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Sex, God, and Rock and Roll: God on the Ground

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If you’re like most people, you think about sex but seldom talk about it. Trust me, you’ve got sex on the brain. Don’t believe me? You should if you have clothes on right now. One of the most fundamental aspects of human culture—clothing—exists to hide sexuality. Whether you’re wearing a garbage bag or designer threads, you wear clothes because you’ve got something to hide. Ever since Adam and Eve scrambled for some flora to cover their fauna, human beings have been masking their sexuality. We spend enormous amounts of time, money, and energy running from it. A lot has been written about how much sexual urges dominate us, but they don’t have half the power our need to hide those urges does. 


Western culture doesn’t insist on hiding sexuality as much as it used to. Sexual images are everywhere, from suggestive advertisements to easy-access pornography. We live in a culture that’s becoming more and more eager to spill the secret of sexuality. That might not be so bad if it weren’t for a very big problem: it’s divorced from our spirituality. 


Mixing God and sex is awkward at best, forbidden at worst. Some churches manage a seminar or retreat on sex once in a while, but even then it’s usually discussed with great caution and in a limited context. Frank discussions about sexuality among Christians are rare. When we do talk about sex, we usually focus on sexual sin. We talk about the emotional and spiritual damage premarital sex causes. We advocate pure thoughts and a pure bed until marriage. We teach men to stay away from dirty sites on the Internet, and we teach women to be modest with their bodies. We’re good at letting each other and the world know the trouble that sexuality can bring. It’s crucial that we make a point about the consequences of sexuality separated from God, but that’s never been a problem for us. In fact, we went so far in talking about the depravity of sex that we inadvertently created rock and roll. 


In the 1930s and ’40s, black gospel singers in the American South used the term “rocking” to describe spiritual rapture during a song. If someone was “rocking,” they were filled with the Holy Spirit and having a blast in the name of the Lord. Though we now associate “rocking” with head-banging convulsions while the car stereo rattles the windows, it was once a term of worship. 


That changed in 1946, when blues singer Roy Brown wrote a song called, “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” He never had success performing the song. Then, in 1951, a young man named Elvis Presley recorded the song. Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed started playing the song on the radio and coined the phrase “rock and roll” to describe this frenetic new music. The rest, as they say, is history. 


Though Christians were quick to label rock and roll as the devil’s music, Roy Brown began as a gospel singer and borrowed the notion of “rocking” from his experiences in church. In “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” he used the word as a double entendre, relating the ecstasy someone can experience in worship to sexual orgasm. 


Here’s my question: Why couldn’t he have written the same song for church


We all know the answer. You can’t make that kind of comparison in church. But why wouldn’t God want the greatest expression of physical intimacy to approximate spiritual ecstasy? If drawing close to God is exhilarating, shouldn’t we be comfortable comparing that to the experience that God created to bring man and woman physically closer than anything else? Unfortunately, Christians got the idea at some point that sexuality and spirituality don’t mix. Perhaps it started with the gnostics’ talking about the depravation of the body. Maybe it was Augustine, who fretted endlessly about the trouble his sexuality caused him. Regardless, no one is singing songs about sex in church. 


I wonder what would have happened if Roy Brown could have kept his music in church. What if he could have sung about the spiritual rapture of sex in the presence of his fellow Christians? Maybe he wouldn’t have had to wander through nightclubs and juke joints, trying to make a living. Maybe Christians would have revered his music, just as we revere the Song of Songs in scripture. Maybe there’d be no such thing as Christian rock, because all rock and roll music would be a spiritual celebration of sexuality. I wonder if we missed a huge opportunity because we’re too squeamish about mixing God and sex. 


Perhaps it’s not too late. There’s been a lot of talk about “revolution” in Evangelical circles lately, especially among younger folks. They’re usually talking about social justice, but maybe it’s time for a sexual revolution, too. No, I don’t mean that we should all start throwing down and having orgies. But we need to bring sexuality back into the church. We need to start talking about it again, addressing more than just sexual sin. We need to bring the body and spirit back together again. 


Emphasizing the positive will be hard, because sex can still cause a lot of trouble. However, I don’t think we have a choice. If we don’t discuss, educate, and celebrate when it comes to sex, the porn industry will gladly do it for us. People will explore sexuality alone if we don’t address it in our communities. People will turn to the Internet instead of to the Song of Songs to explore the mysteries of sexuality. The spirit will remain divorced from the body, and the transcendent nature of sexuality will be lost. Theologian James Nelson said, “When the body is experienced as a thing, it has the right to live only as a machine or slave.” If we Christians can see ourselves as fully sexual people, maybe we won’t be slaves anymore. And maybe then we can teach the rest of the world how to be free.

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