Rob Bell Is Not a Progressive: A (6 Years Late) Review of "Sex God"

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[content note: rape, purity culture]

A lot of times, when a white, cishet, Christian man starts talking like a liberal, it’s assumed that all of his ideology has shifted toward the liberal view. We assume that, say, when a guy starts taking on views that mirror liberal or progressive theologies, starts walking back his views on LGBT issues, or on hell, or whatever, that he’s also taking on views that are more pro-woman. This is a poor assumption to make, and Rob Bell’s Sex God proves why.

Before all the controversy of Love Wins, Bell was praised for his other books – Velvet Elvis and Sex God. I picked up Sex God yesterday after hearing from some friends that he says some pretty not-okay things in it, and read the entire thing in an afternoon. In the end, I had to conclude that Rob Bell is not a progressive, at least when it comes to women.

Bell’s Sex God, in classic Bell-style, wends its way through its points, meandering here and there in a “poetic” way that’s often more annoying than it is helpful. The poetry of the work obfuscates the thesis, making it hard to see what Bell is getting at, and on a topic like sex, that’s a really frustrating thing to do. What Bell seems to be saying and what he proposes at the beginning of the book (but drops by the end of it) is that sexuality is central to everything in life, and our disconnect from each other in terms of intimacy is a form of sexual dysfunction.

He doesn’t seem very jazzed or passionate on this point, however, as it’s never referenced after the first two chapters introducing it, despite being the supposed thesis for the entire work. It’s okay that it’s dropped, though, because the disconnection thesis suffers from a confusion of terms, in which intimacy and sexuality are used interchangeably, leading to such odd conclusions as a concert having sexual energy (which makes me wonder what that means for worship music?). He seems, throughout the first few chapters, entirely ill-at-ease with his chosen subject, and connects things back to sex that have no relationship to that particular issue. Every reference to sex seems like he meandered off in a sermon and then realized all too late what he was supposed to be preaching about.

Which, of course, makes it really, really hard to follow his argument.

We’re left to conclude that Bell might not be so sure of what he’s saying himself, and he doesn’t really hit his stride until he lands at a place where he’s talking about Jesus and the Cross. This is where he truly seems comfortable, and these altar call chapters are honestly quite good. Until they’re suddenly, harshly, not.

Bell talks about marriage and mutual submission as laying down lives and “dying for” the person to whom you are married. He takes an egalitarian approach, discussing how this isn’t about power and control and headship, but mutuality, mutual submission (dying to each other) and love.

And then he goes off the rails. He starts talking about the ways we fall short of the mutual submission and writes a whole seven pages which begged, screamed, shouted the question: “Why is this gendered?”

A common misstep we see in discussions about sex is the unnecessary gendering of things which have no business being gendered. And often, we see that gendering falling along patriarchal lines, with women’s actions singled out and discussed, while men fade into the background. In this case, Bell tangents off into a lecture (this is the only word that describes it) about how women are “worth dying for” and they need to “know their worth” and stop “giving [themselves] away.” Bell uses a pointed “you” here, and it’s clear he’s trying to be motivating and inspiring toward the women in his audience. However, the “you” focusing solely on women has the effect of condescension, of explaining to women as though they don’t know anything about their own motivations and worth, of telling women how to behave so that they may motivate a man to step up because they are "worth dying for."

He couches it in nicer terms, but the end result is the same old purity culture bullshit women have been dealing with for so long. We are “worth waiting for,” our virginity is a “gift,” and if we “give ourselves away,” we’ve demeaned our own worth and our own pricelessness. Bell might as well have used the crumpled rose analogy for all the good this section did.

And where are the men in this section? They are “challenged to be men of God,” ostensibly by unsullied, untouched women. There’s nothing about how men give themselves away, about how they don’t know their own worth because they choose to have sex. Bell is silent on this double standard, and indeed perpetuates it throughout his wording.

What I find most worrisome about Bell’s book is that he is writing under the guise of wanting to humanize the Other – a principle I can very much get behind. But throughout his book, he dehumanizes women, voyeuristically using them as sermon illustrations, making assumptions about their lives, and even, at one point, implying that women who have/want sex outside of marriage are "cheap" and "easy." (Full context: "She [the woman in Song of Songs] is fully in control of herself and she is not cheap and she is not easy.")

He reduces women to the state of their hymens,* and cajoles them to be better people. He perpetuates the myth that the only reason a woman would choose to dress immodestly or choose to have sex outside of marriage is because she has low self-esteem and doesn’t know her own worth. He dehumanizes, objectifies, and voyeuristically judges women who do not fit the mold of purity and virginity.

Unfortunately, Bell’s reductive condescension doesn’t just perpetuate harmful views of women who have sex, but limits his understanding of Scripture and skews his interpretations. After the lecture about worth, we’re treated to an argument that Deuteronomy 22 – specifically, the passage in which a rapist must marry their victim – is extraordinarily progressive for the time. Bell’s argument is that, because it requires marriage and because rape would sully the woman’s chances at a good marriage, requiring rapists to be bound in marriage to the woman they raped protects the woman’s honor. In arguing that this is progressive for the Biblical times, Bell ignores that women, at the time, were property to be traded, and that’s why virginity was important – if there was a possibility the sons she produced weren’t her husband’s? Entire businesses would fall apart because of laws of inheritance passing monies down to biological sons. By ignoring this and skewing the passage to fit his “progressive” idea, Bell erases survivors of rape, erases the patriarchal ownership of women, and creates a devastatingly awful theology.

How we view women, and how we view sex is incredibly important. Rob Bell fails on this front in multiple ways throughout Sex God. Such reductionism and condescension does not humanize, as Bell is so desperate to do. Instead, such perpetuation of purity culture is destructive to members of the Body of Christ and to our sisters in Christ in particular.

In other words, it’s the same old evangelicalism in a much prettier package.

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I wasn’t able to fit all my criticisms into this review, but it’s worth noting that Bell’s interpretation of a “chuppah” – an understanding upon which he builds the entire last part of the book – is wrong. Chuppahs are not exclusionary, and do not connote the mystery of sex – rather they are an open house, symbolizing the hospitality and home of the marriage. Many thanks to @hubbit on Twitter for helping me with understanding the tradition.

For more critique of the book (and further thoughts on purity culture), I also recommend following @noshamemov on Twitter.

*It's worth noting that not all women have hymens, and Bell is working from an assumption that all people are cisgender and heterosexual, another point of reductive, essentialist thinking.