We have only to watch t.v. for five minutes, stand in the grocery store check out line or glance at a billboard on our evening commute to be confronted by sexual images and in most cases, the unreal, to know sex sells. That, and this being the Month of Love was one reason that I wanted to review this book first. In her book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, Lauren Winner approaches the subject of abstention from sex outside of marriage with reverence, experience and frankness. And she makes no bones about it, she is examining chastity through the lens of Scripture.
I became acquainted with Winner’s writing upon reading her first novel, Girl Meets God: A Memoir a few years ago, which is a story of her personal journey from Judaism to Christianity in the her last years of undergraduate studies into graduate school. It wasn’t until I reread it recently, that I fell in love with this author’s academic and spiritual depth, which in turn led me to this book.
The thing that I appreciate most about Winner’s writing is that it is honest to a fault, she talks about her past sexual experiences, so she is not approaching the subject hermetically, this is a warm-blooded, living, breathing woman in her late 20’s, early 30’s who has been there, done that, and can defend her stance that chastity is a good thing.
Winner’s book is divided into two halves, the first half of the book is a study of how we think about sex and chastity, the biblical view of sex, the messages we get from culture about it, and how we evaluate those views in a biblical context. From the start of the book, Winner states, “God made us with bodies; that is how we begin to know that he cares how we order our sexual lives.” He made us, and yes, he does know how hard it can be to control those urges, He was tempted in every way we are yet without sin. We don’t have a Savior who is ignorant of our struggles. She acknowledges that yes, God made us with bodies, but it is how we conform them and it’s desires that we can begin to grasp his purposes for their use.
She also examines our role as fellow Christians in the practice of accountability, urging Christians to speak “courageously and transparently” about the their struggles in marriage, pointing out that speaking to one another about our sexual selves is just one (admittedly risky) instance of a larger piece of Christian experience.
“To acknowledge that premarital sex–or any other sinful act–might feel good is not to say that premarital sex is good. It is rather to say that our feelings are not always trustworthy. Our emotions and our hearts were distorted in the fall, which is one reason we need the community of the church and an articulated Christian ethics in the first place.”
“That people have sex outside marriage is understandable; we fornicate for the same reason we practice idolatry. Idolatry carries in it the seed of a good impulse–the impulse to worship our Maker. Idolatry is that good impulse wrongly directed to disastrous ends. Like idolatry, fornication is a wrong reflection of a right creational impulse. We were made for sex. And so premarital sex tells a partial truth; that’s why it resonates with something. But partial truths are destructive. They push us to created goods wrongly lived. To borrow a phrase from Thomas Cranmer again: they are ultimately destructive to our selves, our souls and our bodies.”
In the second half of her book, Winner offers some ideas on how, as individual Christians and as a community we can be chaste. Winner also introduces chastity as a spiritual discipline. She explains, “chastity is something you do, it is something you practice. It is not only a state–the state of being chaste–but a disciplined, active undertaking the we do as part of the Body. It is not the mere absence of sex but the active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.” She also clearly states, “having sex with your husband or wife is a discipline”, even the marrieds don’t get off easy. It isn’t always magic, candy hearts and roses. She reminds us that chastity as a discipline has it’s basis in another spiritual discipline: prayer–spending time, asking God to reshape your heart and desires so that we want the things he wants for us. She points out that the unmarried Christian who practices chastity refrains from sex in order to remember that God desires your person, your body, more than any man or woman ever will.
This isn’t an easy book to read, mostly because the practice of chastity isn’t easy. The book analyzes, it probes and it gets personal, but I believe it’s a very important work on a subject that the Church doesn’t give a lot of time and attention to. I think it’s ignorant to put “Christian singles” in a room and assume that they automatically know how to act. I believe this book, used as a thoughtful teaching tool could be one of the first steps in the right direction.