If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But, of course, when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.C.S. Lewis
Recently American hip hop artist and social media personality Cardi B made headlines and drew both praise and ire for a performance at the Grammys best described as pornographic. She was performing her hit song, “WAP,” which itself is a pornographic acronym I won’t type out in full here. To be honest, my feeling is not so much one of moral outrage or disgust as it is of sadness. Because this is a young woman made in the imago Dei, created with worth and dignity by a loving Creator, who is willingly objectifying herself in front of millions (Maybe only thousands? Who watches the Grammys anymore anyway?). Not only that, but given that the Grammys are an ostensibly “family program,” Cardi B is effectively communicating to young girls that this is how to express your femininity and personal freedom. And to boys? Is she not communicating that this is how they ought to view women, as objects of pleasure worthy of exploiting?
We live in a culture of many contradictions, not the least of which is about sex. On the one hand, our culture tells us that experiencing sexual pleasure is so important that we must do so in any way we can. Suggest a moral boundary and you will either be laughed at as prudish or accused of violating someone’s rights. Indeed, in one way or another, indulging our sexual desires is the pinnacle of human freedom and self-expression in our culture. On the other hand, those who want to indulge every sexual whim and proclivity think Christians (and the morally conservative) make far too big a deal about sex. Sex and sexual desire are natural, after all, right? So what’s the problem?
In Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, there is a direct correlation between sexual depravity and idolatry. The rejection of the God of biblical revelation leads not only to the worship of created things but also to expressing this worship, in part, through sexual immorality. The latter always leads to the former–sometimes, indeed, the latter expressly includes the former.
For instance, in the days of ancient Israel, sleeping with shrine prostitutes was a part of the practice of worshiping the gods of Canaan. When on the verge of entering the Promised Land, Moses commands the Israelites to eliminate all of the objects of Canaanite worship. In Deuteronomy 7:5–6 he says to tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn their carved images. For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be his own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.
Reading such a passage, one thing we need to understand is that the rituals practiced by followers of Baal and Asherah were not harmless or admirable or noble. In Amos 2:7 we read that A man and his father have sexual relations with the same girl, profaning my holy name. In context, this is a condemnation of shrine prostitution. Both a father and his son have had sex with the same shrine prostitute as part of a religious ritual. It’s precisely this sort of activity that Moses’ commands on the eve of entering Canaan were meant to prevent.
We see the same connection between idolatry and sexual immorality in the New Testament. Here’s what the apostle Paul says:
For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. Therefore God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.Romans 1:18-25
Now, there’s a lot going on in this passage. But one thing is clear. When people reject God–whose existence is known to everyone–and effectively worship created things rather than the Creator of all things, sexual impurity and moral depravity follow.
Our Western culture is secular. God is no longer a part of the equation. We don’t need to look outside ourselves to find meaning and truth; instead, we turn ever inward, to our own feelings and desires, whatever they are and wherever they lead us. And because of this, there is no standard by which to measure whether anything is morally objectionable. It brings to mind a low point in the history of Israel, seen in Judges 21:25, where it says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him.”
Everyone did whatever seemed right to him. Isn’t that where we are in our culture? Doesn’t everyone simply do what is right in their own eyes? Without an external authority, a king, in this case God, then what stops anyone from indulging in whatever desires they have?
I think of a passage from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: One character asks another, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?”
Without accountability and the knowledge of impending judgement, what are we capable of doing?
The above quotation from C.S. Lewis speaks of the notion of shame. But when we can do whatever we want, there is no need for shame. Or to feel shame. Or to regard our actions and behavior as shameful. There is no moral arbiter beyond whatever we desire. And even though many find them offensive, these words below of the apostle Paul, continuing from the verses above, draw this point out explicitly:
For this reason God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.Romans 1:26-27
There are forms of sexual activity which are indeed shameful. Just because we desire something doesn’t mean it is right or good or beautiful. But they may seem that way to some because either they have explicitly rejected God or hold to a distorted view of God, one not found in Scripture.
Of course, the Bible has much more to say about sexuality than this.
In Genesis 1 and 2 we see a much different picture of human personhood and sexuality. There, human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creative action:
So God created manGenesis 1:27
in his own image;
he created him in the image of God;
he created them male and female.
The relational, personal God of Scripture created relational, personal beings. Us. So the thing to see here is that having been made in the image of God, we can only truly understand ourselves if we also acknowledge God as our Creator.
Then we have this:
Then the Lord God made the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. And the man said:
This one, at last, is bone of my bone
and flesh of my flesh;
this one will be called “woman,”
for she was taken from man.
This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.Genesis 2:22-25
In my life I have also known shame because of sex, because of how sexuality is exploited by severing it from its God-given purposes. What person in our culture hasn’t at least been minimally exposed to pornography? I guess all you need to do is watch the Grammys these days.
Yet, having been married for nearly 19 years, let me say, without getting too personal, that I know exactly what this passage is talking about when it says Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.
So anyone who accuses Christians of being “anti-sex” miss the point entirely. Rather, sex in its proper context is a beautiful gift of the Creator. Only when we separate sexual intimacy from the moral horizon in which God is our Creator does sex degrade into something shameful. The man and the woman in Genesis felt no shame. Sin had yet to enter the world, separate humanity from intimacy with its Creator, and therefore distort the intimacy we were made to have with one another.
A culture in which Cardi B is not only free to perform a pornogaphic dance to a pornographic song with another woman, but is celebrated and admired for doing so, is clearly getting closer to reaching the apogee of having rejected God as Creator and moral judge. When people elevate their most sinful inclinations in the name of personal self-expression and freedom, they are truthfully more enslaved than ever. And for those of us who are followers of Jesus, who acknowledge God as Creator and moral judge, our first response shouldn’t be outrage at such displays but sadness over how individuals lovingly designed by God have, by rejecting him, also rejected their own humanity and the dignity and beauty that are intrinsic to it.