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On Friday, May 23, shortly before 22-year-old Elliot Rodger murdered six people in a California college town, he published a 138-page manifesto about his "dark and twisted" life, "an existence of loneliness and insignificance," all because women didn't appreciate his value. "I deserve the love of girls more than the other obnoxious boys of my age, and yet they get the girls and I don't. That is a crime that can never be forgotten, nor can it be forgiven." For this reason, he set out to "punish all females for depriving me of sex."
Earlier that same month, a male student at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington worked his way through a campus building during final exams, asking every female student he met if she would have sex with him. He didn't want to go home for summer break without getting some. These are just two examples of young men driven to extreme measures over sex. There are plenty more.
Women generally like sex well enough, but tend to be more driven by things relational. In a Huffington Post article titled, "How Disney Sabotaged Our Love Lives," Ashley Crouch and Joanna Hyatt lament that "navigating the path to romance often ends in hotel heartbreak." For this reason, they suggest shedding "soul mate ideology" for a more mature romantic success strategy of "generosity, sacrifice and conscious coupling." "[O]ur romantic futures should not be placed in the hands of blind chance," they write. "It is time we roll up our sleeves and shift our expectations from unattainable perfection to realistic romance. . . . We must understand that work in a relationship is a necessary key to success."
Clearly, this is a more socially workable strategy for fulfillment, but it still borders on the utilitarian. Surely, relational success between a man and a woman is more than a pragmatic arrangement by which two people negotiate an optimum pairing for getting their felt needs met.
Sex & the Gospel
Indeed, it was intended to be much more than that. Sex is about the gospel, say authors Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas. The two things are intrinsically linked. "In fact, to understand one is to make sense of the other," they write. "The good news of salvation is not simply that God has forgiven us, but that through our union with Christ we are born again into his very life—we have become sharers of his nature . . . irrevocably wed to the divine nature, and human marriage is a powerful picture, symbol, of this union." Because God is both personal and intentional, sex, like all of life, serves as a visible portrait of an invisible reality, and the married sexual relationship in particular serves "as a living portrait of the life-changing spiritual union that believers have with God through Christ."
Ditching the Dating Relationship
In Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach, the two pastors apply this theology of marriage and sex to the contemporary dating relationship paradigm. If you're looking for a biblically robust approach to sex and romance, it delivers. If you're looking for a set of dating relationship guidelines, something along the lines of, How far is too far? you won't find it here, at least not on those terms. That question is misguided, they say, and here's why:
The whole of the Bible presents us with three types of male-female relationships: (1) family relationships, (2) neighbor relationships, and (3) marriage relationships. The names may be arbitrary, but the categories are not. The point is, sexual boundaries become perfectly clear when we categorize our relationships this way. Sexual relations are prohibited in (1) and (2) and expected in (3).
The reason singles in sexually charged, romantic relationships stumble and get confused over How far is too far? is that this category of relationship—the dating relationship—is a modern construction. It's an unbiblical, historically novel subset of the neighbor relationship that has appropriated unto itself behaviors and expectations from the marriage relationship. Some sexual activity is expected, but exactly how much is left up to the individuals to figure out (or the couple to negotiate) for themselves.
But astute observers of history know that when people make up their own rules for ethics and morality, things don't go well. Hiestand and Thomas identify several adverse outcomes for singles seeking love within this paradigm. For one thing, manmade titles such as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" provide only illusory commitment. The construct too easily confuses feelings and attraction with love, which must be founded on commitment. Two people in a dating relationship are "committed" until one of them has a change of mind or feelings. Effectively, they're committed until, well, until they're not. But the illusion of commitment fosters a false sense of security that often leads to regrettable sexual expression and ends in hotel heartbreak. Perhaps even more detrimental is the inevitable way in which strong passions cloud each one's ability to think wisely about the other's suitability as a marriage partner, which leads to poor decisions regarding real commitment.
The Dating Friendship
For these reasons and others, Hiestand and Thomas recommend dispensing with the concept of "dating" as a category of relationship. Clearly, this is a radical restructuring of most singles' quest for love, but those who'll suffer the good pastors to make their case will find a clearly charted course that offers better chances for romantic success with minimal emotional pain. The suggested alternative approach is the dating friendship. In a dating friendship, two people still go on dates, but dating is an activity that they do, not a category of relationship they are in. They get to know one another, as friends in a "neighbor" relationship. Expectations and intentions are clear, sexualized complications are kept at bay, and any commitment to exclusivity is purely voluntary.
A dating friendship aims at something higher and more valuable than the ordinary dating relationship. The short-term objective is to explore the viability of marriage. The long-term goal is a flourishing, mutually satisfying, lifelong union. And it offers better chances of meeting that goal because, freed from sexualized, romantic distractions, the relationship has the opportunity to stand or fall on its own merit.
By no means, though, are these authors lacking in heart. There is a time and place for romance: "When the man knows for certain that he wants to marry the woman, he should spare no expense in securing her affection. He should buy her flowers, tell her how beautiful her hair looks in the light, take her out to a fancy dinner, and, most importantly, buy her a ring. In short, the time to bring on the romance is when you're ready to bring on the ring!" The man who does this emulates Christ's single-minded pursuit of his beloved by falling in love once and then being faithful. The woman who withholds her physical affections until he's proven his love this way proves she knows her worth and will not give herself away at a discount. In fact, with this understanding, both men and women on the quest can know their value, not because they have a "significant other" or get sex, but because they have been pursued and paid for by Christ.
Jean-Paul Sartre observed that no finite point has any meaning without an infinite reference point. To the extent that God and a theology of sex are removed from the picture, the contemporary paradigm reduces relationships to meaningless, anthropocentric arrangements about personal pleasure. Given the body count of the suffering or dead due to romantic angst, today is the day to reconnect with the transcendent reference point for sex. If the gospel is really true, then this is, in the truest sense of the word, realistic romance. •
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