Love Thy Body:
Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality
by nancy pearcey
baker books, 336 pages, $22.99
Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality is Nancy Pearcey’s timely attempt to defend traditional Christian morality against a surging secular tide. In seven chapters, Pearcey takes on the most contentious issues of our time—abortion, euthanasia, sexual morality, marriage, transgenderism—and exposes the dualistic framework behind them, a fractured view of reality that splits personhood from embodiment, intimacy from sex, the body from the self, gender from biological sex, the moral order from the natural order. These ideologies, she argues, depend upon a “devastatingly reductive view of the body,” a body with only instrumental value and no intrinsic dignity or meaning.
Pearcey is evangelical in her outlook but ecumenical in her tastes. She draws on scripture, tradition, and a breadth of contemporary Christian leaders—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—to present the possibility of a unified Christian understanding of human anthropology and dignity.
This book is meant not to persuade secularists but to galvanize and catechize believers. The audience seems to be young evangelicals and the adults responsible for their formation, so Pearcey keeps her ideas accessible, her prose brisk, and her arguments rooted in scriptural authority.
Her primary aim, however, is not to give yet another litany of biblical mandates. Rather, she hopes to articulate a worldview that makes those mandates make sense:
It is not enough for churches to teach the biblical rules of behavior as so many “dos and don’ts.” … They need to explain why a secular worldview is ultimately dehumanizing and unfulfilling. And they must make a persuasive case that biblical morality is both rationally compelling and personally attractive—that it expresses a higher, more positive view of the human person than any competing morality.
Pearcey gives a brief tour of the history of these ideas and responds to major secular thinkers, without getting bogged down in specialist jargon or the murk of critical theory. She is conversant, for example, with queer theory and its tensions with feminism, as well as with trickier concepts such as intersexuality, the complexities of which are too often ignored in Christian discussions of sex and gender.
To readers familiar with the dizzying terrain of gender studies, her treatment may seem simplistic at times, but Pearcey engages effectively with the superficial versions of these theories that trickle down into popular culture. Few young people, after all, actually curl up with Judith Butler’s latest book, but many see the memes—like the Gender Unicorn, which Pearcey discusses—that present the human person as a cluster of disparate desires.
Pearcey’s analysis has a constructive mode, as well: articulating a positive, holistic Christian vision of the created order and the human person’s place within it. She reclaims some of liberalism’s hallowed ground, making the case that Christian morality is more revolutionary, pro-body, and pro-woman than are its secular antitheses.
She presents thoughtful challenges to Christians, urging us to resist polarizing gender stereotypes in our families and communities, which may fuel the transgender fever. She emphasizes the need to revive a radical hospitality, especially toward those who have struggled with sexual issues and thus have a unique wisdom to share. Pearcey weaves in such voices throughout the book, voices of those who don’t fit the culture-war scripts—such as Cari, a woman who has “detransitioned” from living as a trans man, or Lianne, a Christian intersexed woman who was raised as a boy. Pearcey keeps human beings complex, accentuating their dignity and situating them in a created order that, though ravaged by the fall, is nonetheless divinely designed.
Love Thy Body insists that Christians, especially evangelicals, must recover the beauty and coherence of a teleological worldview. In this way, the book forms a much-needed bridge between Catholic theology of the body and evangelicalism. Yet the book exhibits a subtle but unresolved ambiguity regarding the telos of sex.
Though Pearcey criticizes hormonal contraception on health grounds, she resists a theological critique—even though such a critique would seem to arise from the very worldview she wishes to inculcate. To be clear, Pearcey repeatedly affirms the link between sex and procreation. She rightly observes that “most heterosexuals have embraced a recreational view of sex,” and “even materials written by Christians tend to downplay the connection between sex and babies.” But at times, Pearcey’s wording seems to imply this same disconnection. She states, for example, that “the Bible’s message of the purpose of sex” is “bonding within marriage,” and that “a sexual relationship is the means to express and refresh the one-flesh union between husband and wife—to replay their love story again and again.” Such statements, focusing solely on the unitive telos of sex, downplay the importance of sexual complementarity. A thoroughly teleological understanding of sex recognizes the unifying pleasure of sex as intrinsically ordered toward new life. Spouses bond not merely for their own sake—their own love story—but also for the sake of the persons who might spring from their union.
Love Thy Body is an auspicious sign that Christians are responding more effectively to troubling cultural trends, by seeking to restore a teleological vision of the cosmos, sexuality, and the body. But this restoration may remain incomplete if evangelicals are unwilling to reconsider practices such as contraception and IVF, which take for granted the dualism Pearcey exposes. Acceptance of gay marriage is gaining traction among young evangelicals, and if the link between sex and procreation remains tenuous, it’s difficult to see how that trend will change. One can readily imagine a future in which gay marriage, like contraception, is embraced by evangelicals at large.
But if the opposite happens, and we instead witness a revived commitment to Christianity’s revolutionary view of the human person, it will be thanks to Pearcey and others like her, who are giving young Christians the sex education they really need—not a list of biblical rules, but the compelling why behind them.
Abigail Rine Favale is Associate Director of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University.