When I stumble upon words like “sex” or “seduction” or “flirtation,” I tend to keep reading.
I don’t think I am alone in this. Sexuality is as basic to humanity as hunger or thirst, but—at least in our society—sex is far more influential. From Burger King to Old Spice, advertisements are rife with innuendo. Almost all comedy movies include sexual humor, and I cannot remember the last time I bought groceries without seeing magazines about sex and dating at the checkout lane.
However, if those loaded words turn into an ethical or religious discussion about sex, I usually turn away. Too often, the “discussion” degrades into little more than emphatic “thou shalt nots” or accusations of being naively old fashioned.
When I was in high school, a missionary couple told my youth group that a wedding vow should come before a first kiss, and that even hugging was questionable. At the other end of the spectrum, just last year, one of my friends insisted that all couples should have sex before they “got too serious,” in order to find out if they were compatible or not. Both arguments were reactionary, focused more on fighting “the ways of the world” or “unrealistic repression” than constructively working through hard but very real questions about sexual issues. This focus is far too common in books and messages about sex, and so I have preferred to wrestle with these issues alone. I avoid discussions—those potentially helpful exchanges of wisdom, experience, and interpretations—for fear of denunciations and lectures.
So with great reservations and low expectations, I picked up Caroline Simon’s Bringing Sex into Focus. It was mostly voluntary. Friends and Calvin professors had praised the book, and Simon would be speaking on campus later that week. As I read, I kept waiting for the drop: for the full-blown sermon, the political diatribe, the dismissal of all competing ideas.
To my surprise, it never came. To my even greater surprise, I enjoyed it. I even found it helpful.
Bringing Sex into Focus opens the door for real dialogue about sex. It serves as a ceasefire, letting readers explore the battlefield of sexual ideas and perspectives. In the resulting calm, readers can realize and clarify their own views on sex and its complications, and learn to understand the ideas behind seemingly radical attitudes toward sexuality.
Caroline Simon, a philosophy professor at Hope College, facilitates this ceasefire with clarity and tact. In a question-and-answer session on my campus, she explained that she wrote her book with two nineteen-year-old readers in mind: one, a very conservative Christian saving physical intimacy until marriage; the other, a girl with a background of drug abuse and promiscuity. Simon said she wanted Bringing Sex into Focus to be a book that “both of these people would read all the way though, without feeling dismissed or misunderstood.” I believe she succeeded.
Bringing Sex into Focus begins by dividing the arguments and ideas surrounding sex into six distinct “lenses”: procreative, covenantal, romantic, expressive, plain sex, and power. Each lens corresponds to a perspective on sexuality, characterized by unique values, ideals, and conceptions. The first two are traditionally Christian: the Catholic procreative lens, in which sex is intended for reproduction; and the Protestant covenantal lens, in which sex is a reflection of God’s covenantal relationship with us. The other four treat sex as a sign of love (romantic), as personal empowerment and expression (expressive), as purely physical pleasure (plain sex), or as an instrument for control (power).
Simon provides a basic overview of each lens, puts it in the context of the other five, and describes a lifestyle it would condone. Most importantly, though, she lets the lenses speak for themselves, quoting philosophers who support each one. These sources play the role of native tour guides, minimizing unintentional outsider bias.
The evenhandedness of this approach surprised me. Too often, I have encountered Christian lifestyle books in which the author’s prejudices stain every sentence, in which straw-man arguments and outright disdain infect even basic background information. Bringing Sex into Focus, albeit with a few scattered exceptions, defies that trend. Without sacrificing her own views—she is quite clear that she values a covenantal lens most—Simon respects competing ideas.
Another pleasant surprise was the book’s message. Simon argues that in order to have a full, satisfactory understanding of sexuality, Christians should augment the covenantal lens with the other five lenses’ “partial truths.” Bringing Sex into Focus shows that when the covenant lens is central, the “the multiple lenses converge . . . [and] the six lenses can be more than mutually exclusive rivals.” The procreative lens, for instance, characterizes chastity not as obeying sexual rules but as “self-mastery” that lets a person “use one’s sexual powers intelligently in the pursuit of human flourishing and happiness.” Combining this lens with the traditionally Protestant covenantal lens turns chastity into an issue of positive morality—a view that offers guidance for unmarried people who, like myself, want more than a series of “do nots.”
Those looking for a how-to book that answers all moral questions about sex should look elsewhere, however. Bringing Sex into Focus seeks to promote helpful Christian discussion about sex, not to be the final word on it. With an attitude of respect and a goal of understanding, the book uses the lenses to tackle thorny topics like the definition of virginity, the nature of flirtation and seduction, casual sex, pornography, and homosexuality—all of which are more complicated than an “us” against “them” battle, as they are often depicted.
The conception of homosexuality as a two-sided conflict, for instance, has prevailed in our culture and has turned many Christians, gay and straight, away from the church. In her analysis of this issue, Simon seeks to lower tempers and promote dialogue that can help Christians confront this topic with love and empathy. She reveals that there are many groups with distinct priorities invested in this issue, not simply two “for” and “against” parties. The expressive lens sees gay marriage as an equal-rights struggle. From that perspective, “there appears to be no good reason for denying sexual expression to [homosexuals]”; those opposed to same-sex marriage seem to be “connubial bigots.” However, the procreative lens sees homosexuality as impermissible, for it, like contraception, results in sex that cannot lead to procreation. Those who support gay marriage, when seen through only a procreative lens, appear to oppose God’s commands. These groups have different priorities and, consequently, very different perspectives, as do those looking through each of the other four lenses. Simon’s book lets readers peer through each one, improving her readers’ own understanding, showing them what others prioritize, and sowing seeds for informed, empathetic discussion.
Beyond the qualities that I’ve already praised, Bringing Sex into Focus avoids many common pitfalls of Christian lifestyle books. At just 165 pages, Bringing Sex into Focus doesn’t have room to be repetitious or weak. Whereas many Christian lifestyle books should have ended at their halfway mark, Simon keeps new, helpful analysis flowing throughout her book.
In regard to clarity, Simon generally picks concise quotations that clearly illustrate her points, and she summarizes and explains the ones that are a bit dense. Muddled meanings would not keep Simon’s nineteen-year-old readers from reading this book.
Perhaps the biggest pitfall common to Christian lifestyle books is what I call “stretchiness.” I’ve run into numerous books that take their idea or diagnosing tool or new way of looking at things too far. They apply it to too many subjects and it falls short, leaving the reader skeptical and unimpressed. But again, Bringing Sex into Focus succeeds, for the most part. There is one dream interpretation in the conclusion that feels quite flimsy, but that section is minor. On the positive side—and far more importantly—Simon does not cling too tightly to her six lenses; when a better tool is available, she uses it. While discussing views on casual sex, for instance, her lenses fade to the background and she instead conducts her analysis through three different ethical systems oriented toward duty, consequence, and virtue. Simon recognizes that, as with anything, her lenses are limited, and she does not push them beyond their bounds.
But within those bounds, they are effective. They break down heated, gridlocked arguments, exposing core assumptions and priorities. Bringing Sex into Focus gives readers enough information to improve their own understanding of sexuality, as well as their understanding of traditional Catholic values, plain sex arguments, and other ideas. This book reignites my hope for community discussion, for it respects not only Simon’s two nineteen-year-old readers, but all groups invested in careful thinking about sexuality and its complications.