Rob Bell has become a major voice in "post-modern" Evangelicalism with books such as Velvet Elvis and the NOOMA series of videos. He likes to travel on the edge, and so when he came out with a book entitled Sex God, it’s tempting to think that he’s gone over it. But before I explore the book itself a little background is in order.
The subject of sex and Christianity isn’t the oxymoron that our liberal opponents would like to suggest. It’s true that both Judaism and Christianity are explicit rejections of the "fertility cults" that dominated the ancient world, and the "wide open" attitude that went with it. It’s also interesting that the ancient world got tired of this "wide openness" and moved to monotheism. But it’s also natural that people, sexual beings that they are, would relate that to their relationship with God. How that comes out in the history of Christianity varies from one time and church to the next. It’s an undertow, for example, in the mysticism of Roman Catholics such as Hildegard von Bingen and Teresa of Avila, and on the flip side in the emergence of the veneration of Mary.
Reformed and Protestant Christianity, however, swept all of this away. (It also swept away many of the reasons for sublimation, such as an unmarried clergy and monasticism.) In its clean-scrubbed view of itself and the world around it, it set up the Victorian Era, which has become the "Golden Era" of Protestantism. That era is long gone, but still permeates a great deal of the Protestant and Evangelical world view.
As was the case with Velvet Elvis, Reformed Christianity is Bell’s starting point in both a positive and negative way. His purpose in Sex God is, as the subtitle suggests, to explore "the endless connections between sexuality and spirituality." He does this in nine chapters plus an epilogue.
Unfortunately, he waits until the fifth chapter to really kick into gear. Most of what comes before that pretty much states the obvious: that we are sexual beings and that the Bible has something both positive and negative to say about that. (Then again, we should remember that Rick Warren made millions stating the obvious in The Purpose Driven Life.) At the fifth chapter–"She Ran Into the Girls’ Bathroom"–he makes the analogy that, just as it’s risky for a boy to ask a girl to dance or date with the possibility of rejection out there, so also did God take risks in sending his Son Jesus Christ to risk rejection by people. From there the rest of the book is an interesting exploration of the analogy between the relationship of a man and a woman and of Christ and his church, with emphasis on the Biblical use of Jewish marriage language to describe God’s relationship with his people. It’s interesting because he weaves back and forth between the two sets of relationships in a seamless way, making points about each (and mercifully defending the traditional Christian sexual ethic in a very sophisticated way) in the process.
Bell always has one statement in his books that catches attention. In this one it comes here (p. 157):
Sex, in the ancient world, was marriage. If you had sex, you were married. All that needed to be worked out was the legal and financial consequences of what this man and this woman had just done. The physical union was what, in the eyes of society, made them man and wife. At the wedding, then, the party didn’t start until they had sex.
So much for the iron connection between civil and real marriage!
His chapter of "Forever Whoopee," where he projects the pleasure of the act of marriage into our eternity with God, will doubtless offend some. But a man who ministers to a generation which has been indoctrinated with the proposition that whoopee is the defining experience of life is wise to make this point.
I’m sure that many will find this book novel and revealing (pun intended) in many ways. But somehow for me it fell flat. This subject is explored in more artistic and theologically impactful ways elsewhere. But for those who find Bell’s own artistry applealing, Sex God is a decent treatment of a subject that all too often get the short shrift.