Michael Fitzpatrick is a parishioner at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA. After growing up in the rural northwest, he served over five years in the U. S. Army as a Chaplain's Assistant, including two deployments to Iraq. After completing his military service, Michael has done graduate work in literature and philosophy. He is now finishing his PhD at Stanford University.

American culture remains fascinated by and in rebellion against a Puritan legacy that sees our bodies and sexuality as a great evil. In this context, many mainline churches have understandably shied away from talking much about Christian ethics surrounding sex and the human body. When I was in high school, I used to attend youth revivals that would celebrate married couples who had their first kiss on their wedding day. As a young teen who had already gone way beyond kissing in my pubescent romances, I would stew in shame listening to their stories, totally confused as to why my Creator built me with so many complicated hormones if it was so bad to be moved by them. In response, many churches today have sought a healthier path by simply staying silent on the Christian view of the body and sex.

Such abdication is a real loss. Christians in all stages of life gain no more clarity from the Church’s silence than from prudish prohibitions. The real question is whether our faith offers distinct wisdom from the guidance we find in contemporary culture. St. Paul writes that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” and that Jesus Christ has become for us “wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1.25, 30). The very heart of the Christian Good News is that when we see life through the lens of Jesus, everything changes. Shouldn’t that also be true of our bodies and sexual relationships?

 "Contemplation, from Song of Solomon," Wood engraving in black on ivory laid paper by Cecil Buller, 1929 Source: https://www.artic.edu/artworks/219482/contemplation-from-song-of-solomon
"," Wood engraving in black on ivory laid paper by Cecil Buller, 1929.

These themes have been on my mind the past few weeks as I have tried to make sense of a new growing approach to body positivity. Body positivity is an issue that shaped many of the struggles in my early life. I spent years of insecurity about my own body while trying to be an advocate for the bodies of others. Year after year I attended summer Bible camps where afternoons were spent swimming in the lake and water skiing. And each summer I’d come up with a new slate of excuses why I couldn’t do any of those activities, often hiding from my friends to avoid invitations to join them. I was hiding because I was a scrawny, effeminate white male. In my home community, having muscular stature, manly appearance, and tanned skin was a sign of status. I had none of these traits; my Irish skin is so pale that even now I can burn within 15 minutes unless I bathe in sunscreen beforehand. My fear of sunburns and my embarrassment over my body type made it so I wouldn’t even shower sometimes to avoid having others spot my unclothed torso.

Because of my softer nature, most of my friends were girls, and I became a trusted confident and witness to the ways our culture causes women to hate their own bodies. Anorexia, cutting, binge eating, acne-scraping, period-shaming and more were all intimately familiar to me by the time I was 15. It is among the few proud moments of my youth that I labored with my friends to advocate and affirm their bodies, with all their shapes and sizes and textures.

Body positivity means much to me. And yet not every way of advocating for these things actually leads people to healthier relationships with themselves or others. The latest swimsuit edition for Sports Illustrated is out, for the first time celebrating women of many skin tones and body shapes. The cover girl, Megan Thee Stallion, is a rapper most well-known for her raunchy song “WAP.” Recently, CNN did a story on the photoshoot and her hit track. I’ve heard the song, and I’m familiar with the lyrics. On any reasonable assessment, “WAP” (a slang term describing a certain level of female sexual excitation) is a song about women pursuing self-indulgent sexual satisfaction at the expense of men, a sort of role-reversal to the typical depiction of women by male rappers. It’s a celebration of carnal pleasure, lust, and enjoying one’s own sexual gratification for its own sake.

 "Woman, from Song of Solomon," Wood engraving by Cecil Buller, 1929.
"Woman, ," Wood engraving by Cecil Buller, 1929.

Yet one would hardly know this from the CNN report. Leah Dolan writes that Megan’s “risque smash hit ‘WAP’” features a “message of female sex-positivity” in which “each track is an unapologetic love letter to curves, confidence and carnal desire.” She then quotes Megan Thee Stallion preaching “a motivating message of self-love” in an earlier interview, saying, “I love my body. Every curve, every inch, every mark, every dimple is a decoration on my temple. My body is mine. And nobody owns it but me.”

What are we as Christians to think about this? For one thing, we should not follow the pattern of sexual repression that has dominated so much of American Christianity. Sex is not an evil, but a gift from God created so that two people might become one flesh. In a history where women’s sexuality has been shamed and erased, it is good to celebrate women’s sexuality and needs. And yet, is it not possible to go too far in the other direction, to end up endorsing every sexual expression, even those that have become unhealthy? Does following Jesus give us a perspective that has something to add beyond the denunciations of a Jerry Falwell or the acclamations of a Megan Thee Stallion?

Perhaps a place to start might be Megan Thee Stallion’s unintentional use of religious language. She said that her body is “my temple. My body is mine. And nobody owns it but me.” Contrast her expression with St. Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6.12-20: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord… Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” St. Paul also contends that our bodies are temples; not temples to ourselves, but rather “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit… You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

The contrast with contemporary culture is remarkable. Whereas many regressive perspectives on human sexuality suggest that your body belongs to others for their satisfaction, and more progressive perspectives say that nobody owns your body except you, the biblical standpoint is that our bodies belong to our Creator and Savior, who bought us at a price. St. Paul’s message is one of the original sermons of body positivity. The whole thrust of his message is that your body is precious to God; therefore we are to honor God with our bodies. Precisely because our bodies are good and beautiful, they are not to be degraded into mere objects of sexual exploitation or gratification.

 "Embrace, from Song of Solomon," Wood engraving by Cecil Buller, 1929
"Embrace, ," Wood engraving by Cecil Buller, 1929.

Again, this is not because there is something gross or sinful about sex. We should talk about it, we should celebrate it. Sex is “something sacred… an act of holy communion,” Bishop John A. T. Robinson famously said at the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 England. As Christians we view sex not as an act of self-love, but an expression of mutual self-giving, the self-sacrifice that Christ calls his followers to in every sphere of our lives. St. Paul teaches that spouses are to love their partner’s body just as they care for their own body. The husband “who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5.28). In other words, there is no road to self-love through self-satisfaction. True self-love is actually other-love, it’s loving our spouse’s body as an extension of our own body.

Against the tragedy of exploitative sexual relationships, Christ offers us an alternative to the message of carnal desire and self-love being celebrated in this year’s SI swimsuit edition. The path to confidence and a healthy love for one’s own body comes by rooting our lives in the sacrificial love of God, and seeing our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. To find true self-love, we have to first love God. In his recent book Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea (and other countercultural notions), Graham Tomlin writes, “What if the way to find our true selves, paradoxically, is to let go of them first? What if you find yourself not by looking within, but by looking outside yourself? One modern translation of one of Jesus’ sayings runs like this: ‘Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?’”

He concludes, “What if we find our true selves not by looking within but by being drawn out of ourselves by something outside?”

Especially for those of us in mainline churches, it’s easy to be tempted to just endorse every message of body positivity that popular culture promotes. But that is not the way of Christ. He lived a life loyal to a kingdom not of this world, a life of sacrifice for the sake of eternal things. Our task is not to rubber stamp the world’s attempts at wisdom, but to be a light in the darkness for the eternal wisdom of the God who is love. For it is only by being one with this God in spirit that we learn how to truly love, whether others or ourselves. We don’t need raunchy rap songs to celebrate female sexuality. What we need is the Holy Spirit to draw every person into healthy, sacred relationships whereby sex becomes more than a fleeting act of self-indulgence, transformed instead into an eternal act of mutual self-giving, the becoming of one flesh with our beloved.

We have a real countercultural message to share with the world, one that celebrates our bodies as God’s creation, as bodies which belong to the Lord, as temples of the Holy Spirit.

Michael Fitzpatrick welcomes comments and questions via m.c.fitzpatrick@outlook.com

Image credits: (1) Art Institute of Chicago; (2) Art Institute of Chicago; and (3) Art Institute of Chicago.