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The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are

Jenell Paris Williams
Published by IVP Books in 2011

I am grateful for the chance to respond to any book review, especially one as carefully considered as Stanton Jones’ review. In a time when arguments seem to have a shelf life of minutes, and respondents click “send” before they have digested that which they critique, words from a colleague who has taken the time to understand my book and craft his unique response are a gift, even if they convey hearty challenges. Because this response is brief, I will begin by wholeheartedly accepting Dr. Jones’ words of commendation, and turn straight away to his concerns.

The heart of his critique is that I am “unclear about moral boundaries,” specifically, that while I affirm sex within a marriage between a man and a woman as God’s best, I do not state a “defensible concrete moral teaching” such as “intimate same-sex sexual union is always sinful.” Additionally, I do not offer a set of behavioral guidelines for sexual purity.

This concern has been raised numerous times regarding The End of Sexual Identity, coming mostly from a particular demographic—religiously credentialed conservative men. (Please note this is neither an ad hominem attack nor personal prejudice, but a recognition that subject position influences perspective.) After a lifetime of being told to quiet down and submit to male authority, to be asked by conservative evangelical men to provide more moral and theological teaching … well, what a welcome surprise! While I cannot go back and add pages to my book, I can encourage other evangelical women to go ahead and offer more public teaching and moral leadership!

Perhaps, as Jones frames the matter, these critics want me to complete the professor’s task, emerging from deconstruction and critical thinking with some answers, not just endless speculation. Fair enough, but I wonder whether for some, this concern is also, at least partially, a call for positioning, to peg me within the very framework my book is devoted to disturbing, and to pre-determine the credibility of my other arguments.

Readers with high personal stakes – those who, before reading my book, were already loosening the hold of secular sexual identity categories on their lives – seem less concerned about my answer to what I refer to as the “bully question” (“is homosexuality a sin?”). Their own answers are consequential for their lives, but they seem to take my perspective as one more drop in a bucket of opinions they have collected. In fact, that readers of various theological viewpoints (affirming, negating, uncertain or apathetic about the morality of same-sex sexuality) are able to glean the book’s central message – the invitation to make sense of one’s sexuality in light of Jesus’ love, not society’s framework – is heartening.

Nonetheless, the question, “do you think homosexuality is a sin?” is a valid one in and of itself, as is understanding an author’s stance—an obvious point, perhaps, but one I have been slow to concede. When drafting the book, I wrote an entire chapter of exegesis and hermeneutics, defending the view that God’s best for sexual intimacy is a marriage between a man and a woman. I was disappointed with the chapter because its inclusion seemed to reinforce the notion that, when all else is said and done, it is really all about that one question. It certainly is appropriate to expect a Christian anthropologist to engage biblical scholarship intelligently (would that Bible and theology scholars were expected to do the same with anthropology!), but we do need a broadening of the discourse to include historical, psychological, cultural, and other inquiries as important in themselves, without reducing them to fodder for one side or the other in the extant polemical discourse regarding morality.

Upholding the moral question above all others may have made good sense in a different cultural era, one of relative Christian consensus regarding the moral priority of sex within marriage between a man and a woman. In such a world, Christians could use beliefs about homosexuality as a boundary mechanism, affirming insiders and marking outsiders (even as a kindness intended to lead to repentance). Beliefs about homosexuality served robust social functions that reinforced their theological gravitas. While this remains so within local communities, in the broader Christian public, the era of relative consensus has given way to the modern era of pluralism regarding sexual ethics. Christians of good faith disagree about the morality of homosexuality (not to mention pre-marital sex and divorce), so frameworks of discourse designed to foster theological and behavioral homogeneity, that once might have seemed strict but sensible, now seem passé to certain groups who no longer use those frameworks. It is not that Truth has shifted, but the social context in which humans seek after and speak of truth with one another has changed.

If I devoted my book, even just a significant portion of it, to arguing why the Bible forbids same-sex intimacy, I perhaps could win over some critics, but I would likely lose other audiences altogether, such as Christians who affirm the morality of homosexuality, and those for whom this question is not central. More than throw my weight behind one team mired in a tug-of-war, I want to help all players rewrite the rules of the game; namely, to pursue a higher good – holiness – in genuine Christian love and unity, even in the midst of differences of opinion about something as important as human sexuality. I wondered whether this may be a fool’s errand, but the groundswell response has been appreciation from believers who, more than wanting one more book either to confirm or agitate their moral point of view, want conceptual tools for rethinking the sexual identity impasse.

So I deleted that chapter altogether and wrote the entire book without ever stating what I believe about the morality of homosexuality. “Coy,” said a friend, “and not in a good way.” On the third try, the one published, I state my view later in the book, in a mild tone (“I’m a ‘sex-only-within-marriage-between-a-man-and-a-woman’ kind of Christian”). I explain my view but do not defend it at length, and do not require readers to agree in order to engage my line of thought further. This satisfied my need to stand up to the bully question, but also let readers know where I am coming from. I hoped to show, as much as tell, that there is still much productive conversation to be had together, even when Christians disagree about homosexuality.

Jones further critiques the book for its lack of “concreteness, immediacy and poignancy of the kinds of behavioral instructions that you find in Scripture itself, such as to ‘flee fornication.’” Indeed, my book does not contain a list of behavioral instructions for sexual morality; instead, I devote a chapter to an exposition of sexual holiness (the general concept of holiness, applied to sexuality), then use this concept in subsequent chapters to consider the complexities of sexual desire, sexual activity, and celibacy. In my view, holiness (living life centered in the love of Jesus) is a higher calling than morality (concrete behavioral instructions). The pursuit of holiness is concrete, immediate, and poignant, inviting each believer to follow Jesus truly from the heart, in concert with saints of today and the church of all time. I am saying nothing new here, and am glad to repeat the insights of Christians such as John Wesley who explained that morality may actually be a distraction from holiness when believers follow hard after some set of rules, doing the right things for the wrong reasons. While it is possible that my book could spark “endlessly inconclusive conversation about moral boundaries,” that would be a shame (and a tedious one!). My hope is that my book invites people to read the law written on their hearts, not simply to read my words on a page and ascribe undue authority to them.

If I thought the world needed Paris’ Moral Teachings, perhaps I would offer them, but liberal Christians would likely be uninterested, and conservatives already have too many voices of authority offering distraction from finding and following the Holy Spirit’s guidance in their hearts. Perhaps if I were writing to adolescents, I would be more didactic, but I think the level of adult discourse in many congregations needs to be raised to cultivate individual conscience and discipleship in community, not behavioral compliance with rules issued by earthly authorities.

While these matters of disagreement may remain so, I was glad to see Jones’ review conclude by touching on the very heart of the matter—to what extent can we live beyond or without extant cultural categories, and to what extent are we bound to them, and thus called to the work of transformation? Recognizing the cultural contingency of sexual identity categories inspires some people to abandon the categories, and even the notion of sexuality identity altogether, living with unlabeled sexuality. For others, affiliating with a category can be an essential step toward living in the light, taking an honest and recognizable place in society’s sexual identity schema. Either way, the point is to see culture and discern its influence, and to let God’s love be the light by which we view our sexuality, not our sexuality being the light by which we see the rest of life.

Cite this article
Jenell Paris, “Response to Stanton Jones’ Review of The End of Sexual Identity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:3 , 305-308

Jenell Paris

Messiah University
Jenell Paris, Ph.D., is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Messiah University in Grantham, PA.