Discover more from Not Peer Reviewed: By Laura Robinson
Beautiful Union, Which I Read, You Monsters: Part One
I'm going to review this book for as long as it takes
This is the first of a seven-part series. At the bottom of every post you can find a link to the next part. I’ll also provide a link to all parts here:
When the first chapter of Beautiful Union was released online, once the horrified laughter died down, some people who are much more capable, temperate, reasonable, and clever than I am took on the specific question of what exactly was wrong with this book. From the introduction, the book introduced some foundational problems: associating the “great mystery” of Ephesians 5 with sex, specifically, not marriage, coding men as “givers” in sex while women are “receivers,” the primacy of the male orgasm and ejaculate in the theology of the text, and the use of penile imagery to discuss salvation and atonement.
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The backlash came on, and we’ll get to that at a later date, but a lot of it centered around this specific concern: critics needed to read the entire book. Once we read the whole book, we would understand better.
Now, the obvious answer to this is that on the first day of the TGC article dropping, the introduction and first chapter were both available online. In this the primary method of the book, and a good example of this method in action, were clearly accessible to anyone who wanted to read them. One could make the educated guess that if the method and its first application were poor, the same thing would be true of the other fifteen chapters. However, apparently the naysayers (who have expressed minimal interest in defending this book’s argument), say this is insufficient.
And so, I am grimly proud to say I have read the entire book, and I can confirm that if you only read the first chapter and saw the problems with the argument there, the same problems are there through the rest of the text. And so this brings me to the business of reviewing this.
Prolegomena: What The Hell Am I Doing?
I am writing this extensive engagement with Beautiful Union for primarily one reason: so no one else feels obligated to read this book. If you are a theologian who engaged with the first chapter, who had questions about it, who’s felt concern about the backlash against the “mob” who said it was bad and wondered if we were getting the whole story, I am here to put those concerns to bed (heh) once and for all. The premise doesn’t work, and the premise is carried through through the whole text, though some sections are in fact weaker than others.
This probably sounds like I am gearing up to say this is the worst book ever written, and some of you are probably expecting (or hoping) that I’ll eviscerate every last line of this book like the Peter O’Toole character in Ratatouille. But I’m actually not. The most surprising thing about this book is that it’s mostly mediocre.
Most of this book is going to look boilerplate to anyone familiar with evangelical literature and preaching. There are a lot of examples, analogies, and personal stories. There are many extended asides and illustrations from music. The tone is casual and conversational - essentially, like a transcript of a contemporary evangelical sermon. The sexual ethic is utterly unsurprising (sex, in marriage, between a man and a woman). A fair amount of space is devoted to the relationship between God and the human, which is, to its credit, depicted in loving, intimate, covenantal terms.
(Of the sixteen chapters of this book, only three of them prominently and extensively feature semen. If TGC had released one of the other thirteen chapters as the teaser, this book probably could have gone all but ignored by the larger Christian community.)
But to return to the treatment of the relationship between God and humans in this text: the second most noticeable thing about this bookis that the tone is what you might call “nicecore evangelical.” The voice behind it is an affable conservative Christian who doesn’t have a pulpit to pound or a fire-and-brimstone message. There’s a lot of insistence on the love and care of God as a parent (which I do appreciate). There are large sections of this book that are all but indistinguishable from Rob Bell’s 2007 pop-theology-sex-book Sex God, except that the latter features more line breaks.
In keeping with its nicecore evangelical status, Beautiful Union is about as kind as it can be to queer people, given its commitment to marriage between heterosexual couples only. This is to say, it clears the low bar of assuming that gay people don’t choose to be gay and we shouldn’t call them slurs. I do not anticipate queer readers finding much comfort in this material, which is covered in ch 7. I am not entirely sure how to deal with this content because I just don’t see any possibility that the voices behind this text and I could ever come to an agreement on affirming queer people in the church.
This brings me to the uncomfortable question of whether or not this book is “harmful” or “abusive.” There are passages in this book that are in line with theology that does a tremendous amount of damage (ch 7, as I said above), and there are also passages that provide at best a limp bulwark against sexual abuse or exploitation even if minimizing or condoning abuse is not the intent (ch 1 on rape and sex work, the generosity/hospitality divide). I’m also not going to argue that this book is, in itself, “abusive.” “Abusive” is a word I usually reserve for actions or interpersonal behavior. Some theology is conducive to abuse or setting up abusive structures, but the line between that and “abusive language” is fairly blurry. My primary argument here is that the theology is, to use a less loaded term, just wrong. Wrong theology does harm, and we’ll draw attention to it when it shows up.
In this first article, I want to simply address what I claimed at the beginning of this article: that there is a foundational problem with the argument and method of this book that the rest of the text, however well-intentioned, is not able to overcome.
The argument of this book is that sex is an icon. By “icon,” the text means a physical object to which humans can look to for larger truths about God, salvation, and creation. This is fairly consistent with how John of Damascus described icons: material images that can make things visible or comprehensible to humanity. These images are not themselves worshipped, though they are paid appropriate honor, but point us to figures that deserve greater honor (Mary, the saints, the angels) or worship (Jesus, God).
An icon doesn’t have to be an image crafted by humans in John of Damascus’s writing. For John, an icon can be established by God to point to a later reality (e.g., the ark of the covenant points to Mary, who bore God in her body), or can be a literal person (Jesus as the image of the Father).
The license that the text takes to treat sex as an icon is from Eph 5:23-32
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
So we have two problems already. The first is that sex is not here treated as an image for Jesus and the church — marriage is. Marriage is more than sex. Beautiful Union feels very comfortable with the idea that “one flesh” primarily concerns sexual intimacy. It includes sexual intimacy, but it is not entirely summarized in it. The second is that the unity of Christ and the church here foregrounds the self-sacrificial love of Jesus for the church as the bride. The image is of sacrifice, not (God help me) the fun stuff Christ and the church get up to at night.
But let’s set this aside. Theology can come from fruitful places without express scriptural warrant. Let’s suppose we can treat sex as an icon - something that points to larger truths about humanity.
This would mean that we are now treating sex like a text - ie, like a piece of art or a painting. Icons are generally deliberately crafted by a human to elicit a certain response or to draw attention to a specific event or a figure. They have to be interpreted, using clues the author has given us and the general language of iconography. The author can draw attention to certain things, but ultimately interpretation lies with us and depends on the interpretive framework we bring with us.
As a Christian, I have no problem saying that sex is created by God, like paintings are created by painters. That statement is not objectionable to me. The problem is interpretation. What goes largely unacknowledged in this book is that to treat sex as a text, we have to interpret it, and all interpretation is perspectival.
First of all, since sex isn’t a book, the first act of the interpreter is to decide what exactly sex is. It’s obvious where books start and stop - they start on the first page and the end on the last. But what about sex? How do we define what exactly sex is?
This book does not actually set out to define sex, which would have been helpful, but generally the treatment assumes the following: Sex is a procreative act where a man has an orgasm and releases semen into a woman’s vagina. Sex has gone wrong or been distorted when procreation is not possible (infertility, a gay couple), it is partial and incomplete when the semen is blocked by a condom or a diaphragm (per the appendix on the book’s website), and it is for married relationships only.
We can already see the force of interpretation here. Even within BU’s conservative Christian framework, this is an arbitrary way to define sex. Is oral sex not sex? What about “pulling out?” What about a post-menopausal couple? This is a view of sex that prioritizes the young (wedding nights and honeymoons are prominently featured in ch. 1), and also one that, frankly, treats sex that men are most likely to have an orgasm from as “actual sex” (namely, penetration without a condom).
The second problem is that the use of sex as an icon is not consistent throughout this book. Even if we allow for the possibility that sex can point us to greater truths about creation, this argument is not sustained in the text. Sometimes greater truths about creation point us back to sex: ie, the color of a sunset is like an orgasm exploding across the sky (loc. 548). Creation reminds of us sex, which reminds us that sex is beautiful.
Sometimes sex reminds us of Jesus while Jesus reminds us of sex, as here, riffing on a paradoxical image from Augustine, the book treats Jesus’s death as an orgasm and the orgasm as signifying the unity of God and humanity.
It might be more accurate to say that this book doesn’t treat sex as an icon so much a it treats it as a hermeneutical key - sex interprets all of reality, and all of reality interprets sex. The problem here is twofold. First, as we have sex, if sex interprets all of reality, then sex itself needs to be interpreted in order to reveal reality. And it isn’t. The young male orgasm is treated without question as the self-evident view of sex. The second problem is that there are no interpretive limits placed on this paradigm. But this invites a second question: are there things that, perhaps, shouldn’t be used to interpret sex? Are there things that sex shouldn’t interpret? How would we know the difference?
The problem is the book doesn’t know the difference, and armed with some wildly defined words in Greek, Hebrew, and even English, gallops off to use sex as an interpretive key for reality, and reality as an interpretive key for sex, and in both cases, primarily means “men orgasming” as sex. This leads us to a lot of banal places (ie, beaches are beautiful), but also to some… less banal ones.
And that’s what we’ll get up to in the next review.
Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, I am going to refer to “the text,” or “the book,” not “Josh Butler,” throughout. Josh didn’t bring this book to print himself. The acknowledgements in this book are extensive. Like reproduction, the creation of a book is a process that involves more than one person, and this book clearly passed through the hands and ears of parishioners who heard it preached, friends who looked at it, editors who copyread it, sensitivity readers who screen it, as well as a variety of endorsers and marketers who brought this thing to print. This book is not one person’s doing. Both the highs and lows emerge from a variety of hands. In light of this, and to avoid saying anything prurient about Josh Butler the person (who I have no personal knowledge of, and have honestly been consistently impressed by since the original TGC article dropped), I will not attribute any claim of this book to Josh. I will refer only to the claims of “the text,” which includes the large number of people who brought this text into being with Josh.
This might seem like special pleading, since I frequently speak and write of other books as the product of their author. That is fair. However, I think in this case it is both the charitable and kind thing to do, and also draws appropriate to the long, long list of individuals from TCG, the Keller Center, and Multnomah who had a hand in this.