Recently, I read Lauren Winner’s honest, direct, and engaging book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, and personally, I cannot speak highly enough about the book; I read it in one sitting, if that says anything. For once, I actually believed that I was being spoken with candidly about the complexities of healthy, whole, and vibrant Christian sexuality, both within the context of single-living and marriage. For those of you who are looking to deal with this tough issue head-on or looking to find a little encouragement, I highly recommend that you pick up this book and read it today.
Winner herself is a Ph.D. in American religious history, and at the time she wrote her book, she was an active member of the Episcopal Church (I’m unsure where/how/if she worships now) and had just gotten married. Unfortunately, since the writing of the book, her marriage has dissolved, but the words of her book remain powerful and true as she appeals to the history of chastity as it is affirmed by “Christian scripture and tradition” (p. 20).
She begins the book by giving a brief overview of her own sexual past, and while she comes up less than spotless (as many of us do), she affirms:
…chastity is God’s very best for us. God created sex for marriage and that is where it belongs. (p. 15)
Winner’s affirmation here points to a key difference between her own ethos of Christian sexuality and the way that Christian sexuality is usually presented. Rather than simply offering contrived and spiritually irrelevant axioms such as, “Be patient. True love waits. Stay abstinent,” (these revolve around not doing this or that) Winner points to the positive behavior and discipline of chastity.
Winner, time and again, grounds her idea and promotion of chastity within the reality of Christian marriage, she writes:
…I realized that there was a good reason that Christian conversations about sex often circle back to marriage…What sits at the center of Christian sexual ethics is not…’no sex before marriage.’ Rather, the heart of the Christian story about sex is a vigorously positive statement: sex was created for marriage. (p.25)
Winner hearkens to the idea that a proper view of Christian sexuality must be held together with a true vision for Christian marriage, stating that chastity is a Christian virtue to which all Christians, married and unmarried, are called.
She speaks of the importance of community in the saving work of pursuing the discipline of chastity. Her chapter on this theme is daringly titled, “Communal Sex: Or, Or Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night.” Winner masterfully draws a beautiful necessity for Christians to talk about sex, understanding that as members of the Body, we are called to uphold one another in Christian chastity, again, both as married and unmarried people.
Throughout the rest of the text, she (quite wonderfully) dispels many of the pervasive myths that our society and churches tell about sexuality, and she offers rich alternatives for thought. I would include them here, but I am afraid that my “cliff notes” version would not do justice to her work. Her book ends with a few reflections on how, in her own life, she learned (and continues to learn) to practice chastity as a twenty-something; she does not tell a story of perfection, to be sure, but she does tell a tale that is full of struggle and desire for chastity.
Her chapter, “Chastity as Spiritual Discipline” was perhaps my favorite in the book since I found that here she spoke to issue at hand most clearly. She begins to draw on the matter of the Christian disciplines as grounds for practicing chastity, citing fasting as a similar, but clearly different, spiritual practice. She writes:
…the desire for sex is normal and natural, but many spiritual disciplines – the so-called disciplines of abstinence – center on refraining from something normal… [as] with all aspects of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something else for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of something else…for the sake of union with Christ’s Body. That union is the fruit of chastity. (p. 129)
She addresses many other issues of sexuality in the framework of pursuing chastity. Among these issues are: modesty and dress; pornography use; masturbation; and others. She frames these issues in terms of the soul/body connection, stating that practicing such behavior is considerably formative, and that while these things may not be so bad, they are quite destructive for the person who desires to be formed in the virtue of Christian chastity. She states that the things we choose to do with our bodies have lasting effects on how our souls and spirits are formed, and this affects the kind of persons we choose to become:
What we do with our bodies, what we do sexually, shapes our persons. How we comport ourselves sexually shapes who we are. (p. 50)
This understanding is perhaps the most valuable offering that Winner’s text makes. If one can begin to grasp this reality, then one can expect to begin to view their sexuality in a new light.
In the beginning of the book, she takes the reader through her theology of the body and sexuality, continually citing the scriptures as well as the fathers and mothers of the Church. By and large, her views of the body and spiritual formation hold closely to our own Orthodox understanding of the body, the soul, and the relationship between the two. There are, however, certain aspects of her text that are incomplete in our Orthodox understanding.
While Winner’s text is perhaps the most comprehensive on Christian chastity in the modern world, it falls short of being a complete text for Orthodox Christian readers. Her text is good, but in my reading, I found that it failed to ground itself in any particular Christian tradition. This is not necessarily a problem, per se, but it reflects one of the problems in the modern Christian world: we are able to accept the conclusions she draws only if we are able to agree with her hermeneutic and exegetical assumptions. If we disagree with her, we are likely to “throw out the baby with the bath water,” so to speak. By failing to ground her thoughts in any particular tradition, Winner misses out on the depth of spirituality that many traditions offer. Since this review is aimed at Orthodox readers, however, I will concentrate mostly on this tradition.
While she touches briefly on the nature of asceticism and the spiritual disciplines, she fails to grasp the riches that asceticism offers. She mentions that ascesis is training, but she doesn’t expound much further on the fact that such training is meant for the strengthening of the soul. She fails to see that asceticism, by its very nature, opens one up to the riches of the spiritual life. She does mention that abstinence (in its many forms) makes room for God to enter, but she fails to delineate the ways in which this opening up necessarily strengthens individuals for the respective crosses they must bear. She promotes the discipline of chastity as something that one must practice in order to make a clear and healthy transition into chaste marriage, mentioning that spiritually formative matters are inherent in chastity, but only briefly.
By missing out on these subtleties (of which I cannot speak adequately), she also misses out on the rich sacramental tradition of Orthodoxy vis-à-vis marriage. She speaks about the importance of the community within the promotion of pre-marital and marital chastity, but she fails to bring home the communal and transformative nature of the sacrament as such. She states that sex is for marriage with great clarity, however, she does not sufficiently discuss what marriage is for.
As Orthodox Christians, we believe that marriage is not only the safe haven in which one might explore and find healing for broken sexuality, but it also a means by which one is saved. The struggle of imperfect sexuality and the journey toward chastity is not an end in itself, as Winner (in some ways) seems to suggest, but they are the context within which we pursue a life in Christ and a vibrant spirituality. She promises to view Christian sexuality within the framework of marriage, however, by failing to consider fully what Christian marriage intends to produce, she falls short of providing a complete understanding of Christian sexuality and Christian chastity.
By and large, chastity, in Winner’s mind, is presented in terms of how it relates to sexuality. This is good, in as far as she goes, but again, it is incomplete. She rightly states that our sexuality is to be chaste, however, she seems to conflate Christian chastity with sexual virtue. In our Orthodox understanding, however, chastity is not primarily an issue of sexuality.
Chastity, for Orthodox Christians, is a state of wholeness of body, soul, spirit, mind, and will. As Orthodox Christians, we pursue chastity in order to bring ourselves to the Lord as whole persons, not as sexually disciplined individuals. Indeed, this is where Winner’s vision of asceticism and the sacramental life seems to fall short. She rightly states that sex is for marriage and that marriage is a sacrament to be administered in, by, and through the Body of Christ, but her view of chastity shapes her view of sexuality (and chastity itself) in an incomplete manner. We must not conflate our sexual discipline with chastity. Chastity is a matter of gathering the scattered parts of our personhood in order to render ourselves to the Lord in body, soul, spirit, mind, and will. Sexual discipline is one among many ingredients, albeit a key ingredient, to this re-gathering.
Still, I cannot help but promote this book as one that should be read by Christians since we all, in some way, have broken sexual lives. The Orthodox reader will be surprised by Winner’s charisma, humor, and candor. She presents a very good view of sexuality and chastity, but for anyone who wishes to find within it the riches of Orthodox spirituality, expect to be left wanting. If you, however, are looking for some sort of encouragement and active engagement with your own sexuality as you render it to the Lord, then this book will serve you greatly.
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