Is the Bible’s Use of Sexuality R-rated?

A couple weeks ago, I took the unfashionable position of calling The Wolf of Wall Street an “immorality play.” I argued that a film with such explicit sexual activity should be called out for its pornographic elements. A storyteller’s methods are, after all, a part of his message—whether he acknowledges it or not.

In my post, I dealt with the excuse that the Bible itself is R-rated. Due to some constructive criticism, I realized my line of reasoning was both incomplete and possibly misleading. I want to be clear and accurate, so let’s revisit the issue.

I didn’t mean to imply that all films with R ratings are inherently evil. I most certainly don’t believe that. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system is so flawed as to be practically meaningless. Some R rated films are cleaner than some PG rated films. Scripture itself—not the opinions of others—is the best lens through which to view our entertainment choices.

For the record, the rest of this post will focus solely on the Bible’s handling of sexual themes. We’ll leave violence alone for now. It is, after all, quite a different animal. (Wayne A. Wilson brilliantly explains the difference between public sex and public violence in chapter eight of his book Worldly Amusements.)

If we really want to use the Bible as our standard—which is a good thing—then we need to look at more than just what it will allow us to get away with. Using Scripture simply as an excuse to do something questionable isn’t the best hermeneutic.

Does the Bible revel in explicit sexual imagery? The short answer is no. Sexual themes abound in Scripture, but the acts themselves are constantly explained discreetly and succinctly. Whether it’s lawful sexual intercourse (Gen. 4:25; 29:23), incest (Gen. 19:30-38), adultery (2 Sam. 11:4), or rape (2 Sam. 13:14; Jud. 19:25), the descriptions are miniscule, just shy of nonexistent.

Of course, there is one book of the Bible that is more descriptive in sexual imagery: the Song of Solomon. We also could add Proverbs 5, which encourages married men to be satisfied with their wife’s breasts and to be enraptured with her love. What is it about these passages that allow for greater leeway in their content? There are at least three answers.

First, the sexual acts and desires described in Song of Solomon take place in the context of covenantal love. This is where immodesty, nudity, and sexual intimacy are to be enjoyed. Sex as God created it is pure and pleasurable, not dirty and shameful. Solomon’s Song (along with Proverbs 5) is an unashamed celebration of the goodness and rightness of sex.

The second reason Song of Solomon and Proverbs 5 are legitimately more detailed is that they direct the reader toward his own wife—not specifically anyone else. Yes, Solomon’s “Shulamite” is a real person, but her identity is shrouded in mystery. Commentators disagree on who this she is. For the reader, the functional focus point of these passages is not voyeuristic—it is one’s own beloved.

The third reason these passages are legitimate is that they still aren’t incredibly graphic. Most of Song of Solomon relies on symbolism, not explicitness. Sure, this book may cause some readers to blush, but that’s due to a wrong view of sex more than anything else. Besides, compare the Song of Solomon in its entirety to one sex scene in the latest bestselling novel and you will quickly notice a stark difference. Scripture still uses a large amount of tasteful restraint.

How do movies fare in these same three areas? First, a typical scene of simulated copulation involves people who are unmarried. Generally speaking, conjugal love is not celebrated in Tinseltown. In portraying the sex act, Hollywood favors fornication, adultery, and the like. Even if it could be proven that a sex act between married couples was legitimate fodder for the eyes, such an allowance would still eliminate 99% of what Hollywood has to offer.

Second, Hollywood sex scenes draw audiences’ attention to specific people—i.e., people other than one’s spouse. It’s one thing to read about how you can—and should—enjoy your wife’s body; it’s quite another to watch an actor kiss, undress, fondle, and/or simulate coitus with what Proverbs calls a “strange woman” (KJV). The result is not the glorification of pure and holy sex, but the objectification of women (and increasingly men), and the glorification of restraint-free sexuality.

Third, a Hollywood sex scene is tantalizing at best and explicit at worst. Sexual restraint isn’t something the film industry is known for. As The Wolf of Wall Street testifies, practically nothing is off-limits—except perhaps showing actual penetration. (Yes, filmmakers “piously” leave such base and unrefined displays of sexuality to hardcore porn.)

As we come to the end of this blog post, I know I haven’t thoroughly and decisively debunked the “Scripture is R-rated” argument. You may believe there are still gaping holes in my logic and/or Biblical interpretation. In fact, if that is the case, please share your thoughts with me.

Nevertheless, I think there is enough Biblical evidence to at least question our Christian subculture’s drop-of-a-hat willingness to watch and financially support professionally produced sex acts. If this really is a huge blind spot for the modern church, it would behoove us to cry out to for eyes to see. After all, if we’re willing to look at sexualized bodies for entertainment, we should be just as willing to inspect the naked truth of Scripture to ensure that we are honoring our Lord. Let our prayer be the same as that of the Psalmist: “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way” (Ps. 119:37).

Update: since its original publication, this blog post’s title and content have been edited to eliminate some needlessly controversial verbiage and to enhance its rhetorical efficacy.

photo credit: Studio Sarah Lou via flickr cc (cropped)