If you grew up in the evangelical church around the turn of the century, you’ll remember the culture war every Sunday school teacher and homeschool mother agonized over. With much in the world to cause anxiety, somehow one issue invariably dominated all moral lessons.
Schools were slipping condoms on bananas, Hollywood felt less need to show restraint, and the Internet ushered in pornography alongside the newly-ubiquitous email. What were good Christian parents and responsible youth leaders to do?
And so came the onslaught. We all wore purity rings, pretended to believe that “modest is hottest,” and kissed dating goodbye. We avoided co-ed parties and guarded our hearts. The church was not silent when it came to talking to kids about sex. In fact, it was loud. Despite this, author Mo Isom argues that there were a few bedroom conversations the church should have framed differently.
Several years ago, a blog post went viral which detailed a Christian’s regret at choosing abstinence due to disappointing sexual experiences with her spouse. This person’s story, along with the massive number of people who related to it, convinced Isom that it was time to share her own story.
The Making of a Sexually Experienced Virgin
Isom was your average youngest child of a comfortable, middle-class Christian family. She took an abstinence pledge and had a mother unembarrassed to have “the talk,” who prioritized communication. But at the age of eight, Isom accidentally stumbled across some of her dad’s pornography. This ushered in a complicated contradiction of attitudes regarding sex. Despite a dogged commitment to abstinence, Isom also began experimenting with as many sexual acts as she could perform without fully going “all the way.”
It has given her the unique perspective as both a self-described “vain virgin” who wore her chastity as a token of moral superiority, and a “promiscuous compromiser” who became hooked on porn and fooled around with a succession of whatever men she found useful—including, once, a married one. The confusion, guilt, and false expectations were so overwhelming that by the time Isom was married, sex with her husband did not come easily. She spent the first four nights of her honeymoon in tears.
In Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot, Isom speaks candidly about her own chaotic sexual past. She calls out both the church and mainstream culture for feeding into unhealthy perspectives on sex. But unlike the viral blog post that motivated her, Isom insists that, despite some well-intentioned missteps, the church’s perspectives on sex and abstinence were, in fact, the correct ones.
Instead of wishing the church had held different conversations, Isom wishes they’d approached those conversations differently.
“All the church talked about was not having sex, always boxing sex into the confines of dos and don’ts, rights and wrongs,” she writes. “We’ve forgotten to celebrate sex as an incredible gift given to us by God and instead have solely preached against the symptoms, forgetting to address the root of it all.”
A passionate writer, Isom devotes a large portion of her book to accusing both the pornography and entertainment industries for awakening unnecessary desires, and insists that an integral step to fixing temptation is for people to guard their eyes. If such arguments sound familiar, you may be remembering them from youth group conferences or Christian bestseller lists. So what was it, then, that the church—as Isom’s title claims—forgot?
Pursuing Desires That Should Be Awakened
Isom urges the church to get back to the why of sex. What is God’s design for sex? What makes that design so beautiful? How do faith and sex work together? In order to address these topics, she argues that we also have to discuss other tangential issues, like self-worth, sexual desire, trust in God, modesty, judgmental behavior, shame, and more. While such issues may have been the focus of a Bible study or two, Isom believes the church needs to make a greater effort to show how these tangential issues also connect to our sexual identity.
Most importantly, Isom urges the church to preach purity more than virginity. She describes purity as “The deeper, wider, broader heart condition that God actually cares about. Purity that stretches beyond our sexual choices and encompasses every facet of our lives.”
Isom uses her personal story as a backdrop to give the church renewed motivation when approaching these difficult topics. She insists it is not enough to simply tell people to follow God’s rules; rather, we must help them desire to follow God’s rules.
“We need to know the whys at the root of our wandering,” she writes. “We need to know the cause at the core of our temptation. We need to hear more than ‘do this, don’t do that.’ We need to know why it matters to listen and obey in the first place . . . Sexual understanding, above all things, is not simply about behavior modification, it’s about heart transformation.”
Cover image by Debby Hudson.