There are varieties of evangelical experience. It is so convenient to put people into neatly labeled boxes that we tend to forget religious experience can be very different, even to conservatives. This point is made very clearly in Amy DeRogatis’ Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. The title of the book requires some further disclosure. DeRogatis is offering an academic study of evangelical sex manuals and teachings about sexuality. If you’re anything like me, the very concept sounds strange. I grew up in an evangelical household and we would’ve been scandalized to learn that such things as godly sex manuals existed. In fact they did, but we didn’t know about them. Although evangelicals share a common idea that there are appropriate and inappropriate varieties of sexual experience, they disagree, according to the evidence, over what some of those boundaries are.
DeRogatis’ book offers some fascinating insights even within this circumscribed field of study. For example, some writers of such manuals give rather permissive instructions as to what might happen in a heterosexual, Christian boudoir, while others keep to the basics. Some suggest that the very practice of sexuality opens its participants to demonic infestation, so much so that they consider STD to be Sexually Transmitted Demons. This is an intriguing and frightening world to enter. Many of the writers of such books suggest that women should indeed be under the authority of their husbands in all things. No room for Lilith there! Others, however, are surprisingly broad minded. More so than some Episcopalians I’ve known.
This brings me, as a former evangelical, to my concern about academic studies of such groups. It seems to me that to truly understand what are undoubtedly irrational beliefs, you must have had the experience of truly believing. If I might be excused of the pun, are you experienced? As much as we wish it were, evangelicalism isn’t a neat packet of propositions that people simply accept. It is a complex, emotional, and, in its own universe, logical response to the belief that the Bible is the owners manual. Sola scriptura gone wild. How individuals deal with this impossible truth is widely divergent. We’re taught not to discuss sex in polite company, but we just can’t help ourselves. For some that’s good news indeed. For others it is the very definition of wickedness. As Saving Sex shows, there is more than one position to be taken.