Sex and drugs and 20th Century linguistic theory

I had a big conversation with Trav today on the whole sex-before-marriage thing. Oddly, given my “Go on, prove it to me” post yesterday, I think I came out defending the traditional position, although perhaps not as assuredly as nayf or Richard did.

The comments said broadly what I’d expected them to, but didn’t really touch on what I’d hoped might be brought up; I’ll get to that in a minute. First off, there’s the interesting side-issue (although it perhaps relates more closely to the point I want to make than the other comments do) of Rob’s comment:

I always thought that adultery meant sex outside marriage, so sex to someone you’re not married to. Hence ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ seems fairly clear.

Interestingly, as I understand it, marriage in the Old Testament (where the “Thou Shalt Nots” can mainly be found) was almost an issue of property law: adultery wasn’t a crime of infidelity or immorality, but was taken to mean the act of stealing another man’s wife. Thus, it didn’t address the idea of sex outside of marriage per se, only that of taking that which does not belong to you. And yet today to define the idea of adultery in any other way than any infidelity within a marriage relationship is inconceivable to most people. From this, then, I would suggest that the idea of adultery as presented in the OT, then, isn’t especially helpful in this conversation. But what it does do is neatly lead us on to what I think is the central point (of this and so much other doctrinal conflict around at the moment) – that of language, culture and context.

The thing is – as Richard and Nayf sort of touched on in the comments – is that the ideas of sex and marriage were inextricably bound together in the Biblical mindset. The way I understand it is that it wasn’t a case of talking about “sex outside of marriage” in the way we do today; linguistically and culturally the ideas didn’t make sense apart from each other. And thus to look to the Bible for a definitive statemented answer on this one is pointless, as the cultural definition of both sex and marriage has changed almost out of recognition since the Bible was written. The commands about sexual immorality are clear enough – but what constitutes morality other than the prevailing culture? (and if you’re still at the point of thinking about moral absolutes, please go back and read the preceding paragraph about adultery again)

The challenge, therefore, is to establish (in the absence of any clear guidance) whether the lack of reference to the issue is because it is simply a cultural issue and therefore does not warrant a mention, or whether it is supposed to be an implicitly supposed and accepted idea – and if it is the former, what are we supposed to do about it within our present context?

For what it’s worth, and for those who might be getting concerned about the state of my soul, I’m far from advocating sex before or outside of marriage (much as I may wish I were allowed to 🙂 – but in my efforts to reassess the Bible contextually, this issue forces itself up for consideration and in the interests of honesty and all that lot I’ll confess it’s something I’m not 100% clear on right now.

4 Responses to “Sex and drugs and 20th Century linguistic theory”

  1. nayf says:

    Well, I think here we have different views on the Bible generally 🙂 One thing I would say is that the Bible itself spans several different cultures and a few thousand years, and yet as you say, the the mindset is consistent throughout. Regardless of what you make of the details of the Adam and Eve story, it does seem that sex and marriage being intertwined is there as a creation mandate, then continued in Hebrew thought and taught to Greek and Roman Christians as a command *contrary* to their prevailing culture, which was quite happy with premarital sex.

  2. JP says:

    The big reason to have sex before marriage is that sex is a fun thing to do. And isn’t going to break any nominal soul concepts you may be concerned with.

  3. SharkyUK says:

    I’m not a religious person (i.e. I do not have religion in my life at this moment in time) but I’d like to say thanks for a great read and for some very interesting points raised.

  4. Richard McIntosh says:

    Thought you might like this discussion about the meaning of words from through the looking glass:

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

    `Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, `what that means?’

    `Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

    `That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

    `When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’

    `Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

    `Ah, you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, `for to get their wages, you know.’

    (Alice didn’t venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can’t tell you.)