Mark Driscoll will be all over the news in the new year. Not only is he set to be a participant at the controversial Elephant Room conference on January 25, but January 3 will also mark the release of his newest book—the one that is bound to become his most controversial yet: Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together. Co-authored with his wife Grace, the book is being marketed as a down-to-earth and no-holds-barred look at marriage and sex. Especially sex.
Though Real Marriage weighs in at over 200 pages and 11 chapters, there is one chapter that is going to generate the vast majority of the buzz. I plan to write a review of the whole book closer to the release date. For now, though, I want to reflect on that one chapter.
Before I go any farther I need to warn you that the contents of this blog post and any that follow are going to deal with topics that are uncomfortable for many people (myself included!)—particularly in the older generation. They have to. What the Driscolls deal with in this chapter, and what they deem biblical, are not only sex acts, but acts considered sexually deviant by many. If you are young or if you simply do not want to read a discussion of such matters, please just stop reading now; there is no shame in doing so. I would prefer not to write about this at all, but now that the questions are being asked and answered, I believe there needs to be some kind of further response and discussion. Having said that, I will try to be as discreet as I can without sacrificing clarity.
Chapter 10 is titled simply “Can We________?” This is where the Driscolls answer what they say are the sex questions people want to know but are too embarrassed to ask their own pastors. The questions span self-stimulation to the use of sex toys and forms of cybersex. The most provocative of all involves sodomy within marriage. Early in the chapter they provide a grid that they say can be used to answer any question of this nature and then simply pass each act through that grid. They find that each of these, and several others, are legitimate forms of sexual expression within marriage.
This offers many areas we could consider, but I want to focus in on just a couple. The first thing I want to do is look at the Driscolls’ rationale for addressing these questions. Should we have such frank and public discussions of even the most intimate and potentially deviant sexual acts? Is the best way of answering these questions to address them head-on with a clear yes or no? In a subsequent article I want to take a look at the grid they use to determine what is right and what is wrong within the sexual relationship.
Should We Talk About It?
Here are the introductory words from this chapter:
Before we answer the most common and controversial questions, a bit of preface will be helpful. If you are older, from a highly conservative background, live far away from a major city, do not spend much time on the Internet, or do not have cable television, the odds are that you will want to read this chapter while sitting down with the medics ready on speed dial.
If you are one of those people who do not know that the world has changed sexually, read this chapter not to argue or fight, but rather to learn about how to be a good missionary in this sexualized culture, able to answer people’s questions without blushing. For parents, grandparents, and those in caring professions such as teachers, pastors, ministry leaders, and counselors, this task is all the more urgent.
The questions today are different, and if people don’t get answers from pastors and parents, they will find them in dark, depraved places. The truth is that almost every married couple has a list of questions regarding what they can and cannot do. You likely have a list of these questions too. Some of them will, hopefully, be answered in this book.
In summary, the Driscolls say that the world has changed and people are now asking new and more frank questions. It falls to us, as Christians, to be ready with answers. If we do not answer them well, people will find worse answers elsewhere.
It is certainly true that the world has changed and that people are asking new questions. My little book Sexual Detox arose from these kinds of frank questions, though I went about answering in a very different way. I heard young men discussing subjects and came to realize that what they knew of sex, they must have learned largely from pornography and they were now wondering if they could act out porn on their wives. Though I do not say so in the book, it was the issue of sodomy within marriage that particularly shocked me. Young men were eager to try this particular act with their wives and I realized that the reason they wanted to try it is because they had seen it acted out so often in pornography. And yes, they actually discussed it without much shame or hesitation. The Driscolls see it the same way: “Likely due to the increase in pornography and sexualized nature of our culture, [this act] is increasingly more commonly discussed, accepted, and practiced by both men and women, single and married. This explains why most grandmothers and grandfathers rarely, if ever, consider this act, which many of their granddaughters and grandsons are participating in.”
Statistically and based on my own research this is exactly the case. Young people are accepting this act as part of a normal sexual relationship. What previous generations regarded as deviant is now considered normal. This pertains to more than this one act; there are many things now considered acceptable that previous generations would balk at. So in this way the Driscolls are right—for good or for ill, this is a contemporary issue. People really do want to know if certain acts are legitimate forms of sexual expression within marriage. And often times people have already found the answers in the pornography that, at least for a time, has consumed them. It is a scary fact that today’s most widely-used sexual education curriculum is countless hours of hard-core pornography.
But questions remain, and they are difficult to answer. Should we feel an obligation to speak to this issue and others like it? Is it important, as the Driscolls suggest, that every parent, grandparent and pastor equip himself to speak to this issue and others without shame? And is a book on marriage the right place to address such things? A loud, emotional and immediate answer to this question is simple enough. A thoughtful one is more difficult to generate.
I am not at all convinced that every discussion needs to be had. Let me share how I’ve thought this through.
First, I see this explicitly in the Bible. Paul wrote in Ephesians 5 that some things are so unfruitful and dark and perverse that even to speak of them is shameful (verses 11-14). This shows that, at least in some cases, we do not need to speak of particular acts. Even if everyone else in the world is discussing them, we may need to avoid them or speak of them discreetly rather than blatantly. Some things are so dark and so obviously sinful that it is actually destructive to discuss them. Whether the particular topics discussed in Real Marriage fall into this category is up for debate, I suppose.
Second, I see Paul modelling this. The Driscolls model their engagement with the issues on the book of 1 Corinthians, and 6:12 in particular. It strikes me that this letter to the Corinthians is frank at times, but nowhere near as frank as Real Marriage, even though Paul, too, sought to deal with difficult issues. It must be noted that the nature of the answers Paul gave to the church at Corinth is very different from the answers the Driscolls offer. Paul did not proceed through a list of specific acts and state which are acceptable and which are not. 1 Corinthians is not lascivious; even when dealing with the most base issue, it is discreet. You can read it before your children without shame. Not so Real Marriage; in fact I will make sure that my children do not ever find this book. The Driscolls take a much more graphic approach in which each act is described, defined and measured with statistics. Ironically, Real Marriage is not consistent in tone with the passage it is supposed to be based on.
Third, the Driscolls explicitly seek to answer questions that stir up shame. In doing this they suppose that the shame you feel in asking a question of your pastor is necessarily a bad kind of shame. It is important to note, though, that we should not immediately dismiss the feeling of shame. There is, after all, a kind of beneficial shame (just like there is a beneficial kind of pain). Destructive shame keeps you locked in the guilt of your sin even when you have been forgiven by God. Destructive shame can also make you feel ashamed of things that are pure and holy. But shame is not quite as easy as that. You may also feel shame when you are seeking to do something sinful or when you have done something sinful and are refusing to own your sin. In this case shame accomplishes a good purpose by pointing you to sin. The shame you feel in addressing a particular act with your pastor is not necessarily that bad and destructive kind of shame. If there is shame in going to your pastor and discussing your desire to do a particular sexual act with your wife, it may well be that your conscience is warning you away from sin. You do not need to talk to your pastor to find warrant for what you want to do; you need to repent of what you want to do.
Finally, I think there is a much better way. I am not saying that having this kind of discussion is necessarily sinful, but I am not convinced that it is wise. There is a way of avoiding this kind of discussion altogether. Maybe it is better to say that there is a way of elevating the discussion, not avoiding it. And I think that is where I will have to go in my next article. Even in an extremely sexualized culture in which most men are learning about sex primarily through pornography, can we provide real, helpful, biblical answers without being as frank as what Real Marriage offers? We can! There is something we can do that avoids the extremes of explicit discussion and head-in-the-sand avoidance. That’s what I hope to address next.