Okay, so there have, for excellent reasons, been really really strong negative reactions from so so many quarters to an extremely disturbing article about the theology of sex published this past week on the white Evangelical organization The Gospel Coalition’s (TGC) website. Intriguingly, the blowback came not only from progressives but also enough of TGC’s audience members that they actually removed the article really quickly while doubling down by linking to a book chapter from a forthcoming book the article was trying to promote. In this piece, I hope to provide a communication scholar’s perspective to add to this important dialogue, and specifically to discuss why all of us more reasonable people need to pay careful attention to and push back against the publication of this extremist book and its fascistic depiction of theology.
Wait, What Article and Book Are This???
As a quick background note on this TGC article, it’s called “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to One Who Will)” by Joshua Ryan Butler. As I said, it’s no longer up, but the web archive has a version here if you want to read it (bonus: this means you don’t give TGC traffic by clicking through!).
The forthcoming book I mentioned above is called Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything. The link TGC replaced the article with leads to the first chapter of the book housed on the site for the white Evangelical publisher of the book.
Why You Should Care Enough to Keep Reading This Blog Post!
TGC’s explanation of taking down the article to put up the book chapter suggested that the reason they did so was to provide more “context,” but as many others have pointed out, the book chapter didn’t actually make anything better—in fact, it made it worse in a lot of ways.
Give me a few minutes and I’ll explain why I think we ALL need to care about, and push back against, the publication of this seemingly niche white Evangelical book comparing a uterus to a “holy place” and a man’s semen to the Holy Spirit.
Spoiler alert: this is the theology required to support the current right-wing fascistic anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ+ type agendas in the US. Looking at it closely allows us to understand what else might be attempted if this Christian nationalistic faction succeeds further to push these agendas.
How My Background and Standpoint Adds to the Conversation
Before diving in too far, though, as always, I’m coming at this as a communication scholar who grew up as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate white Evangelical church and went on to become a scholar in a discipline—communication—one of whose aims is to try to help us not replicate the Holocaust and other horrible human rights catastrophes by understanding the rhetoric that allowed them to happen.
So yeah, I’ve studied both persuasion and propaganda more generally and fascistic rhetoric in particular during my studies.
Ah, Those Awkward Conversations About Relational Communication Terms
Because my discipline of communication is delightfully wide-ranging, I also teach interpersonal communication at the university level.
In addition to my awareness of the biblical metaphors about marriage and Jesus being the church’s bridegroom from my PK upbringing, teaching interpersonal com for years has brought me to many many semi-awkward classroom explanations around sexual metaphors that hover around our linguistic conception of close relationships in the English language.
Applying Awkward Metaphors to More General Things—More, Well, Generally
For instance, it’s always slightly awkward when I have to explain how Altman and Taylor’s “social penetration theory”—a well-known theory that explains how self-disclosure relates to emotional intimacy across all types of relationships—uses the idea of certain types of sexual intimacy as a surface metaphor to discuss the gradual way vulnerable emotional closeness is built across all types of relationships.
This issue also comes up when my textbook defines intimacy in a larger sense, saying one definition is “inclusion-of-the-self-in-the-other.”
In both cases, the textbook I teach out of (which is very well done—Interplay by Adler et al.) jumps right past acknowledging these references as sexual in nature, as it quickly notes that these theories apply to all sorts of dimensions of intimacy on all levels in a wide variety of relationships.
Ummm, the Whole Point of Metaphor Is That It’s Not Literal
In discussing these kinds of statements in my classes, I always quickly acknowledge the sex-metaphor elephant in the room. But then I clear the awkwardness as quickly as possible by pointing to other concepts we’ve been discussing that give us a broader understanding of how this idea works without using it.
Because we don’t actually need the sex metaphor to be literal. (That’s because metaphors aren’t actually literal.)
Thinking about “Letting People In” to Personal Space Works Just as Well!
Specifically, I talk about the non-verbal communication idea of personal space and the vulnerability it takes to be willing to let someone into what we think of as our territory and let them be literally close to us—as in, who we keep “at arm’s length” as acquaintances vs. who we allow to be literally or metaphorically considered as a “close relationship” of whatever type.
Plenty of Ways to Talk about Sexual Metaphor Language Without Making It Creepy
Later in my class we do apply those same concepts to the idea of romantic relationships and physical intimacy. But before we do, I make it clear that physical intimacy absolutely includes comfort levels around personal space and non-sexual touching.
So yeah, all of this is to say that there are absolutely ways to talk about awkward sexual metaphors that actually apply them to nonsexual relational concepts without making them creepy.
As a pastor’s kid, I’m very aware of those biblical metaphors that talk about Christ being the bridegroom with the church as a bride. As with my handling of the metaphors in class, there’s absolutely no reason to make them creepy, much less use them to lay the groundwork for fascistic theologies.
It’s Not the Sexual Metaphor Language That’s the Problem Here
So yeah, just wanted to get that said—that even though I grew up in Purity Culture Lite (which I discussed before here), I don’t have a problem with the idea of sexual metaphors as such. (Many of the other respondents to this article have said the same, if for slightly different reasons.)
So MANY Legitimate Issues with This Article and Book
The problems with this particular vision of sex in this article and book chapter, both, are legion. Other respondents have done an excellent job pointing out how there’s a huge problem with how literalized the metaphor is, how it shows such bad theology, how it shows such a lack of awareness of how sex works, especially for women, how the idea of semen as holy generosity seems to imply Christians are in a patriarchal sex cult, and so on.
My Particular Issue with It: Moving Forward a Christian Nationalistic Fascistic Vision
That’s a lot of great work, and I encourage you to look it all up if you want to. I’ll come back to that last sex cult thing later on. But what I want to focus on primarily is the fact that the vision of sex and spirituality in the article are the necessary type of literalized theology it would take to create a basis for the fascistic anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ policies being pushed today.
And it seems highly likely to me that this book—and to start with, the article at TGC—is being strategically funded and marketed as a way to be extremely explicit and convince more people of the rightness of that vision.
Reminding Us About the Goals of Post-Truth and Fascistic Rhetoric
Okay, so let me explain a bit. As philosopher Lee McIntyre explains in his excellent book Post-Truth, which I’ve talked about previously (he also guest-blogged for this blog here), a lot of unhealthy rhetoric is not just unwittingly being put out there. As with his prime example of the tobacco lobby, a lot of disinformation is part of strategic marketing plans, as it were, for organizations that have ways to protect their interests in mind.
As Jason Stanley points out in his book How Fascism Works, which I’ve previously discussed in more detail several places, the kinds of bad actors who use fascistic rhetoric are specifically trying to make things more extreme while pretending to “conserve” an imagined nostalgic idea of society hierarchy and racial and sexual purity.
It’s also incredibly common for practitioners of fascistic rhetoric to offer glimpses into the extreme rhetoric and policies they’re trying to move toward by saying them overtly and then seeming to take them back, but then moving toward the extreme vision all the same.
Back to This Semi-(Not Really)-Retracted TGC Article
So maybe if you know more details about the TGC piece you can already glimpse where I’m going here, but stick with me, if you can, as I explain further as to why the release of this book seems to be laying the groundwork for more extremist Christian fascistic policies.
Several of the early responses to Butler’s TGC piece, including a Tweet from historian Kristin Du Mez, author of the excellent book Jesus and John Wayne, that outlines recent decades of white Evangelical rhetoric in this very area, expressed initial puzzlement that this article would “get through” all the editors and publishers to express such wildly unorthodox and deeply misogynistic perspectives.
The Well-Funded Machinery at Work
Authors Sheila Gregoire and her co-author of The Great Sex Rescue, appearing as guests on the podcast The New Evangelicals in the recent episode about this TGC piece, are not alone in pointing out some even more disturbing context that helps us understand why and how this seems to have come about. That is to say that this disturbing book by Joshua Ryan Butler is the first to be published by Tim Keller’s new center for apologetics, and that it likely garnered a six-figure advance and other perks of the type only offered to books that are expected to make it big.
As someone who used to work in publishing, this information set off all sorts of red flags for me. It strongly implies that this TGC article is part of a specific post-truth marketing push, using the specific fascistic rhetoric technique I just described above.
It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature (Shudder and Deep Sigh)
This information tells me that this book isn’t being considered as a fringe book at all. Let me be clear: this book excerpt, and the article associated with it, in no way “squeaked past the censors” somehow at either The Gospel Coalition or at Multnomah, the publishers.
On the contrary, it’s clear that this article was published at TGC (and linked on Twitter) as part of a strategic marketing campaign for this book. And this book, in turn, is marketing for a new well-funded center for apologetics.
Let me say that again, in case you missed it or are not conversant with the lingo. Apologetics is generally considered to be a way to get people to agree that particularly conservative Christian interpretations of the world are the right way to go about things.
The First Fruits of…More Extremist Fascistic Christian Nationalism???? (Ugh)
In short, this book is definitely a strategically chosen move, and a first one in a hopefully long series, about what this group of conservative leaders thinks the world should accept as true.
That’s right: In an age where Christian nationalism has entirely too much power and was a big part of an insurrection against the peaceful transition to a more reasonable presidency from an extremist one, that should very much alarm all of us.
Especially when I tell you more about what’s been put forth as this vision.
Ugh, I’m to the Part Where I Finally Have to Tell You What the Book Says (Apologies in Advance)
So yes, the first part of the first book of this new center for apologetics tries to argue the following in the introductory chapter: while it’s okay to be single (which in this viewpoint means celibate), even when you are, if you have a spiritual relationship with God it means that God is implanting his “spiritual seeds” in you in the same way a husband implants semen into his wife’s “holy place.”
(I can’t get over my shuddering around this. I’ve now read through the book chapter twice. Which, by the way, I don’t really recommend as a practice. It just gets worse the more you analyze it.)
So Yeah, We’re Finally to the Fascistic Sex Cult Thing…
What it makes clear is that the book is about taking this extremely twisted idea of a particular type of penetrative sex in heterosexual marriage (likely inspired, as others have mentioned, by particular types of porn narratives) and saying that that, and sort of only that, is the vision of how God has relationships with all people.
Importantly, by natural extension, the book specifically argues that that literalized version of the “metaphor” is then seen to be the ONLY moral standard for sex and relationships in general as well.
THIS is a huge problem. For so many reasons, obviously.
Can’t Believe I Have to Say This, But We Don’t Need to Worship an Ejaculative God
One thing I specifically want to say, before diving back into how this is fascistic theology, is how incredibly reductive and objectifying this vision is about any kind of view of relationships with God or other humans.
Because yeah, remember how both my textbook and I explained relationships and how we can understand intimacy outside of sexual contexts without resorting to sexual details? Yeahhh, this book does the exact opposite.
Why People Have Been Saying This Is So Disturbing
When it defines close relationships, the textbook I teach from talks about four kinds of intimacy—emotional; intellectual; shared activities; and physical (the last of which, as I noted above, includes either non-sexual or sexual closeness, depending on the situation and people involved).
So yeah, starting to think about this book’s vision of spirituality and marital relationships and biblical metaphors, that list is extremely helpful in recognizing JUST HOW TWISTED AND LIMITED this view of both God’s relationship to the church and marital relationships is.
So Yeah, This Is Not A Holistic View of Either Intimacy or Sexuality in ANY WAY
As other respondents to this article have mentioned, the problem isn’t even that it just narrows things down to the sexual, either (though obviously that is a problem).
Even within the sexual, it’s narrowing down to an extremely disturbing version of sexuality.
A type of sexuality that presumes that one specific type of sex act with some very specific parameters is somehow a holistic view of spirituality as well as the moral pattern that everyone should follow when it comes to human close relationships?
This is SOOO obviously not okay.
But Yes, Back to the Fascism Thing—Because It’s Definitely There
What I want to focus on more today is the fact that this book’s particular vision of sex and spirituality is pretty much the ideal way to legitimize the kinds of fascistic policies being pushed by Christian nationalists and other far-right politicians in the US today.
See, the vision espoused by this book is extremely procreative in focus. The only reason, it says, that either sex or spirituality is considered good is that the “seeds” (ewwww) from the “man-giver” (i.e., man-God—shudder, cringe, blench, recoil) take roots and grow.
(Excuse me as I pause to recoil some more—the things this does to the Parable of the Sower and the many passages about good and bad fruit and the fruits of the spirit in the Bible are just so disturbing.)
So Much Metaphor-Breaking Going On!
Anyway, in Butler’s stated view, the only way that this can happen is if the “woman-receiver” (i.e., Christian) “hospitably” lets the man-God (shudder) into her “holy place.”
This, of course, is only supposed to happen monogamously, heterosexually, regularly enough to “bear good fruit,” and only with the “true commitment” of marriage. (And even though the book chapter takes the trouble to use the word “consent” and pays lip service to decrying rape, it also chides wives if they “have a headache” too often.)
“Spreading a Spiritual Seed”–Ewwww
If you think about it, you can see how this extremely literalized spirituality of sex—which ultimately makes all of spirituality about the “sacred” act of procreation, whether literal or spiritual, yokes the concept of apologetics with a very very literal view of a particular kind of sex.
Oh Hey There, Pro-Birth and Anti-LGBTQ+ Policies—Was Wondering When You Would Stop By
And if you think for a minute or two about how important procreation is to this view of relationships, sex, marriage, and spirituality, it’s barely a leap to understand the plot for Butler’s whole book.
After all, if procreation is the stated goal, it’s immediately clear why he includes chapters on—wait for it—abortion! and gay sex! In the sin section. For good measure, there are also chapters in that same “sin” section on divorce, premarital sex, and—ironically considering how pornographic this view of sex is, on pornography.
So Yeah, Further “Planting the Fascistic (Theological) Seed”
Soooo yeah, in an era where conservative politicians on all levels are actively seeking to outlaw abortion and fight LGBTQ+ rights with the full backing of so many white Evangelicals, perhaps you can understand how I could see this chapter as something all Americans, at least, should know about.
Especially since it’s being peddled by an influential white Evangelical organization on behalf of a well-known white Evangelical publisher that’s publishing this book as the firstfruits, as it were, of a well-funded new center for apologetics.
And, again, the book is being peddled with a strong confidence of strong sales because of the network of white Evangelical male leaders that will work to normalize it with their parishioners. Parishioners who are already primed to, well, be “receivers” of their words, even if they don’t initially agree with them.
A Bellwether for Even More Extremity? Not at All Ideal
Between that and the hullaballoo that’s already been kicked up online with this release of the article, one can perhaps see why this book’s very extremity might be hoped for to kick up its sales, as well as to shift white Evangelicals’ window of tolerance in an even more fascistic direction.
As I already wrote about earlier (see here), this is far from the first time I’ve seen a pastor sharing propaganda defending sex cults, after all. This is just the first time I’ve seen a main center of white Evangelicalism put out a book trying to soft-pedal a theology that’s that explicit about it.
As other scholars of Christian nationalism have mentioned in the Straight White American Jesus podcast on the subject of this TGC piece, purity culture rhetoric has already laid A LOT of the groundwork for its potential influence and acceptance. And the fact that TGC thought their audience just needed “further context” of the first chapter to accept the book strongly suggests they’re seeking to move the needle in that direction.
Looking at this in the context of how fascists try to push the window of tolerance for their audiences makes me extremely nervous about this new center for apologetics as well as the trends in Christian nationalism in the policies they may try to push moving forward.
Time to Keep Resisting Fascistic Christian Nationalism
I say all of this to remind you of this: while we have a more reasonable presidency for now, the threat from Christian nationalism is far from over.
This not-really-retracted article, replaced on the site with this book chapter from a book that is being incredibly well funded and expected to sell well, gives us a glimpse of some of the threats we absolutely need to continue to speak up about.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop this there, and just end with a final charge asking us to continue to resist unhealthy religio-political messages and policies wherever we find them.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
UPDATE 3/6/23: The day after I published this, on 3/5/23, the Gospel Coalition, after a ton of kick back, did what I would have predicted based on the above patterns–they’ve scapegoated Butler (he is no longer a Keller Center fellow). In their statement they gaslighted everyone by apologizing for the fact that somehow the article and book didn’t get screened properly. All the indications suggest, as I’ve noted, that they knew exactly what they were doing. Books don’t get published with those large advances by major new centers for cultural apologetics by “accident.”
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