In his recent and remarkable book, Biblical Critical Theory, theologian Christopher Watkin points out how often our thinking falls into false dichotomies. Humans are either animals or gods; the planet is either progressing toward utopia or doomed to catastrophe; sex is either no big deal or our whole identity. Back and forth the cultural pendulum swings, never considering that there may be another option: a story that transcends these dichotomies and makes better sense of the way the world is.
Sex in particular has been subject to ideological extremes. For most of my lifetime, pop culture has followed the maxim that “sex sells.” So, scantily clad women have been used to market everything from cars and football to movies and music. Beer companies often took the lead, featuring provocative models in swimsuits unabashedly pandering to the lust of their predominantly male customers.
The pendulum seems to have swung the other direction, though the undisguised profit motive remains. For example, Miller Lite’s messaging has done a 180. In a new ad, the beer company chose to appeal to faddish feminist sensibilities. In it, actress Ilana Glazer indignantly tears down beer ads featuring women in bikinis while announcing that Miller Lite is now a champion of women’s dignity and women brewers. The company is doing the right thing and, to quote David Spade from Tommy Boy, “in just a shade under a decade, too … Alright!”
If it weren’t laced with profanity, I could get behind this new direction. I fully support any move away from cynically exploiting women for marketing, whatever the motive. Unlike Bud Light’s recent, disastrous choice to feature transgender actor Dylan Mulvaney (a man) on its cans, Miller is at least gesturing toward an ideal that companies should sell products, not objectify people.
However, here’s where another cultural false dichotomy complicates things. Glazer and the executives at Miller would no doubt say they support abortion, so-called same-sex marriage, transgender identity, sexual liberation, and a whole host of other ideas that have now replaced the “sex sells” mentality of years past. But these still objectify, dehumanize, and exploit women. The pendulum has swung from one misguided extreme to another.
There is a better vision for sexuality that transcends the exploitation of women’s bodies on one hand or the denial of their existence on the other. That alternative was recently on display in a surprising place. Christian pro-life activist Lila Rose appeared on the dating talk podcast Whatever, which boasts over 4 million subscribers on YouTube. She was joined by a colorful assortment of guests, including a self-proclaimed pickup artist and several women who have made careers selling pictures of their bodies online.
Typically, the format of the podcast involves the men shaming the women for their promiscuous behavior, which, of course, the men also engage in. Lila threw both sides for a loop by describing a Christian view of the sexes in which men and women have “equal dignity” and in which sexual relationships are not only about pleasure but also about “procreation and the ability to bring life into the world.” All of this, she added, is designed to occur “within marriage,” “a lifelong, public commitment” to one’s spouse, a commitment which, as she rightly pointed out, social science demonstrates to be the most fulfilling and stable type of sexual relationship.
The other guests on the podcast seemed mystified. One of the men dismissed Lila as “annoying” and “a goody-two-shoes” after she challenged him to exercise self-control and commit himself faithfully to one woman. She may not have converted any of the other guests, but if the reaction online is any indication, she made a lasting impression on a lot of people.
Lila did what every Christian should do in a culture captivated by false dichotomies. She painted a better vision of anything currently on offer. She pointed to an alternative in which men and women are not at war with one another but in harmony, an alternative characterized by self-giving and life-affirming love, not lust or an attempt to eliminate sexual difference.
Even if the world has forgotten this option in its reckless swings from one false extreme to another, God still calls us to reject these distortions and make the case for something better, and not to sell beer or win subscribers but to point people to the One who made the world that way. After all, a life lived in light of this truth can be a far more effective advertisement than anything a beer company produces.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.