Thursday, March 8, 2012

Real Sex - Lauren Winner: A Book Review

Winner's book came to me highly recommended.  It is a 161 pages and a fairly light read, aimed at the thinking Christian and not requiring any specialist knowledge to engage.  Lauren Winner is probably most famous for her two memoirs, Girl Meets God and Still.  This book has the odd autobiographical moment but on the whole is a practical theological exploration of the topic of chastity.

The first half of the book is a study around sex and chastity examining biblical and cultural conceptions of both. I like the way Winner correctly challenges the frequent negative focus on sin and drawing lines as helping create the problem and advocates instead a positive ethic of pursuing Christ-likeness.  This is a consistent theme of the book:

But if we see scripture not merely as a code of behaviour but as a map of God's reality, and if we take seriously the pastoral task of helping unmarried Christians live chastely, the church needs not merely to recite decontextualised Bible verses, but to ground our ethic in the faithful living of the fullness of the gospel. - p30
She takes pains to sketch a biblical and creational account of bodily life and taking to task both the incipient gnosticism of contemporary Christianity and also our rampant individualism.  Chapter three is charmingly titled, "Communal Sex, or, why your neighbour has any business asking you what you did last night."  Both contemporary culture and church culture receive a chapter dedicated to exposing and deconstructing the lies they tell us about sex (including much of the modern chastity movement).  Her critique is well argued but much of the force of it comes from her own personal experience of being sexually active previous to and some time after her conversion.  Much of what she says would make more than a few youth pastors and Christian parents very nervous, but she is absolutely right that it is self defeating to tell kids lies to stop them having sex - one way or another they'll work out the truth.

The second half of the book looks at the practical questions of living out an ethic of chastity, as an individual and in a church comunity.  She takes a frank but brief look at pornography and then masturbation and also the repurcussions of premarital sex on our ability to enjoy marriage.  A short chapter on chastity as a spiritual discipline nonetheless covers some usefull ground and calls us to celebrate chastity rather than virginity, for two valid reasons: one it means someone who has previously not been chaste is not excluded from the pratice or made to feel like a second class Christian; and two, it recognises that one may technically be a virgin but have habits of the body or mind which are far from chaste. This is followed by a more in depth discussion of "what singleness teaches the church".  The final chapter functions as something of a summary of the book and a pastoral appeal to chastity as she responds to an email from a guy struggling with sexual temptation.

Winner is an excellent writer and no theological slouch.  Her arguments are sound and while she uses scripture with a light touch she has clearly done the exegetical hard yards, she just doesn't make a big deal of it.  My only quibbles about the book are that she could probably have been a bit more enthusiastic about married sex (it isn't that boring!) and the breadth of the book's usefullness.  Although the book is not written for the specialist I feel Winner does take a lot for granted in the ability of many people to grasp her themes.  For many of those used to a proof texting approach to scripture and a negative moralising approach to sexual ethics many of her arguments may not connect, but I'm not sure what she could have done about that besides writing a totally different or much longer book.  That said I really enjoyed the book and completely affirm her conclusions.  I'd consider this an essential book for the library of youth, student and adult pastors.

If you've read it I'd love to know what you think. :-)

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