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Does Sex Point Us to the Good, Unlock the True, and (Sort of) Explain Everything?
A Review of Beautiful Union by Joshua Ryan Butler
Before you read this article, I want to give you a heads up that this article is about a book that mishandled the subject of sex quite badly, and in order to help others discern whether or not they want to read the book for themselves, I will need to allude to some of the language and themes from that book. Sex can be an uncomfortable subject for many reasons and therefore this might not be the article for you. The good news is that GCD published an article of mine last week on the subject of Preaching, so if this article isn’t your cup of tea, here’s a link to that article:
About a month ago, Twitter exploded. This time it wasn’t Musk, Dogecoin, or the latest partisan news story, but rather an article published over at the Gospel Coalition. The article was problematic for a number of reasons, but the quote that really took off was:
“At a deeper level, generosity is giving not just your resources but your very self. And what deeper form of self-giving is there than sexual union where the husband pours out his very presence not only upon but within his wife?”
The author would then compare this to Christ and the church, saying that Jesus “penetrates the church with the generative seed of his word,” and that was about enough for people from across the theological and cultural spectrum to come together and ask for the article to be removed. An apology followed shortly after. Sadly, there were a few more factors that made the article more problematic still:
The article was based upon an upcoming book—the one we’ll be looking at today—that had been endorsed by a number of TGC contributors who later admitted they had not read the book in full.
The author was a member of the newly formed Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, and therefore this wasn’t a rogue opinion piece that had accidentally made its way onto the site but had been given the okay at a much higher level.
The article echoed various elements of what has come to be known as purity culture1, which has been prominent since the early 2000s, though it has been criticised heavily in recent years.
With that said, like many others, I wanted to reserve judgement until such a time as I could read the book for myself. As uncomfortable as I had been with the contents of the article, it was important to give the author, Joshua Ryan Butler, a fair hearing and understand where he was coming from. The truth is that sex is a difficult subject to tackle, and I’m not convinced anyone could do so without making some mistakes along the way. We do need books about sex though, sex is a gift from God and that deserves to be explored. The Bible uses “sexual” language, and that needs thorough and careful exposition. My sincere hope was that I would read the book, agree in part, disagree in part, but would go away with a greater understanding of why the book was published.
Then I read the book.
The Bottom Line
“Beautiful Union” was uncomfortable to read. I had to put it down on a number of occasions and to be frank, parts of the book were atrocious. I will clarify here that having read the book I don’t think ill of Butler, his writing exudes positivity, and I’m sure if I met him in person he’d be very hard not to get along with. That doesn’t change the fact that for various reasons, which we’ll get into, there are no circumstances under which I would ever recommend this book.
In fact, I don’t know how this book made it to publication.
Before I even get onto sex (something I never thought I’d write) there are various points at which Butler makes what I would call “flippant remarks” that I’ve been unable to wrap my head around. For instance, Butler tees up one chapter by saying:
“I’m not too worried about a terrorist attack right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon while writing this. My hometown’s relatively small in population, influence, and wealth. On the national scene, we’re small potatoes, sorry Portland, unless Al-Qaeda’s got a thing against hipsters.”
Butler also repeatedly uses sexual terminology or phrases either out of the blue or out of context. I can’t tell whether these were meant to be jokes, or somehow tie into the overall theme, but it just happens all over the place. On one occasion he compares Jesus’ words in John 8:44 “You are of your Father the devil” to Jesus asking “Who’s your daddy?” and going on to explain that if you’re a Christian, your “Daddy” is God. Using a phrase like this goes beyond unnecessary to being audaciously irreverent. I cannot believe no one flagged this as inappropriate, and if not, then more honesty is sorely needed at crucial points in the publishing process.
The example that shocked me the most was during a chapter in which Butler was trying to prove one of the points in the subtitle of the book; that sex (sort of) explains everything. He did this by talking about natural phenomena, and then relating them to sex, alongside other religious examples, like comparing baptismal pools to vulvas, even giving various examples of times of genitalia were built into the designs of pulpits and church architecture. He says at one point:
“Sunset and sunrise are spellbinding, something mesmerising happens in that magical moment when day and night meet up for their twice daily trist. The colours of their union explode through the atmosphere. I’ve come to think of this radiant explosion as something like an orgasm across the sky, an expression of holy delight…”
The problem here isn’t that Butler used sexual language, that would be necessary in a book about sex, but the volume of unwise language exceeded the necessary and acceptable limits. This is but a side note, however, compared to the larger issues in the book.
Poisoning the Water Tank
When talking about theology, it is incredibly important to make oneself understandable, and therefore a speaker or writer has to use examples, illustrations, and even cultural references to some extent. I’ve heard people argue against this, but I think for the most part people accept this as a given. What isn’t okay when teaching theology is backing up your claims primarily by using extra-biblical examples. Think of it this way. Imagine you want to start gardening, so you go out and purchase a water tank. The idea is that over time rainwater will fill the tank, and then when you’re gardening you’ll have a ready supply of water to feed the plants with. What if instead, you decided, to place the tank in your kitchen? On day one you throw in the remains of a coffee and wash basin, and the next day some leftover food, eventually you begin to throw all manner of detritus into the water tank before deciding, “today is the day, lets water some plants.” You turn the tap and some murky water comes out maybe, but nothing you’d be happy to feed the roses with, and pretty soon it gets clogged up with some beans from sometime last week. When our theology is based primarily on anything other than the Bible, as much as it may look like we’re filling up our tank, what we’re really doing is causing issues for ourselves down the line. That, as I see it, is the primary issue “Beautiful Union” faces. So much was poured into the tank early on in the book that it poisoned the water, meaning that later on when Butler tried to draw inferences and practical pastoral advice from the tap, the water had become “murky”.
Butler leans heavily on examples like:
Yin & Yang
Indigenous/Native American Creationism2
A Pagan Idol
The previously mentioned cosmic orgasm
Bad Explanations of the Trinity (i.e. The Trinity is like a Chord = three notes and one harmony)
For instance, at various points, Butler’s social trinitarianism plays a big role, but I have to hope that even others who hold similar positions would be uncomfortable with utilising any of his later advice because of the source. In chapter three, where Butler lays the foundation for later inferences, his argument rests not on scripture, but on the example of a pagan idol Butler once saw in the house of a host family, one he took to be an “icon” of the Trinity. To be clear, this wasn’t a small part of the chapter, I haven’t blown this out of proportion, when Butler refers back to this later he makes it explicitly clear how important this is, “Family is an icon of the trinity, remember chapter three with the african statue.4”
That word, “Icon,” also shows up repeatedly throughout the book, which Butler takes to mean anything that we can look through in order to see truth, and ultimately God. This word is applied so liberally throughout though that it felt like Butler was more keen to see God through creation than through scripture, which explains his overuse of extra-biblical sources for his understanding of theology. Furthermore, given that he relates almost every good thing, every icon, back to sex in some way, it is no wonder why he truly believes that sex points us to the good, unlocks the true, and (sort of) explains everything. Sex, from Butler’s perspective, is the ultimate icon.
It also explains why the original article that started the explosion was written the way it was. Whilst I’d hoped otherwise, what this book has made clear is that the article wasn’t a fluke accident as a result of momentary poor judgement, but foul fruit grown in murky water. An overemphasis on sex built on theology drawing from all manner of religion, mythology, and paganism, with some scripture mixed in was never going to produce anything other than the article we got.
Your Fault, Not Mine
Finally, Butler frequently says things like, “we might think this language is vulgar or crass, but this just says more about us than about sex,” which just sounds like, “Yeah, I went there, but if you’re struggling with it, that’s your problem, be more mature.” For many of us who have been through sexual abuse, or misuse, or still have a complicated relationship with sex for various reasons, this is about as far from pastoral as it gets. This extends further to pigeon-holing certain sins as particularly male, or habits as typically female, sometimes even against what statistics would tell us. I’ve spoken about this before, so I won’t go into this in great detail, but there were times this book left me hurting and beaten down because of the way Butler chose to characterise men and women. In addition, Butler seemed at points to give up on Biblical sexual ethics altogether, especially when he explained the sexual union of two people is essentially theology, regardless of marriage. He did this using a depiction of two teenagers, who, for some reason, are your parents.
“When Mom and Dad snuck into Mr Wilson’s science classroom after hours they weren’t just experimenting with biology but theology, God was the master chemist, concocting an explosive mixture, and when the smoke cleared, you were the result revealed on the lab table.”
I have thought a lot about how to end this article, or even whether I should publish it at all. I don’t like being this negative here at the Raven’s Writing Desk, and I’ve only done so on a few occasions, but I think it is important that we talk about what to do next.
The first thing to do is breathe and take a moment to remember that Joshua Butler is not the enemy, and neither is TGC. We have all made mistakes, I’m sure I’ve even written mistakes, but they don’t usually make the headlines. TGC is still a great organisation, even if they do make mistakes, unfortunately, there are humans working there and so it will never be perfect. In addition, those people who endorsed the book are not bad people either, though I think they should be more careful about the books they choose to endorse. Just because a handful of Calvinist complementarians did something unwise, doesn’t make all Calvinist complementarians, or Calvinist or complementarian theology wrong—after all, I’m one too.
Secondly, though this book didn’t get it right, culture is singing a far darker song right now and it is a catchy tune. We need to move along swiftly from this and onto a more positive example of the biblical sexual ethic, there is plenty of it out there and it needn’t be a sticking point for us. One thing that Butler got right was that sex is a gift from God, and we need to treat it that way—as with all of God’s gifts, it is only a gift, it isn’t God. Sex doesn’t explain everything, it often doesn’t point to “the good”, and it isn’t a source of truth, only God is. Let’s not shy away from conversations about sex, but also, let’s not follow the world’s way of thinking that sex is everything.
Finally, we should pray. Pray for marriages. Pray for our Churches. Pray for the Singles among us. We need to pray far more than we do—and certainly pray more than we tweet.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
Apologies if this isn’t the correct terminology, I am British and this isn’t a subject or culture I’m overly familiar with.
For more on this: https://credomag.com/2021/09/since-when-did-the-trinity-go-social-craig-carter-and-matthew-barrett/
(from Chapter 12)