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Can we talk?

Some Christians are bringing a most private matter way out into the open

Can we talk?

(Mark Driscoll (Associated Press/Photo by Scott Cohen))

It's beautiful, it's essential, it's earthy, delicious, funny, filthy. It's enormously powerful, yet easily crushed. It can be done in less than a minute, yet consumes lifetimes. It can drive one narcissistically inward or fling one gloriously out. It's generation and completion, also shame and bondage. It starts with s and ends with x.

And as the kids say these days, it's complicated. Meaning, let's not talk about it.

But of course we have to. That was determined in the '50s and accelerated in the '60s. Ever since, we've talked about sex incessantly, both how-tos and why-nots. And even thou-shalts, as sanctified guides like Intended for Pleasure reassured Christians that God created sex to be enjoyed in the proper context, and there need be no hindrance to mutual satisfaction.

The discussion once confined between book covers is now thundering from pulpits. Catholic couples flock to "Theology of the Body" retreats conducted by Christopher West, whose enthusiasm for John Paul II's monograph have led him to make intemperate statements. For instance, on ABC's Nightline a few weeks ago, West claimed a kinship of sorts between His Holiness and Hugh Hefner. Together, the saint and the sinner "rescued" sex from Victorians and prudes. "I love Hugh Hefner. I really do . . . I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself." That's nice-although Hefner could have found a better outlet for his longing than mainstreaming pornography.

Among the evangelicals, Mark Driscoll's expositions of the Song of Solomon, online and in person, have drawn praise and groans. Driscoll also was featured on a recent Nightline interview, where he was asked, "There seem to be two lightning-rod topics when people talk about Mark Driscoll: sex and Jesus. Is that fair?"

"I like both. For the record-sex with my wife, and I dig Jesus. Absolutely." This alone doesn't shed much light on either subject, although the pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church has been accused of shedding too much light on Solomon's Song, ripping the veil from metaphors that should be left to private interpretation or modest exegesis.

Catholic critiques of Christopher West center around his carelessness with a loaded weapon: In his zeal to restore married sex to paradisiacal ecstasy, he fails to take into account the effects of original sin. Protestant concern about Driscoll and others is two-pronged: One, they are needlessly graphic about a subject where the Bible is frank but generic. And two, excessive focus on such an evocative topic is bound to draw attention away from Christ.

In fairness to Driscoll, he digs Jesus in a big way and has led many questioning souls to Him. Still, need the poetic images of Song of Solomon be interpreted as specific acts, with recommendations? Should Christian women describe on websites what they do with their husbands, and advise other men on how to pleasure their wives? Is it necessarily prudish to ask that private matters be discussed privately?

The subject is complicated because we're complicated. And sex will always be tangled and touchy, no matter how frank the talk. The weapon was not loaded when God first handed it to us with a blessing: "Be fruitful and multiply." But the first effect of the fall was shame, and though great sex in a good marriage may temporarily get us back to the garden, we take our brokenness with us. Even a good marriage has its difficult stretches, when encouraging a sense of entitlement in one spouse may foster guilt or resentment in the other. And what about the singles, the divorced, the separated? To return to Solomon, there is a time for every purpose under heaven, and that may include a time to bank the fires.

Getting back to the garden is a false goal; that way was barred long ago. Instead, in whatever state we find ourselves, we are "straining forward to what lies ahead" (Philippians 3:13), where all our brokenness will be fixed-by something other than great sex.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to