I regularly have a conversation that goes something like this: A pastor happily remembers me as the person who wrote about sex in Campus Life magazine when he was a teenager. Jumping from that subject, he bemoans the broken world: Janet Jackson, school sex-ed classes, Internet pornography, women's magazines at the grocery store checkout. Agreeing with him, I ask what his church is doing to help kids. The conversation, which has been cruising at 60, suddenly lurches into low gear. The pastor thinks that the youth group talked about dating in January. Or was that last year?
In 30 years of writing about sex, I have seen that practically everybody worries about young people's sexual morals, but hardly anybody wants to do anything about them. Pastors, youth leaders, parents, Christian schools—they all bemoan the crisis, but their own efforts are generally meager.
The authors and publishers of books offering Christian perspectives on sex at least do something. They get little glamour and less money for their work, but seem passionately committed to the lives of children and adolescents. For that, at the least, they deserve credit.
A survey of books aimed at children and their parents, published between 1993 and 2003, reveals a variety of trends:
Greater frankness. Many of these authors are graphic in a way that would make an earlier generation cringe. Not so long ago a Christian book for young people would employ euphemisms and vagueness when describing sex. No longer.
Purity. The word itself has made a remarkable comeback. Most of these books emphasize the appeal of purity just as much or more than they speak of the dangers of premarital sex. Purity speaks to deeper concerns of the soul, offering a stronger incentive for chastity.
Covenants for teenagers. In an effort to strengthen young Christians' commitment to abstinence, denominations have initiated movements such as True Love Waits, which encourage young people to commit themselves to chastity before marriage. Young participants often wear a ring or some other jewelry to remind them of their commitment. This is, to my knowledge, the only organized attempt at public peer pressure for sexual purity in the last 50 years.
Declining dates. The book I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris (Multnomah, 1997) urged Christian young people to give up dating entirely. It found a powerful response. Many Christian teenagers instinctively reject the casual rapaciousness of American youth culture. It is not clear whether "courting," the proposed alternative to dating, has wide appeal, but it certainly inspires a significant number of young Christians.
Oral sex. In some circles, young people contend that oral sex is not "real sex" and is therefore a moral option for the unmarried. Several of these books address the issue among Christian teenagers.
Alienation from American society. Books on sexuality published by conservative Christian publishers show a pervasive mistrust of American schools, media, and youth culture. They portray Christians living in a hostile environment, battling a repellant ideology of sex while fighting off practical depredations like pornography and abuse. Christians who love America find themselves deeply ambivalent, their patriotism battling with their conviction that the nation's basic social institutions are rotten.
For Parents of Young Children
Most of these trends show up through the whole spectrum of Christian books on sex—those aimed at parents, at children, and at adolescents.
Two books give step-by-step instructions on what information to convey at each stage in a child's life, from infancy to young adulthood. They are How to Talk Confidently with Your Child About Sex by Lenore Buth (Concordia), and How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex, by Stanton L. and Brenna B. Jones (NavPress). Both urge parents to become their children's primary sex educators. Even though Buth writes as part of a Concordia Publishing
series (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) that can be used in Christian schools, neither she nor the Joneses make much of the church as a factor in sex education.
Buth uses a friendly, common-sense tone. Rather than urging parents to take a highly directive approach, she tries to inculcate open attitudes and good answers when questions about sex arise. While clearly scriptural, her writing would communicate best to lukewarm church members concerned more about shielding their children from harm than about keeping them pure. There's little sense of Christians as an embattled minority.
The Joneses, by contrast, begin with "The Battle We Are Losing." Later the imagery changes to disease prevention: we learn how to inoculate kids against non-Christian messages. This is a smart book, blending research findings with biblical reflection. The authors are also very practical. They tell you what to do in great detail, offering many sample dialogues on difficult issues.
When is the best time for giving children the dreaded "sex talk"? Between the ages of 5 and 7, say the Joneses; Buth says between the ages of 6 and 9. You were thinking maybe 13?
Two series of short books communicate directly to children, beginning with read-aloud picture books for ages 3 to 5 and progressing to simple, informative books for adolescents. The series' similarities are more striking than their differences. They blend physiological and medical information with a biblical theology of sexuality. The approach is parent-centered, especially in the books for younger children.
In both series, authors assume that children will be curious about issues that once went entirely unmentioned in Christian homes. What's the Big Deal?—the Joneses' book for 8 to 11-year-olds—includes chapters on "Sex Outside of Marriage," "What Is AIDS?" "What Does Gay Mean?" and "What Is Sexual Abuse?" Learning About Sex deals with these questions in its book for 11- to 14-year-olds. Answers are forthright.
For Parents of Teens
These four attempts to help parents or youth leaders with adolescents are wildly different in tone and substance. Paul Tripp's booklet is too brief to offer detailed advice, but he has obviously reflected long on biblical principles for adolescence. These form the core of his approach, with an implied subtext: good biblical thinking leads to good biblical ministry. To him, it appears, teaching is the fundamental form of ministry to teenagers.
La Verne Tolbert, while in general agreement with Tripp's principles, uses an entirely different approach, describing her experiences as a single person and as a parent. At the core of her approach is relationship. She doesn't really have a formula, but she certainly offers good examples. When Tolbert describes struggling with her adopted African American daughter over peer pressure, schools, and attitudes, she's unquestionably real. She is an authoritative parent willing to tell it like it is, with help from the Bible.
Keith Deltano is a Christian comedian. Making Virginity Possible made me laugh, particularly when Deltano describes dads glued to their TV remotes and moms trying to lever the dads from family sofas. Deltano offers hardly a word about respecting your teenagers, but he is very practical and savvy about dealing with them. He, too, would adhere to Tripp's biblical principles, but he shows less interest in teaching such principles than in demonstrating them through family behavior. For example, his first chapter tells parents how to give a third-degree grilling to every one of their kids' friends, whose phone numbers, addresses, and parents' names should be listed in the family "Tribe Tracker."
Hancock and Powell's Good Sex aims to bring the church into this struggle. It offers a packet of materials for youth groups—a leader's guide, a student journal, and a video of discussion starters. The material would enable a novice volunteer to lead a meeting, but Good Sex really aims at veteran youth leaders who want to cobble together their own approach from a variety of resources.
Hancock and Powell explain that they aim for a process, not a confrontation. In seven lessons they cover a lot of biblical ground. The Bible studies are bracketed by open-ended discussion, in which kids think for themselves and speak freely. The intent is to create a church context in which sexuality gets explored thoughtfully and biblically, and kids reach their own conclusions.
For Adolescents (and Older)
Most teenagers watch a great deal of TV. If you want to understand the incongruity they feel in trying reconcile a tv worldview with the messages they hear in church, try to imagine
your pastor explaining sexual purity on the Late Show with David Letterman. Can you feel the giddy hilarity as the audience anticipates Letterman's response?
Those who address teenagers about sex face that kind of challenge. They need courage and a powerful persona to make their points without wilting.
Pam Stenzel writes from a tough, I've-seen-it-all, uncompromising perspective. "If you have sex outside of marriage, no matter who it's with, no matter how careful you are, you will pay. There are consequences. Plain and simple. That's the way it is." She shows all the subtlety of Marine basic training. For kids who live in a gritty world, Stenzel's message may have the best possibility of getting through.
Dannah Gresh is equally uncompromising, but she speaks for the girl who dreams of a perfect wedding, a perfect husband (tan with white teeth), and a romantic honeymoon. Her style is Christian girl-talk, sharing how she and her husband met and courted and found their bliss. She knows what dreams are made of, and she pitches sexual purity as the way to fulfill them. Some girls (and most boys) will wince at her style, but remember the giddy, greedy way sex is marketed in women's magazines. Consider this a Christian alternative.
Joe White runs a renowned Christian sports camp. In Pure Excitement he speaks to boys and girls who lean toward athletics. Many of his examples come from all-star athletes or beauty queens. Like Gresh, he offers a highly romantic vision of sexual fulfillment, with talk of "Hawaiian honeymoons" and perfectly orchestrated engagements. His style, though, is more like a locker room pep talk. Like a coach trying to inspire his team to believe they can win the game, White urges his readers to rise to excellence, which he equates with sexual purity. White knows how to communicate with kids. Unfortunately, the end of his book trails off into miscellaneous thoughts on creation science and the staunch evangelical Christianity White imagines in the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution.
Rebecca St. James is a Christian singer who wrote a popular song of the same title as her book. She speaks not as an adult but as a thoughtful, seeking young person. For her, purity has become an unapologetic goal. She speaks of "The Dream" of a perfect love, and warns against immodest dress and the dangers of television and the Internet. Though a celebrity, she makes no pretense of authority. She even interviews her mother and grandparents, asking what they think she ought to know about sex. The thoughts aren't deep. They do seem deeply sincere. A teenage girl might read this as though she were perusing a friend's diary.
Youthworkers Jeramy and Jerusha Clark (previous page), writing to church kids who are deeply serious about their faith, define H.O.T. as "holy, outrageous, and trustworthy." The Clarks assume that their readers want the best relationship possible with the opposite sex. They give thoughtful instruction in how to create godly male-female relationships.
Gift-Wrapped by God aims at a slightly older audience—women in their late teens and early 20s who have turned their thoughts beyond relationships to marriage. Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus urge them to keep the "gift" of their bodies pure so that it can be available for their future husbands to unwrap. They also explain how sexually experienced women can become virgins again—by which they mean experiencing God's forgiveness and regaining a sense of unlimited potential. They urge every woman—married or single—to find her womanly fulfillment as the bride of Christ.
The Great Divide
While these books appeal to committed believers, their basic arguments are often pragmatic. They count up the wages of sin—in pregnancies, diseases, guilt, and broken relationships. They greatly emphasize the payoff for purity—in romantic, erotic, soul-satisfying marriages. Rarely do they say something like this, from Rebecca St. James: "If you are a follower of Jesus, then the first question you need to ask yourself when relating to the opposite sex is 'What would God think?' "
I understand why the authors use pragmatic arguments. This is a pragmatic age. Religious authority has little appeal, even among religious people. People want to know why.
Pragmatic arguments about sex may prove less than convincing, however, to an MTV generation. These days the penalties for sexual straying are quite diffuse. Ask those unmarried mothers in your community whether they feel punished. (Don't even bother to ask the fathers what price they pay.) The same with disease—for a time AIDS posed lethal consequences for promiscuous sex, but now Western medicine has cushioned the blow from even that horrible illness.
As for romance, are the married couples Christian teenagers see at church an advertisement for bliss? That might be a tough sell, especially when compared to what they see at the movies.
Pragmatic arguments have real substance. God ordained marriage and singleness as the best forms to contain our sexual natures. In the long run, following the Bible really does provide greater health and happiness than does promiscuity.
In the world we live in, though, people make sexual choices without necessarily thinking about what is in their interests. They choose on the basis of desire, immediate happiness, and individual freedom. Sex is seen as a pleasure commodity—like fast cars and gourmet food. Americans consider "what's good for you" almost the antithesis of pleasurable consumption. And so, pragmatic arguments hardly touch their sexual decisions. Perhaps we would do better to argue the way Paul did. "You were bought with a price. Therefore …"
The best that American Christians can do in 2004 is to hold their own in American society. Regarding sexuality, I doubt we could claim that. By most measures we are losing ground.
If Christians are as alienated from American society as these books suggest, surely concerns for our children's sexuality should raise more of a fuss. The authors of these books want parents to seize the initiative. They appeal directly to young people to see their self-interest in sexual purity. They cry out over America's degeneration. How many are listening? Where is the church?
Tim Stafford has written "Love, Sex, and the Whole Person," a question-and-answer column in CT's sister publication Campus Life, since 1973. He has also written several books on sexuality, including Sexual Chaos (IVP, 1993).
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The following books discussed in this article are available at Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
How To Talk Confidently with Your Child About Sex (Concordia, 1998)
How & When to Tell Your Kids About Sex (NavPress, 1993)
Learning About Sex (Concordia, 1999)
God's Design for Sex (NavPress, 1995)
Teens and Sex: How Should We Teach Them? (P&R Publishing, 2000)
Good Sex (Zondervan, 2001)
Keeping Your Kids Sexually Pure (Zondervan, 2002)
Making Virginity Possible (Freedom Entertainment Publishing, 2003)
Pure Excitement: A Radical Righteous Approach to Sex Love and Dating (Focus On The Family/Tyndale, 1996)
And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity (Moody Publishers, 2000)
For more on talking to your kids and other parenting issues, see our sister publication, Christian Parenting Today.
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