A Hammer is Great (But Not For Everything)

When Mary DeMuth wrote this piece for Christianity Today I hesitated to comment, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, in our first episode of Dead Reckoning Radio we interviewed Dr. Barbara Feil about another piece Mary had written, and it was a conversation that focused, well, on the positive. There are aspects of this later piece that strike me as not so positive, and I didn't want to jump on the negative train prematurely.

Now the folks over at Christ and Pop Culture have piped in with a symposium of reactions to her piece, and, since that lets the cat out of the proverbial bag, it seems safe to contribute a few thoughts of my own.

The Christ and Pop Culture crowd have a lot of wise responses, and I do not want to just repeat everything they say. I'd encourage you to read them for yourself.

But first, I'll reiterate the positive. Mary is undoubtedly right to point out that a lot of people are walking around lame, burdened down with sexual baggage. Pastors and leaders should be far more aware of this fact when they flippantly talk about sexuality. In fact, I agree with her that Christian men should stop immaturely referring to their wives as "smoking hot," period. Surely we've graduated from high school or the college Frat house, right? She is so right to point out that many, many Christian women are struggling with past sexual abuse, and laying a burden upon them to be good sex objects (with standards usually set by our pornographic world) is pretty counterproductive to their sanctification. Three cheers.

And yet.

Her Christianity Today article is a bridge too far.

1. Not everyone's struggles are the same. We all have different baggage, and it seems to me she is making her own biography normative for everyone. She particularly bristles at a certain thing Mark Driscoll once said. It is daring of me, but I'll say it: in certain contexts (say, a particular group at a particular time, not for wide Internet consumption), what Mark Driscoll said needs to be said. Does Mary DeMuth seriously think there are no Christian women anywhere for whom being sexually attractive for their husbands is way too low a priority, or no priority at all? (That works in reverse, too; how many beer-gut slobbish men don't prioritize being attractive to their wives?) Plenty of Christians have a Platonic/Gnostic view of marriage, where our bodies are more or less irrelevant to the union, where "inner beauty" (a perfectly real thing) completely substitutes for taking care of ourselves externally. The Devil knows so much better. He knows the importance of the body, and foolish Christians who entirely downplay the body are ripe targets for sexual enticement. And that was Driscoll's point. If you take your spouse for granted, trusting entirely in the marriage promises, but do nothing whatsoever to be attractive to your spouse, the Devil will help cast their eyes elsewhere. I'm not saying anything about guilt, excuses, or justifying infidelity. I am stating an obvious fact: God made our bodies, and he made sexual beauty. If we don't self-consciously cultivate both in our marriages, we leave out something God thought pretty critical that the Devil will be only too happy to supply, though in a thoroughly twisted form.

2. Since Mary, with her own personal biography, is offended by this sort of exhortation (maybe, in her case, even rightly), she seems to conclude that nobody needs this exhortation. This is silly. It amounts to a maxim that Pastors can only exhort their congregation in the most general terms possible; it must equally apply to everyone. That isn't how sin works; it isn't how people work; it isn't how the gospel works. When I hear a sermon with an exhortation that doesn't apply to me, I don't get mad. I assume somebody really needed to hear that. If I do get mad, it provides an excellent opportunity for introspection. It is possible I'm getting angry because there is some sin I'm cherishing that just got stabbed. I'm not saying that's Mary's case. I'm just saying that the response to a clumsy, immature exhortation that doesn't apply to me personally, or maybe applies to me in a unique way due to unique circumstances, should not be to assume bad faith on the person giving it or that nobody anywhere needed to hear it.

3. And that brings me to the bad faith thing. Derek Rishmawy supplies a much more charitable interpretation for pastors who talk in the ways that rub Mary wrong: maybe they're just trying to relate to real, flesh and blood people. Immaturely? Surely yes. But the abuse of something doesn't rule out its use, and that's where Mary's logic appears to lead.

I'll close by saying that, on the whole, I find Mary's voice and list of suggestions in her CT piece welcome words of wisdom. But they are not normative and universally applicable, just like a hammer is great for hammering nails but not so much for installing light bulbs. Gnosticized, disembodied Christianity is a real danger, all the more because it is tempting as a reaction to our hyper-sexualized culture.

Banishing the importance of our bodies and sexual attraction from proper Christian conversation will only create a hole in our practical theology the Devil will gladly fill.

Brian Mattson