The End is Near?

A new book out by Jenell Williams Paris is just hitting the bookshelves (or entering cyberspace for you to download on your iPad or Kindle). It is titled The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are (published by InterVarsity Press). Here’s how IVP describes the book:

Sexual identity has become an idol in both the culture at large and in the Christian subculture. And yet concepts like “gay” or “straight” are relatively recent developments in human history. We let ourselves be defined by socially constructed notions of sexual identity and sexual orientation–even though these may not be the only or best ways to think about sexuality.

I’ve already provided an endorsement:

It is exciting to me to read Christian scholars who take their faith and their discipline seriously. As a Christian and an anthropologist, Jenell Williams Paris does just that and applies her understanding to the challenging topic of sexual identity, drawing conclusions that, while controversial, warrant our attention and may lead the way to a more constructive conversation.

Paris offers up the thesis that sexual identity labels such as “gay” and “straight” (and “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality”) are relatively recent social constructions that have come to dominate so much of the discussion surrounding human sexuality. These social constructions have been used by the broader culture and by the Christian community in ways that keep all of us from a more meaningful discussion about what it means to be human beings (and sexual beings). Writing as a Christian, Paris brings that worldview into the discussion, so that sexuality is related to transcendent purposes but not through the labels with which we are most familiar.

Here are a few quotes I underlined:

Sexual identity is a Western, nineteenth-century formulation of what it means to be human. It’s grounded in a belief that the direction of one’s sexual desire is identity-constituting, earning each individual a label (gay, lesbian, straight, etc.) and social role. (p. 41)

Reproduction, family and religion have become optional components of sex … and sexuality has taken on new meaning as an essential force that exists not between persons but within each individual, one that is expected to provide personal identity and happiness. (p. 42)

Like heterosexuality, homosexuality is an idea that has a history. It may be quickly becoming history insfar as homosexual has been replaced by more specific terms such as lesbian, gay and bisexual. Newer categories, however, retain the premise that sexual feelings warrant a corresponding social identity. In this sense, all sexual identity categories have a common trouble: they tell us what a person wants, sexually, is an important measure of who a person is. (p. 57)

God created sexuality. People created sexual identity. (p. 75)

What will be most interesting to some readers is that Paris extends the discussion beyond deconstructing a gay identity into deconstructing a heterosexual identity as well. Most readers will not see that one coming, but I think many readers will conclude that she makes a good case for her position.

It is a quick read at only 144 pages. It has helpful discussion questions for a class or small group. Paris offers up a challenging thesis for all readers, and I hope that people will pick up a copy and begin to discuss it within the church and beyond.

2 thoughts on “The End is Near?

  1. Sarah Coakley, in the newest Christian Century (“Prayer as Crucible”), writes, “what if…sexual desire has to be dealt with alongside all these other desires, so that their ‘orientation’ is finally ordered to God? On such a view, the wholly modern (instrinsically secular?) categorization of hetero-, homo-, and bisexuality might fall into the background as distractions from this more urgent task.” She’s writing a systematic theology of sex and desire – I’m looking forward to reading it.

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