It was the last song of the night, and the house was on its feet, abuzz. We flung long tresses wildly, and bespectacled hipsters imperceptibly bobbed their heads. The band requested attendees dress in costume or finery, and the earnest crowd complied. Skeletons whirled like dervishes beside masked, feathered birds and adults clad in footie pajamas. Daniel Tiger drank pale ale, and girls in bright sequins nestled under the arms of lanky boys in pinstripes, rapt and content.
The entire affair could have been a case study in whiteness or youth culture, but something transcendent was palpable, too: that strange, larger-than-life connection when the music soars and thousands of perfect strangers share one enchanted moment.
I’ve felt it at concerts and experienced it in worship, and sometimes I’ve sworn the two were one and the same: the keen awareness of being united and alive and the near-audible whisper that something exists beyond all we see, something like home.
Years ago, in his book Sex God, Rob Bell argued that such moments were sexual in their essence because sexuality is broadly about connection, not just climax. Many thought he was reaching, but his thesis always struck a chord with me. I do believe that our sexuality encompasses more than desire (or desirability) and what we do with our genitals (although it’s those, too, of course).
Whenever a teen starlet comes of age, it’s almost inevitable that she’ll announce her entree into adulthood with a racy photo shoot, music video, or movie role. While embracing sexual agency is a hallmark of adulthood, I do wonder how performing that particular cultural cliché demonstrates sexual autonomy as a rule. Teen queens are sexual people, of course, no matter how provocative or chaste their stage persona is.
We’re sexual whether or not we’re partnered or perceived as sexy by the crowd. Sexual agency may be expressed in the act of sex or abstention from it, in projected sex appeal, a passionate kiss, or the practice of personal boundaries.
What might it look like to express our sexuality in ways that honor God, self, and neighbor? Consent and respect play critical roles (with one’s partner and in community), but a believer’s sexual ethic can’t start and end there. What honors God must factor centrally, too, even if Christians disagree on all that entails.
It’s no secret that as Christians, we often lack a compelling and holistic vision for healthy sexuality and do perhaps the worst disservice to those who are single and/or celibate. “Purity culture” teachings inherently link sexuality with dirt and defilement, requiring something akin to asexuality from unmarried adherents (and inviting residual shame into a significant number of Christian marriages). While the absence of sexual desire is completely normal for those who identify as asexual (and others), expecting single Christians who do not ID that way to repress their sexuality is another thing entirely, and it’s as unrealistic as it is harmful and dishonoring. Our bodies and sexuality are at the core of our humanity regardless of marital status, drive, or experience.
So what then? How can we express desire in ways that honor the image of God in one another? What might it look to fully inhabit our bodies in faithfulness and without shame, whether we’re partnered or single? Is Bell right that sexuality is linked to points of connection in the bedroom and beyond?
For Christians, can sexuality be understood as the pursuit and expression of wholeness, encompassing acts of physical love as well as other manners of platonic union or spiritual transcendence? Is it possible to express our sexuality whenever we serve or create? When we love our friends and community well? Could our sexuality be tied to other ways we inhabit our bodies, perform masculinity or femininity, or glimpse the sublime in nature, worship, or art?
If we accept Jesus’ incarnate humanity, then he was a sexual person, too. Could Jesus have expressed his sexuality when he fed the five thousand, upending expectations and satisfying needs? When he healed broken hearts and bodies? When he esteemed the woman who anointed his feet with perfume and tears, drying them with her hair?
What does it mean to be sexual when we aren’t having sex? Ecstatic moments when breath catches or feet tread holy ground, are these touchpoints to shalom and sexuality, both? Am I a weirdo for thinking this might be true (even if spiritually more than literally)?
Maybe I am. But I can’t help being drawn to the idea that sexuality is something greater, simpler, and more inclusive than either the Church or Hollywood currently projects.
It’s reaching for each other in the dark and dancing with friends, at home in our skin. It’s a longing, an embrace, and a killer pair of heels, and it’s liturgy and Eucharist on a Sunday morning. It’s an arena rock show and a climbing trip in the mountains, with a verdant view four states wide. It’s that flicker of recognition or belonging, the feeling of being seen and known. It’s two hands clasped in passion or support or prayer, not unlike the rest of this everyday, ordinary, sleeping, eating, going-to-work, walking-around life that we live together and offer unto God.