If you want your teenage daughter to avoid pregnancy (or your son to not get a girl pregnant), turn off the racy TV shows. If you want your teenager to abstain from sex until marriage, stay away from church. If the first suggestion makes sense and the second doesn’t, read on.
In 2001, Rand Corporation scientist Anita Chandra surveyed 2,003 teenaged boys and girls, asking how often they watched the raciest TV shows, including “Sex and the City” and “Friends.” She found that teens watching the raciest shows are twice as likely to become pregnant than those who watched few such programs.1 The reason is obvious – “That 70s Show” portrays sex outside of marriage as beautiful or attractive.
But why would you stay away from church? For seven years, researchers at Columbia and Yale University studied 12,000 churchgoing teens who took a pledge to wait until marriage before engaging in sex (a total of 2,400,000 teens took the pledge). In March 2004, they reported 88 percent of them had sexual intercourse before marriage – only 12% kept the pledge.2 “Evangelical teenagers don’t display just average sexual activity patterns, but rather above-average ones,” concluded Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, Austin.3 He says religion is a good indicator of beliefs about sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teens who identify themselves as evangelical. Regnerus reports that evangelical teens are more sexually active than other faiths and, on average, make their “sexual début” – to use the festive term of social-science researchers – shortly after turning sixteen.4 Why?
Modern media understands that sex is an appetite, which is half-right. Elizabeth D. Capaldi, a professor of psychology who studies the origins and development of appetites says humans are genetically programmed with a taste for sweetness.5 If parents can get the palate to associate vegetables with “tastes good,” the sweetness can be removed gradually and a vegetable will be appreciated on its own merits. But if parents say, “Eat your broccoli, it’s good for you,” teens will bag the broccoli for a bag of french fries the moment they get their license and can drive to McDonald’s. Appetites are won initially by beauty and gradually by truth. Many faith communities have this backwards.
These faith communities pound the pulpit for Truth with a capital T. But truth only engages our reason, and reason only shows how things are logical. Beauty engages our imagination, and imagination makes things plausible. Teens may say they believe what the Bible teaches; but if it doesn’t sync with the ideas, images, and institutions around them, truth becomes implausible – severing sexual behaviors from sexual beliefs.
Modern faith communities emphasize truth over beauty because they’ve drunk the Enlightenment Kool-Aid: “Education is the Answer.” If kids would only learn more Truth, Bible, “worldview,” and be more committed to Jesus, they’d fare better. C.S. Lewis would’ve said this is backwards. Before the Enlightenment, the church believed beauty and imagination preceded truth and reason. “It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning.6 For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Lewis believed “Thus Saith the Lord” was true but wasn’t necessarily plausible. Emphasizing truth over beauty means that teens “find historical religious traditions outdated, open to spontaneous alteration, or simply too challenging to adopt,” Regnerus writes.7 In fact, the single most important contributor to abstinence, he argues, is how “embedded” a teenager is in a network of friends, family, and institutions that offer a plausible alternative to America’s sexed-up culture.
Faith communities could offer a plausible alternative – we can tell a four-chapter story about sex as an appetite and an appetizer. In chapter one, our appetites were created by God to be governed by beauty and delight. “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever pleases him” (Ps. 115:3). We’re made in his image, so we do what we delight in. In chapter two, beauty and truth got banged up. Media portrays sex as beauty without truth – what’s known as license – so teens watching racy shows will be more sexually active than those who don’t. Many faith communities teach truth without beauty – what’s known as legalism – so churchgoing teens are more sexually active, since legalism increases the likelihood of sin (Rom. 5:20). We can tell a better story by starting with sex as an appetite and going through to chapter four – sex as an appetizer.
In the ancient “four chapter” gospel, the last chapter is eternity, or what is often called the consummation. This final state is absolutely mind-blowing yet beyond absolute description. So God created an absolutely mind-blowing sensation similar to the heavenly consummation – what we call an orgasm. Would teens find this to be a plausible explanation for why sex culminates with climax?
A healthy sexual appetite is an acquired taste. So is heaven, wrote C.S. Lewis.8 To acquire a taste for both, we might spend more time on beauty and then gradually bring in truth. A spoonful of sugar always helps the medicine go down.
1 PEDIATRICS Vol. 122 No. 5 November 2008, pp. 1047-1054
2 Lawrence K. Altman, “Study Finds That Teenage Virginity Pledges Are Rarely Kept,” The New York Times, March 10, 2004, A20.
3 Mark D. Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 205.
4 Margaret Talbot, “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teenagers become pregnant?” The New Yorker, November 3, 2008, p. 64.
5 Capaldi, Elizabeth D. (1996) Conditioned food preferences. In Capaldi, E.D. (Ed.) Why We Eat What We Eat: The Psychology of Eating (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association), pp. 53-82.
6 C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, Selected Literary Essays, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 265.
7 Regnerus, Forbidden, p. 14.
8 Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1966), p. 164.