Review: Se x God

Rob Bell, Se x God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Se xuality and Spirituality, Zondervan, 2007 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

[My blog software filters out inappropriate words so I’ve misspelt or split words throughout this review.]

This book is everything the two books I reviewed yesterday are not. My main complaint then was that they presented an ethic without a bigger vision for se xuality and the glory of God. This is what Rob Bell does in Se x God. I have a few complaints (more of them later), but the result is fine treatment of the subject.

As the subtitle suggests, this book begins from the premise that se xuality is connected to spirituality. It means that the book can be viewed as an exploration of sexuality from the perspective of the gospel or as a presentation of the gospel through the window of se xuality.

The book moves broadly speaking from creation to fall to redemption to consummation.

So we start with human beings made in God’s image. ‘When I respect the image of God in others, I protect the image of God in me.’ (28) Or, stated negatively, when I treat people as se x objects, I dehumanize myself.

As a result of the fall, we are profoundly disconnected from God, from others, from creation. Se x is an attempt to re-connect. ‘Our se xuality is all the ways we go about trying to reconnect,’ says Bell (40) This allows him to assert that ‘some of the most se xual people I know are celibate’ because ‘they have chosen to give themselves to lots of people, to serve and give and connect their lives with beautiful worthy causes.’ (43) ‘You can be having se x with many, and yet be you’re alone. And the more se x you have, the more alone you are. And it’s possible to be sleeping alone, and celibate, and to be very se xual. Connected with many.’ (44)

Bell may be on to something here, but this argument requires more demonstration that Bell gives it. He bases it on some doubtful reasoning, arguing that the Latin word for se x (secare) means ‘to sever, to amputate, or to disconnect from the whole’. So se x is overcoming this disconnection. But the origin words do not determine their meaning – meaning is based on usage and can be remarkably fluid.

Bell argues we are not animals (driven by animal instin cts), but nor are we angels (without sexuality). He has a great way of connecting culture to Scripture so that the Bible speak to the reality of our lives. He highlights, for example the animal language we use to talk about relationships: ‘party animal’, ‘we attacked each other’, ‘she’s a tiger’, ‘basic instin ct’ (52). The Greeks, too, said we were just a collection of physical needs. Their adage was, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food’ – cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:13. So when a man was ‘hungry’, they argued, he could go to a prostit ute just as he might go to the larder when he was hungry. But in contrast the Bible says our bodies are a temple for God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). We are challenged to live for a purpose that is higher than basic urges. ‘The criticism of the “se x is for marriage” view is usually presented as the voice of realism. Are people capable of restraint? But it’s not realism. It’s the voice of despair. It’s the voice that asks, “Aren’t we all really just animals?”’ (54)

Chapter four continues Bell’s reflections on the fall with a focus on the way lust works:

‘L ust promises what it can’t deliver.’ (72)

‘L ust comes from a deep lack of satisfaction with life … L ust often starts with a thought somewhere in our head or hearts: “If I had that/him/her/it, then I’d be …”’ (73)

‘But when l ust has us in its grip, one of the first things to suffer is our appreciation for whatever it is we’re fixated on. The Scriptures call this “having lost all sensitivity.” [Ephesians 4:19]’ (76)

‘When our l usts get the best of us, they trap us. Whether it’s food, se x, shopping, whatever, what was supposed to fill the hole within us didn’t. It betrayed us. It owns us. And it always leaves us wanting more. And so we’re emptier, lonelier, hungrier, more depressed.’ (76-77)

‘L ust always wants more. Which is why l ust, over time, will always lead to despair. Which will always lead to anger … Sometimes it isn’t expressed on the outside because it turns inwards. That’s depression. When it goes outward, it will often affect what a person indulges in – darker and darker expressions of unfulfilled desire mixed with contempt. Is that how someone ends up at leather and whi ps?’ (78)

‘L ust promises what it can’t deliver.’ (78)

As Bell moves on to redemption, he parallels the risks and heartaches of love with the heartache of God at the infidelity of his people.

As with some of his other works, it is sad to see Bell hold back from a full exploration of the meaning of the cross when there was an opportunity for one, even a need for one. It is not that what he says is wrong; there is just a big hole in the middle of the book. He says, for example: ‘The cross is God’s way of saying, “I know what it’s like” … Our healing begins when we participate in the suffering of God.’ (106) This, let me suggest, might be a comfort to wronged or betrayed lovers, but it is not a comfort to those who contribute to relational breakdown. There is no promise here of freedom from guilt as Christ takes the penalty of our sin.

Bell then has a chapter entitled ‘Worth Dying For’ with the refrain ‘You are worth dying for’. (Does he hear the echo with L’Oréal’s slogan, ‘Because you’re worth it’?) The essential argument of the chapter is sound: people often give themselves se xually inappropriate ways because they feel the need for affirmation or to prove themselves. The gospel response to this is to recognise our status as children of God. ‘You don’t need a man by your side to validate you as a woman. You already are loved and valued.’ (123) But the refrain is all wrong. We are not worth dying for. Christ died for us out of sheer grace. The irony is that in this very chapter Bell recognises this: ‘Agape doesn’t love somebody because they’re worthy,’ he says (120). Weird!

The final two chapters present a vision for marriage and a vision for singleness. Marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with his people. Singleness is a pointer to the day when marriage will give way to the reality to which it is a temporary pointer. Singleness is a reminder that marriage is not ultimate: that ultimate fulfilment lies in knowing God.

‘We find s ex so powerful because it provides people with glimpses into the world we all desperately desire but can’t seem to create on our own. Which raises a few questions. If marriage has a purpose, to bring hope to the world, what happens when the world doesn’t need hope? … If sex is about connection, what happens when everybody is connected with everybody else? … Maybe that’s why the Scriptures are so ambivalent about whether a person is married. About whether a person is having s ex. Maybe Jesus knew what is coming and knew that whatever we experience here is pale compared with what awaits everyone.’ (167-168)

Coming soon

More of Rob Bell with a review of two Nooma videos, both featuring Bell on good form: Tomato (Nooma 22) purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US and Corner (Nooma 23) purchase from Amazon UK .

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2 thoughts on “Review: Se x God

  1. Thanks for this review, Tim.

    I hadn’t had time to read Bell’s book. Most of the reviews I came across were either completely negative or completely positive. Yours gave me a good idea of the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

  2. I do not have a specific comment about this review or the book, but I would like to communicate with Tim Chester about his book Good News to the Poor. My name is Smita Donthamsetty, and I work for Food for the Hungry and the Chalmers Center for Economic Development in the Dominican Republic. I have a question for Tim, if he has an opportunity to respond.

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