telling the glory of God, the goodness of God, the beauty of God and more. We are to see it. And worship Him."

Mehta phrases it this way: "In other words: All sex with a partner is a threesome because God’s inviting himself in. Kinky."

Do y'all think that's super-creepy?

Back when I was a Real True Christian, I occasionally heard statements like this. Like "when you're having sex with your husband, you can imagine Jesus is in the room too." To hear it stated that explicitly was pretty rare, but it did happen. And when Christians say things like that, they know it sounds bizarre and creepy- that shock value is pretty much the whole point.

The idea is, our sex lives are not something separate from our relationship with God. This subculture of Christianity believes that the entire point of being a Christian is having a "personal relationship with God." And actually, that relationship sometimes does seem creepily romantic or sexual- though you won't be able to get evangelicals to acknowledge this.

The goal of "personal relationship with God" Christians is to have their deep devotion to God flow through everything they do. To say "Jesus is there when you're having sex" sounds shocking and creepy at first, but really, it fits in with this ideology perfectly.

As best I can tell, normal people find this very creepy because they believe nobody is entitled to be involved in anybody else's sex life. Sex is a very personal thing that you share with only the people you choose to share it with, and nobody else has the right to know anything about it.

The idea that my sex life is absolutely nobody else's business, and that I can just choose to never say a word to anyone about it, answer no questions, and that is perfectly normal, continues to shock me.

Because in purity culture, we always talked about the rules- which means, we never even questioned the assumption that our sex lives/ romantic lives would be controlled by these rules our Christian leaders told us. And we believed we should "keep each other accountable", which means our close friends would ask us very personal questions about whether we were maintaining our purity, and if we were truly devoted to God, we would answer those questions.

Sometimes I say to my boyfriend "don't tell anyone" and he says "of course I'm not going to tell anyone" and I'm shocked. I'm still so shocked at the idea of not having to "confess" the details of our relationship to anyone.

So. To conclude, John Piper said "sex belongs to Christians," a statement built on the concepts of Christian hedonism, Christian supremacy, and a VERY personal relationship with God. And I am not surprised at all, because all of these elements were indispensable to the Christian culture I used to be a part of.

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