Anne Krabill Hershberger is editor of the second edition of Sexuality: God’s Gift (Herald Press, 2010). In July, she spoke to John Longhurst of Mennonite Publishing Network about why it’s hard for Christians to talk about sexuality, and about the nature of true intimacy.
Longhurst: Sexuality: God’s Gift first came out in 1999. What is the difference between then and today?
Hershberger: Some things have not changed: Christians still struggle with the place and meaning of sexuality. But other things have changed. Unhealthy sexual attitudes and behaviours are even more pervasive and evident in all aspects of our culture today: the media, movies, ads, books, music, Internet.
While we all have to deal with these messages, young people are under particular pressure when it comes to sexuality—things like the “hook up” culture, which promotes the idea of engaging in sexual activity without any emotional attachment or sense of commitment.
Then there is the idea of living together before, or instead of, marriage. That is not new, but it is more prevalent today, including among Christians. If you love each other, why not live together, especially if you plan to be married? As it turns out, cohabitation outside of marriage has not proven to lead to more stable lives and has hurt many. In fact, the divorce rate is higher among those who cohabit before marrying than among those who marry first. There is no such thing as a “trial marriage.”
We promote the idea that [heterosexual] marriage is a prerequisite for sexual activity. That is an old-fashioned view for many today. But we believe it is important, even if that is very different from what many others are saying today about the search for true intimacy.
Longhurst: What is true intimacy?
Hershberger: True intimacy is loving and showing concern for the other person, being faithful and true, communicating with each other, showing affection—not just meeting the urges of the physical body whenever and however we want. It is an intimacy based on friendship, respect, acceptance, equality, trust, shared values and commitment. It is non-exploitive, and it takes time to develop.
Longhurst: Why is it important for Christians to talk about sexuality?
Hershberger: I think it is important to have a countercultural response to the constant bombardment of fake messages about sexuality. But how can the church be countercultural in the area of sexuality if we do not talk about it? If we do not talk about it, we cannot help youth and each other develop healthy Christian perspectives on sexuality, perspectives that counter the inappropriate messages coming at us from society today.
Longhurst: Why is it hard to talk about sexuality in church?
Hershberger: It is very personal and therefore uncomfortable to discuss, for one thing. For another, we have few models for how to talk about it. That is why this book exists. We want to provide a model for churches to use.
The other reason it is hard to talk about is because we are afraid of the topic of homosexuality—a subject that often comes up when we talk about sexuality. Although it is a very small part of all the areas of sexuality that need our attention, it is very divisive in the church.
Longhurst: What is the book’s approach to that subject?
Hershberger: Our approach is to try to set the stage for reasonable and helpful conversation. The book promotes taking a Christ-like stance of humility, sensitivity and compassion. There is still much we do not know about this issue, but what we do know is that it is a sensitive subject, and that so many of our brothers and sisters have been badly hurt by some existing attitudes and behaviours.
Longhurst: What is different in this new edition of the book?
Hershberger: The new edition looks at sexuality across the lifespan, from childhood through aging. It is a mistake to think that this is a subject only for youth; it is an important topic for older adults, too. People are living longer and healthier into old age today. So while there are new chapters on sexuality and children, adolescents and aging, we also have new chapters on singleness and grief.
Unfortunately, we also felt the need to enlarge the sections on pornography and sexually transmitted infections, and on sexual addiction and sexual abuse of children.
Longhurst: Any final thoughts?
Hershberger: We live in a culture that is obsessed with sex. We are bombarded by messages about sex and sexuality everywhere we turn. Yet most of the messages miss the point of what is truly healthy and wholesome about our sexuality. They equate our genuine need for intimacy with sexual intercourse. This has caused massive confusion and heartache for many people.
This book makes the case that the two are linked, but are not synonymous. True intimacy needs to be experienced by everyone at every stage of life; sexual intercourse may never be a part of it. The key is to know that we matter to another human being.