The Church of the early 21st century needs clarity regarding the fluctuating moral landscape. Most would agree that this is decisively true with issues related to sexuality and gender. For too long has the Church’s posture been knee-jerk and selective. It has been a reaction rather than a biblically and philosophically unified vision. Two books, both released in November of 2020, can go a long way in equipping Christians with a better capacity to think about and discuss these issues.
I call Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Timothy Tennent’s For the Body brave because it takes William Wallace-like bravery to give biblical wisdom on the topics of sexuality and gender in this adversarial cultural climate. I call 21st century America a “brave new world” because like Huxley’s classic novel, our world is becoming increasingly psychologically conditioned by forces beyond our control. This conditioning, it seems, makes every effort to erode the foundations of Christian morality.
The moral revolution
We are all aware that these are uncharted times. What Al Mohler has dubbed the “moral revolution” has profoundly altered the way our society sees sexuality and the body. Previous generations saw sexual actions primarily as a matter of the will. One chooses to commit adultery, fornicate, or rape. While we may understand this as evidence of “slavery to sin,” these choices are still decisions for which we must hold a person accountable.
Today, sexual actions, particularly homosexual activity, are often so linked to identity that it is nearly impossible to condemn sexual sin without an assault on the very core of who the individual is. Conversely, the body is too frequently seen in our culture as a cage in which one’s true self is trapped. At times, the Church’s teaching has unfortunately encouraged this nonsense. We are now at a cultural moment where it has become possible for someone to say that their true gender does not correspond to their biological sex. In a strange turn of events, sexual orientation becomes one’s essence (true self, identity) and biology become tangential and even malleable. How did this switcheroo take place? And what does the church need to do about it?
How did we get here?
Carl Trueman tells us how we got here. Specifically, he peels back the layers of history to explore how someone in the 21st century could possibly utter the phrase “I am a man caught in a women’s body.” This phrase would have only been received as lunacy a few decades ago but has now become as common as protein shakes. (Which begs the question, I wonder what our forbearers would think of all the protein shakes?) Trueman is a fantastic historian. A Reformed theologian, his background is primarily in church history and theology. He understands well the intellectual and cultural currents that have helped shape the world we now inhabit.
Trueman roots his study in the Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. In Rousseau and later the English Romantics, Trueman finds the seeds of “expressive individualism.” These thinkers value the wishes of individual expression above the common good and especially above “society,” a construction they often maligned. In Romanticism, one first sees the notion of one’s true self-existing independence or even in contrast to one’s social reality.
From this foundation, Trueman then analyzes the contribution of Sigmond Freud to the creation of modern notions of the self. One particularly fascinating chapter was his discussion of the German Frankfurt School of social and critical theory. According to Trueman, these thinkers united Freud’s notions of autonomous individualism with Marx’s vision of economic revolution and the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” The Frankfurt School, therefore, politicized individualism and modern notions of the autonomous self.
The late 20th century witnessed the triumph of the erotic. A society where every individual has instant access to thousands of naked bodies existing only for pleasure is now ours. In this hypersexualized climate where individual expression is the summit of existence and where sexual expression has become a driving political force, it is not difficult to see how a 65-year-old father of 6 can be celebrated for wanting to become a sexy pin-up queen.
God made our bodies
Truman’s brilliant survey of the intellectual currents leading to this cultural moment has one significant drawback—it may leave its reader in despair. Fortunately, Truman did not intend this to be the last word on the issue. And I do not intend to leave you with your head hung low. Timothy Tennent’s For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body offers pastors and lay Christians a robust, albeit brief, theology of the body. Whereas Trueman is unapologetically Calvinistic in his theology, Tennent is a Wesleyan Arminian who has devoted much of his life to preaching the gospel in Islamic and Hindu contexts. While these men may diverge on some key points, I find these works to be very complementary.
Tennent begins with the foundational truth that so many seem to have forgotten—God made our bodies. It’s difficult to overstate this doctrine. As a teacher, I find my students are trying to figure out everything as if they are starting from a tabula rasa. They are all little gods, and I can see how exhausting it is for them. In their mind, they are selves who have a body rather than imbodied creations. Nothing can reliably tell them who they should be. According to Tennent, our bodies are reliable, God-given, indicators of who we are and who we ought to be. Creation is good and our bodies are images of the living God. The Christian vision is not that our bodies disguise our true selves. No, they are the means God has given us to live in his creation.
Building on this foundation, Tennent explores marriage, family, and singleness. These are not just arbitrary lifestyle choices but are ways our bodies can point others to the gospel of Christ. As Ephesians teaches, marriage points to the self-sacrificial love of Christ for his church. In much the same way, singleness should be seen theologically. I found this section eye-opening. Tennent sees holy singleness as lived examples of how the Christian lives in light of eschatological hope. In the resurrection of the dead, there will be no marriage. Holy singleness is an opportunity to live this reality now and to point others to our blessed hope. Holy singleness makes a clear witness of one’s eternal priorities.
Finally, Tennent sees our body as a sacrament to the world. Our feet carry the gospel to the unreached. Our mouth proclaims the word of God. And our ears receive this word. Moreover, our bodies are baptized into the waters of Christ’s death and our lips taste the broken body and spilt blood of our Lord in the eucharist. Christ’s body was God’s means of saving his creation. And our body is God’s means of broadcasting His grace to the ends of the earth.
Christians need this vision of the goodness of the human body. Yes, it is debilitated by sickness and led astray by its passions. But, despite the results of the fall, it is still God’s gift. We need this vision because for too long we have been reacting to specific crises rather than putting the work and word of God on display. Christians have been responding negatively to the changing currents of culture rather than positively stating what we actually believe. We have been playing whack-a-mole when we should be painting pictures.