[I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’ from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. I read Alain de Botton’s new book on sex last Saturday – while the children were running around the fairground at Southend-on-Sea – and thought I would do something around that. The 400-word limit meant I had to cut out a lot of reflections, but this is what was left...]
Following on the heels of his bestseller, Religion for Atheists, last week saw the publication of another book from Alain de Botton – How to Think More About Sex. It’s one in a series of short ‘self-help’ books recently launched by the School of Life, with titles from other writers devoted to work, emotional health, technology, money, and political activism. Founded in 2008 by de Botton and others, the School of Life bills itself as ‘a new enterprise offering good ideas for everyday living’.
In his contribution, de Botton looks at the pleasures and the problems of sex. On pleasures, along with reflecting on the nature of physical appeal, he writes of sex being a place where ‘loneliness and alienation are momentarily overcome’. On problems, he deals with how sex relates to love, the hurt of rejection, the lack of desire, pornography (where he is not sanguine about its power to reroute sexual desire), and adultery (with elevated praise for those who remain faithful).
Although the language will occasionally be too strong for some tastes, de Botton is as witty and intriguing here as he has been in his earlier philosophical reframing of work, travel, and architecture. And while there is much to question, there is also much to applaud: his refusal to allow evolutionary biology to reduce sex to that which furthers the species; his reflections on the resentments that can unwittingly build up between couples; his realism about the demands of juggling daily activities, and the significance of locating ‘the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine’.
Arguably, none of this will be new to those shaped by the biblical drama of creation, sin, and redemption. Christians know that sex is a good gift from God to nurture the committed union between husband and wife. Christians also know that the difficulties are only what we might expect when two lives collide; as the title of a recent book on marriage puts it, What Did You Expect?
Above all, Christians understand that marriage and sex are best framed through the gospel – which puts God rather than us at the centre of the universe, which tells us that love involves the cost of sacrifice, which calls us to see our families as places where discipleship is worked out in everyday life, and which reminds us that the relationship between Christ and his church remains ultimate for all, married or not.