Saturday, December 17, 2011

Papist musing about marital relations

On 3 January 2012 the book Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together co-authored by Pastor Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace, will be released. For those unfamiliar with Pastor Mark, he is the senior pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He is also a leader in the Acts 29 Network. Without a doubt Mark Driscoll is one of the most influential Evangelical leaders in the United States. To understate his approach to ministry, he is very provocative. It seems that he remains provocative in his about-to-be published book, at least according to Tim Challies, who offered a preview of it in a Christian Post article last Thursday. Writing in response to the about-to-be-released book, an advanced copy of which he apparently read, Challies takes issue with what the Driscolls see as their necessarily forthright approach to questions about sex in marriage. I have addressed some of Pastor Mark's ideas on this subject before: "...we must refuse to speak in sanitized clinical euphemisms" (WARNING: It contains frank language about sex). I think how we discuss sex depends on who we are talking to, what our relationship with them is, and the context. With reference to what I wrote in my earlier post about appreciating the frankness with which Pastor Mark dealt with the topic of pornography, I still think there is a place for Christian men to speak frankly to other Christian men about sex, mostly about how we get it wrong and what we need to overcome our brokenness.

In this preview of what he says will be a comprehensive review of Real Marriage, Challies takes up chapter ten of the Driscolls' book. This chapter is called " "Can We________?" and deals with matters the authors insist are questions about sex that people are too embarrassed to ask their pastors. According Challies, the questions the Driscolls answer range from "self-stimulation to the use of sex toys and forms of cybersex. The most provocative of all involves sodomy within marriage." The real issue is whether the Driscolls, in light of the very frank and direct questions people have about sex, which curiosity arises from our current socio-sexual climate, are correct to insist, as Challies puts it, that "[i]t falls to us, as Christians, to be ready with answers." The authors of the book think that we have to be ready and willing to frankly answer these blunt questions because if we don't "people will find worse answers elsewhere." The Driscolls base all of this on the  assumption that people, though mostly young men, are familiar with these things by viewing pornography.

The Driscolls' assumption about pornography, while sadly true and part of the pastoral landscape these days, really boils down to, as Challies observes, "Is it okay for me to act out porn on my wife?" I think we have to be careful about making what young people (young men in particular) see done in pornography the model for sexual relations in marriage. It's funny that in a publication warning men about the dangers of pornography on The Resurgence website, an outreach of Pastor Mark's ministry, entitled "Fornicating on the Battlefield," men are urged to imagine being engaged in spiritual warfare of the kind depicted in Revelation: "Just imagine for a moment that this is reality: You’re on a battlefield. It’s dark. Chaotic. Cold wind is whipping your face. The stench of death fills the air. Corpses of demons lie all around you and the field is soaked in blood. You can hear the sounds of armor and weapons colliding while sparks are flying... You’ve got your pants down around your ankles. You’re roaming in circles looking for the seductress that’s calling you by name. You can’t wait to fornicate on the battlefield." While I think that depicting the sheer ridiculousness of giving in to lust looked at under the aspect of eternity can be and often is useful when men speak to men, I can't help but notice the mixed and confusing message that is sent when this is juxtaposed with the marital advice on offer in Real Marriage.

Challies writes that he is not convinced that answering these questions the way Driscolls answer them in Real Marriage is wise. He thinks "there is a much better way" and so do I. He goes on to propose that if we agree that this a discussion we must have (he casts some wise doubt on the necessity of having such frank discussions), then we should seek to elevate it. "Even in an extremely sexualized culture in which most men are learning about sex primarily through pornography," Challies goes on to ask, "can we provide real, helpful, biblical answers without being as frank as what Real Marriage offers?" We most certainly can!

Blessed John Paul II, who, based on his personalist philosophy, had a very positive view and progressive view of marital sexuality, created a great stir when he suggested that lust within marriage exists and remains sinful. Though I have referred to this chapter in several posts recently, I feel compelled to return to Fr. Radcliffe's take on lust, which he set forth in the fifth chapter of his book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?, in which he writes wonderfully well on the virtue of chastity:
Lust may look as if it is sexual passion gone wild, but St. Augustine, who understood sex well, believed that lust was more about the desire to dominate other people than for sexual pleasure. Lust is part of the libido dominandi, the impulse to control and make ourselves God. Sebastian Moore, OSB wrote that 'lust, then, is not sexual passion out of control of the will, but sexual passion as a cover story for the will to be God' (pg 102)
One aspect that is necessary in keeping our wits about us when it comes to sex is not severing the connection between sexual intercourse and procreation. In the section of his prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae in which he warned about the effects of the widespread use of contraceptives on the well-being of women, Pope Paul wrote: "Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection" (par. 17).


  1. It is interesting you quote Fr. Radcliffe as saying, "St. Augustine, who understood sex well" - considering how you stated quite the opposite in the combox of your blog post of your homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, accusing St. Augustine of holding a dualistic, Manichaean view of sexuality.

  2. I still believe that Augustine held a dualistic view of human sexuality. In fact, he seemed to believe that all sexual desire was lust.

    I doubt that what Fr. Radcliffe writes at the beginning of the chapter from which I quote about the goodness of sexual relations can be squared with Augustine’s view either. This does not preclude Augustine from having a meaningful insight about the nature of lust. In other words, context matters.


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