As reactions to Synod have made clear, we’re all well-versed in arguing with each other about human sexuality. We’re also well-versed in what to say in our respective echo chambers. We can recite the familiar questions—variations on what’s permitted, what isn’t?—and we’ve staked out our positions. But Synod has also made clear that the church is going to need to find new ways to converse about human sexuality. And one thing that’s helped my own discernment is to be in conversation with someone who urges me to examine my own presuppositions: Branson Parler, author of Every Body’s Story.
I’ve asked myself why these conversations, even where our perspectives differ, have been productive. And I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because Parler’s approach begins with asking many of the questions about human sexuality that we’ve overlooked.
Rather than dwell on the well-known and thoroughly argued-over individual biblical passages, he steps back to ask a much larger question: what does the story of Scripture—that is, the overarching story of God’s saving grace—have to say about our sex lives? Here, it’s worth noting his use of the word “story,” since his central claim is that how we think about—and what we do with—our bodies always tells a story. It might be the story of legalism or the story of naturalism, but regardless, we are always enmeshed in one narrative or another. In order to make this point, he has structured his book to weigh many of these stories about sexuality in turn. Each section of the book presents a myth (by which he means a large story) regarding sex and then contrasts that myth with a biblical perspective. Some of the myths Parler works to deconstruct come from the wider culture; however, he crucially points out that we can find just as many of these myths, albeit in altered form, present in our churches.
For instance, in the first section of the book, Parler describes how our society’s emphasis on individualism has led us to treat sex in a consumeristic fashion. In his view, we now assume our sexuality to be one of the primary places we find and express our identity, and he contrasts this with a view of sex as a covenantal sign of commitment, one we make not only to our spouses but one that also binds us to the church and to God. In making such a commitment—in participating in this story—we are reminded that we are not self-sustaining creatures left to pursue our own narrow desires. Rather, we are fully dependent on others and on God for our sense of purpose and meaning.
But Parler doesn’t stop there. He goes on to show how the story of individualism can easily mutate into other damaging narratives within the church. To wit, it can turn into the story of legalism, which teaches us that sex’s primary purpose is wrapped up in rules and “thou shalt nots.” This might appear very different from our culture’s view of individualism, but in fact legalism perpetuates the idea that we’re ultimately on our own, left to prove our worth by following what can often seem like arbitrary rules. It can also turn into the story of what Parler terms the “sexual prosperity gospel,” the idea here being that those who manage to follow these rules will be rewarded with mind-blowing sex on their marital night—a myth if there ever was one. As Parler points out, the danger here is not just that this idea is false; instead, the danger lies in the fact that it turns sex into something that is only about ourselves and our desires.
He goes on to critique other dominant ways we often view our sex lives: that they are the culminaton of romance, that they are shameful, or that they amount to nothing more than simple biology. In addressing each of these issues, Parler relentlessly pushes readers to examine their own assumptions. In doing so, he tackles a number of controversial isses, from same-sex relationships to our near ubiquitous acceptance of birth control. It’s safe to say that most readers, including me, will find some points of disagreement with the conclusions the author of Every Body’s Story arrives at. Nonetheless, Parler is such a careful thinker, and he has such deep biblical knowledge, that even when the reader feels challenged, they will come away from this book with fresh insight; they will think more carefully and, indeed, more broadly on these issues. They will, in fact, find themselves wrestling with new questions, and this might be what the church needs to reframe its conversation about human sexuality. (Zondervan)
About the Author
Andrew Zwart lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., and is director of interdisciplinary studies at Kuyper College. He enjoys gardening, impromptu dance parties with his wife and two boys, and taking walks while listening to podcasts.