In Greek Mythology, Homer’s Odyssey tells the tale of two heroes avoiding the allure of the Sirens’ song. The distracting sound of their seductive song caused passing sailors to crash into the rocky shores. To avoid the trap, Odysseus strapped his men to his ship’s mast, plugging their ears with wax until they had narrowly escaped the harrowing waters. But when it was Jason’s turn to navigate the dangerous passageway, he ordered the musician Orpheus to counter the songs of the Sirens with the very sound of heaven. The beautiful music drowned out their tempting tunes and kept them safely sailing the seas.
This powerful myth is how Timothy C. Tennent ends his fifth chapter of his book For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body. With this analogy, Tennent challenges us to consider the messages of the culture and the tune of our response. “We must not be captivated by the song of this age, which only knows the inward gaze, the war of the genders, and the zero-sum game between marriage and singleness. Nor should we plug our ears to the painful song of our sexually confused culture. Instead, we must tell a bigger story: we must cast a larger narrative; we must sing a better song.” (88)
A Better Song: What We are “For” Not What We’re “Against”
When it comes to human sexuality, the Church knows what we are against, but does it know what we are for? That’s the question this book seeks to answer. Throughout our 2000-year history, the Church has failed to thoroughly articulate a Christian vision for the body. Scripture teaches us that creation is good, that we are made in the image of God, and that we represent Him in the world, yet we often ignore the ways our bodies communicate His grace in our everyday lives. “We may search for God’s presence in the sacred and spectacular, but most days he meets us in the common and ordinary – namely our bodies.” (21) When we read Scripture with our eyes, hear a sermon with our ears, or praise him with our mouths, we are using our bodies to engage our faith. When we eat of the Lord’s Supper, fast, pray, care for the sick, and share a meal with the hungry, we are using our bodies to do so. Not only do our bodies point to Christ; they are the very means by which God conveys his grace to us and works his purposes in us. The body is instrumental to the Christian faith!
In the early church, Gnosticism challenged the body’s good design by demonizing physical matter and claiming the soul was imprisoned by the body, needing to be set free. It taught that the body was fundamentally evil and ultimately denied the incarnation of Christ. While these heretical claims were officially condemned by the early church, there is a new Gnosticism that has sprung up within our churches today. In our modern era, we prioritize our feelings over and above the embodied creation of God. Our culture teaches us that we should look inside ourselves and follow our heart while Scripture teaches us to look outside of ourselves and submit to the order God designed. But the real challenge isn’t finding the freedom to do what we feel is right. It’s submitting to the One who decides what is right.
The Heart of the Struggle: What is the Meaning of the Body?
Tennent describes today’s cultural landscape like that of the Civil War. The two “armies” have conflicting narratives. While the South saw the Civil War as a matter of states’ rights, the North understood it as a matter of human dignity. So, what is the key issue in today’s culture war? The debate is cleverly disguised as one of ethical egoism: what makes someone happy must be good. Activists are fighting for freedom of choice and civil rights to pursue their happiness. But the deeper issue isn’t one of personal happiness, it is a struggle to understand the God-given purpose of the human body. “Christians have a long and noble history of defending the rights of the disenfranchised. But as image bearers of God, we are subject to the moral boundaries established by His Word for our flourishing.” (72) Scripture clearly provides a sexual framework for the human body, but the morality that was once commonplace in the public sphere is quickly being lost in our post-church society.
The Embodied Icons of Marriage and Singleness
Tennent tackles every body-related topic from pornography to transhumanism in this book, but let’s focus specifically on marriage and celibacy for this book review. For most of human history, we can all agree that Biblical marriage was highly valued as the grounds of family formation and a benefit to society. But today, marriage is no longer viewed as the only way to create a family. Modern marriage is more about personal happiness than familial fruitfulness. And since that’s the case, who is to keep one from being happy? Who is to tell someone who they can love? Americans thought the Supreme Court should decide. And they chose to rewrite the “rules” of marriage in the historic case of Obergefell v. Hodges. But can marriage, a covenant established by God in the first chapters of Genesis, simply be redefined by the court of law?
Much like the Pharisees who questioned whether divorce was lawful (Matthew 19:3), we are preoccupied with the same type of questions: “Should homosexual unions be lawful?” “Should transgender surgery be lawful?” Like the Pharisees, too many American Christians aren’t sincere in their desire to actually know God’s design. So, we miss the bigger picture of God’s created intent. What is marriage actually for?
When Christ answered the Pharisee’s questions about divorce, he appealed to the beginning, looking back to God’s natural order. And we should do the same. “God established marriage as an icon of the unitive, fruitful, and self-giving nature of God’s love.” (61) Like God’s love for the Church, marriage is both unitive and procreative. It takes two binaries that are uniquely different and unites them as one. As Tennent explains, “The church cannot marry the church; nor can Christ marry himself.” (61) Sexual differentiation also provides the necessary fruitful potential for the creation of new life and the continuation of society. Even with the invention of surrogates and IVF procedures, same-sex unions depend on heterosexuality to create a family. Heterosexuality and homosexuality will never be two sides of the same coin. Only one leads to life.
This may seem harsh, but these horizontal truths between males and females are critical to the definition of marriage because they point to the vertical sanctity of marriage. Sexual sin, in whatever form, muddles the symbolic reflection of Christ’s love for the Church. It threatens, not only human flourishing in our relationships with each other, but our relationship with God. Paul acknowledges this when speaking against adultery. It is not only marriage that is violated but our union with God. (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)
What about the single life? Where does that fit in? Rather than being the antithesis of marriage, singleness runs parallel to marriage as an icon that points toward our union with Christ. Tennent suggests that singleness helps us better focus on unity with Christ, which is why Paul said one does “well” to be married but “better” to be single (1 Corinthians 7:38). The celibate single life not only anticipates the future unity with Christ as our Bridegroom, it helps us practice that single-focused devotion now. “Marriage and celibacy anticipate the same reality in different ways. In the Christian vision those called to singleness can only come into the world through marriage, and the celibate state prefigures the time when we will all be engulfed in the final eschatological marriage of Christ and his church.” (83)
So why is it that so many singles feel so lonely?
Tennent hypothesizes that the over-sexualization of our culture has caused a decline in same-sex friendships. “There is a growing cultural assumption that same-sex friendships, in order to continue, must at some point become sexualized in order to be true and authentic.” (85) Tennent argues that we must do a better job at encouraging intimate relationships within the Church community as a way for all people, whether single or married, to find their purpose and belonging in the family of God. A biblical view of marriage and sexuality helps the church do that. How? In the Christian vision, sexual conduct is protected in the covenant of marriage between a husband and wife. “Far from being a restrictive prohibition, this limitation allows for the healthy growth and flourishing of other kinds of social relationships, and these relationships are diminished when sexual activity is inserted into every intimate social relationship.” (85)
An Emphasis on Christian Discipleship
Tennent spends the majority his book showing how far we’ve fallen from God’s created intent, but he doesn’t leave us there in hopeless despair. He ends with the ultimate hope of redemption! What is the way forward? Discipling the body with the truth of God’s Word.
First, we must restore the church’s respect for the authority of Scripture. When questioned about divorce, Jesus responded to the Pharisees by saying, “Haven’t you read…?” Jesus emphasized the importance of Scripture as our foundation. If the Pharisees had read what God had said and truly taken it to heart, they would have known His design for sexual love. But too often we choose to follow our own hearts rather than God’s design. Just because something feels good doesn’t mean that it is. Sex education teaches that consent is the ultimate grounds of sexual morality. But even if two consenting adults agree that something is okay, God’s opinion doesn’t change. Consent can never dismiss sexual misconduct. This is true of fornication, adultery, and even homosexuality. Only what God says is good is truly for our good.
Secondly, we must acknowledge our commonalities. Regardless of our sin struggles, Scripture is the solution for us all. We are all sinners in need of redemption. We are all born into a fallen world with disordered passions of concupiscence. “The point of contention is not the admission that we are born with these desires but the assumption that being born with them means they are good… we should never confuse our original design with our fallen inclinations and orientations.” (32) And we should never use it as an excuse for sin. It is always difficult to submit to the authority and the truths of Scripture, but when we do, we will experience the flourishing we were designed to experience. Tennent refers to this as being “bruised and blessed”. “Whenever God says no to us, it always feels like harm and hurt. But God’s no is always a deeper yes since the way of righteousness and holiness is the path of human flourishing.” (170)
Throughout the book, Tennent establishes theological building blocks for a theology of the body and fundamentals of a catechesis on the subject. He closes the book with a chapter addressed to leaders, encouraging us to start the conversation, not in the culture wars of the public sphere but in the education of the church. We must capture what we believe, teach it, and confess it as a defense against false teaching. This includes the goodness of creation, the image of God in every human, the fallenness of disordered desires, the embodied icons of marriage and singleness, the sacramental grace of our bodies, and the future redemption for our whole selves. It is only by confidently knowing what we are for that we can inspire the world with a Christian vision for the human body and a better song to sing.
Let’s talk about It
Hoping to tackle the topics of sexuality at your church or small group? Schedule us to speak at your next event about God’s good design for sex and the body.