Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Who Are You Sleeping With?" Sex at Evangelical Colleges

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Once or twice I considered a blog post on the subject of sex at OBU.  But it always seemed ill advised.  Sexuality is serious, mysterious, controversial and, at best, only tangentially related to our constellation of concerns.  In my day (1999-2002), Bison Hill was a swirling mass of sexual confusion and repression.  Have things changed?  Sex was considered the worst sin.  Seemingly the primary way we expressed our Christianity was to be abstinent.  We heard about Bible verses such as Micah 6:8 and James 1:27.  But it seemed that as long as you kept yourself unstained by the world, it didn't really matter whether you cared for the fatherless and the widows in their distress.  Jesus taught that purity was a matter of the heart.  But our parents and churches taught that it was mostly a matter of the genitals.  Unsurprisingly, many of us got married very soon after graduation or, in a stunning number of cases, even before.  Of course, no OBU students get married at extremely young ages in order to have church/family/community/cultural approval of the sex they want to have.

Of course.

Luckily, on our wedding nights, when sex went from shameful to beautiful, all the confusion cleared up instantly.  Our sexual functions were blissful for the rest of our lives.  None of us got divorced, realized we were gay, or struggled to shake unhealthy coping mechanisms we adopted in our adolescent years to deal with the religiously-inspired repression/shame complex.  After all, we had read with great interest many Christian books on the subject.

Polling data indicate that much has changed since then: grad school, later marriage, moving away from "home," less shame and social stigma about premarital sex, etc.  But evangelical culture has come up with some pretty innovative ways to double down on the shame and to control the passion burning in youths' loins: abstinence pledges, "purity balls," "secondary virginity," etc.  So maybe conservative Christian college campuses today aren't so different from back then.

Anyway, consider this article, where the author recounts asking the Reverend Dr. Tim Keller (a Calvinist mega-church pastor in New York City) about obstacles to revival in the church:

Drawing on his experience in urban, culture-shaping Manhattan, Keller responded that one of the biggest obstacles to repentance for revival in the Church is the basic fact that almost all singles outside the Church and a majority inside the Church are sleeping with each other. In other words, good old-fashioned fornication.
Then it gets interesting.
Keller illustrated the point by talking about a tactic, one that he admittedly said was almost too cruel to use, that an old college pastor associate of his used when catching up with college students who were home from school. He’d ask them to grab coffee with him to catch up on life. When he’d come to the state of their spiritual lives, they’d often hem and haw, talking about the difficulties and doubts now that they’d taken a little philosophy, or maybe a science class or two, and how it all started to shake the foundations. At that point, he’d look at them and ask one question, “So who have you been sleeping with?” Shocked, their faces would inevitably fall and say something along the lines of, “How did you know?” or a real conversation would ensue. Keller pointed out that it’s a pretty easy bet that when you have a kid coming home with questions about evolution or philosophy, or some such issue, the prior issue is a troubled conscience. Honestly, as a Millennial and college director myself, I’ve seen it with a number of my friends and students—the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more “doubtful” for some of them once they’d had sex.
If you read the whole article, you will see how the author, a lay minister in Orange County, CA, tries to  draw a causal arrow from premarital sex to losing faith, arguing that the churches would see revival if more people abstained from non-marital sex.

As a person who grappled very seriously and honestly with my faith at OBU while remaining a virgin, I found this to be a bizarre idea.  Don't get me wrong, I was very interested in sex.  I remember a particular chapter in a Christian ethics anthology by a mainline Protestant seminary professor that presented an ethic of "appropriate vulnerability" which, at the time, convinced me that premarital sex might be permissible or even healthy, and was, in any case, not the Worst Sin in the Book.  (Disclaimer: This was one article in one book.  Most of the rest of the anthology presented conservative, traditional, and orthodox ideas.  So don't use this to say, "See, OBU teaches liberalism."  My experience of the School of Christian Service was that we were encouraged to read and study different perspectives on ethical, biblical, and theological matters.)

But I was also very serious about my faith.  There were science questions.  There were theology questions.  There were philosophy questions.  One of my biggest struggles was, essentially, whether I should understand belief in the supernatural to be continuous or dichotomous.  In other words, was it okay to say that Jonah didn't really get swallowed by a fish as long as you believed in the virgin conception of Jesus and his bodily resurrection?  Or was it an all-or-nothing proposition --- either all the miracles in the Bible were literally true or none of them were?  It was a thrilling pursuit to study and grapple with how to find a faith I could believe honestly and with integrity.

I am surprised by Tim Keller's suggestion that "the prior issue" to young people thinking for themselves is "a troubled conscience."  My conscience had never been clearer.  My faith grew, though not in the direction fundamentalists would find acceptable.  The struggles were honest, rigorous, and intense.  And it had nothing to do with sex.  These pastors' line of reasoning implies that if college students were being good little Christian kids, they would not think for themselves.  Taking legit, non-dumbed-down philosophy and science courses is implied here to be some kind of rebellion.  I get the feeling that many in the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma share that view, and that it motivated their design for the "new" OBU, which the new administrators have faithfully carried out.

The author I quoted above says that "the Bible unsurprisingly starts to become a lot more 'doubtful' for [young people] once they’d had sex."  I frankly don't see the relationship.  If anything, I would speculate that the causal arrow points the other way: perhaps once people cast literalist dogma aside, they may be less likely to adhere to premarital sexual abstinence.  Thus, I would think pastors would focus their energies on preventing young people from deviating from their childhood faith.  But evangelical pastors' bizarre obsession with young people's sex lives comes through loud and clear.  So does their lack of awareness that what they parochially call "the Christian worldview" is perilously threatened by pesky things like facts, knowledge, and people thinking for themselves.  Sex is not the issue here.

But is sex ever not the issue for these holy men, who seem to think they have such a vested interest in your "purity?"


  1. I disagree with Keller too. I had long been on the path of doubt and questioning everything for a good three years before I had sex.

  2. Unfortunately, the author of this post didn't see fit to read the clarifying note at the bottom of the original article, so this whole thing is skewed.


  3. This Blog kills brain cells

  4. Uh, hate to break it to you, but sex outside of marriage is sin. Brown Chicken Brown Cow!


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