The first thing we need to make clear about the title 'sex god' is that Rob is not talking about some sort of fertility deity, like the ancient near eastern fertility gods (e.g. Baal, Astarte). He is talking about the connection between sexuality and spirituality and how the former figures forth the latter in various ways. It is a profound subject, and one well worth pursuing. And let it be said that this book is certainly better written than “Velvet Elvis” either Rob’s developing his writing chops or he’s gotten more help. Either way, it reads better than the previous book. And one has to say that the pastel colors of this book are certainly more pleasant than the bright white and minimal orange of the last.
The Preface lays out the ground work for what follows, and the “this is that principle”. Rob is able to point to things like piles of standing stones, or old trophies, or the like which have little worth or significance in themselves except for what they remind us of, what they point us to. While Rob in no way wants to trivialize the reality or goodness of human sexuality (to the contrary, this book does the opposite of that) what he does want to say is that ‘sex’ points to something much bigger, larger, and spiritual about human beings and reality. For one thing it points to the fact that we are created in the image of a creative and lively God.
The first chapter entitled “God wears lipstick” is powerful in various ways in that Rob talks about the factors that reduce human beings to subhuman things, and alternately the things that humanize us. He makes the strong point of how our culture encourages us to objectify women, treating sexual persons as sex objects. Of course this sort of reductionism would never happen if fallen males did not lust after women’s body parts. It has gotten so bad that you can even see it in how men look at women. They tend to look at their breasts first, and then their faces, thinking of what they want, before thinking of who they want. When another person is used as a means to an end, a means to scratch your own selfish itch, then we are dealing with lust and not love. And of course our culture can’t easily distinguish the two. Lots of times we hear “we’re in love” but in fact what is meant is “we’re in heat”. One of the points made on p. 24 which is helpful is that unlike Gaia theologians, or even some Wicca folks, Rob rightly distinguishes between being made in God’s image (an a-sexual thing) and being made male and female. God is not a great white male in the sky. Indeed when Jesus actually finally defines God, he tells us in John 4 that God is spirit, not The Spirit, but spirit. That is, God is a non-material being, and sense genders require an embodied existence, we could hardly be ‘male and female’ in the image of God, if God has no gender in his divine essence. Of course it is true that God the Son took on a human nature at one juncture, but even his divine essence is not engendered. God, the Biblical God, in the divine essence is not male or female.
I love the story of the soldier in the Gulf War who captures several soldiers that had been shooting at them, and one man runs up to him handing him a letter pleading that it be sent to his father so he will know he loves him and what happened to his son. War is always dehumanizing, always. But in this moment, the American soldier saw the human face of his enemy, and had empathy. He was a son, who had a father, whom he loved. He realized we are all human beings. Well yes, but perhaps the issue is not whether we are human beings but whether we are humane beings, the opposite of which is being subhuman in thought and behavior. The
Chapter Two, entitled “Sexy on the Inside starts with the interesting observation that many people who are not religious, nonetheless have this sense that things in the world are not as they are intended to be and that we are supposed to be connected to each other and the world and not treat each other poorly. This is true enough, and I have encountered this as well. I would put it down to the fact that even people who are oblivious to God are still created in God’s image and occasionally have aha moments where these kind of insights dawn on them. This chapter is largely about our sense of disconnection with the earth and with each other and how it goes back to the story of Adam and Eve where the curse involves this disconnect between us and the earth, and man and woman.
Rob offers the interesting etimology for the word sex from secare—the Latin for cut off (from which we get sect, bisect, sectarian etc.) In fact sicarri were the dagger men, the hit men amongst the early Jewish zealots, that cut off other peoples lives. He then says “our sexuality is our awareness of how profoundly we’re severed and cut off and disconnected. Second, our sexuality is all of the ways we go about trying to reconnect.” (p. 40). Rob deals with the Genesis idea that self-awareness in the case of Adam involved a sense of being cut off from God, and so focused on self. Rob actually wants to define sexuality in a broad way--- it’s all the ways we try to connect with each other, with God, even with the earth. In my view this is too broad a definition of sexuality. Our desire for oneness with God is not real a sexual desire. And indeed the sense of oneness with creation, with the earth, such as we see in Psalm 8 is not real a sense of sexuality as it is usually defined. But it is true that our sexuality is part of the larger package of aspects of human nature which prompt and impel us towards connection with the ‘Other’. This is true. I think Rob is confusing or fusing the deep sense of intimacy and oneness with some ‘other’ person or thing, with the concept of sexuality. Intimacy or communion are broader categories than sexuality, actually. And of course Rob is right that there can be lots of physical interacting, including intercourse with little or no real connection made. Or is there? Paul in 1 Cor 5-6 says that even sex with a prostitute involves becoming one flesh with her, and by that Paul means something sexual but also something spiritual is involved such that it interferes with the one spirit union you have with Jesus. But I take his point that having sex with someone you are not married to and trust and committed to can leave you alone and lonely and unfulfilled.
I like the definition of ‘feeling sexy’ as ‘feeling good to be in your own skin, your own body shape etc. But I do not agree that we must first be at peace with who we are, in order to be connected with God. This gets the cart before the horse. In fact I think when God reconciles himself to us, redeems us, that’s when we just begin to understand who and whose we are and to be at peace with who we are. Of course it is true that if we are unwilling to change our dysfunctionality and unhealthy images of self we will never fully benefit from our relationship with the Lord, never fully be whole or healed.
In Chapter three, entitled Angels and Animals, we get down to brass tacks, or better said basic instincts. Rob carefully deconstructs the myths that 1) we are just the sum of our urges or desires; 2) that abstinence is somehow a limitation of our freedom or even a way of being dishonest with ourselves; 3) that we are simply animals and that therefore we could hardly expect not to act like animals. I especially like the way he draws a contrast between lions in heat, who are so not thinking things like ‘do we have a meaningful relationship’ or ‘can I trust you’ or ‘why do you say I only want you for your body’. I quite agree that much of modernity assumes that people cannot transcend their basic instincts, and if they repress them they will be unfulfilled and indeed unhealthy people. Rob also deals with the difficulties of living in a culture where purity and chastity are ridiculed.
Rob then turns around and deals with the angel instinct, the idea that fails to acknowledge our physical and sexual nature and the way that influences our thinking and behavior, or even fails to acknowledge our sexuality is central to what makes us human (p. 54). I agree with him on this, and his basic argument is that we have to live intension between the animal and angel instinct, however there are a few flies in the ointment here. Rob is right that angels are by nature spirits. However, early Jewish tradition believed they could be male or female, and indeed that they could even have sex. For example, Gen. 6.1-4 was traditionally read as the story about angels (called sons of god here and in some other places as well) mating with human women producing a hideous hybrid between the two sorts of beings. It is precisely this gross violation of the creation order which prompts the flood according to Gen. 6. Furthermore, Jesus himself famously said that ‘we will be like the angels in heaven, neither marrying nor giving in marriage’. This refers to the act of marrying, not to having sex per se though the two are connected. His point is that we will not be starting any new marriage relationships in the next life at all. In this regard we will be like the angels, not sexless but rather without marrying. There are no married angels, according to the Jewish tradition. There is this further deficiency in the discussion about being angels. Rob says that if we don’t express our sexuality, if we just stuff our sexual feelings then we are repressed. This is of course a traditional modern psychological view of the matter. But what about the person called by God to remain a single person? He still has sexual feelings? While he may talk about them he is not supposed to act in a sexual manner. Is that repression or restraining one’s self in a healthy way by the grace of God. Paul’s advice in 1 Cor. 7 comes to mind here. He counsels an engaged couple to remain as they are, keeping his virgin as a virgin, but if he can’t restrain himself he should go ahead and marry. Better to marry than to burn with passion. But clearly Paul believes that persons like himself can and do restrain themselves, that there is a place for being single and not sexually active, though it requires God’s grace to remain chaste, and he would hardly call this sexual repression. Nor I think would Jesus. I do however very much like the way this chapter ends--- namely with the remark that we are always in the process of creating order out of chaos. The creation process is still an ongoing thing, and we have something to contribute to it.
Chapter Four is provocatively entitled Leather, Whips, and Fruit, and deals with the sordid topic of lust, which as Rob says, promises what it cannot deliver. One of Rob’s theses here is that lust comes from a deep sense of dissatisfaction with one’s life or situation. He contrasts it with gratitude. There is something to this. It would have helped to distinguish between lust and desire. The former is always sinful, desire is not necessarily so. In the process of a useful discussion Rob tells us that the word epthumia means in the mind. Actually not. It means “in fury” or “in rage”(i.e. enraged) and refers to deep feelings, not deep thoughts. I like the definition of freedom on p. 75—it isn’t being able to have what we crave, but rather freedom is being able to go without what we crave and be fine with it. The basic advise that is given is to channel our desires, our energies into positive and good things. This is very common advice indeed, but wise advice. For example, being obsessive-compulsive can be a bane or a blessing. Channeled in the right direction a person can get a lot done, well, in order, and on time. But channeled in the wrong way it can lead to greed, the need to have all of this set of books, or CDs or the like. I like Rob’s exposition on stealing. The thief is given the opportunity to rechannel the life force so that their rush comes from giving things, making things with their hands and doing good. Hands are mentioned in this passage in Ephesians because a thief steals with his hands, for the most part. Life is not about toning down our energies, but in fact about letting our desires be absorbed into a higher and greater desire, enterprise, opportunity. This is very true.
Chapter Five is perhaps the best chapter yet. It is an exposition on love, and there is a very effective spinning out of the story of Song of Songs. Rob also explores the love of God for us, focusing on how God grieves, his heart aches and is pained, and as it says in Gen. 6 God regrets having made humans. One of the more helpful and profound insights in this chapter is on p. 98—love is a giving away of power a becoming vulnerable. Is that true of God as well? Rob says yes--- look at Jesus. Here is an excellent para.--- “Love is giving up control. It’s surrendering the desire to control the other person. The two—love and controlling power over the other person—are mutually exclusive. If we are serious about loving someone, we have to surrender all the desires within us to manipulate the relationship.” There are two very striking implications to this: 1) if it is true, then love is never a power move, never irresistible, even when we are talking about God. That pretty much rules out John Piper’s view of love and God right there. Love does not demand its own way says Paul (1 Cor. 13), and Jesus shows us that is the way God loves us; 2) this definition of love also means that we are to sacrifice and put the other person first in our marriages. My wife is so much better at this than I am. I must confess. But this definition of love rules out the same old patriarchal stuff. When Christian love appears on the scene its all about mutual submission as Ephes. 5.21 says, mutual sacrifice and so one. We need to keep in mind that Paul in the household code is trying to push an existing patriarchal situation in a more Christian direction. We get glimmerings of where it’s all going in places like Ephes. 5.21 where we see the highest and best way the relationship can work. But what Paul believes is the leaven of the Gospel is being put into the Christian community and its relationships so that things will move away from the fallen patriarchal world order to a more egalitarian one.
Rob brings out quite well how love is risky for God as well, because of course we may respond negatively. Rob stresses that the death of Jesus reflects a condemnation of the domination systems in place that oppress people. In this he sounds a bit like Dominic Crossan, but I think he is at least partially right about this. We have a catchy phrase at the end of the chapter: “God can do anything—that’s what makes God, God. But God can’t do everything. God can’t make us love him--- that’s our choice.” (p.109). Well, God could have set up the whole system differently and made us respond positively to him, but I take it that Rob’s point is that then that response, however little it seemed coerced, would not be love. Love can neither be predetermined nor coerced is Rob’s point. I agree. And it is not an accident that the NT never says God is power (the noun) though it does say God is almighty (the adjective). On the other hand it absolutely does say that God is love. The essence of who God is love. This is why Jesus is the clearest, highest, most effective, and powerful revelation of the divine nature. God has deliberately limited himself in order to take on flesh,take on suffering, take on death in the person of Jesus, and be a love letter to humanity. I am reminded of the powerful poem by Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy “The Sorrow of God”, which in essence says that God suffers when we suffer. We see this in Jesus’ words to Saul on
In Chapter Six “Worth Dying For” may be the best chapter in either of Rob’s two books. He understands very well the difficulties in discussing the submission passages, but he handles it like a pro. He rightly stresses that mutual submission is what Ephes. 5.21 is calling all Christians to in relationship to each other, and a particular illustration of that is found in the relationship of Christian wife and husband. The husband indeed is called the head, but the job descriptor for headship is to take the lead in serving, sacrificing, loving just as Christ did. If this is not a form of self-emptying and submitting I don’t know what it is. Rob says on p. 117 “The husband’s waiting for his wife to submit is actually a failure to lead….If he really thinks he is the head, then he would surrender his desires and wants and plans. He would die to his need to be in control and do whatever it takes to serve her….He would die to himself so that she could live.” Exactly so--- you nailed this one Rob. Enough with the non-Christian nonsense about unilateral submission of women to men in the church, in marriage, in ministry, in general. Rob then adds “In marriage, you’re talking about power and control only when something central to the whole relationship has fallen apart.” (p. 119) Yes, that’s right, or at least the two persons have never come to fully give themselves, fully trust each other, and so they are still negotiating the landscape and boundaries of the relationship. And one or the other or both of them is insecure, and afraid the relationship is getting out of their control—hence the power move.
I like Rob’s exposition of 1 Cor. 7 as well—the bodies of husband and wife belong to each other, not to themselves. Amen to that, and this means that ‘conjugal rights’ are more like ‘conjugal obligations’--- we are called to freely give ourselves up to the other, not demand our right to the other’s body, our right to sex on demand. A true lover gives up their rights, and abandons themselves in trying to please the other--- never demanding anything. And so on p.119 Rob answers the question of who has the authority in this relationship by saying--- ‘yes’, they both have authority over each other’s body. In Paul’s world this would have clashed with the sexual double standard that wives needed to stay chaste while husbands were allow to visit the prostitutes.
The exposition of agape love on pp. 119-20 is helpful as well. Agape is unconditional love, not love that is bestowed only when someone is worthy. “Agape loves in such a way that it makes them beautiful.” (p. 120). Just so, that’s what God’s love does. “People are loved into their futures.” (p. 121) their future best selves. Rob tells women “You don’t need to use your body to get what you need. It’s a cop out for not being a certain kind of woman—a woman of dignity and honor.” (p.122).
I was blown away by p. 123--- Rob talks about how women trade sex for validation, affection, affirmation that they are worth something. “Sex becomes a search. A search for something their missing. A quest for the unconditional embrace. And so they go from relationship to relationship, looking for what they already have…But sex is not the search for something missing. It’s the expression of something that’s been found. Its designed to be the overflow, the culmination of something that a man and woman have found in each other.. It’s a celebration of this living breathing thing that’s happening between the two of them.”
Rob goes on to add a strong paragraph on where our worth comes from. It comes from being created in God’s image, being loved by God unconditionally. It does not come from your body, your mind, your work, what your produce or put out. It doesn’t come from whether you have a spouse or a girlfriend or boyfriend or whether people notice you, or whether you are famous. Your great worth comes from your creator. (p. 124)
I cannot praise this chapter enough. Its right on target. If you can only read one chapter in this book for now, read this one. This is certainly a better and more mature book than “Velvet Elvis”, which shows that Rob is happily growing into this ministry more and more.
Chapter Seven, “Under the Chuppah” is about having enough sense to keep various things in your married life between the two of you. A Chuppah is a canopy under which the bride and groom, and no one else, stand in a Jewish wedding. Only they are under the canopy of God’s eye of protection for that particular relationship and there are things in that relationship which should be between them and God, and no one else. There is a useful discussion in this chapter of the OT material where God’s relationship to his people is described as being like the relationship of husband and wife—actually the latter is modeled on the former to some extent. The analogy in Hosea is especially fully developed. It is interesting how Rob sees the ten commandments as like the ketubah, the wedding contract agreeing to love no one but God the spouse alone, along with other stipulations. This is an interesting way of looking at the ten commandments. The problem with it is that a marriage covenant and its stipulations is different from a covenant between a king and his vassals, and in fact the OT covenants are more like those ANE treaties than like marriage contracts.
Pp. 134-35 are a bit odd. Here Rob is telling us that in Jewish marriage law a couple is not married until they have sex. He talks about the wedding canopy being put up over the marriage bed, they have sex, while the guests wait outside (!) and then they all come out and having the wedding party now that they are fully married. The problem with this analysis which is partially right, is that the marriage contract, which was decided on well before the marriage was binding long before the consummation of the union. This is why in Matthew Joseph had thought to ‘divorce’ Mary before they had come together. One can say that the contracting is the beginning of the marriage, not merely an engagement period with no legal force, and the consummation is the conclusion of the act of marrying someone. Unlike our way of doing it--- it takes a long while, not 20 minutes in a chapel.
From pp. 136-37 it becomes clear that Rob has a healthy sense of progressive revelation. He talks about how in Jewish law, a man who has sex with a woman is then required to marry and take care of her, which is light years ahead of the practices in the ANE where she is permanently shamed by such an act and simply discarded and the man has no obligation to her. As he says, this is a higher view of what sex creates—a one flesh union, not a lower one. Then in the NT we go a big step further in which men are commanded to lay down their lives for their wives and engage in mutuality of sacrifice and submission.
The exclusiveness of the relationship of marriage is important. The giving of one’s self totally to another person is gripping in a wedding service--- it is the exclusivity of it that makes it special and powerful. Rob adds that we must guard that, because when we have given it away to someone else, you no longer have it, and no longer share that unique kind of sharing meant for husband and wife. Rob stresses when you take sex out of marriage it cheapens it, all you are left with is mechanics, not love. Sex taken out of its God-intended context loses its mystery and specialness. It leaves nothing to the imagination.
Rob is always full of surprises. And on pp. 151-52 we have a few more. For one thing we learn that the Hebrew language has only about 7,000 words where as English has 200,000. Well I take it he means that Hebrew has about 7,000 word roots (he got this from a Prof. Rufus at Stellenbosch in
And this is where we finally get the punchline as to why this book is called Sex. God--- because the oneness experienced in sex points beyond itself to the oneness that exists in God. This is that or better said, this refers to, alludes to, symbolizes, foreshadows that. Rob sees marriage as a picture of the oneness we all seek and yearn for with each other as well. His exposition on “they were naked and felt no shame” is useful—complete acceptance as the other is, without embarrassment on either side. Indeed without much self-consciousness. He stresses that nakedness of body should only be shared with one whom you share nakedness of soul. Being naked means peeling back the layers and letting down the defenses of body and soul—those two things should be done together, in harmony. If you share your body but not your soul it’s like having and holding and sharing the wineskins but not the wine.
The last chapter “Whoopee forever” rounds out the discussion. Rob points to the places in the teaching of Jesus and Paul where the goodness of remaining single is stressed, and the temporary nature of human marriage is also stressed. It is a this world institution meant for our earthly and temporal and temporary good. Not something eternal. Marriage brings hope, and oneness and continuation of the race to this world, but in the next one there will be no new acts of marrying. I suppose in a sense it will be like we are all married to each other in the kingdom the communion or koinonia will be so grand. “If sex is about connection, what happens when everybody is connected with everybody else?” (p. 167). What happens at the eschaton when all are one in God’s presence. Rob asks if sex and its moments of ecstasy a picture of heaven. Well some have compared it to the mystical ascent called the beatific vision of God, but Rob is comparing it to our eschatological experience of God in due course. Sex and marriage as a picture of heaven on earth--- sort of like what Jesus describes as preparing for his disciples in John 14.2-4. The Epilogue finishes with a reminder about relationships that fail, and the forgiveness and healing that is possible thereafter—a realistic pastoral note.
This is really an excellent beginning primer on Sex, marriage, and God, written in beguilingly simple terms. While I might quibble with a few things here and there, overall this is a fine piece of work—very clear, and reflects a maturing in Rob’s writing. We will look forward to what comes next.