Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Book Review

As a marriage and family teacher, I am always looking for helpful resources on a biblical understanding of marriage, purity, and sex. That's why I was really excited when I learned about this new book by Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas, Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach.

I found myself saying "Yes!" out loud on a number of occasions as I read this book. And I could hardly put it down. Young people today are immersed in a faulty understanding of sex and relationships. The authors understand this and seek to counter that with more than what has been offered in the past. They say:

"Many Christian singles today lack a clear, biblical vision for sexual purity and relationships that extends beyond a truncated 'don't have sex' concept of purity" (11).

The entire book goes much farther than this age old mantra by first giving a biblical framework for our understanding of sex and purity, namely that God's plan for creating sex was to image the spiritual oneness between Christ and the Church (27). Everything God does relates to his image. He wants to be shown forth rightly in this world. And our responsibility as image bearers is to obey his commands. When we engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, we are actually telling a lie about our Creator we were made to image. And he owns the image, meaning he gets to tell us how he wants us to image him. This foundation profoundly shapes the way we talk about sex and purity with today's young people.

From there they talk about why the "how far?" question is insufficient, and then lay some principles for thinking through male/female relationships. Perhaps the most helpful thing they do is define biblically what those relationships are to be. The Bible only gives three categories for male/female relationships: family, neighbor, marriage. Only one of those relationships is permitted (and even commanded) to engage in sexual activity--the marriage relationship. This means that if you wouldn't do it with your neighbor or your brother or sister, you should not do it with your girlfriend or boyfriend. The question "how far is too far?" suddenly becomes irrelevant, or at least more serious. They provide some really helpful comments on the actual lack of commitment that comes with dating relationships, calling it a "mirage". While marriage is a covenant that should guarantee commitment, dating is not, and the other party is allowed to leave at any time with no real consequences, essentially exposing the real dangers inherent in a dating relationship. I found these distinctions extremely helpful in thinking through how I teach these things to my students.

Their chapters on a new definition of dating are sure to be the most controversial with people, but I think they are on to something. They propose a new category of relationships for singles called "dating friendships". These relationships are designed to be intentional in the same way others have talked about biblical dating, but the only difference is that the relationships also includes a level of romantic purity designed to protect both parties from becoming too emotionally attached too soon. Essentially, in a dating friendship both parties would grow as friends with their eye on marriage, but they would not view the other as uniquely there own until engagement. They take their cues from the relationship between Christ and the Church. He only has one Bride, one relationship, and one love, and that is his Church. Focusing on getting to know one another serves one purpose: is this person someone I could (and want to) marry? If so, the man proposes and the couple gets married. Our modern dating culture assumes that romance and dating (and sometimes sexual activity) is necessary for finding a spouse. But the authors present a very clear, albeit counter-cultural, approach that could save a lot of young people from unnecessary heartache. And I would imagine it would expedite a lot of weddings, too.

My only critique of the book was regarding their brief discussion regarding masturbation and other areas of the purity debate. They provide a helpful framework for thinking through such things, especially linking our actions to our motives and our heart. But at one point, in an attempt to encourage those who have stumbled into sexual sin, they say that we should not wallow in guilt over our failure in the area of lust and masturbation (123). While it is true that in Christ we are no longer guilty, and that guilt can be an unhealthy obstacle to joy in Christ and his finished work. Sometimes guilt is a good thing if it causes us to see hidden sin in our lives and drives us to repentance and faith. Especially in the arena of sexual purity there are some instances where the guilt is healthy and necessary for a person to begin the process of change. This section would have been served by such a clarification.

Overall, I loved this book. In fact, I'm thinking of using in my class this semester and at some point integrating it into my curriculum as required reading. It is counter-cultural, but if we are going to make any headway in this problem if sexual impurity in our churches we are going to need to do something radical, like go back to the Bible and see what God says. This is what the authors set out to do, and I think they do it very well. If you work with singles of all ages, this book is worth your time.

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